Thank you, readers, for your engagement with last week’s Christianity Today piece about the dangers I see in the self-fulfillment “gospel.” As Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age, this modern “gospel” preaches human flourishing as life’s ultimate and final goal. The thesis of that article—that this gospel is a dangerous detour from that cross-bearing to which Christ and his followers have been called—was tied to the most recent public announcements from Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery of her divorce and her new dating relationship.
I have people legitimately asking: why are you writing about someone’s private life? Isn’t this the kind of self-righteous finger-pointing that gives Christians a bad name? Didn’t Jesus forgive rather than condemn? And haven’t you uncharitably mischaracterized Glennon’s larger body of work and the testimony of her life?
I am incredibly grateful, not just for your support but for your pushback. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, it is generally my decision to let every article that I write stand for itself. That decision is as pragmatic as it is philosophical. (People still want dinner around here.) Moreover, pre-Internet, this is generally what every writer did (excepting corrections in future publications, responses to letters to the editor, or public speaking events). Now, of course, with social media, there is ongoing conversation an article can inspire, allowing writers a chance to explain, to clarify, to endlessly defend. We can probably all see how easily that becomes circular and vain (not to mention tiresome).
I write this post today, not to settle objections, but to acknowledge that I have been listening as you have posted, messaged, and emailed. Let me offer some thoughts in response.
First, corrections—or better yet, confessions.
- I want to confess my failure to cite the great philanthropic good that Glennon has been doing as well as her own powerful story of personal redemption. I am sorry for that. It’s a very fair criticism to note the absence of these important biographical pieces in my piece. Clarification on these two points would have contributed to a more sympathetic tone and a fairer representation. I regret I did not graciously offer it. Glennon has said publicly, clearly, and regularly that she wants to serve her readers. Her story of deliverance out of alcoholism and bulimia has been a source of great encouragement to others, and her advocacy and activism are truly remarkable. I am thankful for all of this and highlight it here.
- Second, I want to confess the evangelical bias represented by the timing of the article. It is an entirely fair critique to say that “Christians are never scandalized until someone’s gay.” Yes, this sticks. Apart from matters of sexual indiscretion, we can sit silently by while the gospel of self-fulfillment and radical individualism is used to defend gross neglect of the two great commandments. It shouldn’t matter if it’s sexual sin, political gain, crass consumerism, neglect of the poor or racial injustice. These all grieve the heart of God, and I am sorry that I—and the church—have not been rightly outraged by these things. By God’s grace, I hope to do better.
For further consideration:
The premise of public discourse.
Some have argued that I should have brought my disagreement to Glennon privately. They are concerned for Christian charity. Their pushback also raises the important biblical concern in Matthew 18 for direct, personal, and private confrontation in the local church before any kind of public address of a “sin” issue.
I suppose it’s obvious but also important to remind readers that Glennon and I are not friends. We are not members of the same church, and the nature of my critique was not a matter of personal disagreement or hurt. Rather, we are public writers involved in the exchange of public ideas. The hazards of this work involve public disagreement, especially when writers like Glennon and I not only write but aim to teach.
I heartily affirm the need for charitable public disagreement, and admit that some insist my article has fallen short of this standard. But I would note that public disagreement is not, in and of itself, inherently unkind, although we can feel it to be. Disagreement can sharpen us. Criticism can teach us. I, least of all, like it, but I’ve had enough to know how painfully good it has been for me.
The nature of leadership.
Some have wondered why I couldn’t have talked about the dangers of the self-fulfillment gospel without referencing Glennon’s story.
When Glennon wrote the Facebook post I referenced for my article, she explicitly aimed to make her personal narrative instructive for others. She did not simply say, I am making these choices, and you can have your own opinion about them. (She said this, too.) She also said: I am modeling self-truth and self-bravery for you. “This is what I want for YOU.”
We may not all intend to make our lives instructive for others in the same way that Glennon has, but she is right in a very important sense: we teach and lead, not just with our ideas, but with our lives. This isn’t to say that God only uses the Mary Poppins of the world to build his kingdom. (Genealogy of Jesus, anyone?) But it is to say that there is never a nice, neat line between our ideas and our lives, especially for Christian teachers and leaders. Our ideas are our lives. Our lives are our ideas. This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he sets forth, in the Epistles, such rigorous ethical standards for pastors/elders. It’s his reason for telling Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16).
As one keenly aware of my own personal failures of conduct and character, I am deeply sobered by this truth.
The importance of discernment.
Some have wondered why I (and the readers of Christianity Today) should concern ourselves with the beliefs of Glennon Doyle Melton, who has never called herself evangelical.
In a world of Amazon Prime and the worldwide web, Glennon’s influence doesn’t stop at the doors of her United Church of Christ. Evangelical women read her blog, buy her books, and travel to hear her speak. Well-respected evangelical female leaders recently invited her to join them main-stage at a national conference in early November.
Glennon has likened her readers to congregants, her work to the writings of the early Christian church. It is worth remembering that historic councils vigorously debated the early writings of apostles and church leaders, determining what should and should not be included in the canon. The early church was incredibly preoccupied with getting the gospel right and did not back down from the public debate of those ideas.
Likewise (in kind, though not degree), every Christian church and pastor, every Christian publication and organization, has the pastoral responsibility to reason and affirm what is true and to challenge what is false. Rigorous theological, exegetical, historical, and cultural discernment is an act of great love for the church.
There is no such thing as radical autonomy in the Christian life—where permission is never needed and explanation never obliged. We belong to Christ, and we belong to one another. To love Christ and one another well, we must encourage, celebrate, and agree. As needed, we must also challenge, correct, and rebuke. The latter is as much for our good as the former.
Which is why I’m grateful for you—both your support and criticism. Thanks for reading here and for reading thoughtful publications like Christianity Today, which aim, however imperfectly, to help the church in this work of discernment and the witness of Christ’s love.