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.”

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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.

Men Need Women’s Words

Men Need Women’s Words

Several weeks ago, a well-intentioned senior writer at Relevant named Tyler Daswick published an article confessing the sin of not reading women writers by describing the six weeks he spent trying to atone for it. It was a valiant attempt, but far better in its intent than in its execution, and he eventually took it down with another apology.

In her characteristically wise yet unflinching fashion, Jen Michel called out Daswick’s ignorance of his ignorance as symptomatic of a wider problem – that in general, Christian men don’t read books by women as often as they should, to their spiritual detriment. Michel offered up a few possible reasons for this – theological frameworks that view women’s voice on a printed page as too close for comfort to their voice from a pulpit, or content that is either too light and fluffy, or too experientially unfamiliar to seem relevant.

Yesterday, Tim Challies, one of the most respected veterans of Christian book review writing, weighed in with his own list of questions behind Michel’s questions, as well as answers. Challies centered the conversation on women writing for women – on the reasons women make that choice and how that might potentially limit a male audience who isn’t comfortable with or interested in parsing books through an exclusively feminine lens.

Hannah Anderson was just one of the women writers who weighed in with a laundry list of influences that shape a woman’s decision to write primarily for other women. What was clear is that some of them are ones a woman author chooses, as a matter of calling; others are not. Often, agents and publisher, driven by firm conviction about “what sells”, push women into Hobbs-ian choices – over topics, over tone, over marketing, and over their target audience.

Publishers know that when it comes to certain kinds of writing, certain kinds of ideas, the general public (meaning men as well as women) is only inclined to buy them when they’re offered by a man.

A casual perusal through the New York Times bestseller list bears this out – at least anecdotally. This week’s nonfiction book list features eight men writing about everything from astrophysics to true crime to Leonardo DaVinci, with only two women – a divinity professor writing about her personal experience fighting late-stage cancer, and a journalist exploring the causes of depression and anxiety. Its monthly list of business best sellers is a clean sweep – ten men writing about everything from mentorship to decision making to success through self-discipline.

Many men express nostalgia about the women who teach them when they’re young – their saintly elementary teachers, their tough but caring high school teachers or even college professors, and of course, their mothers. But if the popular bestseller lists are any indicator, there’s a point when many men ‘s ongoing learning trajectory largely excludes women, other than perhaps those with whom they have personal relationships. Sometimes not even them.

For Christians, this trend reflexively calls to mind Paul’s oft eisegeted words about women being silent in church, and not teaching or holding authority over men. Many will perhaps hear the echoes of the Fall and God’s curse on Adam, who “listened to the voice of His wife”, and root their presumptions and prejudices in the belief that a consequence of the Curse is that the voices of women are necessarily suspect.

I’ve read almost nothing engaging that text in relation to its actual context. When Eve was speaking, she wasn’t speaking to Adam, but to the serpent. She wasn’t speaking God’s words as she’d been given them – she was speaking with her own distorted and dangerous spin. Adam’s sin was in not discerning what was happening and intervening on their behalf. His sin was not in listening to Eve at all, but in listening to her when she didn’t speak the truth.

Her words run counter to the words of the Woman of Wisdom in Proverbs 8.
She takes her stand at the city gates and cries out to women and to men as they pass (8:1-4), beseeching them to listen to her words full of truth, righteousness, and knowledge (6-8).
She speaks the words by which kings rule and princes, nobles and righteous judges lead (15-16).
Made at the beginning of creation, formed before the earth began, she promises blessings for all who keep her ways, and harm if she is missed (32-36).

That kind of speech, idealized by the woman of wisdom, is exemplified by a host of Biblical women like Deborah, Abigail, Ruth, Esther, Hannah, Mary, and the women of the resurrection.

The words the women of the Bible speak aren’t always about comfort or maintaining the status quo – they’re frequently the opposite! But they are wise. And right. And life-giving.

When we step back and look at the Scriptures holistically, suddenly the question of why men don’t read women’s’ words is an actual problem, but an eminently solvable one.

It’s a matter of recognizing that women gifted with words are a positive asset for the entire kingdom of God and the world, not just one half of it.

We need more ways to make that truth a reality.

How Necessary Are Women?

 

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Last week, I caught glimpses of the latest firestorm John Piper ignited over his assertions that women shouldn’t be seminary professors via my iPhone as I sat in the back of a conference room near the Venture Capital district of Palo Alto. I was helping lead a sales training workshop for an up and coming Silicon Valley startup. There were 75 salesmen in the room, and 3 saleswomen.

When I say I was “helping lead” the training, what I mean is that I had written the digital sales playbook that comprised the curriculum, while my partner, a man about ten years my senior, lead the actual training. My partner is brilliant, with decades of experience under his belt. I’m apprenticing with him because I’m a good writer, but I’m a really good teacher, and I know I can make a significant and particular contribution to the companies we serve when I move into that role.

