Sinful Means to a Glorious End
Tim ChalliesTim Challies, a self-employed web designer, is a pioneer in the Christian blogosphere, having one of the most widely read and recognized Christian blogs anywhere (www.challies.com). He is also editor of Discerning Reader (www.discerningreader.com), a site dedicated to offering thoughtful reviews of books that are of interest to Christians. He is author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, published by Crossway.
- 2011 Aug 19
I am convinced that one of the greatest but most subtle spiritual dangers Christians face is pragmatism. I have written about this in the past, usually in the context of statements such as, “Never criticize any method that God is blessing,” something Rick Warren wrote in The Purpose Driven Church. Over the past few days I have seen pragmatism rearing its ugly head in the ongoing discussions about C.J. Mahaney and the difficulties he finds himself in.
In this article I want to define pragmatism and show how and why it draws us. From there I hope to show how it has impacted the discussion about Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and to show the danger this may present. I expect that this will be the last thing I write on this situation; I have posted this article only because I believe the events before us have brought the church an important opportunity to face a growing challenge.
A Pragmatism Primer
Pragmatism is a school of philosophy that arose in the United States in the late nineteenth century. It is rooted in the teachings of men like John Stuart Mill who exerted a formative influence on philosophers John Dewey, who subsequently applied pragmatism to education, and William James who applied it to religion. These men believed that the way to determine truth was to examine practical results. In its essence, pragmatism holds that truth is determined by consequences. Whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, depends primarily on its results.
Having been founded by philosophers, pragmatism was cemented into the Western mindset by the Industrial Revolution. Pragmatism in industry has changed the way we live. James Boice says “The goal is to find the fastest, least expensive way of producing products and getting things done. Pragmatism has improved living standards for millions who now enjoy the benefits of home ownership, adequate clothing, indoor plumbing…and abundant food.” With such great success in the business world, it should come as no surprise that pragmatism also found a ready home in the church. This inevitably brings about a particular challenge.
Since the time of the Reformation, Protestants have affirmed that the Bible alone is to be our standard of morality and truth. This doctrine, known as sola scriptura or “Scripture alone,” was the foundational doctrine of the Reformation—the doctrine upon which every other doctrine depended. Because each claims primacy in determining truth, pragmatism and sola scriptura necessarily stand in opposition to one another. While most Christians affirm sola scriptura in theory, we are prone to deny it with our words or actions.
The sneaky allure of pragmatism is that it invites us to rejoice in good results even if that means ignoring or rationalizing what the Lord forbids. It allows us to judge not by the standards of the Bible, which has a habit of getting in the way of our plans and desires, but by the results we see. There is some of the pragmatist in all of us, I’m convinced, and only through the well-trained, Spirit-filled Christian mind are we able to begin to break free from its grip.
Sovereign Grace and Wikileaks
What I have not seen in the discussions about the now-infamous document leak is a compelling Scriptural case that this method of exposing a fellow Christian is consistent with the Bible. What I have seen, though, is many appeals to the good or potential good being brought about by it. In other words, the action of leaking the documents is considered to be good because it accomplishes good. This is dangerous, dangerous ground to tread and appears to me to show the influence of pragmatism.
Now don’t take the easy way out here and claim that I am running interference for Mahaney or SGM or anyone else. Nor am I making a statement about whether the content of the documents is true or false. That is not my purpose here. Rather, I want us to think about the morality of leaking documents to the public as a means of drawing attention to sin (or perceived sin) in a fellow Christian.
Allow me a brief aside to say this: I know that Brent Detwiler did not actually upload the documents to the public web site. However, he prepared the documents and, by his own admission, forwarded them to a long list of people. I believe this means that he bears responsibility for the documents being made public, even if he was not involved in the actual act of uploading them.
