Toward A Theology of Encounter

 

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*Warning – This post contains my first attempt at serious academic theology -* 

As I have frequently reminded my readers on here and elsewhere, much of my attention over the past two years has been focused on Master’s level study. Since I have just finished the taught part of the MA, and expect to spend my study time over the next twelve months attempting to write a dissertation, I thought that I would share a few of my better MA papers here. So, without further ado, for the very interested, here is my first MA assignment (long since submitted and graded) which deals with theological method (a major focus of my MA program). Enjoy!

Comments are, as ever, most welcome. Please credit me as per current UK/US Academic citation standards/expectations if you decide to share and/or cite any of my work (not that I’m expecting that mind you, but you never know!). I hope this brief paper gives you an insight into my efforts to develop my thinking as a trainee theologian, stimulates conversation(s), and blesses all who take the time to engage with it!

M

Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

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*Links are highlighted*

‘The Gospel has a Complementarian structure’. – Owen Strachan.

Pigs, Pipes, and Pacifism

Much recent furore generated by the council for biblical manhood and womanhood coalesced around their controversial 2016 conference entitled ‘The Beauty of Complementarity’. A veritable tour de force of conservative, white, male, North American pastors took it upon themselves to present a cohesive picture of Complementarian theology, described as ‘one breathtaking vision’, in Louisville, Kentucky. Yet the flurry of criticism that ensued was itself swiftly eclipsed by the controversy which accompanied CJ Mahaney’s appearance at the subsequent ‘Together for the Gospel’ conference. For a pointed critique and summary of the salient issues, see this article by Carolyn Custis James entitled ‘The Failure of Complementarian Manhood’.

She describes the [failed] ‘biblical manhood’ on display at these conferences as:

‘…a fallen brand of masculinity that dangles by the slender thread of a man’s ability to bring home the bacon, fight off a theoretical pipe wielding assailant, and take charge at home and in the church.’

Bacon aside for a moment, Custis James reminds us that contrary to John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s suggestion that a ‘mature’ man ought to be beset by ‘a natural, God-given responsibility to step forward and put himself between the [hypothetical, pipe – wielding] assailant and [a] woman’, Jesus ‘rejected the muscular power that the world admires and cherishes’. According to Piper however, any man who does not end up ‘unconscious on the floor’ having tackled such an attacker first, even though his wife may possess a black belt in Karate, is simply not a man. Presumably, as a direct corollary, the perceived weakness of women such a complementarian perspective entails leads to the ‘weaker vessel’ requiring protection, which ought to be provided by able bodied men; leadership roles are thus assigned on the basis of/in tandem with their physical strength. Might, for complementarians, perhaps equates to the right to assume authority and control over women. [1]

One imagines that this rules out the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, or even Jesus himself from embodying ‘biblical manhood’. Turning the other cheek is clearly unbiblical, at least according to complementarian anthropology. A great deal remains to be said about the conflation of ‘Just War’ theories, white power, nationalism, Calvinism, and the imposition of oppressive gender roles within modern, Western, North American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, until I have time, money, and backing to pursue the three Phd’s (give or take) required to do justice to such complex matters, a mere nod in the direction of such connections shall have to suffice. To claim that Complementarianism has thus far offered a robust, pure, undiluted, unbiased, counter-cultural, and solely ‘biblical’ model of what Christian manhood truly entails is at best laughable. At worst, it is a blinkered, highly contentious, and thoroughly contextual composite ideology that masquerades as something it is not: orthodox biblical theology devoid of external influences.

As Custis James points out, such a typical complementarian ideal of masculinity ‘punishes and diminishes those who don’t measure up’ for myriad reasons (e.g. Job loss, sickness, old age, etc), and simply ‘remains perpetually out of reach’ for many men. Returning to the bacon, one wonders if the archaic mentality of insisting that men need to be the primary breadwinner is an attempt to foist a gendered reading of 1 Tim 5:8 upon modern families. Is it ‘biblical’ to pressure men into feeling guilty unless they bring home a fatter paycheck than their wives (if their wives are allowed to work outside of the home at all)?

Arguably, such a view of gender roles is in fact toxic and outdated, to say nothing of being difficult to infer from the collective witness of the New Testament. Custis James puts it well when she avers that this kind of ‘biblical manhood’, built on shaky cultural foundations, actually ’emasculates men who receive the strength, help, and wisdom God intends for his daughters to give them’. I could go on about the mystery of two becoming one flesh in marriage, thus blurring any notion of ‘biblical’ gender roles, but I’d hate to make a pig’s ear of it on this blog (so to speak).

9 Marks of Groupthink & Confirmation Bias, Nostalgia, Brainwashing, and Dangerous Ignorance

Groupthink & Confirmation Bias?

Two notable follow up posts on the topic of complementarian gender roles worth engaging with are Kevin DeYoung’s ‘9 Marks of Healthy Biblical Complementarianism’, and ‘5 Key Ways to Cultivating Biblical Manhood in Your Church’, by Jason Allen. DeYoung sums up the seemingly prevalent ideological entrenchment typified by the whole North American Complementarian movement in his opening paragraph:

In the conservative evangelical circles I mainly inhabit, there is almost no controversy about whether the Bible allows for women to be ordained as pastors and elders. The people I talk to and listen to are firmly convinced complementarians. That is, they (we) believe that God created men and women equal in worth and dignity but with different roles in the home and in the church. At least very least, this means the office of pastor or elder is to be filled by qualified men. The core of complementarianism is not up for discussion.’ (Emphasis mine).

No danger of groupthink or confirmation bias here then. Surely these comments aren’t suggesting that he has a closed mind on this topic, refuses to engage critics, or is happy running the risk of seeing what he wants to see in Scripture? To his credit, DeYoung makes a sincere effort to avoid needless polemic and polarisation whilst proposing a ‘positive’ articulation of what he considers to be a ‘healthy’, ‘biblical’ viewpoint. Yet as Scot Mcknight puts it, whilst the ‘tone’ of his article is ‘entirely acceptable’, his overall vision is ‘theologically inadequate’.

Nostalgia

Mcknight’s helpful, point by point survey of DeYoung’s article also offers a particularly insightful critique of the incipient syncretism quietly at work in the background of statements like these:

‘The core convictions of complementarianism will not magically seep into our children or into our churches. The cultural breeze is blowing too stiffly against us. Biblical manhood and womanhood must be taught as well as caught.’

And

‘..we must be careful that our complementarianism is deep, thoughtful, rooted, biblical, and utterly at home with being despised, misunderstood, and counter-cultural.’

Mcknight reminds us that such Complementarianism is far removed from being ‘counter-cultural’ and ‘biblical’, and is instead steeped in an archaic form of ‘1950s white suburban American ideology’. As Michelle Lee-Barnewell notes, gender roles within North American society were almost certainly influenced by world war 2, and the subsequent economic prosperity that followed it:

‘War highlighted the differences, as the men had fought on the battlefield while women did mostly the supporting work on the home front. The economic prosperity of the 1950s also made it possible for women to stay home and rely on their husbands economically. As a result, “the idea that women and employment are by nature not meant to mix became the ethos of the decade.” ‘ [2]

And thus:

‘…there was a marked increase in articles promoting the traditional view of marriage and gender roles, including ones on women sacrificing their aspirations outside the home.’ [3]

Barnewell presents a substantial array of evidence that this contributed to ‘the 1950s’ being ‘a period in which the dominant expectation was that a mother would be the homemaker in a household where the man was the breadwinner’. [4] What is more, sharper distinctions were drawn between the ‘public world of men and the private, home-oriented world of women’. [5] Before long, the language of ‘headship’, based upon the assumption of original divine design, was levied by evangelicals such as C.W. Scudder to assert that:

“The wife cannot function in her feminine role if her husband’s masculine role is taken from him. The family group cannot function as a family if its natural head is dethroned.” [6]

So, whilst it may not be clear cut evidence of complementarianism directly mirroring or being based upon white, suburban, American culture from the 1950s, a compelling link does potentially exist. To be clear, this does not necessarily mean that a desire for cultural nostalgia is the driving force behind modern complementarian theologies of gender. However, it must be conceded that such theologies bear a striking resemblance to the spirit of a bygone era, and henceforth cannot claim to lift the excalibur-like sword of theological and epistemological neutrality from the stone of hidden bias. At the very least, if complementarians are intending to be taken seriously at an intellectual level whilst claiming to be faithful to Scripture, they must lay this particular card of correlation upon the table of any forthcoming dialogue (not that many of them seem keen to talk, mind you).