But Piper’s comments, and the dynamics I observed in that room so dominated by male presence, had me wondering whether I’ll ever be at the place where I’ll get the chance to.


I watched the way my partner lead the group through different exercises with great skill, even as occasionally he missed things that I would have handled differently. But then I put myself in his position. I thought about the sum total of all the things I would have to do and say differently from my partner, and *not* do and say differently, to be viewed as someone worthy of learning anything from.

Not because I’m not as experienced as my partner, although that’s true.

But because I’m a woman.

With Dr. Piper’s belief about the invalidity of women as seminary professors in the back of my mind, I found myself meditating, for the gazillionth time, on Genesis 1 and 2. I wasn’t thinking just about the nature of women’s calling – to be necessary allies alongside men in the collective filling and subduing of the world. I was thinking about all the boundaries that get built around that calling, that determine all the ways we’re deemed *un*necessary to a man’s flourishing.

And I found myself asking – just how necessary are women to men, as women?
We’re necessary for shaping men’s bodies, of course.

Every man who has ever walked the earth has spent the first nine months of his earthly existence having his entire physical being, the vehicle in which his mind and soul reside, shaped and nourished by a woman. And usually months and years after that.

And we’re necessary for serving those same bodies after they’re grown. (We hear that way too often, for too many of the wrong reasons, but that’s a post for another day.)

But while we’re necessary for the shaping and serving of a man’s body, does the necessity of women to men, as women, extend to the shaping of their minds – their intellect, their skills, their gifts?

How about their souls?

At what point does my calling as a necessary ally to a man reach its God-ordained  limit?

Is the limit his age? That mix of biological and cultural transition from boyhood to manhood that has no concrete date, and a myriad of different cultural prescriptions?

Is the limit his vocation? Is it my place only to cheer him on in his work? Do I have nothing to contribute,  as a woman,  to a man’s ability to sell software, or give a speech, or make a decision?

Is the limit full time ministry? Is that the realm of influence and help where women are divinely rendered unnecessary?

Or maybe the boundaries should be around me as a woman, and not around men?

Is it a matter of my motives? What if I’m not setting myself up as a spiritual authority, but simply want to be a godly spiritual influence on him – is that still a step too far?

 

Or is it a merely the boundaries of my covenant?  Am I precluded from any kind of spiritual influence or guidance of a man unless I’m married to him, or unless I’m his mother, (until he reaches that indeterminate age where my identity as his mother is superseded by his identity as a man?)?

For those who fight so relentlessly to uphold the distinctive beauty of manhood and womanhood, why is it that the only time it’s permissible, or required to diminish the beauty of my womanhood, and declare it safely mediated behind words on page or a screen,

is when I’m teaching something to a man? (1)

And if those are legitimate boundaries around the ways women are called to influence and inform the thoughts and actions of men, as women, what should the world look like where those dynamics hold true?


It can’t look like the world of Bible – of Abigail, or Esther, or the woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8, or the Samaritan woman, or the women of the resurrection, or Priscilla.
What it does look like is the world I live and work in. Like Silicon Valley. And it looks like some parts of the church, too.

If I didn’t take God at His Word, I’d, frankly, I’d rather discouraged. And maybe looking for a different line of work.

But I do, so I’m not. So I’ll keep going – asking God to help me be helpful in whatever He calling He gives me, and for more opportunities to do the same.

And maybe my calling, at this stage, is just to keep thinking through these things, and asking these things, out loud. And asking God to give us the answers, and for the grace and strength and humility to live them out, as men and women, together.

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  1. “There is this interposition of the phenomenon called book and writing that puts the woman as author out of the reader’s sight and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood.” From  https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/do-you-use-bible-commentaries-written-by-women

A Prescription For Our Roy Moore Problem

A Prescription For Our Roy Moore Problem

For  Christians who’ve read Genesis 3:15 at least once, the problem of men sinfully exploiting their power over women shouldn’t really be news. The fact that the world is beginning to recognize the problem is something that should give us hope.  But before we race to write various prescriptions to heal America’s institutional sickness – the eradication of pornography, a return to marriage and traditional sexual ethics and, of course, the gospel, we should stop to ask what it is that has finally opened the world’s eyes, even as so many in the church remain blind to the ways it manifests the identical symptoms, because it is suffering from the same disease.

One of the hermeneutical rules I strived to follow as I was writing about Ruth and Boaz last month was to focus far more on what the text says than on what it doesn’t. I tried not to argue from silence. When Ruth 2 describes Boaz’ unequivocal instructions to his men that Ruth wasn’t to be harassed in any way, nothing in the text suggests anything other than that they obeyed him. So we should assume that they did and believe what the text implies – that Ruth was left to work in peace, and was never sexually assaulted or harassed.

But the question I’ve been asking myself repeatedly of late is – what if she had been?
What if a man ignored Boaz’s warning, looked for a window of opportunity, and took it? What if Ruth told Boaz what happened? How would he have responded?

Would Ruth have been believed?

