The “Bitter Card” & Hebrews 12:15, Part One

Sigh.

After 22 years of interaction with this group, I should get used to it. The “Bitter Card” has trump power. Pop that baby out and you can dismiss the criticism. It’s played this way: person A has a grievance that he/she does not feel is being understood. Eventually Person A vents too often, too emotionally, or even sinfully, or gets too close to unsettling the happy delusion of the establishment and consequently in danger of getting too much influence. At this point, play the “Bitter Card.” This puts them on the defensive and in the minds of the clueless guts their argument, plus it has the added benefit in that you can say that their defensiveness is proof of the truth of your claim. Often people who play the “Bitter Card” employ Hebrews 12:15 and warn that the bitterness could result in the defilement of many.

So, let me explain. Biblically. 

It is fundamentalists, not the disgruntled, who have psychologized the definition of bitterness, rather than understanding it theologically. The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 could more aptly be applied to the scourge of immorality and the abuses than to the wounded, spiteful, angry, and sometimes over-the-top venting of those who have been “defiled” by it. In other words, friends, the disgruntled are more likely the “many” who have been defiled by the “root of bitterness” in IFB than bitter souls who ought to be dismissed for having a bad attitude.

It is the root of bitterness, not bitterness that defiles. But that may be stretching it too much. At the very least, “root of bitterness” ought to be understood as an evil core, a wickedness that cannot be more darkly described than using the words from the Pentateuch. It is the essence of a person who, though in the fellowship of believers by association, has “failed the grace of God” and is not even a saved person. That wickedness, a wickedness that could manifest itself in all sorts of ways (i.e. child molestation) ultimately springs up and defiles many of the people within the fellowship of believers. That the writer of Hebrews thinks such a person is an unsaved person seems clear by his use of Esau seeking repentance even with tears but not able to find it.

It is also worth noting that Esau’s abominable sin was to scorn the covenanted people of God and the God of the covenant by caving to his appetite for a quick gratification. How similar to a man who is a professed member of God’s covenanted people and yet uses a child of that covenanted people for a quick mess of pottage. He himself is the bitter root. And many, sometimes thousands, are defiled one way or another.

The Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the need to be vigilant over the community of believers. Hebrews 3:12 calls for community vigilance. And, when sin occurs, there ought to be a godly purging. The scandal at Trinity that many people seem to be attempting to ignore is that the root of bitterness was retained and those who were defiled by it were sent away. Furthermore, there is a pattern of similar treatment of those who have been defiled in other churches of like faith (IFB).

With the rise of the internet victims that have similar backgrounds have been empowered by community. Some of them are very angry. Some are just as unreasonable to debate with as the IFB that they hate. Some are victim vultures that dig for any dirt they can find and swoop down on a victim to use as a cause célèbre in their propaganda war. Some show a twisted understanding of reality and disingenuous concern for the victim in that they are obviously more concerned about scoring points against one guilty party and not the other. As in Tina Anderson’s case, very early  in the scandal when it first broke I opined that the perpetrators of suffering are more than just Trinity, but the Concord police (if it is actually true that they got a full report). I simply cannot believe that Phelps was trying to hide the victim in Colorado. Even if he was, the police were pretty pathetic, I suggested,  if they couldn’t find her. I was angry, not just at the apparent mess-up of the church, but at the apparent mess-up of the police. Instead of being informed about how my idea might be misguided, I was told I was “just trying to exculpate Phelps.” As soon as I mentioned to a group of angry victim vultures a nuanced idea that suggested more than just their target, I was attacked as if I myself had organized the rape. Whether I was right or not, I still don’t know, but my concern has always been for the victim and the best way to make sure it doesn’t happen again, not merely to score points against the IFB. If the police bumbled, I’m mad at them too. My experience with some of the people involved in this very debacle is that a nuanced disagreement with them results in a categorical “unfriending.” They’re just as closed-minded as the IFB kool-aid drinkers.

In other words, there’s no denying that sometimes victims and their friends and the disgruntled “many” are sometimes sinful. Very sinful.

But, pastorally, it’s just plain stupid to try to control somebody’s speech or the effect of it on others by pulling out the “Bitter Card.” First of all, anger and indignation is not always “bitterness.” Wounds and hurts still felt are not bitterness.

When I was at Northland Baptist Bible College, I was wrongly taught that bitterness is “harbored hurt.”  The idea that you still felt the pain of something ten years later meant that you had “harbored the hurt.” That, we were told, was bitterness. And, “Be careful,” we were warned, “because that root of bitterness will spring up and defile many people.”

