Friday, January 9, 2009

In Defense of Both/And: My Reply to Phil Johnson [SK]

Due to my exceptionally heavy Fall speaking schedule and subsequent rush to complete revisions on my forthcoming book, I’m late replying to Phil Johnson’s multi-point critique of my pro-life work. Johnson (not to be confused with Phillip E. Johnson, the intelligent design advocate) shares many of my own concerns regarding the emerging church and the general state of evangelical preaching today. More often than not, I consider him one of the good guys. However, his cumulative case against me suffers from what Anthony Flew once described as the “leaky buckets” syndrome: You can’t just string a bunch of bad arguments together in hopes that your overall case holds water.

Here’s the paragraph from my interview with Justin Taylor that set Johnson off:

By the way, Obama won’t be the only one telling pro-lifers to surrender politically. Voices within Christendom will assert that evangelicals have spent too much time on politics, with little to show for it. What’s really needed, so the claim will go, is more time preaching the gospel. Well, I’m all for preaching the gospel, but why should anyone suppose that political efforts aimed at protecting human life detract from the biblical command to go make disciples? Why can’t pro-life Christians do both? Simply put, the answer to a lack of evangelical fervor for the gospel is not to withdraw our political advocacy for the weak and vulnerable; it’s to encourage Christians to do a better job presenting the gospel. We don’t have to stop advocating protections for the innocent to do that. At the same time, it’s unfair to say that because we have not achieved everything we set out to politically accomplish in the last 28 years, we have wasted our time on political distractions. Wilberforce and Lincoln suffered crushing political setbacks before their respective nations finally did away with slavery, yet no one suggests they wasted time that should have been devoted to preaching or evangelizing. Truth is, pro-lifers are simply outnumbered and underpowered. But this in no way justifies political silence in the face of evil, the likes of which we are about to witness at a whole new level. As for the claim evangelicals spend too much time on politics, I say prove it. I think Joe Carter is right:

"Contrary to what many secularists claim--and many Christians believe--we evangelicals are not all that politically involved. Sure, like most Americans we talk a lot about politics, especially in an election season. But the claim that we are involved in actual political activities--lobbying, organizing, campaigning, etc.--would be difficult to support with actual evidence."

In short, the true solution to our current political defeat is to equip more pro-lifers to engage the culture, not shrink back in defeat. Quitting now is simply not an option
Johnson’s primary claim is that the both/and approach I advocate above is practically unworkable or, at best, not so simple as I imagine it to be. Here is my summary of the main reasons (in no particular order) that he lists for saying so:

1) Klusendorf is blinded by starry-eyed naivete if he really thinks efforts to harness the church’s political clout have done nothing to damage our collective witness or mute the gospel message we’ve communicated to the culture. Klusendorf’s own website is not exactly a sterling example of both/and.
2) On one hand, Klusendorf argues that both/and is reasonable, on the other, he insists pro-life organizations should not be held responsible for preaching the gospel because they are principally about cultural reform, and cultural reform efforts require broad ecumenical coalitions. Klusendorf also argues that stopping abortion must be a priority over evangelism in crisis pregnancy centers
3) Klusendorf implies that to invest more energy and resources into gospel ministry is to “shrink back” in defeat.
Let me begin with an observation. Suppose, for the sake or argument, that each of Phil’s points above is true. What follows? One thing that clearly doesn’t follow is that a both/and approach is either unreasonable or unworkable. At best, what follows is that I’m doing a lousy job applying my own stated position. That’s certainly worth discussing and I’m open to correction, but let’s not pretend it refutes my central claim that pro-lifers can, in principle, both share the gospel and work politically to protect the unborn. Perhaps others do it better than me.

Of course, I don’t think Phil is correct. His thinking is careless on a number of points.

