I recently came across an article by Albert Mohler entitled “Why Can’t Christians Just Join the Revolution”. While this post is over a month old, first published by Courier Journal of Louisville, Kentucky on November 4, 2015, it was reposted on December 2 to the twitter page of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is really no surprise as Dr. Mohler is the president of the seminary.
What was surprising, however, is the rhetoric used by Mohler in his argument. This, specifically, is what I want to address here. Before doing so, I want to be clear:
I am not, here, making an argument for or against same-sex marriage.
While I disagree greatly with many of his theological/ideological commitments, my goal here is to examine what Mohler’s rhetoric can teach us. In order to accomplish this, I will first offer a brief synopsis of Mohler’s argument. Before considering my words, I encourage the reader to familiarize themself with Mohler’s article first.
The main points of Mohler’s argument can be represented by expanding upon a series of direct quotes. Keep in mind, each of these quotes represent Mohler’s own words. In this post, Mohler invests his time in explaining why, he believes, Christians cannot accept same-sex marriage. Mohler opens by declaring:
It’s not that we don’t understand the arguments – we just cannot accept them.
Here Mohler argues that his approach is not about “being on the right side of history”, but is instead about being on the right side of the Bible. He equates the latter with being morally right in general. As such, he believes Christians cannot simply “redefine Christian morality, marriage, and doctrine” because society thinks we should. That would be tantamount to what those who embrace “liberal theology” do.
This must be avoided because, as Christians:
We do not see the Bible as a mere collection of ancient religious writings that can be disregarded or reinterpreted to mean something other than what it says.
Mohler supports this by arguing the truth of Scripture is tied up in its absolute Inerrancy. Inerrancy and Inspiration are interdependent concepts, thus one cannot exist without the other. The Bible must be “what it claims to be”. Thus the Bible contains clear and specific truths that are unchanging because, as Christians:
We believe that Christianity is defined by what the Bible calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
Thus, his opinion on same-sex marriage is the same position supported by the historic faith of Christianity for 2,000 years. Because the historic, 2,000 year old teachings of the Church are true, they are also the only way to true life and happiness. Or, to put it differently:
We are not merely opposed to same-sex marriage because we believe it to be contrary to Scripture; we believe that anything opposed to Scripture cannot lead to human flourishing.
The “liberals” may be able to abandon this, but those who affirm Scripture as the inerrant word of God, those Mohler labels Christians, cannot. They cannot abandon this “historic” teaching of Christianity on same-sex relationships because:
[I]n so doing they are abandoning, not only the clear teachings of the Bible but also the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Bible tells a story of creation, fall, and redemption that cannot be changed. To question the story is to disobey Scriptural teaching and present “another Gospel”. Holding to the “historic” Christian faith may lead to marginalization, but those who hold to these beliefs can rest assured they hold to the only true teachings of Christianity. Christians must not allow themselves to become secularized like the liberal denominations who are more concerned with being remembered as the “good guys” than with preserving faith in the “clear teaching” of Scripture.
As Christians, it is important to seek discernment when reading the arguments of other Christians, especially where difficult or controversial topics are involved. It is not enough to simply say “Amen” because we agree with the author or find their argument personally compelling. Instead, we must carefully analyze the arguments made, consider the Scriptures cited, and form a critically formed opinion about whether said argument holds water.
In the same way, as we present arguments on these topics, we must also consider how these things play into our own rhetoric. In order to accomplish this goal, I propose the following series of questions, which I have found to be helpful in my own writing.
In order to explain how I use these questions, I will use each to analyze a portion of Mohler’s argument.
Are the beliefs presented logically consistent? Are there any errors in logic that would lead you to question the premise presented?
What I want to consider is the whether or not the argument made above contains any inherent logical fallacies. For Mohler’s argument, I propose the following fallacies will prove revealing.
No True Scotsman
The No True Scotsman argument requires one to assume their argument is right, that they represent the only possible correct response, and that the overwhelming evidence is on their side. As such, a person will seek to establish their own deeply held convictions as normative. They will then argue that no one who disagrees with them can truly be on the “right” side. For instance, a person may say “No real Christian believes…” in order to dismiss their perceived opponents opinion without actually presenting a well-reasoned argument.
Note in Mohler’s argument only one group of people is referred to as Christian. He is willing to say liberal churches, he refers to liberal theology, but he never once uses the word liberal Christian. Further, he states that “Christians” will (1) affirm Inerrancy, (2) believe precisely as he does regarding the “clear” meaning of Scripture, and (3) not be willing to give an inch on these things.
