How Evangelicals Misuse the “G” Word

Nothing fires up some conservative Christians more than a red-meat debate about who is denying, or has denied, the gospel. I know this first-hand because I once engaged in these kinds of debates and contributed to the fires by attributing gospel denial to other Christians. It was painful to do an about-face and even apologize privately and publicly for some of this speaking and writing but I felt I needed to do that given the public nature of my responses.

In the days when I did take this approach it got me a lot of hearty support (from like-minded friends and donors) and brought me great satisfaction that I had vigorously defended the faith. But, I also know about these kinds of controversies, and the incorrect application of the “G” word, because a few evangelicals have accused me of denying the gospel in one form or another. At first it seemed strange to see my name in print as one who had left the faith, or denied the gospel outright. It was genuinely disconcerting, at least initially. But this is not about me, my personal worries or fears. It is really about the health of the whole church. It is about good conservative believers who listen to their respected leaders and then follow them as if they always speak for the truth of Scripture and in defense of the gospel. It is also about soul competency and personal responsibility. And it is about good journalism and appropriate language when controversy strikes in public. Robertson’s inflammatory and rather strained logic warrants a response I am quite sure. The question is about what kind of response and how it should be presented to the public at large.

When these modern “G” word debates arise the ordinary Christian is left in confusion by the language, the personalities and how they engage one another through this contentious form of presentation. The danger to people is clear—if every issue is a “gospel” issue then nothing is really a gospel issue at the end of the day. There are doctrinal issues that are important, sometimes extremely important, but these do not always rise to the level of “gospel” when carefully considered. Personally, I believe that a solid exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 would put an end to much of this confusion. What is needed here is more precise language and more careful concern over the unity of the church in the good news.

It was in this context that I was genuinely amazed when I read a September article posted at the Christianity Today site about Pat Robertson’s now debated comments regarding Alzheimer’s disease and divorce.
BC PHoto My good friend, Bradley Cochran, wrote a provocative and insightful blog on this subject that I post in full as a guest blog. Bradley is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the institution where Dr. Russell Moore, the author of the article on Pat Robertson in Christianity Today, is the Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration. Dr. Moore contributed the Baptist essay to my own edited book Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (Zondervan, 2007). Though we have never met face-to-face I have great regard for Dr. Moore and his keen insights on issues and events that I've found at his blog. I have every reason to respect Dr. Moore personally and believe he has solid academic integrity. But I believe Bradley Cochrane has some insights about this particular controversy that I believe are worthy of serious consideration. This is an honest invitation to those who frequently use the "G" word in public debate to rethink their language and strategy. As important as defending the gospel is we must all realize afresh that preaching and living the gospel takes great precedence over all these battles for the gospel. Often our battles are with fellow Christians when the real battle is "not with flesh and blood" at all. I think of Spurgeon's words about defending the Bible. He said, "Defend it. Why? It is like a lion. Let it out. It can defend itself."

Bradley Cochran is currently completing a post-graduate degree at the University of Dayton and hopes to begin doctoral studies in theology at Dayton in the very near future. We met several years ago and have maintained a very good friendship for some time. He is fair-minded and a bright young scholar. Here was his September 29 blog:

In a recent article by Christianity Today Russell Moore responded to Pat Robertson’s recent comments about divorce.  The title of Moore’s article says it all: “Pat Robertson Repudiates the Gospel.”  In short, Moore’s interpretation of Robertson is that he said Alzheimer’s disease is an “understandable” grounds for a divorce (Moore translated him as having said it was “morally justified”).

Robertson has since claimed that he was misinterpreted and all he meant was this: if a man is going to have an affair with his wife because she has Alzheimer’s he would be better off getting a divorce than to continue having the affair.  This is how I had initially interpreted Pat Robertson’s words before reading Moore’s interpretation, thus I do think Moore was taking his comments out of context.  Yet in fairness to Moore we might still say Robertson was not very careful in how he articulated his view and should have seen this one coming.  Moore has stood by his initial interpretation of Robertson’s remarks and argued that Robertson was now backtracking.

Robertson did not, in fact, say that. He said, “I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again.”

Now when Robertson said “if he’s going to do something,” I took him to mean “If the man is going to continue in an affair” thus addressing a very particular context.  Nevertheless … This post will not be about what he really meant to say or what he really believes, but will (for the sake of argument) assume Moore’s interpretation of Robertson was right.  Here was Moore’s opening words of response:

This week on his television show Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s disease in order to marry another woman. The dementia-riddled wife is, Robertson said, “not there” anymore. This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These are fighting words, and clearly Moore believes he is fighting for the truth of the very gospel itself.  His argument was something like this: because marriage is supposed to be an icon of Christ and the Church, marriage is therefore an icon of the gospel.  This means that if we fail to live up to the standard Christ set for us by loving the church sacrificially and selflessly–even to the point of suffering on a cross to die–we fail to live up to the gospel.  The implication he has obviously drawn is this: to selfishly leave your wife just because she has Alzheimer’s and abandon your calling to suffer with her and take care of her is a failure to live up to the gospel.

