Corrupting the code: How do we lose sight of the basics?

Elsewhere in Issue #413 Archie Poulos masterfully isolated the scriptural DNA of gospel ministry, centred around the conversion of sinners. (The article can be viewed here.) This article is the counterpart to that one, examining how we can corrupt this DNA. Can we identify stress points in ministry that could compromise the gospel of Jesus and bring it into disrepute? Let’s look at three areas: not watching our lives closely, not watching our doctrine closely, and not loving one another well.1

1. Not watching our lives closely

Nothing brings the gospel into disrepute more quickly than an unwatched life. When we don’t model what we teach, or enable our hearers to see our progress, we can easily bring dishonour to the name of Jesus.

There are many things I could touch on, but the point I want to isolate is potentially glorifying our busyness. This is an innocuous beginning, but as we trace the consequences we can see how this is a failure to trust our sovereign, good, gracious, and wise God.

It starts with our greeting:

“How are you?”
“Oh, really busy.”

Most of us are quite rightly busy: teaching the Bible, training, recruiting, evangelizing, and church planting, because we desire the salvation of all people, especially of those who believe.

But can we inadvertently confuse the ends with the means of what we do? Remember the great purpose clause of the Scriptures—the glory of God.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:31-33)

What grips Paul in his busyness to save people is the glory of God. But is it possible that what grips us to do ministry is the busy means of training, recruiting, and church planting? Is it possible that we are captured more by the activity than the goal—the glory of God? I sometimes wonder if the closing benediction at a ministry conference would more accurately reflect our attitude if it were “Go forth and do more ministry” rather than “To the only wise God our saviour be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever, amen”.

The converse, of course, is possible. Especially for those who control their own schedule, the temptation to be irresponsible comes knocking. I have met a handful of lazy brothers and sisters. But most of us are tempted to glorify our busyness instead of God. The irony is that in the end glorifying our busyness is being lazy in our godliness—even in the midst of a very busy ministry.

The hairline cracks often begin with our family. We become too absent physically because of our busyness. Or, less obviously, we become too absent emotionally, even when we are physically present. As such we can either be too tired to engage, or too distracted mentally as we engage with family.

I have seen this crack travel deep and result in one particular scenario over and over again: You may feel like a legend at church/ministry, but you don’t feel like a legend at home. Then Satan gets a foothold when you start to think that someone in your ministry understands you better than your spouse, who just doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the good ministry you are doing. Then a myriad of bad decisions are made.

In my 25 years of ministry, I have noticed that when it comes to adultery there is a recurring pattern stemming from busyness. Rarely is it a matter of sex per se. For the men, it is often a desire to be in control and to be reinforced in their influence. In a tired marriage, busyness can become a way of dealing with such insecurity. For the women, it is often a desire to be connected to a leader or a person of influence. When the two come together, there is a perfect storm.

If your ultimate security rests in your busy position of ministry influence rather than in the glory of God, then beware. As John Owen said in Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you”. But just going after the bad isn’t enough—you’ve got to kill pleasure with pleasure. You’ve got to kill the pleasure of being seen as a person of influence with the pleasure of the glory of God.

There’s some overlap between the first and second points: watching our lives and our doctrine closely (or, as it says in 1 Timothy 4:16, keep a close watch on ‘the teaching’). Life and doctrine go hand-in-hand. It seems to me that almost always ethical compromise comes first and then doctrinal compromise follows. First your life goes wrong, and then your doctrine changes.

Let’s consider a salient example. Someone once described him to me as the best preacher in the English speaking world. But in 1999, Dr Roy Clements very publicly (and sadly) resigned from his position as a pastor after confessing that he had a relationship with his male research assistant.2 He then separated from his wife, and wrote an open letter to the Council of the Evangelical Alliance identifying as a gay Christian, exhorting them to take a line that evangelicalism should find room for gay relationships.3 As far as it appears from the outside, the ethical compromise came first, followed by doctrinal compromise.