Even if Mohler’s omission of the label “Christian” for his opponents is largely unintentional, it likely represents a microagression. That is, it represents an inherent – possibly subconscious – bias in the way he communicates his opponent’s beliefs.
In claiming his position as THE Christian position, he is making a subtle argument against his perceived opponents. Namely, he is saying that any “real Christian” will hold to his convictions, thus those who do not don’t qualify. This allows him to, in the mind of his reader, dismiss any dissenter off hand. It also provides him a basis for a claim to authority over his reader by instilling a fear of being “on the wrong side” of his beliefs.
As such, Mohler has done something rather ironic. His self-defined “opponents” claim he is on the “wrong side of history”, so he has turned to them and said, “nuh-uh, you are.” That is to say, he has created his own definition for what the “right side of history” means by arguing that he is in line with 2,000 years of Christian tradition, a tradition he says confirms his beliefs on Scripture.
This is a carefully crafted way of making his audience look left while he dodges right, a classic Red Herring argument. Tu quoque is, literally translated, “you too” in Latin. This fallacy is used to discredit an opponent by attempting to turn their argument around on them. Thus, Mohler sets out to argue he is not on the “wrong side of history” by claiming history is on his side – without any cited evidence – thus attempting to turn the table on those he considers on the “other side”.
This plays into a series of ad hominem attacks. Often, one is tempted to operate under the assumption that blanket labels are enough to dismiss the opinions of others. This allows them to refuse to engage an argument because they believe a particular stereotype is enough to dismiss that person. It is an attack on the person only, completely ignoring their ideology.
This can take the form of a blatant insult. For instance, Mohler characterizes his opponents as “liberals” – a scare word meant to automatically imply they are wrong without any consideration or citation of their actual argument. He thus paints them with broad strokes that represent neither the nuance nor reality of the varied arguments made by those whom he would consider to be “liberal”.
This is not, however, the only form of ad hominem. We often overlook the subtle insults used to stereotype and discredit, to denigrate certain persons by designating them a non-conforming “other”. For instance, some will use a single point of a person’s belief to discredit everything they think. Mohler accomplishes this by arguing that rejecting Inerrancy is also rejection of historical Christian faith, the Gospel of Jesus crucifixion, and the authority and truth of Scripture. As such, “those people” simply go with society, as they have no moral basis to do otherwise.
Here, Mohler uses a single point – with no evidence, citation, or argument presented – to claim the people he labels “liberals” are actually just “secularists”. Thus, he subtly manipulates the reader to assume his beliefs as normative by using scare words and other persons’ lack of conformity to his strictures to dismiss them entirely. He reminds his audience that they should be careful “crossing that line” because a simple buzzword can put them on the “outside” where convincing, well-reasoned argument is no longer necessary.
This allows Mohler to create a false binary. False binaries occur when one presents two options as the only two options – black and white, right or wrong. There is no room left for middle ground, creating an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Thus, as Mohler see it, you are either a Christian (note he never uses the word conservative) or a liberal.
When someone reduces a complex argument to an overly simplistic binary, they inherently demonstrate the possibility that they have not done the research, simply do not understand the topic, or are more interested in their own image than honest dialogue – to name a few options. The reality is, oversimplifying rallies the faithful troops by creating an environment of antagonism, providing an “other” that proves our own normativity and moral superiority. For Mohler’s purposes, it is completely irrelevant if that “other” is largely a fabrication.
Lastly, I would ask you to consider the Texas Sharpshooter. The goal of the sharpshooter is accolades, power, and privilege. They need to be right, so they make sure their reader will uphold and commend their “rightness” at all costs.
Picture your favorite sports movie. The actors may be the worst athletes of all time, but a good director will know how to coach them to certain actions that will allow him/her to edit the film so that the actors look like they are playing at an elite level. But, the reality is, regardless how good the movie, what you see on film does not reflect the complex reality of the filming process, which almost certainly involved many mistakes.
In the same way, Mohler “edits the film” to preserve his own position. Without a single shred of evidence provided, he aligns his own beliefs about the “clear, inerrant meaning of Scripture” with what he calls the “historical” convictions of Christianity. What he does not do is offer a convincing, well-reasoned, or carefully cited argument in support of his position. Instead he claims that anyone who disagrees with him is a liberal, thus making himself the bullseye to aim for.
