Monday, August 15, 2005

Scattered Replies Redux

[The following blog post is by Jus Divinum]

Phil Johnson has posted a fairly detailed reply to my earlier post "Scattered Replies". Here are my remarks.

Phil had said:

"My first gripe is with ostensibly Christian organizations and ministers of the gospel who in any degree dilute, suppress, deflect, or confuse the simple, pure gospel message they are called and ordained to preach, and either substitute or blend into their "gospel" a political message instead."

And I had replied:

"Re: his first point, I'd just say that there is a difference between a "Christian organization" which simply articulates a political message, and an organization which "blends into their 'gospel' a political message". There is a difference here, and it ought to be respected. I have yet to find a significant ECBer organization which actually espouses the view that political activism is part of the content of the gospel message itself."

And then Phil replied:

"Perhaps in theory, but I'd be interested in seeing a specific real-life example of any major evangelical political organization that has made a clear and unambiguous effort to maintain a definite distinction between law and gospel—without participating in activities like ecumenical or inter-faith prayer meetings; without extending implicit public recognition to Roman Catholic priests as if they were legitimate ministers of the true gospel; without supporting ecumenical "evangelistic" programs; and without allowing the political message to eclipse the gospel in their message to unbelievers."

Sorry, but it's going to be impossible to fulfill Phil's request; he's expanded my original point beyond all recognition. Let me contrast my position with Phil's. Phil speaks of his "gripe with ostensibly Christian organizations" who "dilute," etc. "the simple, pure gospel message they are called and ordained to preach." The fallacy here is simple: if you're a Christian organization, then you're called to preach the gospel. Nope, not true. There are many Christian hunger relief agencies, and Christian hospitals, whose primary task is not to preach the gospel. That's not their primary calling. Would Phil oppose Christian legal defense organizations on the grounds that their primary activity isn't to preach the gospel, but something else? Would Phil condemn them because they've managed "to eclipse the gospel in their message to unbelievers"? What if they don't so much as have a message to unbelievers? Is there a footnote in Phil's Bible which says, "If you're a Christian organization of any sort, your primary goal is to give the gospel to unbelievers, no exceptions"?

Notice the problem here. Phil denies that he makes generalizations. And then he turns around and makes more generalizations, in the ethical demands he makes on any Christians who are organized for any purpose whatsoever.

In addition, I was specifically talking about organizations which "blends into their 'gospel' a political message," that is, an organization "which actually espouses the view that political activism is part of the content of the gospel message itself." In response, Phil simply changes the subject, and comes up with five conditions that are not what I was talking about.

But let's look at these five conditions.

[1] The organization must make "a clear and unambiguous effort to maintain a definite distinction between law and gospel".

[2] The organization must not be one "participating in activities like ecumenical or inter-faith prayer meetings".

[3] The organization cannot be involved in "extending implicit public recognition to Roman Catholic priests as if they were legitimate ministers of the true gospel".

[4] The organization cannot be one "supporting ecumenical 'evangelistic' programs".

[5] The organization cannot be one "allowing the political message to eclipse the gospel in their message to unbelievers."

I think I agree with Phil that [2] and [4] are unacceptable. But I don't see [1] and [5] as obligations upon all Christian organizations whatsoever. To be frank, these are more legalistic, fundamentalist-type rules Phil has whipped up out of thin air. You certainly won't find any Scriptures saying that any organization of Christians whatsoever must adhere to something like [1] and [5] in the work they do. Indeed, I don't see why preaching the gospel, or explaining and defending particular theological distinctions, needs to come within the province of all Christian organizations whatsoever.

(I'm not rendering a judgment on [3], because it is too ambiguous. I don't know what Phil means by "extending implicit public recognition". I won't prejudge Phil here, but since most fundamentalists I know can drive a Mack truck of arbitrary ethical prohibitions through that word 'implicit,' I'm exceedingly wary of giving [3] any credence without further explanation.)

Moving along, I had said:

"I have yet to find a significant ECBer organization which actually espouses the view that political activism is part of the content of the gospel message itself."

