August 12, 2011

Five Uninvited Guests

by Mike Riccardi

So I’ve noticed that pretty much whenever somebody in the evangelical world negatively critiques somebody else in the evangelical world, a few bad arguments are sure to follow from folks who seem to be allergic to any sort of sharpening confrontation. Whether these arguments rear their well-worn, played-out, ugly heads in their own follow-up blog post or just in the comment threads of the original critique, we’re sure to be paid a visit from these uninvited rhetorical guests.

Things were no different on Monday, as Clint offered quite a response to Mark Driscoll’s recent ridiculous comments regarding cessationism. Now, I have no desire to throw my hat in the ring regarding this present discussion. Both Clint and Nate have done extraordinarily well, and, to be quite honest, Frank Turk hit it out of the park in his Open Letter response last Wednesday at PyroManiacs. What I hope to do is to alert us all to the existence of these five unwelcome leaps in logic, and hopefully see them turn up less and less as the blogosphere continues to go round and round. (Hear me now: I’m not saying any commenter is uninvited or unwelcome, just that there are some bad arguments that I could go without seeing for the rest of my life.)

The Call for Private Discussion

First, the “You-should-have-spoken-to-him-privately” argument wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to drop by. People wielding this argument just don’t seem to understand the nature of public discourse. You know: public statement, public evaluation, public discussion. Besides, one also wonders whether Clint was approached privately before such comments made their way to the combox. A word to the wise: if you think the only proper way for Christians to express disagreement with each other is to meet privately over coffee, a blog comment isn’t the place for you to express that disagreement.

The Accusation of Disunity and Division

Second, accusations of failing to foster Christian love and unity were sure to make an appearance. It’s always struck me as quite sad that when someone is touting bad doctrine and propagating error, it’s always the one who sounds the alarm that’s labeled as divisive. In the New Testament, a factious man was someone who advocated a different doctrine and didn’t agree with the sound words passed down from the Apostles (1Tim 6:3; 2Tim 1:13). The person who calls for the correction of error is not creating disunity, but only drawing attention to the disunity that already exists by virtue of the defection from sound teaching. And that warning is sent out as a call for a return to true unity, which is defined by a common commitment to the truth, not a common commitment to never discuss our disagreements in public.

The Reverence of Form over Content

Then there are the Tone Police, who care disproportionately less about what someone says than they do about how they say it. I gotta say, it took longer than I expected for them to drop by. I attribute that to having awesome readers and commenters here at The Cripplegate. But they eventually showed up just as they do elsewhere, and were sure to let us know that, regardless of the content, they didn’t like the tone of the post. The irony is rather astounding. The same people who get so distraught over this horrible, needless, uncharitable infighting, are themselves willing to engage in some uncharitable infighting—not over anything substantive, like one’s philosophy of ministry or the place of the miraculous gifts in the contemporary church—but over their tone. Form is revered over content.  I’ve decided that I don’t like the tone of commenters who don’t like other people’s tone. I’m hoping that’ll keep them busy for a while.

Free Pass by Association

A fourth bad argument often in attendance might be labeled, “Free pass by association.” This is actually the argument that grieves me most, because it’s the most plausible and therefore the one most likely to lead people astray. This is the notion that since other men whom we respect seem to approve someone’s ministry, that someone must be above reproach. We’ve heard countless times regarding Driscoll that older, godlier guys like Piper, Mahaney, and Dever are in his life and working with him in ministry, so everyone needs to just back off. We’ve also recently heard it regarding Rick Warren and John Piper’s inviting him to speak at the Desiring God National Conference this year.

Now, like I said, this argument is the most plausible, because we trust these other men. By the biblical faithfulness demonstrated in their own ministries, they have earned our confidence as faithful shepherds. But even that doesn’t mean they can’t make foolish decisions and be sincerely wrong in their evaluation of and participation in someone else’s ministry. Perhaps their endorsements should give us greater pause than normal about dismissing someone out of hand, but each man’s work must be tested on its own merits. So the next time someone picks on Driscoll or Warren (or whoever) for something, don’t use his credible associations as an excuse to not evaluate the issue on its own merits. Evaluate what he’s said, test it against Scripture, and honor the Word more than you honor the opinions of your spiritual heroes.

