February 4, 2024

Collision: Alistair is Dug in While Doug Begs to Differ

Alistair Begg is not backing down on his advice around attending an LGBT wedding

Doug and Alistair

Much ink has been spilled over Alistair Begg’s pastoral advice to a grandmother who asked if it would be okay to attend her grandson’s wedding to his trans partner. Given a number of caveats (none of them affirming of the position and all of them in the knowledge that the grandson is aware of the grandmother’s disapproval of this distorted understanding of the created order), Begg said it was possible and permissible.

Cue firestorm.

The comments, contained within a sermon from September, are now seeing the light – and heat – of day, as Alistair is deplatformed and cancelled by a variety of organisations and conferences. He is being called on to repent by a whole load of people, some you have never heard of, some you might have heard of, and quite frankly, some you will someday wish you had never heard of.

Sides have been drawn. Positions have been held. Schisms have resulted. The difference between US fundamentalism rooted in historic US exceptionalism – and the Christianised nation — have been contrasted with the UK evangelical scene of the likes of John Stott, in which there were no assumptions that true Christianity never really ever had the ear of – never mind the control of – the state’s institutions.

Is there something in this? Perhaps there is. Not fully, because I think that the West has shifted against Christianity at pretty much the same rate in both settings (as well as in Australia, Canada and New Zealand).

Did Alistair get it wrong? Does he need to repent? A whole bunch of people – including the Doug Wilson of this blog title – and Moscow, Idaho fame – say that he does indeed. For his part Alistair believers this is a clear demonstration of what the primary difference is: one of pastoral care versus political consideration.

Carl Trueman wrote an – as usual – erudite piece in First Things magazine saying that Alistair had gotten it wrong. Though, having said that, I’d love to read Carl’s response in First Things to a newly converted friend’s request that Carl attend his first Mass at the local Catholic parish he started attending.

Some “wrong” things we seem able to tiptoe around. Especially when so much else is at stake – or at least heading towards one. Which tells us one thing: that this is as much a political public square stoush as it is a theological stoush. Carl’s rising star at First Things is a case in point. “We Trinitarian monotheists have to stick together” or some such.

Theological enemies – and surely the Catholic faith is an enemy of Reformed theology (and still claims that the doctrines of grace are anathema), – make for strange bedfellows (no pun intended), when the post-Christian, indeed anti-Christian, public square is up for discussion. But that’s where we are I guess.

Having said all of that, I pretty much land in the same place that Carl lands. Read his piece in First Things, it’s very helpful. He shows that the issue is both political and pastoral. The two cannot be separated. I would not give the same pastoral advice as Alistair, and I think Carl underlines why I think this, in an irenic, but clear manner.

The reason is obvious, as I say in Being The Bad Guys: The cultural moment is so hot, and the insistence that we must celebrate what the Bible both condemns, and indeed which the Bible does not recognise as marriage (Doug Wilson’s “same sex mirage” comment from a few years ago works on so many levels), means that the fog of war risks grandma sending mixed messages. And risks sending others mixed messages too.

And – unlikely though it may be – what if the happy couple retained the “Should anyone present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace”? Grandma risks a bunfight there and then if she speaks up.

That line, incidentally, is from the Book of Common Prayer. The fact that such prayer is no longer common, as is little else contained therein, should alert you to the cultural fractures assailing the post-Christian West. There is no longer a “common-weal” – a common cultural health that we can agree upon. Which simply means that just as the meaning of marriage is no longer common, nor too is its health.

And if grandma is silent? She risks an internal bunfight every morning at 3am as stares at the ceiling wondering if she pulled a gospel punch for failing her Shadrach, Meschech and Abednego moment. Others attending may even wonder what is going on. Perhaps Christian grandma is ok with this publicly validated event after all?

It feels like Alistair’s advice is a little like a Hail Mary shot on the buzzer. All the conditions have to be perfect for it to be all net. So, having written about this matter for some time in a couple of books, I would say on the surface that I would not attend. There are other ways to love that grandson, even if that grandson insists that grandma does not love him unless

And I think it’s the “unless” that has gotten so many of us anxious, confused and fearful about what the reaction to our convictions will be when they are finally tested. We’ve had the “love-o-meter” run over us, with the settings set to “unless” and despite all of our protestations, we’re being told we can’t be loving if we don’t affirm. That is twisting orthodox Christians into all sorts of rhetorical contortions these days.

However, having said all of that, I’m going to push back on a few things. I’m not starting with Doug (we’ll get to him later), but around some of the er, vibe (Doug’s living rent free in my head, clearly), of the thing.

KKK and Wedding Services

First, when I read that attending such a mirage marriage is akin to attending a ceremony of a friend who is joining the KKK, I say “Poppycock!” That’s a poor analogy.

How poor? Well this poor: what conditions would be required for a confessing Christian to ever attend a valid KKK ceremony to celebrate a friend’s inauguration? None, right?