Brainwashing

Allen arguably has a somewhat less nuanced approach to defining ‘biblical manhood’, which he describes as ‘sanctified testosterone’. The alarmist tone of his article goes on to claim that ‘when men don’t act like men, the church’s spiritual infrastructure collapses’. Apparently, ‘the church in want of biblical, masculine service and leadership is an anemic church’, suffering from a lack of the ‘defined role of leadership, authority, and protection’ that ‘men in the church must play’. In a disturbing shift of emphasis, he therefore believes that this necessarily leads to the need to ‘cultivate …intentional… gender distinction…even at the youngest of ages…to channel boys into men and girls into women’. It is hard not to perceive this as an attempt to instigate/reinforce a widespread, systematic program of Complementarian indoctrination, under the auspices of religious rhetoric and ‘Scripture’s clear teaching’.

After building one unqualified assertion upon another, his conclusion is that ‘Biblically, theologically, and logically, the indispensable ingredient to complementarianism is biblical manhood’. Tellingly however, a full orbed view of Scripture is conspicuously absent from his approach; a Christological or pneumatological focus even less so. Quite what ‘biblical manhood’ amounts to is somewhat unclear, at least from these brief examples.

Despite this, minds have been made up, and heels firmly dug in. The prevalent assumption within Complementarianism is that all significant leadership roles within the Church fall to men, thus implying the subjugation and disenfranchisement of women as a necessary consequence. Such ‘biblical manhood’ is contended to be a matter of divine design, which also tips the balance of power within marriage in the male direction. Proof texts abound, yet a clear presentation of how and why Complementarian hermeneutics cohere with, or base their model of manhood upon the example of Jesus is sorely lacking. [7] Worse still, the myriad scenarios whereby invoking a divine mandate for male authority within the home/Church can and does lead to abuse, victim blaming/shaming, and an appalling conspiracy of silence is not even acknowledged.

Dangerous Ignorance

Ruth Tucker’s recent book called Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse, provides some remarkably prescient/deeply troubling reading surrounding the potential danger women (and of course children) are routinely placed in when Complementarian theologies of ‘headship’ are misused by abusers. Ruth bravely and helpfully clarifies some of her concerns, based on her own experience, in a subsequent blog interview with Scot Mcknight . To my mind, the handful of Complementarian responses to Ruth’s humble testimony have been at best insensitive and blinkered, if not downright dimwitted (Her response to Tim Challies’ unhelpful critique is worth reading for an insight into this). If Complementarians aren’t even willing to listen to a survivor’s story and accept the danger their theologies have created by enabling malicious, devastating, abusive behaviour to go unchecked, then it is difficult to imagine what will be required in order to get through to them.

Needless to say, for the above reasons amongst (many) others, I am thoroughly unpersuaded that Complementarianism has a truly ‘biblical’ model of manhood or womanhood to offer; particularly in light of the example of Jesus Christ.

An Alternative: Self Emptying Servanthood

Space forbids a proper, scholarly, and theologically robust treatment of this contentious topic. Such an endeavour would require months, if not years of sustained work, which at present is a luxury I do not have at my disposal. Nevertheless, my recent Masters level studies have shed some light upon the implications of seeing Jesus’ mission in light of Philippians 2:5-11, wherein he is described as ’emptying himself’ into the incarnation, culminating in the humility of the crucifixion. Such an example could be written off as an impossible act to follow, particularly when it comes to emulating Jesus’ self sacrifice within a model of ‘biblical manhood’. Extrapolating self-emptying sacrifice into relationships, Church leadership roles, and marriage is surely unrealistic, and too much to ask?

Yet this is arguably what Jesus himself commands and models during his earthly ministry. It is made abundantly clear in numerous instances throughout the Gospel narratives that Christlike living necessitates an extraordinary prerogative to surrender one’s own rights, desires, status, and needs for the sake of the other. As Jesus variously puts it:

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt 23:11-12)

…“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-45 c. f. Matt 20:24-28, Luke 22:25-27)

‘…Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.’ (Luke 9:48)

‘So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.’ (John 13:34-35)

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ (John 15:12-14)

Jesus appears to expect his disciples to eschew any worldly hierarchical framework and instead choose to follow his supreme example of radical humility and self-sacrifice. This arguably makes Paul’s commandment in Ephesians 5 all the more scandalous, particularly for 1st century males steeped in a deeply patriarchal worldview:

‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.’ (Eph 5:21, 25-28)

So, husbands are to emulate Jesus’ own example by laying down their lives for their wives, an act which continually occurs within the context of mutual submission, and takes its point of departure from the atoning sacrifice of the crucifixion itself. Is there any weightier task for husbands to attempt to undertake? Granted, I avoided quoting verses 22-24, yet the call for a wife to submit to her husband is predicated upon the assumption of mutual submission, and specifically ‘Christlike’ self sacrifice being required of the man (and, perhaps notably, not the woman). [8] Love empties itself of it’s prerogatives and seeks to follow Jesus, which necessitates humble servanthood and death; this is a far cry from the Complementarian assumption of gendered authority.

Some might argue that ‘servant leadership’ is the order of the day implied by Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice, thereby attempting to reconcile his humility and commandments with various hierarchical frameworks, such as Complementarianism. Yet to my mind, the image of the bloody, humiliated, tortured God – Man hanging dead on a cross for the sake of fallen humanity is not evoked by the so called ‘biblical manhood’ espoused by Complementarian theology. Much more needs to be said, but it will have to wait for now.

Closing Thoughts

Doubtless, in this post I have said too much on some topics and not enough on others. The risk of shoddy scholarship and/or misrepresentation already looms large enough for me to cut my post off as it stands. I thus leave those of you who have had the patience to read this far with some simple, parting thoughts:

Jesus’ Gospel does not have a ‘Complementarian structure’. Instead, it has a cruciform shape that demolishes the straw edifice composed of patriarchal anthropologies, which collectively masquerade as divinely mandated doctrine. May those of us already in the recovery room, having barely escaped the ravenous maws of toxic/unhealthy gender constructs, quietly continue seeking the Spirit of God’s transformative divine power to renew our minds, looking to Jesus as the founder and perfector of our faith (Heb 12:1-3). In so doing, let us also pray for those with whom we fervently disagree, seeking the ‘wisdom that comes from heaven’ as we discern if/when/how to engage with our complementarian brothers and sisters (Jas 3:17-18). When we do so, may we remember to be ‘quick to listen, and slow to speak..the truth in love’ (Jas 1:19, Eph 4:15).

After all, Christ suffered and died for us all whilst we were yet sinners (Rom 5:8). We must therefore strive to ensure that our efforts at entering this debate also embody genuine Cruciformity. [9]

M

ENDNOTES

1. I am not suggesting that all Complementarians advocate this view by any means. My suggestion is an observation seeking out potential connections between broad, stereotypical views of masculinity (defined by physical strength) and femininity (defined by being physically weaker than men and/or delicate), based on nature over against nurture, and gender roles within Church, society, marriage et al. I thus offer this statement as a brief, speculative provocation, rather than an assertion or accusation. Also, whilst it may well be appropriate (even Christlike) for a man to step into a physical confrontation which he is sure to lose for the sake of (albeit momentarily) protecting others, this is hardly a marker of ‘manhood’ per se. Self sacrifice is obviously laudable, but the suggestion that manhood must be characterised by a bruising, warrior-like mentality is potentially unhealthy. What is more, such an image plays into the hands of far too many toxic, stereotypical views of how Western men and women are encouraged to define gender roles and/or identity.

2. Lee-Barnewell, Michelle, Neither Complementarian or Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate, Kindle Edition, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 37.