The Pragmatic Argument

This last bad argument is the worst uninvited guest of them all. This argument is so biblically baseless and logically vacuous that it was what motivated me to write this post in the first place. Even if you disagree with me on the previous four and will continue to brandish those terrible arguments with impunity, annoying everyone who crosses your digital path, please summon whatever shred of self-discipline you have in order to refrain from saying, “But God is obviously using him, so it must be OK!”

You heard this line of reasoning back when everybody was flipping out about Piper inviting Warren to speak at Desiring God. “Maybe God is providentially using both of these men to work something good in the end.” Others castigated those who were critical of Warren because, “Many people are getting saved through his ministry,” and “He has planted a church and seen thousands come to the Lord.” And you hear this all the time with Driscoll. “God is using him to save tons of people in an extremely dark area of the country.”

The reason that this is such a bad argument is that God uses everything to accomplish all His good pleasure (Ps 33:10–11; Isa 46:9–10; Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11). In His infinite mercy, God declares that nothing is off-limits for Him to use as an instrument in bringing about His wise and most holy ends. To be sure, this should cause us to rejoice that God can use sinful human beings like you and me to accomplish His will. And it should humble us greatly. But it should not be a reason given as evidence for God’s stamp of approval.

For example, God used the sinful intentions of Joseph’s brothers to preserve a remnant of His people in the earth (Gen 45:5–7; 50:20). Is their wickedness to be excused because God used it? There is no question that God used Balaam’s donkey to accomplish His will (Num 22:21–35). But I hope I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a bad idea to sit at the feet of donkeys for biblical instruction. God used Assyria to bring His wrath against Israel (Isa 10:5–15). But in the same sentence in which He prophesies of Assyria’s involvement in accomplishing His will, Yahweh pronounces a curse upon them for their wickedness. God obviously does not approve of Assyria despite the fact that He was using them. Further, God used the people’s wicked, faithless demand for a human king (1Sam 8:5, 7, 19–20; 10:19) to establish the monarchy in Israel from which Messiah would come. No King Jesus without King Saul. Should we excuse Israel’s faithless disobedience because God used it?

Additional examples abound throughout Scripture, yet none is more convincing than the murder of the Son of God. There can be absolutely no question that God used the wicked desires of Annas and Caiaphas, the cowardice of Pilate, the treachery of Judas, and the bloodthirsty godlessness of the Romans to accomplish the crucifixion of Jesus (Ac 2:22–23; 4:27–28). Not only did God use these men for His own ends; He used them to achieve the greatest act of love that will ever be accomplished: the salvation of innumerable souls from eternal damnation. Yet which of those evil men get a pass because God used them? Which of their sins would it be OK for us to imitate on the grounds that God used them for His own good purposes?

Our infinitely wise God uses everything—from the most wicked of sins to Balaam’s jackass—to accomplish what He will. Therefore, whether they be worldly preachers or worldly methods, the argument that God uses something has nothing to do with whether it is legitimate for His people to emulate or approve. That God has sovereignly ordained certain events does not automatically mean that they’re not unwise or even sinful on the part of men, who are responsible even in view of God’s sovereignty.

So please:

  1. No more calls for private discussion of public matters.
  2. Remember that unity is based on truth, not on whether we can agree to disagree.
  3. Don’t dismiss content for the sake of tone; what is said matters more than how it’s said.
  4. Evaluate a ministry by Scripture, not by association.
  5. And for the love of the truth, let’s put the pragmatic argument to rest.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Mike Worrell

    As someone who commented out of emotion on the Driscoll article, I want to convey how much I appreciate this.

    Also – you should have come to the commentors in private before you decided to break unity by using this kind of tone to dismiss so many people who have the approval of so many Godly men. I’m sure their comments are being used by God and must be ok. (I kid! I kid!)

    • I love it! Well done, sir. 🙂

      Also, I should say that the comments in Clint’s post were only a reminder that these five arguments existed, not their genesis. My post is less a reaction to that thread than it is to the numerous threads I’ve read throughout the blogosphere over the past four years.

