The Real Sin of Potiphar’s Wife

The Real Sin of Potiphar’s Wife

Every time a new report emerges of accusations of sexual harassment or assault about or adjacent to a powerful man in a prominent position, the time it takes for his defenders to reference the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as a warning about the reality of women who falsely accuse men of assault can be measured in nanoseconds. 

It’s an infamous chapter in a famous and beloved story. It reads a little bit like an episode in a Shonda Rhimes soapy nighttime drama. So perhaps the reflexive comparison is understandable. But it’s also deeply flawed.

Joseph was, for a time, the Hebrew slave of a prominent Egyptian military officer named Potiphar.  Moses notes that God blessed all of Joseph’s work with success and Potiphar took note of it, putting Joseph in charge of everything in his house (other than the catering) and making Joseph his personal attendant (vs 2-6).  God had apparently blessed Joseph in other ways because Moses writes that he was “handsome and well-built.”(v. 6b) So Potiphar’s wife takes note of him alas well, deciding that she wants him as a personal attendant of a different kind. So Potiphar’s wife propositions him, not once, but repeatedly. And Joseph repeatedly tells her no and tells her why (vs.8-9)

One day when all but Joseph are out of the house, Potiphar’s wife moves from persuasion to coercion, grabbing Joseph by his clothes and ordering him to sleep with her. Joseph runs, leaving only his garment in the woman’s clutches. Potiphar’s wife’s unfulfilled lust is transformed to rage. She uses Joseph’s clothes as circumstantial evidence to bolster the credibility of a story the rest of her household will already be inclined to believe that the foreign slave her husband had bought for the house had tried to rape her the minute she was alone. Her story achieves its purpose, and the enraged Potiphar throws the servant he once trusted into prison.

I can’t think of another Bible story that contemporary conservative Christians with a narrative to maintain about the prevalence of women making false rape accusations prefer to deploy more than this one, even as it’s literally the only one in the entire Bible that they can. There’s a particular irony that the numerous stories of women actually being assaulted in the Bible get so much less attention than the single story of one woman saying she was when she wasn’t.

But beyond the problem of elevating the story of the one over the many, there’s a greater problem with making this story simply about a woman’s false accusation. That interpretation ignores the clear, and clearly emphasized, power imbalance between Joseph and his accuser.

Joseph was probably physically stronger than Potiphar’s wife, but that is the only way in which his power exceeds hers. Joseph is a  slave from a foreign country, bought by Potiphar to serve in Potiphar’s house. Potiphar’s wife is… Potiphar’s wife, so closely attached to Potiphar’s authority that Moses declines to give her a name apart from it. Joseph too also temporarily loses his name, as Potiphar’s wife takes pains to diminish Joseph’s personhood by referring to him only in terms of the parts of his identity that are his greatest liabilities – his ethnicity, and his status as a slave (vs. 13-19).  Neither Joseph’s hard-earned reputation of trustworthiness and faithfulness to his master, nor the fruits of his labors, were sufficient defense against the hateful words of a powerful person wanting to simultaneously hide the sin of her predatory behavior and punish the innocent, powerless one who wouldn’t succumb to it.

The sin of Potiphar’s wife is the sin of any person with power who wields that power for their own selfish purposes – who exploits the vulnerability of those beneath them to both use them and abuse them when their evil desires are denied, and who destroys the lives of the ones they abuse in the name of keeping the sin of that abuse from being exposed.  The suffering of Joseph is the suffering of anyone whose attempts to live with integrity and purpose far above what their position in society might enable, are insufficient to withstand the determination of those above them to use their own position of power to abuse them.

The story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph reminds us that the sinful proclivity of those possessing or even adjacent to power to exploit those without it isn’t bounded by gender. And it points to the time when another man, one to whom all power and authority had been given, set aside that power to become a servant to many, but suffered greatly for it (Phil. 2:7).

Like Joseph, Jesus lived a life of righteous, fruitful service, under the watch of a loving God. But like Joseph, He also suffered the ignominy of punishment based on trumped up charges of sin He had never committed. He atoned for the world of sins committed against the bodies of vulnerable women and men with His own. And He too emerged from darkness into the light of vindication, not just for Himself, but for all those who identify with Him.

The story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph isn’t the story of an ordinary woman falsely accusing a man of assault and not suffering the consequences; it’s the story of a powerful person using her power to exploit someone weaker, and then bearing false witness against them to cause them to suffer even further in the midst of their vulnerability.  

But most importantly, it’s the story of the good news that there is no human power so great that it can ultimately thwart the purposes of an all-powerful and all-loving God.

“But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result ​— ​the survival of many people. “– Genesis 50:19-20 (CSB)

 

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My Evangelical Earthquake

My Evangelical Earthquake

(This is part 2 of reflections on the recent news about my alma mater, The Master’s University. You can read part 1 here.)

Last winter, as part of a family trip to London, we spent an afternoon at the British Natural History Museum. While we were there we encountered an exhibit that replicated what it might have felt like to experience of the 6.9 Kobe earthquake from inside a grocery store. I moved with the throng of other tourists onto the exhibit platform against my better judgment. For most of the crowd, this was going to be little more than an amusement park ride. For me, it would be reliving personal history.  

I was in my final semester of college the morning the Northridge quake literally jolted me awake at 4:45am with tremors so intense my head banged over and over against the headboard of my bed. So when the museum simulation began with its first jolt, the tourists chuckled and squealed, but I fought a full-scale panic attack. When it was over, I had to find a bench to sit on to collect myself.

It was 25 years ago, but the feeling of falling asleep in the safest place you know, only to wake up to pain and chaos, gets into your cellular memory and never leaves.

When I wrote about my journey to and through TMU, I omitted many of the specifics of my upbringing intentionally. The 6th commandment doesn’t come with an expiration date, and the process I’ve followed to try and separate what were objectively influencing factors from my subjective perception of them as a child is still very much in work. It’s sufficient for now to say what I did then –  that the baggage I brought to TMU as a wide-eyed freshman from Australia is precisely what made the Biblical blueprint for life I was taught there so attractive.

It wasn’t that the authority and submission framework was compelling in and of it itself- it was the promise of spiritual and circumstantial safety that came with it that drew me in.

The language of the spiritual danger of the evils of culture and lies of false doctrine spoken at TMU was the language I’d heard spoken all my life. Its familiarity was reassuring. Heresy was everywhere, and falling prey to it was as simple as reading the wrong book or accidentally striking a yoga pose at the gym. So we read books by all the “right” people (heavy emphasis on the Puritans, Calvinists and anything by John MacArthur), and were warned about all the “wrong” ones (secular psychologists, the Charismatics, anything by Beth Moore).  We learned which sociopolitical issues were essential for Christians to care about (abortion, marriage), and which were dangerous (feminism).