I want to be abundantly clear here, I have not disproven Al Mohler’s basic premise regarding the sinfulness of same-sex marriage. As I stated above, I don’t intend to. That being said, the existence of fallacy in an argument does not conclusively disproves the argument itself.
For instance, I could tell you my last name is Sparks, which is true. I could still proceed to offer a long winded diatribe against people named Smith in an attempt to prove why Sparks is my last name. The fact that my attack on the “Smiths” is fallacious and in no way relevant does not disprove the basic premise being argued, my last name.
Logical fallacies can, however, call into question the credibility of an argument. These fallacies offer a series of red flags that warn us the argument presented may not be particularly well-researched or factual, that the person making the argument may be hedging their bets or using fear of non-conformity to rig the system in their favor.
Furthermore, fallacies assist in weeding through the often distracting rhetoric Christians use when speaking about complex and controversial issues. They can help one to see through the smoke screen by providing a means for one to realize that it is okay to question the credibility of the premise itself. They help to signal that, in the absence of well-reasoned and carefully considered argument, the author may very well have failed to cite his “opponent” because he has turned their position into a Strawman Argument.
As such, the existence of fallacies frees the reader to think for them self, to dig below the surface and examine even the most seemingly fundamental claims, and to seek a truth not defined in terms of antagonism and “other-ness’. This empowers the reader to escape the sick-cycle of “Us vs. Them” and seek a new paradigm for conceiving the categories of faith.
Is it possible to uphold this argument from a careful consideration of the collective witness of Scripture? Or does it rely mostly on a few proof-texts that are not expounded at all?
In order to weigh this question, I want to briefly consider two passages of Scripture. First, I want to take a look at the book of Jude itself. The reasons for this are two-fold. (1) Jude 3 is the only passage of Scripture Mohler actually cites, thus it is central to his claim that he possesses the absolute and unquestionable teachings of Christianity. (2) It is ironic for Mohler to use a verse from Jude, as this book represents one of the most controversial books for discussions of early Church traditions.
Authorship of the book of Jude is traditionally attributed to the brother of Jesus, Judas. However, it is notable that Jude adapts a number of extracanonical traditions into the tradition of Jesus. For instance, Jude quotes directly from the book of 1 Enoch, and even describes Enoch as a prophet – an interesting development since very little is actually said about Enoch in the book of Genesis (vv. 14-15, cf. Gen 5:19-21, 1 Enoch 1:9). Jude also draws from these apocryphal traditions to argue that the men of Sodom specifically knew the visitors to Lot were angels and desired to rape them for that reason – something that is never intimated in either the original story of Genesis 19 or in the excursus in Ezekiel 16. This idea is actually derived from Jude 5-6, where Jude references those who are “kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day”. These were angels that “did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling” and equates this with the motives of the men of Sodom.
This treatment of the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative is notable because Jude arrives there by referencing the Watcher’s Tradition, a commentary on Genesis 6 in 1 Enoch 7 which states that the “Sons of God” who took for their wives the “daughters of men” were actually fallen angels. These angels taught man all forms of heavenly secrets, which led to humanities wickedness and caused God to banish them forever, enchained in the earth until the day of judgment.
Jude claims all of these things as part of the “once for all faith entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). Jude even attributes the words to the Genesis character Enoch, whom he calls a prophet per the witness of 1 Enoch. Why, then, if the Bible is to be taken as “what it claims to be”, does Mohler not accept the Bible’s claims that the apocryphal 1 Enoch is in fact written by Enoch, to whom the words of the book were revealed? Why does Mohler recognize that the Holy Spirit gave Jude the words he wrote but deny that it is authoritative as Scripture? Why does he assert, against Jude’s apocryphal argument, that Genesis 19 states explicitly that the sin of Sodom was “Homosexuality”?
If we are to trust “what the Bible claims to be” as absolute and unquestionable, why does Mohler take a nuanced approach to Jude’s use of the apocrypha? Why does he condemn his “opponents” for questioning “what the Bible claims” on other topics?
Perhaps it is acceptable to reconsider what Mohler insists the Bible “claims to be” after all.
In Luke 24, two disciples of Jesus are walking on the road to Emmaus when they are met by a strange figure. This figure notes their distress and asks the source of their angst. They inform him of the death of Jesus, who they believed to be the Messiah. They explain that the women have claimed his resurrection, yet they have been examining the Scriptures and cannot understand how such things could be true of the Messiah. This figure then begins to lay out for them how all of Scripture points to Jesus. He shows them how Jesus is in fact the climax to which all of Scripture has been building. Then the figure breaks bread with them. As he does this, their eyes are opened to his true identity. Jesus then disappears.