To the contrary. The reason there are so many disgruntled and hurt and wounded and angry opponents of IFB or the Church of Jesus Christ at large is because the “root of bitterness” was not vigilantly rooted out. It’s not too much of a stretch, considering the context of Hebrews 12:15, to read into the word “defiled” something more than just a moral defilement but a cultic/ceremonial/communal defilement. In other words, the cultic (and, I mean here “worship”) and communal fellowship among those affected by the “root of bitterness” and the rest of the believers is is severely damaged. That’s why it is a community obligation to “see to it that no one among you fails the grace of God.”

The whole of Hebrews 12 is misapplied if applied exclusively to the individual. The verbs are plural. It is addressed to the community. “Lay aside every weight… and sin” is not just to the individual, but to the community. This explains in part why some were offended that I suggested in the original post that we are being chastised, all of us, and particularly the men highlighted in ABC’s 20/20. I got some heated mail that sarcastically asked me if I had omniscience and thanking me for knowing beyond a shadow of doubt what actually happened. Well, I never claimed that, but I do claim to know how to read Hebrews 12.

The community of faith is, like the Author of our faith, in a conflict with sin. In fact, the writer says exactly this in verse 3: “in your struggle against sin.” Unlike the Author of our faith we have not resisted to the point of “shedding of blood” (a euphemism for death, I believe). This struggle against sin includes our own sin which “clings so closely” (v.1) and, like our Captain’s struggle, “hostility against” us (v. 3). Our own sin has painful consequences and the hostility of sinners against us is also painful. This we are called to endure because it is training (“discipline”).

I was not being a vindictive IFB-hater when I said that Chuck Phelps was being chastised. Read it carefully and you’d see I was including myself as well. The word chastise in this text is used as discipline/train. Sometimes this discipline/training is painful like scourging (v.6, 11). I have personally received all of the unpleasantness of this as a chastisement from the Father who loves me as a son. I’m trying to be trained by it because even though it is painful for the moment, it should yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness “to those who are trained by it” (v.11).

Why would anyone choose not to be trained by it?

Clearly, Brian Fuller is being trained by it and seeing to it that his congregation is trained by it as well. I don’t know many details at all, but he seems to be sending a strong signal that he is being trained by this. And the church as well. Now, proud IFB people may think that I’m insulting Brian when I say this, but I mean exactly the opposite. I myself would hope I could be changed and trained by this conflict with sin that issued from our own body and with sinners, some who are hostile. I am sincere when I say that I think Fuller is showing sonship in all this.

This understanding makes the following verses make sense, especially as it is understood corporately. While too many people in IFB are getting defensive and circling the wagons and trying to point out the excesses of the accusers, instead they should “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed” (v. 12-13). Again, this is all plural and directed to the community of faith. It simply says, “Fix the problem. Straighten the path.”

Commenters on this blog are putting words in my mouth by saying I’m accusing Phelps or IFB of all kinds of things that I have never mentioned. My charge has been very simple and it has been less focused on Phelps than it has been on the whole community of faith that gathers under the flag of IFB. The charge has been that there is an excess of hurt people that are sexually/spiritually/emotionally/physically abused in those circles and it is directly related to ways of thinking that are identifiable in almost all those who call themselves IFB. To generalize is not the same as stereotyping. To say that Americans are generally fat is not to say that since you are an American you are fat. Yes, I have made a generalization but too many commenters are responding like I am stereotyping every fundamentalist.

It flies in the face of reason not to admit that many people have been hurt in IFB circles and it is belligerently ungodly to dismiss it by saying, “Well, everybody is a sinner.” The godly response is to be trained by it and to say, “Let’s lift up the drooping hands and the weak knees.” In other words, let’s strengthen those in our community that are discouraged by sin. Yes, even our sinfulness. Therefore, “let’s make straight paths” and fix the problem so that what is already “lame may not be put out of joint.”

Instead, IFB churches too often (not always and, yes, there are many exceptions), shoot the wounded or tell them to quit “harboring hurt.” The striving for peace of Hebrews 12:14 is not to have a voiceless group of subdued villagers who meekly bow to the elders. The striving for peace in the community of faith is accompanied by a striving for holiness without which no man will see the Lord (v. 14). This is why it is absolutely imperative that the community of faith “see to it” (episkopéō) that no one fails the grace of God and that a root of bitterness springs up and defiles many people.

