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The Destructive Charge of “Legalism” Pinned on Rightful Application of Scripture pt. 2

The term “legalism” isn’t in the Bible, so it is off to a bad start as a scriptural discussion.  And, yes, I know “Trinity” isn’t in there either.  It is kind of ironic that someone could get in trouble for something that isn’t in the Bible to start with, and in trouble for something that says we’re in trouble for adding to the Bible.  Nevertheless, “legalism” is a term we’re forced to discuss and deal with today.

Modern society relegates moral and religious concerns to matters private and personal.   They’re nobodies’ business.   You have the utter independence of the individual, offering freedom from all moral restraint or bounds.  On the other hand, legalism becomes the suppression of the individual to majority or authority rule.  The authority imposes standards which might elevate appearances to greater importance.  Someone might look the part without really meaning it.  Is there a scriptural place to regulate the lives of individuals by outward authority or law?

The laws themselves, as long as they’re scriptural, are not the problem.  Having less of them won’t solve insincerity.  We’re a nation of laws.  God is a God of law.  He provides standards by which to follow Him.  Jesus said that if we love Him, we’ll keep His commandments.  We can keep His commandments and not love Him, but we can’t love Him if we don’t.  Reducing the commandments, the words, or the sayings to a manageable number, an amount we can keep, doesn’t make the living more about love.  The one falling short of obeying the commandments loves less.

Paul saw Galatians, who professed justification by grace alone, moving from the “faith alone” column to the “plus works” one.  This wasn’t the church having rules or standards.  These individuals weren’t shaking apostate Judaism.  They were still earning their salvation no matter what Jesus had done.   As a result, Christ was made “of no effect unto” them (Gal 5:4).  This mindset propagated by false teachers also effected already saved, truly converted believers.  They, who had “begun in the Spirit” “by the hearing of faith,” were influenced to “perfect” themselves “by the flesh” (Gal 3:2-3).   God accepts the fulfillment of Scriptural standards produced by the Spirit through the life of the believer.   The reduction of standards does not vindicate the acts of obedience any more than the addition of them.  The key for acceptable obedience isn’t the minimization of the rules but the grace by which they are accomplished.

The modern obsession with lessening restrictions, reflected in evangelicalism today,  doesn’t reveal God’s grace or His glory.  It manifests rebellious hearts and corrupt consciences.   God’s grace is a dynamic force of God that secures our working for Him.  Grace looks to obey the precepts and principles of Scripture.

Often evangelicals flash the term “legalism” to make room for a questionable behavior or habit.  I started part one of this two part series when a popular evangelical blog author attempted to defend a post about a popular television show (Lost) with another one against legalism.   The author said one of the forms of legalism is the pharisaism of adding to scripture.  Adding to the Bible is pharisaical and Pharisees are legalists.   However, legalism of the Galatian variety isn’t adding to God’s Word.  Actual scripture does just fine for Galatian legalism.

The evangelical charge of either legalism or adding to Scripture relates to the lasciviousness of evangelicalism today.  I want to use one obvious issue as an example—women wearing pants.  Why avoid it?  I agree that the Bible doesn’t prohibit women from wearing pants.  Case closed, right?  Wrong.   Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits women from wearing the male garment.  Pants are the male garment.  So I’m coming from the Bible on this one.  And a woman wearing the male garment is an abomination to God, so this is a moral issue.  God is displeased by disobeying the prohibition.

Now this is where some say Christians have liberty because we have here one of these “doubtful disputations” of Romans 14:1.  We are not to reject someone in doubtful disputations.  Deuteronomy 22:5 hasn’t been doubtful until just recently when society decided they would overturn the symbols of God’s design of the two genders.  And if we’re going to still keep obeying Deuteronomy 22:5, we’ve got replace the male symbol, the male garment.  I get no answers, total silence, or a joke, from every person I ask to name the male symbol or garment that has replaced pants.  Evangelicals and fundamentalists don’t want women to be prohibited from wearing pants, so they say that grace, God’s grace, permits their pant wearing.  And since it is God’s grace that gives permission, it must be legalism now that prohibits.  This circuitous line of reasoning makes “the commandment of God of none effect” (Mt 15:6), another kind of pharisaism.

I read with interest some of the arguments of the “lovers of grace” for justifying the night time soap opera.  Here is one from one of the contributors there, Frank Turk:

Now, before stuff gets a little out of control, there is nothing that happened in the course of the 6 seasons of LOST which is anywhere near as gritty and frankly carnal as what happened to Er, Tamar, Onan, and Judah and his son Perez.

Frank argues that the content of biblical narratives justifies watching some sex scenes on television.   His argument says that if it’s OK to read the Bible, and it is, then it’s also OK to watch something equal to or less sinful.  I’m not going to provide opposition to this justification in this post, but I wanted you aware of what they’re saying.  Phil Johnson adds this:

But it’s not really necessary to portray Rob and Laura Petrie sleeping in separate beds in order to preserve the purity of the viewing audience, and it’s not inherently sinful to be exposed to a story in which someone commits adultery–or even worse.