When we ask, “Should those documents have been leaked?” it is crucial that we separate the actions from the results. Why? Because God does not draw a necessary correlation between God-glorifying means and God-glorifying results; God does not necessarily place his stamp of approval on our actions when he uses them in a positive way. We do not absolve ourselves of responsibility if, in his providence, God uses our unwise or sinful actions to bring about positive results.
The strange reality is that God specializes in using sinful means to bring about glorious ends. The Bible is full of examples of this. Just looking at the Messianic line our minds are drawn to Tamar and Judah or David and Bathsheba, clear examples of the Lord using sinful means to bring about the most beautiful end of the birth of a Savior. Of course the cross of Christ offers the most powerful example of all. Through outrageously sinful, treasonous acts committed against the Creator of the universe, the Lord brought about the most God-glorifying act in all of history. Were we to judge this pragmatically, we could excuse the actions of those involved, from the religious leaders who demanded his crucifixion, to the secular leaders who ordered his death and who nailed him to the cross. But the Bible would never allow us to go there; it would never allow us to minimize the horror of such sin.
This means that statements like, “God used it” or “God can use it” or “God will use it” or “Look what God is doing!” are not enough. We need to look to the Bible as our ultimate standard of what is right and what is wrong. We need to approach the Bible humbly, asking the Spirit to show us if this course of action is appropriate or inappropriate, consistent with biblical conflict resolution, or inconsistent with it.
Don’t Miss the Opportunity
Here is my encouragement to all of us: Let’s not miss this opportunity to consider what happens when Wikileaks meets the Bible. As the wikileaks mentality gains traction in our society, making heroes of those who expose others, it will necessarily also make its impact felt in the church. I have said it several times in several articles: This is the first wikileaks-style situation in this little slice of the Christian world but it will not be the last.
As it pertains to SGM and C.J. Mahaney, I have no doubt that the Lord will use this situation in a way that brings him glory. He will use it to refine his people, to address systemic issues, to reveal weakness, to uncover foolishness and pride, to heal old wounds, to expose mountains of sin so we can rejoice in the grace that covers it all. He may even use it to shut down churches or a whole organization or to remove people from ministry. If this situation does not bring an end to SGM for the Lord’s glory, it will make it stronger and better and more biblical for the Lord’s glory. All of this is consistent with the character of God and the way he works in and through his people.
But, but, we absolutely must not fall for the allure of pragmatism and allow all of this to convince us that the means of getting here have been justified. While we may disagree on many things related to this whole situation, I am sure we can at least agree that we ought to be guided by the Word of God. Only if we can arrive at a robust, biblical theology of document leaks—of making private information public in order to expose sin—can we ever consider making this the way we respond to conflict.
Here are a few of the questions we will need to be prepared to answer:
When Matthew 18:17 says to make unrepentant sin known to the church, is this the responsibility of
church leaders or church members? Is a wikileaks-style document leak a valid form of making a
person’s sin known? Is sin to be made known to a local church, or to the wider community of
When 1 Timothy 5:20 commands that an unrepentant elder be publicly rebuked, does this mean
that a lay-person can make a leaders sin known, or is it only leaders who are to do this? Is a
wikileaks-style document leak a valid form of revealing the sin of a leader? Is the sin of a leader
to be made known to a local church, or to the wider community of Christians? What if that leader
has a very public ministry?
Do we need to distinguish between interpersonal conflicts and other forms of conflict? What
about cases in which a person believes there is genuine danger to other people in allowing
a leader to remain in place?
Under what circumstances should those directly involved in a situation read leaked documents?
Under what circumstances should those not directly involved in a situation read leaked documents?
Because we want to do what is consistent with the Bible there are theological reasons to answer these questions. There are also practical reasons. If we find that the Bible allows leaked documents as a potential form of conflict resolution, it may change the way we use email or other forms of media. The ramifications may be very widespread.
No matter who you think is right or wrong in this particular situation, whether you know the particulars or not, please step back and consider if and when and whether leaks of this kind are consistent with the Bible. I am confident that there are many more leaks to come and we need to be prepared to deal with them in a way that honors God.