  • Blake

    Regarding #2, disagreement can be had in innumerable ways. On a spectrum, I can envision an article of disagreement that smears and belittles, and I can envision an article of disagreement that respects and makes apparent a strong desire for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (those last three words are a really important phrase, I think). Writing an article that aims to make theological problems apparent and clarified is not a safe-haven against points 1-3. Points 1-3 can be leveled with legitimacy.

    Regarding #3, perhaps dismissing content based on tone is not wise (though it is understandable that one might do so), but if one is going to stand in a prominent place to critique another, one should also be ready to receive rebuke from the rest of God’s family regarding tone, because that is absolutely a matter of the quality of one’s love and the protectiveness of Christ’s reputation.

    • Hey Blake,

      Help me understand the last sentence of your first paragraph. It’s not computing for me.

      Also, you’re right that one can disagree in more or less helpful ways. But when we’re on the receiving end of the rebuke, our job is not to evaluate tone and see if that passes our test before we consider the counsel. That’s the way of the fool, not the wise (see Proverbs, and my response to Elaine below). Also, I think you’re still thinking of the person who brings up a problem as the origin of the disagreement. Realize that the disagreement exists because there is a substantive departure on a point of doctrine or philosophy of ministry, not because someone brought that departure to light.

      As far as your last paragraph, I think you have it backwards. I don’t think the “critiquer” should brace himself for rebuke about tone, unless it’s perhaps a footnote after a long list of substantive arguments that took into consideration the content of his critique. Again, the wise listener doesn’t look to form as a reason to dismiss content that actually cuts deep and sharpens just because it hurts. And, sometimes a more serrated tone is required. I mean, read Galatians. I’m 100% positive that today’s squishy, tone-means-everything evangelicals would never take Galatians seriously if they didn’t know it was inspired, and would dismiss every bit of its rich content because they didn’t like how Paul calls them outright fools, strongly and publicly rebukes Peter, and tells the Judaizers he wishes they’d emasculate themselves.

      So I think a principle that could be helpful is: (1) when you’re the speaker, take care (as far as it depends on you) that your tone communicates exactly what you want it to, and that it will benefit those who hear; (2) when you’re the listener, do your best to ignore a negative tone (make it a non-issue) for the sake of gleaning whatever wisdom and instruction you can from the rebuke.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Blake.

  • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

    I suggest we make this article the Ninety-Seventh Thesis of post reformation history (Martin Luther would pay no mind), and post said article on the door of every person’s home, or place it as frontlets between the eyes of those who clamor for peace, love and unity over truth, who feels that their public declaration does not deserve a heaping helping of “just deserts”, and who cannot stand a credible challenge to their error and dismiss it by adding that the tone was just way too harsh for them. No, it was actually the truth that was way too harsh for them. All of these Five Uninvited Guests have made this article a hit out of the park. Way out!

    I think we all know of any number of men, John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, Frank Turk, Dan Phillips or even R.C. Sproul who could have written this piece. But just so happens..You’re the man! Nice piece of work!

    I am also referring a sister in Christ over here from the gty blog, because you answered a question she posed that I stayed up all night trying to figure out. It concerns this: “God can use sinful human beings like you and me to accomplish His will. And it should humble us greatly. But it should **not be a reason given as evidence for God’s stamp of approval.** “ The comment between the stars is the clincher.

    So this article is a double header for me!

  • M P

    I just commented on yesterdays article and then this one literally showed up an hour or so later. I thought it was directed at me. (Can we say ego?) Haha. Luckily I don’t believe I used any of these in my comments about yesterdays article. These are the most annoying arguments. I agree with that. It’s sort of like receiving a “cliche'” christian phrase when you are hurting and need someone to just listen. Instead of listening you get the “God is in control” or “God is sovereign” response and it doesn’t help it just makes you want to pop them in the nose and say, “don’t worry about the pain, ‘God is sovereign’.” 🙂

  • Michael

    Loved the point on how God uses sinful humans to carry out His divine purposes (see Judges, and “Judging Judges”). Like you said, this does not mean that he approves of that ministry.

