Silencing the Voice of Hearsay in the Church


I suspect Cerulean Sanctum will be delisted from a number of blogrolls after this post, but I need to write it. Put on the seatbelt and hang on.

Recently, Tim Challies had an interesting post entitled “Body Piercing Saved My Life,” a review of a book of the same name by Andrew Beaujon, a frequent contributer to the secular music magazine Spin. Christian rock music intrigued Beaujon, so he decided to get the real scoop on the genre. He went to concerts, talked with fans, attended several churches, interviewed the artists, and delivered his book, a firsthand account of what he learned.

In the end, Beaujon didn’t have a life-changing conversion, though he grew to appreciate Christian music through the time he spent examining it.

On the heels of Beaujon’s book comes a much-anticipated book from a renowned Christian author and pastor. He attempts to expose what he perceives as truth-mangling in the Emerging Church (EC), ripping into its questionable theology and practice. The Godblogosphere’s already quoting excerpts from the book, some blogs claiming it will deliver the final word on the EC.

I’m no rah-rah fan of the Emerging Church. Like a lot of reactionary movements, it’s underdeveloped in many ways, off completely in others, and right on the mark on a few select issues. EC proponents offer both enlightening critiques of institutional Christianity and brain-dead ones. As with any critical movement, I weigh their rhetoric against the Scriptures and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, then discard the dross. In truth, I’ve learned a few things from the EC concerning Evangelicalism’s shortsightedness. I’m a wiser Christian for those insights.

Over the last five years, I’ve interacted with hundreds of people in the EC. I’ve written on the EC several times here at Cerulean Sanctum (“That Other Standoff,” with embedded links elsewhere). I know something about it, though I’m by no means claiming to be an expert.

But this new book IS written by someone many people consider a bastion of truth and expertise. In fact, truth is the subject of the book. Plus, his offering isn’t a haphazard blog post (like any of mine or yours), but a book-length examination of truth problems in the EC, and postmodernism in general. For these reasons, what he says ought to be better thought-out, researched, and double-checked.

What I would like to know then:

Before he wrote his book, did this prominent author/teacher/pastor…

…personally sit down with EC leaders and get firsthand answers to his concerns?

…personally talk to a wide range of real people who left “traditional” churches in favor of Emerging Churches to find out why they did?

…personally talk to a wide range of real people in Emerging Churches to see what their doctrinal stances truly are?

…personally visit a wide range of churches under the EC umbrella in order to see if they might not be “One Size Fits All” in doctrine and practice?

I really want to believe he did. I hope that every question I asked above can be answered affirmatively.

For any book that’s ultimately about truth, second, third, and fourth-hand reports (or sound-biting unclear quotes without getting a firsthand clarification) simply won’t cut it. WhisperThat’s particularly true when millions of people will be affected by some major Christian leader’s withering assault.

I’ve been a Christian for 30 years. In that time, I’ve been shocked how easily we condemn other Christians on what amounts to hearsay. Even though the biblical standard is two or three witnesses, we know how two or three witnesses worked at the trial of our Lord! I think the Christian standard must be higher than that.

The Church of Jesus Christ is founded on relationship: our relationship with the Triune God and with each person He indwells. Because we are supposed to be a community free of rancor, the Lord commanded that if we have something against our brother, our best response is for us to stop what we’re doing and go make peace with that brother face-to-face. We don’t send emissaries and don’t write notes. We go in person.

Rather than write a book on contemporary Christian music from indirect sources, Andrew Beaujon (an unbeliever, remember) put his person on the line and went to see for himself. All through the Gospels, people who encountered Jesus, especially those on the receiving end of miracles, said, “Don’t take my word for what He did. Go see for yourself!” That admonishment carries some weight.

It would be terribly ironic if a book about absolute truth contained nothing but indirect reports on supposed malfeasance. I’ve read far too many Christian books that attempted to uncover the truth about a leader or movement, then failed to contain any firsthand accounts by the author. Such books are nothing more than venom.

Are we seeing for ourselves? Or we are crafting “truth” out of hearsay?