3. Ibid, 38-39.
4. Ibid, 44.
5. Ibid, 45.
6. Ibid, 46; Scudder, C. W. The Family in Christian Perspective. Nashville: Broadman, 1962, 13.

7. In fairness, I have not yet undertaken a thorough survey of Complementarian theologies. This comment is based on these two recent blog posts and my limited knowledge of the conferences in question.

8. Granted, arguably both sexes are called to Christlike living and submission, particularly since there is no longer ‘male or female… in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:27-29). Nonetheless, my point here is that Ephesians 5 clearly, unequivocally calls men to Christlike self sacrifice, and not women per se. Perhaps the historic imbalance of patriarchy is one underlying reason why a greater burden may be placed on men to be Christlike in their relations with women?

9. Where I have already failed miserably to demonstrate this, I sincerely apologise. It turns out that I too, am a flawed, sinful, work in progress.

Trajectories: Branded Religion vs Incarnational Diversity

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Global brands, popular music, and evangelical Christianity are products of cultural flows (Appadurai, 1990) that facilitate interaction between the “global” and the “local,” in What Roland Robertson (1995) has referred to as glocalization. [1]

For various reasons, I have had cause to consider this uncomfortable topic in recent weeks. It is perhaps entirely fitting for me as a musician, evangelical Christian, and budding theologian to reflect critically upon my own experience of how Western Evangelicalism appears to have been influenced by business principles, and marketing in particular. The above quote from Thomas Wagner’s article takes a sober look at how strategies from the sphere of commerce have proven to be highly ‘successful’ at growing a local Church into a global brand. In this case, Wagner focuses on none other than Hillsong, whose substantial organisational growth has been well documented in recent years, and has in some cases been met with suspicion and criticism.

Brand Identity & Sensory Experience

Wagner uses the example of Hillsong to argue for the drawing together of ‘the experience of brand, music, and religious discourse as a gestalt “Sound”.’ [2] As he notes, the Hillsong brand is ‘inextricable’ from the music they produce, which he claims is the driving force behind their growth as a globally recognised brand. Wagner cites (and provides strong evidence for) the manner in which Hillsong ‘focuses on the consistency of its product’, via standardisation and homogenisation, as a key factor which has enabled them to have an ‘outsized influence on both the Australian and global Christian sonic (and theological) landscapes (Evans, 2006: 87-109)’. [3] In other words, thanks to a savvy marketing strategy and meticulous brand management, the Hillsong “Sound” has proven critical in ensuring that they punch above their weight as a megachurch.

Another important aspect of how Hillsong have achieved this resides in the way they have fused the experience and ‘social imagination’ of congregants in diverse local contexts to ensure that they ‘realise the meaning of the brand as they engage with…its music’. [4] One fascinating feature of this phenomenon was the testimony of a member at Hillsong London, who claimed that their Church’s rendition of the Hillsong “Sound” was typically faster and louder than their Australian counterparts. In reality this was not the case, as songs were played to a metronome at standardised tempos in both contexts. Nonetheless, despite being familiar with both Australian and European versions of the Hillsong brand, the interviewee in question described a different, subjective experience of each context. Participants in this global brand identity thereby contextualise, and relativise their own individual (and presumably corporate) interpretation(s) of the “Sound”. [5]

If nothing else, such a startling example demonstrates the fickle nature of human perception, proving the axiom that reality is fiendishly complex. To what extent can we, as interested observers (in this case of a megachurch context), trust our senses when the perspective we experience is prone to subconscious bias? To ask the most troubling question from a believer’s point of view, are we (Christians) experiencing an authentic encounter with divine reality (i. e. The presence of God, manifested via the Spirit)? Or are we plummeting into the shallow depths of brand driven, consumer-oriented euphoria, which bears an uncanny resemblance to mass hysteria (or perhaps a U2 concert)? Questions of ambition and integrity rise to the surface of such stagnant pools, wherein a conflict of interest between promoting a brand, and the pursuit of authentic biblical Christianity is a genuine danger.

It’s All About (Jesus’?) Mission

My intention here is not to critique Hillsong per se, but rather the model of ecclesial homogeneity that the process of such branding inflicts upon any church. As Wagner points out, efforts to develop a distinctive European sound by Hillsong London were abandoned in favour of standardisation. Instead of nurturing a unique, contextual “Sound” with London based musicians and songwriters, Hillsong Sydney decided to retain control over the aesthetic and artistic direction of the music. Innovation was quashed by centralisation. [6] For the Hillsong brand, uniformity trumped unity amidst diversity. Game changers need not apply.

This leads me to wonder if Jesus’ mission is being best served by ever expanding, glocalized megachurches. Does it follow that Jesus’ mission entails building a global brand like Hillsong, which ‘listed earnings of $64 million in 2010, with total assets of $28.7 million and income from conferences of $6.7 million (McMillan, 2011)’, whilst operating under the auspices of a charitable (read: Income tax exempt) organisation? [7] A very pertinent article with more up to date, albeit unverified financials was printed this month, here.

One could perhaps legitimately posit divine favour as the source of Hillsong’s explosive growth and healthy financials. However faithful or sceptical one may be, this remains a distinct possibility. One could also offer the suggestion that cohesive branding sells, and business can be a rather blunt instrument. Whatever the case, if homogeneity is an effective ingredient within a successful branding campaign, is the underlying motivation for pursuing said campaign, a desire for participation in Jesus’ mission to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth? If so, is the overall strategy effective at achieving it’s intended purpose? The better angels of my nature would like to believe that the answer to these questions is yes; in which case, homogeneity for the sake of building a brand is arguably justified. On the flip side, naivety is endemic within polite, white, middle class, Western Christianity. Cultural blindspots are always the hardest to see; subcultural ones even more so. What if building a brand detracts from Jesus’ mission, or worse yet, misses it entirely? A word of caution to any ‘thriving’ Christian ministry is hauntingly summed up by Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church in Revelation:

‘You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.’
(Rev 3:17-18 NIV)

Riches are by no means a sign of Gospel faithfulness, integrity, or clarity of vision clothed in the garments of purity before a holy and perfect God. Jesus makes it very clear that his people must not assume that abundance and numerical growth in various areas is synonymous with his direct provision and blessing. That is prosperity theology, and as he boldly states, this is fool’s gold.

A Moment of Clarity

To be very clear, I have no desire to repaint every large church with the same brush. Building a megachurch or movement based on homogenous branding isn’t necessarily a sign of divided loyalties, or divine favour. I have no doubt that many large Christian organisations can, and do produce a substantial amount of fruit for Jesus’ Kingdom purposes. I have certainly experienced tremendous blessings, particularly via spiritual and emotional healing through large, well branded church ministries. I celebrate churches that strike a balance between the rock of consumerism and the hard place of confronting contemporary culture with the Gospel call to repentance. No two churches will be exactly the same. In reality, many would be hard to define in terms of where they might fit on a spectrum between pursuing Jesus’ mission, and ending up off course and in the wretched condition that matches the above diagnosis of the church in Laodicea. So to avoid singling out any specific churches which may have inspired this article, let’s consider a purely hypothetical, caricatured, worst case scenario type of example of any congregation which chooses to adopt the Hillsong model, and label it church ‘X’:

The Church ‘X’ Factor

Combine the fruits of aggressive ambition, causality, market forces, branding, and a blinkered theology similar to neo-papal infallibility when it comes to Charismatic Christian leadership, and you have a potent cocktail for flawed ecclesiology and missiology. Numerical growth, both fiscal and human, can quickly be seen as evidence that church ‘X’ is on the right track. Questioning the leadership and strategies of such large, influential congregations is seldom encouraged. In any case, senior leadership in such contexts often operates within a top-down, hierarchical framework which makes them relatively inaccessible. Far from shepherding the flock, and being aware of any stray individuals who are leaving the proverbial 99 behind (Matt 18:12-14, c.f. Luke 15:4), senior pastors of megachurches like church ‘X’ function more like CEOs with a business mindset, wherein the growing masses of people constituting the church’s membership becomes a sea of nameless anonymity. Faces that fit the brand are quickly encouraged to rise through the ranks and occupy key positions as ‘leaders’, whilst the misfits and unlikely candidates are not considered photogenic enough to fit the emerging picture.