    As a college student in a former college ministry that touted Driscoll as a contemporary “Peter” (overzealous and stupid at times, but will be a Christian Titan eventually with maturity), I have heard countless times how he’s the only one that can reach them. I never quite knew how point out the error, although over time I’ve realized that this is a sin against the Spirit, by effectively saying that He’s not enough for the salvation of souls. Your post articulates this clearly and succinctly.

    Keep serving our King!

  • Eric Davis

    These posts over the past few days, and many others, proves why this blog is serving God’s people immensely. Cripplegate brothers, thank you for your care for God’s people. Your work makes this blog such a blessing b/c, by God’s grace, you guys manage to weave together 3 things that are too often lost in our day: biblical accuracy, academic integrity, and Christ-like humility.

    • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

      I agree. This group of writers was a plan in the making (before the foundations of the world) 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Mike!
    We were discussing # 5 the other day on this group because the Balaam’s donkey argument was brought up. And some people had very good insights, expecting the donkey to think he could then be a teacher/pastor was one.

    As for #3, I know what you’re saying, and I think you are not saying that tone is not important. It is. The problem is the “perceived” tone that the reader gets. Frankly, I came to the conclusion that some people will accuse you (general “you”) of being rude, unkind, no matter how you say it: they just want to find a reason, any reason, to dismiss logical, biblical, arguments.

    • Sure seems that way.

      And you’re right, I’m not saying tone is not important. When we’re the person speaking, we should always consider both what we say and how we say it, because we are seeking the greatest benefit of our hearers, and want to give grace to those to whom we’re speaking.

      But when we’re the person listening, we should do all we can to esteem content over form. Even if the person’s tone was unhelpful, we should do our best to absorb that and seek to apply whatever biblical correction came through in the content. Because we want to be wise and receive rebuke wisely (think Proverbs). We want to grow in holiness by the discipline of God through His people (Heb 12:5-14).

      It’s too easy to avoid any correction by dismissing the content for the sake of the form. We’ll always be able to find something wrong with a rebuke directed at us — it’s the way the flesh works. But a wise person who wants to grow isn’t after saving face, he’s after being sharpened.

  • Anonymous

    I used to be at a megachurch with serious problems, and i mean SERIOUS. I remember sitting in the parking lot and thinking “all of my discernment is telling me this is not right, but look at how big the church is. God must be approving of what is going on here.”

  • Brad

    #5 was a challenge to me because one of the main reasons I have chosen to attend an Acts 29 church is because I have seen how much God is blessing the movement. A unique power of the Spirit seems to be on the movement (I’m not sure what else could be responsible for the changed lives I see around me). What has happened through Acts 29 seems nothing short of miraculous to me. And I want to be a part of what is going on there.

    But after reading this article I will have to think about my motives a little more.

    • Eric Davis


      That’s super humble of you to take that perspective, brother. Your response communicates a teachable attitude that God will bless.

    • One of the challenges with church “branding” is the way people will either gravitate to or away from a particular assembly from whichever logos appear on their website. Far better to assess a church on its own merits.

      Two cases in point. 1. I used to reject anyone and everything SBC-related because, well, you know. 🙂 But then I started hearing guys like Russell Moore and Al Mohler, and reading guys like Frank Turk, and I got a good lesson in putting the man ahead of the brand.

      And 2. Our church is an Acts 29 church, and we’re generous cessationists, if that’s not too much of a spin on it. I’ve checked multiple sources, and the official policy of Acts 29 is to be open handed on the gifts issue. It would be nice if Acts 29 would affirm that in light of one of their most prominent leaders (not the main one, though) taking such a well, er, *firm* stance on the issue. I would hate that some really solid people would give our church a pass just because we have an A29 logo on our website, along with some mod photos.

  • Anonymous

    Gee, I may have to swipe this as my new comment policy 😉

  • Although I am not quite ready to say you guys at Cripplegate should have your work cannonized, I sure do think you are all very bright. You are by far the best blog out there in my opinion. This is some of the best writing I have encountered in the blog world. You make Biblical sense! That’s all we want. Thanks.

  • Mike,

    Spot on stuff! Excellent!

