Is It Okay to Criticize Pastors?

In the last couple weeks, there have been several stories in the news and in the Christian blogosphere about Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Matthews, NC. He’s certainly no stranger to criticism, for everything from his unorthodox ecclesiology to his association with prominent “Word-Faith” pastors to his 16,000 sq. ft. mega-mansion. For a run-down on the most recent brouhaha—involving the methods used by Elevation Church to engineer mass baptisms—check out this post by Jeff Wright, pastor of Midway Baptist Church here in Cookeville.

As I’ve seen Jeff’s post and many others like it appear on social media in recent days, there has been one response that seems to insert itself into every comment thread. It goes something like this:

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:18 that we should rejoice whenever the gospel is preached, no matter the motive, so what gives you the right to criticize any Christian pastor?

First of all, let me applaud those who have asked this question. I appreciate arguments made from Scriptural authority, even when I may disagree with someone’s conclusions from that Scripture. But the question for today is, does Philippians 1:18 mean that we are never to call out pastors who we believe to be in error?

Let’s turn to J. Gresham Machen, who addressed this very question in his book Christianity and Liberalism (my review) way back in 1923:

In short, the rival preachers made of the preaching of the gospel a means to the gratification of low personal ambition; it seems to have been about as mean a piece of business as could well be conceived. But Paul was not disturbed. “Whether in pretence, or in truth,” he said, “Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, ye, and will rejoice” (Phil. i. 18). The way in which the preaching was being carried on was wrong, but the message itself was true; and Paul was far more interested in the content of the message than in the manner of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive a finer piece of broad-minded tolerance.

But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance, for example, in Galatia. There, too, there were rival preachers. But Paul had no tolerance for them. “But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. i. 8). What is the reason for the difference in the apostle’s attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia? The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome, Paul was tolerant, because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul’s attitude. (p. 22, emphasis mine)

So whether it’s Furtick or any other pastor, the real question is whether the Jesus he preaches is the real one. If so, then our task is to correct with gentleness whatever errors may be present in his teaching. If not, our task is to warn sheep about the wolf in the fold.

What to Think About KONY 2012

By now, many of you have probably seen the short film “KONY 2012”, which has had well over 60 million views since being published to the Internet Monday by the nonprofit group “Invisible Children”. It’s been making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook about as fast as anything I’ve ever seen, and has been generating a lot of talk. In case you haven’t seen it, I hope you’ll take the time to watch it here (but stick around for a bit of discussion afterward):

What are we to make of all this? Here are a couple of my thoughts.

First, the good:

  • This video is really well done. This is an example of how great art has the power to move people to action, and potentially to bring about cultural and political change on a global scale.
  • There is also something very powerful about a moving visual presentation to force people to engage with an issue they might otherwise overlook. We might compare it to the efforts of William Wilberforce to show people (he also targeted influential culture- and policy-makers) the horrors of slavery first hand, through various means such as showing them up close the conditions under which slaves were transported across the oceans.
  • Surely, if there has ever been a nonpartisan issue worth supporting, it is bringing down the man responsible for these unthinkable crimes. While there may be disagreement as to how it ought to be done, hopefully everyone can agree that seeing Joseph Kony brought to justice in 2012 would be a good thing.

Next, some reservations:

  • I’m not going to rush to send money to an organization about which I know nothing. “Invisible Children” may turn out to be a very worthwhile cause, but the track record of financial accountability and effectiveness of similar humanitarian organizations is not great. Is a monthly donation to IC the best way for me to get personally involved in improving the plight of children in Central Africa? Maybe it is, but I don’t know enough to make that judgment yet. But even some very superficial preliminary research turns up results that aren’t very promising.
  • I have no way to fact-check this video, and would like to give those who can do this the opportunity to do so. Already, articles like this one (published last year after Obama deployed U.S. Troops to Uganda) and this one (from back in 2009) call many of the video’s statistics into question.
  • The question of responsibility for dealing with international humanitarian violations is a complex one. Absolutely, Joseph Kony is a bad man, but there are many bad men. Is it the responsibility of the American government/military to bring them to justice? I would lean toward saying “no”. Let me balance that out, though, with the caveat that if our country is going to use the military to intervene overseas, I’d much rather see us helping foreign nationals apprehend a criminal than waging unconstitutional preemptive wars and maintaining an active military presence all over the world. Also, a democratically-driven and Congressionally-approved use of force (which the video advocates) is far preferable to the Executive Order when it comes to putting our troops in harm’s way.
  • I’m skeptical that a few million Facebook posts are going to make much of a difference. After all, it’s not like this guy was a total unknown last week. I first learned of Joseph Kony back in 2006, and as the video itself shows, he has been the #1 Most Wanted criminal since the International Criminal Court put together their list. Will a bunch of young people (who probably can’t find Uganda on a map) giving money to a filmmaker really help apprehend him?
  • So far, I’ve been granting the film’s premise that apprehending Joseph Kony is actually what is going to best help those he has hurt. My biggest reservation is that I really don’t think that this is what the people of Central Africa need most (and neither does this survivor of Kony’s atrocities). For those moved to compassion for the people victimized by Kony (and the many other warlords like him), there are many other reputable charities with a very long track record of real success.

