How old are you?
I am sixty-four.
A number of years ago, Christianity Today ran a feature on you entitled “The Controversialist.” Have you always been a controversialist?
No, not at all. For about two-thirds of my life, it was relatively free of controversy. And in the last third of my life—where that has not been true—the controversies ebb and flow. There has not been constant, non-stop controversy. But they have become a feature.
Why do you think that is?
Back during the placid years, I used to wonder about it. Paul says that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). And I would look around at my ministry spot located, as far as I could tell, on the sunny side of the street, and wonder what I was doing wrong. But then, one day, as though somebody somewhere had given a signal . . . there was—all of a sudden—a host of incoming dead cats. I have not worried about the 2 Timothy problem for some years now.
What do you mean when you say that your previous life was “relatively free” of controversy?
I don’t want to give the impression that everyone at all times thought everything was dandy. Of course, there were the ordinary bumps and huffs, and things to be sorted out. But they could be sorted out, and usually were.
I would say the battlefield changed.
Okay. What does that mean?
It means two things. First, we were small fry before. We were busy enough, but almost all of it was under the radar, establishing various ministries and institutions here in Moscow. Logos School was planted in the early eighties, Credenda was started as a magazine in the late eighties, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning was published in the early nineties (when I was almost forty), the Association of Classical and Christian Schools was founded here in Moscow very shortly after that, and also Canon Press, and New St. Andrews College was then established, and you get the picture. There were great and important doings happening elsewhere in the world, but we were off in Sherwood Forest, doing our thing.
The second thing has to do with what was happening out in the great wide world. Anybody with a decent cultural memory will tell you that within the last generation, our culture has gone off a cliff. It used to be that you were crazy if you predicted something like homosexual “marriages,” and now you are crazy if you try to remember a time when we didn’t have them. And when the culture took a header off the cliff, most established evangelical institutions took the stance of what might be called “accommodated opposition.” We have been articulating, during this time, what might be called “root and branch opposition.” Because we didn’t budge, we became what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a hate group, a badge we wear with honor and distinction.
Had you always planned to remain in Moscow?
No, actually. Nancy and I had initially planned to bring up our kids here, and then move back east to try to “make a dent.” We wanted to raise our family first, being fully convinced that kids and grandkids who love the Lord should be your principal qualification for ministry. After that was established, or so we thought, we would be free to try to “make a difference” where (at that time) differences could be made. If you try to make a difference too soon, if you head off for the big city prematurely, for two cents your big vision can turn into nothing more than self-promotion. Protecting your testimony morphs into protecting your brand.
So why are you still in Moscow?
What happened was the digital revolution. The reason we thought we had to move somewhere else was determined by the shape of the world we had grown up in. There were a limited number of major cities, major media centers, and important universities. There were only three broadcast networks. The world we grew up in had been shaped by the Industrial Revolution, and it was all about the hubs. But during the eighties, I realized that what was then quaintly called “desktop publishing” meant that everything I wanted to do could be done from right here. So we set to work doing it.
Is that all?
No—it was just the beginning. Desktop publishing made something like Credenda possible, but remember that this was still before the Internet. Personal computers were really something at the time, but they were just the tip of the spear. This particular transition was complete when I started blogging in 2004. There have been other aspects to it, but that is what settled the strategic shift.
So you are saying you benefited from the digital anarchy?
In a manner of speaking. The evangelical legacy institutions—magazines, publishing houses, seminaries, colleges, and so on—had played an important “gate-keeping” role. But the digital revolution has upended that gate-keeping function for everyone, Christian and pagan alike. For the legacy-minded, it seems like anarchy, but what is actually happening is that a new system of gate-keeping is taking shape. What that final shape will be is not yet clear. It is still the Wild West, and we don’t know who will be the mayor in Dodge twenty years from now.
So what does this have to do with controversy? Anything?
Yes, I think it does. Because of these new technologies, our voice was given a disproportionate weight. We had just been some pipsqueaks in northern Idaho, ministering on a local level. All of a sudden, we found ourselves speaking to a much broader audience, we were saying something distinct from the evangelical establishment, and so we rose to the new and dignified level of needing to be opposed.
