Two weeks after the debate between Christian apologist Dr. James White and INC minister Joe Ventilacion, we can still feel the heat of it as discussions spills over the social media about this religious group in the Philippines. In this interview, we will talk to from someone who witnessed the debate first hand. Conley of True Iglesia Ministry will fill us in with the behind the scenes on this Trinity Debate.
By the way, you might want to check my first interview with Bro. Conley about True Iglesia by clicking this link: https://delightinggrace.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/finding-the-true-church-delighting-grace-interviews-conley-of-trueiglesia-org/
Delighting Grace: First off we from the Philippines is quite clueless of this debate. So we want to know how this debate came about?
Bro. Conley: In 2011, the Iglesia Ni Cristo bought the small ghost town of [Scenic, South Dakota]( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scenic,_South_Dakota), about an hour away from [Rapid City]. It was not clear what they intended to do with the town and it remains unclear what their plans are. I’m not convinced they have clear plans; however, they have taken this venture seriously enough to send Joe Ventilacion, their principal debator, to be the resident minister at the closest locale.
As a side note, in the past, Ventilacion has gone by “Jose”, but has recently started going by “Joe”. The whole church seems to be adopting more culturally sensitive branding. In English-speaking regions, I see their banners more frequently have “Church of Christ” on them than they used to.
Continuing on, the [South Dakota Apologetics]( http://sdapologetics.com/) group encountered the INC at a yearly Christian music festival in Rapid City, spoke with them, and quickly discovered that their beliefs were way outside the pale of orthodoxy, especially in regards to the Trinity. They additionally discovered that the INC had been engaging the Native American population in the area, adding confusion about Christianity to the mission field. SD Apologetics asked Ventilacion if he would be willing to debate (he was), and they asked White if he would be willing to come debate (he was). In 2014, my friend Nic (who also works on True Iglesia) and I had asked Dr. White if he would be willing to debate the INC, and at the time, he said no. However, I think the personal appeal about the damage the INC was doing in the region spoke to Dr. White’s heart and he responded.
Delighting Grace: I see. How was the crowd before, during and after the debate? Do you feel some sort of heat in the air or is the room so quite?
Bro. Conley: Before the debate, the INC crowd was somewhat aggressive. Nic and I had banners and tracts that advertised True Iglesia, and this made many of them quite upset. Several came over to us and told us that our tracts were untruthful. We asked what was untruthful, but no on was able to produce a clear answer. One man said that the comic portrays the typical member as never reading the Bible, but he reads the Bible every day. When I asked him what book of the Bible he had been reading lately, he didn’t have an answer.
Several people stole tracts when we weren’t looking. There is a post on FB from an INC member admitting to this. Someone else saw tracts in a trashcan cut up with scissors. Many would come by and take a handful of tracts at a time. We would say “Isa lang po!”, and they might put one back, but they would run away with several.
During the debate, the atmosphere was intense as well. The recording does not pick up too much of it, but the INC audience had some significant responses at various points. In addition to answer the Ventilacion’s questions, they would say “aww” at the end of every cross examination, as though if he had had one more minute, Ventilacion would have been able to defeat White.
After the debate, unfortunately, the INC members seemed to feel that they had won. I spoke with several who said they were very happy with how it went. When I would ask people why they felt it went well, the most common answer I got was “Dr. White was not even able to find the word ‘Trinity’ in the Bible!” Of course, that wasn’t the point of the debate. The word “Bible” is not even in the Bible. I am praying that a few open minded people will have heard the truth despite this tendency of the INC to shut their ears and declare victory.
Delighting Grace: Wow. What was your first impression of JV as the debate begins? How about James White is he tense or relax?
Bro. Conley: I only encountered Dr. White before the debate, not Mr. Ventilacion. White has debated over 150 times, so he was focused, calm, and ready. During White’s opening statement, Ventilacion often made what appeared to be nervous smiles. If you listened to the debate, you will know that in the opening statement, White short-circuited all the arguments that Ventilacion would make. White very clearly said that if the focus was on proving monotheism or that there are distinctions between the Father and the Son, it would show that Ventilacion has no idea what was being discussed. Of course, this was the entirety of Ventilacion’s argument. White said that if John 17:3 were to be brought up, it would show that Ventilacion was not engaging the doctrine of the Trinity. Of course, this is where he immediately went.
Delighting Grace: In one point of the debate, JV told the crowd that INC doesn’t base their doctrine on grammar. Some of us was shocked with that. What’s your reaction with that statement as you sat there?
Bro. Conley: That was a pretty incredible gaff, but I understand what Ventilacion meant. Basically, he is saying that there are concerns to consider in addition to grammar that may require us to have some flexibility with how we read Scripture. However, it really is true that the INC’s presuppositions are so incredibly strong that they are not willing to allow the Bible to speak for itself; they demand what it must say. It is not merely that they have concerns in addition to grammar, but that at many points they are willing to entirely discard with grammar. If we don’t let God speak for himself, all we have are the words of men.
Delighting Grace: Did you get to talk to some INC members in that debate?
Bro. Conley: Yes! Because INC members believe that only a minister can explain the Bible, debates are one of the few times that they open up to discuss their faith. I was very happy for this opportunity.
Most of the members I spoke to were very hostile, especially the older ones. A lot of the conversations I had were similar to the one about Bible reading that I described earlier. Another question I would often ask is “what is the gospel”? I’ve never had an INC member—even an INC minister—provide an answer, so it gives me a good opportunity to explain that the gospel is the good news that even though we are sinners incapable of doing anything that could in any way merit salvation, God sent his Son to die so that those who trust in him alone for their salvation (not the church, not baptism, etc.) can have eternal life.
