Criticism of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Role of Discernment Blogs

[Editor’s Note: This was written by Peter Lumpkins in two parts. We are including both parts here. We thought it was well written and are posting it from someone who was once (is?) a mortal enemy. It is a high temperature of -4 degrees in Montana today, so it is possible that hell has frozen over]

Part 1

ast week, The Capstone Report, a popular website that focuses on issues it perceives as troubling in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), released a story concerning the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Jason Allen, claiming he was personally lobbying the Missouri governor to settle more refugees in the state. The story turned out to be false. Don Hinkle, longtime editor of The Pathway, Missouri Baptists’ state denominational paper, wrote a brief but scathing rebuttal, accusing the author of “fake news”: “I know fake news when I see it. This story is a prime example of fake news and irresponsible ‘reporting.’ This is why I warn my fellow Christians to be careful with what they read on the Web.”

Jason Allen was even more pointed: “One of the most disappointing aspects of ministry is that, inexplicably, some people will simply choose to lie about you. I’m not referring to innocent misunderstandings or misstatements, I mean the intentional decision to spread falsehood, to impugn you, to do you harm.” Allen later posted a full-length piece addressing the issue.

Entitled, “Denominational Discourse and the Future of the SBC“, Allen describes the Capstone Report article:

Inexplicably, an anonymous website published an anonymous article that cited anonymous sources. From start to finish, the article was a complete lie. It wasn’t a misunderstanding or even a slight misrepresentation. It was a complete fabrication. It was entirely apocryphal, a total lie. Its intent was to slander me, to impugn me, and to do me harm.

While Allen overstated his description of the Capstone Report (neither the author nor the website is anonymous), few would blame Allen for responding to a personal story that was factually wrong. And, to the Capstone Report’s credit, it posted an apology and retraction. Though Allen acknowledged Capstone Report’s action, he hardly seemed satisfied:

I demanded this person produce evidence or retract the article and publicly repent. After 24 hours of pressure, the article was retracted and something of an apology was issued. It was a small, qualified victory in a larger struggle the SBC seems to be losing.

Indeed, according to Allen, perhaps the SBC is now entrenched in a losing battle with what many refer to as “discernment blogs”. Perhaps Allen’s overstated description of the Capstone Report is what many have in mind when they speak or write about “discernment blogs”: “an anonymous website published an anonymous article that cited anonymous sources.”

The fact remains, however, that it’s very difficult to get a straight answer out of people when they condemn “discernment blogs” and call for us to expose them and call them out. For example, I responded to a tweet by Ken Whitfield, Associate Professor of Theology and Dean of Graduate Studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He tweeted:

“Outrage over the lies told about @jasonkeithallen is appropriate. SBC can’t withstand this behavior. It didn’t start this week. Discernment blogs have made a living lying about good people going on 3 yrs. Most have not been defended. This is a cancer. Time to call this stuff out.”

To which I replied (via retweet),

“Yes. Lies abt anyone must morally alarm us. But why just concern for so-called “discernment blogs”? What is a “discernment blog” anyway? How are “discernment blogs” different fr @drmoore’s blog? Or, @albertmohler’s blog? I fear too often “discernment blog”= a blog we don’t like.

Whitfield’s response was telling. He offered two vague criteria to distinguish “discernment blogs” from non-discernment blogs. 1) “Sites self-identify. Sometimes actually carrying the label.” 2) Sometimes sites (apparently “discernment blogs”) are “dedicated to keeping a watchful eye on people and movements to prosecute their ideological concerns.” That’s as specific as Whitfield could become after several tries (link to the entire exchange here).

So far as the first criteria Whitfield offered, of course, if a site claims it is a “discernment blog”, then it seems it would follow that we should, generally speaking, accept the designation. The problem is, very few sites, especially those under discussion of late, claim the designation, “discernment blog.” The Capstone Report definitively rejects the designation.

Who even knows what a discernment blog is? I’ve been labeled that. However, I’ve always viewed myself as holding to a William Lane Craig-inspired Mere Christianity rather than viewing myself as a dogmatic heresy hunter. Yet, it appears any critique and any unfavorable opinion gets one hit with the label.

Rather the author sees himself mostly as “standing up for the little guy in the church” against a massive network of big evangelicalism that he believes is leaning excessively to both the theological and political Left for traditional Southern Baptists he claims to represent. And, since the Capstone Report’s article on Jason Allen was the occasion for Whitfield’s outrage and his subsequent charge that “Discernment blogs have made a living lying about good people,” and hence it’s “time to call this stuff out,” what exactly makes the Capstone Report a “discernment blog”?

Even granting the truth that the Capstone Report got it wrong about Allen (nor minimizing the error), how does this error make the Capstone Report a “cancer” to be called out? Only recently did Baptist Press apologize and retract an article it conceded it got wrong. Is the news wire service of the SBC now a “cancer” to be “called out”?

