Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther stood before his disputed writings and refused to renounce them.
Last week, Janet Mefferd, shortly after her writings had been criticized, apologized and deleted them.
Both had pointed out and criticized corruption in leading religious authorities. Both had truth on their side, yet their responses are worlds apart. How did we Protestants go from Here I stand to Oh, never mind?
We’ve confused the appropriate standards of discourse for different forms of communication, treating everything as if it were face-to-face interpersonal communication. Much of the dysfunction in Christian discourse today has come from assuming that what is written is analogous to what is spoken and should be governed in the same way.
I’ll explain in a minute, but I first need to say that I, along with almost all of us, don’t know the full story behind Ms. Mefferd’s decision to apologize and self censor. Her silence tells me that her actions are neither voluntary nor, in her mind, warranted. As Richard Bartholomew has pointed out, there appears to be a contractual arrangement between Tyndale publishers and Mefferd’s employer, Salem Radio. I assume that the contract prohibits Salem hosts from criticizing Tyndale authors or books on the air or on the Internet. Read her apology now with that in mind:
I now realize the interview should not have occurred at all. I should have contacted Tyndale House directly to alert them to the plagiarism issue. And I never should have brought it to the attention of listeners publicly.
If there’s a contract between Tyndale and Salem, that explains why that interview should not have happened. It’s also why she ought to have talked to Tyndale, not Driscoll; it was a corporate issue, not a personal integrity issue. And it’s why it should never have been made public. My reading of the event is that Salem told Mefferd that her Driscoll interview and blog posts had breached their contract with Tyndale. If Salem owns Mefferd’s blog, which it appears to do, it had a legal right to insist on the posts’ removal. So, although I think the deletion was a mistake, I don’t necessarily hold Ms. Mefferd responsible for it. She’s under the authority of her employer, which in turn is bound by its contracts, so she’s got to do what she’s got to do. She doesn’t have to defend it or put a good spin on it, which, unsurprisingly, she has not.
The Standard We’ve Embraced
Matthew 18 is cited quite often as the standard for dispute resolution, and it was the basis of some of the criticism that Mefferd attracted for her Driscoll interview. She should have gone to Driscoll or Tyndale privately, it was said. It is also often used to dismiss criticism of megachurch pastors. Over the last few years of writing this blog, it has been tattooed into my brain: You can’t criticize Pastor X because you haven’t met him privately and personally first. The neatest part of that trick is that if the pastor refuses to meet you, which they usually do, Matthew 18 tells you to hush your mouth. Most perversely, Matthew 18 was used to keep a lid on sexual abuse in the Sovereign Grace scandal.
Mathew 18 was not intended to be an all-purpose commandment for dispute resolution. To review, here’s what it says:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell you him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
I see five qualifications that help us avoid overusing and abusing Matthew 18.
- Affinity. This is for a dispute between brothers who have much in common. The expectation is that restoration can happen just from listening. This isn’t conversion or persuading someone to change a fundamental set of beliefs. The two have similar beliefs, and the aggrieved brother only has to show the other how his fault is at odds with those beliefs. If you’re not brothers, Matthew 18 doesn’t apply.
- Access. Because the two are brothers, they are also geographically close to each other. It assumes that the aggrieved brother will be able to actually meet the other without much effort or drama. If there’s no ability to “go and tell,” Matthew 18 doesn’t apply.
- Abuse. There has been a sin against the first brother. It’s a personal and narrow offense that can be solved with just two parties. If the sin is against someone else, Matthew 18 doesn’t apply.
- Authority. If the first conversation doesn’t work, a series of steps allow the aggrieved brother to appeal to the church, which has the ultimate sanction to treat the accused as a nonbeliever. This is a dispute between people in the same church who are each answerable to that church’s authority, which can only apply spiritual sanctions on the brother at fault. This is where Sovereign Grace’s insistence was so harmfully wrong. The proper authority if you’ve been sexually abused is God’s ministers in the state, not the church. If the two brothers aren’t under the same spiritual authority, Matthew 18 doesn’t apply.
- Anonymity. The purpose of Matthew 18 is to let small things stay small. If there’s a fault between two brothers, the private offense can remain private. If the offense is already public, Matthew 18 doesn’t apply.
Applying this to the Mefferd-Driscoll interview and blog posts, we can see that, outside her employment contract, she wasn’t obligated to keep this private.
- No Affinity. Mefferd and Driscoll are Christian kin, though the dispute about what actually constitutes plagiarism demonstrated that they had very different standards on intellectual integrity. Driscoll’s silence since having his offenses pointed out tells us that he doesn’t see any problem with what he has done. A simple conversation wasn’t going to convince Pastor Driscoll.
- Limited Access. Mefferd did have temporary access to Driscoll, though after the first interview he withdrew from the conversation. His publishers even promised to refuse Mefferd access to any more of its authors.
- Public Abuse. This wasn’t a sin against Mefferd; this was against God and every person who thought they were paying money for Mark Driscoll’s thoughts. She was looking out for thousands of her listeners whom Driscoll had sinned against.
