the charity of clarity

My class on the Reformation wrapped up today with a look at the Baptist denomination, which arose from within the Puritanism of 17th century England.  Near the end of the class we peeked ahead to the GARBC split from the Northern Baptists in 1932.  As I prepared for the class, I was struck again by the similarities between the liberalism/fundamentalism controversy of the early 20th century and what seems to be happening today. 

Only 1% of the Northern Baptists were considered liberal, but they were able to gain control of the denomination because the majority of Northern Baptists just wanted everyone to get along.  The conservatives pressed for clear doctrinal positions, but they were voted down by the majority as intolerant and divisive. 

Most thought that the conservative call for clarity was unloving.  Why couldn’t they be content with vague generalities?  Didn’t they care that clear statements of faith were bound to divide brothers and sisters who realized in the bright light of clarity that perhaps they disagreed in some important areas?  Better to wink and get along than to be clear and risk breaking the bond of unity.

Isn’t this similar to what is happening today?  Conservatives increasingly are asking key Christian leaders to clearly say what they believe:  must you believe something to be saved?  Is hell for real and forever?  Is the Bible a revelation from God?  Does Scripture teach that homosexual practice is sin? 

Many leaders duck these questions, often answering with another question, saying that these are the wrong questions to ask, or questioning the motive of the person who asked it. 

Here is my question:  which person in this scenario does not love his neighbor?  Many assume it is the one raising the question, for she appears to be the aggressor, putting the leader on the spot.  I propose it is the obfuscating leader, for muddying the waters on purpose demonstrates disrespect for the listener.  Teachers who love their students, pastors who love their people, and authors who love their readers take care to nourish their faith with truth.  Those who conceal their actual beliefs (or bury them in the endnotes) likely care more about their own careers than the followers who depend on them for guidance.

It is not unloving to ask these leaders to clearly spell out what they believe.  Considering the stakes involved, it would be unloving—both to them and to their followers—not to.






22 responses to “the charity of clarity”

  1. Mike,

    I definitely agree — a couple heartening signs along the lines of what you’ve affirmed: 1. the formation of the Gospel Coalition ( with its Confessional Statement and its Theological Vision for Ministry, 2 the recent updating of their doctrinal statement by the Evangelical Free Church, in which they clarified (instead of obfuscated) their theological positions in light of current controversies.


  2. As a pastor in the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches, USA), I can tell you that we’re still fighting against the 1% (more like 15% now) trying to retain control.

    However, I do think that there is something to be said of vagueness in nonessential matters. I was courted by a few GARB churches upon graduating seminary, but their statements of faith were so specific in so many inconsequential areas that I couldn’t sign them. Especially since I was right and they were part of a large group of modern innovators (MI) coming out of England and the US in the mid-late 19th century.


  3. It seems to me that some of our churches and church leaders have bought into our culture’s understanding of tolerance. It is no longer tolerant to disagree with someone else’s views, but still treat them with respect. Tolerance today means you must not make any type of claim that your view is right and someone else’s is wrong. Was this not the problem in Rome in the 1st century? Everyone was OK with Christianity except that Christians were proclaiming Christ as the only way to God.

    When the Church stops preaching that Christ (through his atoning sacrifice) is the only source of salvation, it has lost its message. When you preach that salvation is in “Christ alone”, you are going to be called “intolerant.”

    Having and proclaiming any set of beliefs automatically sets one up to be labeled intolerant, which is exactly what these leaders, authors, and churches want to avoid.

  4. Yooper

    In the March 23, 2008 issue of the Grand Rapids Press there was an interview with Rob Bell that got my attention. As a Christian are we not challenged to be as the Bereans? As a Pastor, teacher or author, ought we not be humbly open to challenges to what we say or think – (with the knowledge that I am fallible and may be wrong)? Or should we just brush such off as coming from mean and angry people, who are filled with fear and misunderstanding?

    The following is taken from the end of the March 23, 2008 interview. Tell me, does this “Pastor”, “teacher” and “author” come across as humble and loving – or divisive?

    “…Bloggers question his substance, his theology, his very Christianity.

    Does it bother him?

    He leans his head back against the wall and thinks about that.

    “Part of it hurts,” he says. “It just hurts. It’s painful. But it’s fear and misunderstanding. These are mean and angry people.”

    Then he laughs.

    “You know, God could give me 50 more years,” he says. “So don’t wind me up. If you’re offended now, I’m just getting going.” ”

  5. I cautiously agree with you, Mike. However, those conservatives that eventually “came out” of the Northern Baptist convention due to doctrinal error back in the 1930’s swung the pendulum too far the other way, even kicking out the post-tribulational folk in the 1950’s, not to mention voting Cedarville out of its primary circle of fellowship a few years ago. They may have been protecting their churches out of love, but soon their zeal for protecting turned into an unhealthy fundamentalism. Somehow those that stand for truth also need to learn from history and guard themselves from the error of protectionism or whatever you call it.

