EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Alistair Begg Made A Mistake
What matters now is what happens next
Editor’s Note: Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will offer his opinion on stories in the week’s news or, sometimes, offer a behind-the-scenes look at how and why we do what we do.
Alistair Begg has been an effective and trustworthy pastor, author, speaker, and Bible teacher for decades. Millions of people – and I’ve been among them – have benefited from his work.
But that reach diminished in the past few days. As we reported here, the American Family Association and its 180 radio stations have dropped Begg’s program. Why? Last September, Begg said on a podcast that it was OK for a grandmother to attend her grandson’s wedding to a “transgender person.” The AFA has issued a statement outlining their reasons, which you can read for yourself here.
For me and for many, this controversy is troubling – but it can also be helpful. Let me explain.
First of all, I should say plainly that Alistair Begg – who gets so much right – got this one wrong. For the Christian, weddings and marriages are not like other gatherings. Weddings, by their very nature, either affirm or deny theological and ontological realities.
The reality and symbol of marriage is present throughout Scripture. From the union of Adam and Eve in Genesis to the wedding feast of the lamb in Revelation, marriage is, arguably, the controlling metaphor of scripture. Jesus himself affirmed that by choosing to perform his first public miracle at a wedding.
Some might argue that not all weddings are spiritual or religious events. Or that even in a God-honoring church wedding, some people are there for the open bar and not the Eucharistic table. I answer by asserting that there are no “secular” events. There is no sacred-secular divide. Wendell Berry put it this way: There are only the sacred and the desecrated. Consider a wedding between two pagans, in front of a justice of the peace, witnessed by a hungover notary public on the Las Vegas strip. Even that event makes a powerful a theological and ontological statement, and even if none of the participants intend to do so or are aware they are doing so.
That statement is every bit as powerful as those made in a cathedral officiated by the archbishop. At one wedding we are perhaps more aware of the spiritual affirmations and implications, but at both weddings those affirmations and implications are real.
In short, it is not possible to attend a wedding without participating in that affirmation or denial, any more than it is possible to jump in a lake and not get wet. Weddings do not have spectators. They have witnesses – which is to say: people bearing witness. Attendance is affirmation, whether intended or not.
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Secondly, I should also plainly say that the American Family Association has every right to cancel Begg’s program. Some social media pundits – especially progressive pundits – have engaged in a bit of schadenfreude over this internecine battle between two conservative organizations. They have tried to turn this episode into an example of “cancel culture.” One said, in effect, “Conservatives are against ‘cancel culture’ unless they’re the ones doing the cancelling.”
But that is not what is happening here. The AFA is steward of 180 stations, and it has a right to exercise that stewardship in what it considers to be the most responsible way. Alistair Begg is on more than 1800 radio stations nationwide and his ministry takes in nearly $20 million a year. Alistair Begg has not been cancelled, and any rhetoric suggesting as much is overblown and unnecessarily (and intentionally) misleading and inflammatory.
So what should happen now?
Alistair Begg should publicly clarify his position. Did the question catch him by surprise? Had he just not fully thought through the issues? That hardly seems likely. The interviewer, Bob Lepine, was fair and empathetic in his approach. This was not an ambush or “gotcha” journalism.
That said, it is possible, and Begg should be given the opportunity correct the record. The AFA’s statement suggests that they did give Begg that opportunity, but Begg did not retract or correct. They could not find common ground. If that is the case, Begg should say so publicly. His church, his financial supporters, and his audience deserve to know what they are supporting and consuming.
In the meantime, the Christian Interwebs should take a deep breath. One of the lessons we can learn here is that these issues don’t get solved, or even get a fair hearing, on social media. (To see for yourself, click here.) Yes, Alistair Begg made a mistake. But this teacher also presented us – perhaps inadvertently – with a teachable moment. We have a very public opportunity to model how to discuss such matters in the public square.
I pray that we do not yield to the “lesser angels of our nature” and merely treat this situation as the outrage of the day, an opportunity for grievance entrepreneurs and platform builders. I pray instead that we do as the Lord commanded — “Come, let us reason together” – and that we seize this opportunity for the good of the church and for the glory of God.