Here is a brief response from David Powlison to the blog comments on the Keller-Powlison post, Should You Pass on Bad Reports?

I’m struck that many commenters focus on identifying the exceptions, rather than camping out on the major emphasis of our short article—everything that comes from our mouths (and computers) should be truly constructive to any who hear or read. We should actively intend good, seeking to “give grace to those who hear.” That takes thought about one’s motives, tone, framing, balance of emphases.

There are times to name what’s wrong and to name names. Both Tim and I do that in our writing and teaching, and the article mentions in passing the call to such candor. I appreciate efforts of commenters to identify exceptions and nuances, when and how to make someone else’s apparent wrongs more widely known. Thoughtful work on that topic will break new ground, applying the call to “speak truth in love” into an instant-information context where all errors, blunders, sins, failings, and mere clumsiness are potentially available for public scorn. What does it mean to forebear each other in such a world? What does it mean to cover sins in mercy (not cover-up, but true covering in mercy), to allow others to find care and restoration in their own interpersonal context, rather than attempting to humiliate them before the whole world? What does it mean to express the sort of communal tenderness that Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures so well in Life Together—a communal life that includes reproof as a form of love?

But the leading edge of our argument is to place checks on the tendency we all have to snide, sneering, self-righteous, gossipy, malicious words. Any growth we can make in the direction of Ephesians 4:29 will make life much more joyous for all, and bring much glory to our God. And even criticisms I make become more hearable when I the critic am not posturing, but actually care about others. When I don’t care, my bad attitude and superiority becomes my actual message. Love is patient, love is kind . . . and then love is candid. I hope readers might even go back and give our article a second reading.

Blessings,

David Powlison

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18 thoughts on “Powlison Response to Feedback”

  1. Mark says:

    Then, honestly, I think your point would be better made by focusing on the biblical, positive aspects of speaking well of people and of passing on peace rather than listing why passing on bad reports is bad.

  2. Justin Keller says:

    Mark, while I might agree that discussing the positive aspects is helpful, it is not all the Scriptures talk about, nor is it the particular issue Powlison and Keller were addressing. Scripture gives us positives and negatives, and what these two men have brought to our attention is the reality that we need the negatives to curb our sinful appetites. Read through Ephesians 4-5 and see how much of what is there is in fact negative prohibition — do not be this way, put off this type of behavior, etc.

    In the blogging world, this type of constraint is especially needed. Powlison and Keller are right — it is far too easy to bring grief or to smear someone’s reputation with a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse, much easier than in previous eras of information technology. As I read their article and digested their concerns, I thought of my own ministry as a pastor. How easy it is today to damage a pastor’s reputation (and thus cripple his ministry) over even a small slip into sin (which happens all the time) due to the ease of disbursing information! Such a thought both sobers me into seeking personal holiness and gives me reason to evaluate what I write on my own blog.

    Forbearance in love. If we want to blog for the glory of God, that is something to constrain our keyboards. Tim and David, I do not know how often you check in here, thank you for this most timely of articles. You have convinced (and convicted) me.

  3. Justin Keller says:

    A clarification — what happens all the time are small slips into sin, not smearing a pastor’s reputation (though I suppose that happens more often than it actually should too).

  4. Frank Turk says:

    By a long shot, I think this addendum makes more sense and speaks more clearly than the longer piece previously posted here at JT’s blog. I’d more-readily agree with this clarification than I would with the previous essay.

    The point here, I think, is that there’s a narrow way to travel on this path. Dr. Powlison’s thoughts on “snide, sneering, self-righteous, gossipy, malicious words” are important to consider.

    Let me suggest something and then see who will take it up. Doug Wilson has long-ago written a book called A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking. It’s a great defense of the biblical approach to satire and keen rhetoric. I suggest that many people could use the advice of this book both to curb their enthusiasm for the excesses of scandal blogging and the frankly-boring fare evident in (sorry, folks) most blogging in general — without compromising truth, love, the Gospel or relationships.

  5. David says:

    Well said, Mark. My first pastor, Jack Miller, used to frequently encourage the church to practice “positive gossip”, passing on commendations and appreciation, being quick to notice others when they did what was right and good.
    In this case, Justin Taylor had specifically asked us to comment on the problem of passing on bad reports, but the real solution, as you indicate, is to build a culture of peace (Ken Sande’s phrase): dealing generously with others about the good and dealing constructively about the bad.
    Write up your insights!