With this in mind, I the collective witness of Scripture pointing specifically to Jesus. Further, per the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Word of God; he is the way, the truth and the life- the only way to the Father (John 1:1-18, 14:1-14). If you agree with my assessment, then we must consider whether Mohler’s argument, as presented above, reflects the nature of Scripture revealed in Jesus.
Is the argument presented Christ-like? Does it model an approach to love and grace which imitates the crucified Christ?
In addressing this question, it is important to consider whether the argument Mohler presents reflects a Christ-like approach. If I am correct that the NT tells us that the purpose of Scripture is to point us to Christ, then it is not simply enough to present a Scripturally coherent argument. In fact, the disciples on the Emmaus Road believed that, despite what they had formally believed about Jesus, Scripture indicated he could not have been the Messiah. Even in this story, we must recognize it is entirely possible to interpret Scripture in a way that does not point to Christ. Even Mohler in his article accuses those who disagree with him of abusing Scripture and creating “another Gospel” which competes with the Gospel of Christ.
Thus, it is imperative to consider, in addition to whether something can be supported by Scripture, whether an argument is consistent with the person and works of Jesus Christ as revealed in his cross.
It is notable, then, that the rhetoric of Mohler is used to argue a “gospel” which is built on antagonism. He openly states that supporting same-sex marriage is tantamount to denying Christ. Mohler assumes that the Gospel creates an “Us”, those who are right and must stand strong and refuse to bend or give, defined against a “Them”, those who must be shown no quarter unless they join “our side”. He takes an approach that assumes being “liberal” is the same as being LGBTQ because both sets supposedly “abandon the teaching of the Bible on sexual morality” and “confuse the world…about repentance”. So, if the argument of Mohler regarding same-sex marriage is central to his beliefs about the Gospel – if as he says, to deny one is to deny the other – then we must weigh his claims about the Gospel carefully.
I am reminded of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians regarding divisive rhetoric towards preservation of personal privilege. In 1:12, Paul calls the Corinthian church to task. It seems the church was being torn apart by divisive persons who identified themselves as the disciples of “Paul”, “Apollos”, “Cephas”, and “Christ”, respectively. These groups were caught in a power struggle for the heart of the Gospel in the Corinthian church.
Some of them sought to keep women subjected in the Church (cf. ch. 7, 11:1-15 and see my treatments here and here). Others abused the impoverished among them by flaunting their privilege. They were gorging themselves at the Lord’s Table while the poor in their midst went hungry (11:17-34). Some even tried to form some sort of class system around spiritual gifts, trying to claim power in the church by arguing their “giftedness” made them more important than others. They forsook love and unity as members of the same body to pursue privilege, power, and personal status (12 -14).
It was into this climate that Paul wrote these words:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Wirh these words, Paul sought to bring the Corinthians back to a single point of reference: “Jesus the Christ, and him crucified” (2:2). Paul uses the crucified body of Christ to argue that the only way forward was a unified identity as those who are “in Christ” (ch. 12). Thus members of Christ could not entertain the arguments and antagonisms of the world, they could not unite themselves with any other or participate in the same systems of power (6:12-20). Paul’s message is that the cross of the Christ undermines power systems built on exploitation, that he undermines the systems of this world, that it appears foolish because it is built not on assertion of self or personal status, but on the utter abandonment of self for the sake of the other (1:18-2:16). These persons will seek to be of the same mind of Christ – the same Christ who instructed his followers not to pursue despotic power, but to submit themselves as the servants of all, following his cruciform example (Matt 20:20-28).
In Philippians 2:1-12, Paul presents a similae argument to the church at Philippi. Specifically, he states that being united with Christ means imitation of him. A Christ-follower will consider the other to be better than himself. He will do this because he is inspired by the crucified Christ, they will – in the same fashion as advised in 1 Corinthians 2:18 – seek to be of the mind of Christ.
According to Paul, a person who seeks to be of the mind of Christ does not consider their own status, she does not pursue her own means or gains, and does not flaunt her rights. Instead, a person who imitates the crucified Christ will seek to be humble, to be the servant, to give everything in obedience to the one whose name is above all names, the one “to whom every knew will bow and every tongue confess”, Jesus Christ the Lord.