A few other assorted observations:

  • Because I try to never miss an opportunity to point out what an uninformed windbag Rush Limbaugh is, the beguilingly popular “conservative” talk show host accused President Obama of sending American troops to “wipe out Christians in Uganda”, after defending Kony and the LRA as a Christian organization with valiant objectives. How anyone can ever take this guy seriously is beyond me.
  • It never ceases to amaze me how inconsistently pro-life almost all Americans seem to be. Many on the political Left rightly accuse conservatives of only caring about children until they are born, and showing very little concern for the plight of children like those highlighted in the video. Yet the fact that this video has garnered so much attention makes me wonder how our nation as a whole can be so blind to the fact that America legally slaughters more children each month than Kony has abducted in 30 years.

At the very least I will be interested to see whether or not this video campaign succeeds in maintaining the level of interest it has generated in its first week. Will people continue to care about Joseph Kony after the novelty has worn off?

For some more well-thought reading on the topic, please check out these articles:

  • Breathe — Tim Challies also counsels patience in discerning the value of the KONY 2012 campaign
  • Missions 101 — Darren Carlson, a fellow former CAMP-of-the-WOODS music staffer, is now the president of a missions organization called “Training Leaders International” (affiliated with Bethlehem Baptist Church and Desiring God Ministries). His thoughts and reflections on this topic are excellent.
  • Growing Outrage in Uganda Over the Film — Apparently the people in Uganda aren’t too thrilled about this thing.
  • Why You Should Feel Awkward About the KONY 2012 Film — Which accuses the filmmakers of appealing to the “white man’s burden complex”
  • Invisible Children’s Response to Critique — In the interest of fairness, be sure as well to check out the filmmakers’ responses to many of these criticisms in their own words.

After-Birth Abortions

Continuing the recent theme of the consequences of ideas, let me comment briefly on an article that I’ve seen shared by several people on Twitter and Facebook today.

Online news source The Blaze published an article yesterday drawing attention to a paper entitled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” published in the online edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Basically (in case you haven’t read the Blaze article), two ethicists from Australia argue that if an abortion of a fetus is allowable, so should be the termination of a newborn.

They are exactly right, of course.

But the inverse, logically, must also be true. If it is wrong to kill a newborn, then it is also wrong to abort a fetus. If folks are uncomfortable with the idea of infanticide but have no problem with abortion, then it is up to them to figure out exactly what changes when that baby — excuse me,  “potential person” — exits the birth canal.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

The main thing that concerns me in all this is how surprised many people seem to be about it. Peter Singer, who is one of the world’s most influential ethicists (and a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, where one of the ethicists who wrote the paper works), has been saying this for decades. Most Christians just haven’t been paying attention.

Singer has long advocated for euthanasia, abortion, and infanticide based on his theory of applied ethics (known as “utilitarian personism”), which states that human beings are not “persons” unless they have the ability to exercise preference (or, as he terms it, “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”). Therefore newborns, those with profound mental disabilities, and people with dementia do not qualify as “persons”; thus, there is nothing ethically wrong with killing them. Similarly, it is ethically right to assist anyone who DOES prefer death in committing suicide.

