Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Two: Bill Johnson, Donald Trump & Evangelical Reckoning

*Links are highlighted.

This is the second post in a series wherein I attempt to explore and articulate the nature of my own evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In my original plan for the first draft of this (less than) brief missal, I considered the construction of a selective narrative explaining how my spiritual journey has been shaped by various different church contexts in recent years. Recent events in America, however, have led me to refocus my efforts on the specific and pervasive influence that Bethel Church in Redding, California has had on my encounter with a distinct subset of UK Evangelicalism throughout the past ten years. Apologies in advance for any subversive, grammatically obtuse hilarity that may ensue.

Feel The Burn

I can still recall my first charismatic ‘encounter’ at a church ‘worship’ service on a Sunday evening (worship in this case meant singing, with no sermon or communion etc). The setting seemed innocuous enough at first, and consisted of a rented space above a set of tennis courts. I cannot remember the precise nature of the music, but at some point there was an altar call and eager worshippers were encouraged to take a step forward as a physical act of pursuing God. Being a zealous, recent convert, I complied. What happened next took me by surprise.

*Boom* – I received prayer for the Holy Spirit to fall upon me. The (customary) palm was placed upon my forehead, and before I knew what was happening I ended up flat on my back as my whole body buckled (does one fall or is one pushed?). Seemingly, I was now under the influence of some unseen, spectral entity. Thankfully, I was gently lowered to the floor by a group of volunteers, whom I discovered were known as ‘catchers’. Clearly, collapsing Christians were to be expected, since apparently this phenomenon was commonplace in charismatic church circles. I vaguely remembered the pastor calling out to God for ‘unquenchable fire’ (which I later discovered had distinctly eschatological connotations; Matt 3:12). As I lay on the floor, with my eyes closed, I had clear visions of an exalted Jesus Christ like figure against the backdrop of a blue sky, surrounded by cumulonimbus. This really was a full blown religious experience unlike any I had received before, and marked my introduction to the Pentecostal-charismatic movement.[1] It would be entirely fitting to describe the whole scenario as a baptism of fire.

Over the years that followed this experience, I found myself in similar contexts on many occasions. Church services, conferences, ‘worship’ nights, and prayer meetings with various charismatic church groups all had one thing common: an expectation of some kind of powerful ‘encounter’ or experience with what participants were taught was the Holy Spirit. Preachers would ‘share’ messages that were at times scripted (with varying degrees of precision), and at times purportedly unplanned and led by the Spirit. So called ‘prophetic words’ were part and parcel of such meetings, as speakers and members of the congregation offered what they believed was divinely inspired speech (viz. speaking on behalf God), which may or may not (oftentimes not) have involved references to Scripture. People in such settings were frequently overwhelmed by their religious experiences to the extent that they would cry out, shake, rattle, and roll, emit strange grunting sounds, animal noises, and babble in tongues, fall over, twitch uncontrollably, burst into spontaneous fits of laughter, and be reduced to tears. On occasion, people might even fall to their knees or lie prostrate in acts of reverence to their unseen perception of the divine. Then, there were the ‘fire tunnels’:

Do the Holy Cokey

As a youth, I must confess that I enjoyed gyrating my hapless, long haired, wannabe-goth-rocker clad frame around erratically in a vain attempt to ‘dance’ (strong word) or ‘mosh’ to whichever tunes were doing the rounds at the local Rock club. [2] This unfortunate predilection continued well into my early twenties, and was not even entirely dissuaded by my conversion to Christianity; I’ve always loved a good, slightly awkward looking boogie. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that charismatic Christianity, as I experienced it within a predominantly white, middle class, Western context, had more than it’s fair share of interpretive dance moves. From billowing ribbons, to fluttering flags, twirling tasmanian devil-like expressions of tortuous contortions were the order of the day for many a rhythmically challenged worshipper on the third wave charismatic scene.

