I’m a little perplexed by what I’ve seen in the world of evangelical Christianity recently. (Disclaimer: I write as a South African, where, largely, the term “evangelical” has not been hijacked by partisan politics.) If I’m totally honest, I may be tempted toward a touch of disillusionment. There’s a pattern. Perhaps the pattern has always existed and I’ve just been blissfully unaware of it until recently, but, from my perspective, it certainly appears to be rearing its ugly head more regularly in the last couple of years. Let me explain.
A recent episode of the Holy Post podcast addressed “The Progressive Christian Checklist” by critiquing a Gospel Coalition article by Alisa Childers, in which she appealed to Christians to stop using the word “deconstruction” to describe their faith journey. Her point was simple enough: As it is popularly used, the term “deconstruction” typically describes a person’s journey away from historic Christian truth; therefore, as we describe our own theological and practical reformations, we are wise to avoid term “deconstruction,” which is too hopelessly mired in apostasy to be a helpful description of Christian reformation.
A regular listener to both the Holy Post and the Alisa Childers podcasts, my interest was piqued when I saw that the Holy Post crew had addressed this topic. I was conflicted as I listened to Phil, Skye, and Kaitlyn (from the Holy Post) horribly misrepresent Alisa’s article and make comments that revealed their complete lack of even cursory research into what she believes and teaches.
The Holy Post’s poor treatment naturally invited all sorts of interaction in Alisa’s own Facebook group. During the discussion, someone commented that they had appreciated John Cooper’s response to the Holy Post. Cooper, lead singer of the rock band Skillet, is a good friend of Alisa’s. He had been named by the Holy Post team as supporting Alisa’s call for avoiding the use of deconstructionist language. I had never listened to his podcast but, since it was a direct response to the Holy Post, I downloaded and listened to that episode. My disappointment ran deeper.
Cooper accurately diagnosed some of the problems with the Holy Post’s treatment of Alisa’s article but proceeded to fire back in exactly the same way: with lack of research, misrepresentation, and mockery. I felt myself wondering what has happened that Bible-believing Christians must resort to such tactics in intramural debates.
James urged his readers to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19). While the very act of encouraging people to listen to each other runs the risk of being slapped by certain fundamentalists with the dreaded CRT label, I am convinced that James’s exhortation is lost in too many intramural Christian debates. Far too often, we don’t want to listen to each other—or, if we do, we do so only to prove that we are right. In the process, we too often straw man our “opponent” and walk away confident that we have won the argument, even if we lose the relational battle. Truth comes at the cost of grace.
I have recently been working my way slowly through the book of Job. It’s a fascinating account in which Yahweh allowed Job to be afflicted far more than most of us will ever experience precisely because he was such a godly man. A spiritual battle was raging of which Job and his friends were unaware. All they could see was that their friend was suffering—and they knew exactly why.
Job’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—came armed with theology. They had thoroughly investigated the situation and were prepared to confront it with truth. Their theology was simple: Suffering is the result of sin. Suffering serves a single purpose: punishment for sin. In speech after speech, they laboured to drag a confession out of Job, absolutely convinced that sin was the only reasonable cause of his affliction.
How exhausting it must have been for Job to sit through these false accusations. How desperately he longed for truth to soothe his troubled soul. Devastatingly, when someone finally spoke the truth, it did not accomplish its intended goal.
After the three friends had concluded their speeches, and Job had concluded his response, a fourth individual spoke. Elihu had been sitting silently by, carefully listening to each speech as it unfolded. This is evidenced by the way he quoted various speakers in his own speech. But sadly, while he had listened, he had listened only to correct. He clearly saw where each speaker had failed and was prepared to counter their error with truth. His speech, recorded in chapters 32–37, is the longest of the human speeches in the book. It is also the most accurate. As you read his speech carefully, a few noticeable characteristics jump out.
First, Elihu correctly realised that Job had not committed some grievous sin to invite divine displeasure. The other friends had accused him of a litany of open sins that they could not substantiate: theft, mistreatment of the vulnerable, greed, etc. Elihu saw how hollow these accusations rang and did not repeat them.
Second, Elihu accurately diagnosed the irreverent accusations that Job had made against God during his speeches. As he wrestled with God, he had made several harsh statements, effectively accusing Yahweh of disorder and injustice in his rule. Yahweh would later address Job on this dual accusation, but Elihu saw and confronted Job with his irreverence first.
Third, Elihu rightly realised that suffering often serves a deeper purpose than simple punishment for sin. He observed that God may use suffering to keep his people from sinning (33:18, 24) or to spur them to greater holiness (36:1–15). He was right.
Yahweh would later rebuke Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar for not speaking truth. Elihu escaped rebuke—because his speech, unlike theirs, was not riddled with error. And yet Job was not comforted. He did not thank Elihu for his wisdom. He did not admit that Elihu was right. He did not confess his sin on the spot. Why not? Because, though he spoke the truth, Elihu had entirely divorced his correction from any form of relationship with Job.
As you read chapter 32, you discover that Elihu was driven, not by relational concern for Job, but by the desire to be proven right. At least two things stand out about his attitude in his speech.
First, he was driven by anger. Four times in the opening five verses, we read that he “burned with anger.” He was angry at Job. He was angry at Job’s friends. He was angry that truth had not been spoken. Anger was the hallmark of his speech.
Second, he was driven by the need to be proven correct. In vv. 6–22, we read his appeal to Job to hear him because, unlike the others, who were clearly wrong, he had the truth. In fact, he pretty much claimed direct inspiration (v. 18), while the other three, in an era prior to written Scripture, had based their theology on oral tradition. His words must be heeded and his counsel followed because he was right.
Job was not helped. He was not helped because, for all his theological orthodoxy, Elihu showed no love or respect for him. His orthodoxy rang hollow because, while he had listened, he had done so only to prove that he was right.
Too often, intramural debates within evangelical circles are approached like Elihu. The goal is simply to prove that we are right, even if our rightness comes at the expense of relationship. Driven by a passion for rightness, we are willing even to misrepresent to show that we are right. In the end, it’s ugly and no one walks away completely satisfied.
We need to do better. We need to show each other the relational respect of listening to understand and not only to correct. There is a place for correction (2 Timothy 2:25), but it must be done with gentleness and respect, and with the ultimate goal of fostering godly relationship rather than winning the debate. May God deliver us from being Elihus!