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By Alan F.H. Wisdom

From its founding in 1981, the IRD has a history of engendering controversy. That history continues with the recent furious exchanges on IRD’s “Juicy Ecumenism” blog sparked by its coverage of “evolved evangelical” blogger and author Rachel Held Evans.

I’m an old hand in these kinds of tussles, having experienced many through a 25-year career at IRD ending in 2011. Fellow IRD veterans like Mark Tooley and Faith McDonnell can show their battle scars too. It is with pleasure, mixed with some concern, that I now watch a new generation of IRD staffers entering the fray.

Kristin Rudolph, the IRD writer responsible for the latest articles addressing Evans, does us proud. She composed a careful summary of a series of talks Evans had given earlier this month in Williamsburg, VA, using ample quotes in context to illustrate the leftward “evolution” in the author’s thought. When Evans wrote to complain, she did not dispute any of the facts in Rudolph’s report. Instead Evans objected to the personal abuse heaped on her by some commenters on the blog. (I shall not dignify the insults by repeating them.)

Rudolph responded with poise and grace, in the best IRD tradition. She did not back away from any of her impeccable reporting. But Rudolph expressed sympathy with Evans’ feelings of offense at the comments. “I agree with you,” she told the author, “many of them are hurtful and unproductive. Certainly not reflective of what a Christ-honoring community should be.” Rudolph promised that the institute would “begin moderating the comments more stringently.” She affirmed that IRD “welcome[s] discussion about the substance of your message, but do[es] not condone the [negative] assumptions about and attacks on your character.”

Rudolph has my respect for extending this olive branch. But my experience suggests this episode will not be the last. There will almost certainly be more controversies, perhaps involving Rachel Held Evans, and there will be more hurtful things said and more feelings of offense (on all sides). How can we sustain these debates about vital issues—painful and yet necessary—over the long haul? I shared some thoughts in an email to IRD staff, and Mark Tooley invited me to post them on this blog. Herewith a few scattered reflections on controversy and Christian civility:

1. If you work at the IRD, you have to expect controversy. If you go to the IRD blog or website, you must expect controversy. The IRD engages issues about which Christians care passionately: the future of the Church, and whether it belongs to a more orthodox or a more progressive faith. IRD staffers bring their own passions to these issues. To stir discussion, the IRD reports provocative things that have been said by figures such as Rachel Held Evans. Those provocations predictably provoke sharp responses. In an open forum, the responses will sometimes go beyond the bounds of Christian charity—or even common decency.

2. Rachel Held Evans and the IRD have at least this much in common: She also is seeking to stir discussion about sensitive issues, such as whether the future of the Church belongs to a more orthodox or a more progressive faith. Progressive-leaning authors such as Evans put their views out in public with the evident desire to gain a wide audience. Seeking to push the Church in new directions, they need to attract attention. So they attack beliefs that are deeply meaningful—even sacred—to many people. They reach for the striking phrase that will resonate. Such phrases will resonate well in some ears; they will inevitably be repugnant to other ears. The price of being a published author and media personality is exposing oneself to harsh criticisms—including criticisms that cross the lines of propriety. That’s especially true for provocateurs such as Evans and the IRD. I would prefer to live in a society in which the lines of propriety were drawn and enforced more strictly. We can all try to do our part for civility in the small spheres that we control, but ultimately we have to accept that this is the rough-edged society in which God has placed us and learn how to live graciously in it.

3. Frequently, the figures that IRD covers—such as Evans—are out of step with many of the church members whom they seek to lead or influence. These figures represent a progressive elite mentality, whereas the average person in the pew tends to be significantly more conservative theologically and politically. Figures in this position often adapt by tailoring their rhetoric to their divergent audiences. They voice their convictions more boldly before like-minded progressive elite audiences, more cautiously before audiences perceived to be more conservative. Such figures sometimes resent IRD coverage because the institute holds them accountable for what they say to both audiences.  They are upset because they have directed remarks to a sympathetic left-leaning audience, expecting a sympathetic reaction, and then IRD reports them to a more conservative audience and they get an opposite reaction. I don’t see, however, that these figures have any legitimate grounds for complaint. When you put your views out in public, you have to be willing to stand behind them before any audience. You can’t be regaling liberal audiences with anecdotes showing how silly all that patriarchal Old Testament stuff is and how narrow-minded and repressed traditional Christians are and then turn around and swear to a conservative audience that you revere the Bible as much as anyone, and we’re all just seekers who have small differences of interpretation. People are going to notice the contradiction, even if IRD wasn’t the source breaking the news to them.