    I’d be interested in knowing how the Northern Baptists (now called the American Baptist convention) has gone since the fighting fundamentalist days (Maybe Zach as an ABC pastor can weigh in on this issue?) Did the Northern Baptists eventually correct itself? Or do they still struggling with the same doctrinal errors?

  6. I think that, sadly, much of the reason the more radical 1% gets a hearing is because they touch a sympathetic nerve in a much larger percentage who have been frustrated by bickering over less essential matters. The way some of these essentially ‘intramural’ debates have been so bitterly handled has, in my eyes, done tremendous damage to the church and driven many away.

    So for example the college student who is turned off by his church’s doctrinal statement explicitly affirming adherance to Dispensationalism and a pre-trib rapture (does anyone really need those sorts of things in a doctrinal statement?) and by leaders who are not giving him room to Biblically and thoughtfully disagree, is probably going to be that much more sympathetic when the central things are challenged as well, like what the nature of God’s Word is, or certain moral/ethical lifestyle standards.

    The issues that divide us, from eschatology, to sign gifts, these things matter, but need to be kept in perspective if we want the younger generation to be able to take our faith seriously.

  7. mikewittmer

    Zach, Joel, and Mason:

    I completely agree with your sentiments. I thought about inserting something about dividing over non-essentials, but thought that it would disrupt the flow of thought and leaving it out would give others an opening to respond.

    My point is that the big important questions call for clarity and confidence. I still think it’s important to be clear about one’s view of eschatology (even if it’s “I’m confused), but we don’t need to require uniformity on this issue with fellow believers to the same extent that we care about the inspiration of Scripture, deity of Christ, the facticity of the resurrection, etc.

  8. Thanks. I am preaching Heb 10:26-31 on Sunday and this is a good reminder going in. My first thought while preparing was that this doesn’t passage doesn’t feel very “Christmasy.” But, what could be more charitable than clarity at Christmas?

    I plan to shamelessly include your wording in the sermon title, something like, “The Charity of Clarity at Christmas.” But, since you get all your material from Journey, I assume this was from an early album in the first place.

  9. tejesse

    1. This brought back memories of Dr. Matthews. One of his things was “love is: respecting a person as a person, put the person in his rightful place in your life and doing the right thing with/by them.” Jesse paraphrased. A personal story about how he showed me that in a class of his. (Too long of a story for here.)

    2. Mason had it right in “because they touch a sympathetic nerve in a much larger percentage who have been frustrated by bickering over less essential matters.” How many Christians have been turned off because of this? And not now only!!!

  10. I agree with most of what you are the comments are saying. However, there is one line I’m not so sure of: “Those who conceal their actual beliefs (or bury them in the endnotes) likely care more about their own careers than the followers who depend on them for guidance.”

    This seems to imply that the tolerance crowd is motivated purely by selfish interests. I’m not so sure that is the case. I think today a large part of the tolerance crowd is very genuinely motivated by tolerance. In other words, tolerance is a foundational issue for them and they believe it dearly.

    So I think you have correctly hit upon the implications of their views, but I’m not sure you’ve hit upon the correct motivation. Tolerance in and of itself is a prime virtue today…

  11. mikewittmer


    Great point. I had someone particular in mind when I wrote that, and should have been more careful than to imply that everyone is that selfish.

    But just to push back a little–and how I justified it in my mind–once someone has made a career of commitment to tolerance, then it does become difficult to always know when they are being tolerant for tolerance sake or because they are on record as being for tolerance.

    Even as I write this, I realize that the same could be said about my commitment to Christianity and even Calvinism. So it’s probably best to say that we should all try to be more self-critical about our motives. Thank you for the reminder.

  12. Yooper

    Agnosticism appears to be running rampant, and dots can be connected to what individuals are filling their minds with. The following from page 26 of “Velvet Elvis” is but one troubling ESSENTIAL that is put into doubt:

    “What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being “born of a virgin” also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?”

  13. I came across this quote from Spurgeon, in relation to the “Down-Grade” controversy in his own time:

    “It is a great grief to me that hitherto many of our most honoured friends in the Baptist Union have, with strong determination, closed their eyes to serious divergencies from truth. I doubt not that their motive has been in a measure laudable, for they desired to preserve peace, and hoped that errors, which they were forced to see, would be removed as their friends advanced in years and knowledge.

    “But at last even these will, I trust, discover that the new views are not the old truth in a better dress, but deadly errors with which we can have no fellowship….”

    — cited by Iain Murray in “The Forgotten Spurgeon” (Banner of Truth) p. 152.

  14. mike g.