The word “see to it” is a Greek word that even most laypeople would recognize. It’s a word that is at the root of our word for pastor/overseer. I suppose you could translate 12:15 this way: You all oversee [yourselves] that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. The person who fails to obtain the grace of God becomes a “root of bitterness” that will spring up and defile many.

In today’s context: Vigilantly oversee your community of faith so that no one, though externally part of the community, actually remains outside of the community in faith and thereby his unrestrained sin corrupts and defiles many people. These kinds of people for a single meal (a sexual thrill, a moment of power, a gratifying invitation, a carnal sense of community) will sell out the birthright and, like Esau, find themselves increasingly hostile toward the real community of faith even though they may seek the blessing with tears.

I think that Hebrews 12:18-29 builds on this community idea.

The Hebrews were inclined to think that they needed to protect the visible, tangible, and touchable identifiers of their previous community of faith under the old covenant. Thus, the writer says, “The reason why I have encouraged you to lay aside every weight and sin and vigilantly make sure no one in your community is actually with an unbelieving heart (3:12, 12:15) is because it is the heart, not externals and names and labels, that matter. “You have not come to what may be touched….” (12:18-21). Instead, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:19-24).

In this context. Brother IFB , why are you so stressed about IFB? You have not come to IFB and the tangible, touchable, identifiable ideologies of your sub-cultures. Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to Jesus, to the assembly of the Firstborn, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect in Jesus” and so much more.

This is what we are called to. There is One Church; One Body; One People of God. Why do you invest yourselves, Hebrews, in anxiously clinging to things that were a shadow of things to come? Why do you Brother IFB defend an entire movement as if the apple of God’s eye is being poked when, instead, you will lose nothing if IFB as a label is castigated. It will affect you as little as if PCA was the target of the ABC 20/20. Instead, we have been called to “the things that cannot be shaken.”

I take this as chastisement. I’m feeling it. I’m repenting. I’m involving myself in the ugliness of the discussion, trying to make a difference. I have not said all IFB are equally bad and I resent the brothers who imply that I’m doing it. I’ve been charitable in my analysis of Brian Fuller and, indeed, admiring. That I disagree with some of what he’s said and done is not because I have any intention of bringing down IFB in flames. I’ve only wandered out of the circles reluctantly because the culture of IFB that I am familiar with will not tolerate criticism and will not embrace the clear teaching of Scripture that we are to be separated to God, not to a movement. I’m not a part of an “leavers cult.” Organizationally, I’m a man without a city.

But I have a city. An unshakeable city. And this makes the last part of Hebrews 12 to the community of faith most precious.

“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (12:25). God is speaking. And how is He speaking? Through the chastisement, the theme of this entire chapter. God is actively training/disciplining us. He is particularly training those of us who hail from IFB roots. I include myself in this. Why should we be so foolish not to listen?  “For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.” The writer as already essentially said, “Those who are really His people will most certainly get training.” The implication is obvious: Those who cannot and will not be trained are not really His.

Clearly, for some this seems like a colossal shaking. It’s a prelude, if you will, to the ultimate eschatological shaking, but in the meantime God uses trials (individual and corporate) to give us a felt understanding of how shakeable everything is “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (12:27).

Therefore, “let us be grateful for a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Of course, sin is everywhere. Of course, abuse is everywhere. But we are foolish if we doggedly pretend that there are not identifiable characteristics that make us a “group” and then refuse to amend our ways and address the realities of how we are perceived. Sadly, while many IFB clamor to say that they were mis-represented by ABC 20/20, the show actually portrayed IFB how, not only secularists but many other Christians, perceive them. Instead of loudly arguing about nuanced differences, why not say, “You know, I wasn’t called to a movement that can be tangibly identified and so easily shaken. I was actually called to an unshakeable kingdom. I don’t need to leave my movement, but I need to ‘see to it that no root of bitterness spring up and defile many’ as has clearly happened.”

Quit proving a cultic mentality and start being Christian. Defending what can be so easily shaken is evidence of earthiness. Getting all lawyered up and sealing your lips is ungodly. If it is true that Brian Fuller ignored legal advice to give the interview, it only increases my estimation of his leadership. By doing so, he doesn’t appear to be desperately trying to protect what can be shaken. He shows he’s part of an unshakeable community.