Further, I think if important to examine the teachings of Jesus himself. In Luke 10, Jesus recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan. An expert in religious law has just summarized the law with the commands to “Love the Lord your God with all your soul, strength, and mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Gal 5:14, Rom 13:9). Jesus affirms this statement and tells him to live it. This leads to the lawyer trying to find an out, asking “Who is my neighbor”.
Jesus answers this question with a parable. By the time he has finished his story, there is no doubt that the term “neighbor” has no limits. Instead, neighbor can include even our most sworn enemies – in the case of the Jews this would mean the Samaritans. (vv. 25-37).
Similarly, in Luke 14, when Jesus was attending a dinner banquet, he noticed that everyone there was vying for the seat of honor. He tells them all that it is better to sit at the foot of the table and be praised by your host for your humility than to fight to praise yourself. According to Jesus, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vv. 7-11). He then instructs them that they should not define their own “in crowd” by those who can repay them. Thus, Jesus tells them not to invite the rich, the powerful, or friends who can reciprocate to a party. Instead, invite the outcasts of society because, in doing so, one will be rewarded in he “resurrection of the just” (vv. 12-14).
Jesus then tells them a final parable. This time, he tells the story of a king who invited all his friends to a party, but no one showed. So the king had his men go out into the streets and invite anyone and everyone who would show up. According to Jesus, there are people who would be considered “insiders” who will not be at the “banquet of the king”, while people in the streets who have done nothing to earn the kings favor will be pursued by him and invited to join him in his celebration (vv. 16-24).
Finally, I want us to consider another argument made by Paul in his epistles. In Galatians 3, Paul sets out to discuss the role of the law in the justification offered to all by Christ. He notes that the law itself can only act as a method of exclusion (vv. 19-22). It is designed to determine who is in, and who is out, and it clearly places those who are out under a curse (vv. 10-12).
Yet, those who are in Christ operate not by the law, but by faith. They operate in faith that Jesus died as a curse, and in doing so he lifted the curse from those who are outside the law and frees all from the burden of the law (vv. 12-14, 21-25). In doing so, all who have faith become children of the covenant of Abraham, which transcends the law and offers all the blessing promised through Abraham’s offspring (vv. 3-9, 15-18, 29).
According to Paul this community will be one in which antagonism becomes communal unity, where particularity becomes commonality. There will be no more antagonism between Jew and Gentile. There will be no disparity between Slave and Free. And there will be no more animosity, exploitation, or exclusionary tactics in the relationship between men and women (vv. 27-29, cf. Gen 3).
This is consistent with passages like 1 Timothy 2, where Paul argues that unity in worship of Christ must trump the animosities of our former, pre-Christ lives (see here). It mirrors his argument in Philippians 2:1-12 that all must be of the same mind as Christ, which sets aside personal rights for the good of the community. It affirms Paul’s statement that his entire Gospel is “Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). And it stands with 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says:
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (v. 3).
Thus, as I see it, when Mohler presents a gospel which serves to denigrate, exclude, or diminish another person’s Christianity, he demonstrates a profound and disturbing irony. In fact, I argue he has chosen to develop a concept of sin which stands juxtaposed to, and in opposition of, the justification and sanctification that Jesus enacts through the cross. That is to say, he implies the perceived sins of certain persons automatically disqualify them from being justified before God through Christ.
Mohler then argues these “sinful” persons cannot be sanctified by God through the cross as a New Creation and called to serve his kingdom purpose because they are not considered Christian at all. They are the “liberals”, the “secularists”, and they stand outside Mohler’s version of the Gospel.
In such a system, those who oppose a certain ideology, are thus perceived incapable of exercising Christ’s grace and love for their neighbor. Where Christ in his cross calls all to humility – to see in all persons a beloved neighbors, Mohler seems to pursue by denigrating enemies and promoting antagonism.
So I ask again, is Mohler’s rhetoric Christ-like?
I believe it is always necessary for Christians to be careful in rhetoric, Scripturally grounded in arguments, and Christ-like in both word and deed. With this in mind, I challenge the reader not only to evaluate Mohler’s argument but to also hold them self, those with whom they agree, and those whom they don’t – and especially to hold me – to these standards. It is with this in mind I offer my final question.
If the argument has failed to achieve these standards, should you question the basic premise of the argument? Do you need to conduct further personal research before forming an opinion on the topic?
I will leave this for the reader to discern.
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