As a community dedicated to being ‘transformed for God’s mission’, we attempt to discern truth from error, wisdom from folly, love from hate, and abuse from care. We won’t always get it right, but we do our best, in good faith, to uphold these values.
The goal is to be transformed for God’s mission. This happens, in parts, as we facilitate honest wrestling with hundreds of thousands of questions.
Consider Mark 12:28-31,
One of the scribes approached. When he heard them debating and saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which command is the most important of all?”
Jesus answered, “The most important is Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.”
Jesus engaged with the complex debates of his day. He showed us how to simultaneously love God with all of our minds and love your neighbors as yourself. He never compromised his defense for the vulnerable of society, yet he always did so in an intellectually rigorous manner.
When we engage in conversations with one another, we will naturally want to cite scholars, pastors, and a variety of Christian leaders. In doing so, we have specific responsibilities.
I regularly teach in a Sunday community at my church home. One week stands out to me. Throughout the teaching, I mentioned the names of some theologians that I thought were very familiar. But over and over again, someone raised their hand and said, “Sorry, can you tell me who that person is?” On the spot, I did my best to explain who that person was, where they taught, and why they were a credible authority for the point that I was making. But after the class ended, I realized that I had made a lot of assumptions. Think about this. If, in my own church, there was a gap between the people I knew and respected and the people familiar to the members of this community, then how much more is that the case in a global community? When you consider the breadth of denominations, global contexts, and areas of specialty, we are going to introduce one another to some great resources. At the same time, to help one another out, it’s courteous to give some context about who we are quoting and why their voice adds value to our conversation.
In this tutorial, I review some relevant Bible passages and then explain how we contextualize their guidance for our community.
Let’s consider these passages together.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work. An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. He must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil. Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.
Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.
And now I know that none of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will ever see me again. Therefore I declare to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, because I did not avoid declaring to you the whole plan of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears.
1 Peter 5:1-5
I exhort the elders among you as a fellow elder and witness to the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory about to be revealed: Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but willingly, as God would have you; not out of greed for money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. In the same way, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
When the ten disciples heard this, they became indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In these passages, we gain clarity about the kind of character and discernment required for Christian teachers and leaders. They are rightly held to a higher standard by God and by the Christian community. Leaders must be above reproach. Further, they must be on alert for false teachers so they can tearfully warn other Christians about the danger that “savage wolves” represent to their faith.
This raises a challenging question for Uncommon Pursuit. As a global community, how will we do this with wisdom and care?
I acknowledge this discussion could be uncomfortable. We might disagree to some degree, and that’s a tension I hope we can navigate with grace and careful listening. My hope is that we can hear each other out and potentially find some consensus.
I propose three lenses for sharpening our vision.
1. Uncommon Pursuit’s Mission
The first point is that our community seeks to be formed by the Holy Spirit into Christlikeness for the glory of God. In succinct terms, we desire to be transformed for God’s mission. It’s a distinctive mission statement.
It’s not the same purpose that brings together a university, communities on TikTok, or every local church. We are grateful for the diversity of communities available for each of us to participate in. For instance, I enjoy talking with atheists and skeptics. We don’t host those conversations in this community, but I prioritize those friendships and discussions, both in my local church and online.
At the same time, Uncommon Pursuit exists for community members who want to be transformed for God’s mission.
2. Uncommon Pursuit’s Distinctives
We recognize our responsibility to clarify what we mean by our mission statement. “Transformed for God’s Mission” could have many interpretations.
I remember sitting in a new member’s class at a PCA church. The elder who taught the class said, “At our church, we can disagree on many things. However, if your goal is to have us change our theology to something besides the Westminster Confession of Faith, that is probably not a good use of your time. We are a PCA church. If you want to explore what we believe, and you have questions or doubts, we welcome you. You can ask all the questions you want! But from the start, we want you to know our theological convictions.”
In Uncommon Pursuit, we don’t subscribe to the theological convictions of any particular church or denomination. Instead, we seek to include participants from many different denominations. However, that doesn’t mean that anything goes.
