August 12, 2020

iMonk Classic: Talk Hard II — Defending Dissent

Classic iMonk Post 
by Michael Spencer
From February 2009

NOTE FROM CM: I regularly direct people to Michael Spencer’s classic essay, The Original Talk Hard: Defending the Role of the Critic in Christianity. I do this when we get criticism that we are being unloving and judgmental. I’m sure we fall into that trap sometimes, but the point is — there is a place for healthy, robust public critique, disputation, and debate within the Body of Christ. This lies at the heart of the prophetic tradition, and was exemplified by Jesus and the apostles. We need to be careful, yes. We should not jump to conclusions about motives. We try to publicly critique only those who put themselves forward publicly. We remain open to critique from others. Etc.

Today, we present a follow-up piece that Michael wrote to his original essay, which focuses on the place of dissent and individual conviction within a common culture.

• • •

Recently, I received an email from someone who has been a longtime reader of this blog, giving his reasons for being a regular reader and generous supporter.

This particular reader appreciated the writing I’ve done on the subjects of mental illness, psychiatric medication and emotional health. As this person is a professional in those fields and far beyond me in understanding, I was understandably happy to read that email.

I have received many thousands of emails in the last 8 years of Internet Monk. A sizable portion express appreciation for something that deserves a moment’s consideration: that this blog is one of the few places some folks have found where certain points of view can be discussed with relative civility.

I won’t attempt a listing, but any regular readers will know that I’ve made it part of the mission of this blog to be present an alternative view of any number of issues within evangelicalism in particular. I do so with provocative writing if possible, and with active moderation of the discussion. I’ve done this without expectation of finding there would be thousands of people reading and thinking: “O I’m not the only person who feels this way.” In fact, I’ve expected considerably more hostility and objection than I’ve received.

Recently, the IM comment threads have started routinely going over 100 comments. Interpret that as you will. In all the time I’ve done this blog, I have temporarily banned around 20 people, and absolutely banned 2.

Yesterday, a commenter aired the usual complaints at me:

  • I don’t affirm inerrancy.
  • I’m critical of “my brethren.”
  • I give “Papists and liberals” plenty of space.
  • I limit conversation.

Of course, as most readers know, I fully affirm the truthfulness of the Bible in the language of the Second London Confession and the Westminster Confession. Ask any of the dozens of advocates of gay marriage and gay ordination how I’m doing on taking the Bible seriously. What I’m not doing is allowing the word “inerrancy” to become a code word for a set of positions I don’t believe the Bible teaches. I’m not turning a blind eye to the hypocrisy that the “inerrancy” stampede has foisted on my denomination. Give me a confession made before the word “inerrancy” was invented, and I’m perfectly content.

There are thousands of people who don’t buy the kind of flat, literalistic inerrancy that is being sold among conservative evangelicals today, and, sorry to disappoint the gallery, but we don’t have to. Being a Baptist doesn’t force me to buy the search for the ark, young earth creationism, Hamm/Hovind, complementarianism, homeschooling, conspiracy theories, Dobson’s view of politics, bad Christian art, arrogant leaders, bad scholarship or the SBC’s view of itself as compared to other denominations.

Yes, I am critical of some of my brethren. I’ve never lived a day in Protestantism that there wasn’t a critical conversation going on. If the memo has gone out that we’ve stop asking questions and contending for answers, I didn’t get it. My blog is one tiny voice in the midst of a massive evangelical self-promotion machine. When I first called for the outing of Osteen as a motivational speaker, what had you heard from anyone in the evangelical establishment about him? (Oh, that’s different. Of course it is.)

The animosity some have towards this writer and this space comes simply because I have staked out a different position than they’ve been led to believe is the only allowable, God-endorsed, position allowed by the Christian worldview. Their orthodoxy, and the God who sponsors it, requires that dissent be quenched as an act of faithfulness. When I express dissent and protect its expression by others, I’m certain to be told by some amateur fundamentalist Freudian there’s something psychologically wrong with me. (Friend, if you believe you are the ultimate measure of mental health, please go on a world tour so the rest of us can see what it looks like. But just between you and me, I wouldn’t quit my day job on that one.)

