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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog

I try to avoid writing about what feels like gossip. It is far too easy to write about issues that are contentious simply because they attract attention and satisfy some depraved and unsanctified portion of my heart. I know that I used to give in to this desire far more than I do today and I thank God for challenging me on this. Over the past few weeks, several people have asked me about a particular situation with Ligonier Ministries. Others have taken to posting links to exposés about the ministry. To this point, we (myself and David who helps me with moderating the comments here) have deleted these links since they point to a site we feel offers little more than gossip. I have also chosen not to write about it. Recently, though, the story has hit the mainstream. A Florida newspaper published a report on it and since then many bloggers have followed suit. Christianity Today has even seen fit to link to comments critical of Ligonier. And so I thought I would offer what I can on this issue.

On September 5, the Orlando Sentinel featured an article (link) entitled “Lawsuit seeks to block blogger.” Rene Stutzman, a Staff Writer, broke the news that Ligonier Ministries has sued a blogger, Frank Vance, for defamation, seeking unspecified monetary damages. For the past several months Vance has used his blog to post articles harshly critical of Ligonier Ministries, and in particular, its President and CEO, Tim Dick. As Stutzman points out, “In the past five months, Vance’s blog has described Dick as part of a ‘family of nincompoops,’ ‘a very corrupt man’ and ‘a lying, thieving con artist,’ according to the lawsuit.” Vance’s blog, “Contending for the Truth,” is the site that has been at the center of increasing controversy and to which people have often attempted to link from my site.

“Contending for the Truth” exists for the sole purpose of exposing what Vance considers the misdeeds of Ligonier Ministries. The site was begun on May 8, 2006 as a response to something that happened right here at Challies Dot Com. I’ll let Vance give his version of the back story:

On March 9, 2006 Tim Challies started a thread on his blog to report “live” on the Ligonier Ministries National Conference [Note from Tim: A reader of this site was at the conference and asked if I’d consider allowing him to post some reflections on the conference. I was glad to do this. Do note that I was not the one reporting from the conference]. Some discussion ensued there about the fact that RC Sproul Jr was speaking at the conference, even though he’d just been defrocked by the RPCGA just a little over a month prior. To say the least, some people were offended by that (myself included) and posted their objections in that thread. The blog moderators quickly stepped in and squelched any and all discussion of the RC Sproul Jr scandal. They also deleted several posts. Given the hostile environment arrayed against any open discussion on the issue, I didn’t even bother to post there.

Then on March 13 moderator David made the following post:

“Those of you who want to discuss the Sproul Jr. issue can go here [link to the General Forum] to start your own discussion. Once again, this thread is not the place for that.” So, I did just that, at [now defunct link] Hits to that particular discussion thread rapidly climbed to over 4000, far more than any other discussion thread there had ever generated so rapidly.

Then in early April, without any prior notice, Tim Challies jettisoned the entire forum and replaced it with a new one, minus all the content of the old one. His excuse? “Frankly, I am exceedingly tired of having to wade through so much spam and trash and perversion just to keep the forums running. Maybe I’ll investigate another option—one that does a better job of keeping out the trash.”

Vance went on to say that my new forum was a useless “Pile ‘O Crap” and suggested that there was another reason I had dumped the forum, hinting that his article about Sproul caused me to remove it. The truth of the matter is what I mentioned here. It turns out that the forum was getting heavily spammed and was causing incredible stress on the server. The heart of the problem was that I was using the forum as my commenting system for the blog and the combination of the two was causing excessive load on the server to the point that I was using 100 percent of the server’s processor. My host threatened to shut down my site if I did not remedy the problem immediately and even cut off service for several hours at a time to show they weren’t bluffing. The only workable solution was to shut down the forum. Sometime later, I believe it was a few weeks later, in response to pleas from those who enjoyed using it, I installed a new forum and attempted to solve the previous problems. Unfortunately, that proved impossible. The site was soon bringing the server to a crawl and I was being inundated with spam. I made the decision to take the forum down once and for all and to revert to using Movabletype’s internal commenting system. Had I not removed the forum, my site would have been permanently shut down. The decision certainly had nothing to do with Vance and his post.

All this is to say that Vance was dead wrong about the reason I took down the forum. And not only that, but he never contacted me to clarify, instead choosing to create a blog to share his inaccurate understanding of what happened. He has gone so far as to credit me with providing the impetus to enter the blogosphere. Until this point I have ignored him. It is interesting to see the influence he has had on others in their impressions of me. Here are a few quotes taken from his commenters, all of whom are responding to his charge that I am trying to hide the truth about Ligonier and about R.C. Sproul Jr.: “And Challies shut down a forum over it!! (Note he is live blogging for all the biggies).” “Tim Challies is a great example of a cover up artist.” “You’re too much of a shill to let anybody know about them yourself Tim, or even permit anyone else to say anything.” “Tim Challies needs a reality check. Keep up the good work Frank.” “And as to Challies, he has built up a nice live blogging business with these guys. He has a lot to lose, too. And he is young and mesmerized by these big men of God.” “This is off topic but today Challies posted that he is writing a book on…of…all…things…discernment! In light of his obviousw protection of the Sprouls, I find this quite nervy. I am afraid Tim has little credibility in this area.” I have never once, to my recollection, received an email from any of these people asking me to clarify my position or asking why I shut down the forums. None have ever tried to contact me, to properly admonish me, or to clarify the situation.

This proves two things to me. First, Vance is willing to write something libelous about someone else (in this case, about me) without any proof or substantiation. His entire story about me is mere fantasy and fabrication. Secondly, those who allow themselves to be influenced by him are eager to believe what he writes and to have their impressions about others (once again, about me) shaped by him. Does the fact that he was wrong about me mean that he is wrong about other things he has written? Not necessarily, but it certainly does make me think twice about his desire to be truthful. Has anyone looked at Dan Rather the same since we found out about his eagerness to take down George Bush using fabricated evidence? I didn’t think so.

