Canadian pastor and writer Tim Challies is a book reviewer. He runs a very successful and widely read website at Challies.com. Many people, including myself, read his book reviews of Christian books with eagerness, because he is loving, credible, and discerning. As for discerning, Tim wrote the book on discernment, literally. He is a good writer and a gentle Christian even when he writes a negative review.
Last week Mr Challies reviewed Ann Voskamp’s book “One Thousand Gifts“. He gave it a ‘not recommended,’ stating at the first paragraph of his three paragraph conclusion, “Though One Thousand Gifts is not without some strengths, in its own subtle way I believe that it can and will prove dangerous, at least to some. Many will read it, embrace their need for gratitude, and genuinely be more grateful to God. This is well and good. There are many books that contain valuable takeaways even if they also contain significant weaknesses. It doesn’t make you a bad person or an immature Christian if you’ve read it and enjoyed it. But perhaps you’d do well to make sure you haven’t bought into it all the way.” He goes on to praise its strengths but overall he cautions the discerning reader because the book fails to “more clearly display the power of Scripture to show us our shortcomings and display the gospel’s power over them.” He noted what many have noticed, the book’s drift toward Gnosticism.
Okey dokey then.
Then a day later Mr Challies received an invitation to lunch at Mrs Voskamp’s house, two hours away. Gulp. Having to face her as a person so shortly after his review of the book, he wrote a retraction essay titled, “In Which I Ask Ann Voskamp’s Forgiveness…“
He wrote, “Having said all of that, something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox, and that’s what has compelled me to write this little article. Seeing her name brought a sudden and surprising realization and with it a twinge of guilt and remorse.”
He makes it clear he had no moral qualms about not recommending the book, but rather that his guilt lay in the fact that he perceived that he treated a sister in the faith badly. He said, “Yet in my review I had treated her as if her words mean less than mine, as if I was free to criticize her in a way I would not want to be criticized.”
Now you lost me.
Perhaps I am a mean and unloving person, insensitive to the more nuanced expressions of empathy and oblivious to the tender affections emanating from others. I must be, because I read nothing in Mr Challies review that lacked sensitivity or indicated he had approached the task of reviewing a sister’s book with anything less than full bore mental acuity tempered with affection and mindfulness of our sanctified position before Christ.
Therefore when I read the forgiveness essay I was dismayed for two reasons. First, because of what he wrote here:
“Looking back at my review, and perhaps even more, the process of writing it, there are at least two things that concern me. The first is that I would have said certain things differently had I known that she and I might soon be sharing a meal together.”
Of course we would write or say things differently if we knew that we’d be facing the person within the next week. That’s the problem. The point is NOT to write or say things differently if we knew we would be seeing them the next moment but to prayerfully approach the task and write as the Spirit leads, speaking the truth in love. And then standing by it. Mr Challies wrung his hands over language he intimated he thought borders on hate-speech regarding Ms Voskamp’s literary style, here, “There is clearly a kind of appeal to it so that those who don’t hate it, love it.”’
Seriously? A commenter stated “I read your review of her book and found nothing wrong with it. You, of all people, do not need to worry about sounding unloving. I sure hope Rob Bell never invites you over for a BBQ.”
Far be it for me to say one way or another how a person feels about things they have said or done, and obviously Mr Challies felt remorse and so did what he did, which is publicly seek forgiveness for language he felt was too strong. I do not feel it was unloving language, but he did. So be it. It was his subjective call to make.
But the second front on which I felt dismay for this public hand-wringing is based on a more objective observation: the general climate of discernment within Christian circles. Christians these days are already assaulted with appeals to never say anything bad about anyone for any reason, especially against teachings a fellow believer brings- even if the teachings are false! The climate is to stay ‘unified’ and remain above the fray so as to avoid conflict. His forgiveness essay sets those of us back who do not hold to that ecumenical, let’s all get along at all costs mentality, and in a big way.
Later, in the comments section, a Reg Schofield commented, “I’m a bit confused here Tim. The review itself was not a direct attack on her as a person but on what you perceived as her weakness in how she handles scripture and certain views of the gospel narrative. Now it is true that what one writes is a reflection of ones soul but if what is written shows some problems, they have to be taken to task. I have read enough of the book to see some truly troubling elements, which she needs to be called out on. Any writer who get published must be willing to be scrutinized. I don’t see the need to ask for forgiveness. So if Joel Osteen sends you a e-mail to do lunch, are you going to do the same.”