What audience were you trying to reach?
The people we were trying to speak to (and for) were saints who did not appear to us to have any representation in our public life anywhere. From the beginning I sought to write for evangelical Christians who were not really happy with the state of the Church around them, but who couldn’t quite put their finger on why they were unhappy. What I sought to do is articulate their discontents. It resonated. They subscribed their Christmas card lists to Credenda (which we used to send out for free). They started sending their kids to New St. Andrews College. And so on.
What did you mean by your voice having a “disproportionate weight?”
I meant that initially we seemed like a much bigger deal than we were. This was the result of a combination of factors. First, when you publish on the Internet, it is like your voice is coming from a balcony somewhere, giving it kind of an authoritative mystique. Secondly, if you can write, and with one click your words are on the other side of the world in seconds, word can get around. Third, the writing voice I have adopted is the voice of a critic, which puts a certain kind of person back on their heels—usually the kind of person who ought to be spending more time on his heels. And fourth, when people react to the first three things and start accusing you of outlandish things, they become the instrument of getting you the actual promotion.
So if you will pardon me for saying so, a lot of this sounds like Bulverism, explaining why your adversaries say about you what they do, instead of answering the content of what they say.
That could be a reasonable point, if you ignored the lengths I have gone to in order to provide detailed answers to all the various accusations available to anyone who is interested. In the menu bar of my blog, I have a tab called Controversy Library. If you ever get stuck in a motel somewhere in a strange city on a rainy Saturday, with nothing much else to do, I commend it to you. Or if your Aunt Millie noticed one of my inoffensive books on your coffee table and informed you (with grave concern) that I deny justification by faith and defend pedophilia, you can go there to find out what actually gives.
Your attitude toward controversy seems kind of breezy. Do you really not care?
I really don’t care about a lot of it. Jesus did say (and it was not a mere suggestion) that when people revile you, and say “all manner of evil” against you falsely, our response is to rejoice and be “exceeding glad” (Matt. 5:11-12). He really did say to do that. God intends to establish His kingdom over just this sort false accusation. It is a feature, not a bug. How can I expect homosexuals to believe the Bible about their perversions if I don’t believe the Bible about my perversions? And feeling sorry for yourself is an emotional perversion.
You said you don’t care about “a lot” of it. Is there any element of it that you do care about? What part of this is difficult for you?
Yes. There are aspects of this that I have had to work through. The most difficult challenges in this area have to do with friends who turn coat, fade away, or friends who flake.
“For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: Neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, My guide, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, And walked unto the house of God in company” (Psalm 55:12–14).
When someone across the country with seventeen Twitter followers tells all seventeen of them that I am a racist, or that I give aid and support to pedophiles, the words of Christ mentioned above are relatively easy to apply. But when someone who really should know better, and who actually does know better, goes south on you, or fails to defend you when they really needed to, that is really difficult. But even though it is difficult, the words of Christ still apply. If it is still slanderous, and if someone still said it, no matter who said it, the phrase on the tip of your tongue needs to be “exceeding glad.”
Sometimes the way of obedience is clear from the outset. Other times it takes a series of choices to get there. When everyone in Asia deserted Paul (2 Tim. 1:15), I think he felt it.
Looking back, would you say that such gladness has been vindicated?
Yes, every time. Some of the worst episodes in my life, looking back, were an obnoxious container holding some of the greatest blessings I have ever received—a sweet nut in an ugly shell. And during all these controversies, our church has continued to grow steadily. The community is flourishing.
Are you ever going to tell those stories?
Probably not. A few years ago, I prevailed on my father to write his autobiography, which he is finishing up now. There are a few stories in it that don’t really drill down into the full details of what happened. The reason is that there is no way to tell some stories without reflecting really poorly on some of the other characters in it. When someone has been a stinker in public that is one thing. But if they have been petty or vindictive in private, or if they folded like a cheap suit in a back room somewhere when they shouldn’t have . . . such things shouldn’t make it into any Christian’s memoirs. The Westminster Standards say that we should be jealous for the reputations of others.