Thus, rather than polish the rough diamonds into shining, the ‘awkward’ folk (who might just be the hidden pearls that Jesus has gifted to a given congregation) are left wondering how, where, and if they can squeeze their square pegs through the round, branded hole. Meanwhile on the other side of such an impassible portal, an army of yes men awaits those who might offer informed dissent, ready to quell any unrest. The brand grows, whilst the disillusioned leave. Church ‘X’ is succeeding at building something, which may or may not be consistent with Jesus’ mission, but at what cost?

Incarnational Diversity

The revelation of true divinity within the person and work of Jesus Christ is the most stunningly unfathomable, holistically liberating and existentially challenging event in the history of the created order. One of the many remarkable passages of Scripture which points us to the inherent mystery of Jesus being God ‘incarnate’ (literally: ‘enfleshed’ or ‘in flesh’) is found in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8 ESV emphasis mine).

There are so many things that have been (and could be said) about this short segment of the Bible. Reams of scholarly literature already exist providing detailed exegetical, hermeneutical, lexical, philological, and theological insight into the range of potential meanings to be found therein. My purpose here isn’t to delve into this turbulent miasma, since that may have to wait for a future research project. I do think, however, that Jesus’ incarnation has plenty to say to the subject matter in question, as it shows us how much God values the reality of our very messy humanity. More specifically, it shows us how Jesus eschewed opulent glory in favour of the simple and authentic humility of being present amongst us in the raw, uncensored warp and woof of life as a relatively poor 1st century Jew, who was not initially held in high regard by his contemporaries.

As the Old Testament prophetic imagery often associated with Jesus puts it:

‘…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’
(Isa 53:2 NIV)

Quite the opposite in fact:

‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.’
(Isa 53:3 NIV)

Indeed, as the gospel narratives show us, Jesus was not recognised for who he truly was. Instead, he was maligned, betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, flogged, beaten, and crucified to death by his own people who were in collusion with the Roman Empire. [8] So, it is fair to say that Jesus’ own branding campaign and marketing strategy had adverse consequences. He isn’t portrayed as being particularly image conscious or keen to impress the religious and civil authorities of his day. Instead, he deliberately undermined the dominant cultures of the ancient near Eastern context into which he chose to manifest himself, showing no deference to either the Messianic expectations of his own people, or the power structures of Empire. No light shows, loud music or metronomes here for his triumphal entry as King; just donkeys, palm leaves, blood, sweat, tears and Truth.

Jesus’ Motley Crew

Jesus stooped to conquer his enemies, choosing instead to intimately associate himself with the unclean, outcast, morally suspect, and marginalised people of his time. He embodied authentic, unfeigned love for the lowly and downtrodden, whilst frequently rebuking and condemning religious insiders for their pretense and compromised loyalties. Worldly success was apparently not part of his game plan, since his Kingdom is not of this world (e.g. John 18:36). Yet despite his subversive intent, Jesus took time to be with people in person. He chose to honour and make time for those whom society had forgotten, despised, considered untouchable, and deemed to be of no material benefit to maintaining or building the status quo. [9]

What is more, at no stage did Jesus or the early church in Acts seem concerned with preserving aesthetic homogeneity for the sake of cultural accommodation within their evangelistic strategy. The first Christians didn’t mimic the world around them by presenting a sanitised version of the gathered church wherein only the prominent, privileged, well educated, photogenic, young and ‘gifted’ (using the term gifted in a narrow, worldly sense) members formed the vanguard of Jesus’ Kingdom driven mission. Rather, the early church was a ragtag bunch of common, uneducated, uncouth miscreants (see Peter & John in Acts 4:14), reformed fundamentalists (Paul in Acts 7 & 8), tax collectors (Levi in Luke 5:27-32), formerly demonised women (Luke 8:1-3), sorcerers (Acts 8:1-9-25), Roman soldiers (Acts 10), and other, generally unlikely candidates.

All told, Holy chaos might be a better way of describing life with Jesus’ original crew of misfits than the kind of well planned, branded stage shows being disseminated by Hillsong/church ‘X’. The early church were more a band of sanctified rascals led by the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, than they were an army of affluent social climbers hell bent on ‘changing the world’ with skinny jeans and self-help sermons. I doubt the apostle Paul felt any need to keep tickling his congregations’ ears with a fat feather of prosperity theology, relentless positivism (read: hear no evil, see no evil..), cinematic visuals, surround sound, and visiting stand up comedians dressed as gospel preachers  who charge a princely honorarium for their rendered services. I should say at this point, that I have no issue with talent, skinny jeans, Gospel contextualisation, big worship meetings, loud music, large congregations, or well produced multimedia content in the pursuit of global transformation per se. I do however have a problem with the glorious incarnational diversity of Jesus’ Kingdom people being overridden by a callous branding strategy, in a way that misses the diverse Gospel nuance of the vision presented in Revelation 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
(Rev 7:9 NIV)

Jesus’ Kingdom revolution promises us that ‘many who are first will be last’, and that those who desire to be great amongst his people must be servants, with childlike faith (e.g. Mark 10:13-14, 31,35-45). Such words ought to make us question how we choose which faces fit with our particular style of church, and what our choices say about our value systems.

I could go on of course, but for the sake of brevity I shall end by asking the obvious question(s): Do our churches model brand driven homogeneity verging on elitism, or Kingdom driven humility where the usual suspects don’t end up taking centre stage? [10] Does the well marketed, expensive, slick, consumer-oriented, comfortable, pop-music driven brand epitomised by the Hillsong model look like Jesus? Would church ‘X’ sum up his strategy?

Following on from this, a final question linking back to the title: What can discerning believers do when confronted with the reality that their own church may be heading down a broad path, wherein their trajectory has far more in common with Hillsong/church ‘X’ brand, than the narrow, Kingdom-oriented life modeled by Jesus? Assume that divine favour must be at work, as the branding builds momentum? Remain indifferent and carry on, business as usual (pun intended)? Stay and fight for change, or run and trust God for the details? Another option? What do you think?

Personally, I would tread very carefully indeed.

M

1. Wagner, Thomas, in Stolz, Jörg, & Usunier, Jean-Claude, Religions as Brands: New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, Ashgate Publishing Surrey, England: 2014, 59.

2. Ibid, 60.

3. Ibid, 62.

4. Ibid, 64.

5. Ibid, 65-67.

6. Ibid, 67-70.

7. Ibid, 62.

8. e.g. Matt 13:53-58, 26:1-27:55, c.f. Mark 6:1-6, 14:1-15:40, Luke 4:16-30, 22:1-23:49, John 7:25-31, 11-19:30.

9. e.g. Matt 8:1-13, 28-34, 9:9-13, 18-34 12:9-14, 15:21-28, Mark 1:40-45, 5:1-34, 7:24-37, 10:46-52, John 4:1-44, 5:1-17, 7:53-8:11 etc.

10. I realise that this is a massively oversimplified contrast, which may in fact be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, I think it’s a question every church should routinely wrestle with.