4. The problem of offensive comments is not easily solved. The IRD cannot control the inferences that people draw from its articles. It can certainly try to moderate more closely the comments on its blog—we don’t want misogynistic name-calling or any other kind of personal invective. But even if the commenters refrain from name-calling, they still are likely to say things that Evans and her friends are going to find hurtful. You can’t touch the topic of whether someone who calls herself an “evangelical” has departed from classic evangelical understandings of biblical authority without hitting a nerve somewhere.

5. I think the underlying source of tension is this debate about whether Evans and her fellow “new evangelicals” are really evangelicals at all. That is not a debate that I find to be helpful. The term “evangelical” is so loose—in some parts of the world it’s just a synonym for “Protestant”—that it’s hard to say when someone enters or leaves the “evangelical” camp. Evangelicalism is not a denomination; it’s a movement—a movement that is transmuting, and possibly disintegrating, before our eyes. There is no creed or rite of initiation or distinguishing mark of membership that would allow one to verify whether someone is a “true evangelical.” So my policy has always been that if someone calls himself or herself an evangelical, I won’t challenge them. I’ve never challenged Jim Wallis or Rich Cizik or any of the other leftward moving evangelicals, and I wouldn’t challenge Rachel Held Evans.  They can claim, correctly, that they grew up in evangelical churches and still have some attachment to their evangelical heritage, and they may have had some kind of vivid conversion experience at some point. So they may be just as much evangelical as am I—who didn’t grow in an evangelical congregation, didn’t have a distinct conversion experience, and don’t attend an evangelical church today . I’m in no position to decide these questions. All I can do is report what the “new evangelicals” say, indicate where I agree or disagree, and let people draw their own conclusions.

6. The problem reflected in the IRD blog comments is that people—especially evangelicals—are driven to draw conclusions that go well beyond what IRD has reported, or what they can legitimately infer from IRD’s reporting. In particular, when someone says “Rachel Held Evans is not a real evangelical,” what he or she often means is “Rachel Held Evans is not a real Christian, not a follower of Jesus Christ, not a child of God, and therefore she’s headed straight to a bad place.” At least two of the commenters said it directly: “She [Evans] is not a Christian.” It’s no wonder that Evans is upset at being summarily excluded from God’s kingdom. I would never make those kinds of inferences myself, and I doubt that many at IRD would either. We have realized that Christianity is so much bigger than contemporary evangelicalism. And we recognize that it is God alone who can judge the hearts of individuals and who knows his own sheep. It’s not up to us to determine whether Evans or anyone else is a real Christian. The IRD can just report what she says and compare that to what the Church Universal has taught. It can note that some of her positions don’t accord with that teaching, and it can observe that some of her reasoning doesn’t stand up well. Unfortunately, others will use that reporting and analysis to draw unwarranted conclusions about the state of Evans’ soul. But we must not pass judgments like that.

7. It is easy to declare that we intend to focus on the arguments rather than the persons putting forward those arguments. It is much harder to practice that principle consistently. Issues are quickly personalized. The debate starts to revolve around whether we adore or despise Rachel Held Evans—or Rob Bell, or Brian McLaren, etc.—rather than whether we find her arguments convincing or unconvincing. Some of the personalization is unavoidable. It is rarely effective to engage an argument in the abstract. People want to know who is making the argument, what precisely they said, and in what context. It is this information that puts us in a position to deliver an effective rebuttal. But most people will take the rebuttal personally. Moreover, given the state of American society and the state of evangelicalism, all the social forces are pushing us toward personalization. The mass media, and evangelicals in the mass media, operate by personalizing the collective and the abstract. Leaders are lifted up as the embodiment of the cause they represent. People don’t know Saddleback Church; they know Rick Warren. People don’t know Sojourners; they know Jim Wallis. And so forth. When the personality is appealing, it becomes a vehicle for massive publicity for the cause. But the dark side is that opponents of the cause will instinctively go after the personality. Sadly, the most effective way to undermine a cause is to disparage and stigmatize the person who represents that cause. And being the imperfect creatures that we are, there is always something to disparage. Rachel Held Evans, wittingly or unwittingly, is putting herself out there and is being heralded as the embodiment of a new type of evangelical woman. Now she is experiencing the attacks—low blows as well as legitimate counterpunches—that come with that kind of high profile. I can feel for her, but I don’t see how we can change the reality that we all face. The IRD’s Mark Tooley takes his share of low blows too.

8. These kinds of debates are messy and often painful; however, there is much to be learned if we can keep calm, patient, alert to our own shortcomings as well as the perspectives of others, and attentive to whatever light God might shed through the fog of our conflicts. That is what I tried to do through my years at the IRD. And I believe that is what Kristin Rudolph and other IRD staffers are doing today.