What is the Church’s Social Responsibility?

I believe the primary mission of the local church to the lost is to provide not material, but spiritual relief by proclaiming the good news of eternal life by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In times of crisis, our primary mission as the local church is to offer comfort, hope, and biblical counsel to help people respond to trials and suffering in a way that glorifies God and helps them grow to better know, love, and follow Christ.

This position is rather unpopular in our current climate, especially in light of the recent conversations surrounding social justice and the gospel. One of the issues that I’ve seen rise to the surface in the midst of the vitriolic attack, debate, and defense of the SJ&G Statement, is a failure to distinguish between an individual Christian’s responsibility and interaction with the world, and the local church as a corporate body holding the keys of the kingdom. That distinction is crucial in understanding our role in the community, culture, political sphere, and world.

It’s challenging to sort through the various factors at play in seeking to understand the church’s social responsibility, and especially difficult to articulate this position, for a number of reasons. I encourage you to prayerfully consider this list of resources as you seek to understand the church’s responsibility, our responsibility as individual Christian citizens, and the relationship between evangelism and material aid.

The Social Responsibility of the Local Church and the Mission of Missions

Series on Christians, the Church, and Culture

Are All Biblical Commands Corporate?

My Church Loves the Poor, So I Don’t Have To

Discontinuity, Israel, and the Church

Mercy Ministry is not Kingdom Work

Responding to Tragedy by Giving Money (practical steps)

The Call to Minister to the Poor

Dispensationalism, Keller, and the Poor

Biblical Pillars of Mercy Ministry

Examples of Mercy Ministry

What’s Wrong With the Recent Evangelical “Social Justice” Movements?

“Churches” or “Christians” and Culture?

How Christians and Churches Prioritize Going About the Doing of Good

Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex

The Social Responsibility of the Church (PDF by Benware)

Problems with Social Action in Missions (Cripplegate Series):

Missions: Ecclesiology with a Passport

2 Problems with Social Action in Missions

8 Problems with the Theory of “Social Action” Missions

8 Problems [part 2]

So, What is the Mission of Missions?

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More Than You Wanted on Social Justice

The recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel has sparked an abundance of articles both in praise and critique of the statement at various levels, and from various angles. Allow me to point you toward some of the notables for those who are following this conversation or would like to understand the issue in more depth.

First, Tom Ascol wrote (on the day the statement was released) some short reflections on his involvement with the conception of the document.

I must also begin by recommending the articles being put out by the SJ&G website itself. Primarily from the original team involved with the statement, there are some excellent articles on the site addressing different aspects of the social justice controversy in more detail. So far, they have published some good articles on things like the nature of division and unity in the church, the problem with being “woke,” and the sufficiency of Scripture. You can find all the articles here.

And don’t forget about John MacArthur’s recent series on the fallacies of social justice.

Toby Sumpter has given a simple, but thoughtful and very helpful defense of the statement in this post—correcting the detractors, but being careful not to make the statement more than it was meant to be.

There has, of course, been a tsunami of articles attacking the statement. I’m going to, for the purposes of this post, ignore the responses that have come from those who are precisely the ones the statement is addressing. I’ll also leave out those responses that are simply unreasonable. However, there have been a few articles that have reasonable and helpful critiques that are worth being aware of.

Here is the first article I saw, in which Steve Hays explains why he decided not to sign the statement.

T. Neil Daugherty gives some thoughts from a Christian Libertarian perspective here.

Michael Bird also offers some critiques of the statement here. As I’ve said before, Bird is one of my favorite theologians (of those with whom I often disagree). His critiques are worth reading, but again, he falls into some of the same traps as other “balanced” voices. For example, Bird notes that salvation includes good news for the marginalized and oppressed. Of course, the problem in this whole conversation is that most of the players seem to be running on established assumptions concerning the definition of “marginalized,” the identity of the “oppressed” groups, and the kind and severity of the oppression. That’s precisely what Aniol and others would like to challenge.