I think Phil is staying a little purposefully ambiguous, but he’s creating space for watching acts of adultery committed on television.  It’s along the same lines of the Frank argument above.  And overall, those who question this line of reasoning, they say, are “legalists.”  And Phil would add that this kind of “legalism,” the type that questions this type of viewership based upon moral grounds, is more dangerous than emergent or emerging types of license.  And this is coming from those who claim to be conservative evangelicals.

Was Job a tad legalistic when he followed that whole “covenant with his eyes” standard (Job 31:1)?  I guess Job was just trying to rack up merit points.  Either that, or he thought that having the right thought life would help him please God.  And He did love God.   We’re commanded by Paul, “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2a).  But how can we follow that requisite for presenting our bodies a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1b)?  Well, it’s by being transformed “by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2b).  And how are our minds renewed?  They are renewed by what we fill them with.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Clean in, clean out.   Christian leaders shouldn’t be encouraging their listeners to belly-up to the garbage trough.  What do you think?

Now I say that these boy-who-cried-wolf type of accusations of “legalism” destroy.  They encourage lasciviousness and license.  They sear and suave the conscience.  They encourage false worship.  They impede holy living.  They excuse sin.

In the last week someone wrote that these “legalists” require lists of rules for their adherents in order to compensate for personal insecurities.   And then as a way of reaching unattainable spiritual heights, made impossible by the sheer magnitude of the regulations, the followers obtain special relics to overcome their spiritual shortfalls.  Mark Farnham says these fundamentalist relics were objects associated with fundamentalist saints, like the signature of a well-known preacher or the car of John R. Rice or Jack Hyles’ ring.  Interesting theory.  I wonder if a heavy collection of C. H. Spurgeon memorabilia would count as spiritual relics as well.  Or perhaps treks to the meccas of Together for the Gospel in Louisville or Shepherd’s Conference in Southern California might result in some pure spirituality that someone might otherwise be missing.

Following Farnham’s line of reasoning, I see evangelicals and fundamentalists also reaching for an abounding grace formerly unreachable without the relic of the worship team, the contemporary chorus, the goatee beard, the powerpoint screen medium, and the casual polo shirt.    Some mixture of these ingredients effuse Christians with a grace elixir capable of bringing them to a different spiritual dimension.   Grace is available to those hungry enough to release the ball and chain of an old version of Scripture, a stifling shirt and tie, and a constraining television standard.  Nothing says grace quite like your best Sunday t-shirt and a Jars of Clay logo on the bottom of your skateboard.

The Destructive Charge of “Legalism” Pinned on Rightful Application of Scripture

From the very beginning, men have taken liberty both with what God has said and with His grace.   In Genesis 3 Satan made a way for Eve to justify eating the forbidden fruit.  God’s grace is great.  It is wonderful.  It is mankind’s only basis for salvation.  And yet what?  Men who even call themselves Christians turn “the grace of God into lasciviousness”  (Jude 1:3).  They use their liberty as “an occasion to the flesh” (Galatians 5:13).

Knowing the potential abuse of the grace of God, Paul immediately after so beautifully describing salvation by grace alone in Romans 1-5, starts Romans 6 by asking, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  And his answer in v. 2 is the strongest in the Greek language, translated in the KJV, “God forbid.”  Then asking, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”  God’s grace isn’t license to sin.  So Romans 6:1-2 provides evidence that grace will be perverted in this way, used as a reason for behavior that dishonors God.  It signals a need for awareness of potential corruption or cheapening of grace.

1 Peter 2:16 says:

As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.

Here is another place that confronts the use of liberty as license.  The context is obedience to government, but the principle is axiomatic.  Those to whom Peter is speaking are free.  They’ve been redeemed.   He doesn’t want them, however, to use that freedom as a covering for evil.   The cloak is a veil or a mask, and the mask is covering wickedness.  In other words, Christian freedom is never to be used to cover license.   Just because we have liberty in Christ doesn’t mean that we get to just do what we want.  Someone truly righteous will conform to God’s Word because it says your freedom should be used as a bondslave of God.

Criticism of Adherence to God’s Word

One indication of licentiousness is criticism of a more strict adherence to God’s Word.  You see this type of behavior described in 2 Peter 2 and it will often take on the nature of ridicule (2 Pet 3:3).  A common, modern criticism coming from the more licentious is one of “legalism.”  They label anyone a “legalist” who has stronger standards of holiness and righteousness than what they have.  This strategy may have been around longer, but what marked the official beginning in my memory is the publication of the book “The Grace Awakening,” by Charles Swindoll.  As Christianity has looked and behaved more and more like the world, new defenses are crafted to justify that kind of living.  What drew my attention toward writing this post was a recent essay by Phil Johnson, the executive director of Grace to You.  I want to diagnose his piece as a basis for assessing a type of defense of license.

Johnson chooses to paint separatists with this carpet roll sized brush:

[W]e have attracted more than our fair share of very vocal legalists who are convinced that the person with the weakest conscience (or the Bible college with the strictest rules) should get to define holiness for everyone—rather than letting Scripture define it for us. They believe it is their prerogative to dictate to everyone else what’s acceptable and what’s not, rather than following the principles of Romans 14 with regard to matters that aren’t altogether clear. Those people surface at every opportunity, and they seem to love making a fuss. Sometimes it’s fairly humorous (as in the “Chiquita” kerfuffle a few years ago).

