Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in the Miami area and the grandson of Billy Graham, is rapidly emerging as one of our generation’s most articulate spokespersons for a Christ-centered, Gospel-focused, Reformation-minded view of Christianity. If you read my post from earlier this year entitled “The Gospel Is For Christians” and suspected that it was strongly influenced by his latest book One Way Love, you would be correct. He currently blogs at pastortullian.com.
Up until recently he was part of The Gospel Coalition, a high-profile network of many of the leading names in this decade’s Neo-Reformed movement. But lately he was asked to leave and take his blog elsewhere. He had been planning to transition away in August, but last week he was asked to make the transition effective immediately. TGC leaders cited doctrinal differences, but it would not be surprising if at least part of this was due to the ongoing Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal and Tchividjian’s critique of TGC leaders’ response to it.
For those of you who haven’t heard, Sovereign Grace Ministries (think Boston Church of Christ but with a very strong Neo-Reformed, Calvinist bent) has been embroiled in an epic sex abuse scandal. Basically, sexual abuse occurred at some SGM churches and was covered up. Victims were strongly discouraged from reporting the abuse to the authorities. But now things are coming to light. The scandal was recently ratcheted up a couple of notches when a former youth pastor at an SGM church was convicted of sexually abusing three boys.
In the midst of all this, Tchividjian issued a statement which showed an unfortunate naivete about the nature of the Neo-Reformed movement. This is from a piece at The Christian Post which covers Tchividjian’s side of the events surrounding his departure from TGC:
Tchividjian believes that some at TGC have adopted a very critical tone. “I think that’s their tone. That has become their tone. That’s not the tone of everybody there but that is the tone of some prominent voices there: critical, very, very quick to point out what’s theologically wrong out there, very slow to pick apart what’s theologically wrong in here in terms of their own position … and I think people pick up on that,” he said.
Tchividjian, who considers himself Reformed, noted that just because these voices also considered themselves Reformed, one should not see their behavior as the fruits of their doctrine.
“Theology is not to blame here. You can’t blame theology for the way that you handle it. It’s good theology in the hand of bad sinners. That becomes dangerous,” said Tchividjian. “When the Christian faith becomes little more than theological propositions and categories, you’re not actually thinking about how theology serves people, it can become divisive.”
“Anytime you associate yourself with a movement, you think that is at the center of the universe, and there is a much larger Christian and Evangelical world out there that is now looking at The Gospel Coalition, which seemed to start out as a positive movement that was for Gospel centrality and cultural engagement,” continued Tchividjian. “And now the tone from all the people I hear and my opinion is very much ‘what we’re against.’ People just aren’t attracted to that.”
Unfortunately, theology is very much to blame here.
In The Crying Game, at a couple of key points in the movie the protagonist shares the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog as explanation for his actions. You probably remember this story: A scorpion is in danger because it’s flood season and the river is rising and his home is in danger. So he asks a frog to carry him across the river. He assures the frog that he will not sting, because if he does then the frog will die and he will drown. Reluctantly and against his better judgment, the frog agrees. Of course the scorpion does sting the frog halfway across the river, and they both drown. The frog is shocked and dismayed, and as he is sinking he says “But you promised you wouldn’t sting me! Why did you do it?” The scorpion replies “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
The Neo-Reformed movement is a fighting movement. Its whole reason for being is to expose doctrinal error and point the way to correct doctrine. As such, it should not be surprising to see it as a movement long on exposing the errors of others and short on internal self-reflection. Not everyone in the Neo-Reformed movement is that way, but that is certainly the prevailing culture. The system is set up to fight. They can’t help it; it’s in their nature.
Why? Because the movement sees God as a fighter. Christians who are always spoiling for a fight, who see every issue as an us-versus-them, here-I-stand kind of thing, show us a lot about their view of God. Such Christians apparently see God as one who is fundamentally hacked off, touchy, easily angered, rigid, inflexible, and demanding of theological precision. If that is your view of God then you have full permission–in fact you are commanded–to fight. A lot. Especially with other Christians who don’t exactly see things your way.
The Neo-Reformed movement is showing us what their God is like. In their minds, they are doing the work of God. They are God’s instrument of retribution; a modern-day Phinehas appeasing the wrath of God by slaughtering the covenant-breakers among His people (see Numbers 25 for the full story).
You can see this tendency in virtually every issue that Neo-Reformed leaders speak out on. We see it in Kevin DeYoung’s comments on the historicity of Adam a couple of years back, in which he basically says that any “self-proclaimed” evangelical who doubts or disbelieves the historicity of Adam is not really an evangelical at all. We see it in Al Mohler’s thinly veiled critique of an Andy Stanley sermon that mentioned homosexuality but didn’t denounce it in terms strong enough to suit his tastes. We see it in Tim Challies’ recent diatribes against Pope Francis and Brian McLaren. We see it in Paul Proctor’s smear job on Kyle Lake after his death by electrocution a few years back. We see it in John Piper’s response to the tornado that went through downtown Minneapolis when the ELCA passed a resolution approving the ordaining of homosexuals. We see it in other examples far too numerous to mention.
The Neo-Reformed movement is all about “contending for the Gospel”–a Gospel which is understood not as “Christ died to save sinners” but “Here I stand”. So don’t be surprised when you see yesterday’s hero become today’s vanquished foe. There is always a foe. There has to be.
They can’t help it. It’s in their nature.