On the other hand, the younger INC members were very friendly. One commented that she liked my shirt (it has a Filipino flag design). Another discussed Nic’s camera with him. However, only one that I spoke to seemed truly open. He was a teenager who was trying to figure out whether or not he would stay in the INC. I told him an open mind is a good mind. I’ve been praying for him.
Delighting Grace: Will be praying for that teen. What’s your favorite moment of the debate and why?
Bro. Conley: I’d have to say it was the gospel presentations. Not only did White explain why the Trinity is biblical, he explained why it is essential to the gospel. If you don’t have the true Jesus, you do not have a Jesus that saves. If you do not believe that Jesus is the great I AM, you will die in your sins (Joh 8:24).
Other moments include the very memorable “we do not base our doctrine on grammar” gaff, and the discussion about Hebrews 1:10-12. The last time I spoke to you, I had mentioned that I believe this to be the most powerful passage when discussing the deity of Christ with the INC. They have no answer to explain why Jesus is said to be the eternal one who created the heavens and the earth in that passage. They have no scripted response. Ventilacion was unable to do anything except avoid the question.
Delighting Grace: I see that your ministry or website, True Iglesia is there on the location of the debate. Which is cool by the way. So how did you prepare to make your ministry presence be felt by those attending?
Bro. Conley: Nic and I coordinated with SD Apologetics in order to work alongside them as associate members. My wife (who did all the art for the comic) made a couple of banners that we could put up, and she also ordered a batch of printed versions of the comic. Nic and I also recorded [a pre-debate podcast episode]( http://www.regularreformed.com/2017/03/28/episode-40-true-iglesia/) with the Regular Reformed Guys. I was astounded at how many INC members and non-members alike had listened to that episode prior to coming to the debate. A lot of people used it in order to prepare. Even Dr. White said he listened to it multiple times in order to prepare, so I am very thankful to the Regular Reformed Guys for asking us on to their show.
Delighting Grace: Wow that so great! True Iglesia is an awesome website in reaching out INC.Also the social media accounts of True Iglesia is valuable specially during the debate. How did it do in terms views and visitors both website and social media? What are the reactions of the readers and followers of your platforms?
Bro. Conley: The traffic we received wasn’t quite what we had during the INC centennial in 2014, but it has been significant. We are still currently receiving about 8x the traffic that we normally get.
We have received a few encouraging responses from fellow Christians telling us they’ve been blessed by our efforts. From the INC, we are largely getting hostile comments, even several deceitful comments. One group published a fake quote from SD Apologetics conceding victory. Another person posted a picture of White talking to Ventilacion and claimed that Dr. White had decided to convert and wanted to sign up for INC Bible studies.
Delighting Grace: I followed those forgeries over Facebook. How important is this debate for Christians and to INC members?
Bro. Conley: For the Christians around Rapid City, they considered this a very important opportunity to engage with their neighbors whose beliefs they were unaware of. They were all very pleased to meet and speak to INC members.
For the INC, the event seemed to have a far greater importance. The way they brought so many people and hyped up the event, I am under the impression that they are using this event to give their organization some sort of legitimacy. I was told by one member that they had been teaching on the Trinity and talking about the debate for weeks. Given that all their members are required to have regular attendance, and all their worship services have synchronized content, that means that every member was hearing about this. They additionally associate Scenic, SD with some secret plan of God, so they likely see this event as a sign of something to come for that venture.
Delighting Grace: How can a Christian make much of this debate as they study God’s Word and do apologetics?
Bro. Conley: There are several takeaways I would offer:
The gospel is of prime importance when defending the faith. Evangelism cannot be divorced from apologetics.
Truthfulness is key to the Christian walk. Some consider it acceptable to bend the truth when defending the faith, but that gives a bad testimony to Christ. The distinction between White and Ventilacion was clear in this regard. The debate trickery of false dichotomies and interruptions was strong on the INC side.
To those seriously considering apologetics or ministry in general, it is important to know the original languages. They are frequently abused, so it is good to have a firm handle on them.
Beyond this, I imagine many Christian had not heard several of the arguments that Dr. White made. I would recommend going back and walking through them (2Pe 1; Joh 12; Heb 1; Php 2).Delighting Grace: Those takeaways are great. One last question and its a biggie. This is a burning question for us all, do you think their will be a round 2 of the debate?
Bro. Conley: I hope so! The next day after the debate, Dr. White spoke with Mr. Ventilacion, and Ventilacion said that if they would do a debate in San Diego, he could bring 3,000 people. However, it is not a simple task to debate the INC since it is not easy to study the INC. Because their clearest material is only accessible to the ministers, in order to study them, you have to wade through hundreds of magazines and videos, or attend Bible studies in person. That’s the route I took, and it consumed a large portion of my time. Dr. White is a busy man, and he said he would only be willing to consider it if they would let him have a copy of their book titled The Fundamental Beliefs of the Iglesia Ni Cristo. They refused to do so. We can pray that someone would provide him a copy anyway! Maybe we can have an even bigger round 2 then. I’m hoping for a different topic, like whether you need a messenger in order to understand the Bible, whether official church membership is necessary for salvation, or how one can have peace with God. [As of this writing, by God’s grace, South Dakota Apologetics have obtained the said book.]
Delighting Grace: Again thank you Bro. Conley for this interview. So guys check out True Iglesia at www.trueiglesia.org. Read comicbook which is awesome. And oh dont forget to watch the debate by clicking this link: https://youtu.be/ZnElgAnN414