I urge you. Glory in the community of faith that Jesus glories in! Don’t cling to camps. This has been the trajectory of my last 15 years and I love IFB brothers as much as I love other brothers, but it is time to stop accusing critics who have been defiled by sin in your camp of being bitter. The sin that initially made the news is the sin that has defiled many and I have attempted to argue that the sin of sectarianism and exclusiveness contributes to that.  I say it as brother presently feeling the pain of training from our Loving Father in this conflict with sin and hostility from sinners.

More in Part Two.

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18 Responses

  1. I do not own a bookstore, am not a book publisher, and have never met this person in my life. With that being said, this is one of the most tremendous books I’ve read in quite some time. It deals with bitterness, horrible situations, and grace and forgiveness. It’s worth your time to read: The Devil In Pew Number Seven by Alonzo.

  2. Bob, I did not know this and have never heard bitterness explained that way. Yet, this makes the whole passage make so much more sense. Thanks!

  3. I have never heard Hebrews 12 explained this way, and it was very helpful–gave me a lot to think about. Thank you for posting this.

  4. Bob,

    I don’t pretty much agree with your gist (especially the part of long-term pain wrongly being counted as bitterness), but I don’t understand the separating the root of bitterness from bitterness itself. The English construction would seem to be a metaphor (continued in the “springing up” and the implication of fruit (defilement). If that is the case the bitterness is itself the root and its tough to make an x is the root of y case here.

    Does the greek support something else? Could it be translated “bitter root”?

  5. Bob, I’ve been following your posts here, and while they have all be honest, clear, and biblical, this one amounts to a 450-foot grand slam home run. As someone who has both left his fundamentalist baptist upbringing way back in my rear-view mirror (I’m in the PCA), and someone who has also been “de-friended” by the very same people involved in this debacle for even the mildest suggestion that they could possibly be in error on some points (not even points related to sexual abuse), and as someone who’s long since gotten tired of hearing “exegesis” of Hebrews 12 that made no sense, I could not agree more.

    Oh, and as a would-be prosecutor, I agree that while Phelps is, at best, guilty of folly and gross negligence in his duty as a shepherd, if he indeed informed the Concord police, they were every bit as negligent as he was (of course, if he didn’t tell them everything he knew, that’s another matter).

    I suspect you’re getting hate mail from all sides here. That’s probably because you’re right. Keep up the good work.

  6. The Bard is right–when you’re accused of being biased for both sides, that means you’re pretty much right on target. Take it from me, a former reporter. :)

    Thank you for your balanced look at all this.

  7. Excellent post, Bob.

  8. That’s an outstanding post. The only thing I’d add is that Heb 12:9 has nothing whatever to do with anyone feeling bitter about anything. It’s an agricultural metaphor: the root of a plant that produces poisonous fruit being transplanted into God’s vineyard. All it takes to plant a vineyard is a single small length of root with a bit of vine on it (like the one Luke smuggled from America to France in French Kiss, if you’ve seen the moive). All it takes to ruin a church for years is for a bad root (a sensual pagan practice mixed into worship, e.g.) to be brought in and allowed to take over.

    And what could be more poisonous than sexual abuse? It’s the abusers who are bringing in the root of bitterness, not those who feel bitter about it.

  9. Sorry Heb 12:15, obviously.

  10. Well stated. Thanks.

  11. Bob, Thank you for this. I was grieved at how fast I saw the “bitter card” being played. I appreciate your balanced, well thought article. Looking forward to pt 2!

  12. I am seeing a lot of talk about the problems of sexual abuse in the church but not much talk at all about the harsh corporal punishment of infants. I know that most if not all Baptist churches teach corporal punishment how many teach parents to spank babies?

  13. Yes! Great Post!

  14. Bob, I read this again this morning. You nailed it.

    I just recently had the bitter card pulled on me and I was also told I had issues. Immediately after that proclamation, I was summarily “de-friended.” This, by someone I respected for a long time, a pastor I once worked along side of. When I asked what I could possibly be bitter about….silence. No response. I was wrongfully accused of sin by a pastor. I have asked for an apology and am still waiting.

    There is a pattern of assuming evil towards brothers in Christ when we are commanded to assume the opposite. The funny thing about the bitter card that was pulled on me is, I was actually agreeing with what the pastor had posted! Apparently, I didn’t agree with him in just the right way!

    When I first watched the 20/20 program…it made me mad and sick to my stomach. However, almost instantly, I said to myself that is is exactly what the Church needs!

    God is good, faithful, and true and He will work His righteousness into the Church, cleansing her, patiently changing her from glory to glory! I love that!

    All the best,

  15. Thank you. Well said.

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