I grew up Southern Baptist, and although I am no longer affiliated with that denomination, I would like to briefly provide some perspective on an issue that has continued to stir over the past four years. I will call it the Caner controversy. It is a controversy that sadly should have been publically resolved years ago. It has not been resolved because God’s system of justice has not been employed.
Ergun Caner is currently the president of Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, GA. He has authored a number of books including one he co-authored with his brother Emir entitled Unveiling Islam which has sold over 200,000 copies and has been translated into six languages.[i] This book fueled his public career and he quickly emerged as a sought-after speaker and eventually became President and Dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. A series of accusations eventually led to his removal from the post at Liberty. It is the story surrounding these allegations that continues to plague both Ergun and the evangelical community to this day.
Following the events of September 11th, 2001 and release of the book Unveiling Islam, Dr. Caner focused on his history as a former Muslim and conversion to Christianity. His story focuses on his life as a former Muslim who was trained as an Islamic terrorist. He tells of his arrival in the states as a teenager and the difficulty of being a devout Muslim in the company of his peers. Climactically, he talks of his conversion to Christianity and being disowned by his devout, Muslim father. As Caner grew in prominence and his story spread, numerous allegations arose that called into question his testimony and overall integrity. Wiki provides a concise overview.
In 2010, Christian and Muslim bloggers accused Caner of making up and lying about his life story by citing details that were incongruent with his regularly stated, printed, and often repeated story. The critics particularly challenged Caner’s claims to have grown up in Turkey, when he actually grew up in Ohio; being raised in a devout Muslim home, rather than a nominal one; having been trained as an Islamic jihadist; having debated dozens of Muslims, although they say there is no evidence of such.[ii]
One particular individual within the Baptist world has sought to provide a detailed account of Caner’s alleged misrepresentations. Dr. James White, apologist, theologian and Director of Alpha & Omega ministries, has devoted much of his life to bringing the gospel truth to Muslims through the use of apologetics and engaging in public debate within the community of Islam. He understands Caner’s testimony to be dishonest and views it as compromising the integrity of the pulpit and ultimately the testimony of the gospel to Muslims.
So in the midst of what seems to be an unclear case from all sides, why would I make the assertion that the controversy should have been put to bed years ago? I will answer that question with a few others. If the issue is that Caner has lied from behind the pulpit and is unrepentant for a false, public testimony – why are there not formal charges filed in his church? Where are Ergun Caner’s elders? Where is the appeals court that could be utilized in hearing the case if necessary? Under what ecclesiastical authority and Biblical, judicial process can Caner’s case be heard? Evidently, none. Sure, Liberty University announced that they would launch a formal inquiry on May 10, 2010 to investigate allegations against him but this was a governance issue at an educational institution, not a formal charge from within the church. If a man is innocent, he deserves a formal charge and a case that is heard from within a Biblical, legal structure and process. If he is guilty, the accusers deserve the same recourse.
You say, “all of this litigious talk has no place in the church”. The apostle Paul begs to differ.
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Corinthians 6:1-8)
What we have currently in the Caner controversy is trial by blog. Think of it as an internet manifestation of much of the conduct Paul was taking issue with in the Corinthian church to which he was writing above. “For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Cor. 12:20) It is unproductive. It is inefficient. It is unbiblical. Caner himself filed a federal lawsuit to remove videos from the internet that could be used to portray him as a fraud.[iii] He was unsuccessful.[iv]
Note that I am not taking a side on the whole issue. My point is, in the Caner controversy we are witnessing the abject failure of the autonomous church to bring about justice within the house of God. If it is alleged that a man is bearing false testimony from behind countless pulpits around the nation then he should be formally charged and the case should be heard from within the church. Many would offer alternatives to such recourse. Yet, would we apply the same thinking to solving issues within the civil realm? Would we take the man who has stolen from us and form a committee in our neighborhood, post videos of him on the internet, engage in prayer for him and expect that we could hold society together with such an approach? Why then would we think the approach could work in the church? To Paul’s point we should be able to settle these matters more efficiently and with a higher standard. Our current legal system, although imperfect, has a framework founded on Scripture.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
When this brother is dealt with from within the church he is being brought to an institution that has authority over him. The authority is Christ and elders represent Christ in his rule of the church. The man is bound by covenant. The covenant has stipulations. It also has sanctions for the unrepentant.
The sad part in all of this is that with a more presbyterian polity, the Caner controversy could have been publicly resolved years ago. The case would have been fully heard in the context of a Biblical system of jurisprudence and a verdict rendered with the opportunity for appeal. As it stands, a lack of resolve has become an embarrassment among the Christian community as well in the eyes of Muslims in need of Christ.
Some may still be having trouble wading through what may seem like cold, legal terminology. Bringing matters of dispute within the church to trial – where elders rule and render verdicts – sounds out of place and unspiritual within mainstream evangelicalism. To the contrary, it is essential to the proper working of the church and the guarding of her purity. Much of the contemporary church is merely out of touch with our history and out of touch with the concept of covenant. Some discomfort felt may simply be the pains of mentally transitioning from a world of inner spiritual piety into the world of the here and now where God works through his representatives to bring about his purpose on the earth.
We should understand that it is not a choice between trial and no trial. In the case of the Caner controversy and many others, it is a case of trial by blog versus using the system outlined by a just God. When we refuse His system of justice we put His ways on trail. For the sake of Christ’s testimony, let us pray for the day when we govern God’s covenant community at a level in which we are not “incompetent to try trivial cases” and in a class that exceeds that of our secular courts.