    Having been at the center of the whole Caner debacle last year, I think I had ever one of these thrown at me at some point. Thank you for this. I’ll be saving this link for future use.


  • Anonymous

    This post also hit it out of the ballpark. I really love to read the cripplegate.

  • Excellent wisdom !!

  • Karl Heitman

    In relation to The Pragmatic Argument, I especially like it when people like to quote Phil. 1:15-18 and admonish you to not pay attention to the “secondary” theological issues because “Christ is being preached”.

    • Yeah, you know I was wondering if anyone was going to bring that up. Glad to see that no one has raised it as a serious objection. Again, I attribute that to awesome readers and commenters.

      But for the lurkers out there who might be wondering how I might respond to that: It’s true that Paul rejoiced in the proclamation of the Gospel whether from false motives or true, but there’s no way he would have prescribed, since God was using it, that people should “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives” (Phil 1:17).

      Good catch, Karl.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been thinking about this post all day, and I have a question about the tone section. What about when a post, like Clint’s Monday post, for example, goes out of its way to make the tone the message. Don’t get me wrong: Clint had a substantial point to make. MD calling cessationists “worldly” is comically ironic. And Clint used his tone to make that point. So I think in some cases, objections to tone might be warranted.

    I agree with Clint’s tone on Monday. When a guy preaches in a Mickey Mouse tee-shirt and calls JMac worldly and compares him to an atheist, well…Clint’s tone is a suitable response. But in that case, can’t we say that sometimes at least the tone is the message?

    • That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have a great answer to it, though. 🙂

      I guess if an author/speaker’s intent is to make his tone the message, then there’s nothing to discuss but the tone. But I’d observe two things.

      1. It’s not a good idea to do that a whole lot. People will be persuaded and edified more by substance, even if that substance is dressed up in an intentionally/strategically serrated or ironic tone, than by dressing alone. Put another way, it’s fine to flavor your steak with a bunch of pepper, but it’s not a good idea to make a meal out of pepper alone.

      2. It’s not something I see a whole lot. The Tone Police generally make their presence annoyingly known under the guise of “charitableness” while waving disdain for any statement made with settled conviction. And often, it’s just used as an excuse to not have to consider the content of the rebuke that’s being offered to them. So, that’s more the focus of point 3.

      I’m flattered that you’ve been thinking about this all day. 😉 Did this help at all?

    • Here’s something else I thought of regarding tone and message: It’s fine to make your point in an exasperated tone when it’s fitting for you to be exasperated (like Monday). But in general I think the message should be more than, “Hey, I’m exasperated.”

    • Anonymous

      Can I answer your question too? =) My answer is no. I mean, you can do it, but will the audience listen or just quietly sit there waiting for it to end? At the end of the day, it’s profitable to ask what, if anything, the audience took from the message. The tone shapes the message, but I don’t think it should define it.

      just my .2 cents…. Canadian… for what’s worth. =)

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this!

  • Suzanne

    Mike, well systematized. The ability to better articulate (esp for me) just what it is about some disagreements that are so disagreeable (in a acid-reflux kind of way) while the actual topic at-hand, right along with proper scriptural assesment gets quickly left in the dust is very much appreciated.

    Thanks so much for making this branch of Club Frustration™ just a bit easier assess, and so tolerate.

    Ya done good 🙂

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

    • Suzanne

      ah..the added “beautiful just beautiful” at the end of my comment is a bit much, should have been snipped, I was thinking aloud and it must have spilled out onto the keyboard. ha 🙂

  • Suzanne

    Mike, well systematized. The ability to better articulate (esp for me) just what it is about some disagreements that are so disagreeable (in a acid-reflux kind of way) while the actual topic at-hand, right along with proper scriptural assesment gets quickly left in the dust is very much appreciated.

    Thanks so much for making this branch of Club Frustration™ just a bit easier assess, and so tolerate.

    Ya done good 🙂

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

  • Mike! I really enjoyed this post.

    “The reason that this is such a bad argument is that God uses everything to accomplish all His good pleasure (Ps 33:10–11; Isa 46:9–10; Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11).”

    This line is spot on! Thank you sir!