26 thoughts on “Silencing the Voice of Hearsay in the Church

  1. francisco

    1. I am not fan of John McArthur but I respect the man for his high view of Scripture and the gospel -he is one among few gospel-faithful preachers that shares the gospel on t.v. (when gets invited to Larry King’s show once in a while). Aside from your dislike of GCC’s building, I think you also respect him so can I say you are within the †˜many people who consider him a bastion for truth’?
    2. So, with all due respect let me ask you: had you asked him personally your four questions? I would suggest you get the book first and then with more knowledge you can proceed to review it and write a fair critique of his ministry/book/whatever.
    3. It seems to me that you worry that he has misrepresented the EC in his new book as you said he has done it with the charismatics in a ‘Charismatic Chaos, book that I have not read by the way (I ought to take you at your word when you say that you’ve found there a fair and unfair critiques of the charismatic movement). Recently, I heard -oops, hearsay nevermind!- that McArthur invited CJ Mahaney to GCC’s pulpit. Does it mean that McArthur changed his mind about charismatics? or does he acknowledge a passionate commitment to the gospel in CJ Mahaney?
    4. And the EC is a never-ending topic. There was a guy who was invited to give a lecture at a reformed seminary and his main criticism was against DA Carson’s book “Becoming conversant with the EC” and was complaining that Carson equated all EC’s thinking with McLaren’s. But wasn’t that guy doing the same thing by equating all EC’s critique to DA Carson ignoring perhaps what others like David Wells, Piper, Driscoll, etc have to say? Funny, isn’t it? Again I have not read any of those books; neither do I intend to do so in the future. Suffice to say I read a few pages of TSMoJ by McLaren and had to put it off. Time is precious.
    5. (Another hearsay!) John Piper has personally met and sat at the table with several EC’s representative leaders. In fact, I don’t think it is unknown to you that DG organized a conference on “The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World. Piper’s sermon is one of the best and finest I’ve heard yet. You can hear it or watch it here:

    6. Finally, most of the material posted in blogs and books published by EC, reformed, arminian, seeker, missional, etc is public stuff. So, it ought to be available for public scrutiny. I don’t know if this has been the only source McArthur had at hand. You can ask him. My point is that if we follow the advice underlying your four questions, then we might say that the guy who wrote a critique of Desiring God (the book) did not have that right unless he approached Piper first, right? In the link below you’ll find an essay that replies to and the link to such critique:

    I tend usually to agree with you, but imho I believe you should have thought a bit more before posting because not all your readers might be aware of your fairness toward McArthur, especially if you have not read his new book in his entirety. (Btw, I have no time to read those excerpts that you say circulate in the blogosphere, so if you provide links to them, it’ll be nice of you). Thanks.

    Grace and Peace

    • Francisco,

      Your post has too many points to respond to with the limited time I have today! Please see my response to David Riggins below to see some of my answers.

      Like I said, I am not trying to shill for the EC. I have many of the same concerns as the pastors/teachers you mention. I am glad that some of them have taken the time to sit down with EC leaders. That’s the way it should be done. Unfortunately, it’s not always done that way. That leads to hearsay.

    • David, et al.,

      No, the questions I raise are not hearsay. They are legitimate questions that have yes or no answers. They do not accuse; they only ask a question.

      I walked very carefully on this one to avoid accusing the author in question of hearsay. Like I said in my post, I pray that he did personally contact the right people to find out more and to doublecheck points of contention. A similar exposé book he wrote in the past did not.

      Though I have read dozens of extended quotes online from the book, I have not read the entire book, yet. It is my understanding that the book is not available till the Spring of 2007, so I’m wondering how all these blogs that are quoting it got galley editions!

      I am simply posing the question. I highly doubt the author would answer my questions if I asked him. In raising them here, perhaps one of those folks who got galley copies will raise them with the author for me.

      At issue here is not content. It is how content is gathered, especially on a contentious issue. I’m using the two books in my post as possible counters to each other. If a non-Christian takes the time to personally research a part of Christian sub-culture that could easily be misunderstood, should we not expect similar personal research from Christian authors who are ready to call other Christians heretics? You would hope so! My experience has not borne this out, though.

      What happens in Christian circles is that statements wind up floating around like gossip. In a way, hearsay IS gossip. It never requires personal accountability for the gossip circulated. People get hurt, and like the story of Pandora, the evil can’t be stuffed back into the box. The damage is done.

      Christians need to tread lightly and soberly for this reason.

      • I guess the point I was making is that the entire gist of your post is accusatory, but is not based in certain knowledge of the facts: i.e. you haven’t read the book, checked the references, bibliography, etc. In fact, because the book isn’t out yet, you can’t. The result is a series of questions that call into doubt the veracity of a book and the point of view of its author, but all are questions that may very well be answered in the book itself. You are asking questions based upon something you heard, not something you have read and checked for yourself. Thus, hearsay.

        It’s not that I don’t agree with the basic point you are making, I’m just hoisting you up on it. ;>

        • David,

          If my son is supposed to wash his hands before dinner, and I ask him if he washed his hands, that’s not hearsay.