First, Phil’s claim that my own website is not a good example of both/and shows that Phil simply didn’t look very carefully at my site. Right there on the LTI homepage—smack in the middle of it—is a link which reads "The Pro-Life Pastor." The article which follows outlines four tasks for pro-life clergy, which include, among other things, equipping believers to defend pro-life views and preaching a cross-centered gospel to those wounded by abortion. Desiring God’s blog didn’t have any trouble finding that link and directing its readers to it, but Phil somehow missed it. Also on the LTI homepage is a link to The Case for Life, our simplified website for those new to the abortion issue. Right on the frontpage of that site is the link after abortion, which again contains a summary of the gospel. Nevertheless, I don’t think for a moment that Phil meant to mislead anyone. He just didn’t look closely enough at my site.

Second, Phil poisons the well with this claim: “Specifically, I think [Klusendorf] (like most evangelicals) is blinded by starry-eyed naïveté if he really believes the three-decades-long effort to harness the church's political clout has done nothing to damage our collective testimony as the church of Christ or mute the gospel in the message we have communicated to our culture.”

Which efforts, Phil? Notice Phil does not explain what he means, but vaguely attempts to discredit me personally. But again, his ad-hominem won’t work. Let’s be clear on the claim Phil must defend: Evangelicals spend too much time on politics. Really? How does he know this? That’s exactly the point Joe Carter raised in his own critique of Phil's position.

And while we are at it, what, exactly, distinguishes permissible political involvement from non-permissible involvement? For example, are believers who vote or donate money to a political campaign guilty of trying to “harness the church’s political clout” and thus responsible for damaging the collective witness of the church? How about evangelical pro-lifers who lobby congress to prevent passage of a devastating piece of legislation like FOCA—are they guilty too? If I spend time walking a precinct or organize a get-out-the vote drive, am I damaging the cause of Christ? If so, how?

Phil leaves all these questions unexplained. Here’s what I wish Phil had said: “Certain high profile evangelicals make certain political statements that give evangelicals a bad name and thus damage our collective witness.” Pow! I agree completely. The answer to that problem, however, is 1) recruit better spokespersons (like Al Mohler) and 2) equip Christian leaders in general to graciously communicate their views—not discourage rank and file believers from participating in their own government.

To cite a Parallel example, suppose I said: “Phil Johnson is blinded by starry-eyed naïveté if he really believes the three-decades-long effort by televangelists and radio preachers to harness the financial clout of the local church has done nothing to damage our collective testimony as the church of Christ or mute the gospel in the message we have communicated to our culture.” Suppose I went on to argue that we should scale back John MacArthur’s radio ministry because of the damage done by other preachers. Phil would rightly reply that my proposed solution doesn’t follow from the problem I’ve identified. I’m certain he’d say we need to promote better preachers like John MacArthur (agreed) who faithfully teach the Bible rather than discourage evangelical involvement in broadcast media. But if that’s true for preachers, why is it not true for pro-life evangelicals who engage the political process?

Moreover, pro-life evangelicals are generally not out to “harness the political clout of the local church.” They’re out to promote justice for the weak and vulnerable and that requires, among other things, political effort. In other words, they’re doing their jobs as citizens and they want other Christians to do the same. What’s wrong with that? Remember, we are a government of the people by the people, which means we all bear a measure of responsibility for the unjust actions that government takes.

I agree that some Christians in political circles damage our witness, especially on abortion. But what evidence does Phil have that most do? One guy who has studied the issue is Jon A. Shields, political science professor, Claremont Mckenna College. Jon’s new book, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, states that although religious conservatives are frequently accused of threatening democratic values, they have in fact dramatically increased and improved democratic participation and they are far more civil and reasonable than is commonly believed. Unlike Johnson who lumps politically motivated believers into one undesirable camp, Shields is careful to distinguish between those believers who are “deliberative,” “disjointed,” and “radical.” At the moment, thoughtful (deliberative) pro-lifers are engaging the cultural and political arenas in a winsome manner that’s drawing the attention of academic professionals. Professor Paul J. Quirk, Phil Lind Chair in U.S. Politics and Representation at the University of British Columbia, writes: “Shields shows that antiabortion activists—far more than their pro-choice counterparts—bend over backwards to engage respectfully with opponents and promote high standards of democratic discourse. They do so both as an obligation of Christian love and as a matter of hardheaded political strategy. Liberal academics and commentators will resist his thesis but it will stand up to rigorous scrutiny."