You might think a guy who teaches that we should be able to kill babies, the infirm, and the disabled — just because we’d rather not have to care for them (a waste of resources as he sees it) — would be locked up, right? But this guy has been a department chair at one of our Ivy League schools for 12 years, and guest lectures all over the world. He won “Humanist of the Year” back in 2004.

Interestingly enough, Singer DOES believe that it is ethically dubious to eat animals, though it is NOT ethically wrong to have sex with them… so long as you aren’t cruel to the animal.

This is precisely the reason why I believe it is so important for Christians to be aware of what is going on in fields such as philosophy and bioethics. When we stay blissfully ignorant of ethical developments in Academia, it is often much too late to effectually influence society by the time we are confronted by the ramifications of these developments “downstream”.

For those of you who have never heard of Peter Singer or “after-birth abortion”: welcome to the discussion! Below is a good interview that will introduce you to the man known as “the world’s most influential living philosopher”, or “the most dangerous man in the world”, depending on who you ask. You might also be interested in researching his books Animal Liberation (1975) and Practical Ethics (1979), both now considered “classics” in the field of ethics.

I am grateful for the Humanitas Project, a local organization led by Mike Poore that is committed to staying intellectually “upstream”  on difficult issues related to Christianity and culture. Over the past several years, our weekly book discussions and monthly guest lectures have profoundly influenced my own thinking on bioethics and many other issues. If you’re interested in getting in on this conversation, I highly encourage you to plan on attending some of these debates. Here is the info on the next two:

Friday, March 23 – “The Postmodern Challenge: Evangelizing the Apathetic,” Tom Mahler

At the beginning of the 21st Century, one of the greatest challenges Christians face is apathy.  The Gospel is rejected, not through hostility but by lack of interest.  Is it possible to reach people who don’t seem to care?

Friday, April 20 – “Transhumanism: Why Christians Must Oppose ‘One of the World’s Most Dangerous Ideas’,” Michael Poore

 Christians often fail to spot trends and ideas until after they’ve had a deep impact on the culture. Transhumanists advocate using modern medical technology to “seize control of human evolution” and guide the development of posthumans—beings that have overcome human limitations of death, disease, and intelligence. How can Christians utilize new medical technologies to maintain health and yet oppose their use when they undermine human dignity?

Admission:  Free
Location:  Cody Hall – Nashville State Community College, 1000 Neal Street, Cookeville, Tennessee
Time:  7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
Contact:  Michael Poore, Director, The Humanitas Project, (931) 239-8735, mpoore@humanitas.org

Music and the Undisciplined Mind

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I’ve nearly finished the book Future Men by Douglas Wilson. It is a helpful book on raising sons, and I have really enjoyed it.

This morning I’d like to share a quote from the book, where Pastor Wilson is discussing the importance of cultivating discernment in boys and young men with regard to the type of music, movies, and art they choose to consume. In this instance, the same could be said for daughters as well:

Of course production in pop culture can frequently be quite demanding but the consumption of it rarely is. Take a series of examples in several different areas. The music of Bach is of course demanding to perform, but it also makes demands on the listener. This is why the undisciplined mind avoids such music; it invites thought, contemplation, discipline, lots of icky things. More than one rock guitarist is an impressive virtuoso, but the fingerboard display makes no real demands on the hearer, other than a willingness to be blown over. The listener to classical music is impressively engaged; the devotee of such rock music is left, with a ringing in his ears, right where he started.

P.S. – The picture at the top is Pastor Wilson, who is obviously not opposed to playing the guitar!

Steve Jobs, the Secular Prophet

There have been a ton of articles this week about the legacy of Steve Jobs, but this one is by far the best I’ve seen. Not surprising, since it comes from the virtual pen of Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making.

Steve Jobs was extraordinary in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (demanding and occasionally ruthless) leader. But his most singular quality was his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and turned it into a sign of promise and progress.

That bitten apple was just one of Steve Jobs’s many touches of genius, capturing the promise of technology in a single glance. The philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed that technology promises to relieve us of the burden of being merely human, of being finite creatures in a harsh and unyielding world. The biblical story of the Fall pronounced a curse upon human work—”cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” All technology implicitly promises to reverse the curse, easing the burden of creaturely existence. And technology is most celebrated when it is most invisible—when the machinery is completely hidden, combining godlike effortlessness with blissful ignorance about the mechanisms that deliver our disburdened lives.

Read the rest here.

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