Al Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is one of the most vocal and articulate evangelical spokesmen for a Biblical view of social and political issues in the Western world. He recently wrote an excellent article on a challenge his denomination recently faced, and I highly recommend it.
But the purpose of this article is not to recommend the article, but to discuss an intriguing statement in his article — for if Al Mohler and other evangelicals consistently applied what he said, it would revolutionise and revitalise evangelicalism.
Mohler — No Third Way on Homosexuality
Dr Mohler’s article is Homosexuality as Dividing Line — The Inescapable Issue. In it, he addresses a church within the Southern Baptist Convention which decided it was going to be a “third way” church on homosexuality. Rather than condemning or affirming homosexual behaviour, this church in La Mirada, California decided it would allow people to disagree. In their church, they said, people could affirm homosexuality or they could disagree and say it was wrong.
Dr Mohler rightly says that there is no third way, especially when a pastor takes a position, as happened in La Mirada:
The decision to affirm a pastor is a decision to affirm the pastor’s teaching and actions and to take congregational responsibility for them. The claim that the congregation has not taken a position when the pastor they affirm has taken a position is a fiction.
The Southern Baptist Convention has (rightly) parted ways with this “third way” church. The church may contain true believers who have not been taught the Word of God well, but whether they yet see it clearly or not, all who remain as members are going along with error. The church may or may not yet include members who are involved in homosexual sin — his article does not say if it does yet, but the SBC still broke ties. The reason for parting is what the church is affirming.
Division is always painful, but on a clear question of biblical truth, division is sometimes the only act that faithfulness to Scripture will allow….
…There is no third way, and there never was.
Any person who is thinking clearly and Biblically will agree with Dr Mohler on that, and be thankful for his clear statement on the matter.
To Allow Affirmation is to Affirm
I’ve written enough on homosexual sin (Summary of Posts on Homosexuality) that I probably wouldn’t have written on or linked to Dr Mohler’s article if it weren’t for the following statement:
Consider this — the only way to construct a “third way” is to suggest that one can allow for the affirmation of homosexuality without affirming it. That simply does not work. To allow the affirmation is to affirm. (emphasis added)
It is not acceptable to affirm sin, to say that sin is ok. The Scriptures are very clear on this.
He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD.
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
Ye have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgment?
To say sin is acceptable is an abomination to God. Suppose you tell me that you think stealing is good. I can’t say, “Let’s choose a third way for our church on stealing, I’ll allow you to affirm that.” God says very clearly that your statement is an abomination, for you are justifying the wicked. If I allow your statement, I am doing one of two things:
- I am saying that your statement is true. (I thus affirm what you affirmed.)
- I am saying that your statement is false but it is acceptable for a Christian to say it. (I thus commit an abomination, as per Proverbs 17:15.)
In practice, it always comes down to the first. If I allow your statement that stealing is good, I am effectively saying that it really isn’t that bad. Dr Mohler is right. To allow the affirmation is to affirm.
The world knows this. When the owner of a sports franchise makes racist comments, the entire sporting world must rise up to repudiate him. If you allow him to affirm what he affirmed, you affirm it, too, or at least affirm that it wasn’t bad enough to repudiate. When a politician implies child abuse isn’t that bad, his statement must be fully rejected and condemned. Those who permitted it to happen in Rotherham must be forced to resign. You can’t allow affirmations of evil without yourself affirming something that isn’t true. Even the world knows this.
That doesn’t mean we need to repudiate every false statement that crosses our radar screen (or our computer screen 🙂 ). But we must not say, “It is ok for you to say that” when someone affirms something which is false.
I Timothy 5:19-22
19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.
20 Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.
21 I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.
22 Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.
The principle that “to allow the affirmation is to affirm” is particularly relevant in ministry endorsements. In I Timothy 5, Paul is writing about elders / pastors who sin. In that context, we have verse 22, which refers to the laying on of hands.
The laying on of hands is a recognition by a church that a man desires a spiritual ministry of leadership in the church and is equipped and qualified to carry it out, a statement of their belief that God has put the man into the ministry (see in the same book 1:11-12, all of chapter 3, 4:9-16, etc). But here Paul says not to be quick to do that, to be slow to endorse a man for ministry, for you can end up being a partaker in his sins.
Paul gives a specific application of the general principle Dr Mohler stated. If you allow (by ministry endorsement, the laying on of hands) someone to do or say evil, you become a partaker of that sin. What you allow, you affirm as acceptable. (Obviously, people can have secret sins which become known later. Paul’s point here is not that we will never lay hands on people who sin later, but that we must be very careful of whom and what we endorse or allow.)
No Third Way on Doctrine, Either
“To allow the affirmation is to affirm.” What is true of homosexual sin is also true of false doctrine — and this brings us to the great evangelical tragedy of our day. Broader evangelicalism, on both sides of the Atlantic, is rife with examples of leaders endorsing other leaders despite serious error, allowing affirmations of false doctrine and thus affirming that the false doctrine is not really a serious problem.
In America a few years ago, two famous pastors gave a television hearing to a man who has made unbiblical statements on the Trinity and on the Gospel. They treated him as if his teachings were acceptable — and as Dr Mohler said, “To allow the affirmation is to affirm.” If they did not affirm that what he actually said was true, they treated his doctrine as worthy of equal consideration, and thus allowed his affirmations. Thus, they affirmed that his statements were acceptable.
On this side of the sea, Steve Chalke has long taught heresy on what Christ’s work on the cross meant. He and his organisation continued to be part of the Evangelical Alliance until he recently also changed his position on homosexuality. Is being wrong on homosexuality more important than being wrong on the cross of Christ? Really?