The commenting voices at this site give witness to another view. There are Protestants who aren’t Catholics and don’t hate Catholics. There are Catholics willing to talk with Protestants as fellow Christians. There are Orthodox and mainliners seeking to relate to evangelicalism. There are Lutherans insisting we all know nothing about law and gospel. (That’s a joke.) There are Baptists who question the “What we need is more evangelism!” mantra. There are evangelicals who have nuanced views on the issue of abortion, women’s ordination, the nature of homosexuality and the Christian view of mental illness. There are people who give “Papists” and “liberals” space to talk just like the other kids in the class. There are many of us lost in the evangelical wilderness trying to find a drink of water and some food.

I don’t endorse all these views or their opposites. There are a number of issues where I’m not sure what I think, but I am determined to not be railroaded into being told that I must endorse or bow down to positions that I do not hold, am not required to hold and are not my conviction. I’m just as determined to tell my audience that other views exist as held by REAL PEOPLE.

Roger Williams

If you look out in the back yard of the last twenty years of battles in the Southern Baptist Convention, there’s a baby in the bathwater. That baby’s older name was “soul competency.” More recently, he went by the name “priesthood of the believer,” but I like the previous name much better. In the “battle for the Bible” in the SBC, the moderate/liberals took those terms and used/abused them, causing conservatives to spend most of two decades bad-mouthing “soul competency” and “priesthood of the believer” as anathema to Bible-believing Christianity. Some of that response was necessary, but some of it has been singularly unfortunate and overblown.

In truth, Baptists have historically stood with the individual in his right to have his/her own convictions in regard to what scripture or a person’s own religion teaches. We sided with that principle when it caused us to defend Muslims and atheists. We sided with that conviction as a proper summary of Luther’s contention that his conscience about the Bible was adequate defense as to why he stood against the Pope. We defended that principle as essential to the classic definition separation of church and state endorsed religion. We understood that, without embracing all the tenets of anarchic individualism, it was right to protect and hear the minority. We rejected, historically, the tyranny of a class of theological enforcers and their political ambitions. We defended confessionalism, but we did not mindlessly defend all levels of uniformity. We realized, after painful lessons in the civil rights era and beyond, that the majority and their Bibles can be completely wrong.

Today, we live in an evangelicalism that is enamored with numbers and success. And of course, those vast numbers are told they must think, write, worship, vote, educate, live, preach and teach identically to one another because they possess the truth. (Or someone at the home office does…somewhere.) This is the sadness of being ranted at about the “sin” of refusing to use the proscribed word to describe inspiration or of daring to differ with some well-funded, fat cat majority with a mailing list. I may be wrong, but this web site is exercising something Baptist Christians used to care deeply about: DISSENT.

But in today’s atmosphere of sheeple following the media and denominational shepherds, we place no value on dissent. It’s far more impressive to rant about my failure to appreciate the fact that anyone who waves a Bible around should be free from having anyone actually differ with them. It’s now good, conservative sport to tell a dissenting fellow Christian that, as I heard today, my faith is about to collapse and/or I’m going Catholic. All this- ALL- because you have steadfastly decided other views are not worthy of your RESPECTFUL appreciation.

The reason I am unafraid to side with the dissenters and those asking questions that aren’t allowed is that history is moving to our side. The manipulators of orthodoxy are in trouble. They’ve taken our confidence and put the screws to us for the sake of their own power. The celebrity-driven churches are, for the most part, going to be exposed as having no clothes. The laboratories that produce these evangelical clones are shutting down as the experiments seem to have gone horribly wrong. The deluded majority can act as if they have squashed everyone’s arguments and rendered all competing opinions foolish, but in fact, quite the opposite is happening. A lot of people are dissenting, even in an atmosphere of intimidation and spiritual abuse. Write all the books and blogs you want. Have a conference and get 3000 men to wring their hands with you. You aren’t gong to stop the collapse of the kind of authoritarian fundamentalism that wants to keep all of evangelicalism in a stranglehold. It’s over.

Occasionally, I write with the express purpose of sounding a wake up call. I’m provocative and my audience appreciates that in my writing. I am not sounding so much of a call to arms as a literal wake up alarm to the sluggish and the sleepy. We are standing on the brink of momentous changes in the evangelical world. Many Christians brought up in a fundamentalism with all of the answers have discovered things are much different than they would have anticipated. They are exploring this new world, even as the old one is still shifting beneath their feet. Part of that experience is being told you shouldn’t speak or write what you feel. The better part of the experience is ignoring that, and speaking exactly what you’re thinking, feeling and discovering. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” as Will Shakespeare put it.

