This will be one of those posts that will necessarily be a bit self-referential from time to time, but I will keep all that to a minimum, at least as much as possible. As edifying as it might be for me to write at length about myself, I have a nagging feeling somewhere in the back of my mind that others might find it tedious. Nevertheless, I undertake the task because I see the principles involved everywhere I look, in every direction.
Battles between principals are often fought between associates and proxies, and attacks on associates and proxies are often maneuvers that are really intended to strike at one of the principals. If we don’t come to understand this, then we really don’t understand the nature of the war we are in.
Intelligent fighters always attack the point in the line that they believe to be weakest. They attack the place that is most vulnerable, and not the place that is least vulnerable. Sometimes the “weak point” really is vulnerable, and other times they are in for a surprise. But they always attack the place they believe will get them good results. And why do they attack where they do? Because they can.
Let us make up a political example. Let us say we have a conservative senator, one who is quite capable of defending himself, and defending his various stands on the issues of the day. His staff are never worried about it when he goes to be interviewed by the ravenous hounds of the media. And so that is why enterprising reporters want to dig up the fact that a low-level staffer of his once attended a conference that was also attended by some white supremacists. Now the senator is not up on all the details of that particular transgression (or invented transgression), and so he is now being forced into a topic he is (by definition) not prepared for. He is therefore faced with a choice — loyalty to one of his staffers, vouching for that staffer without being sure that the staffer is actually trustworthy, or giving in to an obvious manipulative play by the media. The senator generally knows what he is talking about and so if they want to put him on his heels, they need to get him to a place where he does not know what he is talking about. And if it is not a scandal with regard to him, the next best thing is to discredit someone who dwells in his proximity.
Lest You Misunderstand
Culture wars cannot be fought without cultures colliding, and cultures are made up of hundreds of thousands of people. Given the nature of the case, there will often be people of real integrity on the other side, and there will be skunks on your side. Abner was an enemy of David, but an honorable man, while Joab, on David’s side, was a shrewd but dishonorable man. On top of that, there are first rate intellects on the other side, and top drawer doofuses on yours.
So when cultures clash, there are always side skirmishes going on. The tactic works like this. The main body that your adversary targets is being discredited (or attempts are being made to discredit it) through pointing out the goings-on of various bit-players.
In my case, I have seen it working both ways. In other words, I am often used as the scarecrow to make respectable evangelical leaders back off from what they would otherwise say or do. “You aren’t going to invite Wilson to that conference, are you? Didn’t you know he denies sola fide?” And I have seen it work the other way too, when co-workers and associates of mine are enticed into various states of “that’s not good” as a way of getting at me. Either that or they are falsely accused of something as a way of getting at me.
Whatever direction it goes, the name of the game is guilt by association. Either I am the one with whom people must not associate, or people with me are the ones with whom I must not associate, and the issue gets complicated when, for various reasons, the charges turn out to have something to them.
Given the position I am in, and given the nature of the things I have been given to write, I have often seen people around me, or connected to me in various ways, adopt a number of different postures in response to the problems I present for them. Some of those postures are righteous and courageous, some are righteous and prudent, some are relatively righteous and trying to stay out of it, some are unrighteous and allied to me anyway, some are unrighteous and distancing, and some are unrighteous and defecting.
All these different responses can be seen among people who are part of the same ministry I am in (church, school, denomination) or they might be a part of the same general eco-system (Reformed conference circuit, Reformed blogosphere, etc.). And the central point I am driving at is that this is a feature, not a bug.
God wants it all to go this way.
Consider the Set Up
Jesus had His Judas. Paul had his Demas. David had his Joab. Elisha had his Gehazi. Hosea had his Gomer. Job had his Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar. Barnabas had his John Mark. Moses had his Korah.
What on earth makes us think that any kingdom endeavor whatever can be built without the appointed and requisite number of people flaking, distancing, or opposing? I would go so far as to say that unless the work attracts false friends and saboteurs it is probably not the Lord’s work. If the devil is leaving you and your institution entirely alone, it is probably because he is being a gentleman, and is showing his deep appreciation of the fact that you are leaving him entirely alone. Turnabout is fair play, after all.
There are two problems we have. The first is when the world is perceived in simplistic black and white ways. We are tempted to say that whoever is not for us is against us,. But Jesus replies that it is actually more complicated than that. Whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50 ). And some of the people who are not against us in this sense are out there doing their own thing in their own way. It is just that they went out and cast some demons out in Jesus’ name without checking in with headquarters first.
