Running Defense: Navigating the Perils of a Dying Organization
The initial shock and disappointment by many over the actions of Truro Church with the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, have settled down and from my standpoint, all the arguments have been stated and people have chosen what they believe and what they do not.
Some Anglicans simply don’t think it’s a problem for Truro to declare an Episcopal bishop who has approved of and promoted blessings of men or women who engage in sexual acts together a “brother in Christ” nor do they find an issue with promoting his “ministry” to the Church of England or to other provinces. But for those of us who do find that as well as several other statements and actions a grave problem, what principles or values guide our decisions on how we treat Episcopal bishops and clergy who believe and have actively promoted significant and very damaging heresy in the church? What principles and values guide how we respond to false teachers in the Anglican Communion?
I’ve assembled a short list of principles and values that dioceses, parishes, church leaders, and laypeople assume as they navigate the difficulties within the Anglican Communion and as they consider their lawsuits, settlements, ministries, common Eucharists, and other matters. These principles and values are helpful reminders - a sort of glossary - for those of us engaged in the culture wars in organizations both national and international. Again, obviously these principles and values do not apply to those who aren’t troubled by the actions of Truro in regards to its relationship with the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Shannon Johnston. But I think they will be helpful for the rest of the conservatives both inside and outside The Episcopal Church, and even for conservatives in other organizations, both ecclesial and secular.
1) We are engaged in something that is commonly called “the culture wars” - that is, the battles that a non-Christian society engages in as varying sides seek to promote differing foundational worldviews in politics, academia, professional and business organizations, the church, the arts, the media, and many other areas of common life. The culture wars are heightened by the fact that the old organizations and institutions that had promoted a common way of living are crumbling. That decomposition is also intensified by a practice of “furtive deconstruction” of language, ideas, and values; that is, some individuals who wish to use common language to promote their own, differing ideas and values and worldview are evacuating common language of meaning, filling it with their own personal and sometimes antithetical meanings, and then using those same words to mean something entirely different from what most have understood as the meanings of common language and ideas.
Deconstructionists assert that there is no absolute, overarching, and objective “truth” out there which stands in judgement over our own individual assertions of truth; rather, deconstructionists assert that the meaning of a word, a text or an institution resides in the reader or participant or “discourse community.” We “make our own meanings” is a common statement; those meanings don’t actually exist or come from the mind of the maker - the writer, the composer, or the creator. We fill the constructs of others with “meanings” ourselves.
So words like “justice,” “love,” “holiness,” “marriage,” and many many other words are slated for revision, but often with no advance warning that the meanings of those words are being changed. Further, those same people are performing the same acts of deconstruction on cultural institutions, including in particular historic organizations that have achieved some degree of credibility and influence in society. In that way, institutions and organizations that have been “deconstructed” become the megaphones for the messages of the culture wars.
The philosophical act of deconstruction is a sly, rhetorically violent, and destructive act.
2) One of the leading edges of the culture wars - a place that has been most heavily infiltrated by revisionist activists - is a once-influential mainline church called The Episcopal Church. Most bishops, many clergy, and some laity are deconstructionists who are attempting to reform that church into an organization that promotes their own particular, personal worldview, one that is antithetical to the Gospel.
In order to deconstruct The Episcopal Church and fill that body with their own particular and uniquely personal worldviews, they are destroying it utterly. Its decline has been precipitous in every way, from membership to attendance, from baptisms to marriages, from pledging to parishes, from dioceses to seminaries, it is dying. And it is dying at a significantly more rapid rate than other mainlines.
It is not dying in a slow and gentle way, but rather with dramatic and violent lashings and thrashings. This death is being conducted publicly in the secular media, on blogs, in pulpits throughout the land, at conventions, in committees, on vestries, on commissions, at Executive Council, at clericus meetings, and in so many many other venues. Lay leaders, rectors, bishops, professors, people in the pews, chairs of committees—all are confronting, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, the consequences of the death of an institution. Many people are hurting over this death. Parishes are closing, seminaries are selling off assets, parishioners are determining where their ashes and legacies will be stored, Sunday Schools and youth groups are vanishing, and the elderly and dying are grieving.
3) The question of whether these bishops, clergy, and laity who are engaged in deconstructing The Episcopal Church and filling it with their own personal worldviews are “Christians” is a red herring. None of us can see a heart, or know a person’s eternal destination. All we can know is what these people say and promote in direct and public contradiction to the Gospel. When they publicly articulate and promote beliefs and acts that are antithetical to the Gospel, we can then recognize that they do not believe or promote the Gospel.