In the meantime, I consider IM a public service to people who need to get out of the way before a chunk of crumbling evangelicalism falls on their head. If the house isn’t falling where you are, that’s wonderful. Make whatever you want out of the reports from my part of the house. That’s your privilege as a reader.


  1. I love that you say that if we look back over the past twenty years…”There is a baby in the bathwater”. Often times when people get frustrated with a particular movement or doctrine, they reject all of it and swing the pendulum to the complete other extreme. Christianity is about balance and complete submittion to our Father. Thanks for your post!

  2. In “Talk Hard,” Michael Spencer wrote, “The entire Prophetic tradition is a kind of criticism. I call the prophets “the cops of the covenant,” because it is their job to show up and write Israel a ticket from time to time. It’s their job to warn and nag, as well as assure and promise. The covenant life is the play God wrote, and the prophets are critics. They criticize ideas, people, worship services, politics and culture. They are not writing for applause, but telling the truth from the highly biased point of view of those who see the world and all that is in it belonging to Yahweh. They use humor, sarcasm, blunt description and highly charged, emotional prose. They are critics in the best, and holiest, sense of the term.”

    Michael Spencer also wrote, “While I am a preacher who happens to write, I really believe I am divinely called and gifted to be a critic. A critic operating within the body of Christ and particularly with my own kind: evangelicals. I feel I’m doing God’s work.”

    The problem with this self-justification is that the prophets of TANACH (that would be “Old Testament” to most Christians) and Jesus were authentic prophets. That is, they heard what God was saying and spoke it to the people of Israel.

    So … if Michael Spencer was actually hearing God speak withering diatribes to the evangelical circus clowns, so be it. No further explanation needed.

    But we all know that’s a crock.

    Michael believed he was “divinely called and gifted to be a critic.” Well, who among us is not so gifted? If any of you on this blog seriously believe you are divinely ordained to be a critic, but yet you do not operate in an genuine prophetic gift, you are fooling yourselves, just as Michael was.

    Don’t make the same mistake – the stakes are very high.

    • I would think of it somewhat differently. Since all of God’s people are priests and have the Spirit, we are called to “teach and admonish one another.” In addition, certain circumstancial factors should be taken into account. For example, our critique should not be more public than that which we are critiquing. I should not deal with a private matter on the Internet. However, if in our media culture, someone goes public in an attempt to present Christian positions, then they are subject to public criticism.

      • Your post above is not the self-justification Michael Spencer used in the blog you linked.

        If you want to criticize some doctrine or practice, you certainly have sufficient self-justification to support that. The only problem is that you may not be fully correct yourself if God’s Spirit has not spoken to you specifically on the matter. And even if you are able and willing to hear God’s Spirit, you could still muck it up by expanding upon or interpreting what God has spoken.

        And finally, unless God is calling someone names (e.g., circus clown) or using sarcasm, I would advise you to abstain as well. It’s just my opinion, but why dig a hole for yourself?

    • And what makes you sure it was a “crock” that Michael was hearing from God? You seem to have a theology of direct guidance by the Spirit. I believe that God more often teaches us indirectly, using means and expecting us to think and come to conclusions. I’m afraid much that people attribute to the Spirit may more likely be arising from the pizza they ate before bedtime.pp

      • Please.

        If Mike Spencer was hearing from God (a) he would have said so and (b) I could tell, because I do. It’s not a theology, Chaplain, it’s just the way it is.

        And this is what people say (and write) when they can’t or won’t hear from God: “I’m afraid much that people attribute to the Spirit may more likely be arising from the pizza they ate before bedtime.”

        There nothing magic about it, Chaplain. Hearing God’s Spirit directly is supposed to be a normal part of everyday life for us. The question is, why isn’t it?

        • Randy, you are speaking in categories neither Michael Spencer and I consider normative. You may think that “hearing God’s Spirit is supposed to be a normal part of life” and you doubtless think Jesus and the Bible teaches this. But you have a conception in your mind about what that means and how a person experiences that which is apparently different than mine. I believe God works and speaks primarily through Word and Sacrament and through the wisdom we gain by living in the world and in fellowship with his family. Michael and I were in basic agreement about that. Therefore he would rarely have claimed to be speaking for God and nor do I. Instead, we seek to speak from hearts and minds that are shaped by the Spirit, using the means he has given us.

          • Almost every Christian functions in some approximation of the routine you’ve described, believing that “God works and speaks primarily through Word and Sacrament and through the wisdom we gain by living in the world and in fellowship with his family.”

