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Disagreeing Without Cancelling: How Should Christians Respond to the Alistair Begg Controversy?


If you have spent any time on the internet recently, you are probably aware of the controversy surrounding Alistair Begg’s advice that a grandmother attend her son’s wedding to a transgendered person. After his comments start circulating online, Begg faced a storm of criticism and his radio program was removed from American Family Radio. Subsequently, Begg addressed criticisms in a sermon. More recently, he has been removed from the Shepherd’s Conference.

While I don’t agree with Begg’s position, I’ve been saddened at how the controversy has played out. The whole episode gives us an occasion to consider how we conduct disagreement in the body of Christ. When Christians have contrary convictions, how do we publicly express them in such a way that there is minimal collateral damage to the kingdom of God?

Before I offer a few initial reflections, I should first explain why I disagree with Begg.

What is a Wedding?

What I appreciate about Begg’s intention (or what I assume are his intentions) is the desire for compassion and hospitality. Indeed, we should be eager to build relationships with our LGBTQ friends: to practice hospitality, to be a good neighbor, to reflect the love of Christ in any way that we can.

However, we must also give consideration to the larger ontological structure of marriage. A wedding is a spiritual union in which God is the primary actor. Jesus says, “what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). At a wedding, God is creating a new, spiritual reality through the union of one man and one woman.

Traditionally, attendance at a wedding ceremony been seen as a form of support. Whenever I officiate weddings, for example, I involve the participants—I discuss our role of supporting them, I encourage us to pray for the couple, and so forth. Sometimes there will be a specific time in the ceremony to pray for God’s blessing on their union. Sometimes (though I don’t personally do this) there will be an occasion for vocal dissent from the union, if anyone has a reason for why the marriage should not take place.

So for Christians who don’t believe that a legitimate expression of marital union is actually taking place when the wedding does not involve one man and one woman, attendance (and the participation it implies) becomes a conscience issue.

How Do We Disagree?

But here I want to address how we navigate disagreements about such matters in the body of Christ. The disagreement in question is not about affirming gay marriage. It’s about a specific, more prudential question: how should Christians who maintain a traditional understanding of marriage function in a society that is increasingly abandoning it? In the circumstance Begg was addressing, for example—a grandmother-to-grandchild relationship in which the grandmother’s conviction is clearly known—is attendance at a gay or transgender wedding ceremony ever permissible?

While I come to a different conviction about this than Begg, his position should not discount his decades of faithful ministry. Yet many responses portray him as fundamentally compromised or untrustworthy, or as himself a proponent of gay marriage. While it’s perfectly appropriate for people to articulate their disagreement, the wholesale denunciations and cutting of ties seem reflective of a broader dysfunction in how Christians express disagreement. Unfortunately, “cancel culture” is increasingly common in the church as well as the world. Especially in disagreements that play out over the internet, we often display a reactive, “all-or-nothing” mentality that ultimately reduces the other person to our disagreement with them—even a disagreement on a secondary or tertiary matter.

We desperately need to retain and cultivate the ability to say, “I disagree with so-and-so on issue X, but they are still my brother or sister in Christ, and so our disagreement takes place in this larger context.”

Could fruitful Christian leaders of the past survive the climate we are currently creating? Would John Stott be cancelled for his views on annihilationism? What about C.S. Lewis for his rejection of biblical inerrancy? Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his views on the historicity of Gen. 2-3?

I am not minimizing the importance of these various issues. Nor am I saying, “lets just be nice and not talk about our disagreements.” But if the disagreement is with a true Christian, the way we disagree must be constrained by that reality.

What does healthy Christian disagreement look like? It’s not formulaic, and I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas that might be worth considering right now.

1) Breaking From Public Disagreement on Sundays

Some of the most heated battles among Christians take place on Twitter on Sunday, even Sunday morning. I wonder if the enemy can use this to distract us from that time in our weekly rhythm that should be especially set aside for rest and worship. What if we took a break from our feuds on the Lord’s Day, and instead committed to worship, prayer, and rest?

I cannot bind anyone else’s conscience on a prudential matter like this, but I am making a personal decision to avoid engaging in public disagreement on Sundays, and I would invite others to consider whether something similar might be fruitful in their own lives.

2) Cultivating a Culture of Honor

Our words and actions create on overall culture. The New Testament calls to a culture of honor (Romans 12:10) and gentleness (Galatians 6:1). This does not mean we avoid accountability or criticism as necessary. There is a place for public rebuke (e.g., I Timothy 5:20), including of leaders (Gal. 2:11).

Nonetheless, we need to give consideration to the overall culture we are creating in the church right now, especially for our leaders. More than ever before, pastors and other church leaders are operating in a climate of suspicion. According to a recent polling, less than 1/3 Americans rate clergy as honest and ethical. Relatedly, pastors are increasingly discouraged.

Again, legitimate criticism must be allowed. But the overall trajectory of our culture is such that distrust toward clergy (and distrust toward institutions and leaders generally) is multiplying. This is bad for us all. The entire body of Christ benefits when our leaders flourish.

So when we engage in criticism, we do well to ask: what is the overall culture I am contributing to with my words?

3) Showing Love Amidst Disagreement

One reason love is so important is that the world watches how we disagree with each other. Jesus taught that “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Further, he prayed for our unity so that the world would believe in him (John 17:21).

In a recent podcast, Trevin Wax drew attention to Francis Schaeffer’s comment on this teaching of Christ: “Jesus here gives the world a right to do something on the basis of his own authority. He gives the world a right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of whether we show love to all Christians.”

Looking at how the controversy surrounding Alistair Begg’s comments played out, and the net effect it had, it is worth asking: how is this coming across to non-Christians who are watching us?

