From time to time, Christianity Today prints news articles that reflect poorly on fellow Christians, or on Christian organizations. Of the hundreds of topics covered, this has happened on perhaps a half-dozen occasions this past year. In such cases, some people are puzzled, and they write to us asking why we want to say anything harmful about Christians when the non-Christian world is so full of wickedness. Other people understand how we might criticize Christians of a different doctrinal perspective from our own—but why say anything nasty about those whose doctrines agree with ours? Letters and personal comments like these convey misjudgments about our mission.
Christianity Today is a service organization. It seeks to serve God by serving his church. We believe God has called us to a kinship with David, whose life and ministry Paul described in Acts 13:36: “David … served his own generation by the will of God.”
We must start with the “will of God.” Christianity Today is a magazine of biblical conviction. So we present biblical studies on doctrine, ethics, and values. To some, it seems the height of arrogance to think anyone knows the will of God. But to us, it is not arrogance but faithfulness. We believe God has revealed the truth about himself, his plan for the world, and his will for us humans. For us it would be the height of arrogance to ignore these divine instructions.
“David’s own generation” is a phrase calling us to be alert to things as they are now. Christianity Today’s news and articles describing and analyzing the current state of affairs attempt to reveal the present situation.
David “served” by linking God’s revealed will to the situations of his day. We seek to link biblical teaching to our day. It is here the rubber touches the road, for this will involve us in at least three areas of thought. We will first affirm points of agreement—the good news about what has happened. In the field of evangelism, for example, in one issue last year we took a look biblically at New York City to see what God is doing there today (“God’s Miracle in Manhattan,” March 27, 1981). We also brought readers news of Billy Graham’s Houston crusade (Dec. 11, 1981).
But second, in applying biblical principles to the present day, sometimes we have to print bad news about what has happened. For the good of the church, we must at times warn against the disparity between biblical precept and actual practice. (For instance, consider the refusal of Christian organizations to respond to staff calls for repentance in high places, or the disgraceful educational process of evangelical diploma mills.)
Last, beyond printing good and bad news of what is happening, we seek to present good news of what can happen, by God’s grace, if appropriate changes are made. We use editorials and various kinds of articles to apply biblical principle to actual situations in order to present a way out of the morass.
In short, we at Christianity Today seek to “serve our generation by the will of God.”
A Prophetic Ministry
It is evident from this that we believe God calls us to a ministry that, to use a biblical term, is “prophetic.” We believe God wants to speak a word through us.
This assumes that the prophetic gift in Scripture still operates in a modified sense today. Essentially, it involves the wise application of biblical principles to immediate situations. This gift does not carry with it infallibility. But if we speak (to readers) when we are spoken to (by God in Scripture), we can do our job to his glory. In this we must heed the restrictions of 1 Corinthians 14 and other passages. We cannot claim the same inspiration a prophet like Isaiah had, but we have the written Scripture, the inscripturated “thus saith the Lord,” to rely on. And that is our starting point.
The purpose of the gift of prophecy, according to 1 Corinthians 14:3, is “edification and exhortation and comfort.” Yet only occasionally does prophetic writing mean a call to repentance through exposés. More often it is a sober application of biblical truth to the present situation to discover the problem and then to suggest a line of action for the church. (For example, see 1981 editorials of May 24 on relations between Christians and Jews; of September 18 on alcoholism in the church, of May 29 on inerrancy, of October 23 on Roman Catholicism.)
The Biblical Ministry Of Public Rebuke
On some occasions, however, prophetic writing does demand a criticism of Christian groups. We started by asking why Christianity Today should ever say anything nasty about those whose doctrine agrees with ours. To answer, we must look at the Pentateuch, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles for biblical guidance.
In the Pentateuch, God says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). That love, however, does not exclude wise criticism, even of the sharpest sort. So at Sinai, Moses “saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” To call them to account, Moses “stood at the entrance to the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the Lord, come to me’ ” (Exod. 32:25–26, NIV).
The necessity to investigate the facts carefully is taught in Deuteronomy 17:4. An act was there committed in violation of the covenant and contrary to God’s command. Moses called on the people to “investigate [the charge] thoroughly.” The testimony of two or three witnesses is necessary, too. (If Christianity Today examines a charge, it may interview dozens of people. It never relies on a single person’s uncorroborated witness.)