If you read the twitter thread between Whitfield and myself, I think you’ll observe the frustration he experienced in trying to distinguish “discernment blogs” from non-discernment blogs. At one point, Whitfield suggested I was demanding a list of particular “discernment blogs.” Incidentally, it would be interesting to see Whitfield “calling out” these insidious “discernment blogs” without exactly identifying whom he was referencing. It would be like, “We must all stand against X! X is a cancer! X is lying! Let’s expose X!

Even so, I wasn’t necessarily interested in a particular list of “discernment blogs” though it could have helped Whitfield’s case had he done so. The only list for which I was interested was the distinctions that separated “discernment blogs” from other, more healthy blogs in Whitfield’s view.

As for Whitfield’s second criteria, it was hardly more helpful than the first. Whitfield suggests that “discernment blogs” are blogs that are “dedicated to keeping a watchful eye on people and movements to prosecute their ideological concerns.” But the problem with this criteria is, it describes some of the most popular and well-respected blogs among Whitfield’s own colleagues and friends.

For example, no blog historically has been more poised in keeping an eye on popular trends, popular authors, and theological movements offering a decidedly personal perspective including both criticism and correction than Al Mohler. No one. Mohler routinely criticizes Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Cooperative Baptists, Atheists, secular education, theological education, heresy, false teaching, famous authors, historical events, cultural trends both inside and outside the church, etc., etc. What makes Al Mohler’s blog a non-discernment blog? Mohler’s intellect? His degrees? His status in the SBC? What?

But the truth is, Mohler himself claims discernment as a key component to being a faithful believer living in contemporary society. Here’s Mohler (italics added):

  • All this reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment. It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals — and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe…We desperately need a theological recovery that can only come from practicing biblical discernment (link).
  • One essential task of the pastor is to feed the congregation and to assist Christians to think theologically, in order to demonstrate discernment and authentic discipleship. […] Without a proper sense of priority and discernment, the congregation is left to consider every theological issue to be a matter of potential conflict or, at the other extreme, to see no doctrines as worth defending if conflict is in any way possible (link).
  • All this is necessary in order that the disciple would grow in grace and in understanding, but it is also necessary in order that Christians will grow in intellectual discernment. This intellectual discernment is a necessary component of the Christian’s responsibility to know the truth, to love what is true, to discern the difference between truth and error, and to defend the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (link).
  • Here we face a fundamental dilemma. When Joel Osteen hears a summary of Mormon belief that mentions God assuming “the shape of a man,” does he lack the theological discernment to hear how that differs from biblical Christianity, or does it not concern him? In other words, does Joel not know, or does Joel not care? […] We will also need deep doctrinal discernment mixed with urgent spiritual concern. The Latter Day Saints include some of the most wonderful and kind people we will ever meet. […] But their beliefs concerning Jesus Christ are not those of historic Christianity, and their understanding of salvation differs radically from the message of the New Testament. It is the responsibility of every Christian — and most certainly every Christian minister — to know this (link).
  • I’m glad that those who are physically or otherwise unable to attend the church service can have access to that service at least to the teaching and the preaching by means of technology, streaming worship services and all the rest. I’m glad that Christians today can listen to and sometimes even watch faithful preachers now long dead or at least very far away. That’s good. Although discernment, theological discernment, is no less necessary online than on the ground (link).

One could go on further with selections from Mohler’s site where he insists discernment is to be positively embraced, actively pursued, and thoroughly developed both in individual believers and within the church. And, he’s right to do so (Hebrews 5:14; compare also 1 Corinthians 12:10). Discernment is seen as a gift to the church for edification not condemnation as are all spiritual gifts sovereignly endowed by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:12; see also 12:11, 14:5). In short, discernment is necessary to faithful Christian living

But if discernment is biblically commendable, why is an entire category of “discernment blogs” described as a “cancer” … blogs that have made a “living lying about good people” and deserving now to be “called out”? I find it interesting that not a single good thing can be said from SBC leaders about “discernment blogs” when it seems everything said about discernment in the New Testament is positive and healthy—even necessary for the church. Is there no such thing as a healthy “discernment blog”?

Creating an arbitrary category of “discernment blogs,” the entirety of which are considered evil and cancerous and worthy of the ban, seems to me to point to excessively lazy thinking and emotionally-charged overreaction. Nor is it consistent with our biblical obligation to correctly exercise mature biblical-theological discernment as Mohler repeatedly alluded to above.  

Not that there cannot exist bad, inferior, or even unhealthy discernment blogs. Of course, they exist. Just like bad, inferior, and unhealthy theology blogs, biblical studies blogs, church-growth blogs, cultural blogs, political blogs, history blogs, and etc. But the strange irony is, as believers, we’re rightly called to and responsible for correctly discerning the good theology blogs from the bad; the superior biblical studies blogs from the inferior; the healthy church-growth blogs from the unhealthy, etc. Why, then, are we not counselled to correctly discern what constitutes bad, inferior, and unhealthy “discernment blogs” from those which may be judged good, superior, and healthy?

Unless, of course, it is presumed, that all discernment blogs are bad in themselves. But now we’re back to the positive qualities the New Testament places upon discernment, and the spiritual value it offers believers.