And Phil replied:

... well, Phil replies by changing the subject! Incredibly, he gives us a series of examples not of "ECBer organizations," but local churches in which the preacher often talked about politics from the pulpit. But, to reiterate, Phil has not given an example of someone who "actually espouses the view that political activism is part of the content of the gospel message itself," much less any examples of ECBer organizations that do this (as opposed to preachers in local churches). Is Phil seriously suggesting that any of the people he named preached from the pulpit a gospel message like the following: "If you support Prohibition, or if you oppose Communism, your sins will be atoned for and you will go to heaven!"?! Perhaps these preachers laid down (rightly or wrongly) various duties for the Christian life, but that's not at all the same thing as preaching these various duties as part of the content of the gospel message itself. If it was, then by that 'standard' we might as well say that MacArthur's gospel message consists, in part, of the activity of raising godly families and attending church ;-)

Why does Phil persist in changing the subject? When I say something, I mean what I say, and not something else.

I had said:

"Re: his second point, again, I have yet to find any ECBers who do 'think (or act as if) political remedies for society's evils are more effective instruments for the improvement of our culture than the gospel message itself.'"

And Phil replied:

... well, Phil goes on and on about Dobson, but he doesn't give a clearly sound argument that Dobson actually believes that political activism is more effective than the gospel message itself. Part of the problem here is that Phil doesn't provide a link to the actual letter in question, nor does he provide full citations of the MacArthur material to which Dobson is responding. Phil concludes by saying, "The only reasonable conclusion is that Dobson believes the gospel ministry has no power to stem that tide." No, an equally reasonable conclusion is that Dobson believes that political activism has some power to stem that tide. And so far, Phil hasn't given me any reason to think otherwise.

But, sure, let me cut all this off at the pass. If Phil ever finds someone who clearly does think that political remedies are more effective than the gospel message in 'cultural improvement,' then let me say I will be the first to join Phil in rebuking the notion.

Phil says:

"I've never been critical of just "anyone who spends any time involved in political activism." I have been critical of "ministries" that do little else (while raising money for "the Lord's work")"

I'm curious. What if they didn't call it a 'ministry' or 'the Lord's work,' but did solicit money from Christians for the purpose of political endeavor? Would Phil still be opposed to it?

Moving on, Phil had said:

"My third gripe is with those who make politics a higher priority than evangelism in their dealings with unbelievers."

And I had replied:

"Re: his third point, I'm not quite sure how to apply it to anyone in particular. That's because, for just about any ECBer I know of, it is next to impossible to know whether they "make politics a higher priority than evangelism in their dealings with unbelievers"."

And then Phil replied:

"In practical terms, it's not "next to impossible" at all. Because my remark has nothing to do with what they might list as priorities in theory. I'm talking about the issues they actually devote their costly radio airtime and ink and paper to the discussion of. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34)."

OK, if Phil is talking about ordained ministers of the gospel, that is, pastors/elders in local churches, then I agree that the bulk of their time ought to be given to the Scripturally defined duties of an elder, and not to political activism. If Phil looks at his third point above, as initially stated, it is not clear that he had these people (and these people alone) specifically in view. Ostensibly, only his first point of the four made any reference to these kinds of people. His remaining three points were perfectly general. But I'm glad he's clarified his position.

I had said:

"And my main point throughout this extended exchange is whether cooperative political activism is permitted for individual Christians, not whether it is obligatory for all and sundry."

And Phil replied:

"I don't know about that. That certainly has not been very clear."

I disagree in the strongest terms. I don't have the time to reference all of my comments on Phil's blog, but I think if Phil will read them again, he will see that that was indeed my main point. As I said quite awhile ago:

"You repeatedly connect my position with some obligation that allegedly pertains to the mission of "the church" or "the whole church". Surely the fact that I am drawing explicit analogies to things like dentristry and car mechanics, should give the lie to the notion that I think political activism is the obligation of every Christian as a member of the church."

If Phil will recall, these are the analogies I repeatedly posted to his blog, from the very beginning. Interestingly enough, he never bothered to respond to the above comment. Phil is certainly free to pick and choose what he will respond to, but nevertheless I will take the occasion, when applicable, to point out where I've already dealt with a point he's made.