I don’t know about you, but “bending over backwards to engage respectfully with opponents” sounds like a good Christian witness, not a bad one.

Third, Phil’s claim that I’m talking out both sides of my mouth is odd, at best. He contends that on one hand I’m arguing that both/and is reasonable, while on the other, I say that pro-life organizations should not be held responsible for preaching the gospel because they are principally about cultural reform, and cultural reform efforts require broad ecumenical coalitions. Phil is also troubled by my concern that stopping abortion must be a primary activity in crisis pregnancy centers.

To be clear, I never said pro-life organizations must both preach the gospel and reform culture. Rather, I said a given pro-life organization can do both activities, and the degree to which it does both will depend on its stated purpose. In other words, engaging the culture, in principle, does not conflict with sharing the gospel. Nevertheless, crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) with a clearly defined mission to save unborn children should primarily be evaluated by how well they do just that. There’s nothing wrong with a CPC sharing the gospel and I’m grateful many do. But an organization’s stated purpose matters, especially when lives are at stake. In short, I’m okay if a pregnancy center makes evangelism an overarching goal provided its primary and immediate activity is saving babies here and now. Let’s not forget: CPCs have only moments to save a child’s life, but days and weeks to address those deeper structural changes that bring about a transformed life.

True, CPCs committed to evangelism must expose women to the reality of their own sin. But in crisis situations, we should first make the sin of abortion real to the client before talking about sin in the abstract, theological sense. As my colleague Gregg Cunningham puts it, “if a woman is not more horrified of abortion than she is terrified of a crisis pregnancy, her baby will die.”

Beyond that, there’s no reason to suppose that making the sin of abortion real (indeed, that is the specific sin she contemplates, right?) will stop us from presenting the full gospel when the time is right, perhaps at that exact moment or later. In short, there’s no reason CPCs can’t devote resources to doing both.

As for pro-life organizations in general, Phil is right: I do say they are primarily about cultural reform. I also contend that believers can serve in those organizations even if presenting the gospel is not part of the group’s stated purpose. Again, I’m not sure why this is even controversial. No one, for example, complains when Christians work for an organization selling insurance (provided it’s sold ethically), even when that organization has no ties to the gospel whatsoever. If it’s okay for Christians to work selling insurance in organizations where the gospel is not officially presented, why can’t they work with organizations where the primary mission is saving lives right now?

Phil, again, wrongly sets up an either/or where none exists. It’s seldom the case that Christians must choose between gospel and cultural reform. For example, Stand to Reason, Life Training Institute, and Justice for All (to name a few) all combine pro-life apologetics with defenses of the Christian faith in general and, when called for, the gospel in particular. They also share the gospel on campus with thousands of students each year.

In my own work with LTI, I speak in high school assemblies at Catholic and evangelical schools across the United States. In each case, I present the gospel as part of my pro-life presentation. I do the same when I speak at pregnancy center fundraising banquets. Funny thing is, not one school—Catholic or Protestant—has ever complained. Nor has any banquet host, Catholic or Protestant. True, I don’t tell non-evangelicals specifically why I think their theology is mistaken. But I do share the gospel—including the bad news of our sinfulness and the righteousness that is found in Christ alone. In short, I have no problem doing both/and. Indeed, far from distracting me from presenting the gospel, my pro-life advocacy is precisely the thing that gives me an opportunity to speak of it. (Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many Catholic students Phil presents the gospel to each year? My guess is that he’s seldom invited to those schools while my pro-life, cultural reform efforts get me invited regularly to share my pro-life views, which includes the gospel.) But again, I don’t fault Phil for malicious intent. He’s just ignorant of my work.