What will not work, it seems to me, is the conventional wisdom universally distributed among SBC leaders—namely, to shut these awful “discernment blogs” down by insisting we stop reading them. The usual line is, if you don’t click, what they say won’t stick. But this approach is suspect for several reasons.

First, those yelling loudest about “discernment blogs” seem curiously aware of the details stirred by the latest controversial post. “I never read them,” one says, while at the same time “calling out” the blog for posting such discreditable information they insist they hadn’t read. Odd to say the least.

Second, unless one specifically names the culprit to charge, only confusion follows. As I mentioned above in my exchange with Keith Whitfield, it’s frustrating to publicly call for exposing X when you’re not willing to define or identify who or what X is. Some won’t link to X since they think it will give X more internet traffic. Some won’t even link to corrections to X’s false information for fear it will somehow lead the reader back to X!

I’ve read two different reports this week from Christian news sites written specifically to refute what amounts to online gossip and slander. I’m thankful that the stories were written even as I grieve that they needed to be written. They are worthy reports, but I’m not even going to link them here so as not to give any more oxygen to the slanders they were written to refute.

Third, telling people not to read certain bloggers is very much akin to telling people not to read certain authors; not to read certain books; not to watch certain TV; not to go to certain movies; not to wear certain clothes; not to use certain words; not to write on certain subjects. We could go on endlessly.

But the point is established.

This type of counsel seems morally legalistic to the core and cannot assist the church in dealing successfully with the issue. We’re called to moral maturity which includes rightfully and correctly discerning good from evil based upon our understanding of the Word of God and sound moral reasoning.

We very well may come to the conclusion that certain websites are neither viable nor healthy for us to consume, but we need no a priori blanket decisions made for us by ivory tower Southern Baptists.

God has a better solution.

Part 2

Finally, there remains an unexplored possibility to explain why there’s so much internet outrage expressed over so-called “discernment blogs” coming from Southern Baptists. Jason Allen hinted at it but did not develop it in his rebuke of Capstone Report. After demanding that the “anonymous blog” retract and apologize for its false report about him, Allen acknowledged the retraction as “a small, qualified victory in a larger struggle the SBC seems to be losing” (Note: as anyone can observe, Capstone Report is not anonymous).

Truth is, it may be that SBC leaders are exceedingly fearful that they are losing the ear of the internet consumer, especially the ear of evangelical Christians. Such a fear could very well explain why SBC leaders have become so vigorously vocal and, in some cases, unreasonably hysterical toward the so-called “discernment blogs.” Less than a decade ago,  established blogs by SBC leaders like Al Mohler set the SBC agenda and ruled the information network in SBC circles. But suppose now blogs like Pulpit & Pen, Capstone Report, and some others who are, by and large, critical of the SBC and its stated agenda, rule the internet traffic, perhaps even obtaining the lion’s share of SBC internet consumers.

If such a scenario is correct, one can understand why SBC leaders would be so fearful. But, is such a scenario correct?

Consider the following chart which shows the internet ranking of many of the most popular sites by Southern Baptists, sites recognized by SBC leaders as reputable sites, and sites that most SBC leaders would most probably view as “discernment blogs” about which they counsel us to avoid. Rankings are slippery and often different criteria will produce different rankings. However, Alexa, the site from which the chart was produced, remains among the most reputable. Rankings are based upon internet traffic over the last 30-90 days.

Conclusion

The bottom line is, cracking down on internet inaccuracies and falsehoods by arbitrarily creating an evil category of websites to avoid—i.e. “discernment blogs”—is a strategy that obviously has not worked in the past and is not working now. As the chart seems to suggest, those speaking loudest about the evils of “discernment blogs” are the very ones holding the least amount of readership. In essence, they are speaking to a very small constituency who’s most likely already loyal to them and hardly ever reads “discernment blogs” anyway.

In addition, on the one hand, publicly complaining about the “cancer” of these blogs that “make a living telling lies” and therefore declaring it’s high time we expose them and “call them out,” while on the other hand, making vague references without ever naming the enemy one has identified is as absurd as it is and has been unsuccessful.

Get used to it. “Discernment blogs” are here to stay–at least for now.

Finally, whether Jason Allen knew it or not, he actually demonstrated how to ultimately conquer falsehood, error, mistakes, misrepresentations, lies, innuendo, etc. Not by banning readers or websites any more than by banning movies or certain books. Only frustration driven by emotional reaction offers inadequate answers like these. Besides, SBC leaders just don’t have the internet traffic muscle to do it. They’re lagging way behind in overall readership, preaching to the choir, so to speak.

Instead, like Allen, show the goods. Post the proof. State the evidence. Then, let interested readers decide. In short, Jesus had the answer all along. Knowing the truth, you will be set you free (John 8:32). Most of us (hopefully) have enough sense to see through the flimsy claim based upon hearsay not hard evidence.

An old, long-forgotten Baptist line used to be, “Trust the Lord and tell the people.”

Maybe it’s time to revive it.

[Editor’s Note: This was written by Peter Lumpkins and first posted at his blog, SBC Tomorrow]



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