Phil continues:

"If I recall correctly, what stirred your ire in the first place was my criticism of Dobson's leadership in 'culture war.'"

Eh? No, that's not right. Look at my first two comments ([1] [2]) on Phil's blog on this stuff. No mention of Dobson. Indeed, as Phil himself never tires of pointing out, I haven't so much as mentioned Dobson on his blog. So which is it? Am I extremely reluctant to talk about Dobson, or am I so obsessed by criticisms of Dobson that my 'ire' is 'stirred' to directly reply on his behalf? According to Phil, both! :-)

(Indeed, in my very next comment to Phil, I actually affirmed his criticism of Dobson's attitude toward Roman Catholics, three times!)

The fact of the matter is that I posted not because I care about defending Dobson, but because I wanted to challenge Phil's hasty generalizations about Christian political activism in general. I've told him as much more than once.

I've never met Mohler, Dobson, or Colson. I've never given a penny to their political efforts. In fact, I've never attended a political rally of any kind in my life. What I'm defending is not personalities, but positions. In particular, I'm interested in critiquing Phil's view that people who fall into the various categories he specifies are invariably compromisers of the sola fide gospel. Phil says he doesn't believe this, but his generalizations tell a different story. I'm interested in critiquing a fundamentalist approach to Christianity and culture, one that heavily relies on dubious historical generalizations and fallacious slippery slope arguments. By Phil's 'standards,' I could just as well argue that fundamentalist retreat from culture invariably ends up in legalism, Arminianism, and cult-like tendencies. But, despite appearances, I think that kind of argument is equally bad.

Phil said:

"As noted above, a major and recurring theme in his message is the notion that if you are not lobbying for legislation, you're guilty of doing nothing of any real consequence to stem the tide of unrighteousness in our society."

Phil "noted" nothing of the sort. Phil gave a highly dubious argument with multiple questionable inferences from one letter Dobson sent out two years ago. And from this Phil infers "a major and recurring theme in his message"? Phil's rhetoric is argumentatively-impoverished.

BTW, Dobson did focus on other issues for the better part of his public career. So if you take the measure of the man's life as a whole, you'll get a more balanced assessment of his total contribution. Why can't someone focus on different things at different times in his life? As I said before, he's not a pastor of a church or an elder, so who is Phil to tell him how he needs to spend his time?! Does Phil lecture Christian doctors and lawyers that they ought to be spending more hours preaching the gospel than doing what they ordinarily fill their weeks with?

Phil said:

"I would, however, say that to take resources donated or paid for by people who believed they were giving their money to the Lord's work, and use it instead to lobby for the appointment of a particular Supreme Court Justice is indeed to squander resources and waste energies."

This is yet more of Phil's unargued legalistic standards for how Christians can use their money. What, is he saying that organizations like Focus on the Family don't tell people how they will spend donated money? If they don't, how did Phil find out? :-) Is he actually saying they are taking it under false pretences? Is he prepared to actually defend that claim with evidence?

Of course, it is only a squandering of resources and a waste of energy if indeed no Christian is permitted to give their resources and energy to political activism. This is yet another painfully obvious generalization about all evangelicals who fall into category A therefore having property B. Phil hasn't done a thing to argue this one. It's just hanging out there, begging us to take it on faith. Phil acts like he can just declare that the resources are squandered and the energies are wasted, and he doesn't have to lift a finger to support his specific conclusions.

Phil said:

"Dobson left his medical practice and Colson left his legal practice to go into "full-time ministry"; they solicit donations from the church in the name of Christ to support what they do; they operate tax-free parachurch organizations; and they are in unique positions of leadership that give them more influence in the church than the vast majority of qualified elders. There is a spiritual stewardship that goes with that kind of influence, and both men have sold it for a mess of ecumenical pottage."

Wrong. This is just a very bad argument. All along Phil says he is "explicitly talking about men who are called and ordained and trained and qualified to teach Scripture and sound doctrine." Indeed, he stresses this so much that he claims I've distorted his position on this point. But when it comes down to it he feels free to apply his legalistic rules to any organization any Christian wants to start, even if he isn't an elder or pastor in a local church. But just because you take donations for the purpose of political activism, and speak often about political activism, doesn't mean that Phil Johnson can invent a new chapter in 1 Timothy that applies to you.

