In the wake of recent discussions surrounding the Steven Sitler situation here in Moscow, I wanted to offer several thoughts on the matter. I had the privilege of a helpful exchange on Twitter on Sunday with Boz Tchividjian, the founder of GRACE, a ministry whose self-described mission is to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse in the Christian community. I say the exchange was helpful not in an encouraging way but helpful in an illuminating way. I should note here that despite my ongoing disagreement with his approach to helping the Moscow community, I consider Boz a brother in Christ and I’ve extended an invitation to buy him a beer if he’s ever within shouting distance of Moscow, and he returned the offer to me if I’m ever in central Virginia. So what follows is an explanation of disagreement between brothers and not a heresy hunt or personal animosity.
But before getting into the substance of the disagreement, I want to say something about disagreement. And this actually ties directly into the statement that Douglas Wilson and the Christ Church elders made about the whole situation. There is nothing whatsoever wrong or evil in principle about disagreeing with elders or pastors or other Christians. Shall I say that again so that you can clean the coffee off your screen and make sure you read it right? There’s nothing whatsoever wrong or evil in principle with disagreeing with Christan pastors or elders or brothers. In fact, I would argue for the positive good of a certain form of gracious, thoughtful disagreement or pushback. I’m not talking about angry shouting, bitter accusations, divisive rants, or sharing gossip. But the likemindedness that Jesus calls us to is not a cultic obliteration of opinions or perspectives or honest questions. One of my favorite examples of this in Moscow was the joy I had of watching one man express pretty strong disagreement with Douglas Wilson and a number of other Christ Church leaders on one occasion. To his credit he returned later to seek forgiveness for the tone he had used without apologizing in the slightest for the point he was trying to make. The apology was accepted, the disagreement remained, and about a year or so later, he became an elder at Christ Church. Far from being a community that silences dissenting voices, over many years, I’ve had the privilege of watching the Christ Church elders debate and discuss and disagree at various points. And rarely has that disagreement been a sign of division; almost always it has been a sign of fundamental loyalty to Christ and a unity of vision. And it’s not merely everybody rallying around Wilson’s latest idea. I’ve been in the room when the Christ Church deacons delivered Douglas Wilson a fairly firm “no,” and the world did not come apart, no one was fired or belittled or forced out of the church. Everybody kept right on being friends and loving Jesus. If you think Christ Church is some kind of monolithic empire, if you think Douglas Wilson is a maniacal tyrant micromanaging and manipulating people behind the scenes, you have no idea what you’re talking about. I daresay that one of the reasons God has so richly blessed Christ Church and Douglas Wilson is precisely because God has blessed them with many faithful, godly men who serve as laymen and officers who think for themselves, love Jesus for themselves, study Scripture for themselves, and love the body of Christ and submit to one another in the fear of God.
Let me add one more point here in praise of disagreement — and again, I’m not talking about flinging accusations around, claiming to read the insidious motivations of peoples’ evil hearts, or sowing seeds of dischord among the brothers. I’m talking about honest, charitable, and straightforward discussion, questions, and cross-examination of ideas or positions. This kind of thoughtfulness and attentiveness is actually essential to any kind of real leadership or healthy community. In order to assure those you are responsible for that you actually care about them and their particular needs, that the lights are on, that you are a thinking person, you must make distinctions, various applications, and from time to time differ with the conclusions and/or applications drawn by others. So for example, if you are a man trying to lead your family, and all you do is go around citing chapters of Douglas Wilson books, randomly quoting them at your wife and kids, you are sowing seeds of doubt, insecurity, and resentment in your home. And this is because you are not actually leading your family. It’s because you’re not thinking for yourself, not studying Scripture for yourself, and you’re not loving the woman or the children God has given you. You’re obsessed with ideas or ideals or with some man who wrote a book. But when you put your faith in anything or anyone besides Jesus Christ, you can’t actually lead, you can’t be a true friend, and no one will really trust you — because no one really knows what you think, what you stand for, what you’d die for. If all you do is parrot other peoples’ words, you worry everyone you are responsible for. How can they be sure you are actually paying attention to them and to their needs? Thoughtfulness doesn’t mean that you need to make up disagreements with faithful pastors and teachers, and frequently these days, it takes a particular kind of courageous thoughtfulness to stand with faithful leaders who get maligned and slandered. But attentiveness means that you are constantly proving that you actually understand and care about the people in front of you just as much as you care about the principles you are trying to apply. And wisdom demands that you see the ways in which biblical principles apply differently in different contexts, in different families, and different cultures.