One of the more intriguing movement based forms of Pentecostal piety that I partook in was the ‘fire tunnel’ (or prayer tunnel, for slightly embarrassed Brits who wanted to tone down the weirdness). Essentially, believers form two parallel lines, facing each other, and put their hands out to pray and/or bless people who form an orderly queue at one end and proceed to walk through said gauntlet. This holy cokey often (allegedly) involves people being overwhelmed by the Spirit as they are continuously prayed for by each pair of believers in the line as they pass through. Sometimes people have to be carried out as the experience is just too intense. Animal noises and rabid babbling may ensue. As peculiar as this practice is, audience participation in questionable modes of collaborative, ecstatic movement is hardly a difficult concept for a man who first crowd surfed to Pantera at the original UK ‘Ozzfest’, and survived several ‘circle pits’ at post-punk gigs and festivals.[3] I’ve been through a fair few fire tunnels, and as wonderfully daft and absurd as it may be, I’d done far worse during my misspent youth. If Anglo-catholic Christians are going to politely line up and receive the real body and blood of Christ in communion, are pentecostal-charismatic types really any more insane for expecting a divine encounter when receiving focused prayer?[4]

Fusing can be Fun

In my previous post, I quoted Kathy Escobar’s book entitled Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, wherein she describes the early stages of faith as a process called ‘fusing’, which consists of ‘believing‘, ‘learning‘, and ‘doing‘.[5] I believed in Jesus Christ, so I began to learn about him, attend church, and started ‘doing’ various religious activities. Another characteristic of fusing is a desire for ‘affiliation’, ‘conformity’, and ‘certainty’.[6] Borrowing Kathy’s language, I can now see how I wanted to be affiliated with certain church groups, and thus found myself subconsciously learning how to conform to the tacit expectations required within such contexts. I also gradually developed a growing sense of certainty about my faith and the nature of Christianity, albeit filtered through the various churches I attended and the people therein. Charismatic Christians were my brethren, so I adopted the mindsets, language, and subcultural affiliations that were part and parcel of my encounter with the wider pentecostal-charismatic movement in the West.

Experience had played a powerful role throughout my journey to faith, and my fusing process was saturated by subjective sensory stimulation that I readily attributed to God on many occasions. It wasn’t long before I was first exposed to the influence of the American megachurch pastor Bill Johnson, who emphasised a theology of pentecostal-charismatic encounter. As senior pastor of Bethel church in Redding, California, Johnson offered a vision of Christianity that pursued the supernatural presence of God more than many other preachers whom I had engaged with as a new believer. To sweeten the deal, Bethel also churned out a remarkable amount of guitar driven Christian pop-rock music, books, and multimedia resources for believers to consume. I was sold, and somewhat uncritically too at first. If I’m completely honest, oftentimes it was actually a lot of fun to pursue my new beliefs via the medium of corporate participation in bizarre charismatic practices, which usually took place to a familiar soft rock soundtrack provided by the likes of Bethel. I devoured their fodder, and gorged myself on Johnson’s charismatic theology by downloading sermons, podcasts, and reading books on topics such as Hosting [God’s] Presence and The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind. It helped that trusted friends were into the same ideas and bought the same products since after all, one must conform in order to be affiliated, no?

Powerful Promises

Power sells. White power, which promises prosperity and is galvanised by persuasive religious rhetoric, even more so. It is tempting to ignore, dismiss, disbelieve, minimise, and generally refuse to acknowledge the flaws of those whom we admire and trust the most. For many Evangelical Christians like me, Bill Johnson has been an important spiritual leader, guru, mentor, and guide through the labyrinthine maze of how a vibrant, living pentecostal-charismatic spirituality turns faith into praxis. Like many megachurch pastors he is a winsome communicator who tantalises the earnest seeker of all things spiritual with catchy, tweetable soundbites whilst tickling the ears of the uninitiated by appealing to their affections. Moreover, he stimulates and captures their imagination by promising that it is possible for believers to enjoy a miraculous lifestyle peppered with supernatural phenomena. For instance, as Johnson puts it:

God is changing the way Christians think about the so-called impossible. He is teaching us to work hand in-hand with the Kingdom so the reality of heaven comes crashing into earthly problems and overwhelms them. The results are astonishing miracles, great victories over the enemy, healing, deliverance, revelation, and more. It’s not hype; it’s not baseless hope or theory. It’s fact. [7]

And

In the end, nothing satisfies the heart of the Christian like seeing so-called impossibilities bow their knees to the name of Jesus. Anything less than this is abnormal and unfulfilling. [8]

Grounding his argument in an understanding of doing God’s will as the primary focus of Christian living, Johnson elaborates that:

To be effective believers, we must go well beyond the Christian life we have known. We must redefine “normal” Christianity so it lines up with God’s idea of normal, not the definition we have accepted and grown accustomed to based on our experiences (or lack thereof). The normal Christian life begins with the realization that we were put here to do the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.. [9]

Thus:

