I’ve Heard LifeWay’s Critics and I’m Not Convinced. Here’s Why.

(Note: this is a post that originally appeared at SBC Voices. I wrote it while in Columbus at the convention and didn't have my laptop with me. Dave Miller was kind enough to post it for me there. You should look there if you want to follow the interaction in the comments section.)

Over the past year, there’s been a small but constant stream of criticism in SBC social media about certain books available in LifeWay stores. A few titles and authors are brought up frequently as evidence that LifeWay leadership must not care about sound doctrine or that they care about money more than biblical faithfulness. I reject those characterizations and you should too.

Everyone agrees there should be a line drawn determining what books LifeWay should sell. The issue for us today is how tightly that line needs to be drawn to our own views, preferences, and opinions.

It would be easy for any theologically aware believer to go into a Christian bookstore and find titles we disagree with. Disagreements would fit a wide range—some big, some small. Some doctrinal, some practical. Some important, some minor. No matter where the line is drawn, people will always be able to find titles that are just inside that boundary line and say, “But why is
this book here? If you cared about truth, certainly this book wouldn’t be on your shelf!”

LifeWay’s critics want Lifeway to function as a theological gatekeeper in a way Southern Baptists have never agreed it should function. Yes, we all agree there are boundary lines. But as someone who considers myself theologically educated and discerning, I am aware that if I personally drew the boundary lines, I would have a tendency to draw them too narrowly and mirroring my own views & preferences. LifeWay’s critics have consistently shown a lack of self-awareness in this area.

Here are a number of problematic assumptions and unwarranted jumps in logic that LifeWay’s critics make. These form the foundation of why I reject their conclusions and their methods.
  1. LifeWay cannot be seen as endorsing the viewpoint or contents of all the books they sell. Two books advocating different viewpoints may sit beside one another on the same shelf. Which is the endorsed LifeWay position? Sometimes stocking a book might mean nothing more than the work is a prominent example of a viewpoint we would disagree with. Let’s take an egregious example. Should LifeWay sell the Book of Mormon? Initially almost everyone would say no. But what about people who are interested in apologetics and studying other religions? Might there not be a place in a Christian bookstore for books that compare the beliefs of different world religions? Along with that copies of the books or writings of those religions? As far as I know LifeWay doesn’t have such a section and doesn’t sell the Book of Mormon. At the end of the day, I think that’s the best decision. But I hope my example goes to show that a product selection policy might (should be) much more than simply agree/disagree.
  2. The fact that I care about sound doctrine does not necessarily mean I only sell books I agree with. Mohler’s theological triage is an important concept here. We have to make decision about what issues are going to be that would cause us to include or exclude certain works. But I think most people who are involved here know that determination shouldn’t be left to the self-appointed theological watchdogs. The people who love patrolling (controlling) what readers have access to are not the ones I want making those kinds of decisions.
  3. It’s not clear to me that LifeWay needs to play the role of arbiter on close calls. What about books that fall on the borderline? A critic may list a book as out of bounds but other theologically educated believers might see it as acceptable. I myself have a category for books that I wouldn’t personally recommend but see no problem with having them available for people who want them. The critics seem to have no such category.
  4. The critics ever-narrowing set of parameters that may never be satisfied. Those who criticize in this area have shown to be implacable. LifeWay has removed a number of books over the years because of concerns expressed through various avenues. One of the critics’ favorite targets was recently removed. I didn’t see a single one of them express appreciation for the decision. It was a battle won (in their own minds, their criticism actually had little, if anything to do with the book’s removal) and they were on to the next title. Their list is long and I’ve seen nothing to make me think they would ever be satisfied. At least nothing short of letting them go through a LifeWay store and overturn book racks of their own choosing.
  5. LifeWay leadership has demonstrated through years of faithful writing & service that they place a high priority on biblical truth & faithfulness. I’m particularly thinking of Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer here, who often bear the brunt of this kind of criticism. (As if their main role is retail product selection anyway.) Both of these guys have served Southern Baptists well and faithfully for years. They’ve stressed the importance of sound doctrine in each of their ministries. A long list of others at LifeWay should be included here too. The idea that the folks at LifeWay are sitting around board tables in Nashville rubbing their hands together and laughing evil laughs at all the money they can make off selling bad theology would be a laughable caracature if it weren’t asserted so regularly by LifeWay’s critics. It doesn’t make sense.
The critics say they’re planning to force LifeWay to address these issues on the floor at this year’s SBC Annual Meeting in Columbus. That’s why I wrote this. Because I have heard them and I disagree—with both the content of their arguments and their strong arm tactics. I’m confident everyone in the convention hall will see through this (threatened) childish tantrum for what it is.

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