Oh wait, let’s circle around that question again and qualify it: Under what conditions in 2024 as opposed to, say 1955 in Alabama would a confessing Christian consider there to be a valid KKK ceremony that he or she could attend to celebrate a friend’s inauguration?

There is no “KKK mirage” so to speak. No aping of a good thing with a bad thing. No tipping one’s hat to something that the rest of the world insists on copying in search of validation, even if it rejects the original premise of the thing. And let’s not hoist ourselves on our own petard by declaring they were different times with different values. Right back at ya if you do!

There is never such a time in 2024 when attending a KKK ceremony is valid. And there was never such a time in 1955. But attend them – and indeed join the KKK – confessing Christians did. Let’s not lift up that particular piece of corrugated iron – it will always contain cockroaches.

Liberty of Conscience

Here’s another blind alley. I read a social media post by Todd Pruitt (who I will admit having crossed swords with before), that Alistair’s move is pretty much a slap in the face to all of the Christian cake bakers and wedding celebrants out there who have faced the cultural and legislative squeeze in standing by their convictions around marriage.

Now I would agree with Todd that such compulsions are out of place, and indeed should be unlawful.

But that’s on the basis of the political ideas of liberty of conscience and freedom of association. I doubt very much that bakers and celebrants who have faced the wrath of the state are wringing their hands over Begg’s pastoral advice in a private setting. Advice that is given, but not compelled.

The equivalent issue is not pastoral advice in private, – misguided that it may be – but rather compulsion in the public square. Jordan Peterson shot to fame not over his refusal to use pronouns (at the time he said he would consider it on a case by case basis), but on the issue of being compelled to do so by the state. That is where the danger lay. He saw it clearly. The rest of us have just ridden in on his coat-tails on this one.

What gets foggy in these debates is public theology. How and when can the state compel people to do what it has decreed is lawful to do? What becomes unlawful dissent? Where does lawful dissent stop and unlawful begin? How is the church going to survive in the future if it does not have the air-cover of the state (incidentally, that’s why I am keen to read Aaron Renn’s new book, Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture)?

For all of my eulogy of the late, great Tim Keller, I think Renn and James Wood (and Australia’s own Simon Kennedy) are right: We have moved on from a world in which, while the cultural expressions were negative, the legislation was neutral in a kind of unthinking, liberal and patronising manner.

In keeping with the idea that politics is downstream of culture, legislation has now caught up with culture. Both are now negative. The air cover Tim Keller received in Manhattan back in the day has long since gone. Liberty of conscience and freedom of association are now under threat in this strange new Sexular Age.

Incidentally, a glance at Todd’s Twitter account shows that an unadulterated culture fight seems to be his main game, and certainly his main content. Now I believe that we do need to deal with cultural matters, but back in the day when I listened to “Mortification of Spin” Todd’s main claim to fame was, like Alistair, as a pastor of a church.

My Bug With Doug

But back to Doug. You can read his piece here. And if you’re going to agree or disagree with him, you should read it. If we’re ever going to hear one another’s true argument (not the one we project onto others), then the primary sources should be our first port of call.

And first up, I’m not one of those types that feels the need to caveat my appreciation of much of Doug’s past work. It has had a moral clarity about it and a “zing” to its style that is memorable and effective. Much in the same way that I don’t apologise for enjoying Mark Driscoll’s early preaching. Some good stuff got said.

Doug covers the same ground as Trueman. Though, inevitably, with hotter language and funnier imagery. That’s the Moscow mood after all. Well it’s Doug’s Moscow mood. The one that got us fascinated with the Collision documentary in which he debated the late, great Christopher Hitchens, and kinda showed him up to have a schoolboy understanding of the Bible.

Doug’s myriad hangers-on? Not so funny. Which often just makes them searingly rude and obnoxious on way too many occasions, as well noted by Samuel Parkison. (And ironically that’s the same thing that happened with Driscoll: often brutally funny, but with too many followers who ended up just brutal, and therefore risking becoming brutalisers).

But I want to pick up on two things that I think Doug has gotten 100 per cent wrong. And it’s this.

A False Premise

First, his whole article lands on the issue that the primary problem Alistair Begg has is one of fear. Wilson goes to great lengths to exegete the story of St Peter who, in his outward hypocrisy, demonstrated that his besetting sin was indeed fear (the external presentation being his obeisance around the Judaisers who had come from Jerusalem).

Wilson then goes to equal lengths to show that what Alistair is doing is the same thing – hiding his fear behind a piece of seemingly loving pastoral advice. Wilson says this of those in Galatia who separated from the Gentiles when the Judaisers arrived:

So what they thought they were doing is not the same thing as what they were doing. Fearing what the men from James would say put them in a position of not fearing what God would say. This is the way it always goes. The temptation is always to fear those who will pitch a fit if they don’t get their way. The temptation is to fear those who will make a scene. The men from James were the kind of men who would make a scene. And the transgender mafia certainly knows how to make a scene. Evangelical grandmothers who have followed Alistair’s ministry for decades won’t make a scene. They might be a little surprised, as this woman was, but they are decent Christians, and know how to stay polite. And the bad guys know this about us, come to think of it.