I can assure that what Johnson writes here isn’t true.   With a meanness in the spirit of a fundamentalism that Johnson decries, he slanders well-meaning and godly-seeming folks.  I was involved in the “Chiquita kerfuffle” that Johnson mentions in this paragraph.  He used a picture on his blog of a girl, who was wearing biker shorts.  He has used a few other pictures with women with full thigh.  What was “fairly humorous” to Johnson was his own ridiculing of the men who protested very lightly.  It only got a little rougher for Johnson after he mocked those who said anything.  I wrote this comment:

I’m wondering what I’m supposed to do when I get to the woman in the hotpants standing on the pyromaniacs logo. She seems to be pyro of a different kind.

And Johnson answered immediately with this:

For all the fundamentalist lurkers whose minds are in the gutter, the girl in the picture is wearing shorts, not a miniskirt or hotpants. The dog is the one in the miniskirt.

This is the kind of “legalism” that Johnson had to face, which he describes in this latest post.  To that, he jumps to the idea that we, the legalists, have our minds in the gutter.

Here is how Johnson confronts this “legalism”:

But another kind of legalism is the legalism of the Pharisees. It’s the tendency to reduce every believer’s duty to a list of rules. This is the kind of legalism that often seems to surface in our comment-threads. At its root is a belief that holiness is achieved by legal means—by following a list of “standards.” This type of legalism doesn’t necessarily destroy the doctrine of justification like the legalism of the Judaizers. But it does destroy the doctrine of sanctification, and it is certainly appropriate to call it what it is: legalism—i.e., a sinful misapplication of law; an attempt to make law do work that only grace can do. Like the Judaizers’ brand of legalism, it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.

I’ve read some of these comment threads to which Johnson refers, including the one, of course, that he makes his prime example.  Really he tells a blatant lie.  Perhaps he thinks he has liberty to tell such a lie.  I think it is possible for a kind of legalism to destroy the right view of sanctification, but Johnson doesn’t know at all that the ones he is criticizing hold to such a view of sanctification as he represents.  That doesn’t seem to matter to him.

Look at the last sentence Johnson writes—“it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.”  What?  Scripture doesn’t place anyone under a yoke of bondage.  Scripture can’t do that to anyone.  Scriptural standards, even Scriptural lists of rules, don’t place anyone under bondage.  They could, but God’s law is good.  It is good if it is used lawfully.  That should be the concern, whether it is used lawfully or not.  And immodest dress is bad.  Telling someone about that doesn’t put someone under some kind of legalistic bondage.  God’s grace tends toward modesty.  Informing a conscience with a scriptural standard of modesty will help someone’s conscience.  That’s all good too and all helpful toward biblical sanctification.

Left Wing Legalism:  Making God’s Word of None Effect

Johnson assumes that separatists, whom he calls “fundamentalists,” recognize only a kind of legalism that applies to salvation, the type of Galatians 1:6-9, adding to the gospel, what he calls the legalism of the Judaizers.  He says, however, that these same separatists miss another kind of legalism, that of the Pharisees.  He uses Galatians 5:1 as a text to expose this type of legalism, that he asserts that these separatists, “fundamentalists,” are guilty of, for which “fundamentalists” are “notorious,” and what has essentially destroyed fundamentalism.  Be sure that this is a simplistic, very selective criticism of the troubles of fundamentalism.

Galatians 5:1 does not give any hint at a kind of legalism that adds to the commandments of God.  Johnson twists the verse for his own licentious purposes.  The “yoke of bondage” with which the  Judaizers of Galatia would entangle men was the actual law (5:3-4), and circumcision specifically (5:2, 6, 11).  Circumcision wasn’t a problem.  Keeping the law wasn’t wrong for believers.   It was making righteousness, whether justification or sanctification, based on human merit.  All righteousness comes by grace through faith, even after salvation.  However, it is still righteousness that comes by grace through faith.  Nothing is said about adding anything to the law in Galatians 5.  Johnson reads that into the text in order to criticize people with higher standards of holiness than he has.

It is true that Pharisees were guilty of adding to the law.  Johnson mentions that.  And it is possible for fundamentalists and evangelicals both to add to God’s Word.  Mark 7 is a good passage in this, because Jesus there reveals two types of Pharisaical behavior.  The first is the type to which Johnson refers, the adding kind, which is in vv. 7-8.  However, he doesn’t talk about another kind of Pharisaicalness, taking away from what God said, which is in vv. 9-13.  Jesus sums it up in v. 13: “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”  Making the word of God of none effect is the Pharisee behavior of the evangelicals.

You can call reducing the law to a group of rules that you can keep on your own its own brand of Pharisaism, a left-wing kind of legalism.   We are sanctified through the truth and God’s Word is truth.  Jesus was sanctified by everything the Father told Him to do.  In the same way, we are sanctified.  If we reduce scripture to something less than scripture, like Johnson chooses to do, that will destroy sanctification.