But while these outermost walls of spiritual safety were designed to protect our souls from dangerous theology or worldliness, we still needed a working system for living inside them.

That’s where complementarianism came in.

In the complementarian blueprint as I was taught it, men and women were created to function in very distinct, almost oppositional roles. Men lead, women followed. Men were made to crave risk, women security.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 5.35.24 PM.png

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/52-6/parental-pictures-of-spiritual-leadership-part-2

The woman’s domain was the home and child raising, the man’s, everything else. God made male leadership and authority to serve as a protective shield for women, to create an atmosphere where women would be happy, fulfilled and secure.  To live inside this framework was to enjoy safety, stability and the blessing of God; to step outside it was to be in step with the world, the flesh and the devil.

Screen Shot 2018-09-04 at 1.32.54 PM

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/54-17/gods-high-calling-for-women-part-4

I didn’t grow up in this kind of warm, stable environment, and I felt its lack acutely. Moreover, as a young believer, I longed for God’s love and approval more than anything else. And so I built my life according to the blueprint I was taught, at a significant cost that I willingly paid as an act of sacrificial obedience to God, believing that God would bless me.

Eventually, my understanding of the gospel matured so that I came to understand and experience the freedom of knowing that the basis of God’s love for me isn’t my obedience, but Christ’s. And so I began to live more freely, even as the ecosystem of my family’s life operated according to what the complementarianism model taught at TMU and GCC would define as ideal – every aspect of it aligned with doctrinal orthodoxy and overseen by committed Christian men.

Then the tremors began.

It started with the discoveries that the history of my spiritual forefathers I’d been taught had been majorly revised. I’d been taught all about their orthodox doctrine, but next to nothing of their heterodox practices – their advocacy for slavery, their propping up of racial segregation, their passive and active resistance of the Civil Rights movement – all of it in the name of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Then, contemporary spiritual fathers began to be exposed, men in the church whose doctrinally sound teaching had nourished my soul and enriched my faith. Some succumbed to political pragmatism.  Others fell into personal impurity. In one case, the enormity of his sexual sin was so great that its exposure drove him to suicide. Another awaits sentencing after being convicted of two counts of aggravated assault of a minor.

With one story after another, the closely guarded trust I’d placed in these men because of the purported purity of their doctrine was shattered.

Then earlier this year, the greatest tremor of all happened. In the space of a few months, I experienced a collection of trials that intersected every axis of my life at once – relationally, vocationally, financially, and spiritually. So I did what I’d been taught – I took refuge against the spiritual safety walls I’d been told would hold me up. But as I leaned on them, they crumbled into dust.

I sat amongst the dust and the rubble, hurt and disoriented, for a long time.

But for the last several months I’ve been rebuilding the structures of my life with better material, using a very different blueprint – one I’ve been taught by the prophet Jeremiah.

5 This is what the Lord says:

Cursed is the person who trusts in mankind.
He makes human flesh his strength,
and his heart turns from the Lord.
6 He will be like a juniper in the Arabah;
he cannot see when good comes
but dwells in the parched places in the wilderness,
in a salt land where no one lives. — Jeremiah 17:5-6 (CSB)

Jeremiah’s perspective on the consequences of trusting in men is very different than the one I was taught at TMU and Grace Community Church. Jeremiah compares trusting in the strength of human men to being like a juniper bush in a desert wasteland, with no water in sight, and the ground so thick with salt that whatever drops of rain fall from the sky are instantly leached away. Entrusting ourselves to human strength isn’t a path to safety or prosperity; it’s a recipe for disaster.

There was a time when I would have read those words and nodded right along with them.  I would have assumed Jeremiah just meant the unrighteous, the amorphous “pagans” I was taught Christians were so different from.  But I was wrong, and now I know from personal experience how right Jeremiah is.

So do innumerable others.

Over the last five or ten years, an entire cottage industry of websites and social networks has sprung up for people, many of them women but not all, whose stories are like mine in kind, and far, far worse in degree. They built the framework for the Christian life they were promised would be safe, and it collapsed. Even worse, when they asked for help to fix the damage, those called of God to be conduits of care, inflicted more damage by ignoring or dismissing them and denying there was anything to repair.

Crushed by the very infrastructures on which they’d been taught to rely, many are walking away, rebuilding their lives with blueprints of their own design. I’ve never understood that impulse like I do today. But I’m not joining them. Jeremiah’s words remind me that  I’ve got no more ability to cover and provide for myself than anyone else.

But Jesus does.

7 The person who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed.
8 He will be like a tree planted by water:
it sends its roots out toward a stream,
it doesn’t fear when heat comes,
and its foliage remains green.
It will not worry in a year of drought
or cease producing fruit. — Jeremiah 17:7-8 (CSB)

Placing our trust in the LORD, Jeremiah says, is like being tree planted by a river, with roots that reach out into the water to draw from a constant stream of nourishment. The heat of trials can’t hurt us. The drought from a lack of human provision or resources doesn’t frighten us, because the source of our life doesn’t come from them.  

To paraphrase another Rachael, “I don’t trust the church. I trust Christ.”

Trusting in Christ as the source of my life doesn’t mean I’m building a giant bunker around myself, so it’s just me and Jesus. Trusting in Christ means trusting His words about what he’s building and the means he’s employing to build it. I’m still totally committed to my church, and to my family (the rest, to be honest, is still TBD).

Trusting in Christ means I’m not going to be building a giant platform for myself on the wreckage of the church’s wrongs, nor joining forces with those who have. And trusting in Christ means trusting Him for the wisdom to know when to be quiet, like Sarah (1 Pet. 3:6), as I have been for a very long time.

But trusting in Christ also trusting Him for the wisdom to know when to speak up, like Abigail did (1 Sam. 25:24), and Esther (Esther 7:3-4), and the woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8 (Prov. 8:1-8). It means trusting Him with what to say, and, especially, with what happens as a result.

If the Internet seismograph is accurate, the tremors that are shaking American evangelicalism are far from over, and it remains to be seen which structures, which institutions, will survive.

What Jeremiah promises, and what I’m learning afresh, is those who trust in the LORD have nothing to fear. Neither do those whose trust has been in other things – in other men, or in themselves. But that is if, and only if, they repent of their sin, receive the forgiveness that is theirs because of Christ, and commit to dismantling those untrustworthy structures and rebuild new ones on Christ, and Christ alone.

Our Evangelical Authority Crisis

Our Evangelical Authority Crisis
(0/9/18 Editing note: Several friends in academia alerted me to an error I made with the word I chose to describe TMU/S ‘ accreditation status. I used the word “suspended”,  believing it meant “at risk of being revoked if identified issues remain unaddressed”, as that is where things are. The term I should have used is “on probation”.  Both TMU and TMS remain accredited while they are addressing the issues. I’ve updated the post and regret the error. It was not from any intent to mislead or misrepresent the facts in any way.)