But this is the point: there is nothing whatsoever wrong with disagreeing with other Christians, but the Bible does require at least three things. First, it requires that we not accuse elders of sin or serious moral failing without objective evidence and at least two independent witnesses. “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). Disagreement and accusation are not the same thing, and the difference between the two should be a firmly fixed chasm in your heart and mind. A public decision or a public statement are certainly matters that may be discussed carefully and when read charitably, even disagreed with. But an accusation reads into a letter, assumes information that has not been established or proven or cannot even be known, and often holds leaders to unspoken or unwritten standards that “they should have known.”
Secondly, Proverbs repeatedly warns against attracting and associating with fools, which in the Hebrew literally means something like: don’t feed the trolls (cf. Prov. 15:14, 23:9, 29:9). My exchange with Boz has loaded my Twitter notifications for the last 48 hours with mockery, ridicule, and snark. To be clear, Boz was polite and gracious to me directly, and maybe he hasn’t noticed all the riffraff, but to the extent that leaders attract parasites, leaders have a duty to try to shake them off at regular intervals. But based on the kinds of folks Boz continues to get his information from, the piranha frenzy doesn’t seem to bother him. But this amounts to trial by lynch mob, and more about my misgivings of that kind of justice below. People who are actually interested in the truth should generally go directly to the people who are actually in a position to know the answers. Airing vague accusatory thoughts on Facebook or Twitter rarely attracts the truth, and usually only gathers a large swarm of folly flies.
Third, the Bible requires that we love the truth, which means giving all men and Christian brothers especially the benefit of the doubt. This is enshrined in American law as the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and is based on the requirement to provide verifiable testimony, the principle of cross-examination, and the principle of hearing both sides of a story: “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Dt. 19:15, cf. Mt. 18:16). This is not any sort of reluctance to execute justice when the truth has been biblically established. Convicted criminals should be punished. But they should not be convicted and tarred and feathered by a self-appointed internet judge and jury.
These principles are what I tried to press on Boz Tchividjian in our twitter exchange, and of course it’s always dangerous to try to have meaningful dialogue in 140 character snippets. But in the name of protecting the innocent, Boz is willing to render multiple guilty verdicts over other parties based on assumptions, insinuations, and information he doesn’t have. That’s the first worrying indication that the concern isn’t really for the innocent at all. If a doctor accidentally amputates somebody’s leg, pardon me if I have a hard time believing he’s qualified for the job. If a ministry is dedicated to helping Christians recognize and prevent abuse, it should start by recognizing the abuse it is currently perpetuating and attracting. Protecting innocent parties begins by being jealous for the body of Christ, zealous for the truth, and aware of the kind of passive-aggressive manipulation that frequently passes as caring for victims. It would have been perfectly fine to register disagreement and offer alternative suggestions, and given his ministry, I had assumed that Boz would be in a good position to offer helpful suggestions or corrections. But instead he insisted that Douglas Wilson was not willing “to acknowledge his utter ignorance about child offenders” and therefore “makes his church an unsafe place.” His basis for making these accusations was not based on any direct interaction or substantial testimony but rather purely on what he saw as lacking from the open letter published by the Christ Church elders. If that’s how GRACE does it’s work, the Christian community should steer way clear of that kind of help.
Lastly, the fact is that it’s always easier to call what the play should have been way up in the nosebleed section of the stadium, or better yet, in the warm safety of your lazy-boy in front of the big screen. It’s easy to trash talk the refs and the coaches with no real responsibility, no actual skin in the game, but here’s the thing: you aren’t there. You aren’t in their shoes, and no matter how brilliant and insightful you think you are, you still aren’t there on the field with the clock ticking down on you, looking into the faces of the real people affected by real decisions and left with real results of your actions. That reality demands a certain level of humility and tentativeness with your opinions even if you’re pretty sure you know many of the relevant factors. You still don’t know that you know all there is to know. And that’s because God didn’t call you to make the call. God didn’t call you to pastor Christ Church or shepherd that flock. And if He didn’t call you to that responsibility then it isn’t your responsibility to render your judgment. Again, that isn’t some kind of gag order. Public matters invite some public observation and public discourse. Nobody, nobody is objecting to judicious inquiry or honest suggestions or even disagreement. But the rabid dog approach to helping recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse is not helpful or wise.
Even though Boz says he’s praying for the vulnerable people at Christ Church, the rest of his words about the situation contradict his prayer. He’s inviting more vulnerability, more abuse, and more injustice by failing to observe some of the most basic principles of biblical justice. I’m still hoping I’ve misunderstood him. I’m hoping he’ll retract what he said and take down his Twitter comments (in which case I’ll be glad to remove the screenshot above and substantially revise this post).
There really are victims of horrific abuse in this situation and many others, and they really do need grace and love and support and protection. But the flamethrower approach to ministering to victims is none of the above.