We cannot know if they are or will be regenerate and experience God’s salvation. But fortunately for us, we do not need to make such judgements in order to enact the church discipline that Scripture clearly commands regarding false teachers and false shepherds - those who enter the sheepfolds as wolves, rather than shepherds. Indeed, Scripture does not comment on whether these false teachers may someday repent and experience God’s salvation. Nor does it tell us if false teachers may even be regenerate, but fallen away or not yet discipled enough to teach and promote the Gospel. Often new or untutored or undiscipled Christians who happen to become leaders through the fault of the organization may believe or teach a false and heretical belief simply because they are too immature, weak, and ignorant to know better. But speculating about the state of a false teacher’s soul - about whether he is or is not a “brother in Christ” - is unnecessary and irrelevant to one’s actions regarding church discipline. All that Scripture tells us is how to respond when a person becomes a leader in the Church and begins to publicly proclaim false teaching in that Church.
4) Those who promote blessing sexual acts between men or women, along with other acts of “inclusion” that seek to bless and promote and encourage unrepentant sinful acts, have had to heavily deconstruct and repudiate Scripture, tradition, and reason. In none of those three categories is there a strong case to be made for blessing, promoting, and encouraging sinful acts which Scripture clearly opposes, and in order to flagrantly violate those three pillars of Anglican theology, they have had to become “People of the Lie” in a significant way, unable to exercise godly leadership or authority over Christian believers, though certainly they may attempt to do so and may hold an office giving them that power.
5) In order to bless, promote, and encourage sex acts between men or women - in order to call those acts holy and blessed - bishops and other leaders have had to do great violence to the sacraments in general, to marriage, to Christian anthropology, to Holy Scripture, to authority in the Church, and to the Gospel. In no sense is a promoter of sex acts between men or between women “orthodox” in his views of Scripture, the nature of man, the Fall, sin, repentance, redemption, transformation, the Church, sacraments, or the Gospel; he or she has had to violate and twist all of those things in order to cling to his false teaching and promotion of sex acts between men or women.
All of this has been written and spoken about in article after article, speech after speech, sermon after sermon - literally hundreds of them from Anglicans alone - and no where better than in Kendall Harmon’s extensive and significant iceberg talk, whose introduction begins here. There is no such thing as a leader in a Christian church solely or merely promoting same sex unions. In every case, such heretics feature, believe, promote, and proclaim far more significant and foundational heresies.
6) Such heresies are devastating to not only a church’s witness and proclamation of the Gospel, but deeply damaging to the souls and bodies of many thousands of people who are seeking God’s guidance on the use of their bodies and approach to sexual relationships. Bishop Shannon Johnston’s false proclamation that there can be sex acts between two men or two women that are holy and blessed is like giving antifreeze to a thirsty runner and pronouncing it an excellent and sustaining “fruit juice.” It is a horrific, false act that will deeply damage others who are hungry and thirsty and seeking. It is spiritual malpractice of a high degree.
7) Through Holy Scripture - a Holy Scripture that Bishop Johnston has had to deconstruct of meaning and fill with his own preferred “truths” - God speaks about the devastating damage a false teacher can do within a church, and the urgent need of a church to repudiate such false teachers, to call them to repentance, and then, when necessary, to deprive them of their authority to teach and preach and perform the sacraments. They are to be treated, ultimately, as tax collectors and pagans - even if technically they are no such thing at all. If teachers and other leaders are not publicly repudiated and deprived of office, the Church’s witness is terribly deformed and ultimately destroyed as sinners in need of salvation learn that the Church teaches only what is convenient to it and the surrounding culture.
8) When a Church is unable or unwilling to repudiate numerous false teachers, that Church becomes weakened and unable to throw off the infection of heresy. Ultimately, without intervention, the organizational body that enfleshes the Church will decline and die. Within that failed organizational body - whether it is the organization called the Anglican Communion, or the more local organization called The Episcopal Church - there must be leaders and laypeople who are willing to publicly repudiate such false teachers, carefully boundary off the communion fellowship as best they can, and guard such flocks as they are able from such false teachers, whose function now is only to introduce further poison into the weakened body of Christ. Because such leaders and laypeople cannot - sadly - work through the larger body to repudiate and publicly cast out such false teachers, they must form smaller boundaried organizations and subsets of the whole in which they work to publicly repudiate and differentiate themselves from the false teaching that is now permeating the Church organization.