The Grace of God

Salvation is by grace through faith alone.  No amount of works will bring justification to anyone.  In the sanctification of believers, it is God who works in them both to will and do of His good pleasure.  God works all things together for good.  God conforms to the image of His Son.  But God is working.  The grace of God will look like God.  The grace of God teaches us to deny worldly lust, not expose ourselves to it and relish in it.

What upset Johnson enough for him to write what he did was the reaction to a certain blog post by one of his partners.  That essay was discussing Lost, a television series that his teammate professed to have watched start to finish.  A few criticized a publication that might encourage others to watch such a television show.  That’s what bothered Johnson enough to write a “legalism” column.  Does the grace of God teach us to watch Lost?  That’s a question.  And I think it’s worth thinking about.  I understand that the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not watch Lost,” but there might be enough Scripture to guide us as to what kind of watching would honor God.  A criticism of Lost is what Johnson thinks is the greatest kind of destruction of sanctification in human existence (according to his essay).

We don’t stop watching television to be saved.  We don’t wear modest clothing to be saved.  We don’t abstain from alcohol to be saved.  We don’t communicate in a pure and righteous manner to be saved.  But if we’re saved, we will want to live according to God’s Word, to conform to His will.

More to come on this subject.

The Point and Presumptuousness of Ranking Doctrines

February 11, 2009 27 comments

Where does Scripture tell us that only a limited number of its teachings are worth separating over?  Answer:  Nowhere.  You can’t find that anywhere in the Bible.  Phil Johnson says it’s just common sense for us to rank doctrines and bemoans the loss of common sense since post-modernism.   C. H. Spurgeon came along before post-modernism and perhaps even modernism, so based on Johnson’s standard for common sense, I wonder where Spurgeon’s is, when I read this quote from his 1856 sermon, Zion’s Prosperity:

I believe that we ought not to say that any truth is non-essential; it may be non-essential to salvation, but it is essential for something else. Why! you might as well take one of the jewels out of the Queen’s crown, and say it is non-essential, but she will be Queen all the same! Will anyone dare to tell God that any doctrine is non-essential?

He lacked the “common sense” that Johnson claims in many other sermons he preached as well.   Johnson must retreat to the 17th century to find anyone expounding on essentials and non-essentials and really to only two volumes, one of which was Herman Witsius’ Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed.   Witsius argues that essential doctrines are only those necessary to salvation.   One of Witsius’ life goals was reconciliation between the reigning orthodoxy of his time with the new covenant theology.   His doctrinal taxonomy would help bridge the gap between those two.   We must consider that objective when we read Witsius’ arguments as well as  to understand that he’s unpacking the Apostle’s Creed, which on its own is a monumental contraction of doctrine that among the few things that it states as essential, it includes:  “I believe in the . . . holy catholic church; the communion of saints. . . .”

The Point of Ranking Doctrines

Witsius revealed his point of ranking doctrines—the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.   He believed that all believers made up the true church, the holy catholic one, and that unity was required, the communion of the saints.  I agree with total church unity.  Paul admonishes the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 12:25 “that there should be no schism in the body.”  Of course, two verses later (v. 27) he also calls the Corinthian church the body of Christ.

Scripture doesn’t teach the communion of the saints.  1 Corinthians 10:16 teaches “the communion of the body of Christ,” but the “body of Christ” and “the saints” are two different terms and two different concepts.  “Saints” is a soteriological term.  It means “saved people” in essence.  “Body of Christ” is an ecclesiological term.   It is speaking of the church, local only, which is why Paul said to the church at Corinth, excluding himself, in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “Ye are the body of Christ.”

You can clearly see “saints” and “church” are different in 1 Corinthians 14:33, where Paul mentions “all the churches of the saints.”  “Saints” and “churches” are differentiated from one another in their usage.   The church is an assembly of saints in a particular location, and it is in the church where unity can be found, because a church has the means provided by the Lord Jesus Christ to maintain unity:  church discipline, the Lord’s Supper, and the church officers, among other tools not given to all the saints in general.  The church, local only, is the “pillar and ground of the truth.”  God gave churches the capacity to protect and propagate the truth and nothing more than churches.  A church can keep factions out of itself (Titus 3:10-11).   It can do that by means of church discipline.

It is no wonder that Phil Johnson says that ranking doctrines is common sense.  It’s the only way that he sees that all believers could get along.   There’s way too much diversity even on a plain subject like baptism for “the communion of the saints.”  Yet, how far do they reduce the doctrines to get down to the essentials?  Ironically, almost everyone disagrees on what is essential, so that they even divide over what to divide over.

Even if these evangelicals make the gospel the one non-negotiable, they do not consistently separate over that either.   There is a huge divergence in the gospel understanding of Billy Graham and Albert Mohler, but that did not stop them from coming together in a “gospel” endeavor in 2001.   Graham preaches universalism.   John MacArthur understands very clearly what Graham told Robert Schuller in 1997.  But then Mohler and MacArthur are in very close fellowship.  Mohler’s doctrinal triage is the means that he wants to bring the Southern Baptist Convention together, he and Graham both being Southern Baptists.  As a part of Together for the Gospel, MacArthur and Mohler also both join with the Charismatic C. J. Mahaney.  MacArthur has written scathing material against Charismatic doctrine, but that doesn’t keep him from fellowship with Mahaney.  In other words, these men who believe that the true church is all believers use ranking doctrines as a means to unify everyone.  What we can see by their practice is that they unify whether they believe the same gospel or not.  Instead of calling themselves “Together for the Gospel” (T4G), they should label themselves “Together for the sake of Getting Together.”