Bird also mishandles Luke 4:16-21, but it’s a common interpretation he goes with. There, and several other times in the article, Bird betrays a faulty hermeneutic that leans postmillennial. He also suggests that any attempt to pursue true justice necessarily entails the approach and philosophy of the social justice movement.

To quote James: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV). To do that kind of stuff requires a social justice approach!

Not quite. Again, Bird misunderstands the SJ&G Statement’s very point of contention—that a genuine pursuit of justice does not mandate the methodology and “approach” of the social justice craze, and that, in fact, we may radically differ on our definitions of what justice will even look like for various individuals and groups.

That being said, Bird then has some quite helpful criticisms of Union Seminary’s radical progressivist response to the SJ&G Statement. Even when I disagree with his stance, I’ve always appreciated Bird’s ability to honestly push against both sides and look for the balance.

In this post, the author addresses two of the more prominent negative responses to the Statement, and explains why she decided to sign it.

Along that vein, Doug Wilson has also responded to McDurmon’s critique with some helpful thoughts of his own here, here, and (a valuable and insightful addition to the discussion) here.

Josh Buice explains his involvement with the statement here, and writes on feminism, liberation theology, and the sufficiency of Scripture, here.

And I’ll end, for now, by directing you back to an article on the SJ&G website again.

Some find The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel unhelpful and behind the times. “It is not sensitive to the present moment” they say. “It is not strategic” is the word on the street. But our Lord did not tell us to go into all the world and “be strategic.” He told us to go and make disciples, teaching them to obey all his commands. A rebellious world has always found that commission distasteful.

Can Christians be unnecessarily combative? Of course. But the fact that some have leveled that claim against the careful and measured statement on social justice and the gospel warrants what theologians in days gone by have called the hearty horse laugh. — Jared Longshore

I’m sure I’ll come back around to the topic a few more times. But what about you? Have you found any of the discussion surrounding social justice and the SJ&G Statement helpful? Frustrating? Enlightening? What are some other articles, authors, and pastors that you’ve found to offer valuable wisdom?

 


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The Gospel of Social Justice

“Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.” If the doctrines of God’s Word are not uncompromisingly reasserted and defended at these points, there is every reason to anticipate that these dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values will spread their influence into other realms of biblical doctrines and principles.” — The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

The topic of so-called “social justice” has exploded on the evangelical scene in recent months. There has been a subtle yet dangerous conversation growing amongst evangelical leaders, including many conservative evangelical pastors and theologians for whom I have great respect, concerning the issue of social justice—tying it perilously close to the very essence of the gospel itself.

In some ways, this has been going on for several years, with leaders like Tim Keller and Russell Moore being on the cutting edge of evangelical compromise with progressivist ideology. But the roots have spread into almost every corner of the evangelical world of late, making the issue of social justice something significant enough, and often complicated and confusing enough, that a few strong, conservative men have found it necessary to take a stand for the pure gospel.

A few of those men, including Voddie Baucham, John MacArthur, Josh Buice, and Phil Johnson, recently met in Dallas to compose a statement of official affirmations and denials, in the format of the Chicago statements, addressing their primary concerns and the dangers of the social justice movement, the biblical truth of the gospel, and the proper Christian response to this growing movement. This will probably become a very important statement (already being dubbed by some “the Dallas Statement”—I hope that sticks), and it will certainly separate out those who are willing to stand for the truth of God’s Word over against man’s word, and those who are willing to reinterpret God’s Word for the sake of “respectability” and having a seat at the secular table.

The one critique I have, at this point, is the way they use the term “racism” in article XIV, with little definition or clarification. This is a word that’s been weaponized to make Christians, white people, and men, feel guilty for being so, and thus required to apologize perpetually for sins they didn’t commit in order to atone for their existence in a condition they didn’t choose (and if you have the combination of all three—Christian white man—you’re probably the literal spawn of Satan). Anyway, racism is a rather muddled word these days, so some clarification would have been helpful. For a good discussion of the issue of racism and racial “reconciliation” or harmony, see Doug Wilson’s book of essays entitled Black and Tan.