Clergy guard their parish flocks from the teaching of the heretic bishop, bishops guard their diocesan flocks from the teachings of the heretic bishop, and laypeople, as best they are able, refuse to share public communion with publicly known, scandalous false teachers. All three groups recognize that no organization or even individual can be left “untainted;” no one can be completely pure nor should we try to be. But where it is clear that a person is teaching and promoting and blessing scandalous sin in clear violation of Holy Scripture, tradition, and reason, it is their duty to differentiate themselves strongly from such people and such teaching, guard any flock they can - whether parish, diocese, or family - and treat such people as tax collectors and pagans. It should be very clear to the surrounding culture and communities that such teachers are not accepted as “one of” the subsets within the sick and eventually dying organization. They are “tax collectors and pagans” - not “brothers in Christ” even though they may continue to reside in the organization and purport to exercise authority in that organization, even though they may or may not be regenerate. By their actions they demonstrate publicly that they do not believe or promote the Gospel.
9) One of the primary goals of the clergy, bishops, and laity who are promoting the false teaching of the goodness and blessing of sex acts between men or between women is to use organizations - their credibility, authority, influence, and prestige - to spread their teachings and their foundational worldviews about sin, the Gospel, Holy Scripture, marriage, repentance, transformation, the nature of man, the Fall, and the Church - to the rest of the culture. The organizations that these people infiltrate and take over serve as “trojan horses” to the rest of the culture. From such organizations, these men and women attempt to speak with some authority and credibility - albeit a falsely appropriated and artificially transferred authority and credibility - to the surrounding culture, pushing their beliefs through their chosen vehicles of the organizations they have subsumed and transformed from within. The surrounding culture sees the facade of a formerly credible and reputable and godly organization, but from within, it is a rotting, hollowed out facade.
10) Within The Episcopal Church, heretical bishops and clergy have taken a significant hit - in influence, in publicity within secular media, in numbers of followers, in the strength and health of their dioceses and parishes, in money, and in public credibility. All around the country and around the world, they have succeeded by their actions and words in becoming a “stench to the nostrils” of other believers, both Anglican and otherwise. Some of those bishops and clergy who are false teachers do not care about such losses; it is not important to them that the church is declining and may die, so long as they can use the organization, for the time being, to promote their foundational worldviews. They will - to those within the Church who are resisting their foundational worldview - call it “the cost of discipleship,” talk about quality over quantity, and assert that “growth” occurs in different and better ways than that of growth in “numbers.”
11) Other false teachers within The Episcopal Church are deeply troubled by the losses of influence, numbers of followers, strength and health of their dioceses and parishes, of credibility, of money, and most particularly an increase in bad publicity in the secular media. I place Shannon Johnston in this category. They are desperate for a restoration of those things - in particular their credibility and their influence - and a lessening of negative publicity. They would rather go slower in their quest to promote their vision of Scripture, the nature of man, the Fall, sin, repentance, redemption, transformation, the Church, sacraments, and the Gospel, as long as they can maintain some semblance of credibility, authority, and influence. Such false teachers are eager to promote the notion that there is “reconciliation” with those whom they have personally sued and deposed, and from whom they have taken their property. They need - they desperately need - to be seen as merely “brothers in Christ” who may be wrong on some comparatively minor issues, but in overall Gospel and mission are in unity with those whom they have bullied and abused.
“Reconciliation” is also a red herring. It is repentance that is called for; reconciliation occurs through and in Christ and when one is dealing with false teachers in the Church who are carefully and calculatingly deconstructing that church it is not “reconciliation” that is called for at all nor can any human being offer such a thing. Reconciliation is not anyone’s for the taking or the offering in such matters. Reconciliation is the fruit—the happy consequences—of repentance, fellowship, unity, and in-Christness. Such words in no way describe the nature of the relationship between defenders of the Gospel and the false teachers they have repudiated until the false teachers are no longer false teachers.
The very best thing to happen for those false teachers to continue to prop up their own lost reputations and credibility is for those Christian leaders whose task is to defend the Gospel, to properly boundary and articulate the identity of the Church and its doctrine, to protect a flock, and to strongly differentiate themselves from false teachers to the surrounding culture and the surrounding Church, is for those Christian leaders to declare false teachers like Bishop Johnston “brothers in Christ” and to promote their “ministry” to the wider Church, rather than publicly repudiate their “ministry” to the wider Church.