- No Authority. As Ms. Mefferd has discovered to her detriment, there is no higher spiritual authority above Mark Driscoll for her to appeal to. They do have a common commercial authority in Tyndale House, though Tyndale refuses to acknowledge that Driscoll was at fault in the first place.
- No Anonymity. This was a public sin, and so long as the books are being sold in bookstores, the sin continues to cause harm. What would have happened had Mefferd resolved this privately with Tyndale? Unless they pulled the books and publicly corrected the plagiarism (and we know now, that wasn’t going to happen), everybody who purchases a Driscoll book continues to be harmed. Unless Mefferd publicly warned us, she would become complicit in Driscoll’s fault.
Assuming there was nothing sinful about accusing a celebrity of a public fault that would continue to harm purchasers of his book, I see no ethical reason to require the removal of Mefferd’s posts, especially because they were full of well-documented evidence. By removing that evidence, Salem (I’m assuming it wasn’t at Mefferd’s initiative) is abetting Driscoll and Tyndale in their deception. As I’ll explain in the next section, even if they thought that Mefferd was too aggressive in her charges (she wasn’t), the writings ought to remain online.
As for the apology for her tone during the radio interview, I think that’s appropriate. If Mefferd thinks she did wrong during the interview, I also support the removal of that recording. The reason is that in face-to-face interactions, the Bible teaches us to be especially careful and gracious.
The Apostle Paul, who communicated in writing and in person, characterized his in-person communication as gentle, humble and even weak. Some examples:
We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. (I Thes 2:7)
I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling. (I Cor 2:3)
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Col 4:6)
John, who also understood the joy of face-to-face communication, finished two of his letters the same way:
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 12, also 3 John 13)
John shows us that there’s a difference in face-to-face and mediated communication. Face-to-face is best suited for peaceful, joyful exchanges. We see this in Matthew 18, too. The two brothers, who are able to meet and talk, are ideally able to peacefully reconcile. Paul also communicated differently in person than on paper, as we see in 2 Cor 10:1.
I … am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when away!
If Paul and John understand that different modes of communication entail different styles and topics, we ought not judge written communication as if it were spoken face to face. As I’ll show you in the next section, written communication is perfect for harsh and even destructive messages.
The Standard We’ve Forgotten
Paul used his writing to communicate tough and difficult truths that would have been much less effective to deliver in person. He describes his writings as hard, grievous and weighty, yet containing the meekness and gentleness of Christ.
I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ — I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away! — I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. (2 Cor 10:1-2)
I wrote as I did [causing you pain], so that when I come I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Cor 2:1-4)
Even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it — though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. (2 Cor 7:8-9)
Your restoration is what we pray for. For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. (2 Cor 13:9-10)
Paul did back up his writing in person, though with a softer style. He reminds the Corinthians that although his delivery appeared weaker in person, the truth was the same.
They say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. (2 Cor 10:10-11)
Paul understood that his writing was a weapon designed for destruction.
We are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Cor 10:4-6)
In the context of this chapter, Paul’s weapon is his polemical writing, directing strong arguments against bad ideas. Even though Paul preferred to use his letters to do this, he was also prepared to confront people publicly to their face when the issue was one of truth, and especially when affected other people.
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. …When I saw that their conduct was not in step with the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews.” (Gal 2:11-14)
The purpose of Paul’s aggression is, interestingly enough, the same as the resolution process of Matthew 18 — peace and reconciliation. He prefaces his discussion of his writing style in 2 Corinthians 10 by saying it is a product of the meekness and gentleness of Christ. We see at the end of the book, immediately after the severity of his writing, what is produced:
Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (1 Cor 13:11)
In person, Matthew 18 gives us a roadmap to restoration. When the conditions don’t make the Matthew 18 process possible, Paul’s example tells us that peace and reconciliation come after hard-edged writing. Such writing, then, is not something that should be disowned or withdrawn. If it’s true, it needs to be defended until it is able to destroy enough bad arguments to bring people into the peace that comes from obedience and agreement.
This is what Martin Luther understood in Worms in 1521. He had been asked to withdraw his writings, some of them personal tirades against particular people. Not only did Luther refuse to recant his books on doctrine, he defended the personal attacks. While we’re familiar with his fabulous conclusion to his Diet of Worms defense, his defense of the personal writings is worth remembering and reproducing:
The third kind consists of those books which I have written against private individuals, so-called; against those, that is, who have exerted themselves in defense of the Roman tyranny and to the overthrow of that piety which I have taught. I confess that I have been more harsh against them than befits my religious vows and my profession. For I do not make myself out to be any kind of saint, nor am I now contending about my conduct but about Christian doctrine. But it is not in my power to recant them, because that recantation would give that tyranny and blasphemy an occasion to lord it over those whom I defend and to rage against God’s people more violently than ever.
If Tyndale House and Salem Radio think Martin Luther’s defense at Worms still has any value as a model for the Protestant conscience, they ought to immediately reinstate Janet Mefferd’s blog posts.
It’s time to stand by her and the truth she proclaimed.