Are we willing to let those who share our theology, but perhaps not our culture, ask us good questions?
Todd and Erin Harding have attended the G3 Conference together for three of the past four years, and Mr. Harding has attended for four straight years. That streak came to an end after they were absent from the 2020 G3 conference last Thursday. The Hardings announced last month that they had their registration fee refunded and had been informed they are not welcome to attend. The news came from none other than conference director Josh Buice.
This story goes beyond a mere personal squabble between the Hardings and Mr. Buice. In fact, this incident illustrates a growing rift in culture, belief, and behavior between two big tents in American Christianity: those perceived as conservative and those perceived as “woke.” This story is a microcosm of the entrenched attitudes and anger that grip both factions. Amazingly, this story of two mildly Twitter-famous believers who captured the attention of a meager conference director starts with one of the biggest names in our history: John MacArthur.
During the Truth Matters Conference of 2019, in a Q&A session that featured a question about Beth Moore, John MacArthur uttered one of his most famous quotes: “Go home.” MacArthur’s now infamous answer did not sit well with the Hardings, who were in attendance that day. They believe complementarian theology is often abused, used as a cudgel to wear down women who don’t toe the full complementary line, such as those who work outside of the home—who are properly active in their local church—or those who hold secular authority.
The Hardings sympathize with these women and specifically with Beth Moore, calling her a “sister in Christ” and promoting that she is “under authority” in her local church. They see the attacks on Moore and others (including several notable and outspoken women) to be out of line and, at times, sinful. They point to what they term as “trolling” online by those in the conservative Christian world.
The Hardings believe all Christians who read the Bible as John MacArthur or Josh Buice do should be outraged by what the Hardings see as racism, sexism, bigotry, and abusive behavior. Nevertheless, they are often engaged in spats with people who are stalwarts of that particular group. This has put the Hardings in a difficult position. On one hand, they claim many of the same theological beliefs promulgated by G3 Conference keynote speakers. On the other hand, they are decidedly divorced from the culture that surrounds the G3 Conference and those in attendance.
Shortly after the Truth Matters Conference, Erin Harding stumbled across a tweet from a pastor preparing a sermon that featured a quote from Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon urges his audience to see women as an important part of the church, admonishing them not to tell women they have no ministry. (I feel compelled to point out that Spurgeon’s examples within the quote are of a Christian mother and single women in the “family circle” or “domestic service.”) This quote caught Erin’s attention, and she retweeted it, saying that she would buy a T-shirt featuring the quote and would wear it to G3. A friend soon made those T-shirts, sold them (including at least one to Erin), and donated the profits to charity.
Was this a protest? Erin and Todd don’t shy away from that characterization, although they like to think of it as simply wearing a T-shirt. Erin points out that there are (hyperbolically) billions of Spurgeon T-shirts at G3 and that she would just be one in the crowd.
But Josh Buice likely didn’t see it that way. I asked Mr. Buice if there was a specific incident that led to his decision to uninvite the Hardings. He declined to answer. To be fair, I asked during what is likely the busiest week of his year. He did issue a statement calling the dis-invitation “unfortunate” but nonetheless confirmed for me that he made the decision and “stands by it.” I have no way of knowing if the T-shirt motivated his decision. What I do know is it stood out to people who followed the Hardings at the time. I spoke to several of their Twitter followers and asked them to recount Buice’s ban. Every single person mentioned the T-shirt.
Buice sent the Hardings several emails at the time of his decision. He cited several reasons for his decision. None were specific, and some were downright odd. For example, he wrote “As you know, many people who attend the G3 travel very long distances and some bring their children too. Therefore, with other attendees in mind, we are seeking to avoid any issues that might create problems or distractions from our goals at the conference and the experience of other attendees as well.” The Hardings were particularly hurt by what they understood as an implication they were somehow a danger to children. Erin made it a point on her podcast to highlight that they’ve raised six children without any problems and have attended prior G3 conferences without incident including meeting Buice at least once
However, Buice’s other reasons deserve a closer examination. In the same email, Buice cites “online interactions, accusations of me (Buice) and other G3 speakers, as well as your (the Hardings’) positions” as a reason why “it would not be wise” to attend G3. The Hardings push back that even if someone disagrees with the general ideas expressed at G3, it has never been an issue in the past nor a requirement for attendance. It is true there has never been a theological or ideological test of attendees. However, it’s also important to remember that this is a private event, and Buice is within his rights to ban whomever he chooses. Furthermore, it’s easy to see why Buice may feel this the best course of action.
