Appealing to the Cheap Seats

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Normally I would file comments on the Steve Wilkins deal under Auburn Avenue Stuff. Why not? It’s the name of his church, after all. But there is another aspect of this, and so I want to make just a few comments about this thing under “A Justice Primer.”

This is not an allegation of personal wrongdoing which is denied by the accused, and which then needs to be proven. In that kind of situation, we need to have all the factors that I have written about earlier — presumption of innocence, two and three witnesses, accountability for the accusers, and so on. But this is a different kind of allegation entirely, and evidence needs to be handled differently.

Not surprisingly, the Bible has something to say about this as well. Jesus was accused of teaching certain doctrines that His adversaries (for various reasons) twisted and misunderstood, and it is very interesting to note what the Lord’s response to this was.

The high priest then asked Jesus of his disciples, and of his doctrine. Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing. Why askest thou me? ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them: behold, they know what I said. And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so? Jesus answered him, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me? (John 18:18-23)

So the high priest asked Jesus about His followers, and he asked about His teaching. Jesus, in response to this “controlled environment” grilling, appealed to the cheap seats. He says, in effect, that His teaching ministry was public. He said that He taught these things in synagogues. He denied that He was involved in teaching anything in a clandestine way. Jesus then says that because of this He doesn’t need to answer the question, and that the men who are interrogating Him need to ask the general public what went down. They know what I teach, Jesus said. The response to this was for one of the officers to strike Jesus, and accuse Him of despising the lawfully constituted high priest. Jesus wasn’t having any, and said, “If there is a problem with what I said, then what is it? And if there is not, then why did you hit me?”

Now let me stop for a moment. Given how words can be twisted and misunderstood, and certainly have been in this controversy, my point here is not that Steve is Jesus, and that the SJC are the Saducees. My point is simply a structural and juridical one. What was the nature of the charge? What was nature of the (appropriate) response that Jesus gave? And where did the appeal go?

This kind of response — appealing to the public — is completely inappropriate if the charge against someone is that he murdered Smith on the evening of the thirteenth. In that kind of situation you marshall the witnesses (and there needs to be two or three credible witnesses who saw him do it) and you evaluate and probe their testimony. The defense cannot get anywhere by producing ten witnesses who didn’t see him do it. Appeal to the crowd under such circumstances is demagogery, not justice.

But when the charge concerns what someone has been teaching and saying in public, it is fully appropriate to appeal to that public, which is precisely what Jesus did in this situation. I will have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but I have known Steve for many years, and have heard him teach and preach in many settings. I have read what he has written here. I have heard him explain his full commitment to the doctrinal system found in the Westminster Confession to his critics, face to face, and in an unambiguous way. What he has made available to the public in this setting is fully consistent with what I have heard him say in other places and times.

All this is simply a biblical defense of what I urged everyone to do yesterday. Read what Steve wrote, listen to what he has taught, and then wait patiently for the response of the PCA. The more people who are watching this, the better. This is a public event, and it concerns the public teaching of a public minister. This is a place where many people are involved in making sure justice is done.

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