The flames over Dr. John MacArthur’s announcing his intention to write about why growing Christian concerns about justice issues are a threat to the gospel were still smoldering when news broke that both The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary (TMU/S) had their accreditations placed on probation last month for administrative infractions (Dr. MacArthur serves as the president of both). Doctor MacArthur famously eschews most things Internet-related personally. But there is an entire cottage industry of websites and online communities dedicated to lionizing him or pillorying him over the things he teaches. Historically, it’s been his teachings – about the Charismatic movement, the Emerging church, complementarianism and most recently social justice – that have been the center of the controversy. Last week’s news about TMU/S was the first controversy that has even come close to involving him personally.

For Dr. MacArthur’s numerous detractors, this moment is the one they’ve been building their Internet platforms for. For his equally numerous and even more passionately committed followers, it’s just another day of Satan doing what Satan does.

But for me, as these overlapping controversies unfold simultaneously, it’s personal. And it’s painful.

Some you know some of the story of my journey to, through and then from TMU and Grace Community Church (GCC). Some of you know a lot more, because we’ve walked portions of it together – whether in person or online.

The Cliff notes version of my story is that I attended TMU (then TMC) from 1990 to 1994, and was a committed member of GCC for all of that time and 5 years after it (until I married and moved to Northern California, where I live today). When I first came to TMU from Australia, I passed for a Christian as only a Reformed Baptist pastor’s daughter could. In reality, I was a committed, albeit closeted, unbeliever, who planned to bide my time at TMU until I could transfer to UCLA to become a psychology major. I didn’t know that my plan to move halfway around the planet to get away from God was really God’s plan for me to run straight into Him. Through a series of providences, I came to be persuaded that God was real. It logically followed that everything the Bible said about Him, myself, and what I must do to be right with Him was true as well. So one night shortly before Easter in 1990, I confessed my sin of unbelief, asked Jesus to save me and committed to following Him for the rest of my life. But it would be over 12 years before I began to understand just what I had actually done (or more importantly, what God had done in me).

The grace of growing up in a home where the Bible was read regularly and deeply revered meant I was blessed to be more familiar with the basics of Biblical doctrine than the average new believer. But I carried some pretty deep wounds from how it had been applied in certain contexts. Now that I was actually a Christian, I was determined to do the Christian life right. And, as I repeatedly heard in TMU chapel and at church, there was no better place on earth to learn how. All that was required was to follow the Biblical blueprint TMU would teach me.

One principle that was essential to this blueprint was the concept of authority and submission. It was “built into every dimension of personality relationships”, and  was characterized by two distinct features:

Authority and submission were absolutes. Christ’s perfect, unqualified submission to His Father as His Son was to be the model for our unqualified submission to human authority. No matter how unrighteous and antithetical to God’s design the earthly authority was, unless directly commanded to disobey God, our call was to be like Jesus and submit to it.

submission

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/1845/

Authority and submission were ontological dimensions of gender. Authority, or leadership, was inherent to being male, while submission was inherent to being female. The justification here was the order of creation in Genesis 2, and the parallels with God the Father and Jesus Christ as his Son in 1 Corinthians 11. Men were inherently called to be leaders, and women were called to submit to them.

(The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on 1 Corinthians, pgs. 253-254)

The picture Dr.MacArthur painted of authority and submission was a study in contrasts: of safety, stability and happiness when it was followed, and sinful, anarchic institutional chaos when it was rejected, like the difference between the nostalgic vision of Thomas Kinkade (whose paintings were notably popular with GCC families) and the dissipated, apocalyptic one of Hieronymous Bosch. Authority and submission was the glue God created to hold the institutions He designed for the flourishing of the world – the church, the family and the government – intact. Without them, chaos would reign.

I was drawn to this blueprint for happiness, especially its promise of blessing and affirmation from God. I had often struggled as a child to believe that God loved me or was pleased with me. I was ready to sign on for any system that a path to God’s approval. So the early years of my Christian life were built to its exacting specifications – through college, in post-graduate life as a reluctant career woman, and (finally) marriage and motherhood to 3 daughters in 5 years. And it was the circumstantial and spiritual burdens of early mothering that finally sent the whole edifice crumbling to dust. But then God stepped in, clearing away the rubble and helped me rebuild my theology on a more solid foundation. To borrow Brennan Manning’s quote of Lloyd Ogilvie, my life changed from living to earn God’s love, to living because, in Christ, I already possessed it.

Over the next several years, I went on a kind of Bible study pilgrimage, to understand what it meant to be a restored bearer of God’s image through Christ, not just as a person, but as a woman. That pilgrimage inevitably lead back to this issue of authority and submission and what the whole Bible really taught about it.  The answers I found in the Scriptures were far different than what I’d been lead to believe.

Without question, the theme of authority and submission does appear constantly throughout Scripture. But the depictions of human authority and human submission are hardly ones of absolutes.

The Bible regularly positively depicts men and women who resist human authority, in word and deed:

The Bible positively depicts those with authority submitting to people under them, in word and deed:

The Bible positively depicts women speaking with authority. It affirms the men and women who listen to them, while the ones who do not become object lessons:

The Bible even negatively depicts women who submit to their husband’s authority absolutely:

All of these stories find their culmination in Christ, who, while he was still a child under Jewish law, reminded his mother that his ultimate authority was his Heavenly Father, not his earthly parents (Luke 2:41-50). Throughout His ministry, he regularly exposed and refuted the extra-biblical authority of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-14). And on one memorable occasion, he took a whip to Temple employees and property (John 2:13-17) to make his point.

To be clear, the Bible clearly teaches that resistance to unrighteous authority is no more of an absolute in the Christian life than submission is. Peter uses Sarah as an example of someone who submits to her husband even when he is not exercising his authority rightly (1 Peter 3:5-6). And again, the ultimate example is Jesus, who for the joy set before Him didn’t despise the shame of being put to death on trumped up charges of blasphemy because a weak-willed Pilate capitulated to an angry mob (Hebrews 12:2).

The thread that ties the theme of authority and submission together in the Bible is not absolutism. It is the supremacy of God over all things, including human authority. Where human authority is shaped and exercised like God’s, we rightly obey it. When it is not, and as God gives us the means and the opportunity, we work to resist it in God’s name so that its shape matches His. When the opportunity doesn’t come, or those in authority resist us in return, we submit, not just to unrighteous authority, but also to the One who judges rightly, for God to do what He wills in His time.