The second problem is related, and can be seen when we fail to make distinctions between, say, a person who is being righteous and prudent and someone who is being unrighteous and disingenuous. When someone like Obadiah hides a hundred prophets of the Lord, protecting them ( 1 Kings 18:3-4), it still would have been the easiest thing in the world for some discernment blogger to lambast him for still being part of Ahab’s court at all. Some people keep their heads down out of cowardice and others keep their heads down out of courage, like Hushai (2 Sam. 16:16).
It is not necessary to fight every battle. It is not compromise when you don’t fight every battle openly. But if you have gone for a significant length of time without having fought any battle, then maybe you might ought to wonder about it a bit.
I have been in the ministry for over forty years, and have been involved in building a number of institutions. So we are talking about decades, and scores of co-workers. It should go without saying that many of these co-laborers in the work have been magnificent, and without them nothing worthwhile would ever have been accomplished. At the same time, when it comes to various forms of sabotage I have pretty much seen it all, whether deliberate or not.
I have seen defections. I have seen people go limp. I have seen people try to steer the canoe by leaning the wrong way in it. I have seen massive reinterpretations. I have seen incompetence masked by “principled” disagreements over vision. I have seen men blow up their usefulness in ministry because they couldn’t stand up to their wives. I have seen men who were wonderful sergeants take it into their heads that they should be promoted to general. Woven throughout there is usually a good deal of Girardian crackle.
My father has also been in ministry for many years — since the late fifties. A few years ago, he was talking with some of us, and someone asked him about regrets with regard to all that ministry. He said, yes, he regretted not firing more people earlier. Now there’s an interesting end of life perspective. He would get one good year out of someone, and then three mediocre years, all the while hoping to get another good year, which somehow never materialized.
The Pauline Reality
Consider what the apostle Paul had to deal with. And I am not talking about the persecution from the Jewish leaders he had to manage. I am talking about what was going on in his own ranks, in the midst of his own entourage.
John Mark deserted him at Pamphylia (Acts 13:13), likely because John Mark was sympathetic to the Judaizers, and Paul had just preached the gospel to Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7), the first cold call Gentile convert. And as a downstream consequence of that, he lost Barnabas also (Acts 15:39).
On this same issue of resisting the Judaizers, Paul had to rebuke the apostle Peter to his face (Gal. 2:11). Even Barnabas had been affected by the hypocrisy, and perhaps his confrontation with Paul there before the Jerusalem Council (Gal. 2:13) had something to do with why Barnabas left with John Mark after the Jerusalem Council — perhaps somewhat bruised by the earlier encounter.
And Demas was a co-laborer with Paul (Phile 24), who eventually left because he loved the world (2 Tim. 4:10).
In the middle of a long list of the hazards he had endured (2 Cor. 11: 24-31), the great apostle lists this one — “in perils among false brethren.”
And then all his associates in Asia ditched him. “This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me . . .” (2 Tim. 1:15).
Think about this. A bunch of no-name Christians in Asia were concerned about their names, and so they deserted the one whose name would later adorn that magnificent cathedral in London. Being the kind of people they were, they no doubt wondered how they could possibly get their names into a position of such high honor. Unfortunately for them, the answer is that you get to that place by not giving a damn about what happens to your name.
Hushai’s name will be held in honor to the end of the world because he was willing to be thought a traitor at the time.
In sum, there were people that Paul didn’t want with him anymore, and there were people that didn’t want Paul with them anymore. All of this is very confusing, right?
Associations Are Strategic
Ministry is an associative endeavor. It therefore follows that associations are an essential component of strategic ministry. It is not wrong to be careful about your associations. And it is not wrong for others to be careful about their associations with you. But the question that must always be asked is “what by standard?”
And so, by what standard? Are you being “careful” by the standards set for you by well-coiffed and hair-sprayed PR experts and marketing consultants? These are the people who would not have welcomed Saul of Tarsus to Jerusalem, or taken him around to introduce him to all the apostles (Acts 9:27).
There is a worldly standard, and there is a godly standard. In the final analysis, those are the only two options. Sure, be careful. Be careful in the eyes of God. But this is not the same thing as being wise and prudent in the view of those Respectable and Untarnished Souls who counsel you to have nothing to do with C.J. Mahaney. That might be good and right, but still bad for the brand.
“The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: But, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me. The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day: and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well” (2 Tim. 1:16–18).
For Instance . . .
Notice below how both Bradly and Clark are attacking associations of mine that they believe are susceptible to their kind of cancel culture pressure. Note also that both these men are unwilling for any kind of direct debate. A direct debate would reveal that their handling of the last three decades of history is atrocious. And so why should we trust them about what happened centuries ago?