Mr Challies responded, “I guess that is exactly part of the problem; in my mind I was equating the Joel Osteen’s of the world and the Ann Voskamp’s of the world–lumping all “outsiders” together. There are some people who deserve the harshest kinds of rebuke from Christians; there are others who do not. I have not been careful enough to distinguish between them.” And later, he wrote, “I would want to draw a distinction between T.D. Jakes and Ann Voskamp. T.D. Jakes subscribes to heretical theology; I have never seen anything from Ann Voskamp that would label her a heretic. That’s a crucial distinction!”
No it isn’t. The implication he makes here is that we musn’t say negative things about believers who are bringing false doctrine. It may not be what he intended, but that is the implication.
There are many examples in the bible of speaking plainly to and in front of believers who need correction. I am NOT saying it isn’t good to examine our language occasionally to see if we could be serving Christ better with our words. But feeding into the current cultural mentality that we must pick and choose words so as to never hurt another’s feelings harms the stand we must sometimes make for Christ. It elevates feelings above the advancement of the Kingdom. Let’s contrast what I just said with the biblical examples:
Picture Paul sitting at his desk in Canada. He gets an email reporting that there is sexual immorality in one of his churches. He writes back, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”… a couple of verses later he called for them “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Cor 5:1-2, 5)
He called the people of the congregation arrogant! Paul told them to put the man out of fellowship so satan could deal with him! Now let’s picture Paul receiving an invitation to sup with the perpetrator of the immorality the next day, and this prompts him to write what Mr Challies wrote: “I did poorly here and I can see that I need to grow in my ability to critique the ideas in a book even while being kind and loving to its author.”
Or Galatians 2:1 where Paul said this: “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”
How dare a fellow believer say another believer is condemned! But Paul did, and he didn’t retract it later just because he was invited to have a sandwich at Peter’s house. Paul made no ‘crucial distinction’ about the person he said it to. And it was language that was a lot rougher than Mr Challies. Yet it is in the bible. Paul said what he said so that doctrine would be upheld, and so that the watching believers, and Peter himself, would return to purity. Did Paul second guess his language, wondering as Mr Challies wrote, “…I can’t deny that somewhere in my mind lurks this insider and outsider kind of thinking which somehow encourages me to extend greater courtesy to one group than another”?” Yet there is no doubt that Paul loved Peter, and extended every courtesy to him.
Peter charged Ananias, a fellow believer, with having a heart filled with satan. He charged Sapphira, Ananias’s wife with the same, being a liar.
Paul wrote to Timothy, saying pastors of the church Hymenaeus and Alexander were “blasphemers”. (1 Timothy 1:19b-20).
Paul wrote to Timothy again, charging Hymenaeus and Philetus with being irreverent babblers whose false teaching will spread like gangrene and upsets the faith of some. (2 Tim 2:16-19). Strong language!
Paul did not later retract and write the following: “There is value in engaging the ideas in any [teaching], and especially a [teaching] about this Christian life, but the desire to uphold truth has no business coming into conflict with love for another person. Truth and love are to be held together as friends, not separated as if they are enemies. In my desire to say what was true, I failed to love. I ask [Hymenaeus and Philetus’s] forgiveness for this.”
And herein lies the problem. The current cultural Christian mentality is that speaking against false doctrine is unloving.
In some cases, we are called to conflict. Conflict is loving, when it has the ultimate goal of restoring some to the faith, or of warning others of false doctrine. Mr Challies’ statement above unfortunately advances the false notion that conflict is to be avoided at all costs.
Have we all become so sensitive that we receive the gentle words Challies utters as hate speech to be immediately retracted on the flimsy premise that we will soon have a BBQ together? Yes. And here is the result.
Beth Moore tweeted, “Thank you for this important piece. Sometimes I think God’s point with us is more toward mutual esteem than agreement.”
Mutual esteem is more important to God than Christian agreement on doctrine? Esteem?
Doctrine always brings disagreement. Avoiding it means you avoid standing on it. Period. But the ‘let’s all get along crowd’ is going to leap on Mr Challies’ highly public hand wringing, forgiveness sensitivity training exercise and run with it. You mark my words.
To be clear, I am not for conflict as a rule. In a verse before the one where Paul charged Hymenaeus and Philetus with being irreverent babblers, Paul wrote, “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:141-5).
The key is rightly handing the word of truth- and knowing when a quarrel advances the kingdom and when it doesn’t. Paul was much more straightforward and blunt in his charges against believers, and Mr Challies is anything but blunt. It is my opinion Mr Challies’ forgiveness essay, as gentle as it was to begin with, rather than advance the call for discernment and exhortation against falsity, ultimately harms it.