            Including the evangelical circus clowns. They have convinced themselves that they “speak from hearts and minds that are shaped by the Spirit, using the means he has given,” which conveniently provides all the justification necessary for their doctrines and behavior.

            And which may in itself explain why the vast majority of us would rather try virtually anything other than seek out God’s Voice. “You, speak with us; and we will listen. But don’t let God speak with us, or we will die.” So we consult our chosen Moses, or research the archives of The Wise, or buy the latest popular book on the subject written by someone we don’t know and who doesn’t hear God’s Voice any more than we do.

            Given our access to the Most Holy and the price of admission, I find it all a bit odd. But that’s just me.

            • “…the vast majority of us would rather try virtually anything other than seek out God’s Voice.”

              Really? I don’t think you are hearing me, Randy. That is my deepest desire, not something from which I run! I simply happen to believe he speaks mainly in a different manner than what you’re suggesting.

              The Word, the Sacraments, the ministry of my brothers and sisters in Christ, the traditions of the church (which are what the Holy Spirit has taught the family in days past), and the lessons of life experience (wisdom) — these are conduits through which the Spirit speaks directly to me. I meet God himself in the words of Scripture. Christ himself welcomes me to the Table and feeds me there. My brothers and sisters are “the masks of God” — they look like ordinary folks, but Christ lives in them and speaks through them to me. When I practice the traditions of the church, I experience communion with the saints of all ages who are before the throne in the presence of God. God’s words to me are no less direct because they come through these means. My experience of his presence is no less personal because I experience it in community.

              Is it possible you are claiming too much too soon? Even Paul said, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” One would think, if God’s voice is so clear and unambiguous, that an apostle would be the last to write such words.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Save your breath, CM. Whatever you say, Randy will say God Speaks To Me Directly.

            “God and him went on double dates all the time.”
            — Woody Allen, Sleeper

          • I shouldn’t be surprised that you would pick a sentence from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and interpret it to mean what you already believe, Chaplain.

            I’m glad you experience such fullness of God’s presence in your community. But no, I don’t believe it’s your deepest desire to clearly and unambiguously hear God’s Voice. C’mon, Chaplain, you don’t believe that crazy stuff. It’s just bad pizza, after all, right? It just ain’t … what was the word?


            OK, OK, I give. You’re the chaplain after all. Let’s have it your way.

            • Randy, I’ve tried to answer your comments with civility and respect, explaining my position without attacking you.

              We disagree, that’s all. Don’t let it disintegrate into something else.

          • Darn it, Headless – I missed the opportunity to enjoy your scorn before my last post.

            Better late than never, huh?

          • I already surrendered, Chaplain Mike.

        • Hi Randy,
          This is an honest question, & I’m not being sarcastic. When you say you hear from God & that this enables you to tell when other people do too, can you describe exactly what you mean? Is this a feeling you get, or does a passage of scripture jump out at you, or what? It’s hard to know what is meant when this gets said in a conversation, & it can be used as a conversation stopper, so I’d love to know.


    • Hmmmm.
      There are times that Paul writes clearly ‘I have received the following from God….’ and other times that he just writes, probably out of conviction, enlightened reason and maybe common sense.

      I may be misunderstanding you but I do not believe it a simple black or white proposition, that is we either:

      a) Hear from God and speak as his spokesperson
      b) We are informed by the word/reason (and I add tradition) and are spokespersons

      That is a false division. God does not have to verbally tell me I should not get drunk or have an affair. That is already covered. We have received enough of a deposit of revelation that we can draw on it as an argument or example of what we should or should not do in individual circumstances. We have a right and obligation to allow it to inform our thinking.

      Furthermore in my experience many of the people who ‘heard a word from the Lord’ basically used that as an excuse to shut down all dialog, because if God tells us, that settles it. No discussion.

      So the one lady staying at our house after her business went bankrupt one day was telling me how God gave her leave to divorce her husband, and then a while later how maybe God told her she would never work again (while my wife and I were supporting her and paying the food tab!)

      I completely agree, we should listen for Gods voice, and maybe unlike some, I believe He still talks to us a lot. But that is not the exclusive mode He uses, he also uses reason and tradition.

  3. Randy Thompson says

    If God has given us a brain and we opt to use it, we are all indeed divinely called and gifted to be critics. However, there’s a difference between criticism as loving concern and criticism as making yourself look good at someone else’s expense. The former is godly and necessary; the latter is self-righteousness and what we’re witnessing in the Republican candidates debates.

