As evangelical preachers, we say that the word of God is our sole authority for all matters of life and doctrine (Prov. 30:5-6) and that we can hold to that belief because the One who ultimately wrote that word to us is also true (Romans 3:4). My question is whether or not we end up teaching the exact opposite of that on Sunday morning, simply by the way we interact with the controversial issues of our day?
We do that, I think, when we are teaching on the questions and “lofty opinions” of our day, and give in to the temptation to either hedge our bets or, worse yet, knowingly present opinions that oppose what we believe to be orthodox, in their weakest forms. Consider a pastor who leans toward a Complementarian position, but who teaches a mediating view on biblical eldership to avoid conflict with the strong Egalitarian voices in his church. Or a pastor who presents a view that homosexuality is always and only a personal choice when teaching a biblical sexual ethic.
Is this truly humility? An admission that we simply don’t have omniscience? Or is it, rather the knocking down of straw men, to make ourselves and our congregations feel better, and to conceal the truth that – while we may doctrinally hold to the authority of Scripture – functionally we are as liberal as the “liberals” we condemn?
In his excellent book entitled Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson describes the fallacy of an Appeal to Selective Evidence as, “so selective a use of evidence that other evidence has been illegitimately excluded.” He then adds,
“As a general rule, the more complex and/or emotional the issue, the greater the tendency to select only part of the evidence, prematurely construct a grid, and so filter the rest of the evidence through the grid that it is robbed of any substance.” (p.90)
The fallacy is easy to fall into, particularly when one is faced with a topic or a question where the opposing opinion has strong emotional appeal or enjoys wide support within the prevailing culture you are in. The temptation towards straw-man-building and deck-stacking can be very strong.
But we must decide as preachers – before we are ever even confronted with the temptation – not to give in. This strategy for overcoming an opposing viewpoint is, at best, only a temporary, short lived victory and, at worst, setting up our congregations for greater defeat (as well as greater distrust of us) in the future when our facile arguments are shown to be what they are. In other words, we’re not “equipping the saints” in an Eph. 4 sense at all by winning the battle on a Sunday morning, only to leave them to the wolves on Monday.
As ever, Tim Keller is helpful here in giving us a strategy to interact with opposing viewpoints on a Sunday morning in a way that will actually educate and equip your people to head into their work/school week on Monday. He says in his book Centre Church in a section entitled “Gospel Polemics” (p.372-3),
1. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.
2. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.
3. Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.
4. Seek to persuade, not antagonize–but watch your motives!
5. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.
To simplify, Keller is exhorting preachers to interact with opposing viewpoints both in their strongest form as well as in a way that those who hold that view point would say, “Yes! That’s exactly what I believe.” Only then are we truly teaching on that subject and equipping our congregations for Monday morning.
Paul says of his ministry in 2 Cor. 10 that the weapons we fight with are not of this world and that they have divine power to, “destroy strongholds” and to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5, ESV) He had such confidence in the word of God (“knowledge of God”) and the message of the gospel (Romans 1:16) that he could confidently stand before Athenian scholars (Acts 17) or kings (Acts 26), certain that the Scriptures were more than sufficient to stand up against any opposing view or opinion raised against them.
As ministers of that same gospel, may we have Paul’s confidence in the strength of the word of God. Poor logic and shoddy argumentation when interacting with the “lofty opinions” of our day, only belie the true level of our confidence in the Scriptures, and also teach the people God has put under our care to have the same lack of confidence.
“My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” James 3:10