Over and over again, the Bible shows that submission to God’s authority can include humble, faith-filled resistance to human authority, when it is not being exercised like God. It is not a resistance that is rebelling against God, but serves as an appeal to those in authority of the danger of God’s judgment for their own rebellion against Him in not exercising their authority righteously.

The more settled my convictions became, the more I wanted to understand the theological foundations of Dr. MacArthur’s views. That study sent me down two connected, but distinct paths.

The Eternal Subordination of the Son

One of Doctor MacArthur’s notable qualities is the constancy of his convictions. Said differently, he rarely changes his position on anything. On the occasion of the one notable time he did change his mind, he wrote about it here.

Dr. MacArthur once believed that Jesus was not eternally God’s Son, but that he became God’s Son through the incarnation. In this article published in JBMW in 2001, he explains how he came to change his mind, and to believe that Jesus’s “sonship” is eternal. Elsewhere, he describes the nature of Jesus’ sonship as eternally obedient, or submissive. Consequently, through Jesus’ relationship with His father as a Son, He is eternally submissive or subordinate to His Father.

ChildWhowasGod

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/42-34/the-amazing-child-who-was-god-part-3

This argument will be familiar to those who followed the Internet debate several years ago over the doctrine described variously as ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son), EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination), or ERAS (Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission).  The controversy ignited partly because a group of Reformed women writers, including myself, had traced varying threads of problematic teaching in women’s’ Bible study materials back to this same place.  It’s a position held by other conservative theologians, such as Wayne Grudem. It’s also a position many other conservative theologians argue is unorthodox, outside the bounds of the Nicene Creed.

Authority and Submission as Gendered

Dr. MacArthur’s remarks at the GTY blog were far from the first time he has used Roman 13 as the textual lens through which to view contemporary issues related to civil authority.

Romans 13 was the leading passage for a sermon he preached at a special Sunday morning service to honor the LAPD in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter activism in 2015.

It was a featured passage (alongside 1 Peter 3) in a sermon series he preached after the LA riots in 1992.

It was the leading passage in a sermon he preached in the aftermath of the LAPD’s aggressive arrests of pro-life protestors in 1985.

Modern English translations take two approaches to interpreting the article that modifies “authority” in Romans 13: 4. The NKJV uses “he”, as does the ESV. But the NASB uses “it”, and so does the CSB. It’s a distinction with a difference worth considering.

Rom13-4
Over the years, Dr. MacArthur has read this verse from both translations. But when he expounds on it, he invariably equates authority with the people – the men – possessing it.

LAPD1

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-162/obeying-civil-authorities

LAPD2

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-419/how-god-restrains-evil-in-the-world

The belief that authority is ontologically attached to personhood, particularly manhood, will shape the way you view any number of issues our country is focused on today – domestic abuse, clerical abuse, police brutality, and civil disobedience.

It will shape the way you interpret America’s troubling legacy of slavery and segregation, its lingering effects, and the Protestant church’s passive complicity and active participation in it.

It will justify telling a sanctuary full of police officers on a Sunday morning that they’re ministers of God, without telling them that they’re also sinners who rebel against God’s authority, especially when they abuse their authority or knowingly cover up its abuse by others. It will have them leave the service ignorant of their accountability and culpability, instead of convicted and driven to repentance and restoration through Christ, the one to whom all authority has been given by His Father.

Now, Dr. MacArthur’s arguments about absolute authority and submission are being put to the ultimate test, as the two institutions he leads are themselves accused of not submitting to civil authorities. The charges vary in type and in degree, but their unifying theme is that the leadership of TMU and TMS has repeatedly chosen to do or not do things required by federal law for them to be fully accredited. Ironically, many of the requirements in question are designed to properly contain authority and ensure that it is properly distributed and not misused. These are the issues they must address and make right to have their accreditation restored.

It remains to be seen Dr. MacArthur and the administration of TMU/S will submit to these mandates – whether they will recognize the damage this belief in absolute authority and submission has done to their institutions, let alone the hundreds and even thousands of men and women who have served and been taught in them.

The damage is not just from the doctrine itself. It’s the way Dr. MacArthur is drawing a line from this doctrine to differing Christian perspectives about how to faithfully pursue justice like Christ, and calling those perspectives a danger to the gospel. It implies that pastors who are attempting to faithfully shepherd their congregations to better align their understanding of justice with Christ are somehow going “off message”. It implies that church members who humbly raise these issues with their elders and pastors or other church members are somehow sowing division, instead of pursuing greater faithfulness to Christ.

I have watched over the last several years as the different branches of my spiritual family – my GCC family, my TMU family, my local church family, my Christian Internet family – are not just growing apart from each other, but growing antagonistic and suspicious of one another’s fidelity to the gospel.  There is a dividing wall of hostility being built against those who are working to tear it down in the name of the One who put such hostility to death on the cross (Ephesians 2).

What I am thankful for, in the midst of the shame of our factiousness playing out in front of a watching world, it has no power to defeat the actual gospel. As my pastor, Josh Camacho, wrote to me when I wrote to him about all this last week:

“There is no legitimate threat to the gospel, there is no worthy opponent to the gospel; the gospel has outlasted empires, emperors, and will outlast immortal creatures that defy it. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe and it is marching forth to the ends of the earth by the Sovereign will of Christ who is determined to build His church by the regenerating and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel will be fine. We might get ourselves into trouble…but the God who offered His only begotten Son for sinners will not be thrown aside by errant theology.”

And to him and to all of us, I say “Yes and amen.”

Book Review – “Why Can’t We Be Friends”

When I say I’m  “friends” with Aimee Byrd, I should qualify that statement a few different ways. Aimee and I  “met” like so many people do these days, online, some years ago now, connecting over our shared thinking out loud in the blogosphere about the place of women in our collective corner of Reformed Evangelicalism. We have some personal things in common also, which have prompted a few phone conversations as well. But we’ve never met in person, or IRL as the kids say. Not yet, anyway.

But the biggest reason I’d have to qualify the term is because of the most important and essential thing we have in common. We’re both committed Christians. So even though we’ve never met in person, if Aimee ever happened to be in my town and needed anything, she could count on it from me – a meal, a place to stay, a car or an outfit to borrow, even an organ (if I could reasonably spare it and we had compatible blood types). That’s what family does for one another. And in Christ, Aimee is not “just” my friend – she’s my sister.

Not too many Christians would raise an eyebrow too high at my framing our relationship this way because I’m a woman. But if the advance online discussion about her latest book is anything to go by, things might be different if the person writing about their relationship with Aimee his way was a man. That’s the dichotomy Aimee examines in her latest book. 

