Sin and Christian leaders...

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The recent debate on this site with members of the Pyromaniacs team over the inclusion of John MacArthur's study notes in the inclusive-language NIV 2011 seems to have concluded in a breach between Tim and me and the members of the Pyro team. Phil Johnson took down the Pyromaniacs link to Baylyblog shortly after commenting here and we've had no contact with him since. 

Now that the dust of debate has settled, a few observations might be made, the most important of which is the dangerous tendency of shepherds of God's flock to become hardened to the convicting work of God's Spirit as they advance in age.

If there's one point of Calvinism's TULIP that those who claim to be Reformed tend to jettison over time, it's the "T" of total depravity. Yet despite being just one of the letters of TULIP, on "T" hinges all of Reformed theology and life.

Tim and I believe no characteristic is more important in those who serve as shepherds of the flock of Jesus Christ than a growing lifelong awareness of personal sinfulness. And not just sin as a condition, but sins in particular, actual sins. We're convinced Paul was stating a theme the Spirit intends as the heartbeat of shepherds' ministries when he wrote, "I am the chief of sinners."

Unfortunately, age (and often success) tends to diminish our consciousness of personal depravity...

As we age we grow inured to our hidden and internal sins. Externally, we become less willing to admit weakness and more protective of our public persona. We fear the appearance of sin upsetting the apple cart of our success so we pursue a sterling reputation, becoming safe men whose hope is not to end life fighting, but coasting--gliding sleekly, richly and smoothly into the gilded harbor of Evangelical success.

Worst of all, we come to believe our own press releases. We listen so closely to the cheers of our boosters that we become deaf to discordant notes. We grow to fear the appearance of sin more than sin itself. We shun risk to avoid criticism. Somehow, along the way in our passage into middle age we come to believe that we are less-than-totally depraved; we begin to justify actual sin on the basis of our publicly impeccable status. And then things really begin to fall apart.... We're sinning visibly by this point, leaving behind wives of our youth, pursuing fame and fortune, sending rebellious, godless children into adulthood, writing our names in the stars, and ultimately compromising the Word both in teaching and by deed--but, hey, it's all good because we're not like other men; we're stainless, we've achieved an impeccable and unimpeachable brand.

Really, how much difference is there between the Pope and many Evangelical leaders other than size of followings? Both are viewed by followers as infallible. Neither seeks actively to counter such acclaim. If anything, advantage in the comparison must go to Roman Catholicism which openly admits that its leader sins, requiring him to make confession and do penance alongside the sheep he serves. 

But even as the pope makes confession, Evangelical leaders on the other side of the Atlantic assume postures of impeccability. None of us are like Moses who sinned grievously late in life by failing to hold God up as holy. There's not a David in our midst who would commit sin after sin in pursuit of middle-aged lust. There's no Peter who faltered in the Gospel out of fear of the Jews, years after Pentecost. No super-apostles here--no preaching out of envy. No self-pitying prophets who think they're alone in following God. No Jonah who refuses to declare God's message of judgment. No doubting Thomas. 

We think admission of sin weakens our authority, diminishing the effectiveness of our ministry--an idea which makes sense only if spiritual authority is vested in the man. But spiritual authority does not rest in the man. Authority lies in the Word of God, the call of the pastor, and the indwelling Spirit of God. Together, these things work to cloak individual men in authority, but an authority that is extrinsic rather than intrinsic.

Tim and I are far from guiltless in this. We know well the temptation to cloak our sin by pretending to possess an authority and holiness that belong to God alone, and we have not always resisted it. This is why we've erected certain safeguards around our lives. We challenge each other, calling each other to task for actual sin and error. We invite the leaders in our churches to challenge us. I tell elders at Christ the Word that I know I'm a sinner and that I need their help to identify and fight my sin. I invite them to call me to task for sin. And Tim and I both seek to avoid compromising areas: because the love of money is a huge temptation for all men, Tim routinely publishes his salary. I've asked the elders at Christ the Word to publicize my own--and though they've chosen not to, adults in the congregation are able to obtain my salary information from any elder (for what it's worth, my salary is almost identical to Tim's).