For more information on the issue of social justice from a biblical perspective, I’d recommend this series from John MacArthur, and this article from Religious Affections. Religious Affections also has some links to other relevant articles in that post; I promise if you follow the links you will find a goldmine of information on the Christian perspective on culture, cultural engagement, and related issues. You may also find this article helpful, in which Josh Buice explains why he partook in the project and attached his name and reputation to the statement. Doug Wilson has posted his thoughts on the statement and related issure here. And, lastly, I have a post coming up soon in which I’ll point you to a number of articles that deal well with the question specifically of the church’s responsibility to the poor.

There will, undoubtedly, be a great deal of criticism aimed at this statement and the men who’ve written it. I’m sure there are some critiques that will be legitimate. It would have been beneficial if they had gone deeper into several of the issues addressed; but overall, the statement is well-written as far as it goes, and it will be helpful in what it does touch on. There have already been accusations of divisiveness hurled at these men, and certainly there will be some division as a result of this statement and the surrounding conversation—after all, doctrine divides precisely because truth is, by definition, exclusive.

Yet I’m thankful for the stand these men have taken, and I think this statement, despite any potential shortcomings, will still serve as an important document to spark conversation and reflection, and give valuable expression to the biblical worldview that many Christians know in their hearts to be true, but would have a difficult time articulating themselves had not wise men come together to clearly defend the purity of the gospel in an age when believers want their ears tickled and their feelings validated.

The other unfortunate reality you may notice is the lack of any more of the prominent, respected pastors and theologians as drafters or signers. The sad reason for this absence is that these very same prominent and respected Christian leaders are the ones who are giving in to the compromise, and leading the slide toward progressive, soft, trendy, “respectable” Christianity. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many Christian leaders have not signed the statement. They are the reason a statement like this is even necessary in the first place.

I’ll come back to update this post as I learn more. There’s also now, due to popular demand (myself being one of those who requested a copy to share), a PDF copy of the statement available for download to save, share, post at your church, etc.

I encourage you to take the time to read this important statement, and, if you’re a pastor and you believe you’re able, to add your name to it.

“Our hope is the clear sounding of the gospel. We must be heralds of truth—not political ideas or cultural trends… Far too often people are unwilling to stand for the gospel publicly because they are afraid of rebuke, criticism, and the loss of support for their ministry. Many people are willing to work long hours on their ministry strategy in order to protect their brand and their image, but they’re unwilling to subject themselves to heavy criticism that could potentially cause their brand to lose support in the end. Interestingly enough, Jude never says to protect your ministry strategy. The calling for Christians is to contend for the gospel. Jesus never promised us an easy life without trouble. In fact, he promised us much worse.” — Josh Buice

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Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 1]

The question of whether a Christian should consume alcohol remains one of the most hotly debated issues in evangelicalism today. As Pastor John MacArthur puts it, “there have been few periods of history in which the drinking of alcoholic beverages has not been an issue of disagreement and debate.”[1] With loved and respected pastors and scholars on both sides of the issue, it can sometimes be a daunting task to attempt to arrive at a conclusion. In recent years, there has been a resurgence, most noticeably within the “Young, Restless and Reformed” crowd, of conservative evangelicals who not only partake in drinking alcohol, but openly celebrate their freedom to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that Christians should never consume alcohol. Of course, there are also Christians all along this spectrum as well.

John MacArthur and Norman Geisler are two well-known scholars who have taught that Christians should never consume alcohol. Dr. Geisler has two articles entitled “To Drink or not to Drink: A Sober Look at the Question,” and “A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking.” Dr. MacArthur has spoken and written on the subject numerous times, but perhaps most comprehensively in his commentary on the book of Ephesians. Unfortunately, rather than appealing to primary historical sources, both Geisler and MacArthur have relied predominantly on a single article from Christianity Today, written by Dr. Robert Stein, entitled, “Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times.”

What I’d like to do in the next several posts therefore, is to examine Dr. Stein’s use of ancient Greco-Roman sources, namely, Homer, Pliny, Athanaeus, and Plutarch, in support of his claim that the wine spoken of in the New Testament is fundamentally different than the wine of today. It is not necessarily my purpose right now to argue a particular theological position on the issue of drinking, but simply to critique Dr. Stein’s use of historical sources in the support of his position.