‘God..wants the reality of heaven to invade this rebel-torn world, to transform it, to bring it under His headship. What is free to operate in heaven—joy, peace, wisdom, health, wholeness, and all the other good promises we read about in the Bible—should be free to operate here on this planet, in your home, your church, your business, and your school. What is not free to operate there—sickness, disease, spiritual bondage, and sin—should not be free to operate here, period.’ [10]

So, for Johnson, the pursuit of the divine will ought to lead to positive change and prosperity. Presumably, if a believer is not experiencing this, they must be ‘confused’, and have been subjected to ‘bad teaching and disappointment’. [11] He sums up and reiterates the potential benefits that Christians can expect in the following terms:

‘What happens when we make this our mission? Lives are set free, bodies are restored, darkness lifts from people’s minds, the rule of the enemy is pushed back in every way imaginable. Businesses grow healthy, relationships flower again, people re-connect with their calling and purpose in life, churches grow, and cities feel the effects of having the Kingdom flourishing within them.’ [12]

For years I stoked the embers of my own dissatisfaction with the all too familiar reality of my own mundane existence by uncritically swallowing Johnson’s Theology of glory; with enough faith I too could enjoy health, wealth, and unprecedented supernatural phenomena on a daily basis. Why not? Surely this was God’s will? [13] If this wasn’t happening, surely there must be something amiss with me? Such were the kinds of questions that reverberated around within my thought world as I digested more and more charismatic theology from the likes of Bill Johnson and his known associates. [14] It almost felt as though regardless of whatever strife or angst I might have been experiencing in my first church, like minded people who defied Christian stereotypes and compelled me to press onwards in my increasingly pentecostal-charismatic faith journey were never more than a click away via podcast/recorded sermon/etc. Even my decision to appraise and critique Johnson’s theological method in one of my early MA papers didn’t dissuade me from listening to his voice, appreciating his perspective, and allowing him to have a significant measure of influence over me as a believer (albeit with a healthier dose of informed scepticism and sobriety). 

Then, Bill Johnson endorsed Donald Trump as President of the USA. Cue minor existential crisis.

Colour Blind?

For someone who has aspirations towards undertaking a career change by pursuing doctoral level research in Theology and Religious studies, it would be extraordinarily naive of me to think that I could even attempt such an endeavour without at least becoming more aware of my own colour blindness. I am a privileged, highly educated, middle class, white, Western, Christian male who simply does not (and to a large extent cannot) appreciate or understand the perspectives of people of colour within my own context or beyond. Racial prejudice is something I read about in the news, and generally never experience. Systemic evil and oppression feature primarily as hip sounding buzz terms in my latest missiology essay, and abstract (albeit genuinely horrifying) concepts which exist largely in my imagination. At best, the sickening realities too many people live with on a daily basis only become more tangible within my British Cantabrigian bubble when they are hidden within the sanitised words of a scholarly article or blog post that I stumble across on Twitter. I am ignorant, uninitiated, and blind to the struggles of race related bigotry and discrimination that perpetuates itself throughout Western culture. God forbid that such topics should ever darken the doors of my local church(es). 

Yet I can acknowledge the evil in our midst. I must, or I will never break free from the endless cycle of apathetic narcissism and sanctimonious (dis)harmony of indifference to real world suffering that Christ followers are surely called upon to challenge, alleviate, and oppose. Make no mistake, the insipid irony of a well respected, white male megachurch pastor like Bill Johnson (who preaches a message that promises believers power, influence, and prosperity) endorsing another white man who promises Americans the same things (albeit a different kind of power from a different source!) whilst branding the majority of Latino immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, rapists and murderers is not lost on me. Johnson wrote at length to justify his own support for Trump whilst ignoring and/or minimising Trump’s racist rhetoric, which has arguably energised the alt. right (read: white supremacist) movement in the USA and provided them with a platform and a sense of legitimacy. Notably, on this issue alone, Johnson has nothing to say about the significance of David Duke, the former head of the Klu Klux Klan, ‘rejoicing’ at Trump’s election victory. After a passing admonition of Trump’s misogynistic views and claims of being able to ‘grab [women] by the pussy’ and ‘do whatever [he] wants’ to them, Johnson dismisses any concerns by appealing to Trump’s public apology for being caught on camera. In addition, Johnson’s silence on Trump’s mockery of a disabled person, alongside allegations of widespread corruption in the former business practices of the President-Elect, suggests that either he hasn’t read articles like this one, and/or he disbelieves/disregards them if he has.  It is difficult to imagine quite how Johnson’s vision of Jesus’ Kingdom invading our earthly sphere of existence can be reconciled with the upsurge in right wing nationalism, racial  hatred, xenophobia, and misogyny that Trump’s candidacy has already enlivened and (to some extent) legitimised.