Moving from the Pentateuch to the Prophets, we find in Isaiah stern criticism of the household of faith. For instance, God says: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” Isaiah even uses sarcasm, comparing the shuffling of people across the temple courtyard to the trampling of mindless animals brought by hypocrites to the altar for sacrifice.
Among the Minor Prophets, Amos also ministers a rebuke to God’s people. Having cleared the ground by criticizing the non-Hebrew nations nearby (1:4–13), he singles out first Judah and then Israel (2:4–6). Should we charge him with hanging up the congregation’s dirty linen to public view?
Christ followed the same path: he cleared the temple publicly (John 2), and even pronounced woes on the duly constituted authorities (Matt. 23).
Paul likewise publicly rebuked Peter at Antioch, and then referred to it in his open letter to Galatia: “I rebuked [Peter] to his face because he was in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11). And he rebuked a local church: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1). Plain talk!
So through both Old and New Testaments, God elected to use certain people to issue a public word of warning to believing groups. To serve our own generation by the will of God, we as editors of Christianity Today must bow to the command of Scripture and speak both the good news and the bad news. We must speak as we are spoken to.
But Aren’t All Sinners?
We face a number of objections to our occasional criticisms of Christian groups. Some ask, “Aren’t we all sinners? Who then can escape criticism?”
We recognize from the Bible (sometimes all too painfully) that as long as they inhabit the earth, Christians will be sinners—in their corporate as well as their personal lives. Some ministries bend under heavy financial pressure; others drift to the lure of fast growth and publicity; still others are unfortunate enough to have employees in key roles who simply do not act in Christian ways. Many times, in our judgment, the larger body of believers has no pressing need to know about these afflictions, and we do not report them.
But sometimes an organization is widely influential among Christians, and we begin hearing, usually from many sources, that it has gone awry. We are attentive only to allegations that upon independent examination we find are accurate and serious. But even these two tests alone are insufficient reason for printing the charges in Christianity Today. We report such matters only when we believe the Christian clientele the organization serves will not otherwise receive a fair, independent acount of what is happening.
Our standard for reporting unfavorable news about a Christian organization is really no different than it is for all our news reporting: we report what we believe a Christian leader needs to know to be an effective leader of the church.
Don’t We Harm Christian Organizations?
Others charge that in criticizing Christian groups, Christianity Today sullies the body of Christ. We are told we should overlook problems in influential Christian ministries simply to avoid embarrassing them, and thus harming their Christian witness. Of course, our aim never is to injure anyone. But such a charge does not honor our own integrity, nor is it respectful of readers who believe they are being well informed by what is presented in Christianity Today. Besides that, overlooking a problem usually does not work. For example, a more vigorous Catholic press might have been the first to uncover and report in a favorable and sympathetic context the serious allegations made against Chicago Archbishop John Cardinal Cody. Instead, it was the Chicago Sun-Times that did so, and in muckraking fashion.
History shows that intolerable circumstances in religious organizations eventually come under public scrutiny, but usually through unfriendly secular news media with an antireligious bias. A Christian magazine has the opportunity to present unfavorable news in a friendly context that provides the facts without prejudice, and permits the reader to draw his own conclusions from a fair account of the entire situation.
Is Public Disclosure Unbiblical?
Many Christians argue that in light of Matthew 18, charges against Christian organizations should be kept private. But clearly, there is a place for public disclosure—as we have seen in the Old Testament, and as Paul demonstrated at Antioch and in his letter to the Galatians, and as Jesus showed at the temple. In fact, Matthew 18 shows three levels of discussion ranging from private to public. (1) “Just between the two of you” (v. 15) represents the ultimate in privacy. (2) “Take one or two others along” (v. 16) shows a middle degree of privacy. (3) “Tell it to the church” (v. 17) calls for a yet more public statement.
In some cases about which Christianity Today has reported, the aggrieved person has exhausted all private areas of approach and is stymied. In other cases, due to the situation in our parachurch world, those oppressing others do not regard themselves as subject to any church body and believe they have a call that leaves them responsible only to God. As a result, those injured are denied any recourse to step three of Matthew 18:17. Sometimes Christianity Today can serve its readers well by reporting accurately on such a state of affairs. The public exposure of wrongdoing is the best deterrent to future wrongs.