Again, love does not mean refraining from disagreement. But when we are engaging in public disagreement with a brother or sister in Christ, we should give consideration to its broader effect on the credibility of the gospel.

Charles Spurgeon gives us a good model of this. Discussing his disagreement with George Herbert, he writes:

“Where the Spirit of God is there must be love, and if I have once known and recognized any man to be my brother in Christ Jesus, the love of Christ constraineth me no more to think of him as a stranger or foreigner, but a fellow citizen with the saints. Now I hate High Churchism as my soul hates Satan; but I love George Herbert, although George Herbert is a desperately High Churchman. I hate his High Churchism, but I love George Herbert from my very soul, and I have a warm corner in my heart for every man who is like him. Let me find a man who loves my Lord Jesus Christ as George Herbert did and I do not ask myself whether I shall love him or not; there is no room for question, for I cannot help myself; unless I can leave off loving Jesus Christ, I cannot cease loving those who love him…. I will defy you, if you have any love to Jesus Christ, to pick or choose among His people.”[1]

In the years and decades ahead, we will likely face many more complicated questions of what Christian faithfulness looks like in our society. We will not always agree. But if we have a “warm corner” in our hearts for all the sheep of Christ, even our disagreements can honor Christ and commend the gospel to those around us who so desperately need it.

[1] Charles Spurgeon, Sermon 668, “Unity in Christ,” in The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, vol. 12: Sermons 668 to 727 (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2013).

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9 Responses

  1. He’s also been cancelled from RefNet/Ligonier which seems to me the hardest blow in terms of platform.
    The lack of charity over this is heartbreaking. As a young convert, I really get why people leave the Reformed faith : truth untempered by love is deadening to the soul.

  2. Thank-you Gavin.
    I am over 60 yrs old, Canadian, conservative in theology, Bible school grad, and long time Christian. I have read and followed many American Christian leaders over the years, but this ‘controversy’ has turned me off and away.
    Throughout the world, Americans are known for their arrogance and ‘bullying’. In like mindedness many of your church leaders have displayed the same.
    Long before debate, a group formed – violating Matt 18 – and pounced on a 50 year ministry over a 1 minute clip. Unlike Paul, there was no ‘face-to-face’. I am shocked that no experienced leader found this disgusting.
    Secondly, (and for all those who believe the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, or CN advocates) the inconsistencies in their positions have never been given voice. Instead: ‘Gay is bad, marriage is good – stay away’ has been the mantra. It was a stubborn attack built on group think. (PS: This is not a marriage by your own standards)
    Thirdly, READ THE TWEETS! The ugly, hate-filled responses towards a grandson, grandma and Begg are appalling. ‘Jesus moved with compassion’ – google it – something these leaders know nothing of. For all the quotes on personal wretchedness, there is – apparently – a line deeper than the love of Christ can reach.
    My conclusion: American fundamentalism has represented itself as a bunch of cowards ‘brave’ enough to gang up on someone who is not one of them, and too cowardly to either defend a brother or love a sinner face-to-face. Hiding in your monasteries yelling at the wicked world is not Christianity.
    I appreciate your desire to uphold Begg at this time, but it is difficult to give credence to it without recognizing there are many believers who understand ‘nuance’ and view the issue differently. In my opinion there is guilt here, but not with Begg.
    Thank-you for at least trying to bring some sanity to a situation that has publicly damaged a long term ministry.

  3. Finally, something I agree with even if you disagree with Alister Begg. This is a much more appropriate Christian response.

    The stories over every kind of media have varied on “facts”. Many articles and videos have had many different versions of the story, but not the truth of the story from Begg’s mouth. I listened to the sermon he gave to his church about this issue. However, the one common denominator has been what I consider, pointing the finger, Judgement. As if he hasn’t spent over forty years as a pastor, to the same church, teaching and ministering to his congregation. No one has mentioned if he has had any previous issues of any kind. So, this is a one time event, in forty years?
    The uproar over this has made me more upset, than what he said. I’ve been angry at those Christians that are so ready to judge him because I have been judged by “Christians” before. They judge, as if they are without any sin.
    Although, I’ve only listened to Alister Begg on his Truth For Life program, he is one of a short list that are on the radio these days that teaches from the Bible.
    Like what this article brings up, this story has been brought up every where. The story has been twisted to mean something he didn’t say because that is the media’s way. The disagreement and his judgement has been the story. All of this causing more harm, than his singular statement to one grandmother only. Not a recommendation across the board.

    What would have happened if it just got dropped?
    No articles in the Christian magazines?
    The radio station, if they had to drop him, then do it without an article announcing it?
    No pastors preaching to their congregations, that then are taped or put on a podcast or radio station later?
    No podcast discussions and passing judgement?
    No interviews on Main Stream Media
    No social media activity?
    No cancel culture mentality?

    What if, it hadn’t become all of this?
    What if it had just been between he and God? He and his family? He and his congregation?
    How many people have used this to call Christians, homophobic? transphobic? Christian Nationalist? And more?

    I apologize for my wordiness.

    Thank you for a different point of view, and making it something helpful instead.

  4. Me thinks that what Alister chose to do was along the lines of working out his salvation in fear and trembling, being a pastor is a very big stewardship. But at the end of the day he’s just a person, I by the grace of God have been up against this having to be obedient to that which my salvation calls me to do, even if I myself am not completely convinced it is not the orthodox way of going about it. It is the love of God that covers a multitude of sins.. not mine; mine is to crucify the intentions of my flesh daily against the finished work of the cross.
    I believe most of us frustrate Gods love on our best day, but its stories like this that allow us to see the love of God at work perfectly! It certainly challenges me.

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