Not only in areas of financial temptation; but elsewhere, as well, we're fighting sin. Right now I'm in the initial stages of a year-long vow not to use a computer for any purpose of personal entertainment--no games, no surfing the internet on my browser, no movies or Youtube or FlipBook. Why? Isn't it obvious? Because I've sinned by allowing the idols of this world to enter my life through my computer. I'm an idolater. Personally. Me, may God forgive me.

I strive to face my own sin. I make confession a central part of my daily prayer. So does Tim. So do the men in leadership around us. Together we promote confession and repentance in our churches. We cultivate awareness of personal depravity at Christ the Word by kneeling in confession at the very start of worship. We incorporate confession into the fabric of our Pathway home groups, encouraging those who worship in these mini-congregations to confess specific sins in separate male and female prayer times. We have a ministry to men in our church struggling with the idolatry of pornography. We call men to confess their idols as part of this ministry.

We don't do this just to serve as examples to the world. We do this because it's the need of our own hearts. We do this because we're sinners shepherding obstinate, sinful sheep. If there's one thing above all I seek personally from God, now that I'm past the age of fifty, it's that He keeps me more and more aware of the truth of the T in TULIP. Show me my sin, God. If you do, I will love Jesus more, I will serve Him more faithfully, and my children will be preserved from my wickedness.

This is the confounding thing about our recent disagreement with the Pyromaniac team: they are perplexed and outraged that we suggest John MacArthur isn't just a sinner in theory--but in specific and defineable ways.

Is it sin to teach falsehood? Of course. Even John MacArthur would say so.

Is it sin to ally ourselves to false teaching? Again, of course.

Can a version of the Bible be sinful? Certainly. Is anyone familiar with the Jehovah's Witness version of Scripture which mutes Christ's deity?

Would it be wrong for me as a pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ to ally myself with a version of Scripture specifically produced to promote false teaching--even if I personally oppose it? I suspect there'd be no disagreement with the Pyromaniacs on this point, as long as the issue were my name and my notes inside a Watchtower version of the Bible.

Does the muting of God's Word by those who prefer earthly wisdom constitute serious sin? Tim and I believe so and have said so for years. John MacArthur agrees, going so far as to say that inclusive-language bibles constitute an "attack on the Bible." Should it then surprise anyone that we believe John to be in error for placing his name upon such a singularly sinful and defective version of God's Word?

Is John capable of sin? In theory, yes: everyone knows this has to be the answer. But actually? Real sin? Sin even in his work as a pastor?

Is John above being taken to task for the motives behind his public actions? The men at Pyromaniacs were especially incensed that Tim and I suggested finances might play a role in John's alliance with the NIV 2011. Yet it seems obvious to us that when the act is sinful the motives behind it can't be pure...

Suggesting the deed was the product of impersonal financial considerations was a mark of respect for John MacArthur. The other options are mostly far worse.

If John has sinned by allying himself with a version of Scripture he himself describes as "distinguished by its deference to the feminist movement," a version that he himself says "has altered the Word of God, changed the Word of God to make it compatible with the contemporary feminist egalitarian movement," are we wrong to deduce base motives behind his doing so? Is it possible for pure and holy motives to produce sinful actions?

John's stamp of approval on this version of Scripture promotes the error of the version itself. And please, don't tell me that the "John MacArthur" logo emblazoned across the NIV 2011 doesn't constitute endorsement. Nor will claims of "non-endorsement" make much sense to those who buy this version on the basis of the MacArthur logo....

If the act is wrong in itself, the motives behind it must be equally wrong. This is the crux of the issue between Tim and me and those defending John's actions at Pyromaniacs. We believe it's possible for great men of God to sin. We believe men of God who sin are better served by friends who challenge them in their actions than by spokesmen who assert their leader's impeccable credentials. We believe that the wounds of a friend are faithful, and we call on the Pyro team to admit this personally; but also to admit it of the man they defend--a man we also respect.

Finally, we hope at some point in the future to be reconciled to the men at Pyromaniacs. But if this happens, it will be the product of the work of the Holy Spirit producing humility on both sides. (DB)