Vance has used his blog to level various charges at Ligonier Ministries and at Tim Dick. Until recently, the posts dealt with R.C. Sproul Jr. and his being deposed by his denomination. Recently, though, Vance also wrote an article in which he accused Ligonier of defrauding Soli Deo Gloria publications, which Ligonier acquired in 2004. He charges that Tim Dick found a way of underhandedly stealing the company from Don Kistler, the man who founded it. “Dr. Kistler’s ministry was stolen from him by, quite literally, nothing more than a cheesy sleight of hand trick. After weeks of contract negotiations a final version of the contract was agreed upon by all parties. However, when it came time for the signing of the final contract, unbeknownst to Don Kislter, Tim Dick secretly switched contracts. The textual difference in that switched contract was small enough to have easily escaped the notice of everyone, yet the implications for Don Kisler were immense.”

This article charging Tim Dick, and thus Ligonier, with fraud has now been widely read and I have had many people ask me to comment on it. What I have pointed out to all who have asked me about it is that Vance writes an interesting article, but one that is entirely devoid of any proof. He levels many charges at Dick and calls him many names. He writes like he has facts at his disposal, but provides no proof. He says only that he has gained his facts from someone who has spoken to Don Kistler. This is, at best, third-hand information. Without proof what he writes is nothing more than gossip. It is unconscionable that, as a professed believer, he would write such a condemnatory article but without offering proof. Regardless of whether what he writes is true, he deserves to be ignored on that basis. To this point I am not aware of any response from Don Kistler as he is currently recovering from a serious stroke.

Clearly one of the responsibilities of the President and CEO of a ministry is to protect the integrity of that ministry and the man who founded it. It should be mentioned that Tim Dick has a personal stake as well, for he is Dr. Sproul’s son-in-law and surely has a deep love and respect for the man. While the press is eager to report this as an issue touching on the First Amendment, in the lawsuit Ligonier makes it clear that they regard it as an issue of slander, libel and defamation. One does not have to read far into “Contending for the Truth” to see that they can make a case for this. The press will be eager to make this into an issue about freedom of speech. They will make it into an issue of the big corporation versus the little man. But, as I understand it, freedom of speech does not provide a person the right to fabricate stories and to slander others. Without proof, this is all that Vance offers. As believers we cannot regard Vance as a victim here, for his attacks on Ligonier and on Tim Dick (and his family) are mean-spirited and clearly not written out of Christian love or concern.

This lawsuit will inevitably raise questions about the teaching of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6. Paul writes, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” While I do not know how I feel about legal action in this particular case, especially because I have access to few of the facts, I think it bears mentioning that if a person continually responds as an unbeliever, he may no longer merit treatment as a believer, especially when he continues to do harm to an organization. Also, it bears mention that Ligonier is an entity, a non-profit organization, not a person or individual believer. Neither is it a church. When there is interaction between a person and an organization, it may fit in a different category than the one-to-one interpersonal relationship described in Scripture. A corporation dealing with an anonymous person does not have the ability to deal with such issues within a church setting.

My purpose in writing all of this is not to suggest that I feel Ligonier is a perfect or blameless organization. I have no stake with Ligonier in writing this. While I am acquainted (at best) with several people who work for the organization, I have nothing to gain or lose from them. I am not, as has been charged against me, a “shill” for Ligonier.

There may even be some truth about a misunderstanding in the situation regarding Soli Deo Gloria, though surely suggesting that Tim Dick surreptitiously switched contracts is either a fabrication or a ridiculous oversimplification. My purpose is not to condemn Frank Vance and to suggest he is a liar, though admittedly I do not know where Vance gathered his facts and he is not willing to reveal his sources. My purpose here is to urge caution. We do not know all of the facts and neither are we ever likely to. What we do know is that Frank Vance has shown his willingness to write negatively about me based on mere conjecture and without checking his facts or seeking any kind of reconciliation. He has since written a great number of negative things about an organization that has served Christ for many years. He has done so without offering any shred of evidence or proof. As I read his articles I thought immediately of the Old Testament laws concerning witnesses. Deuteronomy 19:15 reads “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Already many professed Christians have had their opinion about Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul influenced by the word of only one man. Surely we ought to know better.

Frank Vance has little credibility and, even if what he writes is true, does not deserve to be heard. If he has evidence, he ought to present it. If not, he should retract his comments, shut down his site, and be silent. At the very least, he should examine his motives and ask how his site is serving the body of Christ.

It is situations like this that cast a shadow over the blogosphere, for it has given voice to a whole new breed of gossips. People with only a story, no matter how little evidence is provided, can gather an audience and turn the opinions of men and women, even against a man with the long record of R.C. Sproul. There is something wrong when an anonymous gunslinger, who does not have the courage to identify himself beyond his name and his American citizenship, can cause great harm to a ministry with which he is not affiliated. There is something even more wrong with those who allow themselves to be so influenced by such a person.

If you agree with what I have written here, I’d urge you to do (or not to do) three things. First, do not to visit Vance’s site. There is no reason to sort through his articles and the increasingly belligerent and irrational comments that follow them. Second, if you are a blogger, do not link to his site. Links and visits are the currency of the blogosphere and there is no reason to give him either one. Third, and most importantly, I plead with you not to allow a charge to be established in your mind on the evidence of a single witness! Surely a man who has served the church as long and as well as R.C. Sproul, and surely the organization he founded, deserve the benefit of the doubt.