A healthy debate

But let's understand when a church is not a church

Issue: "TNIV makes its debut," Feb. 23, 2002

A smoldering debate that for the last couple of years has stayed largely contained between the covers of an outspoken book was spilling over last week into mainstream evangelicalism. The direction that debate takes in the weeks just ahead may or may not affect society at large. But it will certainly affect the character and influence of the so-called religious right.

The 1998 book, co-authored by syndicated columnist (and WORLD contributor) Cal Thomas and Michigan pastor Ed Dobson, was titled Blinded by Might. Its theme was that too many evangelical leaders have bought into the idea that the primary solution to America's moral decline is to take control of the nation's political process. Such a strategy, the Thomas-Dobson book charged bluntly, has been proven ineffective, is too often used only as a fundraising scheme by those leaders and the organizations they head, and is a corruption of the biblical message of God's redemption by faith in Jesus rather than by political activism.

Blinded by Might applied its argument in a general way, but there was little question that its sights were set especially on James Dobson and the energetic activism of his influential organization, Focus on the Family. Repeatedly and specifically, the book challenged specifics of the Dobson/Focus on the Family emphasis on political activity. The debate was sufficiently sharp that Dr. Dobson has refused-both before the book's publication and since-to discuss the issues face-to-face with Mr. Thomas. The two Dobsons (not related to each other) have, however, met to clarify their positions.

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But over the last few weeks, the slowly burning debate has erupted elsewhere.

First came a book from a top Dobson lieutenant, Focus on the Family vice president Tom Minnery. You don't have to guess whether Why You Can't Stay Silent is a direct answer to Blinded by Might, for Mr. Minnery acknowledges right up front that an explicit response is one of his main goals.

Even that debate between two books, though, might have remained fairly quiet if it hadn't been for a higher stakes development with an unexpectedy personal twist within the highest echelons of National Religious Broadcasters. The essence of the story is this: A new executive was chosen late last year to head the huge NRB, the umbrella organization representing virtually every evangelical radio and television broadcasting effort in the world. But then that new appointee said a few things in a newspaper interview that many interpreted as a rerun of the charges in Blinded by Might. NRB's board, stung by the earlier criticism, decided another round of infighting would be both painful and harmful. Their new executive came under pressure to turn in his resignation. And new charges started to fly.

From my perspective, there's no harm in engaging the debate provoked by Blinded by Might and by the case of the embattled NRB executive. This is a healthy debate to have, and there are no "bad guys" in it. For the gospel of Jesus is not merely a political tract, and the church itself should not be co-opted for overt political activity. Donors can too easily be led down blind alleys by false promises of political accomplishment. Whole segments of the world's population do find it hard sometimes to hear the truth of the Bible when it's too closely identified with political conservatism.

But a key component of the Blinded by Might critique is strikingly mistaken. The authors repeatedly equate everyone in the religious right with the organized church-and that is simply not the case. For example, neither Focus on the Family nor National Religious Broadcasters can properly be defined as "the church." While some might loosely define them as "parachurch," even that is a misleading label; a parachurch organization typically comes alongside the church to do what the church is already doing, or ought to be doing. But organizations like Focus on the Family and NRB have assumed specialized technical assignments hardly appropriate for the church in the first place.

So for Blinded by Might or other critics to accuse folks like Focus on the Family and NRB of doing things churches shouldn't do really misses the point. Of course they do! WORLD magazine often hears the same critique: "You folks take positions the church shouldn't take." The critics are right and wrong at the very same time.

Taking issue with Focus on the Family, National Religious Broadcasters, or anybody else (including us) for the positions they take is fair game. Arguing that such positions might hurt the proclamation of the gospel is also fair enough. And some of the organizations being criticized might occasionally ask themselves whether they sometimes earn the criticism by trying to have it both ways and trying to act like churches.

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