(Reviewer note – I’m taking the liberty of breaking book review convention and referring to the author by her first name instead of her last name, because see previous paragraphs about our being friends and family. Anything else just feels strange 🙂 )

In her last book, “No Little Women”, Aimee made an appeal for churches to invest more intentionally in the theological equipping of women.   In her latest, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” she tackles a point of contention her previous book raised – a question that resurfaces with every new #ChurchToo story that emerges. What about the moral hazards created by men and women not married to each other spending too much time in each other’s company?  Aimee views this concern as symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of the way God created His people to relate to one another. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” sets out to correct it.

In the first half of the book, Aimee proposes answers to the question posed by the book’s title- reasons she believes Christians are so reticent to believe that true friendship is possible or right between men and women beyond the bonds of marriage. She begins by considering the different voices we are conditioned to listen to – our family’s, worldly culture and the church – arguing that the church’s perspective is inordinately influenced by the world. She then moves on to consider different aspects of our identity as believers – the totality of our humanness, the mission we’re called to, and the role purity plays in our lives as Christians. In the last two chapters, she argues that our confusion comes from a critical misunderstanding of the true nature of friendship, and of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ.

With reasons for the problem defined, in the second half of the book, Aimee sets out to propose the solutions to them, centered around the idea of living as “sacred siblings”. She first considers the passages of Scripture which point to Jesus’ identity as “firstborn among the brethren” – that he is our spiritual elder brother. She then moves on to describe the implications for us as men and women, or brothers and sisters, as a consequence of our identification with Him in that role. In the final chapters of the book, Aimee considers some of the practices that can promote and nourish these kinds of relationships – cultivating the right church environment, promoting holiness, enjoying table fellowship, and celebrating and suffering together. At the very end of the book is an appendix that surveys sibling relationships in Scripture.

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” is replete with ideas and insights into the truly countercultural nature of our collective identity as a spiritual family in Christ that will challenge your thinking, and even stir your soul. Just some of the ones that resonated with most deeply with me included:

  • The numerous ways we have hidden the dramatically countercultural framing of mens and womens roles in the Bible under a stifling blanket of stereotypes, even as the New Testament repeatedly challenges them (pgs. 41-45)
  • The irony of early church Christians being judged for the perceived excess in their love for one another, while today we are judged for our inordinate reticence (pgs.111-112)
  • The idea of personal purity as an ongoing holistic pursuit of holiness energized by communion with God, not a set of behavioral boundaries we draw around ourselves to promote sexual continence (pgs. 63 and following)
  • The disproportionate weighting of times familial language is employed in the New Testament (amplified by the recently updated Christian Standard Bible, the Bible I’ve adopted as my regular reading Bible and which is referenced throughout the book)
  • The implications of Jesus as our elder brother for our identity as brothers and sisters with Him, and in Him with eachother (pgs. 131 and following)

These two points are the pivotal ones that inform so much of the later chapter regarding how men and women can and should interact in different contexts. They’re the ones that have stuck with me the most, and are the ones that I’ve been referencing in almost every conversation I’ve had about the topic, and about this book since I first read it.

Perhaps there’s no greater proof of their significance and how Aimee unpacks them than in the way they also serve to call out a few of the book’s weaknesses. The greatest is the cover – both the title and the comic-book style graphic that accompanies it. Aimee writes in a serious and thoughtful but still accessible and personable way about the practical implications of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ – a topic that the church seems to be floundering in as much as the world is. We shouldn’t be throwing out the “friends” term altogether, because the Bible doesn’t. But it’s clear from Scripture, and Aimee’s thoughtful handling of the topic, that the leading definer for the relationship between men and the church shouldn’t be “friends”, but “family”.  It’s a term replete with sacred significance. A much more accurate pop song title that would more accurately summarize the book would be the Pointer Sisters’ “We Are Family”. The subtitle borrows from one narrow, albeit controversial aspect of the conversation. Meanwhile,  the graphic resembles a 1970s era cartoon of a guy and girl stealing nervous glances at each other as they sit at a bar – exactly the kind of tortured, risky scenario naysayers on this topic appeal to to disagree.  If this was all simply a cunning strategy to prompt pre-release buzz, it’s certainly worked. But in my opinion, the net effect both trivializes and misrepresents the content, and it’s disappointing.

Followers of a parallel and very related controversy over the Revoice conference for Christians will likely observe another weakness of the book – the lack of surgical carefulness with which certain critical terms are defined and used. Even though there is an entire chapter devoted to defining friendship, it left me with questions that dogged me whenever the word was referenced in the rest of the book. How does the nature of friendship change between those who are in the faith vs. outside it, married vs unmarried? What is the role of attraction in becoming friends and what are the differences between right attraction and wrong? When is attraction sinful and when is it not?  As another reviewer has noted, one key anecdote Aimee describes involving a friend’s lament over a moment of “attraction” to another man that Aimee dismisses will likely be a target of disagreement, simply because she doesn’t really call out the difference between attraction to someone’s good character, and lust or sinful desire. To borrow an overused but still useful word, there are “trigger words” in these conversations, and some more intentional defining and usage of terms would have added clarity, instead of creating confusion or potential controversy.

These two flaws, together with various places where the line of argument was a little circuitous, and some of the topic transitions a little abrupt, all point to what seems to be the general problem of less editorial stewardship than a topic this weighty and challenging clearly deserved. Had the book been more tightly focused, readers would have been better guided through Aimee’s arguments, and better helped to either be persuaded or not.

The net impression I was left with was akin to several experiences I’ve had hiking with my family. I’m far from a natural outdoorswoman, so smooth paths, clear signs and easily spotted landmarks are necessary blessings that keep me upright and moving in the right direction. One memorable trek to a vista we’d heard wonderful things about involved some ambiguous signage, hard to spot landmarks, and a couple of falls that tempted me to give up more than once. But the glorious scenery we encountered when we arrived, not to mention the time spent sitting and talking, made the trek worth it, to the point that we’re planning a return visit. And when we do, we’ll get there much faster and be able to stay and enjoy it longer.

Reading “Why Can’t We Be Friends” felt much the same – it was an occasionally tricky journey that nevertheless yielded great rewards.

The Mike Pence rule being deployed every time a tragic announcement about a Christian leader’s moral failure occurs is proof of why the topic of being spiritual family matters so much. So is the escalating arguments regarding spiritual friendship as it relates to same-sex friendship and attraction. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” is a less than perfect book about an incredibly important topic, with innumerable insights that will change the way you think about all of the Christian men and women in your life, not just the ones in your nuclear family. It will hopefully change the way you see them, and serve them, for the better. That makes it a book that’s eminently worth your time to read and consider.