  4. @Chap Mike: saw a post today you might find useful from Wade Burleson , on his blog entitled “Our Problem is Authoritarianism and not Legalism”. Or something close to that. He makes some overstatements , IMO, but check out his list of 10 indicators of misused authority 2/3 thru the peice. Oh my….. Authority gone wrong, in my experience will run roughshod over the proper use of “relational wisdom” . Your post on that was, to my mind, an “instant IMONK classic” to use an ESPN-ism.

    Keep at it, you guys are doing a great work.

  5. it doesn’t take any special gift of the Spirit to know religious bullshit from the stuff promulgated by those that claim to be so divinely anoinited as to be without question or dismissed as being too extreme in their presentation outside of the spiritual tradition one has come to know the Savior of their souls…

    all the supra-traditional appointed types that claim unbroken connection with the original 12 apostles or those that are the new apostolic ones or those that are so amazingly prophetic as to be X-tra super-duper special in their proclaimations & authority, i simply cry ‘foul’…

    it’s all religious bullshit couched in some uber-religious dog-and-pony show meant to transfix the gullible…

    yeah…been there…done that…know the kooky manner which they wield their supposed anointment…

    Lord, have mercy… 🙁

    • What I’m finding out is that the bullshit is sometimes more method than doctrine, or to put it another way ‘thin gospel that presents itself thru bad methods (church practice). It’s NOT always a case of blatantly bad doctrine, or teaching that is easily known at face value as false.

      I’m finding the USE OF AUTHORITY to be a pretty reliable litmus test on what is bullshit , and what is not.

      • there is a big difference with the manner which subject matter is presented regardless of content…

        i will agree with you that what i have experienced most in a church/spiritual setting more of the methodology/delivery than the content, although when both delivery & content is whack, that is where my bullshit meter goes off the scale!

        bad theology can be handled better if the one promulgating it isn’t claiming such esoteric insight direct from the Throne of God & received while in a vision/trance/trip to heaven…

        and when the abuse of control by those claiming spiritual ‘authority’ (implied as the special accountable exemption clause) is done in the name of God, it becomes the most repugnant of the spiritual BS…

        i was venting a bit after coming back from a good day recognizing the freedom i now enjoy & the latest discussions we have been addressing just hit a still sensitive spiritual nerve i guess… 🙁

  6. Sometimes here at I-Monk, I feel like I am watching a fast paced game of cricket….I understand that the ball goes back and forth, but some of the termnilogy and rules escape me. I found this site originally for its Christian outlook and noted that it was, 99% of the time, a safe place for dialogue and understanding. As a Roman Catholic living in Jerry Falwell’s back yard (6% Catholic in our faire city, and unusually low number for the upper south) I have learned some of the though processes and beliefs that are the underpinning of Evangelical Baptisits. It has been eye opening, and sometimes a little scary…..

    In fact, it weighing the different beliefs expressed here, from atheist to Orthodox and back again, my own faith has gotten stronger. I have seen the value of liturgy and episcopal oversight of pastors, and know that these features are present in many other faith expressions. And, it has allowed me a glimpse into the minds and hearts of the people I live and work with, a fair number of whom attend one of three megachurches here in town, with Dr. Falwell’s TRBC (Thomas Road Baptist Church, which is no longer on Thomas Road, but the name stuck) being the largest and most well known.

    Ch. Mike, I only know Micheal Spencer from his works preserved here, but thanks for carrying on in hi spirit and the Holy Spirit! You will always have vocal critics, because when someone realizes that their faith is based on sand, they tend to get ugly and scared to death. Keep pointing out that there are other, surer paths up this mountain.

  7. God is love. The postings of R.W. abovedo not seem to contain Love, so I will reject them.

  8. While I believe constructive criticism has a viable place in the church and in church culture in general, we need to be very careful to let love reign in the words we say to each other. And I’m preaching primarily to myself in this regard. Too often I find myself shooting off pointed words and sarcastic remarks when it would have been better to keep my trap shut — and too often my underlying motives for saying what I say don’t have a whole lot to do with loving my brothers and sisters in Christ.
    I think both exalted church leaders and members of the Called-Of-God Critics Club would do well to cut each other some slack.
    If we can just stay between the ditches of the Christian Thought Police and mud-slinging chaos, then we’ll be doing pretty good.