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.

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Birthing Thoughts About Boaz

Birthing Thoughts About Boaz

“Encouraged” and “blessed” aren’t big enough words to describe what it felt like to receive so many notes/texts/tweets of encouragement yesterday about the piece on Boaz I wrote for Fathom Mag last month. (And it’s not only because Fathom is one of the most thoughtful and beautiful new digital magazines for Christians out there today, and you should read it every month and subscribe and support their hard work.

Can I tell you the bigger reason for my gratitude?

That piece was one of a series of interconnected pieces on Boaz and the book of Ruth that I wrote for publication over the past few months. A complementary piece on being Boaz in the business world came out at TGC today. Another piece about a conversation I had with a total stranger on a plane about Boaz comes out soon in Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

I wrote all three pieces in conjunction with, and as a direct consequence of, a twelve-week study in Biblical hermeneutics my pastor took a small group of women at my church through this summer. I nicknamed it “Hermeneutics Without A Net.”

Each week, we studied a portion of Ruth using different principles of hermeneutics (word studies, macro before micro, Fallen Condition Focus, etc.) We also read through Paul Miller’s “A Loving Life” on the same passage, to test our observations and insights against his. We were also accountable to talk through what we were learning with another woman. Then we would meet together and pastor Josh – (the Best Preacher in America You’ve Never Heard Of™), would walk us through our work, and lead a discussion.

It was, without exaggeration, the best Bible study I’ve ever done.

I’m not saying that as a novice. I’m saying that as a 5th generation preacher’s kid with a degree from the Master’s College (English major, Bible minor), and twenty-plus years of women’s and coed Bible studies under my belt.

It wasn’t easy, at all.  As in, I may have broken a sweat as Josh let us sit in our ignorance over a passage or idea for a little while (before eventually pulling us up and out of it graciously).

It felt a little bit like the feeling I’ve had when I’ve started working out with a trainer after years of doing the same old stuff. Twenty minutes into my first workout I want to die, and the next day I wish I had, because every cell in my body is weeping in agony. But the next week I go back, and after 12 weeks, I’m in better shape than I ever thought possible.

God used that hermeneutics study to break open the book of Ruth to me in a remarkable way (not to mention all of my Bible study since then). I saw the good news of the gospel in it, and experienced its power and its practical implications, in ways I’ll never forget. It’s my favorite book of the Bible now (and probably will be until Josh starts his next class on another book of the Bible. I’m hoping for Hebrews – go big or go home, I say.)

But that’s still not the biggest reason I’m so thankful for yesterday’s response to the fruit from that study.

The greatest reason I’m so thankful is because of the reason the study happened in the first place. Because I had praying for something like it to happen since I read the first piece in this series about women’s discipleship by Thabiti Anyabwile, in 2006.

Of the numerous follow-on topics and conversations that ensued after that series, the one that stuck with me, and prompted my prayers and thinking over the next literal decade, was the principle Thabiti drew out from the beginning of Titus 2 – that in order for older women to teach younger women what is good (Titus 2:3), they need to be taught in accordance with sound doctrine themselves (Titus 2:1), first. And who better to do that, within a local church context, than their own pastors?

And so that’s what I started praying for. And when we moved church campuses two years ago and started sitting under Josh’s preaching, I prayed even harder. (Because, seriously, Best Preacher in America You’ve Never Heard Of ™). Last January, the praying turned into talking, and last summer, the talking turned into a study.

Beyond all that God taught me through the book of Ruth itself, he also affirmed what I had been praying and thinking on and talking through with other women, in the aftermath of Thabiti’s series:  

When pastors intentionally invest in the theological training and maturing of the women in their church, the whole church benefits.

Our group of women benefited, as Josh walked us through the hermeneutical mechanics of study of a text, and turning it into teachable, gospel-rich food for others.

Our pastor benefited, as he gained a new level of insight in how the women in his congregation and communities approach the characters, themes, and arguments of the Bible uniquely as women.

Our church benefited, as we took what we’d been taught and began teaching it to others in our church and social circles.

And the church outside our four small walls has benefited, as the insights we gleaned have made their way onto social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and even a new digital magazine like Fathom. 

If you’re a church pastor or teaching elder, can I invite you to pray about doing something similar with the women in your church? And if you’re a woman involved in women’s ministry, can I invite you to pray about asking one of your pastors to do it?

I promise you that it will bless you, and your church, in ways you don’t yet know.

Between Heartache and Hope (or, How Hermeneutics Done Well Is Good For Your Soul)

I recently finished the fourth week of the hermeneutics class that my pastor, Josh, has been leading for a small group of women at my church, and it’s been the bomb-diggity. (Josh once commented in passing that “Paul was straight up gangster”, so I’m just following his lead with the hipster speak.)