To which I would ask: On what basis does Wilson make that claim of Begg? The history of Alistair Begg’s ministry and public pronouncements on these matters would scarcely lead Wilson to believe that Alistair Begg, as he has reached his seventies, has somehow lost enough of his spiritual testosterone to succumb to fear on this point. Sure some men have shamefully done this, but there’s nothing outside of this to suggest this of Alistair Begg.

In fact, Doug’s exegesis of St Peter’s life is based on somewhat of a false premise. He claims St Peter was impetuous etc, but if we put the life of St Peter during the ministry of Jesus on earth under the microscope, it was all about fear. Fear of loss, fear of loss of face, fear of missing out. Fear presented itself different ways, but fear it was. A history of fear.

There seems to be zero evidence that is true of Alistair Begg. The fact that Begg has made the point often around sexual purity and practice from the pulpit across the pond and back, and indeed within his writing, would call this into question. Where is there evidence that Begg has a history of being a fearful man in the face of his theological and cultural enemies? It doesn’t exist.

Assuming Motive

But second, and perhaps this gets to the nub of why I think Wilson is on shaky – and dangerous ground – he purports to know Alistair’s own motives. And that’s a cheap, but easy shot. Look at what he says above:

So what they thought they were doing is not the same thing as what they were doing.

What Alistair says isn’t what Alistair really thinks. In other words Alistair is being hypocritical in the advice he is giving to grandma. He is purporting to give her pastoral advice, but in reality he is hiding his own fear of what others might think underneath that advice. Who knows what was actually behind Alistair Begg’s counsel? Why Doug Wilson of course!

That Wilson knows that he is doing this is revealed in the section directly before his exegesis of Peter’s life and his subsequent caving in to the Judaisers. Wilson says:

Alistair thinks he is simply being nice, and so he is advising the grandmother to show Christian kindness…So the issue is not kindness, but rather approval.

So it’s not even that Alistair is lying to grandma. But to himself. And that’s a big call. And it’s a lazy call. To impugn motive like that is a slur on Alistair Begg’s reputation. And it’s a slur on grandma’s reputation too. She only wants craven approval. She isn’t really about kindness to her grandson whom she loves.

It’s not for no good reason that Begg has doubled down on the reasons he gave that advice. Perhaps he does fear, – I mean we all fear something and someone – but it would seem he has a lot more to fear from the Moscow mood that from anything else, especially as this thing gains sub-cultural traction.

It’s also a reveal on how Wilson, and many in that mood, operate. Which is something that Parkison points out as both the Moscow danger and the Moscow delusion. In critiquing the “Moscow mood” (we’ll come to view this term in the future in much the same way we now view “Young, Restless and Reformed), Parkison makes the parallel between it and its deepest cultural enemies, the woke progressives running the country:

 What this does is effectively build up non-falsifiable walls around the entire project. Every criticism gets reworked to be a blessed, glorious example of why, actually, when you adjust the lens properly, this criticism proves that Moscow is pretty great. Effectively, this is like what Critical Race Theorists like Robin DiAngelo do with their insistence on “White Fragility”—the system is so rigged that every criticism gets transformed to reinforce the system.

Is my insistence that I am not racist, simply proof that I am a fragile white racist? Robin DiAngelo thinks so. Is my insistence that unrepentant homosexual practice bars someone from God’s kingdom proof that I am actually a homophobe? Well, line up and take a ticket.

This is the classic Pythonesque “test if she’s a witch” scenario. If she drowns she wasn’t a witch. If she doesn’t drown, then she’s a witch, so let’s burn her for being a witch. Heads I win: Tails you lose. The system is reinforced not because there is a clear and present argument to reinforce it, but because, well, because the system is right.

And, folks, that’s where this shift by Wilson move from cute to dangerous. Do I think there are dangers in Alistairs pastoral advice to grandma? Yes I do. Do I think that, in some “white fragility” way, his doubling down that he is not giving in to fear is in fact proof that he is fearful and merely hiding behind pastoral advice? How could I 100 per cent know? But on the evidence so far, that’s a long bow to draw.

But I’ve seen more than enough heavy-handed leaders who are hyper-willing to assume the motives of other people, despite very little evidence to back this up other than “they know”. And I’ve seen plenty of those heavy-handed leaders refute any criticism of themselves on the basis that no one can impugn their motives, and their motives alone. And when that happens then the mood in an organisation can shift from feeling Moscow Idaho to Moscow, USSR pretty quickly.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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