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Fighting Fire with Fire

In early 2006, firefighters in Orange County, California, anticipating a dangerous forest fire season, began a controlled burn of 10 acres of canyon land forest. They lit a small fire to prevent a bigger fire, attempting to reduce the amount of flammable material that might serve as tinder during the dry season. They thought everything had gone as planned until the winds shifted and picked up. Somewhere in the brush a hot coal sparked a new fire and soon the forest was burning anew. Almost 1,000 firefighters were called in to fight this new blaze. Within days area schools had been closed, thousands of homes had been evacuated and nearby roads had been shut down. In the end, the fire consumed over 8,000 acres of forest. The 10 acre controlled burn turned into an 8,000 acre raging fire. Lesson learned: there is danger inherent in fighting fire with fire.

Last Monday I posted an article called Evil as Entertainment in which the basic encouragement was to avoid reading watchblogs. Much discussion, much gratitude, much criticism ensued. I am caught somewhere between having so much more to say and never wanting to mention it again. Today I’ll tend toward the latter and perhaps in the future I can write about this again and in more detail.

I guess any writer can attest that every now and then you write something that is really, objectively good; and other times you lay an egg. Having talked it over and having read plenty of feedback, I’m going to have to say that I laid an egg on Monday. While I do not feel that what I said was wrong or unnecessary, I can see that I should have said it better. At the same time, I think it sparked some useful discussion and for that I am grateful. I can see how I should have nuanced my article and how it could have been so much better and so much more useful. In just a moment I want to point you to a couple of articles that may be of use to you if you wish to think further about the issues I raised.

Since I posted that article I’ve gotten heaps of email (I think only articles on homeschooling could generate more feedback) and have learned more about these watchblogs than I would have wanted. I received plenty of ugly, angry rebukes and a few kind, gentle rebukes. I also received many comments that echoed my own experience—that these sites are like an anchor to joy in Christ and an anchor for many a Christian’s love for his brothers and sisters in the Lord. These sites have undoubtedly caused much harm. Several others wrote to say that they are reevaluating their desire to read such sites. This is good, I think, and shows that God may be willing to use even a bad article for his purposes.

Let me offer this as an aside: a few people, including some of the angrier emailers, suggested that I was censoring comments in that article—that I was deliberately excluding certain comments. I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for this one, but I did not censor any comments. I checked published comments, unpublished comments and spam comments and there was no trace of anything beyond the ones that were published to the site (with the exception of one very long and rambling one that was about the length of War and Peace except with no paragraph breaks). ‘Nuff said.

Now, for those articles. Here are four you may find useful:

  • Great Damage: The Gift of Discernment Used in the Flesh - James MacDonald wrote this a few weeks ago and in it he highlights some of the ridiculous, ungodly argumentation used against him by just the kind of watchblogger I wrote about. He says, “A post I wrote on January 20th when President Obama was sworn in was picked up by a number of ‘watch dog’ discernment groups and the rest is history. I have been called weak, soft on the truth, a compromiser, politically correct, foolish, and worst of all, apostate (not truly saved). Wow!!!” Read between the lines a little bit and you can see the tactics such packs of watchbloggers use against their quarry.
  • Establish Elders - Frank Turk simply says this: “Notice that Paul here instructs Titus to appoint elders in every town and not watchbloggers. That is: the focal point and center of discernment ought to be in the local church. If your counter-concern is that local churches today lack discernment (and this may be a valid concern), I suggest that the place to fix that is in the place God ordained and not everywhere else but that place.” The discussion that follows is very interesting. With Frank I believe the best, most natural context for discernment is the local church.
  • Among the comments is this one by Frank and I think it is a very valuable read.
  • Turning a Blind Eye to Evil is Evil Too - Phil Johnson wrote about how he both agrees and disagrees with me. This article really helped me see the lack of clarity in my own article (well, that and my wife telling me that Phil’s article was better than my own). “I think what Tim Challies is saying is that it’s unhealthy to fix one’s attention on error full time rather than spending most of our time dwelling on things that edify. If that’s all he is saying, I say (as heartily as possible) AMEN! (Philippians 4:8). But if someone wants to seize that point in order to suggest that it’s always better to be an encourager than a critic, my reply is: That very attitude is largely responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.” Exactly. There is a time and place for calling error error; there is a time and place for humor and sarcasm and all the rest. But a fixation on evil is dangerous!

Most of what Phil says is most of what I should have said (or said more clearly) on Monday. There is a time and place to expose sin and even to expose sin publicly (see this article by James MacDonald for some good thoughts). But a blog that has as its bread and butter exposing error in the church, and especially error that is completely decontextualized and irrelevant to any of its readers, is a blog I think we ought to avoid. A Christian’s thoughts ought to be dominated by “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). As I said last Monday, “Do I really need to read and to know about the seedy underbelly of the church, when such things happen thousands of miles away, among people I will never meet and in places I will never be? Such news is plenty entertaining, but it is useless to me. It does nothing to further my faith or to cause me to grow in godliness.”

One analogy I opted not to use in Monday’s post was that of pornography. But let me haul it out now as I think it helps show what it is that I am reacting against. Imperfect, I’m sure, but worth thinking about. If a site wished to combat pornography, would the best way of doing so be to display lots of pictures of naked women with comments about how wrong they are to be doing what they are doing? Posted below the picture of a naked woman engaged in some lewd conduct are the words “This is what passes for sex in the church today. Lord save us!” If you were to visit this kind of a site day after day, do you think you’d continue visiting to help you be prepared to combat pornography (because by knowing what pornography looks like you could spot it in your own life)? Or do you think, just maybe, you’d find that you were visiting to see the naked women themselves? Isn’t it better to turn to Scripture to find what it says about sex and sexuality? Isn’t that the best way to learn about what is right? By studying evil you are learning about evil and are liable to be consumed by it. “Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

Now I will grant that there are times when it is well and good to bring evil deeds to light and in such times there is a difference between heresy and nudity. But I think the point remains. Be very careful fighting fire with fire! Be careful fighting heresy with heresy, bad theology with bad theology, lack of love with lack of love. So easily the noble becomes ignoble. So often the controlled burn becomes the raging wildfire.

If you could take one thing away from this whole discussion I hope it is this: For the good of your own soul, think about why you visit the blogs you do. There is nothing wrong with entertainment and there is nothing inherently wrong with visiting a site to be entertained. But think about the nature of the entertainment. Is it possible that you are being entertained by what is evil? Are you finding joy in what God hates? Is it possible that there is no real value in learning what you are learning and in seeing what you are seeing? As you close down your browser and walk away from such sites, do you find that you are filled with the fruit of the Spirit? Or do you find your heart hardened and your mind cynical? Do such sites help you grow in your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ or instead do you find yourself hardened against them and mocking them? Think carefully about such things.

I leave you with those questions and with this Scripture: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23).