The Argument

The Bible clearly teaches that drunkenness, or being given to alcohol, is wrong (e.g. Prov 20:1; Isa 28:1; Eph 5:18; Titus 1:7; 2:3; Gal 5:21; 1 Cor 6:10) — however, because the Bible does not explicitly condemn the drinking of alcohol, but rather even speaks positively of it at times (e.g. Amos 9:14; Isa 55:1; Dan 10:3; Deut 14:26; Ps 104:14-15; Eccl 9:7), the approach taken by Stein (as well as MacArthur and Geisler) is to posit that biblical wine (that is, the wine of which the Bible speaks) was fundamentally different than modern wine.

This topic may seem like a terribly boring study of some dry and dusty dead people, with no real implication for every-day life. But the reason I think this is an important thing to look into today is that pastors use this argument all the time to argue that Christians are not free to drink alcohol. If the wine the Bible speaks of was actually watered down so much that it was nothing like modern wine, then any argument from Scripture claiming that a Christian is free to drink alcohol is utterly moot, due to the essential dissimilarity between ancient and modern wine. MacArthur begins his commentary on Ephesians 5:18 with this point, saying,

Many sincere, Bible honoring Christians justify their drinking wine on the basis of its being an acceptable practice both in the Old and New Testaments. But if the kind of wine used then was different from that used today, then application of the biblical teaching concerning wine will also be different.[2]

Stein also introduces his article by saying, “…the Bible was not written to evangelicals living in the twentieth century… If we do not seek first to understand what the text meant when it was written, it will be very difficult to interpret intelligently what it means and demands of us today.” Stein then proceeds in his article to draw upon several ancient Greco-Roman sources in order to support his claim of the fundamental difference between ancient and modern wine. Specifically, he argues that alcohol in the ancient world was so watered down that drunkenness was next to impossible.[3]

It is rather clear that wine in the Old Testament was not in fact watered down. On the contrary, “wine diluted with water became symbolic of spiritual adulteration (Isa. 1:22).”[4] Dr. Stein’s article however, and thus the focus of this series, is on the practices surrounding the New Testament era regarding wine. So what I’d like to do is to simply examine Stein’s use of his sources as he comes to them, evaluating whether he arrives at his points from a legitimate reading of the historical source, keeping in line with the context and intention of the original writer. Next time, we’ll look at Homer’s Odyssey, and see what kind of wine Homer says was mixed with twenty parts water to one part wine!


Footnotes:

[1] MacArthur, John. “5:18a.” In Ephesians. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986. Page 229.

[2] MacArthur, 235.

[3] And, therefore, this is why the Bible allowed for Christians to drink. But since the wine of today is so alcoholic, and it is so easy to get drunk from drinking it, Christians should still abstain totally (you can see how this plays out in churches everywhere today).

[4] Tenney, Merrill C. “Wine.” In The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 5, Q-Z. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.

Phil Johnson Interview [Part 3]

I recently had the honor and privilege of asking Phil Johnson, a well-known and accomplished writer, blogger, editor and preacher, several questions about ministry, practical church issues, theological concerns etc. Phil was gracious enough to take the time to respond and interact fully with all my questions.

Below are the last few questions. The first set of questions dealt with Phil’s personal life and ministry. In the second part of the interview, Phil talked about Strange Fire, second-degree separation, and addressing errors from the pulpit. In this final set of questions, Phil talks about church discipline, addressing errors with grace, and more.

My questions are in bold, with Phil’s responses in regular text.


Phil Johnson is the Executive Director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981, and edits most of pastor John’s books. But he may be best known for several popular websites he maintains, including The Spurgeon Archive, The Hall of Church History, and (formerly) the Pyromaniacs blog. Phil has a bachelor’s degree in theology from Moody Bible Institute (class of 1975) and was an editor at Moody Press before joining Grace Community Church. He is an elder at Grace Church and pastors the GraceLife fellowship group. Phil and his wife, Darlene, have three adult children and five grandchildren.