Now in reflecting on the public matters of people’s lives and teachings, we need to remember that if we have not fallen in this way, it is only by God’s grace! There is no room for self-righteousness. Furthermore, I have no idea if Dr Clements has repented. But if he has, or if he does in the future, then our joy in his repentance ought to be greater than our grief or anger at his fall. We need to watch our own lives and doctrine carefully here, because personal sin very often leads to compromise in other areas.

2. Not watching our doctrine closely

Again, there are many pressure points that we could address. I’ll single out three.

a. Heresies (often) arise from godly desires

Remember Pelagius? He denied the doctrine of original sin (as championed by Augustine). But what drove him was his godly desire to morally transform Rome in the 5th century. Heresy often arises from godly desires.

I have observed this around the world, where godly desires for healing, blessing and justice have sadly led to the heresies of a prosperity or social justice gospel. It is godly to long for heaven in the here and now (“May your kingdom come”). Who doesn’t want blessings poured out on the needy? Who doesn’t want justice in the face of domestic violence or terrorism? Who doesn’t want their spouse healed from cancer?But left unchecked, these godly desires can turn a fracture into a crevice that leads disillusioned Christians into atheism.

b. A godly (but undiscerning) desire for unity

There is of course a godly desire for unity in the gospel, and we want to be as inclusive as the gospel is. Yet on the global stage I continually meet brothers and sisters in evangelical organizations who have a godly (but undiscerning) desire to unite with our Roman Catholic friends who hold to the Council of Trent. This council was prompted by the Protestant Reformation, and spoke very deliberately against the Protestant hallmark of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.4 The Roman Catholic church still holds to the rulings of this council.

To accommodate Roman Catholic staff, one evangelical organization removed the word ‘alone’ from its doctrinal formulation on justification. I know of another which dropped its statement of God’s sovereignty and justification altogether to become more inclusive. But the staff of these organizations are lovely pious brothers and sisters who have a godly—but undiscerning—desire for unity.

Please also note that the Roman Catholic church (on the other hand) has a historically discerning desire for unity. You can trace this back to Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. John XXIII longed for the reunion of Christendom, with one sheepfold and one shepherd—the shepherd being the Pope. In a kinder and more generous spirit than his predecessors, John XXIII spoke of Protestants and the Eastern church as ‘separated brethren’ (not ‘schismatics and heretics’ like Vatican I). Vatican II was convened to make the Roman church more approachable and inclusive, but not one canon of the Council of Trent was revoked. And yet, evangelical organizations today not only employ Roman Catholic staff but have them as keynote speakers, together with dedicated Roman Catholic spaces, at their conferences.

If that outcome is something you don’t recognize as your danger, let me bring it closer to home. I know of churches sharing the platform with Roman Catholic churches to “share the gospel” at Christmas carol events. I’ve heard Protestant leaders speak in awe of Pope Francis for bringing unity to a whole new level, in response to a YouTube clip.5 If we dont unite with Roman Catholics after such a plea, it will be seen as red-necked, obstreperous, unloving, and schismatic.

But watch your doctrine closely: an appeal to unity that is not based in the true gospel of our Lord Jesus will not save ourselves or our hearers.

c. A lack of theological clarity

Nowhere is theological clarity needed more than in clearly distinguishing the gospel from its fruit. The gospel is the momentous news of Jesus—his life, death, resurrection, ascension and return—that commands us to repent and believe. Thefruit of this gospel, on the other hand, is the inevitable transformed life of love that flows from repentance. The gospel creates a life of love, “but the life of love is not itself the gospel”.6 If this is not clearly pointed out in our teaching, it leads to catastrophe.

At one international meeting I was at, one senior brother said that he thought the number one agenda for our global evangelical fellowship should be climate change! How do you get to this point, where the main item is an activity of social change (however good that activity might be)? By not clearly distinguishing the gospel from its fruit.

If we don’t distinguish this in our teaching, then we reduce the gospel to improvements in our behaviour and in our world. It’s easy to do that in our childrens’ spots at church when we understandably exhort them to read the Bible, pray, be patient, obey parents, be generous, and so on. All good things, but none of them the gospel. Or, as we teach the Bible, we can fail to distinguish our application from the gospel. We need to show how it is thoroughly rooted in the gospel, but it cannot be thought to be the same thing.