The President of the United States is in a "unique position of leadership" that gives him "more influence in the church than the vast majority of qualified elders" (well, more authority than Dobson!). It doesn't follow that he should spend more time preaching the gospel than talking about politics!

What we've gotten from Phil here is just another extended exercise in coming up with more rules for life for people, because there just aren't enough rules in the Bible, I guess. I won't use the F-word again in this post, but I sure am tempted.

Phil said:

"But if they decide to leave the government payroll, start parachurch organizations, solicit support from the church, and use those resources for political lobbying, with the implied promise that this sort of politicking is vital for the redemption of our society and the ultimate triumph of righteousness in our culture—then I'll strongly object, OK?"

Phil's rhetoric here is excessive. Vital for the ultimate triumph of righteousness in our culture? I doubt Phil is addressing anyone who actually exists.

In any event, I of course think Phil has the legal right to do the above. It's "OK" in that sense. I think he's given a totally bogus argument for his 'objection,' however. There's nothing wrong whatsoever with asking Christians for donations for political activism. This is just another general ethical prohibition that Phil likes to impose on people apart from Scriptural warrant.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Since you're leaving the debate anyway, I won't try to address all the fallacies in your post. Let's just say that this whole post was more of the same kind of stuff I have already replied to.

    Your almost reflexive penchant for the easy dismissal of arguments you haven't begin to grasp is the achilles heel of your whole presentation. And (although the tactic might normally silence opponents) the multiplication of more and more long posts doesn't really patch the previous holes in your argument.

    For example (and while I'll cite just one example, your post is full of bad arguments and dodges like this):

    > Phil replies by changing the subject! Incredibly, he gives us
    > a series of examples not of "ECBer organizations," but local churches
    > in which the preacher often talked about politics from the pulpit.

    "The Church of the Christian Crusade" was not a "local church." In the late 60s and early '70s it was large organization with an international outreach that included a College (American Christian College), a nationwide syndicated radio broadcast, several publications, lots of conventions and conferences on politics, and an almost fanatical devotion to various ultra-conservative social causes. I'm not even sure there was an actual "local church" involved in the conglomeration, even though the name implied that's what it was. (Ergo my whole complaint with the organization and their approach to "ministry.")

    You ought to look up "Billy James Hargis" at Google if you want to get the flavor of this organization. It was one of the first of the major organized media-based expressions of the "religious right."

    So in reality, I did not "change the subject." Again, you just weren't following the conversation very well.

  3. This is hilarious, Phil. Find a niggling detail and then use it as an excuse not to interact with the substance of the post in question.

    I'm happy to concede to you that the organization in question was a parachurch organization, and not a local church. But was it an "ECBer organization"?! Did it actively promote *cooperating with non-Christians* in political activism? If it didn't, then your list is *still* irrelevant for the point you're making.

    Beyond this, *even if* the organization in question was a genuine ECBer organization (and I'll happily concede this if it's actually true), you *still* haven't yet provided any argument that it "actually espouses the view that political activism is *part of the content of the gospel message itself*". So the main argument of that paragraph stands, unless you can actually provide evidence that Billy James Hargis was "the prototypical example of this." (BTW, I was looking for a *present* organization "which actually *espouses*" the view in question.)

    So it appears to me you're still wrong here, twice over, even when you take the time to cherry-pick what you think is a rock-solid 'fallacy' in my post.

    I have to hand it to you, Phil, you know how to deploy this rhetorical trick very well. Twice now you've tried to reduce my posts to some niggling detail, attempt to refute that niggling detail, and then construct some monstrous non sequitur to the effect that, "Since JD got this wrong, I don't have to deal with all of his *other* fallacies!" The reason why this is a rhetorical trick is that it gives you the *appearance* of giving a comprehensive 'argument' that my post is "full of" fallacies, without actually providing said argument.

    But maybe you don't know what constitutes a good inductive argument ;-)