The appeal sometimes made that we not air dirty linen in public is therefore not only shortsighted and unduly fearful: it is also downright disobedient. “Get yourself ready!” the Lord exhorted Jeremiah. “Stand up and say to them whatever I counsel you.” For our day and dispensation, that includes whatever doctrine or ethic or value God affirms in Scripture.
An Editorial Ego Trip?
But some may charge, “By what right do the editors of Christianity Today presume to judge others? Is not their conviction that God has given them a prophetic role a sign that they are on an ego trip, pretending to play God? Are they not confusing their fallible judgments with the infallible judgments God inerrantly gave the prophets?”
We believe Christianity Today’s editors have not only the right, but the obligation to speak in the “Thus saith the Lord” mode when we are presenting a doctrine or practice God plainly teaches in Scripture. Its infallibility gives us the right to be forthright, and our readers can check our fallible interpretations as they themselves search the Scripture.
Nevertheless, God has not given us the same ability to search into the hearts and to discern the motives of those involved in questionable activities. So we do not claim to pass judgment in this area.
But between those two prongs of scriptural statements and human motives lie the facts of the case at hand. We interview the people centrally involved, people on all sides. Experienced reporters sift the evidence and explain factually what happened. Then we trust that by applying biblical principles to the facts of the case, our Christianity Today readers are prepared to make whatever judgments are necessary to handle their obligations as Christian leaders in the church.
Some charge, too, that no one is wise enough to handle such affairs well, so they are best left undiscussed. Naturally, the decision as to what church leaders really need to know can be delicate. We are quick to confess that we sometimes make mistakes. Often our editorial staff members make such decisions in fear and trembling. In one recent case involving a denomination, we consulted evangelical leaders in that denomination. We concluded it was right to print the news item only after they said it would help the evangelical cause in their denomination, and urged us to publish the matter.
Would Mediation Be the Alternative?
Some others think we should opt for mediation instead of publication. On some occasions, leaders of a Christian organization, faced with the impending appearance of an unfriendly article in Christianity Today, have asked us to help them mediate their problem rather than “smear” them in print. We are not mediators, although there is a fine mediation service run by the Christian Legal Society. We leave that ministry to them.
However, we are disheartened when the possibility of adverse publicity is the only catalyst to make Christians want to sit down together to solve their problems. Frankly, sometimes we have felt that we could resolve a problem by withholding an article if parties agreed to solve matters on their own. But it is not our task, nor our desire, to hold such a sword over anyone’s head. Our duty to the Lord, as we understand it, is to report what we humbly feel Christian leaders need to know, even if an article casts a shadow across a fine evangelical organization.
But Why Only Bad News?
A few have asked, “But why do you print only the bad news? God has used our organization for years, and Christianity Today has written nothing about it. Now you take a page to criticize us.” Christianity Today really does try to print the good news about what is happening in every area of church life. Every issue contains numerous articles and news items of this sort. Naturally, we do not have the space to name and compliment every Christian organization that does its work well. But any criticism is against the backdrop of a larger interest in showing what God is doing in the world today.
We are forced to ask why some are so reluctant to change when change is so obviously called for by biblical principle. Peter noted that “judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17). And Amos was led to marvel that “you hate the one who reproves in court [a public reproof] and despise him who tells the truth” (5:10, NIV). James calls for an entirely different attitude: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (1:19–20, NIV).
Have leaders of some evangelical organizations so refused to criticize themselves that they are unprepared to receive criticism from others? Are we ready to let God mold change in our heart of hearts, and in our ways of operating, and in our relationships so that we can say, “Thy will be done”—and mean it?
In all of this, we at Christianity Today are truly seeking to be guided by the Bible. All believers bear the responsibility of rebuking their fellow Christians—privately when that is possible, publicly when that is necessary.
In the light of the Bible’s explicit teaching and many examples, we dare not be silent if we are to serve the church faithfully. The appeal to squelch criticism is not only short-sighted and unduly fearful, it is also downright disobedient. In the long run, it would prove a disservice to the cause of Christ and his church.
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