Challies on Colson: Man, Please

Charles Colson died last week at the age of 82.

Colson was a top Nixon aide and served a lengthy term in prison for his involvement in Watergate.  While in prison, he became a Christian and got the vision for Prison Fellowship, an organizatin he would later found to transform the lives of prisoners and their families.

Colson was a well-respected writer, speaker, and thinker.  His BreakPoint radio broadcasts saturated the Christian airwaves for three-plus decades and formed a generation of evangelicals in regards to their approach to engaging politics and secular culture.  More often than not, these broadcasts were simply ultra-conservative diatribes against perceived moral outrages that closely followed the Republican National Committee’s talking points for the week in question.  Colson himself expressed regret for this approach to political engagement in later years.

Colson also sought to engage with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  Projects such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together and The Manhattan Declaration were creative, albeit flawed, attempts to find common ground with Catholics and Orthodox.  This part of Colson’s legacy is apparently too much for Reformed blogger Tim Challies to stomach.

While Challies does not call Colson an outright villain, he nonetheless echoes the concerns of Reformed leaders like R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and others that Colson’s work in this regard served to undermine the Gospel.

The fact is that as we remember this man, we remember someone who labored to strike a significant blow against the gospel, and who time and again called on the church to do the same. And this is what is absent in so many remembrances. He labored for good and positive causes, but he also labored for outright sinful causes.

…In these ways and others, Colson undermined the gospel. He may not have set out to do this and he may not even have understood that he was doing this, but it remains the fact of the matter. ECT and The Manhattan Declaration stand as two prominent and public testaments to his willingness to tamper with the purity of the gospel. These things really happened and they both had the potential to be very, very destructive to the church because each one called into question the gospel, the very heart of the Christian faith.

Man, please.

We can critique ECT and The Manhattan Project for manifesting a bare-bones, lowest-common-denominator ecumenism that offers nothing of substance.  We can critique them for seeking an engagement that is tied too intimately with political priorities and the culture war.  All of the above may be true.  But to call the whole enterprise a “sinful cause” because it runs contrary to your understanding of the Gospel?

There is much that divides Catholics and Protestants.  One of the central issues is the question of justification:  Is Christ’s merit alone sufficient to cover all our sins, or is that just legal fiction?  (Okay, so the actual Catholic and Protestant views of justification may be more complex and nuanced, but I think you get the idea here.)  At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church declared that the Protestant answer to this question is anathema.  Alas, that anathema remains in effect today and it remains a huge stumbling block to Christian unity.

This and other issues of contention are very serious matters and are not to be glossed over lightly.  But does this make a “sinful cause” of any attempt to engage with Catholics that does not degenerate into all-out mob-style warfare over Trent and Romans 1?

Man, please.

Other perspectives on Colson:

Challies’ piece is quite tame compared to the diatribe that Frank Schaeffer posted at his blog, in which he denounced Colson as “an evangelical homophobic anti-woman leader”.  Don’t hold back, Frank.  Tell us how you really feel.

David Sessions at The Daily Beast offers a retrospective of Colson that focuses on his “culture war” approach and how that transformed evangelicalism’s way of engaging the secular world.