October 22, 2020

Ground Rules: The Decision To Make It Personal

armed_and_dangerous.jpgGround Rules is a series of posts on some of the issues raised in my interactions with my critics in the blogosphere.

Imagine with me, if you will, the following strange story.

Imagine that I make a blog post taking issue with some point made by Ravi Zacharias. I rarely disagree with Ravi, but let’s say I take some issue with him on the issue of inerrancy. I devote a post to it.

What would you think if, the next day, www.rzim.com had a full and lengthy polemic response to my comment? My name in the title, calling me out by name as if I am the only person with this response, characterizing me as part of a movement to denigrate the Bible and calling me a “bigot” for posting on my blog?

You should be saying, “That would be bizarre. How can you be a serious Christian leader if you use the internet to hunt down and respond to your critics personally, pejoratively and by name? When you are a leader of some stature, you have to forego these personal vendettas. Ravi would never do that.” Indeed.

Can we reload? Imagine that Dave Ramsey, well known financial counselor, is criticized by someone in the banking industry for his opposition to credit cards. What would you think of Ramsey if he devoted a full page on his web site calling this banker out by name and characterizing him as a tool of financial interests who distorted Dave’s points? What if Dave started doing that all the time? What if Dave couldn’t talk about finances without personalizing almost everything into a battle between himself and another person?

You should say, “Dave knows that he’s controversial to the financial establishment. He’s provocative on his show, and he knows there will be a response in the financial community. He can’t make everything personal. He can’t start using names. That’s juvenile. It will be the end of him as a leader if he keeps it up.” Again, indeed.

I could go on and on and on. Imagine the guys on Together for the Gospel writing long posts with their opponents names at the top, calling them bigots. Imagine Mark Dever or Al Mohler blogging and podcasting in personal, name-called-out derision of those who disagree with them strongly over elders or Calvinism or inerrancy.

Here’s a rule of thumb: The higher you go up the ladder of influence, the more you must forego personalizing conflicts with those who disagree with you. You expect it, and you act like you expect it. You blog and podcast like you expect it. You skip the names and you deal with the criticism as it plays a part in the overall issue.

You think that the guys at White Horse Inn don’t get mail? “For today’s show, we’re going to call out our critics by name, the bigots.” Or John Piper? Or R.C. Sproul? If those men started blogs to chase down and personally battle their critics, it would be a sea change in their leadership.

I’m pretty sure Joel Osteen won’t be writing a two page letter about me, calling me a bigot, even though i have the longest anti-Osteeen post on the web right here at IM. Even though he’s a lot of other things, he’s got more class than that. I assume he knows his problem isn’t Michael Spencer, the bigot, but conservative evangelicals, period.

Of course, one reason a person might fall into this pattern is how much attention they pay to their friends. If I have a room full of supporters who constantly send me links to every negative or disagreeable mention of me on the web, I’d have to decide what to do with that chattering class of eggers on. If people were always sending me links and telling me to go after people who responded to my posts, I’d have to decide how to handle that pressure. That’s part of leadership too.

I’m sure most people of influence have learned to listen to the voices that say, “Don’t personalize things like controversies in Calvinism. Don’t put that name at the top of your post or say he’s a bigot.” And others don’t listen to that advice. They are still susceptible to the chat room cheerleaders and the people sending links to respond to. They may even find themselves looking at every trackback and jumping into comment threads wherever they are mentioned.

High irony. Some people make their living being analytical and provocative, but when someone responds to them, that person is a “bigot.” Higher irony: Just last week someone wrote me about one of the critics I have in mind in this post. This person wanted my honest opinion of him. Now this person has done more than anyone on the web to cause me, personally, pain as a result of my blogging. But I understand what he’s doing and even why he’s doing it the way he’s doing it. I said he was a good man, and that his ministry was valuable and helpful. I said I had no reservations about him as a person or a minister, and that whatever problems I’d experienced were the same kinds of flaws that reside in my personality.

Here at our ministry, we have some “letter writers” on the staff. Every church or business does. When I make a decision about the spiritual life of our school, I’ll get the long, critical letter. I used to write long letters in reply, and throw them away.

Now, I read the letter, once, and throw it away. Life is simply too short. I’m here to lead, and as Lincoln said, if I respond to all my critics, I will do nothing else. Of course, if you want your business to be nothing but responding to critics, that’s another story.

This is now the third time I’ve gotten a lengthy treatment from an internet watchblogger of some reputation. He believes Catholics are non-Christians. I noted that he said the pope wasn’t in heaven, and he went after me by name as if I had insulted him. Later, I wrote an apologia about my differences with some kinds of reformed Christianity. He gave me three headlining posts in a week on his well-read blog, as if I had mounted an attack on him. Now I’ve made an off hand reference to him in the Chan/Gospel offer discussion, which he commented on at length, and my name is at the top of a post, again, where I’m labeled a bigot.