Playing into the Devil’s Hands

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*Links are highlighted*

This post has been sparked by recent developments in the  conversation between Christians who hold an egalitarian position on gender roles and those who hold to a ‘complementarian’ view. In particular, I have felt compelled to write more fully on the subject than I have previously thanks to this challenging post by Tara Beth Leach, and the recent Mark Driscoll/Hillsong controversy, which sparked this response by Natalie Collins, aka ‘God Loves Women’. Whilst it was more of a laughable misfire than a decisive bullseye, this post by Grant Castleberry responding to the implementation of a gender neutral policy by the US retailer called ‘Target’, also helped to mobilise me into action. As Castleberry himself states, drawing on the wisdom of the US marines: ‘Lives depend, especially in combat, on speaking accurately and truthfully.’ Well said. It’s a shame that he didn’t do this when making this outrageous claim:

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Impassioned diatribes are seldom fruitful. As much as I may enjoy dancing with hyperbole, any writing with substance requires clarity and purpose. Thankfully, my evangelical theological persuasions leave me convinced that Jesus did not leave his Church bereft of direction (e.g. Matt 28:18-20, Mark 16:9-16, Luke 24:44-49, John 20:21, Acts 1:8). Spirit empowered Gospel proclamation and demonstration is arguably the crux of Jesus’ Kingdom driven mission, wherein the Church universal throughout history participates in God’s Divine purposes. The backbone of my motivation to study and write on subjects relevant to the Church is therefore driven by a desire to contribute to this wider endeavour. As an increasingly large number of scholars and pastors affirm, God’s expansive mission of cosmic redemption precedes the Church’s involvement in it. Jurgen Moltmann sums this up well by saying:

It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church. [1]

Context & Caveats

Context therefore, is key. Whichever historical, cultural, political, religious, ethnic, or geographical backdrop humanity may find itself in, the supremacy of Christ remains constant amidst a relentless ocean of flux (Col 1:15-23). His mission persists even when the Church falters. Whereas linear history is finite and fading way, Jesus promises that his own words will ‘never pass away’ (Matt 24:35,  Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33). Thus, I submit that whichever context we Christians find ourselves in throughout history, we are to ‘read’ our situation(s) in light of Jesus’ own words, whilst also seeking to obey them (e.g. Matt 7:21-27, Mark 8:34-35, Luke 6:46-49).

More importantly, we are also to generally interpret Scripture via the lens of Jesus Christ, with a distinctive Gospel focus, culminating in the missiological thrust described in the opening paragraph of this post (e.g. Luke 24:27, 44-49, John 5:39, 1 Cor 15:3-4). Many of these principles form the core of my own ‘integrative’ theological method, which I am developing throughout my Masters course.

Applying aspects of my theological method to current debates within Western Evangelicalism is good practice for the rest of my studies, which are about to formally recommence following a Summer break. This blog is generally a place where I post thoughts, ideas, commentary, and look for feedback to test my thinking and writing. Hence the title of my blog is a deliberate play on words: “Re:Forming Theology” is meant to evoke associations with Reformation Theology (contra Roman Catholicism), yet also suggest an ongoing process of ‘reforming’ my thinking to bring it more into line with Christian scripture. Thus, in many ways, my writing here represents evolving reflections on my own Theology, which is itself still ‘forming’. I am not claiming to have the last word(s) on any given topic.

Sinful Consequences

So with context and caveats firmly in place, I shall now turn to the matter in hand for this post. In short, I submit that by embracing a patriarchal view of gender roles, the Church is unwittingly playing into the Devil’s hands, and therefore unnecessarily clinging to one of the consequences of the fall described in Genesis 3:

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen 3:16 NIV, emphasis mine).

Alongside the other consequences of sin initially inflicted upon our rebellious ancestors, this twofold act of punitive divine justice sets forth a pattern for future generations. Given that Eve is subsequently described as ‘the mother of all the living’, the author of Genesis arguably depicts patriarchy as an unavoidable form of bondage which fallen humanity is unable to escape (Gen 3:20). Thus, the consequences of sin are listed as painful childbirth, patriarchy, cursed ground/earth, painful toil/hard work required of humanity in order to extract natural resources, and death (Gen 3:16-19). Doubtless there are myriad other interpretations of this contentious passage with reference to patriarchy (most of which I have yet to research), yet I currently find this one compelling for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Hebrew Scripture (our Old Testament) is replete with narrative upon narrative wherein humanity is structured in a patriarchal fashion; men are repeatedly described as ruling over women. Secondly, beyond ancient Israel, human history and culture has generally operated within a patriarchal framework (granted, this is a massive generalisation). Thirdly, and finally for now, evidence abounds for the fact that patriarchy is very often functionally synonymous with words like subjugation, oppression, marginalisation, control, and enslavement. As I have written about previously, the problem of patriarchy repeatedly manifests itself in our world today. Noticing it is really just a matter of bothering to look at reality as it is; although a case could be made that though many of us have been given eyes, we need divine revelation in order to truly ‘see’ (e.g. Acts 26:18, 2 Cor 4:3-5).

Parking the Problem Texts

At this point, many obvious objections can be made. For instance, some proponents of patriarchy, such as the council for biblical manhood and womanhood (see “Affirmations”, point 3), believe that it is part of God’s plan for humanity and rooted in creation, which is why biblical literature is seemingly saturated with an overwhelmingly patriarchal worldview. A litany of biblical charges are generally brought against a non-patriarchal position on the grounds of various “problem” texts. There are many ‘apparently plain’ instructions in New Testament literature wherein the original authors seem to expect women in the 1st century A.D. to be functionally subordinate to men, both within the home and the church (e.g. 1 Tim 2:12, 1 Cor 14:34-35, Eph 5:22, Col 3:18 1 Peter 3:1-6, etc…). Solving the riddle of what biblical gender roles are really meant to look like today will require serious, sustained exegetical engagement on texts like these. Needless to say, such an endeavour is far beyond the confines of this blog post, so whilst I recognise the issue with texts like these, I am temporarily parking them until such time as I can give them proper attention. I am not simply dismissing them out of hand.

Instead, I shall share some brief thoughts to expand my opening ideas, before raising a few necessary tensions which believers must wrestle with in order to do justice to the biblical texts in question. Without further ado, I shall return to my thesis.

Divine Origins?

A heinous legacy of physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse which causes women to be effectively dehumanised is, to my mind, definitely not part of God’s original design. Since patriarchy is a consequence of sin, those determined to sustain and promote it within the Church are effectively siding with the serpent in the creation narratives, as it is this character who questions God’s integrity (Gen 3:1-4). To illustrate how reinforcing patriarchy beyond the Christ event misrepresents God’s creative masterpiece, we might rephrase the serpent’s subterfuge by asking “did God really create humanity in his own image and likeness, making them male and female with no reference to any kind of functional hierarchy?” (Gen 1:26-28). Or perhaps “did God really say that the man would rule over the woman as a punitive result of their collective disobedience?” The burden of proof rests upon complementarians to unpick the inherent exegetical problems with claiming that patriarchy is part of the created order, as opposed to one of the consequences of sin in a fallen world.

Following on from the creation and fall narratives, the remainder of the Old Testament shows us how the consequences of sin (which must include patriarchy) gradually corrupt God’s intentions for humanity. As the subsequent biblical metanarrative unfolds, even God’s chosen people cannot escape the devastation of their fallen nature. This raises another difficult question for complementarians, since if patriarchy was part of God’s good creation, why did ancient Israel stumble and fail to remain faithful to God? An immediate, obvious answer from a New Testament perspective might be the issue of unavoidable sin (e.g. Rom 3:9-26). Unfortunately, this is extraordinarily problematic as if humanity is bound to sin and it’s consequences, then patriarchy is included as one of those consequences.

Thus, to point to the broader historical legacy of patriarchy as grounds for affirming it as part of God’s good creation is a self-defeating argument. Instead, the ongoing sins of humanity ensure the persistence of patriarchy. The presence of patriarchy throughout biblical literature proves that God’s original design for humanity remains corrupted by the fall. As Paul himself writes, Adam’s disobedience bound humanity to all of the consequences of sin, ostensibly including patriarchy (Rom 5:12-21, Gen 3:16). By contrast, believers in Christ are set free from the curse of the fall and the consequences of sin, which suggests that new covenant humanity is also freed from the necessity of patriarchy (e.g. Rom 6:5-14, 8:1).

An obvious objection at this point in my thesis could be that since Christian women have not generally been set free from the pain of childbirth, that there are no legitimate grounds for banishing patriarchy due to the Gospel; rather, the promise of a renewed creation is confined to a distant, post-resurrection future. I would counteract this concern since whilst it is legitimate in one sense, the manner in which men and women relate to each other is changeable prior to Jesus’ return, whereas the created order is somewhat more fixed and beyond our individual control (scientific advancements aside for a moment). Relationships involve choices bound up within the realm of morality, whereas the fabric and nature of the universe we inhabit does not.