  • Daniel Biddle

    At last, someone speaking sense about such logically fallacious and pseudo-pious arguments. Truth cannot be brushed aside for convenience sake…

  • well said. I don’t like the tone of tone police either, nor their disregard of the truth that is generally about to be wickedly sacrificed. Great work guys!

  • A very excellent article-I will keep those 5 points in view always.

  • Anonymous


    I like your article, was surprised by some of it, and unsure of my reactions to part of it. Probably that is just me sorting through – and being slow at it.

    The part about the pragmatic argument. Perhaps it is just my uncertainty coming through, but I see a valid point on both sides of it. Do I want my Biblical instructions from donkeys? No, but here’s my “on the other hand.” If the donkey is speaking (preferable English since my Hebrew is awful), I likely would listen. And if what she says has the ring of truth, then I might be interested in hearing more. Btw, Balaam’s donkey spoke no Biblical truth, but only pragmatic truth from his experience and history with Balaam.

    And if God can use a donkey to see angels and speak truth, why are we surprised when He uses unlikely vessels – at least in our opinions.

    Does a great response correlate with the integrity, character and Biblical accuracy of the preacher? We know it does not. Radio and TV preachers have provided good examples of bad and/or lack of Biblical truth and character. So results do not indicate the worth or worthiness of the messenger. See Jonah- for disobedience, lack of passion, and an absence of compassion and being angry over God’s mercy rather than God’s wrath. In spite of the messenger, there were great results!

    Mike, it seems in the article, there was a correlation between God using the Assyrians and folks talking about God using Rick Warren. God using a bloodthirsty, cruel, pagan and ungodly people to punish Israel and God using Rick Warren who preaches the Bible and lifts up Jesus as Lord and Savior to draw sinners to Himself and His church – seem to me to be quite a distinction.

    Would Jonathan Edwards be known today without results? Graham? Spurgeon? Moody? What would Pentecost have been with 5 decisions? As wonderful as it would have been for those five!

    Results often have significance Biblically. So maybe we ought to consider results along with evaluating the messenger, methods, means, and the message- as best we can.

    Perhaps you see things about the same as I do, and you did not gear the article to cover all aspects of the pragmatic argument. So much of what you said rings true, but I guess I am responding to what seems a lack of balance. Or maybe my perspective is just different and likely more limited.

    I trust my thoughts have not been critical, but considered and considerate. Thanks again for what you shared.


    • FRK,

      I fear you’ve missed my point. The point is simply that the argument, “God is using X,” does not legitimize X, because God uses everything indiscriminately. This doesn’t mean good results necessarily invalidate a ministry or a methodology, just that good results don’t necessarily validate it.

      Regarding the contrast you bring up between the Assyrians and Warren, it seems you’re just going right ahead and making the pragmatic argument. Perhaps it might help to state it this way. Nobody has been instrumental in more people’s salvation than Judas (because he’s been instrumental in everyone’s salvation). But the fact that God used him doesn’t mean that we should legitimize what he’s done. If we’re going to legitimize a man’s ministry, like Warren’s for example, we’ve got to look to the merits of his own ministry and test what he says and does against Scripture. “Many people are getting saved through him,” doesn’t add or take away from his credibility, because God uses everything to achieve His ends.

      • Anonymous

        I did miss it, Mike! Thanks for clarifying. This really brought it into focus for me:

        If we’re going to legitimize a man’s ministry …we’ve got to look to the merits of his own ministry and test what he says and does against Scripture.

        Thanks for taking the time and effort to help me grasp your point.

        I appreciate it!


  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Great Post, Mike! Question out of curiosity: Have you had these “5 uninvited guests” ever directed at you personally? Eg.,

    (1) Have you ever had someone criticize you for making a matter public when they thought you should have done so privately?

    (2) Have you ever been criticized and accused of being divisive and bringing disunity?

    (3) Have you ever been admonished by the “Tone Police”?

    (4) Have you been rebuked for not giving a free pass to some evangelical who’s been given cover by some other more widely acclaimed evangelical?

    (5) And have you been criticized for not acknowledging the good that comes from the broken vessels that God uses?

    I’m just curious.

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