Johnson and MacArthur and their evangelical guys aren’t the only one who believe this.  We also have the fundamentalists as represented by Kevin Bauder and his indifferentism and everythingism teaching, and as exemplified by the 2009 Bible Conference at Bob Jones University.   Of course, they’re a lot less diverse than the evangelicals, but the diversity that’s there comes because of a kind of theological triage they also possess.  I’m sure that Paisley is a Calvinist.  I’m sure that Ollila is not, especially in light of the reported statement that he is a “no-point Calvinist,” that is, “there’s no point in discussing it.”  In Paisley and Sexton we have King James Only.  Among some of the other speakers are multiple versionists.  Sexton markets himself as with Spurgeon in most of his publications, but on the Crown College campus he has a building named after Curtis Hutson, one of the fathers of the modern no-repentance-for-salvation doctrine, and has the image of Jack Hyles hanging in his preachers hall of fame.

Scripture must be consistent because God cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13).  God can’t tell us to have no schism in the body on one hand (1 Corinthians 12:25) and then to separate from believers on the other hand (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15) if the body of Christ is all believers.   Those two teachings would contradict one another.  The unity must be based upon doctrine and found only in the church, which is local only.  If churches choose to fellowship, they will do so based upon doctrine and practice.  However, we are together for more than just the gospel.

Ranking doctrines was invented for the point of a  fake unity that is based upon degrading the teachings of God’s Word.  Unity trumps all other doctrines in this scheme.  Earlier Baptists were tortured and died over mode and recipient of baptism, but now baptism is a doctrine to overlook in order to get together and to get along.   With so much doctrinal disagreement, instead of separating, men unify based upon a lower common denominator, reducing the teachings of the Bible into essentials and non-essentials.   It encourages disobedience to Scripture.

The Presumptuousness of Ranking Doctrines

Jesus told the religious leaders that they left the weightier matters of the law undone.  He also said that there was a greatest commandment.  Paul said that certain doctrines were foundational.   From those teachings, one is presumptuous to think that he can choose certain doctrines to deemphasize in order to stay in fellowship with another professing believer.  Those verses don’t say anything about that.  The ones who do the ranking are guilty of the Pharisaic practice that Jesus confronted in Matthew 15:6:

Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.

Ranking doctrines is tradition.  It isn’t taught in the Bible.   This tradition, however, has led to the fall of many a man by making the commandment of God of none effect.  Sure, they might recognize the commandment of God—so did the Pharisees—but it isn’t necessary to practice, because they’ll suffer no loss of fellowship for disobeying it.

Uzzah presumed on God and touched the ark of the covenant.  God killed him.  Nadab and Abihu presumed on God in the matter of the recipe for the incense to burn at the altar of incense.  They offered strange fire unto the Lord.  God killed them.  Ananias and Sapphira presumed upon God  in holding back certain money they had promised from the sale of their land.  God killed them.  Adam and Eve presumed about one piece of fruit on one tree in the Garden.  They died the day they ate thereof.

In the form of a serpent in the garden of Eden, Satan tempted Adam and Eve to presume upon God.  Certain things that God said weren’t essential.  They just weren’t as important as other things.  Jesus, however, never presumed upon the Father.  He always did the will of the Father, who sent Him.  And he said that the greatest in His kingdom is the one who does the least of His commandments.

Banned in Blogdom

February 6, 2009 10 comments

I hate to cause any diversion from the great topic at hand, and I certainly have no desire to take away from the tremendous first two posts on this issue.  But, I also have some unfinished business that really must be taken care of, and so, without further delay…

During the last month that we blogged, we did a sort of biographical month.  Jeff gave us all questions to answer… really deep, probing questions, too.  I was sorta embarrassed by a few of them.  But, I answered anyway.  Then, Kent gave his perspective on Jeff and I — I really blushed when I read those.  And finally, I made fun of Jeff.  I’m sure that if he ever gets it, he’ll be blushing.  But we’ll have to wait for him to think it over.

But, I never got to Kent.  And I have wanted to.  I need to, really.  I started to, back at the end of December.  But some very pressing duties combined with my rather foggy brain, hung-over as it was with cookies, candy, and Christmas vacation, simply prevented my completing the process.  In fact, those very same pressing duties have prevented me from even touching a blog over the past 4-5 weeks.  Today is my first day back at “Blog Central” (the place in my office where I do all this wonderful blogging), and so I want to dedicate today’s piece to my friend Kent.

Kent has already told you the story of our first meeting.  Whatever he says about it, I will admit that I didn’t even notice him being there (when it is time to preach, I get a bad case of tunnel vision anyway), until during the lunch time afterwards.  As I recall, his youngest sat in a high chair next to my oldest (also in a high chair), and we had a very nice time at the table.  I suppose that if I had realized that the balding guy with the baby was THE Kent Brandenburg, I probably would have acted differently at the time, but I didn’t know half the people at that meeting, and I’m not an outgoing guy.  Not at all.  So, I just enjoyed the talk.  Whatever Kent might have seen, I looked across that table, and I saw a friend.

