November 30, 2020

iMonk: Discipleship as Polemicism


From a classic Michael Spencer post, Who and What Are Forming You?. From April 2007

* * *

For a large portion of my recent evangelical journey, I have found myself wandering between three varieties of evangelicalism:

  1. Southern Baptist fundamentalism
  2. Evangelical Calvinism
  3. Generic contemporary evangelical revivalism

…It’s occurred to me that at least two of these streams have done much to shape me in the belief that pursuing polemic argument is a primary expression of discipleship. I have been affected by this kind of spiritual “rule,” and when I step away from it, the effects are very obvious.

Lots of time is taken up in finding error, pointing out error, justifying the seriousness of the error (even if it is in a non-essential area), and responding to the error with the proper arrangement of Biblical material.

It’s amazing how many Christians conceive of almost the entirety of discipleship in terms of argumentation. This is seen in the pastoral models they choose, the books/blogs they write and the spiritual activities they value most (debate and classroom lecture.)

These largely unarticulated forms of spiritual formation can be seen in what is not important. I note with interest that one simply cannot say enough bad about most kinds of contemplative prayer, and any sort of silence among many of the reformed particularly. Any kind of intentional approach to spiritual formation, and any kind of intentional approach to discipleship (Dallas Willard, for example) is undertaken amidst a barrage of criticism. If the imagination is mentioned, all fire alarms are pulled and a search for Oprah Winfrey ensues.

Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

The “fully formed” Christian in these traditions is not a person of silence, but of much talking, talking and more talking. Worship is lecture, a rally, or an emotion-centered event. The primary encounter with the Bible is exposition and lecture. Correcting theological error, moral error and ecclesiastical error is the main business of the church.

…Much evangelical spirituality has become like fantasy baseball. We have our own league, our own team, our own statistics, our own insulated world in which all of this matters. We can give great speeches and write long posts (and I am the chief of sinners here) on what doesn’t matter much at all. These days, we don’t all get our 15 minutes of fame, but we can all worship a pastor, go to a winning church, opine on a blog, imagine our arguments are significant in the world.

Meanwhile, we start to look and act more like a fantasy league junky, and fewer and fewer people have any idea what we are talking about.


  1. Thank you for (re)posting this! I needed to read it today! Growing up in a fundamentalist church, this type of ‘discipleship’ was primarily what I was given, and I could never articulate quite what was wrong with it. It seems to me that one of the primary weaknesses of fundamentalist churches is that their members become caught in this immature ‘us against them’ polemic mentality and never grow out of it.

    I have spent the last 7 years searching for something deeper. The search continues!

    • Christiane says

      spend some time ‘resting’ in the Psalms and in the Gospel of St. John . . . both encourage a deeper journey into the faith and when you find the place where you were meant to be, you will know it . . . it will be like coming home

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “Polemic argument” sounds too much like a knife fight with words. Gut the Enemy no matter what.

  3. Boy is this ever true and now it is the SOP of the YRR movement.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Meanwhile, we start to look and act more like a fantasy league junky, and fewer and fewer people have any idea what we are talking about.

      As an old-school D&Der, I have never understood the appeal of Fantasy Sports Leagues. If you’re going to Fantasy Game, then FANTASY GAME! Elves, Dwarves, Dragon-riders, Eldritch Abominations, My Little Pony, stuff you don’t find in the mundane world — but FOOTBALL TEAMS?

      Unless Fantasy Sports are the RESPECTABLE form of Fantasy Gaming (i.e. Football, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey), continuing the Jocks-and-Subhumans caste system of High School. And maybe letting middle-aged Al Bundys relive their glory days of “Once I Scored Three Touchdowns in One Game.”

      Boy is this ever true and now it is the SOP of the YRR movement.

      (First: YRR = Hyper-Calvinist “Young, Restless, and (Truly) Reformed”; sometimes called “Calvinjugend” or “Chairman Calvin’s Red Guard”.)

      Over at Wartburg Watch, you often hear in passing that a lot of the Hyper-Calvinist YRR types they keep an eye on are into Fantasy Sports Leagues. These are the same type of Pastor/Dictators who would burn D&Ders and Bronies (or other YRRs without their One True Perfectly-Parsed Reformed Theology) at the stake if they could. Yet they’re Fantasy Sports Junkies?

  4. “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world?” I Cor 1:20

    Disputation is by design an asymptotic procedure. The closer you get to the target, the more effort you have to produce to gain smaller results. You end up always learning yet never able to come to the knowledge of the Truth.

    I remember spending some time on a Reformed board where one of the younger zealots was inspired by my presence to read all the works of St Gregory Palamas, St. Denys the Areopagite, SS Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus so he could “write a book” explaining their errors. This excited the Reformed no end, and they were on the verge of subscribing a Kickstart project to launch it.

    No book so produced is ever the final word on anything. Six months, a year, five years later another book would come out pointing out the errors of the first, and so forth.As if these guys could outBraniac Aquinas and Wittgenstein, even with a Leningrad Codex in their left hand and the latest Nestle-Aland in their right.

    The silence of Aquinas’ last years:
    The testimony of Wittgenstein:

    6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

  5. I started reading some of the history of the Seperatists/Particular Baptists in England, Puritan history, Luther, Calvin, etc, etc and found out exactly where this need to win an argument and insult your opponents, came from. So we have all these folks going back to “tradition” and we wonder why it is so polemical?

  6. Such polemic is rooted in a deep seated though unacknowledged insecurity and a fundamental lack of certainty disguised as its opposite; it’s a kind of perpetual religious adolescence.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Since the Sixties(TM), perpetual adolescence has been a characteristic of our mainstream culture. Why should our religious culture be any different?

    • @Robert…it sure looks that way to this old Catholic. Fortunately, the RCC’s attempt to be cool and non-traditional failed and faded away.

      Again, I continue to learn about others’ Christian experiences, which clarifies my understanding and growth.

    • True…how true.

  7. Does it seems to me that there is a lot of time spent finding error in evangelicalism here, and a lot of talking about it? Is this what one could call ironic? Maybe I’m just finding fault again 🙂