Finally, Phil writes: “Notice how Klusendorf implies that to invest more energy and resources in gospel ministry is to ‘shrink back in defeat.’ A suggestion like that ought to jar our evangelical sensibilities. The fact that we take such comments in stride says a lot about evangelicals' lack of confidence in the power of the gospel. Preaching the gospel more boldly and earnestly than ever is hardly a form of "retreat." The popularity of such an opinion highlights how urgently evangelicals need to get back to being evangelical.”

Once again, Phil did not read carefully. I absolutely did not say or imply that investing more money in gospel ministry is to “shrink back in defeat.” Rather, I said just the opposite: “Simply put, the answer to a lack of evangelical fervor for the gospel is not to withdraw our political advocacy for the weak and vulnerable; it’s to encourage Christians to do a better job presenting the gospel. We don’t have to stop advocating protections for the innocent to do that.” Later in that same section, I stated that the true solution to our current political defeat is to equip more pro-lifers to engage the culture, not shrink back in defeat. My point was that quitting now politically or culturally is simply not an option, not that investing more energy in the gospel constitutes defeat. Any careful reader can see that, but again, Phil was not reading carefully.

No doubt, Phil disagrees with my larger views on Christians and their role in the political process. He said as much in his piece. And though I don’t share his views, I’m glad he’s part of the conversation and appreciate the important contribution he makes.

But in this case, I must say that I expected better from a guy whose insights on other topics are usually spot-on. When it comes to gospel and cultural engagement, all of us together in the church are to perform all of these functions and duties in aggregate. Each is equipped for the individual work to do in the Body and the world for the Kingdom. Phil’s criticism strikes me as the finger criticizing the knee for not being a finger. Truth is, any one Christian can perform his duties as a Christian over time and in different settings. A CPC worker may not evangelize every day at work, but she might be heavily involved in evangelizing elsewhere. Because a Christian might not do something at one moment, doesn't mean she’s not doing it at another.


  1. As a pastor who got this thread from the BTW blog, I was blessed by the interaction. I wrestle with these issues and the balance, the need to stay involved, etc. This discussion helped me. I appreciate your position and the respect with which you responded to Phil's critique.

  2. Thank, PJ. Phil's a good guy with whom I have much more in common than not. His work on the Spurgeon site is almost enough for me to forgive without comment any minor points that divide us.


  3. Dear Scott Klusendorf,

    A most excellent and irenic reply. FWIW, I posted the following over at JT's blog:

    As someone who is a long-time admirer of Pastor Phil Johnson and staunchly remains one, I was heavily involved with him on this "Conversation on the Gospel, Abortion, and Politics". I defended Scott Klusendorf, but it was much more than that; it was that a false Either/Or was being propagated when it seeme clearly obvious (to me, anyways) that a Both/And approach was both good and needed.

    However, it became clearer to me where Pastor Phil was coming from when he wrote the following on 11/11/08 at 8:23am:

    "As a matter of fact, Rome's denial of the gospel, together with her catalogue of extrabiblical superstitions and manmade doctrines that keep untold millions from trusting Christ alone, strike me as far grosser evils than abortion. That's not to minimize the evil of abortion; but hopefully it puts the wickedness of damning false religion in perspective."

    Given this self-revealing clarity from Pastor Phil Johnson I could then see why he was opposed to ecumenical efforts to reduce abortion (and gay marriage too) since he saw the Gospel being diminished.

    As a capstone, all the TeamPyro bloggers provided this post: "The Christian's Priority and Presence: Things We Agree On".

    Lastly, I would like to reiterate my deep appreciation and respect for Pastor Phil Johnson. Although I didn't agree with his position on this particular issue, he is a tremendous warrior and servant-leader for Christ.

    P.S. Thank you JT for continuing the conversation.

  4. This is the way Christians should interact on issues like this.


  5. Keep up the great work you do Scott. And thank you for the measured response. God Bless.

  6. Though I appreciate your rebuttal, I think most American believers have gone overboard politically. I may not agree with all that Phil said, but I lean more toward his conclusions than yours.

    If only most Christians were more passionate about proclaiming the gospel than they are about various political issues ...