12) When a parish, diocese, leader, or layperson loses a significant battle - whether it is a lawsuit, a church trial, a committee decision, an election, or some other public issue - it is important that that parish, diocese, leader, or layperson “lose well.” Losing well often involves a) public, clear, stark differentiation - whether in the form of a minority report or other official declaration (recall that Kendall Harmon issued a minority report of one at a General Convention - one of his finest and most courageous moments) so that the world and the Church may see the differences between the ideas of the heretical false teacher, and the ideas of those who are proclaiming the Gospel, b) damage to the ideas that the false teachers are attempting to propagate through their office, and c) continuing depletion of the false teachers’ credibility, witness, cause, authority, and influence to the broader community and remainder of the Church.
As long as you have made the distinctions clear between the competing ideas - the Gospel as opposed to the peculiar, personal, provincial foundational worldview of the false teacher - it is a very good thing for the false teacher to receive deep damage to his or her credibility, authority, influence, and power through the secular media and through any other legal tools at one’s disposal. It is not a time to embrace the false teacher or to help the false teacher save face or look like something other than he is - the purveyor of deeply damaging and false ideas to which he has come through embracing lies and by attempting to deconstruct the Scripture and the Church and the Lord to which he has sworn allegiance.
Clearly, such a principle also means that one does not allow the false teacher to attempt to offer a “witness” to the watching world and the watching church, and in so far as “displacement” means preventing and hindering the false teacher’s mission of deconstruction and propagation of further heresy and further damaging his credibility and influence, than certainly trying to “displace” Bishop Johnston is precisely what a disciple of Christ attempts to do, where it is in his power.
The above dozen principles are fairly basic and simple - common sense for Christians, whether in the 21st or 2nd centuries. People may speculate about the details of what actions or choices to take when confronted with particular situations, but the above overarching principles can guide us in our decisions. My hope and belief is that the majority of Anglicans who believe the Gospel are working within these principles as they deal with false teachers in the Anglican Communion, although it is clear that some are not.
But admittedly, they are not easy to enact, particularly when we’re in a church that is deeply corrupted and heretical. Navigating the perils of a dying organization can be confusing and it is always deeply painful and saddening.
All of that - the pain and the confusion and the sadness, coupled with the weight of corruption and heresy - can make Christians want to throw up their hands and retire to their monasteries and libraries and refuse to engage within their various organizations and institutions.
All I can testify to is that if you can stay with Christ, and fight the battle that He’s given you in the organization in which you reside with honor and courage (that which He gives you), suffering both defeat and victory with joy and in peace, you will grow. You can’t help but do so.
Years ago, back in 2004 - (and who knew we’d all still be blogging eight years later) - I made a cautious but growing commitment, to learn what I needed to learn while going through what was clear would be the complete destruction of a church that I hold very dear and love very much. The very worst thing in suffering is in realizing later on that you must go through it all over again, since you didn’t “get” the lessons and the growth that you had needed the first time. I can hardly think of a greater tragedy than to experience deep suffering, to come out of it on the other end, and to have the same character and the same level of wisdom, discernment, and fruit of the Spirit that one had at the beginning of it all.
If we are to suffer in losing our church, and in perhaps losing the Anglican Communion, let God prepare us for something more - even some greater battle - by our learning what we need to learn and growing more mature, wise, and strong. To put it in more physical terms, if we are to be punched in the stomach over and over again, let’s learn to set our stomach muscles like the Kung Fu masters of old, who certainly seemed to be capable of undergoing spectacular suffering in the midst of their training and discipline.
The point of losing is to learn to lose better, and to learn to someday win, and then to learn to win better. The point of suffering is to become better people in the suffering, not to remain the same ignorant, gutless, dishonorable people we once were, while recognizing humbly that we will never be whole, complete, or perfect until we are face to face with Him.
In all of this, God is blessing me, and He is blessing you. He is blessing me with many joys - with love and fantastic work and running and the outdoors and significant volunteer work and wonderful groups of people covering so many walks of life, and family and friends. And He is blessing me with the loss of my Church and in that loss, giving many wise lessons that I can apply to many other events, activities, relationships, work… and battles farther down the road.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
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