We adhere to The Nicene Creed and The Cape Town Commitment. The Cape Town Commitment provides both a “Confession of Faith” and a “Call to Action.” In doing so, it integrates how Christian communities are to demonstrate fidelity to God not only in our thinking but also in our lives.
We further explain our approach to spiritual formation in our courses.
As we aspire to these standards, we will build a community that values integrity. Giftedness is essential, but it can be negated by egregious moral failure.
We will also develop discernment. It is unwise to give someone a platform before they have demonstrated they have the character to represent Jesus publicly.
This also creates an invaluable resource for the global church. There are many false teachers, but not all are prominent enough to have books written about their ideas. As our community carefully evaluates whether or not pastors and authors are aligned with The Nicene Creed and The Cape Town Commitment, we can serve those currently trying to figure this out by themselves.
Finally, if we do this well, I hope that Uncommon Pursuit will develop into an environment that welcomes survivors, former cult members, and others seeking a faithful expression of Christian devotion to God.
Within the scope of our confessional standards, I believe there are hundreds of thousands of healthy conversations where we are wrestling with various questions. (Look around to see some examples!) As we have them, we ask each participant to try to present the truth in love.
3. Uncommon Pursuit’s standards
So how do we evaluate whether a particular Christian leader is “in good standing”?
To simplify, here are two of the many reasons we might cite someone:
- As an authority
- As we evaluate their position
When citing someone as an authority, it’s essential that this person is appropriately qualified. Depending on the context, this could include their formal education, their published research, their professional experience, and their reputation in the field.
These are general, commonly accepted principles. If I want to discuss the meaning of how artificial intelligence works, it helps to cite someone with relevant expertise in the field. By contrast, if I say, “artificial intelligence works through magical electrons combining their forces,” this is an unfounded opinion. It might be interesting to evaluate it, but it would not be responsible to mention me as an authority.
As Christians, not all of our discussions are theological in nature. We are interested in what historians have to say about the transmission of the manuscripts for the Old and New Testament, what linguists understand about how to translate Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words, what archaeologists have found in ancient sites located in Israel, and so on.
However, when we are having a theological discussion, we might cite John Stott as an authority. As one of the founders of The Lausanne Movement and the primary author of the initial Lausanne Covenant, we would have high regard for his writings. This is not to say that he’s infallible, but rather, he is a generally trusted, reputable teacher.
In my experience, about 99% of the time, that’s all there is to it.
As C.S. Lewis, a famous author, and professor at Oxford and Cambridge, once said, “…”
As Augustine, recognized as one of the most influential church fathers, argued, “…”
As Beth Moore, a prominent evangelical and the author of many Bible studies, comments, “…”
As Perpetua, a Christian martyr in the third century, demonstrated, “…”
As Dr. Kara Powell, the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, writes, “…”
By contrast, we would not cite Mark Driscoll as a pastor in good standing. Why? Because it’s documented that he spiritually abused and bullied others, taught misogynistic teachings contrary to our statements of faith, and lied about the harm he’s caused others. While he might teach good ideas in a sermon (“love your neighbor”), his life contradicts the message.
Or consider how we might cite Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle and theologian in the Latter Day Saints Church and the author of Mormon Doctrine. He’s an authority who represents what some Mormons believe. But in our community, we would evaluate his teaching - hopefully charitably and thoughtfully - against our own theological convictions.
Perhaps those are clear examples. But what about the tens of thousands of Christian leaders we might reference?
Sadly, there are so many scandals in the evangelical world that it is hard to keep up. Before citing someone, I’ve learned that I must do my homework. Our desire is to practice discernment, not to engage in witch hunts. We don’t want to repeat slander or false accusations. Nor do we want to be indifferent to the vulnerable. Researching and evaluating what we find is an ongoing process that will stretch us to be mature, judicious, and discerning.
In particular, once journalists or an independent investigation finds that a leader has fallen short of the Biblical standards for leadership, we need to weigh that information.
Here are some resources I recommend as we evaluate leaders:
We also look for other independent reporting or investigations into leaders. Google or Bing can point us to significant information. As an example, to identify moral failings associated with Ravi Zacharias, this search works well: "ravi zacharias" abuse - Google Suche. Twitter’s Advanced Search function is also helpful: https://twitter.com/search-advanced.