 

The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

An Atlantic article from over a year ago has been recirculating in the wake of what feels like a Spirit-lead reckoning of the SBC over institutionalized failures to protect and affirm women. The article considers the case of the now departed Wells Fargo CEO’s brazenly un-self-aware congressional testimony about dishonest business practices to ask a prescient question:

“What is it about power that makes powerful people abuse it without seeming to know that they’re abusing it?

As Christians, we know the Sunday School answer – sin – as surely as we know the secular answer – science. Or more specifically – biology. This is the angle the Atlantic article pursues, as it reviews various behavioral and neurological studies that explore the effects of power on the brain and the behavior it drives.

Notable among the results is the observation that one of the most negatively influential consequences of power is the development of what’s described as an “empathy deficit”. As people with power interact with others, those in their charge will “mirror” their attitudes or words (as a way to signal acquiescence), but the people in power will not do the same with their subordinates. This impulse might be rooted in good intentions – a desire to filter what feels like extraneous data to focus on the end goal. But when other people’s feelings or perspectives, particularly differing ones, are put into that “extraneous” data bucket, lack of empathy and awareness ensues. According to the research described in the article, that response is traceable to specific neural pathways that deteriorate over time the longer a power differential persists.

TLDR – Unchecked power can literally damage your brain.

I’m not the biggest fan of  “science proves what the Bible says about X” arguments. Too many Christians have a tendency to embrace the scientific assertions that affirm their beliefs (rock music is demonic) but dismiss the ones that don’t (climate change is a deep state conspiracy). Not to mention – as could be the case here – there’s a swift and predictable rhetorical progression from “power causes brain damage” to “brain damage absolves abusers of authority of accountability for their actions.”

I read several valid objections to the scope of the research, and particularly to the hyperbolic framing of the results as literal “brain damage”. As the article itself goes on to lay out, the “damage” to the brain caused by power isn’t necessarily permanent and is in itself a corollary of the person’s self-awareness of the problem. It can be resisted. And that’s why what really grabbed my attention wasn’t the description of the theoretical causes of the problem, but an anecdote offered as an example of an effective strategy for mitigating it.

On June 29, 1940,  as Hitler and his troops were marching down the streets of Paris, Winston Churchill received a letter from his wife. In the letter, Clementine. Churchill lovingly confronts her Prime Minister for what she has observed, and others have reported to her, concerning his deteriorating attitude towards some of his subordinates. It’s a classic case study in how a leader’s unkind or even abusive behavior demoralizes those in his charge. After Mrs. Churchill clearly and unapologetically exhorts him about his need to change, she wisely concludes with the most compelling of reasons why – that his behavior won’t yield the outcome he desires.

We don’t know what the Prime Minister’s immediate reaction was to his wife’s letter, but we certainly know what Churchill eventually accomplished. And it’s not hard to see the role the loving, yet honest, words of a trusted woman played in helping him do it.

As I read Mrs. Churchill’s letter,  I couldn’t help think of the way her interaction with one of the most powerful men in Britain (who just happened to be her husband) mirrored that of so many women in the Bible with powerful men –

Abigail with King David

The slave girl with Naaman

Esther (and Vashti) with Ahasuerus

Pilate’s wife with Pilate

The women at the resurrection with the apostles

In each incident, a man (or men) in power stands at a fork in the road of redemptive history. The women they encounter give them specific direction about the path they should take. The men who heed their wisdom become woven into the stories of all the others who furthered God’s plan. The men who don’t become commemorative object lessons in folly.

Several months ago, when John Piper was asked about his perspective on the #MeToo movement, he replied that it was the logical consequence of egalitarianism – specifically, the rejection of the notion that men have a particular call to protect women.

Piper described this call as  “…not merely mutual honor; this is a special honor flowing from the stronger to the weaker. This is an honor of a man toward a woman precisely because he’s a man and, in general, men are in the position of physical power and strength over women. God inserts between them in that relationship a special duty, a special responsibility that a man has.”

Piper’s appeal to the power differential between men and women is the one that is commonly deployed in conversations about gender. A man’s physical size and strength is symbolic of greater power, while a women’s smaller size is symbolic of her lesser power. This same argument often extends to men’s larger brain symbolizing greater intellectual power,  or the “power” of reasoning vs. the “weakness” of emotions.

The one time the power differential conversation is reversed is in the area of sexuality. Whenever the conversation focuses on sexual attraction, men are described as inordinately vulnerable, by virtue of their libidos and their positions of power. Only here are women in possession of greater power – in particular, to stumble a man into moral compromise, or to take out a man’s ministry or his livelihood with false accusations.

This is the power differential that drives the Pence rule, that attempts to protect a man from the power of women by limiting his proximity to them.

But what the Biblical stories like David’s and Naaman’s and Pilate’s, and historical anecdotes like Winston Churchill’s, and the stories of the last several years, months and weeks from evangelical institutions teach us,

is that there is a particular masculine vulnerability to power that can be mitigated by the particular power of a woman’s influential wisdom. But the taller and thicker the hedges are against it, the less capacity men will have to receive it, and the more vulnerable they will actually become.

This is a strength worth protecting.

What the Bible repeatedly shows is that man’s particular calling to protect women is not simply because he is stronger, but because he is weaker as well.  He is as in need of a woman’s complementary strength to protect him, as she needs his to protect her.

It is not good for man to be alone.

That Atlantic article concludes on a decidedly pessimistic note – that the “…malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.” From the perspective of secular research studies, that’s certainly true.

I wonder what conclusions the writer might have drawn if he’d also studied the Bible.

Harmful Counsel Harming Women Is A Church Problem (Not Just An SBC Problem)

Harmful Counsel Harming Women Is A Church Problem (Not Just An SBC Problem)

Last month, Rachael Denhollander’s prophetic question about the worth of a little girl’s life brought the topic of institutionally ignored abuse of girls into sharp relief. Now Christians are asking a different version of that question all over again, about girls who grow up to be women who are being severely abused by their husbands,  and go to their pastors for help.

Last week, RNS journalist Jonathan Merritt brought an 18- year old audio file of Paige Patterson comments at a CBMW conference about a woman in an abusive marriage asking him for help, out from the shadowy depths of the Christian watch-blogosphere into the bright light of Twitter. There are transcripts of Patterson’s remarks floating around, but to feel the full impact of Patterson’s recounting of his initial counsel to her, and its aftermath, it’s best to listen – it takes about 5 minutes.

Patterson’s counsel is that the woman should pray by her bedside after her husband goes to sleep, and then to prepare for the possibility that her treatment might get worse. Sure enough, it does, and the woman returns to Dr. Patterson with two black eyes.  The woman asks if the consequences of his counsel make him happy. Patterson replies that it does, because he’s noticed that the man had shown up at church, professing to be repentant.

