The internet is talking quite avidly about Doug Phillips’s letter that he posted on Vision Forum’s website, and the follow-up here. The reactions have varied from “I told you so” to godly grief and prayer. It is certainly inappropriate for those opposed to Doug Phillips’s ideas to gloat in his downfall, and to connect his downfall with his ideas in a direct line. I wonder if some of the talk is not lurid fascination with the scandalous. I am reminded of one of the Miss Marple videos “Murder at the Vicarage,” where the Vicar’s wife talked about the get-together that the ladies had every day, and called it “tea and scandal.”
A better tack has been advocated by some, and I think it is a better way to analyze the situation. Whenever a pastor preaches the Word of God on a particular sin, Satan will try mightily to undermine the pastor precisely in that area. This doesn’t happen only to people like Doug Phillips. Did you preach against greed on Sunday? Then beware of Satan’s temptations to greed throughout the week, and pray, pray, and pray some more. Did you preach against pornography? Then again, beware of Satan’s temptations in that area either in the immediate or even distant future, and pray, pray, and pray some more. The fact is, no matter what sin the pastor preaches against, Satan will love to tempt the pastor with that particular sin, because he knows he can cause more damage to the church that way.
Most pastors who have any experience whatsoever will be well aware of the fact that they are under almost constant assault from Satan’s temptations. He will try to make the pastor feel so hypocritical that the pastor will lose his preaching authority, and seek to water down the message so that he is no longer a hypocrite, or the pastor will preach only about one topic, trying to correct himself in that area, when he is in fact almost under the waves from that very temptation.
Note to those who listen to preachers: if that preacher has a hobby-horse, beware that something might be amiss in that particular area. The Word of God searches every area of life, not just one.
However, if the pastor is aware of this problem, he may try to over-correct by taking the teeth out of the practical application sections. How does a pastor avoid this? First of all, he does have to preach to himself first. Then, he must repent of his own sin and folly in that particular area. He must continually throw himself on the mercy of Christ. He must be the chief repenter. But then he must also believe that the blood of Christ really does cleanse him of that sin. Satan loves to lie to pastors with this simple, but effective lie: “Your sins, being that of the leader of the congregation, are much harder to forgive than the congregant’s sins.” Do not confuse consequences of sin with the guilt of sin. A pastor’s sins may have more grave consequences, but they are not more difficult for Christ’s blood to cleanse, since Christ’s blood has infinite power to cleanse.
It has been noted that Doug Phillips’s sin happened in the very area (marriage and family) that he preached most vociferously and counter-culturally. This is true. But given Satan’s tactics as noted above, it should not surprise us when Satan tries to get pastors to sin in just such areas.
In the following comment, I am making no judgment on what is in Doug Phillips’s heart. I am only using my imagination: it may not be true of his situation in any way. It is only a possibility. When a pastor preaches heavily on particular subjects, there is always the possibility that he can start to view the doctrines he has preached as safeguards for his own morality. He believes that extra-marital affairs are sin; therefore he won’t be tempted in that area, or if he is, he won’t fall. Again, given Satan’s tactics, pastors should be expecting the very opposite: the more strongly we believe and preach something, the more we should expect Satan to try to get us to fall precisely in that area. Doug Phillips may already know this. I don’t know, I’m just mentioning it, because I think it is important.
Our only true safeguard is the Triune God’s mercy and grace towards us, especially the Holy Spirit indwelling us and feeding us with Christ Himself. That is an empowering grace that enables us to put to death all (not just some) works of the flesh, and to put on Christ. This is what the Puritans called “mortification and vivification.” It is the putting off and the putting on. Another term to describe it is “sanctification.” We get this grace through the means of grace: Word, sacrament, and prayer.
As to Doug Phillips’s own ideas, I think he has some valuable things to say. There are certain areas where I think he may take some things to an extreme. But there is no doubt that he has pegged some serious wrong things about out culture and its vision of marriage. I say that because I have no joy whatsoever in what has happened to him or Vision Forum. I think it is tragic.
To those who would gloat over his downfall, just remember this: God is a God of resurrection. You may gloat over your fallen foe, but God may raise him up, Phoenix-like, and use him for His glory. I earnestly hope and pray that Doug Phillips will use this time to examine his ideas and doctrine once again in the light of Scripture, that he will listen to his critics, avoid completely a self-defensive attitude, and bring every thought captive to Jesus Christ and to His Word. May we do the same.