To say that I found Johnson’s uncritical public acceptance and support of Trump’s candidacy disappointing would be a grotesque understatement. By aligning himself with the legions of white Evangelicals who endorsed Trump, and by proxy his racist and misogynistic ideology (to say nothing of his potentially corrupt business practices), Johnson has shown solidarity with the oppressors of those who most fear a Trump presidency, and the destructive forces that his candidacy has already unleashed. Given Johnson’s influence over pentecostal-charismatic Christians within the broader context of Western Evangelicalism, this feels like a tragic betrayal. Worse still, it feels like an abandonment of the pastoral imperative to show solidarity with the ‘least of these’ over against one’s own interests, and the seductive allure of Empire (Matt 25:31-46). 

Unraveling the Gordian Knot

As the title of this, and my previous post suggest, my faith has been shifting in recent years. Kathy Escobar describes part of the shifting process as ‘unraveling’, in the following way:

Unraveling can be a season of grief and profound loss, where we lose certainty and faith, relationships and familiar structures, and identity and purpose. 

And

In many ways, Unraveling is like a game of spiritual Jenga. Over many years of Fusing we have built a tower of beliefs and practices. During Unraveling, we begin to pull these things out, unsure what it means for the rest of our faith. We wonder, If I take out this piece, is the whole Christian tower going to fall? Will losing this piece end the game entirely? How far can I go before my whole faith crumbles? …the bottom line is this: Unraveling is unnerving. [15]

Consider me unnerved. Whilst I wouldn’t identify with every aspect of the process that Escobar describes (for instance, my faith feels surprisingly robust!), I do recognise much of my journey in what she says. Insofar as Spiritual Jenga is concerned, my question might be: If I take out my reliance on the kind of pentecostal-charismatic theology proliferated by superstars like Bill Johnson, and stop consuming products by Bethel Church, will my faith ever recover it’s sense of urgency and pursuit of a lifestyle steeped in the miraculous? A broader question which I shall attempt to explore in my next post might be: can I still self-identify as ‘Evangelical’ and keep a clean conscience in light of the overwhelming support white Evangelicals like Bill Johnson have given to Trump? Can a white Western male such as myself possibly extricate himself from the pervasive influence of American Evangelicalism and yet retain a lively Christian Faith and sense of missiological purpose?

Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic, puts it well when she talks about The Evangelical Reckoning Over Donald Trump in the following terms:

..For some evangelical leaders, and particularly women and people of color, this election was never about power jockeying or compromise. To them, Trump represents a bigoted, misogynistic worldview and an existential threat…White, conservative Christians may have thought they were just casting a vote for president, but some of their brothers and sisters in the church see their choice as a direct and personal assault.

Thus, for many Christians (including me), whether or not to remain affiliated with Evangelicalism is now a serious question: Would doing so would violate their conscience? Thabiti Anyabwile puts it well when he says that:

Evangelicals in this vote have created a pretty deadly and chilling effect on their witness to Christ and the gospel, and the scriptures…

For that reason alone, my own decision is clear enough. I can no longer identify as ‘Evangelical’; Simply ‘Christian’ will have to do. Quite what any of that might entail, I shall leave until my next post.

M

End Notes:

1. I have deliberately chosen ‘pentecostal-charismatic’ as a catch-all term to denote Christians who believe in the restoration of the so called ‘charismatic’ gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12), which include various phenomena, such as speaking in tongues, healing, miracles, prophecy, words of knowledge, etc.. which are themselves dependent upon the ‘baptism’ or ‘infilling’ of the Spirit as a second blessing subsequent to conversion (and often water baptism). It goes without saying that such a staggeringly broad generalisation has little if any scholarly traction as it is too imprecise. Nevertheless, it shall have to do for now.

2. Yes, I once had long hair, sported an eyebrow piercing, and wore boots, chains, black nail polish, etc. No, I don’t regret it, and no, I don’t think heavy Rock/Metal/Alternative music and the connected subculture/fashion/etc is of the Devil. I still listen to heavy Rock music and I’m fairly sure that Jesus is a wicked guitarist. Make of that what you will!