Men are therefore no longer bound by God’s judgement to rule over women in a patriarchal fashion, but are instead set free to enjoy the fruits of truly biblical equality in Christ. Perhaps this is why one of the contentious “problem” texts listed above, which is routinely leveraged by complementarians, actually begins with the phrase ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph 5:21 NIV, emphasis mine). Tellingly, many complementarian citations of the subsequent verses in Ephesians 5 which instruct wives to submit to their husbands, conveniently omit or gloss over this opening sentence. They also frequently fail to adequately convey the extraordinary nature of the command that husbands are to mimic Christ’s sacrificial death when loving their wives. If anything represents an act of outrageous submission, it is surely the humble stance adopted by Jesus on the cross (c.f. Phil 2:5-8)?

Married to the Church?

Mutual submission within marriage may indeed be a difficult pill for complementarians to swallow, yet even by discussing this particular passage in Ephesians we run into another substantial elephant in the corner of the debate. Namely, do so-called complementarian biblical patterns for the household necessarily transfer to church governance? If so, why? Does Paul clearly state this in Ephesians or Colossians? Does the author of 1 Peter 3 or 5? Is the hotly disputed passage in 1 Timothy 2 even directly applicable to how Church leadership is structured, since the original Greek for ‘men and women’ in this text can also be translated as ‘husband and wife’? Is the potential ambiguity here problematic? If not, why not?

The Body Politic & Mission

The crux of the matter here is simple enough to investigate. When Paul describes his view that within the Church God has appointed ‘apostles’, ‘prophets’, and ‘teachers’ in a kind of functional hierarchy or order (1 Cor 12:28, c.f. Eph 2:20, 4:11-13), how does his alleged prohibition of all women everywhere (for all time) from Church leadership align with Phoebe (a Deaconness, presumably entailing leadership), Junia (potentially an apostle), or Priscilla (teaching Apollos) (Rom 16:1-7, Acts 18:24-26)? More importantly, if gender is the defining restriction on leadership roles within the Church, as some would determine from various aforementioned passages (e.g. 1 Tim 2:12 1 Cor 8:1-16, 14:34-35), how do we reconcile such a view with this “problem” text for complementarians?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise
(Gal 3:26-29 NIV emphasis mine).

To clear, I do not think that Paul simply flattens out the distinction between men and women in this passage. I affirm that (by and large) there are natural differences between the sexes which are divinely ordained, and that this is in fact part of God’s original design for humanity. One of the straw men attacked by the council for biblical manhood and womanhood, is that egalitarians seek to remove or dismiss all differences between men and women, thereby denigrating God’s image and leading to ‘increasingly  destructive consequences  in  our  families,  our  churches,  and  the  culture  at  large’ (see “Affirmations”, point 10).

Some egalitarians may wish to neutralise the distinction between men and women, however I do not subscribe to this position. Rather, I do not see the logical necessity of any hierarchy emanating from our physiology. The fact that I have male genitalia dangling between my legs does not mean that I must assume a culturally conditioned gender role, such as that suggested by Grant Castleberry at the beginning of this post. My body does not grant me the authority to assert my leadership credentials over and above women in the body of Christ. Neither does it put me in a position to restrict those whom God has called to ministry based upon their sex or gender.

Might I submit at this point, that in order for the Church to effectively participate in Jesus’ mission, she must first achieve ‘unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:13 NIV). If Jesus gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in order to make this lofty goal possible, and the Spirit of God assigns such gifts within the body of Christ according to his will (1 Cor 12:4-11), limiting women who may have such gifts to roles which stifle them into arbitrary submission is devastatingly unhealthy for the Church.

Given the cryptic portrayal Paul paints of the Church being caught up within the cosmic struggle between darkness and light, it is perhaps unsurprising that egalitarian attempts to remove the shackles of patriarchy have been met with fierce resistance (Eph 6:10-18). By stirring up division within the wider body of Christ on any number of issues, all participants are potentially to blame for playing into the Devil’s hands. Or has the influence of enlightenment naturalism made us naive enough to think that we are merely wrestling with flesh and blood during debates such as these? I may not be able to offer a concrete solution to the problem of patriarchy within the Church, but I hope that this post at least contributes to the conversation in some small way by highlighting some of the broader issues.

Jesus, Jews, and Gentiles?

In closing, some final thoughts. Did Jesus explicitly prohibit women from leadership roles? More importantly, did he affirm patriarchy as part of the created order, or was his hearkening back to the creation narratives regarding marriage suggestive of the idea that God’s original good intentions have been marred by human sinfulness (Mark 10:2-12)? Additionally, to contrast with the above quote from Galatians 3, does Jesus suggest that the Old Testament law remains binding on Jewish people until the end of history when Christ returns (Matt 5:17-20)? If so, does the Old Testament law explicitly enshrine patriarchy as a non negotiable aspect of obedience to God?

Now here’s the rub: In any case, are Gentile Christians bound to the same requirements laid down in the Old Testament Jewish law, or have things significantly changed in light of Jesus, and the Jerusalem council recorded by Luke (Acts 15:19-29)?

Finally, to leave you with something to chew on: if you self identify as an evangelical Christian, and are not of Jewish descent (thus, not a ‘Messianic’ Jew who believes in Jesus), have you ever eaten black pudding, rare steak, or checked that your meat has not been strangled (see above passage in Acts)?

Too much to swallow?

J

1. Moltmann, Jurgen, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, London: SCM Press, 1977, 64.

Audience Participation?

A recent online discussion regarding the concentration span and intellectual capacity of blog readers was sparked by Alastair Roberts, who posted this tweet in response to critics of a 5000 word blog post by Matt Lee Anderson on the Mere Orthodoxy site:

A number of people (myself included) immediately challenged Alastair’s comment for a range of reasons, which caused him to attempt to negate criticism via the repeated use of an ad hominem argument (i.e. blame the readers). The wider point raised was how to improve the standard of public discourse, which seems reasonable enough. For the record, I do greatly respect Alastair, and am very grateful for the ongoing, considered contribution he makes to a broad range of discussions. I would generally agree with his contention that those who are able to do so (and are bereft of any genuine reason why they cannot, i. e. Work/Family demands, dyslexia, etc), ought to make a concerted effort to engage well with online content prior to expecting any meaningful interaction with the author(s). Nevertheless, one of several sticking points for me during our brief exchange was the notion that only “informed” participants (i. e. Highly intelligent, well read, time rich) had any “right” to interact with online public conversations, such as those conducted between bloggers like Alastair and Matt.

*see update at end of post*

Doubtless, I could very easily write 5000 words about this topic, why I disagree, the inherent problems such an attitude to critics poses, and so forth. I could (perhaps should?) undertake slavish research prior to doing so, such as visiting local university libraries (I live in Cambridge so there are substantial resources available to me here), sift through peer reviewed academic articles, discuss the issues with other academics, spend long hours wandering alone through the Fens in a state of rabid contemplation, etc. Such an endeavour would probably beef up my blog post, strengthen my burgeoning academic credentials, fortify my argument by enabling me to appeal to innumerable, renowned thinkers, and in all likelihood cause my job, wife and baby boy to forget who I am (resulting in personal and financial ruin). My beard would also, very likely, get significantly thicker, greyer, and more terrifying (who has time for personal hygiene when there are books to be read?).

Unfortunately, I have neither the time, energy or wherewithal to do any of these things at present. Should I ever progress beyond my MA, it is possible that I may be presented with the luxury of funded doctoral research, in which case such an attractive, erudite lifestyle may become temporarily possible. In the meanwhile, I thought I would share an interdisciplinary perspective from my experience as a trained musician.

I have spent the better part of two decades learning, studying and practising the guitar. I possess a number of instrumental certificates proving that, on paper at least, I am a highly qualified and capable instrumentalist. I also have an undergraduate degree in Music, and twelve years of experience as a player and teacher since my graduation. When it comes to music, and the guitar in particular, I really am a bona fide “expert”. I view all of this as a gift from God, and know that I am also merely one lone figure amongst the countless hordes of similarly capable musicians out there. In other words, for all of my skills, I am nothing special or unique. Many better, more well known players exist.

