News Flash: Dog Doesn’t Bite Man

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Exactly zero news agencies would bother reporting that a local man encountered a dog who didn’t bite him, as he had feared it would, but gave him a friendly lick on the hand instead. Yet friendliness has shown up recently where one might not expect to find it: between Christians in public.

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is an international fellowship of Reformed Christians committed to effective preaching, evangelism, missions, and cultural engagement. It is also marked by its fierce defense of gender differentiation (men are to lead churches and homes), its high-profile leaders (such as pastor Tim Keller, scholar Don Carson, and political leader Russell Moore), and its vigorous vigilance over what it takes to be correct doctrine.

Recently, Ontario pastor and author Paul Carter, a member of the Canadian board of TGC, interviewed Bruxy Cavey, senior pastor of one of Canada’s largest churches, The Meeting House, also in southern Ontario. The express goal was to clarify Cavey’s teaching—issued in a plethora of books, podcasts, weblogs, and sermons—for those in TGC who were concerned that Cavey was well beyond the pale.

One might have expected a hostile give-and-take as a flinty Calvinist took on an equally unapologetic Mennonite. But Carter is no Dutch uncle, nor is Cavey your typical Amish elder. The result is not the lurid Grand Inquisition one might have anticipated.

Carter is clearly a thoughtful and civil interrogator, determined to understand, not condemn, what he hears. For his part, Cavey—who looks like a hipster cross between Willie Nelson and Santa Claus—demonstrates a keen theological mind. He nicely articulates where his views differ from Carter’s (as they apparently do only rarely, according to the first two interviews) and where they are in fact pretty much the same, if expressed with Cavey’s characteristic creativity and élan.

The result is one of those benign rarities in public discourse today: a “civil and respectful dialogue” (as TGC puts it) that models a serious attempt both to understand suspicious ideas and to find common ground.

Meanwhile, Prof. Jason Byassee of the Vancouver School of Theology, a theological seminary of mainline Canadian Protestantism (United, Anglican, and Presbyterian), was recently granted space by Canada’s leading journalist in religion and ethics, Douglas Todd of The Vancouver Sun, to render a very positive review of the recent book by local megachurch pastor Ken Shigematsu.

What’s this? A Presbyterian theological professor saying nice things about the work of an evangelical preacher in the pages of a major newspaper?

It’s not as if Byassee is incapable of critical comment. Holder of a Duke University Ph.D., former pastor himself of a large church (in North Carolina), and prolific author of multiple well-received books, Byassee doubtless could have focused on any number of possible negatives in Shigematsu’s work. And the long tradition of mutual suspicion between mainline churchmen and mainstream media on the one side and evangelical clergy on the other would strongly incline one to expect a hatchet job. Instead, Byassee concludes, “There is a treasure in our midst, Vancouver.

North African lawyer and theologian Tertullian (who lived around the year 200) loved to argue the merits of Christianity versus the shortcomings of its rivals in late antiquity. And he could be acidly sarcastic as he did so. But he had his priorities straight as he hoped that his fellow Roman citizens would encounter Christians and remark not on their intellectual acumen but instead say, “See how these people love each other!”

How refreshing in these hair-trigger times, therefore, to see and to celebrate Christian leaders of one sort deciding to patiently encounter those of another and then, after careful reflection, to accentuate the positive. It really is the religious equivalent of a Conservative Party leader praising the work of a Green.

Maybe that’s news after all, then—good news.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).