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Linked, but not limited

As long as there's room to speak out, there's room enough

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

As usual, my desk is cluttered today with four letters from various readers taking me to task for basically the same problem-but from impossibly different perspectives.

"Don't you understand," one asks gently, "how dangerous your quasi-endorsement of Promise Keepers was in your recent column? PK's doctrinal problems are deep, and WORLD needs to keep its distance." But in the same mail was a letter not-so-gently taking us to task for being so hard on Promise Keepers in the same edition of WORLD.

One reader threatens to cancel because of our sentimental pro-Mother Teresa bias, while the other actually does cancel because of our anti-Catholic bias.

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Some publishers and editors respond by saying, "I guess we're just about where we ought to be, seeing as how we've got so many people so mad on both sides." I've been tempted to respond that way myself-except that it's not fair to the readers who express their concerns in the first place. To stake our claim on such relativistic and pragmatic grounds would be a copout.

So when is it right to form linkages, alliances, and other attachments-and when is it wrong? The problem has perplexed prophets, popes, kings, denominations, local churches, and individual Christians in all ages. It perplexes us here at WORLD magazine. In recent days, I've begun spelling out a rule by which we might live. It says: Other things being equal, almost any alliance is permissible for an entity like WORLD magazine, provided that alliance doesn't silence honest criticism of those with whom we are allied.

The "other-things-being-equal" preface is a serious one. The Bible clearly states a number of relationships that are plainly and simply wrong-with no ifs, ands, or buts. Sex outside marriage is wrong. Believing Christians shouldn't marry unbelievers. Unrepentant people shouldn't participate in the Lord's Supper, and aren't to be tolerated in the church.

But just beyond those crystal-clear instructions and prohibitions lies a host of other relationships where a whole lot of head-scratching and soul-searching are called for. What of a Christian's decision to join the Republican Party, the Sierra Club, the Chamber of Commerce,or a homeschooling network? All involve contact with non-Christians. How can we know what God wants? How do we know when he is telling us to steer clear of the Philistines on the one hand, or to get in there on the other hand and have a salty effect?

"Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness," Paul tells us in Ephesians 2, in what at first glance seems an open-and-shut case of clarity. But the second half of Paul's instruction is also important: "but rather expose them." In other words, if something grimy is going on, don't be part of the griminess; set it straight! The very act of exposure may correct the behavior-or it may end the fellowship. Either way, it brings you into compliance with God's standard.

That, I think, is the practical working out of my rule: The crucial test for the propriety of any relationship is whether the relationship silences your ability to speak out against what is wrong.

The classic arena for applying this maxim in publishing circles, of course, has to do with advertising. A magazine like WORLD should be free to carry a significant variety of advertising in its pages-even from some causes we may not especially endorse-provided that we never use the presence of that advertising as an excuse to stifle a critical story about an advertiser. (The flip side is just as true, and perhaps a more insidious threat to integrity-that the presence of advertising might invite too much favorable mention.)

But the letters on my desk today remind me how many other applications of the rule also need to be made. WORLD's editorial matrix is rooted in a self-consciously biblical, Protestant, evangelical, and even Calvinistic background. Yet our coverage of the news brings us into hundreds of relationships with organizations and people who disagree with us on one or more basic principles of that matrix. How do I know when I've gotten so close to one of those organizations or people that in the process I've betrayed my original commitments?

My rule of thumb holds: If I get so beholden to Promise Keepers that I can't criticize a careless approach to theology, my relationship has become too sweet. If continuing to use a Catholic writer for our basically Protestant magazine means we can't speak out on what we think is a Catholic error, the relationship is too restraining. If my role as a Presbyterian elder means I try to soft-pedal a misdeed by Presbyterians, I have become an untrustworthy ally.


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