____________________________________________________________

Could you briefly explain the role and importance of church discipline in the life of the local church?

                  Proper biblical discipline is as essential as proper exposition of the Word of God for purity in the fellowship of God’s people. It’s a command, not an option. See 1 Corinthians 5.

Speaking of church discipline, I see people (adults, as well as kids in our youth group) often posting pictures or even bragging about sinful activities on Facebook and Twitter. If I find out about a sin pattern a brother or sister in Christ is letting the world know about, how do I respond? Do I confront them on these things? What is our responsibility in these situations?

The person who is concerned about this should confront the offender privately, not in the comment-section of some public forum. We all know that the temptation to speak unwisely in social media is HUGE, and pastors and churches simply cannot (and should not) spend time policing their members’ Twitter feed or Facebook page. But our duty to one another as Christians is to hold one another accountable when we do see something truly sinful or shameful. Our first response should not be to report the infraction to the pastor; each Christian should fulfill his duty as a fellow believer and go to the person alone. Admonitions about things like this are best when they are spontaneous feedback from friends and fellow church members. And most people, when admonished, will remove any overtly sinful material.

If the sin is truly egregious and the offender refuses to repent or correct the wrong, it may become necessary to bring church leadership into the matter and follow the steps of church discipline. But I would think this should be very rare. Indiscretions on social media aren’t really the sort thing churches should be regularly threatening people with discipline over.

What is your position on a pastor who is found to have been living in immorality? Even after repentance and restoration to fellowship, should that pastor ever be restored to the eldership?

Proverbs 6:33 says the reproach of sexual sin can’t ever be completely wiped away. Since the overarching requirement for elders is that the man “must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2), it would seem to me that adultery, fornication, or any equivalent kind of scandalous marital infidelity or sexual sin would be permanently disqualifying.

What advice would you give regarding critiquing/answering those in one’s own camp about errors in doctrine, attitude, or behavior, in a gracious and loving manner?

Always attack bad ideas, not the people who propagate them. Be as vigorous as you like in denouncing fallacies and refuting errors. In extreme cases, sarcasm or ridicule can be legitimate tools for showing the fallacy of terribly wrong ideas (1 Kings 18:27). But never stoop to mere personal insults or bare ad hominem just for the sheer pleasure of degrading or humiliating an enemy.

It’s true that no matter how careful you try to be, in these postmodern times, you will automatically face critics who will accuse you of being cruel and unkind (or arguing ad hominem) any time you point out the fallacies of someone else’s beliefs. Don’t be swayed by those accusations if they are false.

On the other hand, don’t be guilty of merely trying to injure or abuse the person whom you disagree with. “Speak evil of no one . . . avoid quarreling . . . be gentle, and . . . show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:2-3).

That’s a universal guideline. When circumstances make it necessary to voice reproof, dissent, or criticism publicly and the person whose views you are refuting is a friend and partner in ministry, an extra dose of grace to season the rebuke is surely in order.

What Systematic Theology have you found most helpful?

They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Grudem is good, except for his charismatic slant. Robert Culver’s massive tome is probably the one I agree with most, but he’s awfully wordy. I frequently turn to Berkhof (because that was our textbook in theology when I was a student). Strong (though sometimes wrong) is a gold mine for good quotes and helpful insights. If I were sent to prison and permitted only two volumes, I suppose I would choose Grudem and Berkhof. But I would be loath to give up Culver.

What is one of your favorite books on apologetics?

That’s a tough one. I suppose Faith & Reason by Ronald Nash. But I’m not an avid reader of books on apologetics, either.

Any quick word of advice for those of us in seminary? What is something that many beginning pastors, perhaps coming right out of seminary, struggle with?

The most valuable thing about seminary is that it equips you with study tools. Don’t imagine that it makes you an expert in the practical side of pastoring. This is an empirical observation, so take it for what it’s worth, but it seems to me that the main reason for failure among seminary graduates is that they enter their first pastorate with the attitude of a know-it-all. They tend to be aggressive and unyielding, and those qualities, blended with inexperience, are a surefire recipe for failure. Don’t fall into that trap.