    Hey Mike,
    I really think you were on to something when you described what “loving” is. It seems the like the two extremes lop off on part of the exhortation; the fundamentalists chant: “Speak truth!” while the PI’s respond with: “Speak love!” Of course we know that we’re actually commanded to: “Speak the truth in love.”
    I think we Christians have really gotten ourselves into trouble with this love issue. There were many things that God did in history that in our view would have been “intolerant” or “unloving”, but what we often see found in the reflections of scripture that those are many times the most loving acts recorded in history. Knocking down an armed intruder who enters your home is the most loving thing you could probably do to protect your family while it is “intolerant” to the intruder. With the presence of sin in this world we learn that with love there is always a beloved and a bedeviled.
    Even with the call of Jesus to love our enemies someone (Jesus) still had to be the loser because of our God abhorring sin. Some (including I think you, Dr. Wittmer) have at some point argued that even God’s wrath needs to be viewed in the context of His love.
    So, I agree that we should warn those teachers who have been less than clear. A few have raised objections to questioning the motives of these teachers. But, let’s be honest with ourselves; when have our motives ever been pure?
    I think it would be good of us to go back and review all the warnings Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter give about false teachers and how much harm they can do to the Christian community. And let’s also continue to discuss this issue of love because if its foundational to being a Christian and we’re getting it wrong we still have a long way to go…

    trying (and often failing) at being lovingly truthful….

  15. In defense of Rob Bell’s comment about ‘mean and angry people’…if you picked up on some of the rude and ugly diatribes throw at him on a pretty regular basis you might begin to think there are really, really a lot of ‘mean and angry people out there’…some that I have come across sound pretty vehement

  16. Yooper

    What I smell more than the tolerance message, is a marketing scheme to an undiscerning audience.

  17. As far as the Velvet Elvis quote goes, I know how it sounds (and know a lot of people who were upset by that section) but Rob’s point is not to deny the Virgin birth. In fact, he affirms it a few pages later.
    The context was a discussion about epistemology. Whether we should see our beliefs like a web (interconnected and linked, but able to be individually rethought) or like a wall (where pulling out one lower brick makes the whole thing collapse).
    If people disagree with the epistemological point that’s fine (I’m a little unsure about how far to take that myself), but as someone who has been to Mars Hill numerous times I become saddened when accusations come up like that the church or Rob deny the Virgin Birth, because at this point that is not what I have seen, heard, or read.

  18. Joel,

    The ABC did a MAJOR swing back toward the middle in the 1950s (e.g., Fountain Street Church was made to feel so unwelcome that they withdrew from the convention–the truth is that they would have been disfellowshiped.) The expected norm became that churches would hold to the fundamentals of the faith (virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, literal resurrection and second coming, etc.). Today, we’re dealing with a lot of churches employing the hermeneutics of “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals” (which is why it just blew my mind with Zondervan told Meaders and Wittmer that there was no need for a refutation to same). Still, I’d say 98% of our churches are solid Bible-teaching bodies.

    So, I guess I agree that
    1.) We NEED to set a standard for essential doctrine. Although, I say why write a new one when there are so many already in existence? What’s wrong with the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (built off the 2nd London, which was in turn, built off the Westminster)?
    2.) If we truly are BAPTIST, we cannot make litmus tests of things like miraculous gifts, eschatology, the role of women in ministry, etc. I mean, have these GARB churches ever heard of soul liberty or the autonomy of the local church? Have they read about the birth of our movement (i.e. Massachusetts colonies bouncing Baptists into the cold wilderness because of non-adherence to non-essentials)???

  19. Yooper


    I thought that he referred to springs…If you are correct about Bell, he ought to be very careful of the words that he uses to expresses his thoughts and who he endorses. Some of his readers may not have such a depth of understanding and appreciation for Scripture as himself. I also came away from a watching of the “Nooma Dust” (by Bell), that Peter sank (after walking on the water), not because of a lack of faith in Jesus Christ, but rather himself.

  20. Yooper,
    Yep, you’re right about it being springs, same point behind the metaphor though, that beliefs should interconnect but not all rest on each other so that if one falls they all do. There is only so far you can take that, but on some issues I’d agree, we should be open to deep challenging thought about our faith.
    I agree with you that language like that is something to be careful about, but on a pragmatic level I think the fact that we are talking about it means it worked and made people think about what he was writing there.

  21. Yooper

    From page 71 of “The Truth War” by John MacArthur” with reference to John 6:66:

    “…the utter clarity of the truth was the very thing that drove them away. When they saw the truth for what it was, they simply hated it. It was too demanding, too unpopular, too inconvenient, too much of a threat to their own agenda, and too much of a rebuke to their sin. Remember, “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).”

  22. […] From Michael Wittmer on why clarity on doctrinal issues is important […]

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