And that is exactly what Kent has been to me throughout these years since then.  When Pastor Short died, Kent flew here for the funeral.  He couldn’t stop crying long enough to talk much then.  Later, he flew out here again to preach for me, and we enjoyed sitting up late discussing, debating, and in general growing acquainted.  And, Kent was a friend.  Many, many times, too many times really, I have picked up the phone to dial his number.  Sometimes it was important.  Sometimes I needed advice in a desparate way.  Other times, it was less urgent, but still important to me.  Always, Kent is there to give the help, the nudge, the encouragement, and even, at times, the kick in the pants, the cuff upside the head, or the stinging rebuke that was needed.

No doubt there are readers of this blog who see Kent as a theologue.  No doubt some consider him to be a braniac.  Probably we have a reader or three who think of him as a crank.  To some, he is an extremist.  To others, a hard-liner.  I would be surprised if some of our readers didn’t associate him very closely with the mascot for our President’s party.  Kent is a strong man, a godly man, a true pastor, an expert exegete, a faithful preacher, a father and a husband and a brother in Christ.  But all who read this post should understand that above all else, Kent is a friend.

Will he always say what you want to hear?  Emphatically not.  Will you always like the “friendship” he extends your way?  No, not really.  Will you feel warm and fuzzy feelings towards him all the time?  I think not.  Kent is not the kind of friend that you make on MySpace or on Facebook.  He’s not a friend for the Socially Unfulfilled.  He’s no make-believe friend.  He won’t be leaving comments on your wall to the tune of “you’re so kewl.”  Kent is not a virtual friend.  He is a real-life friend.  The kind that will cry because you are suffering.  The kind that will rejoice because you are rejoicing.  The kind that will listen when you call, will help you when you stumble, will rebuke you when you need it most, and will extend a helping hand when you need that too.

I have stayed in Kent’s home.  I have observed his family.  I have been in his church.  I know his staff.  Kent understands and practices the grace of hospitality.  He is a good host.  He has a very gracious wife, and a couple of the best kids you’ll ever meet (at least in the daughter department).  His home is well-run, his children well-mannered.  I watched as his kids woke up early and started practicing their music.  For the first two hours of the morning, the Brandenburg house sounds like Carnegie hall ten minutes before the Symphony.  Kent has established a well-ordered home.

In this day and age, it seems like most pastors are either doctrinally sound or manly, but never both.  Not so with Kent.  He’ll run you over on the basketball court, and then call the foul on you.  He’s a man’s man when it comes to athletics.  He throws his whole heart and soul into whatever he is doing.  But he isn’t just a man on the athletic field.  He understands that manliness is spiritual, and he is spiritual in a manly way.  He takes a strong stand, and never apologizes until he sees that he was wrong.  I like that about Kent.

There have been plenty of times that Kent and I have disagreed.  Publicly, in fact.  Often, we have done so on purpose.  We both hold our convictions very strongly, and yet, we have a mutual respect for one another.  I suppose that if you are looking for a connection between this post and the month’s theme, this is it.  We both strive to take our stands on defensible ground, with a strong Scriptural basis for all our beliefs and practices.  There are times when we take very different stands.  One of the goals of this blog has been to model a Biblical approach to doctrinal debate.  We desire to show the world that these issues can be debated, and debated passionately, without there being a wounded friendship in the end.  We hope that we are succeeding in this.

But that brings up another point about Kent.  Like iron, Kent sharpens those around him.  Anyone who has debated Kent understands the need to “bring your A-game.”  That is why Phil Johnson won’t touch him.  I still remember that promise, made so very long ago, that Phil made to Kent — I’m gonna debate you (said Phil), and when I do, you’ll need to bring your A-game.  That’s what Phil said.  Somehow, I’m thinking that in the ensuing days, Phil realized that Kent only brings his A-game.  And, maybe, Phil decided that his own A-game had “left the building.”  Who knows?

Kent is a tough debater.  As one who has gone more than a few rounds with Kent, I should know.  Kent doesn’t shadow box.  He never heard of 50%.  Kent is a model of Biblical tenacity.  And, as a result, Kent has gotten himself banned.  Banned at Sharper Iron.  Banned by Frank Turk.  Banned at PyroMeaniacs.  Banned in Blogdom.  I understand their strategy.  If you can’t beat Kent, silence him.  They have put him out of their Synagogues.  They think they have done God a service.  They can’t bear to debate him, and so they gag him instead.  And, if you have no other reason to admire Kent, that should be reason enough.

Ranking Doctrines

February 4, 2009 8 comments

If you are in touch with contemporary theology, then you know the emphasis today in theological circles on ranking doctrines.  In case you don’t understand, let me explain.  Evangelical teachers say that some doctrine and practice is worth separating or fighting over and some is not.   They rank certain doctrines as primary or essential and others as secondary or non-essential.  Ironically, there’s a lot of conflict among them about which doctrines are important and which ones are not.  For instance, is mode of baptism worth separating over?