  6. Frank Turk says:

    OK — I’m watching this society of christian brothers begin to populate this meta here with “yes, more love please” affirmations, and I think that’s a wholly-biblical, wholly-spiritually-industrious, wholly-useful endeavor: I think that people should think more clearly about the command of Christ to actually do unto actual others as you would have them actually do unto you.

    yes: I agree. In fact, I would take that to the root first before I took it to the blogosphere: you should do unto others in your local church and where you do business every day as you would have them do unto you. Because if that was happening, a few noisy scandal-bloggers would be seen as anomalies and not as a proliferation of the Church lady stereotype of christians. (small “c” intended)

    The problem — and the issue here is that there is actually a problem and not merely a dysfunctional relational environment — is that the church is sick. Listen: pomos, conservatives, liberals, bloggers, pastors, unbelievers, you add your favorite category of person here — they all agree that the church is sick. The church is not healthy, especially in America.

    But what’s the cause of the sickness and what’s the cure? Is it the rather-nebulous question of “love”? Or is it something less subjective and more actionable — and is there a resource or a proper authority which can spell out for us what the solution is?

    This is really funny because I was watching a Steven Colbert clip last week about what was going on at Lambeth, and Colbert — a Catholic — was really beating down on the Anglicans because they couldn’t figure out if God thought that gay men should be ordained as priests or bishops. His point, of course, was that there should be some guy they could ask who could sort it out for them.

    I agree with Colbert that there ought to be “some guy” — but that guy is God Himself, and the answers lie in His word, which, btw, is not a collection of Jack-Handiesque comforting maxims. The Bible is full of loving statements, gentle rebukes, and frankly-stark insults against those who are frankly intransigent and wrong.

    Love is good. But it’s not just one flavor. Expand your pallette and taste and see the goodness of the Lord — no matter which flavor you think you like best right now.

  7. DJP says:

    My thoughts:

    As I look around Christendom in general, and evangelicalism in particular, what do I see?

    1. Most leaders doing a bang-up, Biblically-faithful, God-centered, God-honoring job, that they just get no well-deserved credit for?

    …or…

    2. A whole lot of leaders doing a disgraceful, terrible, shameful, harmful, God’s-name-defiling job that too many are either too timid, too ignorant, or too concerned about looking “nice” and being thought “balanced” to tell the needed truth about?

    I think that to ask the question is to answer it.

    If not, I doubt I could convince anybody by argument, no matter how extensive.

  8. DJP says:

    …and by “leaders” I have in mind in particular public leaders, such as are commonly the object of the public evaluations that I gather we’re discussing. Not the unsung heroes who labor faithfully and almost invisibly in congregations of 18, 27, 50, 94….

  9. J. Clark says:

    I think Turk that what you said, “The Bible is full of loving statements, gentle rebukes, and frankly-stark insults against those who are frankly intransigent and wrong,” is actually the kind of love that we should be overflowing with. The description wasn’t about love and some other things but it was about love. The kind of love we find the Father giving to his sons and daughters and to his enemies. The never ending, everlasting, unconditional, disciplining us, causing us to suffer, setting us straight, hesed, agape, kind of love. Anyone who has been ruffed up by this kind of love probably got their feelings hurt and has spent many nights thanking God for leaving off the candy toppings.
    Jonathan Edwards said it like this, “16. Resolved, never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonor, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.”

    “Except for some real good” is where people find a bottomless well of excuses for their gossip but have usually found no excuse to actually follow the “never to speak evil.”

    Next up: How do you know when it is good?
    Anybody else suspicious of Frank Turk for innocently dropping “frankly” into his comment twice?

  10. Frank Turk says:

    j. clark:

    I am suspicious of me when I say “frankly”. And moreso when I do it twice.

    And here’s when you know it’s good: when you can point to a specific positive affirmation (not merely a generally-sound theological principle) which overshadows and undergirds your criticism; that is, when you can say, “not that, but indeed this.”

    FWIW, that’s a principle young Abraham Piper has said well, so don’t dispise poor Timothy for his youth.

  11. Frank Turk says:

    Don’t despise him, either.

  12. J. Clark says:

    when it’s good: I want to go a step further and say you can do it when you honestly and genuinely love that person. When you groan for them to have maturity and fullness in Christ Jesus.
    Thanks for being Frank.