When I first heard the audio, the only hope I felt was that its relative age meant that since then, Patterson’s happiness had turned deep sorrow over how his counsel enabled the dehumanizing assault of a woman. But later that same day, Merritt tweeted a much more recent piece of video from a conference in which Patterson, from a teaching pulpit, turns Genesis 2:22 into an anecdote involving an attractive teenage girl two boys’ objectifying comments about her, and his blessing their comments by referencing the same Bible verse. (Once again, it’s helpful to watch the segment, although if you have teenage daughters like I do, best to watch/listen where only Jesus hears anything you might say out loud.)

Far from repentance and change, Patterson’s attitudes about women seem to have deteriorated and atrophied in, I believe, a ministerially disqualifying way.

In the week since all this has come to light, a growing chorus of leaders in the SBC has called for Patterson to remove himself from leadership or be removed. So far, Patterson has refused. We don’t know yet whether he will relent, or whether the SBC will do the right thing in removing him themselves. But if either of those scenarios play out, many Christians might be tempted to believe that when Patterson goes, his views will go with him. They will be mistaken.

The tragic fact is, Patterson’s approach to applying Scripture to the subject of divorce is one that leaders in other, equally broad streams of conservative evangelicalism not only use themselves, but proffer as a model for the church as a whole.

Take Heath Lambert, the recent president of the Association of Christian Biblical Counselors.

In a live-streamed Q and A session at the most recent annual ACBC conference for the ACBC, Heath Lambert fielded the kind of hypothetical question Paige Patterson had experienced in real life. What could be done for a woman in an abusive or deeply broken marriage – involving things such as emotional abuse or sexual addiction – where there was not currently physical violence?  Was there any Scriptural justification for a woman in such a marriage to pursue separation, or divorce?

Lambert’s strategy for answering the question is notably similar to Patterson’s.  In Lambert’s case, he employs two separate texts – Mark 10, followed by 1 Peter 3 – to argue that the Bible says “no”.  Once again, it’s best to watch the video to get the full context of Lambert’s remarks. The question begins at 44:58, and the segment lasts about 5 minutes.

In referencing Mark 10, Lambert’s statement that he’ll let Jesus’ words “sink in and go uninterpreted” is unfortunate, because it’s that lack of consideration of context that leads people to believe that Jesus is making some kind of a blanket statement about divorce, rather than a right framing of it for Jesus’ particular audience at that moment.

In Mark 10, the group posing the question to Jesus about the legality of divorce hardly has the welfare of abused women as their leading concern. They are the Pharisees, infamous for making the Old Testament Law a means to their various ends, chief among them playing legal gotcha games to try and challenge Jesus’ expertise in the law. Men in Jesus’ day were, ironically, doing the very thing of which women in abusive situations are often accused – making exaggerated claims about their spouse’s sinful or displeasing behavior as an excuse to abandon her. Moses recognized that divorce was a way of protecting women who would be at risk of worse than mistreatment if hardhearted men were not given the option. And yet those same hardhearted men were using the option to do the very thing Moses was trying to prevent. Jesus knew all of this, like he knew the Pharisees’ hearts, and both schooled them and indicted them in the process.

With 1 Peter 3, Lambert takes even more hermeneutical liberties, asserting that the phrase “even if some do not obey the word” represents a kind of MadLibs “fill in the blank” representation for any kind of sin being committed by any kind of husband (rather than the likely subcategory of an unbelieving husband vs. a professing believer). But in the very same breath, Lambert raises the category of physical violence as an exception, without giving any justification for why the exception he chooses is legitimate, but others, including ones Jesus himself names, are not.

Lambert’s counsel terminates at the same place as Patterson’s initial counsel – that a woman is to stay in a marriage where she’s not currently being physically beaten. Unlike the Patterson case, the question posed to Lambert is theoretical. But when we note the fruits of the application of that hypothetical borne with the real woman Paige Patterson counseled and then dismissed with such callous disregard,

I can’t help wondering about women who have come to the pastors and ACBC counselors who sat in that audience, or who were listening to that counsel directly online.

I can’t help thinking of the women and children I know personally, who bear deep mental, spiritual, and even physical scars from the verbal and psychological abuse they have endured.

And I can’t imagine what it would feel like for a woman to hear that her desperate desire to be rescued from such an environment, or to have her children delivered, was really a wrong desire to just feel good. (:49.50)

Given all that’s transpired since then, it’s notably providential that the theme for this year’s ACBC conference is Abuse. Hopefully, the events of this month will have a clarifying effect on the conference agenda. Were Heath Lambert continuing on as president, he might take the opportunity to reconsider the remarks he made at last year’s conference, and state them very differently.

But last month, Lambert announced that he was stepping down from the ACBC to focus on his role as senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, and that a new president will be officially installed at this year’s conference.  The new president is Dale Johnson Jr., who earned his Ph.D in Biblical Counseling just three years ago from the seminary where he currently serves as a department professor – Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary – the seminary whose president is still, as of this writing, Paige Patterson.

This appointment might make the ACBC potentially appear to be positioning itself as the counseling wing of the SBC. But the reach of the ACBC extends far beyond the SBC, into numerous other denominations, and innumerable independent evangelical and Reformed congregations across the country.

That’s why I’m praying that Reformed and independent evangelical pastors and leaders don’t observe what’s being exposed within the SBC and think that this issue is confined there. It’s not. T women in those congregations, just like the women speaking up within the SBC, are praying that this harmful teaching, masked as biblical fidelity and compassionate shepherding, is eradicated, once and for all.

The safety and well-being of women, and children, quite literally depend on it.

Learning From My Black Family

Learning From My Black Family

I was raised in a Christian context that, in the name of vigilance against the dangers of revisionist history, actively taught it. I grew up believing that the Puritans were the pinnacle of American Christian orthodoxy and that Martin Luther King Jr. was little more than an adulterous heretic. I was taught that majority black churches were corrupted by the prosperity gospel, irreverent worship, and too many women in leadership.

Which is why, this week, as we’ve been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, I’m celebrating the irony of God’s mercy in using two African American hip-hop artists I’ve never met to expose my inherited ignorance, and lead me into what will be a lifelong process of repentance and relearning.

I don’t remember when or how I first heard of Shai Linne, only how it felt the first time I heard his music.  Like a lot of young, restless, and Reformed Bible college grad types, I had long ago set aside the childish things of CCM radio and fed my soul a steady diet of the Gettys and Sovereign Grace music. But what Shai Linne had created seemed to defy categorization.