But Moore takes it further, arguing that Pat Robertson, by allowing for a divorce in such a situation, has not only failed to live up to the gospel and Christ’s example of loving the Church (something every Christian has done), but he has in fact repudiated the gospel (something not all Christians do).

It’s one thing to fail to live up to Christ’s example in loving the Church in one’s own marriage; I don’t think Moore or virtually any Christian would claim they never stray from Christ’s example.  It’s quite another thing, however, to repudiate the very gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Yet it appears that Moore believes that in this case, Pat Robertson has done both.

Theological Triage

Although I (and so many countless others) disagree strongly with Robertson’s position and would more-or-less agree with most of what Moore has said about why it’s wrong based on the Christ-Church analogy, nevertheless I think the strong words used by Moore in this article do not do justice to the careful distinctions that must be made in light of Al Mohler’s theological triage.  Dr. Mohler has defended Christian unity for a long time by teaching that not all doctrines are equally important (for an animated video clip of his defense click here).  He calls this the process of theological triage.  His initial piece on this appeared in Daniel Akin’s book A Theology for the Church (Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 927-34.  He has most recently written on this topic in the book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011).  As I sight Mohler I will abbreviate my source in parenthesis (V = video, ATC = A Theology for the Church).

In a nut shell, theological triage distinguishes between three orders (or “tiers”) of doctrine: first order, second order, and third order.

In Mohler’s own words, “first-order doctrines are those that are fundamental and essential to the Christian faith” (ATC, 930).  One must believe to be recognized as a fellow Christian, such as the physical bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity.

The second order doctrines are those that “are essential to church life and necessary for the ordering of the local church but that, in themselves, do not define the gospel” (ATC, 931).  The importance of this distinction for Christian unity should be obvious.  Although these doctrines are important enough to divide distinct ecclesial bodies (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc.), they are not important enough to define Christianity per se.  Baptists, for example, don’t have to try to “save” their Presbyterian brothers and sisters or tell them they are not real Christians just because they believe in infant baptism.  Cessationist Baptists can still consider Pentecostals (at least the one’s who still believe in the Trinity) as their brothers and sisters in Christ even if they have serious misgivings about these charismatic churches.  We can have respectful disagreement over these differences as Christians.  As Mohler says, this is because “one may detect an error in a doctrine at this level and still acknowledge that the person in error remains a believing Christian” (ATC, 931).

There is a third tier of doctrines “that may be the ground for fruitful theological discussion and debate but that do not threaten the fellowship of the local congregation or the denomination” (931).  Even Baptists (believe it or not) can disagree over things like eschatology or areas of Calvinism and Arminianism.  Calvinist Baptists and Arminian “Free-Will” Baptists can consider each other as deeply mistaken brothers and sisters in Christ and even be on the same pastoral team.  These also are doctrines over which we can have respectful disagreement.

The Implication of Russell Moore’s Language

According to this theological triage, it would appear that Moore has located Robertson’s position on divorce and remarriage as “first order” in terms of importance.  In other words, it appears that Moore believes that if you have the wrong view of “marriage and divorce,” you are not even a Christian because you have repudiated the gospel.  I strongly and respectfully disagree with Moore on this one, and find his article unnecessarily divisive.  Perhaps if Moore were to read this post he might say “No.  I do not believe Paterson’s view on divorce is a ‘first order’ issue.”  But if so, the strong language he uses certainly has no regard for Mohler’s triage.  Perhaps he might respond by saying that he thinks Robertson has denied the gospel by some other position he takes and not by the particular position on divorce he so aggressively attacks in his article.  But if so, his article certainly makes no such case, but appears to ground his accusation in Robertson’s position on divorce, which would make his article dreadfully misleading.

In surveys that have been done on what people think of Baptists, for so many people the word “Baptist” immediately conjures up the notion of “legalism.”  What I believe fits very well with those statistics.  There is a tendency in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to make every point of strong disagreement a disagreement over “the gospel,” when in reality it’s just a second tier disagreement.  This helps feed the public impression that Baptists are divisive and legalistic.  The word “schismatic” is usually applied to people who tend to be unnecessarily divisive when they disagree with others and are excessive in their criticism of other Christians.  I think this word is appropriate inasmuch as such divisive discourse violates the biblical doctrine of Christian unity (a biblical doctrine you will not find treated at any great length in today’s systematic theological textbooks, but that was actually one of the most fundamental doctrines of the early church).

It is strong enough language that Moore (in the article) calls Robertson a “cartoon character” we evangelicals “allow to speak for us,” and calls his theology “Canaanite mammonocracy.”  But to argue that he has repudiated the gospel by his view on divorce and dementia is going too far and demonstrates the importance of Mohler’s theological triage.

The great challenge for our generation, as Dr. Mohler says, is that we get the “right doctrines in the right tier” not just for the sake of protecting first order doctrines, but for the sake of Christian unity (V).

If we take first order doctrines and make them third order doctrines–disaster will ensue and we will end up abandoning the faith!  If we take third order doctrines and make them first order issues and say “People have to believe this to be a Christian,” then we do violence to the New Testament. (V)

What “tier” should issues of divorce and remarriage fall under?  It seems to answer this question we must consider questions like these: Is it possible for someone to be a Christian and yet be too loose with their divorce policy?

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