It’s awfully easy to find in any group of people a few outliers — people identified with the group who aren’t really representative of the group. I mean, no group of human beings is free of sin or foolishness, and it’s easy to suggest that the positions or mistakes of a few represent the whole. Most people don’t feel the need to factcheck claims of ministers of God’s gospel, and so the tactic is often very effective.
A recent example may be found in one of the Gospel Advocate‘s November 2008 articles condemning the Emerging Church Movement by Dewayne Bryant, which states,
The ECM [Emerging Church Movement] de-emphasizes doctrine to the extent that one wonders why it should be considered relevant. Furthermore, postmodernism’s discomfort with absolutes has made for poor theology. [Mark] Driscoll, in his article “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emerging Church,” identifies eight discussions currently taking place, including whether the crucifixion was efficacious or merely an example of suffering and whether hell will be eternal, temporary or non-existent (91). Other doctrines such as sin, holiness, atonement and who belongs in the community of faith are met with equal uncertainty.
The article by Driscoll that Bryant cites actually says something quite different.
The Emerging church includes three distinct types of Christians. In a conversation with Dr. Ed Stetzer, a noted missiologist, he classified them as the Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists.
Relevants are theologically conservative evangelicals who are not as interested in reshaping theology as much as updating such things as worship styles, preaching styles, and church leadership structures. Their goal is to be more relevant; thus, appealing to postmodern minded people. …
Reconstructionists are generally theologically evangelical and dissatisfied with the current forms of church (e.g. seeker, purpose, contemporary). They bolster their critique by noting that our nation is becoming less Christian and that those who profess faith are not living lives markedly different than non-Christians; thereby, proving that current church forms have failed to create life transformation. Subsequently, they propose more informal, incarnational, and organic church forms such as house churches. …
Revisionists are theologically liberal and question key evangelical doctrines, critiquing their appropriateness for the emerging postmodern world.
You see, the article cited does in fact point out the very flaws that properly concern Bryant, but those flaws only relate to the “revisionists,” which is but one of the three subgroups within the Emerging Church Movement. And yet, Bryant writes as though the entire movement were infected with these heresies. It’s just not true, and the very article he cites so states.
Similarly, Bryant refers to Dan Kimball’s book They Like Jesus but Not the Church as though Kimball does not consider homosexuality a sin, saying, “Scripture is clear about the sinfulness of homosexuality (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-11).” But Kimball actually agrees with Bryant. He’s just arguing that the church should treat homosexuals with the compassion of Jesus rather than contenting itself with rattling off proof texts.
A similar over-generalization may be found in Neil Anderson’s editorial in the March 2006 issue of the Advocate. In opposing the reunification of the Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches, he asserts,
We lack a commonality in doctrinal teachings regarding the inerrancy of Scripture. In addition to advocating the use of instrumental music in worship, this new digression also accepts the pious unimmersed as saved, perverts the sanctity of the Lord’s Supper, and promotes women in public leadership roles in worship.
Really? Do the independent Christian Churches, on the whole, reject inerrancy? No. Do they, on the whole, accept the unimmersed? No more so than Churches of Christ. Do they grant women public leadership roles? Yes, some do. And some don’t.
Is it fair to the Advocate‘s readers to speak as though the independent Christian Churches, on the whole, deny inerrancy, accept the unimmersed, and allow women to preach? No. If you doubt me, click over to the Christian Standard‘s web site and read what their most prominent periodical writes on these subjects.
Now, over-generalization is one example of a flawed argument called a “strawman.” In a strawman argument, the debater invents a claim by his opponent and then refutes that claim. When Bryant suggests that Kimball denies the sinfulness of homosexuality, he’s created a strawman argument that he can easily defeat. Kimball’s real argument is much weightier.
I do not suggest that Bryant or Anderson are lying when they create their strawmen. I seriously doubt that they intend any deceit. Rather, it’s much more likely, I think, that they are just not taking the trouble to listen to their opponents. And there are lots of examples of Church of Christ ministers mischaracterizing their opponents because they didn’t bother to listen to them.
To listen to someone is harder than we often imagine. Listening is hard work. It takes time. And it requires valuing what our opponent says.
Moreover, listening requires being willing to be persuaded. If you only read my writings to disprove me, then you’re not really listening to what I say. If you read with humility, willing to learn and perhaps be changed, then you’ll surely understand me, even if you ultimately disagree.
You see, we cannot ask our opponents to be willing to listen and perhaps be changed by what we say unless we are willing to afford them the same respect.
(Mat 13:16) But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.