 Phil, thanks so much for taking the time to interact with me on these questions. I really appreciate the responses; it was an honor.

Phil Johnson Interview [Part 2]

I recently had the honor and privilege of asking Phil Johnson, a well-known and accomplished writer, blogger, editor and preacher, several questions about ministry, practical church issues, theological concerns etc. Phil was gracious enough to take the time to respond and interact fully with all my questions.

Below are just a few of those questions. Read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here. Phil talks about his personal life and ministry, church discipline, addressing doctrinal error, and more!

My questions are in bold, with Phil’s responses in regular text.


Phil Johnson is the Executive Director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981, and edits most of pastor John’s books. But he may be best known for several popular websites he maintains, including The Spurgeon Archive, The Hall of Church History, and (formerly) the Pyromaniacs blog. Phil has a bachelor’s degree in theology from Moody Bible Institute (class of 1975) and was an editor at Moody Press before joining Grace Community Church. He is an elder at Grace Church and pastors the GraceLife fellowship group. Phil and his wife, Darlene, have three adult children and five grandchildren.

________________________________________________________

What, in your opinion, are one or two of the most pressing theological threats to evangelicalism today?

Here are three: 1) Apathy about sound doctrine; 2) the utterly false notion that if the gospel is properly contextualized no one will be offended by it; and 3) a ministry philosophy based on worldly values.

What is the importance and impact of a conference such as the Strange Fire conference?

The goal is to bring a note of clarity to fundamental truths like the authority and reliability of Scripture. With wave after wave of outlandish chicanery coming from the charismatic movement (on the one hand), and (on the other hand) so much confusion left in the wake of postmodern “emergence religion”—someone desperately needs to speak a word or two of correction without hedging, and no one else seemed to want to.

In the scope of large-scale evangelical opinion, we are merely a whispered voice of dissent—and every effort will be made to silence that whisper. People who claim to be “Spirit-filled” and people who tout the virtues of tolerance are awfully quick to get angry, aren’t they? That’s because in a culture like ours where diversity, inclusivity, and tranquility are deemed higher values than truth, there will be strong resistance to any message that exposes the fallacies of popular opinions—or unmasks fraud in popular movements. But we persist. It’s a matter of biblical conviction and conscience.

Aside from being informative for those who already agree with the conference’s position, what kind of impact do these conferences have on people who may disagree? Do these kinds of conferences effectively persuade and lead people to the truth?

A conference like “Strange Fire” isn’t going to stymie the wholesale charlatans or slow down the large movement much. But it does help lots of individuals who are caught up in prosperity teaching or other charismatic doctrinal oddities. And a voice of biblical clarity is a much-needed lifeline for discouraged souls who have been told they didn’t get healing through some fault of their own—a deficiency in their faith; failure to sow a generous enough seed offering; or whatever. Those are sinister teachings, and they need to be opposed and denounced regardless of whether this or that person or group might be pleased, persuaded, or provoked.

Nevertheless, people are influenced for good. I have met dozens of people in the months since the “Strange Fire” conference who have told me that the conference helped change their thinking and led them out of charismatic confusion. Just last week I spoke at an event on the east coast where I met one family who had left a prosperity-gospel-style church because of what they learned at “Strange Fire.” I also met another woman who told me “Strange Fire” gave her the courage to face what her conscience had always been telling her: that there was nothing supernatural about her “tongues-speaking”; she was just saying random nonsense syllables. She’d been afraid to question what she was doing, lest she be guilty of an unpardonable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But to her surprise, when she finally confessed the truth, her soul was uplifted by a great sense of liberty, and her passion for Scripture was now greater than ever. One case like that would be worth all the scorn that has been aimed our way in the blogosphere. But I know there are thousands more like her, because we hear from such people almost every day.

By the way, despite the noisy public controversy about “Strange Fire,” the direct feedback we have received (letters and e-mails sent directly to Grace to You) has been almost completely positive.

How much would you agree with, or qualify, the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity?”

