Dear Phil Johnson, About Your Response to Thabiti…

On February 11 and in response to Thabiti Anyabwile’s recent Twitter activity, Phil Johnson, the Executive Director of Grace to You, John MacArthur’s resource and media center, tweeted:

Sound biblical counsel from Thabiti 2010 for any pastor tempted to campaign for the movement:


This is what followed the tweet:

Thabiti’s first TGC response to Phil’s Tweet.

Phil’s response to Thabitit’s TGC post.

Thabiti’s final comments to set the record straight on his convictions.

I’ve been very disturbed lately over Phil Johnson’s initial comments concerning Thabiti Anyabwile, and especially his response to Thabiti’s TGC article. This is not an attempt to fan the flames of discord amongst brothers, but an exercise in thinking aloud about why Phil’s comments and response bothered me so much.

Dear Phil Johnson,

My earliest memories of you are quite fond. As a young, restless, and Reformed college student, I remember receiving free sermons in the mail from Grace Life and following your expositions closely as I washed the dishes at home or went for long drives on the 5 Freeway in Southern California. I was and am thankful for your ministry.

However, it is with much concern that I read your original comments regarding our brother Thabiti Anyabwile’s identity and motives (“an agitator for the radical left-wing #BlackLivesMatter movement”). I want to commend you for editing your word choice out of what I presume to be love and sensitivity toward your brother. Admittedly, I think your new softened description of Thabiti is still unfair, but I’ll leave that alone for now. My greater concern has to do with your response to Thabiti’s post on The Gospel Coalition regarding your original comments about him.

In complete honesty, I was irritated by your original comments about Thabiti and even more upset by your response to Thabiti’s corresponding blog post. However, I trust that you love Christ and Christ’s people, so I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt and ask you an honest question or two or three…or nine.

1. Was there no better way to communicate your growing concern about Thabiti’s ministry?

Instead of assuming that he had actually become an “agitator for the radical left-wing #BlackLivesMatter movement,” couldn’t you have posted something like: “I’m having trouble reconciling my personal understanding of Thabiti’s ministry emphases these days with how I perceived his ministry when he preached at T4G in 2010?” Was it necessary to assume so much more of your brother?

2. Was it merely a poke?

You wrote: “I do sincerely love Thabiti Anyabwile, and after I poked at him in a Tweet.” I’m not quite sure how you personally define a poke, but to insinuate that a brother in Christ and fellow minister has begun to take a less “biblical” and “gospel-centered” approach to ministry and that he has gone astray from his previously correct self seems like more than just a poke, doesn’t it? More importantly, do you think your words were received as a mere poke?

3. In point 1, when you spent a paragraph playfully clarifying that you were not a doctor, nor a veterinarian, nor had you ever swept the floor at CVS, nor were you connected with “Dr. Phil,” may I just ask: Why did you begin your response in the way you did? 

I can’t say that I know what your relationship is like with Thabiti. I can’t say whether or not Thabiti appreciated your first point, but may I just say, as an outsider, that beginning your response in such a manner seemed like you were trivializing Thabiti’s points? Are you confident that Thabiti appreciated your opening remarks?

4. In point five, you wrote, “the impression to many who follow your Twitter feed that you are now stumping for Bernie Sanders. (Apologies to anyone who may think the verb “stump” is a microaggression against amputees. I don’t mean it that way.)

It seemed like you were making a joke about people’s oversensitivity to a variety of words. May I just ask whether your comment about the word “stump” was an attempt at humor or out of a legitimate concern for amputees? I understand that political correctness must have some limits, but do you think that the harm done by political incorrectness is completely trivial? If you were making a joke about the difficulties of political correctness, can you see how dismissive such a joke might appear to real people who have real struggles because they do not enjoy the real white privilege that you enjoy?

5. In point five, you also wrote, “Anyway, if certain black leaders have commonly been labeled “agitators,” I suspect it has rather more to do with their political opinions than with their race.”

Your statement seems to imply that if the black people had just believed differently about politics, they would have been spared the label. It’s analogous to saying that the the high proportion of black men in prison is not at all an issue of racial injustice, but if they just behaved differently they would be free. Do you really think that it has “rather more” to do with their political opinions than their challenge to the white-privileged status quo? Is it really inconceivable to you that people who enjoy places of power and dominance because of their race might uncritically deem those who challenge their power and dominance as “agitators” apart from their political opinions? Can you see how your suspicion that the label “agitator” has more to do with political opinions than it does with race might itself betray your white privilege? White privilege has historically meant that the majority of whites have been judged on account of their ideas, opinions, and actions mostly apart from their skin color. Do you really believe that this has been the case in history for the majority of blacks who were labeled as “agitators?”

6. Regarding point seven: Will you concede that to affirm #BlackLivesMatter can be a biblical and a contextual expression of Christian righteousness?