Who Is Talking About This?

I said that people are talking about it.  Who?

Among well-known evangelicals, Phil Johnson has written much about this (here, here, here, here, and here).  His boss, John MacArthur, has covered it as well (here, here, and  here)

Kevin Bauder is a fundamentalist who has talked about this topic (here and here), except he divides the categories with the terms “indifferentism” and “everythingism.”

Evangelical M. James Sawyer  sorts through this subject and calls it doctrinal taxonomy.  He begins discussing it on p. 165 of his book, A Survivor’s Guide to Theology.

Nick Duke, pastor of Campus Church at the The University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ, wrote a three part series outlining his thoughts on the ranking of doctrines (beginning here).

Albert Mohler, an evangelical Southern Baptist, president of a SBC seminary, is often referenced here (and here) for his “theological triage” concept.  Here Kevin Bauder comments on Mohler’s triage.

The GARBC published a pamphlet written by a pastor, David Nettleton, which was against the dividing of doctrine into essentials and non-essentials.

Miles J. Stanford writes that the separation of doctrine into these types of categories was a characteristic of new evangelicalism:  “Concession has been the course of Neo-evangelicalism. Its interdenominational [and nondenominational] approach has caused it to divide the Bible into essentials, and non-essentials.”

Brent Barnett at Relevant Bible Teaching is death on ranking doctrines.  Jack Hughes doesn’t like it either.

Oh, and then me.    I finished a series at my blog specifically on this subject (part one, two, three, four, five, and then here) [One young blogger commented].  My position, of course, contrasts with Johnson, MacArthur, Bauder, and Mohler.  Kevin Bauder might call me an “everythingist,”or at least a modified everythingist, which he would look at with disrepute.

Overview of the Discussion

One side says that Scripture ranks doctrines according to importance and that this provides a basis for separation.  Most of  the truth rankers agree that the gospel is the one doctrine over which we are to separate as Christians.  Everything else is tertiary or non-essential.   A major phrase I’ve heard on this position is:  Essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, all things charity.   They say that some doctrines are more important than others—those are primary or fundamental—and those are the ones that are worth separating from another person or institution.  This is the means by which we maintain unity between believers.  In order to get along, we have to reduce the teachings or issues over which we will separate to a manageable number.

My position is that every doctrine in Scripture is essential.   We don’t have one example in Scripture of something God said being dispensable.  The non-essential doctrines are those that are non-scriptural.  Non-biblical issues are not a basis of separation.  Anything that God did say in His Word is primary and fundamental.  We aren’t taught in the Bible anywhere this essential and non-essential, primary and secondary or tertiary doctrine.  We are not given liberty in the Bible to disobey God or to believe differently than what Scripture says.

Phil Johnson gives five scriptural reasons in his online series on this subject, but he admits:

It seems to me that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture.

He says the teaching is implicit.   And yet, it is a major teaching for evangelicals and many fundamentalists.  These are the same men who often chafe at dogma arrived from implications.  And this is major dogma with them.  In my five part series linked above, I cover several of his arguments by implication.

I’ve found in person that the main arguments for the essential/non-essential teaching are experiential.  The typical attack is rhetorical, something like this:  “So you’re saying that baptism is as important as salvation in Scripture?”  Or, “So you think that Jephthah’s daughter and the sons of god in Genesis 6 are as important as the doctrine of justification?”  If you say yes to either of these questions, then they say something like:  “That’s just crazy!” Or, “You gotta be kiddin me (laughter)!”  The indifferentist crosses his arms with smug satisfaction.  With those questions, he has just won this debate.  If you won’t separate over every teaching of Scripture, then you may as well fellowship with everyone no matter what their beliefs.

Once I started looking into this issue again in preparation for this series, I read some that saw it like I did.  Leland M. Haines, albeit a Mennonite, here writes an article that I believe reflects a biblical view.  He concludes:  “In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love.”

As we look at Scripture, do we see God take the same attitude as us about all of his teachings?  Do we take the same attitude when the restaurant missed our special order?  “I said no onions on my Whopper!”  Our position should reflect the will of God as revealed in His Word.  We don’t have liberty to cobble together a new doctrine based upon our struggles to get along with one another.

Historical?

You will find men discuss this topic in history.  Herman Witsius, 17th century Puritan, discusses it from pp. 16-33 in his Sacred Dissertations:  On What Is Commonly Called the Apostles Creed.  He barely refers to Scripture to make His point, but this issue was being discussed.  John MacArthur’s three part series (linked above) essentially uses the outline of Witsius from these pages, except MacArthur attaches verses to what Witsius wrote.  This article says that Wesley took some type of this essential/non-essential position.  Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, in volume 1 deals with what is fundamental and non-fundamental under his fourteenth question, which is “Are some theological topics fundamental, others not; and how can they be mutually distinguished?”   Turretin uses 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Philippians 3:15 as his basis and that’s it.  You will be hard-pressed to find any kind of ranking of doctrines in those two texts.  Tell-tale is Turretin’s opinion of the Lutheran view of doctrinal taxonomy:  “the more strict Lutherans who extend fundamentals more widely than is just.”  In this we see the peril of taking scripture and reducing it to what we think is important—people who have a longer list of important doctrines than us are considered “too strict.”