Part of the reason I’m loving this class so much is its structure. Josh is walking us through a book of the Bible (Ruth), and teaching us one or two hermeneutical principles with each section we study. We then compare our own study with a someone else’s (in this case, Paul Miller’s solid work “A Loving Life”), to strengthen our ability to test an outside author’s examination of a text against the hermeneutical principles we’re learning. The final step is a discussion about a discipleship relationship we’re accountable to pursue, to apply what we’re learning in our shepherding of other women.between-heartache-and-hope-e1499990129737.jpg

Like I said, bomb to the digitty.

Truth be told, I didn’t drive to last week’s study last night brimming with hope over what God was going to teach us. God had been walking me through some trials that had me identifying with Naomi way more than I had anticipated. I was emotionally drained and spiritually empty. This was a humbling irony given I that was the one who had been asking for and praying for this class to happen for a solid six months. I was dragging myself to the study on commitment autopilot, with my mind and heart overfull with the cares and disappointments of the last several months, and it all felt wrong.

The exercise we’d been assigned that week was one of fitting micro and macro together. We were to read through Ruth in its entirety several times, asking ourselves how the last four verses in chapter 1 fit into the arc of the entire narrative. I had been immediately drawn to the way this final set of verses passage acted as the completion of the circle begun in the first verses. In the first five verses of chapter one, Naomi had left famine-stricken Bethlehem with a husband and two sons. In the last four verses, she was returning with none of them.

“She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21 ESV)

Naomi’s words summarized her interpretation of all that had transpired up to that point; she had left Bethlehem full and was returning empty, all at the hands of the LORD. But the author’s closing comment about the barley harvest gives us a window into what Naomi could not yet see, and what would unfold in the next chapter. I thought this was the insight Josh was wanting us to see.

It took about twenty minutes of discussion and guidance from Josh to unpack how much deeper this section really goes.

The book of Ruth concludes with a group of women speaking over Naomi words that stand in contrast to Naomi’s words at the end of chapter 1. The blessings the women describe extend far beyond Naomi personally. What the LORD did for and through Naomi was something that had begun long before her, through the line of her new son-in law’s ancestor Perez, who himself was born out of the aftermath of a whole-scale family collapse. And it would continue long after her, through the lineage of her grandson to David, and from David to Jesus. And from Jesus to the entire world.

“Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:14-17 ESV)

All of this was foreshadowed in the last verse of chapter 1.


Naomi believed she was coming home bereft of everything that signified God’s blessing and care for her. What she couldn’t see was how God was already preparing her, and the generations who would follow her, for blessings that were even greater than the ones she had lost. The seeds of the blessings God was preparing to pour out on and through Naomi, had been planted in the soil of her present trials, and were already beginning to grow. She just couldn’t see them yet.

In many ways, Naomi was looking at her circumstances the way her ancestor Eve had looked at hers. Naomi was focussing on what she had lost, and not what she had. But unlike Eve, Naomi chose not to turn her heart away from God. She turned towards Him as best as she was able – to His land and His people. And in doing so, she placed herself exactly where she needed to be for God to do abundantly beyond what she could have asked or thought.

God had been at work for Naomi’s good, and our good, all along.  The hard things of chapter 1 and the blessings of chapter 4 were inextricably linked. They always are.

There is no resurrection without death.

You would have had to be there to witness the way Josh let us sit with our various initial impressions and thoughts, before leading us to, and through, the words of Naomi’s friends in chapter 4. He took his time. There were uncomfortable silences. If brains could sweat, ours surely were.

As Josh finally lead us through the parallelisms between Naomi’s words in chapter 1, and the words of the women in chapter 4, it was as though the Holy Spirit superimposed my name onto Naomi’s. I could see the trajectory of my heart, and I could see how God was calling me to respond.  I could see Him – His trustworthiness, His mercy, and His deep, deep love.

And so my thoughts on my drive away from the study were entirely different from the ones I had had on the way there.

Beyond the way God had worked in my own heart, I was struck afresh by the process God had followed to do it, and what that meant when it comes to the discipline of Bible study and principles of hermeneutics. I’ve read the book of Ruth countless times. I’m familiar with the way it is often taught to women, with all of its drama and romance and relatable characters. I’ve heard the “Waiting for Your Boaz” and the “Living Like Ruth” sermons, and rolled my eyes through most of them. Shallow wading through the surface of the book of Ruth yields shallow, and narrow, insights. But weeks spent in deep, directed study, grounded in tried and true principles of biblical exposition, that reveal the character and the work of God, has yielded fruit that has been nourishing and strengthening my soul, and changing the way I think and act.

I was raised in a tradition that valued training in doctrine and hermeneutics as ends in themselves, and I’ve got the scars to show for it. But this week I was reminded anew of how hermeneutics done right, as a means to the highest and best end of knowing God in a way that changes you, is truly good for the soul.

*Since so many of you had asked,  my pastor gladly permitted me to share the syllabus and notes from the initial session he wrote. From scratch.

Seriously – Bomb.Dig.Git.Ty.

If you end up using/leveraging them, and they’re a blessing to you or your church, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to let him know in as many ways as possible how much this ministry is a needed blessing.

Womens Equipping Syllabus

Women_s Equipping Session 1