          Hearsay would be for me to tell him he didn’t wash his hands when he did. I did not accuse the author of the book of hearsay. In essence, I asked if he washed his hands.

          The answer can be either yes (no hearsay) or no (hearsay). Again, there is no hearsay in asking a legitimate question.

          As for me asking questions based on something I heard, the author in question has some history releasing books that involved little or no face-to-face examination of the people and churches he exposed. I am quite familiar with that book. It hurt many people and continues to cause hurt.

          This is not to say that his book doesn’t have merit, only that it did not include the kind of god-ordained face-to-face confrontation a book like that should require. With that in mind, I believe we have every right to ask the question if someone with a past history of not directly speaking with the people he’s exposing is putting out another exposé that promises to hurt people and cause problems for years to come. Christian scholarship and heresy-hunting requires an extremely high burden of proof. Remember, these are people who claim to be believers that the author is confronting. If he’s not done so well at this in the past, we should be wary. If my son has a track record of not washing his hands before dinner, that justifies my question even more, doesn’t it?

          I have no axe to grind here. We own some books written by that author. I wouldn’t buy them if I felt they had no merit.

          And again, this piece isn’t simply about one author. The kinds of questions I pose here should be standard practice for anyone trying to discredit heretical movements (or simply get the facts about ANYTHING unknown). All too often in Christian circles, we hang people by second, third, and fourthhand accounts. We just can’t do that kind of faulty discipline. Remember how Jesus us tells us to discipline in the middle of Matt 18.

  2. Sounds like you can’t win here, Dan! 😉 I’m pretty much in agreement on this post. While I understand where the previous commenters are coming from, I’m still inclined to say “Right on”! Time will tell, though, I guess, whether this post was accurate or not.

    As for those who say that you should try to contact MacArthur first, perhaps it’s worth a try, but I honestly would be surprised if you could even get in contact with him. According to Phil Johnson, MacArthur doesn’t ever use a computer at all, so email would be pretty much out of the picture. I usually can’t reach the pastor of a small local church on the phone, so how likely would you be able to reach MacArthur on the phone? And a visit in person? I doubt that you’d get past whatever office workers are there to protect him. I realize it sounds like I’m jumping to judgment here (although I’m not trying to be mean about it…just realistic), but if my own experiences in other large churches is any indication, MacArthur is untouchable by us peons. 😉

    • Steve,

      Like I said in my comment to David Riggins, I would hope that in my writing this, someone more important than myself (who has been sent galley copies of the book) will be able to ask the author the questions I pose–or at least have information that will clarify.

      I’m not trying to crucify the author. I’m just saying that if a non-Christian like the author of the Christian rock music exposé is willing to take the personal time to investigate by talking with the people he’s writing about, why is it that so few Christians do the same thing when investigating potential heretics? That’s not even a new question here at Cerulean Sanctum. I’ve written about this in the past.

      The Godblogosphere also suffers from this. We say things that are third and fourthhand. That doesn’t lend us any credibility. That’s part of what this post is about. I tend to shy away from these kinds of arguments and stick with my own observations. That way I can backup what I say because I DID take the time to talk with and experience the things I write about. That makes my commentary that much harder to impugn.

      • Stephen

        I had this long missive typed out, and then I deleted it because I realized I had missed the entire point of the article.

        You are entirely right on the need to avoid jumping to conclusions. Just because someone calls himself part of the “emerging church” does not mean his theology is apostate — Marc Driscoll, anyone? And yet there he is, thrown in with the likes of Brian McLaren and his unbiblical neo-universalism.

        Even worse is when we go in with the conclusion already made, or when we come to a bad conclusion quickly and then start digging for more sticks to prop up the straw man. That’s how you get sites like this one, which does exactly what you’re railing on here — relying on third- and fourth-hand statements and pulling them out of context, finding some insignificant piece of doctrine to disagree on and call them out on — basically looking for anything to use as ammunition. He’s not concluding anything — he has an axe to grind and a dogma to preach, so he can’t let facts get in the way.

        The real problem is that people that do such things can be right half the time, which lowers our defenses for when they’re wrong. This is why we’re all called to be Bereans.

        When we earnestly contend for the faith, we must do so in the truth of Scripture and the love of Christ. I find far too many so-called “discernment” ministries lacking in the latter, and some in both.

  3. Didnt know you were talking about MacArthur till commentors called out his name.

    I am no fan of the EC movement but I would not suspect the author of Charismatic Chaos to give a fair account of any movement outside his own.