Until recently in contemporary America, women’s reports of sexual assault would follow a predictable pattern:

  • Cycles of insider whispers would circulate.
  • Isolated stories would bubble up onto a tabloid or gossipy website.
  • Salacious reporting about the alleged victim would emerge on the same channels, mitigating the charges by challenging the accuser’s credibility, motives, and character.
  • Friends would rally to the accused’s defense, testifying loudly to his character, and appealing to civic precedents about innocence until being proven guilty.
  • The accused would embark on a media campaign of denial and moral outrage over his own victimization.
  • Occasionally, news of a financial settlement with accompanying NDA would emerge, and the accused’s PR team would declare the matter closed.

Then the Internet was invented, with its ability to aggregate and amplify women’s voices.

One story on social media became two, and then four, then forty. Patterns emerged – in the methods of grooming, in the bait and switch tactics, in the grotesque specifics of the behavior.

Like the famous Magic Eye pictures from the 1980s, a myriad of data points once hidden in silos of secrecy melded together to reveal the truth that had been there all along.

And so the truth about Bill Cosby has come to light. And Roger Ailes. And Bill O’Reily, and Harvey Weinstein, and John Besh, and Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. and…and..and….

Amplified by the digital megaphone of the Internet, the aggregated, harmonized voices of women have become so numerous, so loud, and so unified, that they are finally being believed.

At least, in most places.

Whenever sexual assault stories bubble up within a Christian context (involving either a prominent Christian ministry leader, or an influential man whose outspoken Christian faith has been an essential part of his platform), they’ve followed a similar pattern:

  • Cycles of insider whispers begin to circulate.
  • A story bubbles up onto a gossipy discernment blogger website, or through one of the mistrusted channels of the demonized “mainstream media”.
  • Friends of the accused race to accused’s defense, testifying to his deep Christian faith, character, title, and good works, appealing to American civic precedents about innocence until guilt is proven in a court of law, and throwing in biblical proof texts about “two or three witnesses” for good measure.

The accuser’s treatment varies, depending on who she, or he, is. If it’s a child in single digits – the default defense is “innocent until proven guilty”. If she is a woman with any kind of perceived character defect – a sexual history, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a perceived pattern of emotional instability- any and all are deployed to dilute her credibility and dismiss the allegations

Occasionally, the “digital witness” of the accused’s own words in the form of emails or text messages find their way into the light. Then the naysayers and defenders go silent.

But when the witness is a woman, not even when their number is multiple orders of magnitude beyond the Biblical standard are they believed.

And so men like Roy Moore hide in plain sight behind a wall of defense built and guarded by professing Christians. They double down on denials, dial-up conspiracy theories, and drape themselves in American legal precedents and blasphemous Biblical allusions to persecution.

Jesus is not pleased.

While the women of Jesus’ day enjoyed a measure of greater cultural stability than those of his ancestor Boaz, they still suffered numerous societal disadvantages because of their gender. I wrote about one of the most significant ones last year. Jewish tradition held that where civil and legal matters were concerned, a woman’s testimony was unreliable and inferior to that of a man, and thus invalid in court.  But the gospels repeatedly depict Jesus turning that precedent on its head- as  revival breaks out through the testimony of a disenfranchised Samaritan woman (John 4:39), as a powerful politician’s wife publicly warns her husband not to execute a righteous man (Matt 27:19), and as a group of women proclaim the good news of the Resurrection to the apostles, men who rightly, they believe, follow prevailing civic tradition in dismissing their report as idle gossip (Luke 24:1-11).

Jesus dismantled the cultural scaffolding of man-centered prescriptions built around the law that privileged and protected groups with social power against those with less. He recalibrated the scales of justice and power by actively lifting the marginalized, and their voices, up and into the work of His kingdom.

In Jesus’ economy, the voices of those lacking societal power were amplified and elevated, and the call of the powerful was to not so much lean in, as to lean down and listen to them.

In Jesus’ economy, a woman’s testimony had evidentiary value in and of itself.  When a woman in Jesus’ day spoke up, Jesus expected her to be heard, and to be believed.

There are important caveats about this conviction that are worthy of their own discussion. Arguing from the Scriptures that God wants women’s voices to be amplified is not the same as arguing that He wants them treated as absolute. The stories of Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament (Gen. 39:1-20) and Sapphira in the New Testament (Acts 5:1-11), descriptively and prescriptively warn women of the grievous sin of bearing false witness against a man. In fact, there could be room to argue that those stories are the exceptions that prove the rule – that in an economy where a woman’s word is given special weight, a woman who presumes upon or exploits the power inherent in her words is guilty of the same egregious sin that a man commits when he exploits the power inherent in his position or physical strength.

American cultural institutions are finally waking up to the historical imbalance of power it has enabled by dismissing the testimony of women, and is beginning to recalibrate its scales.

The church should do the same, not because it is responding to the example of the culture, but because the culture is subconsciously responding to the example of Christ.