I spoke with people on all sides of these issues who knew both the Hardings and Buice on social media. The Hardings are a polarizing couple. Across the board, people described them generally as pugnacious. It seems they are known for fighting and, as one source termed it, “going after people.” Several people described them as “vocal,” and more than a few were worn out by them. They fully admit to going after people, up to and including an entire podcast on what they term to be a racist tweet by none other than Josh Buice. They admit to walking out of an auxiliary room in disgust during the now infamous MacArthur Q&A at the Truth Matters Conference.
Last Wednesday, they published an entire podcast mostly in anticipation of this article. While they were understandably disappointed and upset over missing G3, they were also at times clearly agitated, defiant, and yes… pugnacious. While the Hardings certainly have their defenders, it’s clear that their pugnacious reputation precedes them, even among those somewhat critical of Buice. Speaking on an assumption of anonymity, one source said “I want to hand slap each side. The Hardings for sometimes being too harsh against the harshness they fight. And G3 for thinking it should police reaction to its conference.”
Without Buice’s further input, it is impossible to say what specifically led to his decision. But it’s not impossible to believe that Buice saw the same things many of my sources saw and simply felt he didn’t want to take the chance that an incident would occur. Buice spoke often of serving his audience and guests at G3. I surveyed a dozen or so attendees to G3, and none were bothered by Buice’s decision. Several remarked that they would have likely made the same decision, and a few even applauded Buice for taking the measures he did. Most believed it likely that Mr. and Mrs. Harding would cause a scene but also expressed sympathy for what the Hardings must feel after being uninvited. Nevertheless, it’s clear: the G3 crowd is on the side of Josh Buice, not Todd and Erin Harding.
However, one other thing emerged from those talks as well: the G3 audience may disagree with the methods the Hardings employ, but they don’t necessarily disagree with the message they bring. In perhaps the most surprising finding of this entire investigation, some G3 attendees told me repeatedly that their issue was HOW the Hardings communicated, not what they communicated. There is a sizable subset that both sympathized with Buice and agreed with the Hardings. I was shocked to find that as annoyed as many were with the Hardings, some G3 attendees I spoke with were almost as annoyed with MacArthur.
They had much to say about how the pithy remark “go home,” and the cheerleading that followed, was unhelpful and inconsiderate of circumstances found in many homes. Some men felt threatened by MacArthur’s words and went on to explain how they had ordered their homes differently than MacArthur’s vision. Some steered away from criticizing MacArthur and instead criticized the culture of modern complementarianism. They pointed out the abuses and overreaches, pompous “macho” attitudes, and a tendency to overlook the place and contributions of women in the church. The Hardings may not be as far away from the G3 crowd as Buice may have believed.
Still, I believe it’s safe to say that most attending G3 shed no tears over the Hardings’ fate. Even so, the G3 crowd is not a collection of sycophants. They were thoughtful, insightful, and at times critical of what they are being taught and what is being promoted. If leaders don’t soon pull back their overreaches, rebuke the zealots, and focus on building up the body, they may find themselves with a smaller conference in the coming years. It seems the Hardings are genuinely on to something, but they have likely squandered their opportunity to spread their insights—at least with those in attendance at G3.
I think it’s likely Buice will find himself in this situation again. With a growing discomfort in the ranks, more gadflies will likely emerge. The growth G3 has experienced—now a major conference on the circuit—makes it more likely that others will rankle the establishment as they raise good questions. Are we willing to let those who share our theology, but perhaps not our culture, ask us good questions?
Gadflies and leaders alike would do well to ask and answer these questions graciously, push buttons reluctantly, and focus on serving others by building them up. If we can learn anything from the Hardings, it should be to convince people in gentleness and love, winning them instead of defeating them. If we can learn anything from Josh Buice, it should be that even those who make us angry sometimes have important insights we do not see. This “unfortunate” incident feels like a mistake for which everyone holds some blame. Let us learn from our mistakes, not repeat them.