  4. I had to do some quick research on just what you were talking about regarding the Emergent Church. Wikipedia and Emergent Village filled me in somewhat…

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s not really anything new. Social Gospel, Jesus Culture, Surfer Dudes, Protestantism, whatever, there are always Emergent Churches: Bodies of believers who think there is a “better way to be Christians within the culture that surrounds them. The problems, therefore, are also hardly new…If one needs references, go to the 7 letters to the churches in Revelations and pick your issue. I suppose that the challenge that we all face: “living our lives in such a way that all may see the hope that resides within us, is daunting, and doing so without “conforming to this world is the conundrum.

    Criticisms of syncretism are hardly new, but Christians are often so ignorant of how to live within a culture and not be part of it, that any argument regarding syncretism needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (Is introducing a translated Lutheran hymnal to an emerging African church really the best thing to do? Is allowing the African Christians to write their own hymns based on tribal knowledge and understanding syncretism?) Issues regarding the infallibility of the Bible need to be taken seriously, otherwise the EC movement will go the way of all things, ashes. The faith that made Peter recognize Christ for who He was is not a personal one, but one given to us by the Holy Spirit, and that is the foundation the Church Catholic is built on.

    But getting back to the subject of hearsay… well, the blogosphere makes it so much easier, doesn’t it? Seeking Truth is not a Christian or Non-Christian issue, it’s a human issue. We, as humans are more likely to fall back on our own understanding, as Peter so diligently modeled for us, and as Paul so diligently chastised him for. As Christians, however, we have no excuse, and our leaders are held to a higher bar in regards to the Truth. If a man who has set himself up as a leader in the Christian community has fallen back on his own understanding, leading to a critique founded on hearsay rather than diligent research, then we as the body need to hold him accountable, but only after an equally rigorous and diligent search for facts. Not easy to do: As has been mentioned, one would have a difficult time calling him up.

    But anything else is, well, merely hearsay.

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  6. I suspect Cerulean Sanctum will be delisted from a number of blogrolls after this post…

    After reading this post, I went to my blogroll to make sure that CS was on it.

    • Jamie

      Why does the research have to be face-to-face? What about published books, sermons, and source websites (i.e. Emergent Village)? Are those things valid for source material for a book?

      If they are not, then you can not criticize John base on his book only. You must have face-to-face time.

      My guess is John will be responding to what the EC has put out in a public forum, just like you criticize him for what he has put out.

      • I’ll play dumb and assume this was actually meant to be a response to my comment rather than a general comment to Dan. If what I say doesn’t sync up with his thoughts, I’ll let him kick me the next time I’m in his neck of the woods.

        First off, I have a lot of respect for MacArthur, so this is not a bash on the man. Having said that, by his very nature, position and personality, there is a very high level of accuracy and completeness expected from him — higher than most. Whether this is beyond what should be expected is debatable, but I don’t think for a minute that he is unaware of the expectations.

        IMHO, responding to published works is fine for a blog, but if you’re gonna publish a book, I think you need more. Add to that the fact that published works (particulary a website) can be incomplete or unclear — or even downright wrong, if you pick the wrong work — and just reading loses it’s reliability. Face-to-face, one can ask, “when you wrote ABC, I inferred XYZ. Was that accurate?”

        Add to that the fact that the EC is so malleable. Case in point: Many people would see McLaren as a (the?) leader within the EC movement conversation. Other ECers would say, “No, he doesn’t speak for me”. Writing about the EC, no matter which side you are on, is going to be (at best) incomplete without doing a LOT of homework. And somehow I don’t see “John MacArthur on line 1” resulting in a lot of hang-ups.

      • Jamie,

        A book about absolute truth requires that the author get to the source of truth.

        No one is saying that the published material of the EC leaders isn’t fair game. However, you and I know that interpretation matters. For that reason, I believe any burden of proof comes down to personal interaction.

        Again, the Scriptures are clear. If we have a beef against a brother (and the author’s book is a critical piece), we should confront him face-to-face. Only then will truth will out and our tendency to be overly critical tempered. A foe with whom I’ve shared a meal is less my enemy than my friend.

        I have no beef against the author. I am merely hoping that he has gone the extra “Christian” mile and pursued the kind of personal interaction a book like his needs. If he has, then great. He’s pursued the right course and done his subject matter proud. If not, well….

        Again, I am not criticizing the author. I am asking whether he has sat down with real people and talked with them about the matter that drives the core idea in his book. If he has, more power to him. I applaud that kind of pursuit of truth.

        Shouldn’t we Christians always deal with the pursuit of truth on the most granular level possible? If truth matters, then we should always get to the heart. That means personally interacting with people and with God. We most definitely trumpet the latter. Why then is the former so hard to pull off?

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