Last month I read the following book recommendation by Kevin DeYoung:
Douglas Wilson and Randy Booth, A Justice Primer (Canon Press, 2015). I thought this was a book on social justice, economics, and big picture politics. It’s actually a book about how the Bible would have us judge each other (or not) in the mad, mad world of blog warriors and internet vigilantes. This book is full of refreshing wisdom. I hope it reaches a wide audience. And if you already know that Doug Wilson is a good-for-nothing scoundrel (and I don’t know him personally and do strongly disagree with him at times), then that’s an indication that you really need this book.
While I was a little surprised by the positive review, I decided I should read the book and decide for myself.
A Justice Primer is an interesting read. The basic premise of the book is that almost no one really understands Biblical justice. Wilson and Booth write:
And this is why we are writing now about justice. There are a number of people in our circles (in a number of situations) who clearly have no firm grasp of what justice is or how it functions. (61)
The authors are specifically concerned about public accusations and charges and how Biblical justice requires that we respond:
Justice often has to do with public accusations and charges that are denied by the one accused. When that happens it is necessary for the accused to be prepared to prove what he says. In order to do this, he must not be anonymous, he must be accountable for his charges (in case they prove deliberate falsehoods), and he must have independent confirmation of what he says. If these conditions are not met, we are prohibited by Scripture from even entertaining the charges (there must be two or three credible witnesses). (5)
Wilson and Booth also explain that they have personal experience with these issues:
These matters are not hypothetical. Some of us have been maligned and misrepresented more times than Carter’s got little liver pills. We also have friends around the country who have been in judicial meltdowns of various kinds, and we have had friends occupying different places in those meltdowns. We known conscientious pastors who have been slandered by parishioners. We know conscientious parishioners who have been slandered by elders. And we have heard of a fracas (from time to time) that doesn’t concern us, and we do not want to take a passing dog by the ears. (41)
What is interesting to me is the unstated purpose for writing this book. Starting back in 2006 or so, Doug Wilson began a series of posts on his blog with the category tag “A Justice Primer.” The reason that is significant is that most of the book is taken from Wilson’s “A Justice Primer” blog posts. From the very first many of the posts addressed the Federal Vision controversy and trials:
Public records still need to be sifted, assembled, arranged, and the arguments presented. … This is the response that the RPCUS made when asked why they thought the Auburn guys were heretics. Their “proof” of the charges were the conference tapes themselves.
The blog posts also dealt with R.C. Sproul, Jr. and the circumstances surrounding him and his session at Saint Peter Presbyterian Church. Sproul, Jr. was defrocked and deposed for a number of reasons including tax fraud, practicing paedocommunion, and ecclesiastical abuse. After the session was deposed, they apologized to the RPCGA and then transferred the church’s membership from the RPCGA and to Doug Wilson’s denomination, the CREC. The CREC examined Sproul, Jr., restored his credentials, and accepted him as a member in good standing.
All of this was going on during the writing of Wilson’s blog posts:
3. Who took their complaints to the internet before they were appropriately adjudicated by the appropriate governing bodies? Who took the show on the road before the church had dealt with the issue? A good example of this would be the recent flap surrounding R.C. Sproul, Jr. and the RPCGA. Everyone who is posting or running some variation of passingdogbytheears.com ought to withdraw their cyber-charges and privately offer any legitimate evidence they might have to the appropriate adjudicating bodies.