  7. Hi Scott,

    Thank you for this marvellous response. It gets to the point while disagreeing respectfully with another. Here in South Africa we have the same problem when it comes to Christian involvement in politics.

    In my opinion, the Bible is really clear about the Christian's involvement in the area of justice/injustice. I wrote on this in an article called Abortion and injustice in South Africa.

    For some reason many Christians shrink back when they hear the word politics. However, in my opinion politics is not about ruling but serving. Even Paul saw governments as servants of God. In terms of this, I believe politics is just another vehicle for the fight against injustices perpetrated against the weak.

    Like the prophets of old, we still must be prophetic voices against governments that are the perpetrators of the very injustices they are supposed to prevent.

  8. So Scott, did you read this? (Slight correction to TUAD: it was not written by all of us, though m'man Frank did endorse it.) What do you make of it? Does it alter your perception of the direction of Phil's criticisms?

    Isn't asking how many RC kids Phil evangelizes ad hominem? I pity the man who tries to compare scope of witness and usefulness to Phil Johnson.

  9. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for your reply. No, I have not read the post you reference though I certianly will now that you've brought it to my attention. I was responding only to Phil's original post about my work in particular.

    As for the alleged ad-hominem you mention, I think you are right. I should have omitted it. However, I did not compare my evangelistic efforts with Phil's in general. I restricted it to access to RC students. My point was that my pro-life efforts get me in front of the very kids that most need the gospel. True, I can't give a lengthy presentation, but I can hit the highlights.

    Thanks for pointing out my error on that one point.

  10. Dan,
    The post you site has some good points that I agree with, but #'s 10 and 18 need to be better reconciled. On one hand, #10 says: "The message Christians are given to proclaim to unbelievers is about justification by faith, not social reform through legal means; and it culminates in a plea for sinners to be reconciled to God through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).

    On the other hand, #18 reads: "Some of those possible avenues for individual Christians include careers in politics and journalism, other forms of communication, working with pro-life causes and adoption agencies, and with other charitable organizations."

    But what should Christian politicians do if not work for cultural reform through legal means? Isn't that exactly what we expect of them? And won't they have to make that case with unbeliever who you say should be given the gospel instead of a pitch for social reform through legal means?

    So which is it? Can Christians work for cultural reform or not?

    Maybe you can resolve this apparent conflict, but for now, it needs more explaining.

    Also, there's a general presumption in the piece (it seems to me) that Christians are spending too much time on politics. Like I said in my post, you, Phil, et al, need to prove this. I'm unwilling to accept it without evidence.

    By the way, you are right to like Chicago. Question is, with or without Peter Cetera? Can I make my own pitch for the Eagles? Ya, they're lefties, but man can they harmonize.

  11. This is an excellent response. Thanks for defending the cultural mandate to be salt and light. It is definitely a case of both/and, not either/or.

  12. Well, to speak to my area of greatest strength....

    With Cetera. Though Jason Scheff is the nicest guy, and perhaps a technically superior bass-player, Cetera's voice was unique and versatile, his harmonies silken-sharp, and his bass-style memorable.

    BTW, just used Chicago's Mongonucleosis for the father/bride dance at my dear daughter's wedding, Sunday. Her pick. Just another way she turned out great.

    Glad we have this common ground, Scott.


  13. Dan,
    You are right about Cetera. Congratulations on your daughter's marriage.

    Best Regards,

  14. It seems as if Pastor Phil Johnson's position on Church and Culture is the same as Pastor Michael Spencer also known as the Internet Monk who wrote in a comment on this thread:

    "That is not what I am saying about believers. Believrs should be good and active citizens.

    I believe the church, pastors, etc. are called to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, not try to morally improve society. The Gospel and the community it creates, and the beleivers it equips, are the political response we are to make."

    There may be difference between what Phil Johnson is saying and Michael Spencer is saying, but I'm not entirely clear as to the distinction.

  15. Truth Unites and Divides,
    Thanks for your comments. See my comments above (in reply to Dan Phillips) regarding the need to reconcile two points in Johnson's, et al, thinking.


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