The great William Wilberforce was crystal clear on this. He wrote a book called A Practical View of Christianity. In describing nominal Christians, he wrote that their errors:

… result from the mistaken conception entertained of the fundamental principles of Christianity. They consider not that Christianity is a scheme ‘for justifying the ungodly’… nor for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of being justified and reconciled.7

That is, the nominal Christian pursued justification through their sanctification, but the real Christian saw their sanctification as fruit of their justification. What Wilberforce is known for is his effort to stop the slave trade. But in his mind this was the fruit of the gospel, not the gospel itself.

Wilberforce’s example identifies another stress point for us. I wonder whether we can bear more fruit. Displaying justice and mercy is on par with being faithful to my spouse. It is part of training ourselves in godliness. It inevitably involves caring for the widows, and the poor, and the slaves and the masters accordingly:

Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. (1 Timothy 6:1)

If the fruit of the gospel is not borne it will revile God and the teaching. The fruit of the gospel will adorn the gospel.

3. Not loving one another well

In my neck of the woods there’s been a lot of talk about tribalism, accentuated by a couple of conferences held recently. When I shared with one brother that I was preparing an address for the Nexus conference (out of which has come this article), he said “Oh, isn’t that the ‘Anti-Keller’ conference?”.

Now there’s lots that could be said in defence against this claim. But I want to make a couple of more general observations. When allegations like this are made, we should ask ourselves if there is any grain of truth to them. Is there any perceived “guilt by association” in being involved with one conference or another (or one ministry or another)? Why would that be? I think it’s a useful practice to, at least once a fortnight, just ponder if any accusations are true.

I actually think there is a place for ‘tribes’, as long as what we mean by tribes is a certain fellowship of brothers and sisters who will inevitably be more uniform in how they conduct ministry because of where and how they were most influenced. We can’t help that. And there is a certain level of cost effectiveness in doing ministry a particular way, as long as we don’t always think it is the best and only way to do it. Furthermore, we must never assume that every person in the tribe is uniform in every aspect. With all this in mind, tribes can serve together in great unity as long as they are willing to talk openly and honestly with each other in genuine humility, with a genuine love. This is going to mean, amongst others, talking with each other face to face rather than exclusively on social media.

This is in contrast to what I think many people mean by ‘tribalism’, where there is a sectarianism that is expressed by a suspicion of sinister motives for whatever another tribe does, and an inevitable ‘guilt by association’ that comes with this mentality. This kind of sectarian cynicism is what we must avoid—but I’m sad to say that is what the watching world perceives, given the way we sometimes conduct our debates on social media and other platforms.

As an aside, I encourage staff in my organization to go through the following mental process before posting anything on social media: please think first:

  • Is it truthful?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Is it informative?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it kind?

That’s not to say that we cannot have a robust debate. History is littered with them. The division between Martin Lloyd Jones and John Stott is the kind of example I’m thinking of here. According to Carson and Keller:

The division was based on what each side felt to be significant doctrinal principles. And yet, while many of their followers were subsequently hostile to one another, the men themselves never vilified the other—not in public nor, as far as the historical evidence shows, in private. They maintained great respect for each other as Christian men and ministers of the gospel and never tried to undermine the reputations of the others, even when they came to believe they could no longer work closely together, and even when the differences were significant ones.8

We must interact and disagree in such a way that not only the whole watching world, but above all our Lord Jesus, will know that we love one another. We must be as inclusive and exclusive as the gospel is. We must love one another deeply from the heart.

I have suggested here three major ways our evangelical DNA may be corrupted: by not watching our lives closely, not watching our doctrine closely, and not loving each other well. No doubt there are more. In all this, however, I think that the best defence is offence—we need to be people who believe the gospel, love the gospel, proclaim the gospel, celebrate the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and bear its fruit to the glory of God the Father.