Though they have been stripped of any mention of R.C. Sproul, Jr., these blog posts are a significant portion of A Justice Primer. The advice takes on a different significance when the purpose is known:
If someone comes to you from another Christian church, and they are under some kind of cloud, admonition, rebuke, suspension from the Table, or excommunication, what this should mean is that the burden of proof has shifted. An individual in your own church is innocent until it is proven that he is guilty. Guilt has to be established, and it has to be established beyond any reasonable doubt. But if another church has taken disciplinary action of some sort against one of its members, and then that member comes to you, the burden should be on him to demonstrate and prove that an injustice was done to him. If he can do so, and all the principles of justice are remembered (with the former body given full opportunity to present its reasons), then there is no problem (in principle) with a receiving body overturning a judicial decision by another church. (48-49)
Honest sessions and presbyteries discipline liars who run off to other churches and tell lies. So be careful. Dishonest presbyteries heave godly saints out the door. Do not honor judicial outrages. The list of saints who have been treated unjustly by ecclesiastical assemblies is a long and honorable one. (49)
From time to time we hear of some Internet dust-up where the charges are leveled against the pastor, session, or leadership of a Christian organization. The Bible is very explicit in the way it tells us to handle such circumstances. Therefore, when the charges are framed contrary to these biblical standards, they should simply be round-filed. (62)
[C]hurch discipline is one thing, and persecution is quite another. Church discipline honors and protects the name of Christ. Persecution, or zealously hounding dissenters, disgraces the name of Christ, and in effect denies the gospel. That this is a perennial temptation for Christians who take the Scriptures seriously can be seen in all the attempts we have seen to get us to take this particular bait. … The church must not only discipline its members, it must also discipline itself. (219)
The other person that “A Justice Primer” blog posts were written about and for is Steve Wilkins. Steve Wilkins is pastor of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Louisiana. He, and it, were originally part of the PCA. He, and it, left the PCA because of his adherence to the Federal Vision theology. At the time of the blog posts, Wilkins was facing a trial over his views. In “To Get the Chimps Jumping” Wilson wrote:
Now the occasion for writing all this is the examination of Steve Wilkins that is currently underway in the PCA. I have said, and I continue to say, that what is most necessary here is for as many people as possible to acquaint themselves with what Steve has been teaching. If they read through some stuff a couple years ago, they should refresh themselves on it. They should settle in their own minds whether Steve, when he says that he affirms the Westminster doctrine of election, is affirming the Westminster doctrine of election. Having done this, they should pray that the Louisiana Presbytery will make a godly and wise decision, and then, that the Standing Judicial Commission will make a godly and wise decision in letting that decision stand.
The advice from that post also appears in the book with the references to Wilkins removed:
There are public sins that must be dealt with publicly, but not every accusation against a leader rises to this level. … [I]t is perilously easy to fall into the species of harmful do-goodism that wants to uproot the tares, but that kind of do-goodism is at root diabolical. This is true of accusations of private wrongdoing (e.g. embezzlement) and accusations of public heresy. … The second matter, is a public matter, should be handled as a public matter in public view … The overall theme of the Scripture is that the true conservatives are the falsely accused; it is one of the great ironies of our day that ostensible conservatives want to earn their gunslinging stripes by accusing. … Where in Scripture is the theme of the zealous accuser who wants to root out some troublemaker? … But the words Satan and devil (with their deep connotations of adversarial accusation) are used as they are for a reason. (244-245)
There are some who are distressed on our behalf over the lies that are being told about us. But this is just part of the cost of doing business. Jesus said to expect it and to rejoice when it happened, and Scripture requires those in spiritual authority to take care that they not react in a manner that makes the accusations retroactively true. False accusations of tyranny could provoke a man into tyranny. (246)
Wilson also wrote about Steve Wilkins in a post, “Appealing to the Cheap Seats“:
But when the charge concerns what someone has been teaching and saying in public, it is fully appropriate to appeal to that public, which is precisely what Jesus did in this situation. I will have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but I have known Steve for many years, and have heard him teach and preach in many settings. I have read what he has written here. I have heard him explain his full commitment to the doctrinal system found in the Westminster Confession to his critics, face to face, and in an unambiguous way. What he has made available to the public in this setting is fully consistent with what I have heard him say in other places and times.
All this is simply a biblical defense of what I urged everyone to do yesterday. Read what Steve wrote, listen to what he has taught, and then wait patiently for the response of the PCA. The more people who are watching this, the better. This is a public event, and it concerns the public teaching of a public minister. This is a place where many people are involved in making sure justice is done.
That post also appears in the Justice Primer book without reference to Wilkins:
In many of these cases what a person is saying or teaching has been said or taught in many settings. We have read what they have written. For example, we have heard them explain to their critics their full commitment to the doctrinal system found in the Westminster Confession, face to fact, in an unambiguous way. What the teacher has made available to the public in this setting is fully consistent with what we have heard him say in other places and times. In other words, the public has access to all the pertinent facts. If a judicial body is involved (e.g., a church court), then wait patiently for their response. … The courts don’t always get it right. (68-69)
What’s my point with all of this? Well, the book is based on blog posts that were written to defend and protect certain men against perceived injustices by church courts and by those who were discussing the cases on the Internet. With that context, the purpose of the book becomes clearer, and we can then decide if the book’s advice is as useful as it claims to be.
As Wilson and Booth write in the book, “Persons bring charges. Persons have motivations. Those motivations need to be evaluated, just like the charges do.” (92) Persons also write books and have motivations that need to be evaluated.