  13. CR says:

    Thanks for the pointers, Frank. I’ll also add that book you suggest in my list of books to read. I do want to work on being more funnier in a biblical way. (If that makes sense).

  14. dac says:

    Frank said:

    But what’s the cause of the sickness and what’s the cure? Is it the rather-nebulous question of “love”? Or is it something less subjective and more actionable — and is there a resource or a proper authority which can spell out for us what the solution is?

    There is nothing less subjective and more actionable than love. It is the command of Christ. It is the command of Paul, repeatedly. It is evidenced in true “koinonia”.

    There is an authority, and he has made it clear – all actions are to be governed by love. There is nothing more central to our faith in action than love. The action proves our belief. What has made love nebulous is how we have allowed society to destroy the biblical concept of love, and how the church has chosen to denigrate and ignore it.

  15. Frank Turk says:

    dac –

    That’s an interesting position to take, and a popular one. And it seems pretty rational, insofar as talking about love is usually rational. You realy, certainly, on biblical foundations to make the affirmation.

    Let’s apply it to a particular situation: let’s imagine that I post a 3-page missive on my blog about the theological harlotry I perceive (and would therein document) over here at JT’s blog.

    How do you “love” me in that situation? That is, if we can make the broad assumption that Justin Taylor is not a theological pimp — which I hope everyone agrees with — how do we deal with a rogue blogger who says he is, having documented the case in 3 pages of bandwidth?

    Show me what you mean by love. I suggest that it doesn’t look like what you just described in trying to refute what I said.

  16. Jeremy says:

    “What does it mean to forebear each other in such a world? What does it mean to cover sins in mercy (not cover-up, but true covering in mercy), to allow others to find care and restoration in their own interpersonal context, rather than attempting to humiliate them before the whole world?

    But… but… what would we blog about then?!

  17. dac says:

    Frank:

    First, I would hope my position is a biblical one.

    Second, I will not claim to do this well. I know that I have failed at this. Having said that, what follows is my prayer.

    Third, you have to define my position to you to determine the response. Your Pastor, your friend, your acquaintance, or some schmuck on the internet who has your phone number, yet really does not “know” you in any way (for the peanut gallery, I am the last one, btw). If I was Pastor Ted, I would have different responsibilities.

    So, being the schmuck with a broadband connection, this is how I would see a loving response to your blog post. (I would make different responses if I was any of the others)

    Step one – I would try to develop knowledge about the issue, or the truth of the situation. Lets say it was about two bloggers who post rabid thoughts about each other. I am not going to (I hope) post unless I spent the time to understand the issue. If I am smart, I would pray. If I post unknowingly, I am likely to spread water on gasoline, not Monoammonium phosphate. Nor will I link to such an blog fight and thus potentially spread lies. Knowingly or unknowingly, spreading lies is not loving.

    Next Step. Let’s assume I take the time to know the facts. I read the blog posts, I study my bible. I have prayed. On the blogsphere, I think the loving step is to confront the one in error (assuming comments are open). But the confrontation should be done in an irenic manner, so much as possible. So first, try to understand the situation. I am certainly guilty of not being clear in my writing, I should not assume that the bloggers in question have either posted clearly, or that I have made an error in my evaluation. Humility that you may be misunderstanding or wrong is a better stance to start with rather than the humiliation that comes later if I have misunderstood.

    Finally, I would attempt to communicate the error, but hopefully avoiding inflammatory words, in particular when they are not called for. Calling someone a heretic should be seldom used. The same is true for speaking in derogatory terms – for example the use of emer***t is not, I think, a particularly clever means of marginalizing someone. Much the same as calling someone a fundi.

    If I could not determine the truth, I would stay away from any direct confrontation or action.

    If it is a blogger who continually picks fights, I would not link to their website. Love requires me to not spread gossip and lies. In essence, I would shun the offending brother.

    So, that’s my thinking on how to respond in a loving manner.

    The internet is a hard subject. There are many eternal truths to apply in our lives, yet no direct instruction on the internet.

  18. Mark says:

    My comment is not a biblical one. I absolutely think there’s a time and place for believers to be rebuked for their wrong actions or attitudes, but from a practical standpoint, when an open letter casting a broad swath of rebuke is thrown out there, many people immediately get defensive and miss the point.
    This casts blame on the people not willing to accept criticism as well. I’m just saying that tactfulness will go farther in getting people to actually change.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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