Truth is never separate from its practical application and embodiment. Though not absolutely relative, truth and its communication are highly contextual. That is why saying #AllLivesMatter can possibly be the wrong thing to say in a particular context. Do you understand the rhetorical power of affirming one perspective in a particular context? Will you join me today in publicly and contextually affirming that #BlackLivesMatter in support of the suffering black community, while I also pray for law enforcement like your son in the spirit of #BlueLivesMatter? Can we affirm both in a contextually sensitive way, and can we interpret our brother, Thabiti, in a contextual way as well?

7. Regarding point ten: Is it possible that instead of a shift in Thabiti’s thinking from 2010, it was really your initial interpretation of his T4G sermon that was off all along?

Your refusal to believe Thabiti when he claims to be the same guy today as in 2010 strikes me as more of a reader/listener-response approach to interpretation than your normally preferred authorial intent approach. It seems like you are ignoring Thabiti’s clarification of his own intentions in favor of your own interpretation of what he said in 2010 and what he says today. Could it be that you only heard what you wanted to hear from Thabiti in 2010? Could it be that you misunderstood his emphasis in one particular sermon in 2010 to be something that necessarily excludes all the other legitimately biblical concerns that he has? Could it be that you are guilty of eisegeting your brother?

8. Your use of the term “Mission Drift”: If the mission of the church is to make disciples, does that necessarily preclude the prophetic affirmation of social justice?

Can we make disciples without teaching them to do everything that Jesus commanded them as participants in his kingdom of righteousness? Is it possible that you have over-spiritualized the imperative of making disciples? Do you understand the already-not-yet nature of Christ’s kingdom and new creation, and how it might relate to the church’s mission? Is there no kingdom benefit that the people of God might enjoy today, even if only as pictures of the coming glory? Can we so simplistically separate the  “the salt of the earth’s” cultural engagement from the church’s mission?

9. Was your response to Thabiti truly out of loving clarification or was it dismissive and a self-righteous and uncritical attempt at self-defense?

I don’t know your heart, and pray it was the former. As your brother in Christ, may I just let you know that it didn’t appear to be the former. Did you feel attacked by Thabiti? Can you see how your response seems to dismiss the real concerns of the black community, and specifically your own beloved black brother, who has a son as well? Although you said that you loved Thabiti in your response, do you think that love was communicated to him in that teampyro blog post?

I love you, brother, but I just wish I could be more confident that you loved your brother, Thabiti.

Grace and peace,


Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

7 thoughts on “Dear Phil Johnson, About Your Response to Thabiti…

    • April 1, 2016 at 5:52 pm

      And by “their” you mean “one person who is a part of a movement which Thabiti never espoused, but merely noted that has raised some important issues”.

  • February 25, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Wow. Your questions and statements sound condescending, supercilious, & judgmental. Phil’s response was on point. REALLY on point. Are you truly trying to understand or are you just defending someone you admire? You seem to take yourself very seriously. This response is more fitting to be sent to Phil in an e-mail rather than posted on a blog. Bit of an attention seeker, are you? Seems rather gutless to me.

  • February 25, 2016 at 8:58 am

    Andrew, I apologize for the harshness of my previous comment – it was sent before I could change it. That’ll teach me to fill in the e-mail field too early! What I wanted to say to you is that life experience will show you that all the education in the world can’t teach you that God’s way is to make disciples. We can’t do that through marching in causes, joining in the latest campaigns. We have to live God’s word. Jesus never got caught up in political movements, although I’m sure there were plenty at the time (down with the Romans!, Jewish lives matter!), but He lived a life of love, He lived a life of purpose, and He was true to His father. No milquetoast kind of stuff, (see the clearing of the money-changers’ tables @ the temple), but He had His eye on the prize. That’s the way we should live too. Our eyes on the prize. Black Lives Matter. Well, it’s a cause. They do matter – and they’ve suffered. But it’s against the scriptures. God says ALL lives matter. We need to ensure that as believers, we’re living with our eyes on what matters. And these silly in-fights are detracting from Jesus. Celebrity Pastors who advance their position by aligning with one cause or another will answer for it @ the throne. Not my issue. Or yours. You need to stay out of the fight. Concentrate on school, get some practical, feet-on-the street experience, and put your training to some good use. Again, my apologies, and thanks for the listen. BTW, I have all the right in the world to say this about BLM. White woman, Asian husband, 1 bio son, 1 black daughter. Many black friends. 😉

    • February 25, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      Dear Cindy,

      Apology accepted. I completely forgive you and have noted your concerns and advice. Unfortunately, I still pretty strongly disagree with much of what you’ve stated. I’m not sure if you intended to engage in constructive dialogue with me, so I’ll leave it at that. If, however, you are interested in open conversation and hearing more of our thoughts and perspectives, then leave another comment below or feel free to email us more privately at ReformedMargins[at]

      in Christ,

  • March 17, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Thanks man. I had some of the same take away you did. I don’t feel so alone. Glad Tim is beginning to say hummmm. I think it will make a big difference.

  • Pingback:To the Reformed World: Minorities are here to Stay - Reformed Margins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.