Now, to my point: when I go out into the real world and play live music in a wide variety of different formats and settings, regardless of how well I play or how well prepared I am, some people dislike what they hear. Many simply don’t care about the music I play, and even go as far as to complain (to the musicians and/or the venue) that the music is happening in their presence at all. Others feel the need to wander up to the band, mid performance (depending on the venue), and ask for requests (ostensibly they would prefer their request to what we are playing). Still others decide that they ought to give advice to the musicians about their playing, compare them to other artists and/or cite perceived influences, for instance saying something along the lines of: “you guys really sound like {insert tawdry artist here}”. The warning I received from my guitar tutor prior to embarking on my move to Cambridge was simple, and proved to be true: “Just remember, some people will hate what you do, regardless of how ‘good’ it is musically. Learn to live with that”. Yet here is the crux of the matter for me: Play in Public, expect to interact with the Public.

Many, many people who have accosted myself and other musicians over the years and offered their thoughts have been disastrously “uninformed”. They have no formal musical training, don’t listen widely, and in some cases appear to lack any respect for skilled musicians at all. Of course, some are the exact opposite to this, and are very well informed. You just never know what you might get; each gig is different. Yet can you imagine what would happen if, for every ignorant, opinionated buffoon I encountered, I responded to their comments with:

“Sorry, you don’t have the right to talk to me, sit down and shut up whilst myself and the band give you a musical education, oh and do your best to be grateful for it too! If you want to talk music with me go and get yourself a decade or so of lessons and a degree, then come back to me. Thanks.”

I suspect the Police and the paramedics would be the next people involved in the discussion. Either that, or the band would be making a somewhat swift move toward the fire exit, gear in tow. The bottom line is this: Dare to play in the Public square? Don’t be surprised by what you find there.

Now, arguably the rules of engagement are somewhat different for writing than they are for music, yet does the average punter see things this way? If a person consumes the album my band puts online (which costs time and money to record, produce, rehearse etc) and makes derogatory comments, complains that the tracks are too long (admittedly, they are!), etc.. do I discount their views because they are “uninformed?”. I may do, yet one thing surely remains consistent: whatever I put out on the world wide web is immediately subject to public scrutiny and interaction, whether I like it or not. Is this ideal? Perhaps not. Are all the comments received fair or valid? Probably not. Should I take the rough with the smooth and deal with it? Is written content qualitatively identical, or at least equal to auditory content insofar as Jane Public understands it (as she consumes it via some kind of i-Prod-like device)?

Yes. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to put it out for public consumption. Simple. Such is the digital age we currently inhabit. As much as I hate to be the one to shatter our collective delusions of grandeur, I thus contend that blogs are no different to garage band demos, or well written and refined albums, at least not in the eyes or ears of the wider public. Telling them that they are stupid and need to try harder to appreciate the content we present to them is, quite frankly, asking for trouble and/or a waste of time. It is almost guaranteed to change absolutely nothing and alienate any potential audience immediately. I would strongly advise against such a strategy. If we want to raise the level of public discourse, we who provide content to the public must raise our game and learn to understand our audience. We must develop content that, on its own merits, both captures and retains the attention of the wider public. They owe us precisely nothing.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

M

*Update* Alastair helpfully clarified his somewhat more nuanced position in the comments section below. He describes it succinctly in the following way:

My underlying point was that participation and being informed must be related. Having conversations in public is a way for people to become informed and to increase their participation.

Whilst I don’t disagree with this statement in principle, I don’t think it works so well in the warp and woof of reality, as it is perhaps a little idealistic. Where I have misrepresented Alastair in any way, I apologise. This was not my intention. Unfortunately, I still think much of this discussion boils down to differences over public perception vs the original author’s intentions/ideals. I fear that the beleaguered reader/author relationship once again rears its ugly, postmodern head, leaving a trail of ambiguity in its wake.

When should we baptise children, and why?

Two recent events have led me to think about the subject of infant baptism afresh. Firstly, I attended an Anglican christening service and was struck by the remarkably coherent logic of the ceremony. The child is not expected to make a verbal declaration of faith for obvious reasons (i.e. being unable to speak!), and so the parents instead effectively ‘dedicate’ their offspring to Jesus. They essentially make declarations on their child’s behalf until such time as said child is able to decide what they think of Jesus for themselves. In many ways, this is analogous to process of ‘dedication’ (minus the ritual sprinkling) undertaken by modern, Pentecostal-Charismatic Credo-Baptism adherents, such as myself. We generally prefer to delay baptism until the child is old enough to make a verbal declaration of faith in Jesus, and understand what they are saying.

Secondly, I read this post by Andrew Wilson on the Think Theology blog, which highlighted a position I had never heard of before, wherein baptism is directly connected to church discipline. He quotes an article by Joe Rigney on the Desiring God website, who describes his understanding this way:

When they are baptized, they will come under the church’s authority directly. Then the church will have the responsibility to correct and discipline them for their sins. Thus, in my view, we should wait to baptize until children are ready to assume that mantle of responsibility.

Wilson agrees with Rigney’s distinction between ‘mature and immature professions of faith’ without endorsing the connection to church discipline. Notably, Rigney ends his article by claiming that his view is consistent with what he calls ‘the biblical witness about the requirements for baptism and congregational church government’. Despite this contentious statement, the only biblical text Rigney cites in support of his view is Galatians 4:1-2, which he uses as a proof text to buttress his distinction between maturity and immaturity. In fairness, Rigney admits that whilst ‘relevant’, this text is not ‘a direct argument for withholding baptism till adulthood’, and that his article is not ‘a full biblical defense of this distinction’.

Nevertheless, in a spirit of generosity, Rigney’s exegesis is one of the worst examples of proof texting I have seen for many years. Paul’s wider discussion in Galatians 4 is in the context of a candid rebuke of the pursuit of the flesh (i.e. works of the Jewish law from the Hebrew Bible) instead of Christ crucified and the Spirit as a means of salvation (e.g. Gal 3). It says nothing about the literal distinction between adults and children with regards to salvation, never mind baptism.

In fact, Paul is writing metaphorically by describing (adult) believers as children now that they have been redeemed from spiritual bondage, and even goes as far as to say that a redeemed believer is ‘no longer a slave, but God’s child‘..whom ‘God has made…an heir‘ (Gal 4:3-7, emphasis mine). Rigney’s shoehorning of the distinction between heirs and slaves in Galatians 4:1-2 into his own distinction between adults/children, and mature/immature ‘professions of faith’ as regards baptism doesn’t work. At all.

Which brings me to my main point. Grown men can bluster and bundle together as many bold rhetorical statements about the biblical witness to X and Y as they like, but for any so-called ‘biblical witness’ to genuinely hold water, it has to pass the ultimate litmus test: Jesus. [1] How does biblical literature depict his view of whether or not the church should restrict children from accessing the new covenant relationship with him? As I’ve been pondering this, I keep being reminded of some niggling verses, one of which is described by another theologian called Patrick Schreiner as ‘a favorite passage of Presbyterians, and a thorn to some Baptists’ (Matt 19). They are worth quoting in full:

‘Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.   Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.’ – (Matt 19:13-15 NIV)

‘People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.’ – (Mark 10:13-16 NIV)

‘People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” –
(Luke 18:15-17 NIV)

Clearly, the ongoing conversation between Baptists, Presbyterians, and other denominations as regards infant baptism is not going to go away anytime soon. Schreiner himself describes the more recent online discussion between Wilson, Rigney, Jonathan Leeman, and Mark Jones as being something of a ‘little dust storm’, for which Schreiner does not have a ‘final word’ to offer. Quite right. Neither do I. Yet I would immediately point to the parallel verses cited above as compelling evidence that Jesus commanded that our children be unimpeded from ‘coming to him’. What are our denominational distinctives in this area as Credo-Baptists, if not impediments?

What is more, whilst Paul only mentions baptism twice, he does appear to equate it with, or at least explicitly links it to circumcision, and yet goes further in saying that ‘in Christ’ circumcision is ‘not performed by human hands’ (Col 2:9-15). What place then, for adult intervention in the salvation of children, or their adoption into the new covenant relationship with God? Furthermore, Paul’s expansive discussion of the Spirit/Flesh antithesis in Romans arguably adds clarity to this idea. When he makes bold statements such as ‘a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit and not by the written code’, proponents of withholding baptism from children ought to at least pause for thought (Rom 2:28-29). Also, if baptism is in some way the new circumcision, or at least directly linked to it, let us not forget that Jewish law insisted that infants be circumcised after eight days (Gen 17:10-14, Lev 12:3). Presumably, they hadn’t yet made a ‘credible’ or ‘mature’ profession of faith in God?