Spurgeon, on the other hand, with his vast library and encyclopedic knowledge of theology did not approve of dividing doctrines into essentials and non-essentials.  He talked about this on many different occasions and showed a severe dislike for this practice.  Alexander Young wrote against this doctrinal division in 1852, James Carlile in 1823, and J. S. Thompson in 1890.  In 1887 Thomas Armitage in The History of the Baptists wrote (p. 680):  “But their folly is more apparent still when we find them drawing a distinction between essential and non-essential Christian doctrines.”  In 1878 The True Covenanter did an article against the division of doctrine as such.

The Bible is historical and I believe that ranking doctrines did start in Bible times.  We read about it in Scripture.  It began with the unconverted religious leaders of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes.  It was normal for them to reduce the commands of God to a number they could keep on their own.  They wanted to involve Jesus in this practice when they asked Him in Matthew 22:36, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”  Like Jesus would do many times, He played along with this little game when He answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”  Of course Jesus wasn’t saying that ranking God’s commands was acceptable.  He knew that all of the other commandments could be wrapped up into this one.  He also recognized that this was one that the religious leaders were violating.

The religious leaders in Israel didn’t have a supernatural religion.   In their sinful flesh, they were powerless to keep the many commands that God had given.  This weighed upon them a heavy burden.  Since they couldn’t keep them all, they chose to minimize them to a manageable number.  They even started reducing the number to just the one really important one.  That’s what we see happening today with ranking doctrines as well.  We choose what we think is important and then we fellowship based on that smaller number of divine instructions based on our own convenience.  Then we call it unity.

Why a New Popularity?

Ranking doctrines occurs for two reasons:  a perversion of the nature of the church and a misunderstanding of the doctrine of unity.  The latter is related to the former.  Since men think that the church is all believers, they assume they must unify with all believers based on what the Bible teaches about unity.  They have found that there is no way that they can get along with everyone else if every teaching of Scripture is the basis of fellowship.   There is too much doctrinal disagreement, so they choose to get along based upon what they call the “essentials.”  If someone violates one of the essentials, then they have a reason for separation.  Until then, they’ve got to maintain a unity that is based upon a few doctrines or just one.

This practice has been around for years in Roman Catholicism.  Men may not have believed Roman Catholic doctrine, but the belief in Catholicism itself trumped all other doctrines.  Remaining in the Catholic “Church” was necessary for eternal life.  Excommunication from the denomination meant condemnation.  Roman Catholicism was held together by a few basic teachings that all Catholics agreed upon in order to stay together and to remain in the church.

I believe the new popularity  of ranking doctrines comes mainly as a response to the mainstream culture.  We live in a new era of tolerance.  Not getting along is not acceptable and those most at fault are the ones with the higher and more plenteous standards.   The church has mirrored that trend.  It doesn’t look good squabbling over doctrinal differences.  The new unifying doctrine is unity itself.

Another factor is the world’s view of success.  To be successful you need to be in a large group.  It brings credibility and safety.  When you are outside of the group, you lose the comfort of social status.  God said that it wasn’t good that man was alone.  God created us with the desire for relationships.  Like anything good that He created, the ruination of the curse twists it into something perverse. You won’t be considered a success unless you have a lot of friends.  The new facebook craze is testimony to the seduction of popularity.  The only criteria for friendship is the click on one internet link.  You’re now friends…because you want to be.  Doctrine and practice doesn’t have to mess that up at all.  It’s nice to feel wanted.

Monetary factors exist.  You can’t sell books without a more universal acceptance.  You won’t have the pool of speaking invitations unless those opportunities are kept open.  You might not get a job at a parachurch organization that is more broad than what you are.  Being narrow is the deal-breaker.  If you have your own conference, you won’t have people coming if you are so narrow that few will feel comfortable.  The threat of shunning exists.   The way to alleviate that is to have very little worthy of ejection from the group.  If they come, they’ll help pay for your conference.

If you are dispensational and premillennial like I am, then you believe a one world church is in the future.  How is that going to happen?  Religious people will forego their doctrines and scruples to get together based on one common belief.  I would expect a trend toward that as we get closer to the end.  It’s Satanic influence headed toward what we see prophecied in Revelation.  Before the all out unity in the tribulation period, the world will be rid of all those that have been causing division—the people that believe and practice the Bible.

But Does Ranking Doctrines Please God?

When you rank doctrines, you are going to let a few teachings go like so many loose tomatoes in the back of a pick-up truck.  The God of the Bible doesn’t approve of any disobedience of Him.  In essence, God is left out of this discussion.  It centers on man.  Ironically, ranking doctrines doesn’t love God.  God is loved by keeping His commandments, words, and sayings (John 14:15, 21, 23).  We have doctrinal and practical light and then doctrinal and practical darkness with no shades of grey in between.  If everything that He says is true, then all of it is important.  All of it needs to be followed.  We don’t have liberty to sin (Romans 6:1).  Faith keeps God’s Word and faith pleases Him.

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