Being a bigot means I don’t have intelligent opinions, just bigoted prejudices. And that’s the heart of the problem: You have to forego responding to critics on the basis that they are idiots. They’re not. They simply are at a different place than you. If you make it your business to be provocative, some of them will make it their business to reply. THAT’S A COMPLIMENT TO YOU and you pull yourself down by making it a personal blogwar.

One of the reasons I am not part of certain kinds of churches is because of stories about what happened to people who criticized the elders and pastors. In some churches, disagreement with the elders or criticism of the pastors resulted in visits, accusations of moral failure, labeling as unsubmissive rebels and church discipline. In rare instances, this was clearly abusive.

These issues come to a basic decision from leaders in ministry: How will I respond to critics? How will I respond to those who tell me who my critics are and what they are saying?

Making that decision is part of why Ravi Zacharias is the man he is, and John Piper is the man he is. The rest of us- yours truly certainly included– get to decide every day what kind of persons we want to be. If we have been blessed to use this medium to some influence, then it’s a question of stewardship, character, maturity and the ability to resist the constant temptation to personalize.

In other words, my brother (and being able to call one another “brother” is a crucial part of this for me,) write every word you’ve ever written. We need your voice, even though I disagree with you occasionally (but not nearly as much as you or others think.) But can we find a way to take my name off those headlines? It’s not about me and you, and we both know it.

(Now here’s wishing a great day to all of you forwarding this post along. Keep up the good work.)


  1. Yes, I tend to think he spends to much time responding to specific critics and I don’t see the usefulness of it (I mean, I’m sure even a gang of envoy trolls *knows* at some level what they’re doing is not serious apologetics, and it won’t change them or their readers in the slightest to reply to them personally). The overall response to their arguments is the only important thing, and that doesn’t necessitate getting personal. In fact, I’ve had the *exact* same thoughts you have (ie. ‘Piper, Sproul, etc. do not do this’).

    That said, I think your original post was just as much personal a reference to him as his was, even though you didn’t mention his name, so you can’t really criticize him for the 1/12 post – fair is fair.

    Also, your original post seemed to be a brief reaction or impression you had of the show. Why don’t you want to go into the issues he raised point by point? I don’t think he’s *committed* to calling you biased – he’s just frustrated you won’t go into a more detailed analysis and defense of your position.

    An endless discussion would be preferable to this perpetually recurring episodes of flaming.

  2. I liked reading this. And I hope to be so mature some day. :0)

    Also, just to say, when you talk about what the TR watchbloggers are writing, I feel like I need a shower.


  3. Michael,

    Your problem is you have ISSUES. 🙂

    But, then again, we all have issues don’t we? Even Mr W.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Well Mr. Spencer, White sure has devoted a lot of bandwidth to someone he doesn’t think about.

    His version of the gospel cracks me up: “God loves ME but he may or may not love YOU.” What sort of good news is this?

    But I’m afraid that sooner or later this will be the Gospel of the SBC as well.

  5. Monk,
    I wandered over the blog in question here just to read for myself. What I did not find there was troubling to say the least. The five or six long posts I read were devoid of the fruit of the spirit. No where could I find the “mind which was also in Christ Jesus”. I did find pride, anger, malice and brawling. It’s a shame that he is a public face of our Lord.
    No wonder you have trouble with him. The ability to argue for the faith ( or about it) is not evidence of our new life. The proof our our new life is the regeneration of our spirit and the transformation of our character by the action of the spirit. More simply, “faith without works is dead.”

  6. I really like your stuff, stop by often. I just wonder, is it more of a “I have to be right” or “I love to argue thing”, or do you really think it matters to make everyone see your side of it? I know that is one reason you are so popular, you have strong opinions and stick by them. That’s one reason I stop by because I am that way myself and I happen to agree with you 85% of the time (which is a rarity). I just have been noticing (and maybe this is just me reflecting myself on you because we agree with some stuff…i don’t know b/c we have never met) that arguing is addictive and many times the fun of that is what drives me on, not the actual issues, as important as they may seem. i think I just need to ignore others’ opinions of me and my thoughts, because, let’s be realistic, only one opinion matters in the end, and I’m banking everything on the fact that He loves me, even when I’m mistaken. You don’t have to post thins, I just wanted you to read it. Thank you , and keep writing for all the right reasons.

  7. If I could start a slow clap right now I would, but we’re on the web and no one would hear me much less read the following:

    ::clap. clap…clap..clap. clap clap clap clap..applause::

  8. my little guys (13 down to 3 – the baby’s too little) have been memorizing Philippians 1 this year… the part where he says who cares if those guys are preaching out of spite, to get him in trouble, or out of love, doesn’t matter – Jesus is preached! Makes me shiver a little – i kind of hate hearing His name on some lips – i wish some people weren’t so quick to self identify – but then i guess probably more people think that about me…
    i’m glad you’re able to think so clearly through this conflict and see the true heart of the matter, that our brotherhood in Christ means more than slights by those weaker in the faith…