After all, if physical circumcision itself is merely a ‘sign’ and ‘seal’ of the righteousness brought about by faith, then surely it is faith in, and relationship with Jesus, instigated by him via the Spirit, that corroborates a person’s salvation, infants included (Rom 4:11)? Given the tail end of Paul’s admonition to the Colossians to eschew dead rituals for their own sake, should we not ponder the extent to which our doctrinal hobby horses are potentially legalistic (Col 2:16-23)?

As Rigney rightly admits about his own use of Galatians 4, the thorny passages from the synoptic gospels don’t directly apply to infant baptism. Yet if any texts do make a compelling case for demolishing the distinction between ‘mature and immature professions of faith’, arguably, it is these ones. Paul certainly pushes back against arbitrary distinctions whereby baptism may or may not be the new circumcision, yet unquestionably connects the two; he also makes it clear that human hands are not responsible for the heart change involved therein. Perhaps more importantly, would I withhold my own baby boy from coming to Jesus merely because he can’t yet articulate his desire and reasoning to me in a linguistically and intellectually elegant way?

I think not. If nothing else, Jesus gives me cause to seriously reconsider my own theology of baptism. As for church ‘discipline’ (whatever that means), do we not lovingly discipline our children? Furthermore, am I really so proud and foolish as to think that God cannot challenge and rebuke me through one of his (and/or my) children?

A certain talking donkey springs to mind (Num 22:27-30).

M

1. I realise that this is a massive oversimplification, and runs the risk of implying that I adopt a ‘canon within the canon’ approach, also described by Andrew Wilson and Derek Rishmawy as the ‘Jesus tea strainer’. For the record, this is not how my theological method operates, although Jesus is described as the end goal or telos of scripture (e.g. Luke 24:27, 44-49, John 5:39). A fuller treatment of this topic is way beyond the scope of this short blog post.

40 Questions for Christians arguing over the Redefinition of Marriage

black-and-white-people-bar-men

I am late to the debate and in all honesty, I find the whole conservative vs progressive Christian exchange increasingly hard to stomach, or take seriously. As I have written about previously, I just do not think it is very fruitful or healthy to constantly dwell on the so called ‘culture wars’ between conservative and progressive Christians (whatever those labels mean!). If nothing else, the predictable and stale rhetoric is wearisome.

Disengaging from the fray entirely seems ignorant however, since these conversations are happening anyway. So, in the spirit of these posts by Kevin De Young and Matthew Vines, (Clickable) I thought I’d add my own voice into the mix. To be very clear, I am speaking here entirely to those who self identify as Christian, and who are engaged in the debate already. Without further ado, here we go:

#1 Do you love Jesus and consider him your Lord and Saviour?

#2 If yes, how do you routinely demonstrate your love for him?

#3 Do you agree, on the basis of various biblical passages, that ‘loving Jesus’ requires something more than mere mental or verbal assent? [1]

#4 If not, why not?

#5 If yes, does your desire to argue with others (for instance via social media/blog posts) regarding contentious issues such as the redefinition of marriage demonstrate your love for Jesus?

#6 If so how?

#7 Have you received any formal theological training (See footnote)? [2]

#8 If not, do you agree that it might be wise to do so prior to venturing your own dogmatic assertions regarding sensitive topics?

#9 Either way, do you feel that you have exhaustive knowledge of biblical literature, and the ancient literature contemporaneous to it?

#10 If yes, how much biblical/ancient literature have you memorised in the original languages, taking into account textual variants?

#11 If none, have you at least regularly engaged with all of/a range of said literature in translation?

#12 Either way, how do you go about interpreting the text(s) in question? Which (if any) methods do you consciously make use of?

#13 If none, do you think there are any subconscious methods which you utilise when engaging with biblical literature?

#14 Do you know what ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘groupthink’ are?

#15 If so, how do you consciously try to compensate for confirmation bias/group think when arriving at your own/agreeing with other interpretations of biblical literature?

#16 If you answered ‘no’ to #14, are you willing to learn?

#17 Do you think it’s fair to say that all readers/hearers, including scholars/pastors/church leaders etc, come to the biblical text with presuppositions?

#18 If not, why not?

#19 If so, what are some of your presuppositions, and how do they inform your understanding of the Bible?

#20 How aware are you of church history, tradition, denominational distinctives, and the current diversity of opinion regarding what constitutes ‘sound doctrine’ from the perspective of global Christianity?

#21 To directly quote a biblical text do you think you are generally ‘quick to listen, slow to speak’, and have managed to ‘tame’ your tongue? [3]

#22 If so, how many conservative evangelical Christians, or Christians of other persuasions who hold traditional views on marriage, have you sat down and respectfully listened to regarding their views on marriage over the past 12 months?

#23 By the same token, how many LGBT affirming Christians/Christian supporters of the redefinition of marriage have you sat down and respectfully listened to regarding their views on marriage over the past 12 months?

#24 How many people (Christian or not) who self identify as LGBT have you sat down and respectfully listened to for any reason, and particularly regarding their views on marriage/sexuality, over the past 12 months?

#25 What do you think the ‘gospel’ means from a Christian perspective?

#26 How did you arrive at your conclusion to #25?

#27 Based on your understanding of the gospel, do you think a modern ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ view of sexual identity is the primary focus of the gospel?

#28 If so, why?

#29 If not, why not?

#30 How do you think Jesus defined marriage (if at all), based on the record we have of his own words? [4]

#31 How do you think Jesus defined the requirements of being a disciple (if at all), based on the record we have of his own words (See #3)?

#32 How is your contribution to this heated debate regarding the redefinition of marriage informed by #30 and #31?

#33 How does your own life demonstrate/match Jesus’ requirements of his disciples?

#34 Would others, who either know you well and see you regularly, or don’t know you but follow you on social media, agree with your self-assessment based on #1, #2, #14-16, #20-24, #32, and #33?

#35 Do you think Jesus’ love is demonstrated when progressive Christians demonise traditional marriage supporters?

#36 Do you think Jesus’ love is demonstrated when conservative Christians demonise supporters of the redefinition of marriage?

#37 Do you think that basically, you are generally right and others are wrong?

#38 If so, do you think the world would be a better place if everyone thought as you do?

#39 What do you think Jesus makes of this kind of heated debate (which includes this blog post), and your answers to all of these questions?

#40 Do you think the watching world is compelled by the vision of church/Christianity it sees during debates like this one, in terms of how believers of different theological persuasions, backgrounds, and traditions love each other? [5]

M

1. e.g. Matt 5:2-48, 6, 7:1-27, 9:10-13, 10:32-39, 12:46-50, 15:10-11, 16-20, 16:24-28, 18:1-9, 15-20, 19:3-12, 16-30, 22:36-40, 23:1-12, 25:31-46, 28:18-20, Mark 3:31-34, 4:21-25, 7:14-23, 8:34-38, 9:42-50, 16:15-18, Luke 6:20-49, 8:16-21, 9:62, 11:28, 12:22-34, 13:24-30, 14:25-33, 16:13, 18:15-17, 24:45-49, John 3:16-21, 3:35-36, 4:22-24, 7:37-39, 8:12, 31-32, 47, 12:25-26, 14:15-21, 15:5-8, 10, 12-17.

2. A friend helpfully challenged me on this, so I wanted to clarify: I’m not suggesting that this is essential for developing an understanding of scripture, or forming a valid opinion of your own. Rather, I’m suggesting that it is advisable, prior to dogmatically asserting an interpretation as being self-evident/clear (or worse yet a ‘fact’), to pursue theological training. I would humbly suggest that this is even more important if you are asserting an opinion in a public/group setting, or on social media.

3. James 1:19, 3:1-12.

4. Matt 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12.

5. John 13:34-35.