Back across the water, Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Christian Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote this: “If Pope Francis wishes to reclaim the primacy of the gospel, he must simultaneously speak with kindness to those outside of its reach and speak of the need for good news.” Perhaps it would be good if he mentioned that Pope Francis teaches a false Gospel, idolatry, and a false authority, when he advises on how he should reclaim the primacy of the Gospel?
Back on this side, a few years back the Barnabas Fund, an evangelical organisation established to support persecuted Christians, issued a joint statement with, among others, the Church of Scotland, which is full of false teachers.
There are literally thousands, perhaps millions, of cases where “leading” evangelicals have endorsed or allowed false doctrinal affirmations. And few evangelicals will say, “Hey, wait a minute, do you realise what you just allowed/affirmed?” Instead, other evangelicals simply go on affirming those who are making the allowances, and thus make allowances for false doctrine themselves. “To allow the affirmation is to affirm” — but modern evangelicalism is full of what I call “endorsement creep” — with devastating consequences for the purity of churches. False doctrine takes hold because pastors and other leaders do not take seriously the danger of affirming by allowing, the danger of endorsing without careful scrutiny of a teacher’s doctrine.
Dr Mohler’s Allowed Affirmations
Nor is Dr Mohler himself exempt from this problem. He wrote, “Pope Benedict has offered a brave and intelligent defense of truth against a relativist tide.” Pope Benedict is a defender of false Roman Catholic doctrine, not truth. Mohler and Rick Warren exchanged tweets thanking each other, one of which included a picture with them arm in arm — yet Rick Warren’s errors have been well-documented by many (I wrote on this briefly here). Al Mohler signed a statement that said “We are Christians” — along with many who denied the very foundational doctrines of the faith, and who are not Christians at all by any Biblical definition (the Manhattan Declaration).
Billy Graham reached the point where he denied the necessity of the Gospel proclaimed through the Word of God:
“I used to believe that pagans in far-off countries were lost–were going to hell–if they did not have the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that.” (1978)
“I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ…. He’s [God] calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.” Interviewer: “What, what I hear you saying that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?” “Yes, it is, because I believe that.” (Billy Graham, 1997)
Four years after Dr Graham made that second statement, Dr Mohler was the chairman of Graham’s evangelistic campaign in Louisville. What can we say but that Al Mohler allowed Graham’s affirmations? Many churches that were allowed (there’s that word again) to participate in the campaign denied foundational doctrines of the faith.
“To allow the affirmation is to affirm.” There is no third way on homosexuality. But if it is unacceptable to allow affirmations of sinful behaviour, why is it acceptable to allow false doctrinal affirmations? As I wrote recently, all church problems are doctrinal. If you allow false doctrine, sinful behaviour will inevitably result.
There is no third way on doctrine. If you allow false affirmations on doctrine, you affirm, at the very least, that those false affirmations are not that damaging. Evangelicalism in Western countries will always suffer, will always be pervaded by error, always be rife with immorality and other sins, until evangelicals decide there is no third way. You cannot affirm false doctrine, and you cannot allow its affirmation. You have to break ties, both with those who affirm and those who allow, for those who allow also affirm.
Second Degree Separation?
There will be those who will object. “Jon, you are talking about second degree separation! You aren’t just talking about breaking ties with those who are false teachers, you are talking about breaking ties with people who don’t hold to the doctrinal error at all!”
Those who argue thus should notice that the Southern Baptist Convention just practiced second degree separation. They broke ties with a church over the sin of homosexuality. Yet few, if any, in that church currently are practicing that sin. They didn’t just break ties with those who commit the sin, but with those who affirm it. They even broke ties with those who don’t affirm it but merely allow the affirmation — some of whom may well be believers, who just haven’t been taught to apply the Scriptures in what they allow.
The SBC didn’t actually practice second-degree separation at all. They broke ties with some who are not one step, but two, from homosexual sin — those who allow the affirmation. So if you want to talk about degrees, this was third-degree separation. Were they right to do that?
Of course they were right. It is not about degrees of separation, but about withdrawing from sin, even when that sin is practiced by believers. Those who commit homosexual sin (and those who teach false doctrine) are sinning. Believers should not continue in fellowship with them, and church discipline is in order. Those who affirm homosexual sin (or false doctrine, or any other sin) are themselves sinning by doing so (Isaiah 5:20, etc). It isn’t “second degree separation” to break ties with them, to withdraw from their sin. Their sin may not be the false doctrine or the practice of the sin they affirm. Their sin is a false affirmation — God calls that an abomination.
And those who allow affirmations of false doctrine or sin are sinning. They are guilty before God — they’ve said something is acceptable which isn’t acceptable at all. You don’t have to commit the sin, or even affirm it, to be held accountable. Just as Eli allowed his sons to sin, and was held responsible for that, so we also stand before God for what we allow. Those who allow sinful affirmations are sinning. It isn’t third degree separation, it is simply withdrawing from sin, simply committing ourselves to purity, to break ties with them, to withhold fellowship.
“To allow the affirmation is to affirm.” I’m thrilled that Dr Mohler said it. I’m thrilled that the SBC acknowledged the authority of Scripture and broke ties with the church in California over its sinful decision to allow homosexual sins to be affirmed. There is no third way.
But there is no third way on doctrine, either. The evangelical endorsement machine dishonours the Lord in its affirmations and allowances. Those things may help to build ministry empires, but our God does not need empires, and He delights in faithfulness, truth, and purity. Those are the things we should affirm.
Somewhat related: Church Problems — They are Always Doctrinal