Finally, there’s a concern when a Christian leader publicly endorses or gives a platform to a now-disgraced leader. E.g., When pastors host Mark Driscoll to speak at their churches, it sends a red flag about the ethical standards at their churches.
Why? Notice that in Acts 20 and James 3, one responsibility for Christian leaders is to hold other Christian leaders to a high moral standard. The inverse of this responsibility is complicity. If someone recommends the ministry or work of someone who teaches aberrant theology or acts in an abusive manner, this naturally reduces our trust in their judgment.
So what does this look like in practice?
Our primary concern is when a pastor/leader has abused others or taught a message contradicting our Statements of Faith. We want to be aware of and note significant divergence from orthodoxy or abuse of orthopraxy.
We also want to be wise and discerning when a pastor/leader is complicit in endorsing those who have fallen short in our primary area of concern.
Evaluate each person on a case-by-case basis. If you’re uncertain, you can send a personal message to the community moderators (@moderators).
Maintain the distinction between citing someone as an expert and citing someone for evaluation.
Mark Driscoll is a disgraced former pastor. The ethical concerns include plagiarism, abusive behavior, authoritarian leadership, misusing church funds, misogyny and sexism, and a lack of accountability. That said, I want to discuss a point he made. He said, “The Good News isn’t good news if there isn’t any bad news. God’s wrath is just as righteous as God’s love, and both must be preached.” Even though his ministry caused harm to a lot of people, I appreciate his courageous stance on this issue.
Mark Driscoll, a fantastic pastor, says, “The Good News isn’t good news if there isn’t any bad news. God’s wrath is just as righteous as God’s love, and both must be preached.” I think that’s the kind of courage we need right now.
In both cases, other community members might respectfully disagree with how Mark has presented the gospel in this quote. That could be an exciting conversation! But, for the sake of clarity, it’s important that we cite someone like Mark as a disgraced former pastor (Example 1) rather than as a legitimate spiritual authority (Example 2).
John Piper said something I thought was interesting the other day. I want to note that serious concerns have been raised about his spiritual leadership at Bethlehem College and Seminary, Bethlehem Baptist Church, and Desiring God. For instance, Johnathon Bowers and others have claimed that Piper has not treated them well. In addition, his ministry, Desiring God, continues to provide resources by Doug Wilson, who has, among other things, protected pedophiles, plagiarized books, and defended the institution of slavery. Others have noted Piper’s habit of recommending Robert Lewis Dabney, a 19th-century theologian known for his pro-slavery views. So there are certainly some significant concerns with his ministry. Still, I’m interested in this quote from Piper. He says, “Loving Jesus best makes all loves better, not worse.” I think he’s right about this. But what I want to explore is, in what way does loving Jesus make our other loves better? How does loving Jesus make my love for gardening better?
Someone responsible for harming others, and promoting disgraced pastors, can say something interesting and worthy of discussion. But for the sake of those who have been harmed by Piper’s ministry (and Doug Wilson’s ministry), let’s candidly acknowledge those issues.
If, upon reflection, you think that explaining the concerns with a person’s ministry outweighs the value of the quote you are sharing from them, then I recommend finding a better source. There are countless men and women of outstanding integrity and theological depth that we can humbly learn from.
You can also think about it this way. If someone else in the community raised ethical concerns about the person you’ve cited as an authority, would it invalidate the point you’ve made by quoting them? If we are representing someone as an exemplary role model of the Christian faith, but someone gently challenges what we’ve stated with evidence to the contrary, we will weaken our own credibility in the community.
We want to be a trusted resource and community to be transformed for God’s mission. But trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.
If we desire to be a people of integrity, wisdom, and care, it’s vital that our role models have personally demonstrated these values in an inspiring manner.
After all, why do we still study the teachings of Jesus? One important reason is his perfect life. And why do we value the writings of Paul and Peter (among the other authors of the Bible)? While they were by no means perfect, they demonstrated a Spirit-filled, holy commitment to God that ignites our love for God and others.
I pray that God will enable our community to be judicious and courageous as we seek to discern the difference between reputable and disgraced spiritual leaders, as well as orthodox vs. aberrant theological teachings.