  1. This article is addressed primarily to those engaged in pastoral ministry—it came from an address at a ministry conference. You’ll notice this in the particular examples and scenarios Richard refers to, but they are also (with some modification of context) applicable to any and all who are engaged in word ministry—which ought to be all of us. —Ed.
  2. J Benton, ‘Roy Clements Walks Out’, Evangelicals Now, (accessed 7 July 2014).
  3. R Clements, ‘Christian Homophobia’ Courage, (accessed 7 July 2014).
  4. The Council of Trent was convened (1545-1563) primarily to settle disputes raised by Protestants. For example in Canon 24 “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”
  5. ‘Pope Francis message of unity’, (accessed 7 July 2014).
  6. T Keller, ‘The Gospel is Not Everything’, Monergism,
  7. W Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 1996, p. 64, italics added.
  8. J Weber, ‘Tim Keller, Don Carson Explain Why Tullian Tchividjian Was Asked to Leave Gospel Coalition’, Christianity Today, (accessed 7 July 2014).

4 thoughts on “Corrupting the code: How do we lose sight of the basics?

  1. Hi Richard – thank you so much for this article – so shocking stories of people softening gospel truth concerns for unity
    On what to put up on social media you suggest these as guidelines
    Is it truthful?
    Is it helpful?
    Is it informative?
    Is it necessary?
    Is it kind?
    The first and last are obviously essentials.
    And cannot be taken for granted.
    The real challenge is to know what will be “helpful” and “necessary” and to whom? These categories can be used to shut down some vital discussions.
    Seems to me that at times when it has been suggested to me by influential people that something might be unhelpful – they normally mean it is unhelpful to a cause they are seeking to push forward. Everything we do needs to be questioned by the helpful question, but it remains quite challenging to know what is helpful and to whom

    • Thanks for your helpful comments Ian. You’re absolutely right to identify the challenge of identifying what is ‘helpful’ and “necessary” and “to whom” when it comes to social media. My simple rule of thumb is “if in doubt in these areas, talk to them in person” so that loving clarity is aided by tone of voice, body language etc. It takes more time, but it’s more loving … especially in genuine disagreement.

  2. Hi Richard,
    I reflected on your article and as the section on unity struck a deep chord I want to comment on the Council of Trent. It is ‘truthful’ but may not regarded as ‘helpful or ‘necessary’.
    It seems that most Christians cannot fully grasp the tremendously important role God’s Holy Sabbath has played in church history.
    The following is a summary of the clinching argument at a time when a large number in the Roman Church pivoted toward discarding all tradition.

    According to histories of the proceedings:

    The Pope’s legate actually wrote to him that there was ”strong tendency to set aside tradition altogether, and to make the Scriptures the sole standard of appeal.” The question was debated day by day, until it was fairly brought to a standstill. Finally the Archbishop of Reggio turned the Council against the Reformation by the following argument: ”The Protestants claim to stand upon the written word only; they profess to hold the Scriptures alone as the standard of faith. They justify their revolt by the plea that the Church has apostatized from the written word and follows tradition. Now the Protestant’s claim that they stand upon the written word alone is not true.”

    Their profession of holding the Scriptures alone as the standard of faith is false. Proof: The written word explicitly enjoins the observance of the seventh day as the Sabbath.They do not observe the seventh day, but reject it. If they truly hold the Scriptures alone as the standard, they would be observing the seventh day as it is enjoined in the Scripture throughout. Yet they not only reject the observance of the Sabbath as enjoined in the written word, but they have adopted, and do practice, the observance of Sunday, for which they have only the tradition of the (Catholic) Church.”

    “Consequently, the claim of Scripture alone as the standard fails and the doctrine of ‘Scripture and tradition as essential’ is fully established, the Protestants themselves being Judges.” See The Proceedings of the Council of Trent, Augsburg confession and Encyclopedia Britannica, article “Trent, Council of.” At this argument, the party that had stood for the Scripture alone surrendered, and the Council at once unanimously condemned Protestantism, and the whole Reformation. It at once proceeded to enact stringent decrees to arrest its progress.

    Rome still claims the change of the Sabbath as a mark of her authority and is urging Catholic Christians to use their influence to have Sunday protected against secularism by civil law. As true Protestants whose authority is ‘sola scriptura’ we ought to heed the words of Jesus who said:
    ” But in vain they do worship me teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Matt 15:7-9
    ” Full well you reject the commandment of God that ye may keep your own tradition.” Mark 7:9

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