That would take a much longer answer than I can give in a paragraph or two. In short, I do completely agree with the famous cliché, as long as we have a proper understanding of what’s essential and what’s secondary. Most believers simply do not know where to draw the line. John MacArthur dealt with this issue in Chapter 4 of Reckless Faith. (Reprinted in chapter 6 of Truth Matters.) I agree with him.

What is your opinion on 2nd or 3rd degree separation? How do you discern between those whom we may associate with or minister alongside of, and those pastors, churches, organizations or theologians who are too far left or compromising to endorse or associate with?

Again, that’s a huge issue that would require volumes to cover adequately. First-degree separation is clearly commanded in 2 Corinthians 6:14. There is no place for spiritual partnerships with unbelievers. But what do we do with disobedient believers? In a perfect world, a stubbornly unrepentant person would be excommunicated from the church—in effect making separation automatic. But we all know instances (including some very high-profile cases) where church leaders have sinned, compromised on some crucial point, or done things that ought to disqualify them from church leadership—yet they have stayed in their pastoral role. Their sin is sometimes even celebrated or waved around like a banner by people in their churches.

Suppose a well-known minister has publicly embraced and formally affirmed a well-known Sabellian heretic (or some theological miscreant of similar enormity). Or suppose it comes to light out that a celebrity pastor who has run up a massive debt in his church is also secretly a high-stakes gambler. Now suppose that when his moral turpitude is exposed he remains in his position of leadership and influence. Suppose he is not only unrepentant about his own actions, but also aggressively critical of anyone who refuses to affirm him.

I would never publicly affiliate with someone like that, even if I was fairly confident he himself is a genuine (albeit disobedient) believer in Christ, not an utter apostate.

Some would argue that my refusal to join arms with that guy is a form of second-degree separation. Fine. There are times when separation from a notoriously ill-behaved, over-tolerant, or doctrinally errant fellow Christian is clearly warranted (1 Corinthians 5:10). Separation from a disobedient brother seems even more vital when the disobedient brother is in a prominent position where he might influence people in my own flock. Of course, the ideal would be for the man’s own congregation to correct him or discipline him. But what if they don’t? And let’s be honest here: nowadays, most mainstream evangelicals simply do not demand either holiness or accountability from their leaders—especially those leaders that attain some degree of fame or celebrity status.

It’s a shame churches are so negligent in the duty of spiritual discipline, but the fact that the wider evangelical movement is worldly and impure does not obligate me to pretend that our fellowship in Christ renders all sin moot.

To be clear, I’m not a zealot when it comes to the issue of secondary separation. The meltdown of fundamentalism in the second half of the 20th century shows the danger (and the folly) of making a high degree of separatism the quintessential test of one’s piety or orthodoxy. But I also think the course of neo-evangelicalism during that same period of church history shows the utter fallacy of viewing separation as a sin or a defect rather than an unpleasant necessity. There clearly are times when some kind of “secondary separation” is advisable and justifiable—and even those who say they don’t practice it really do. Rick Warren and Andy Stanley aren’t exactly going out of their way to seek partnership with R. C. Sproul or Al Mohler, are they?

In preaching/teaching from the pulpit, how do you discern when you should name a dangerous/false teacher that may be influencing those in the congregation?

It’s subjective. I should point out that that in my preaching—when I’m handling the word of God—I’m not usually as polemical as I would be on a blog or in an article dealing with some specific point of controversy. But if I am going to be publicly critical about anything (or someone) in a sermon, it should be something truly important, not trivial.

Even then, however, I don’t name names if I can give a description of whatever false teaching or dangerous trend I’m dealing with and be fairly sure that the people who need to know what I’m talking about will understand who or what I have in mind. I don’t like to name names if I can reasonably avoid it. But I don’t shy away from naming names if it is necessary for clarity’s sake.

I realize that calls for a subjective judgment. So be it. But if I err in this, I hope it’s on the side of restraint.


Read part 1 of the interview here, and part 3 here.

Next, I ask Phil about church discipline, addressing doctrinal error, and more!