Before the album “The Atonement,” all I knew of rap and hip-hop was the glorification of violence and misogyny. Shai Linne’s music was different. His lyrics were theologically solid and rich as the Westminster Catechism. But it was the lyrical approach – the discipline of the syntax, the creativity, the turns of phrases so tight that the only other artists I could compare it to were dead white men like Shakespeare and Donne – that gripped my soul. It was poetic, prophetic gospel preaching, creatively wrapped in the rhythms of rap. I remember the day I listened to “Mission Accomplished” as I folded laundry, and felt all the questions I’d ever had about limited / particular atonement finally fall into place. One three-and-a-half minute song settled what four years of Bible college had not. I was hooked.

Not long after, I learned about another artist named Propaganda. I read that he wrote in the spirit of Shai Linne, so I downloaded his album “Excellent” the day it released. As the kids say, I wasn’t ready.

“Excellent” was broader in scope than “The Atonement,” but every bit as gripping. This time, I was chopping vegetables for dinner as I listened. Suddenly, the lyrics of one track gutted my Reformed Baptist American sensibilities with such surgical precision that I had to set down my vegetable knife and click “rewind,”  just to make sure I understood what I was hearing.

“How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them
In the Valley of Vision
Didn’t compel them to knock on they neighbor’s door
And say “you can’t own people!”
Your precious Puritans were not perfect
You romanticize them as if they were inerrant
As if the skeletons in they closet was pardoned due to they hard work and tobacco growth
As if abolitionists were not racists and just pro-union
As if God only spoke to white boys with epic beards
You know Jesus didn’t really look like them paintings
That was just Michaelangelo’s boyfriend
Your precious Puritans
Oh they got it but they don’t get it
There’s not one generation of believers
That has figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action
Don’t pedestal these people.
Your precious Puritans’ partners purchased people.

Why would you quote them?”

(Click here to listen to the whole song-it’s well worth your time)


The forcefulness and eloquence with which Propaganda called out the heroes of my faith sent me on a hunt for answers the minute the dinner dishes were dry. I combed the stacks of the church history section of the combined library of my Multnomah Bible College-graduate husband and my Master’s University-graduate self. My search yielded few and incomplete answers.  So I took to the Internet. There I found various Reformed theologians and bloggers, equally gripped by “Precious Puritans,” discussing the historical veracity of Propaganda’s claims, and arguing charitably over the different ways they could be viewed.

None of Propaganda’s detractors denied the substance of his argument – that many of the Puritans and later Reformed theologians I had been taught to revere had been slave owners, and/or slavery and segregation apologists. The allegations were, in truth, facts – facts I had never been taught.

But as shocking as these facts were to learn, what gutted me was that the main line of defense was not denial, but compartmentalization. Sure, the argument went, the Puritans had owned slaves and propped up the institution of chattel slavery, but that shouldn’t overshadow all the good things they did.

Propaganda had marched uninvited into the institutional halls of Reformed evangelicalism and ripped the closet door off its hinges, causing the rotting corpse that had been hidden inside it for centuries to come tumbling out onto the floor. And the strongest response his detractors could muster, as they shoved the corpse back into the closet and forced the door closed, was to keep waving their hands at all the pretty art on the walls.

The abruptness with which I learned these inconvenient facts about the Puritans didn’t shake my faith in their, and my, God. But it forever shattered my belief that the Puritans had a lock on what practical faithfulness to Him looks like. Not only that, it moved me to consider whether, and how, the Reformed Baptist tradition which held them in such unqualified high esteem might suffer from the same moral blindness. Most importantly, and most painfully, it made it necessary to consider how much of the same unchecked blindness – that sin,  had found its way into my own soul.

It didn’t take long to see it in my first thoughts about artists like Shai Linne and Propaganda.

One of the tenets of Reformed Baptist identity I had been taught to embrace was the importance of exercising discernment about our spiritual influencers – the pastors or theologians we listened to and learned from, the books we read, etc. (This was doubly emphasized to Reformed Baptist women, what with us being the gender of the more easily deceived and all.)

Of paramount importance was the depth and purity of someone’s theological orthodoxy – their Five Solas bona fides. But of nearly equal importance was how that theology was packaged. With what denomination was someone affiliated, and how theologically orthodox was their church? How closely did they follow the regulative principle of worship? What kind of clothes did they wear? What kind of tone did they employ, in their writing, their speaking, even their singing? With which contemporary cultural issues did their theology rightly intersect (e.g. marriage, abortion, taxes), and from which ones was it kept rightly separate (e.g. poverty, race relations, the environment)?

In other words, while the content of someone’s message was paramount, if the packaging wasn’t wrapped in the right way, or didn’t have the right pattern, the contents were necessarily suspect. And if the right packaging only came in certain colors, well, packaging in any colors other than those was necessarily suspect as well. Conversely, if the packaging was the right pattern and color, that automatically signaled that the contents were right – no need to look inside too closely to check.

Thus, what I saw modeled and was taught to believe, was that my default posture towards any white Reformed Christian teachers (and their Puritan forebears) should be unquestioning trust. But my default posture towards even self-professing Reformed Christians of any other ethnicity should be skepticism, until and unless they conformed to all the prescriptive cultural norms and biases of my tradition.

I could be challenged and convicted by white Reformed Christian leaders because they were inside the permissible circle of trust. But because my default posture toward non-white Reformed Christian leaders was skepticism or uncertainty, it was easy to dismiss anything they said that was challenging or convicting as proof that they weren’t sufficiently worthy of trust or attention.

When I first listened to Shai Linne, I did so from a default position of skepticism and mistrust. How could someone who sounded like him, who looked like him, pass the orthodoxy test? But the words he spoke, and the skill with which he wielded them, schooled my ignorance and exposed my prejudice for the sin that it was.

And the sting of this rebuke prepared me for the next one, courtesy of the pen and the voice of Propaganda, an African American brother in Christ who would have been viewed with suspicion at any church I’d ever attended up to that point, just because of how he looked, let alone because of what he had to say.

And from that day to this, I’ve been repentantly listening and learning from him, and many other godly African American family like him.

This week, the fruit of that repentance has looked like listening to the speakers at the MLK50 Conference. As I’ve listened, one part of me has been thinking about the future – about what God has yet to teach me about how He wants me to think, and especially do, differently in my own church context. Another part of me has been thinking about the past – how the old me would have responded to what I was hearing, and how the people I was taught to view with such mistrust and Pharisaical disdain, are the people who I count as valuable teachers, as family, today.

I saw a lot of stiffnecked disdain and self-righteousness circulating on social media yesterday – an experience that produced a simultaneous mix of sorrow and thankfulness in my heart. The old me would probably have been an enthusiastic contributor to it. But because of God’s work in my heart through the faithful witness of two gifted African American brothers, I wasn’t.  And I’m grieved over those who were.

I can, and do, pray for God to do the same kind of work in my white family He did in me, however He chooses to do it – whether through the words of faithful black brothers like Shai Linne and Propaganda, or the less eloquent words of their grateful white sister, Rachael.