Is there ever a point where you wonder if it is really true that the rest of the army is out of step? Do you ever wonder if it might actually be you?
I think the Scriptures require us to be running constant inventory on our own souls. “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). An instance of not doing this would be believing that you were being Athanasius contra mundum when you are actually being a lone crank, crying in the wilderness, out where nobody is listening.
But doesn’t it make sense that some Christian leader across the country might think twice about retweeting something you write? He doesn’t know you, doesn’t know the facts, and doesn’t want a big stink attached to his ministry because he retweeted some witticism from “a defender of pedophiles.”
It makes perfect sense. That is why trolls do what they do. Within their truncated world, it works. That is why, incidentally, I defended Roy Moore the way I did. It was not because I thought the accusations impossible. But due process matters. Trials matter. Evidence matters. Facing your accuser matters. Cross-examination matters. Modern Christians are going along with the jettisoning of centuries of legal protections, in order to cover their own PR butts in real time, and it is extremely short-sighted. Once the jettisoning is complete, what makes us think we will not be the next targets? We need to develop an acute ability for identifying lynch mobs. When the lynch mob assembled a century ago in another state, it takes no courage to stand up to that mob now. What takes courage now is to stand up against a lynch mob assembling in the present. This is because—you need to write this down—lynch mobs in the present are always popular. Not only that, but sometimes they hang someone who was actually guilty of the crime he was accused of committing. But that doesn’t matter, not if you believe in the rule of law.
Now you know that some people are going to say that what you just said was defending a certain percentage of “strange fruit” lynchings.
Yes, I know they will. Their condemnation is just.
So lots of people have pulled their skirts away from you. Are you starting to feel sorry for yourself?
No, not at all. This is how God writes His stories. It all lines up with that quote first uttered by the vastly learned Mr. Internet. “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.” And besides, there have been a number of individuals who have been just great, who have refused to go along with the troll shame game. John Piper, for example. Or most recently, Summer White Jaeger at Sheologians.
Why do you think that is?
I think it is because they are Baptists. Baptists still know how to fight. I am a Presbyterian, but I sometimes think that all the fighting Presbyterians were killed in the American War for Independence. Modern Presbyterians are unparalleled at writing histories of battles, and three-inch thick theologies of surface-to-air missiles. So credit where credit is due. John Frame once wrote about the problem of “Machen’s Warrior Children,” but I sometimes think that should have been called “Machen’s Bean Bag and Powder Puff Brigade.” But that reminds me. Machen was a dude and he knew how to fight, and he fought the right enemy. But he died three quarters of a century ago. I think Frame was identifying a very real problem, but it had more to do with quarreling, whining, and fussing and less to do with being “warriors.” Warriors is too dignified a name for fussers.
You speak about “fighting” at lot. What is the enemy?
For Christians the enemy is always unbelief. But in our time, the culture of unbelief is a metastasized secularism, taking the form of every manner of sexual perversion. The sexual revolution has set up her guillotines in the square, and the Terror is about to commence. That will be seen when every form of copulation must be applauded, as though we were a stadium full of North Korean cheerleaders. That will be the culmination of it all. But the commencement of this sexual revolution—in which many Christians and Christian institutions are already complicit—is the demand that feminine feelings must be treated as the foundational measurement of social justice. If your classical Christian school, or if your Reformed church, sets policy in order to prevent hurt feelings, or worse yet, sets policy to prevent hypothetical hurt feelings at some indeterminate time in the distant future, your institution is already toast.
You are against feminine feelings? Crikey.
Feminine feelings are great. They are to be guarded and shepherded along with all other good things, given to us by a gracious God. But feminine feelings must never be made into shepherds. Feminine sensibilities in their appointed place make life tolerable. Feminine feelings made into guardians and shepherds will always make life into a vile tyranny. If you doubt what I say, look around.
How is this not anti-woman?
Being anti-harpy is only anti-woman if you quietly sneak in a premise that says that all women are harpies. But I hotly deny that.
We may request another interview to follow up. Are you up for that?