3. For the uninitiated enquirer, crowd surfing is reasonably self explanatory: get up on top of a willing crowd, and be carried along by their hands, shoulders, and heads until you reach the barrier near the stage at the concert in question. At this point, burly security guards ought to manhandle you (for free!) and deposit you over the safety barrier where you can walk around to re-enter the morass of sweating bodies for another attempt. A circle pit is when a section of the crowd starts rotating around in a big, big circle, oftentimes flinging other people around in the process until chaos ensues. It’s rough, and a bit like a very tame bar brawl (hopefully with less people ending up in hospital or being arrested for GBH).

4. Questions of sanity aside (I’m not saying Anglo-Catholic or pentecostal-charismatic Christians are insane!), many believers report positive after effects of such pentecostal-charismatic practices. It may be pneumatological or psychosomatic, but whatever the case something certainly appears to be happening in these situations. Bizarre? Yes. Unbiblical? In a sense. Yet to be dismissed outright as plain loopy? Not so easy.

5. Escobar, Kathy, Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: Convergent Books; Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 23.

6.Ibid. 

7. Johnson, Bill, The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind: Access to a Life of Miracles, Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image Publishers Incorporated: 2005, 29-30.

8. Ibid, 31.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 32.

11. Ibid, 31.

12. Ibid, 32.

13. Paradoxically, for what it’s worth, I still think Jesus’ words about his followers doing greater works than him, and that all things are possible for the one who prays with faith, ought to challenge believers to pursue the apparent impossibility of his promises (Matt 21:21, Mark 11:23, John 14:12 etc).

14. E.g. Heidi & Rolland Baker, Georgian & Winnie Banov, Catch the Fire ministries, etc..

15. Escobar, Faith, 67.

Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations

Part One:

*Links are highlighted.

What follows is a personal reflection on my own evolving faith journey, as opposed to anything overtly theological or scholarly. Since my last blog post on Anglican Realignment, my family has had the joyous, privileged addition of a newborn baby to both amuse us, and remind us to be thankful for God’s generous provision and grace in our lives. That significant life event, twinned with restarting my Theology MA and getting stuck back into my professional work, has taken up a surprising amount of my time and energy (!). I have thus stayed my scribal hand from verbally excreting more half formed thoughts into the Christian stream of consciousness known informally as the ‘blogosphere’. In an age of disinformation overload within our 21st Century, Westernised digital economy, this is (un)certainly no bad thing. Talk is cheap; ambiguous symbols on HD screens even more so.

Considering all of the above factors alongside the humbling reality that my previous post prompted barely a squeak from the virtual wilderness into which it was jettisoned, I doubt that this one will garner much more (if any) subsequent engagement or feedback. Consequently, I shall be as frank, outrageously verbose, infernally imaginative, linguistically rabid, grammatically arcane, and unapologetically cantankerous as I please (although before you get your hopes up, I may end up being necessarily restrained at points). You have been warned; let the lyrical waxing commence!

Faith Shift(s)

‘What happens when all we once believed begins to become less solid and secure? When we sense that what weve been doing is not what Jesus had in mind for his followers? When we have years of head knowledge but our hearts feel empty and dead? When our tried-and-true methods of connecting with God stop working? When were disillusioned with church and dont know where to turn? When our faith is shifting and it feels like were in a free fall?’ – Kathy Escobar. [1]

‘Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.’ -Brennan Manning. [2]

Both of these quotes were sourced from Kathy Escobar’s book Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart. As I began reading her timely, yet far from timid tome, my somewhat corpulent cognitive and emotional faculties began to quiver like the loose midriff-fat on an over ambitious Russian Cossack dancer. Picture a morbidly hairy giant of a man, clad in obscene circus lycra, who seems hell bent on practising his macabre movements uninhibited in front of a dirty second hand mirror, and you get a sense of my state of mind at the time in question. As my neurological cellulite sprang into a state of perverse, electrified puppetry more akin to a mannequin than the man I’d been, I became dimly aware of a metaphorical energy saving light bulb casting it’s disappointingly (non)incandescent light above my forehead. In other words, I suddenly recognised myself in Kathy’s text, and was rapidly smothered in a soul-searching garment of existential distress.

I knew that my faith had been shifting for at least a year or so, possibly much longer. I had just lacked the foolish wisdom of hindsight and/or opportunity to frame my perspective(s) in any kind of coherent language in order to make any sense of it all. Kathy had just provided me with the grammar and vocabulary to do that. For the first time in what felt like a long time, I realised that not only did I feel alone and disconnected, but I felt doubtful; not so much about the existence of God (been there, done that, done with that), but rather about my place in the world. My purpose(s) and plans as regards serving God in and through the Church seemed to have faltered, and I felt cut adrift in an ocean of discontentment and uncertainty.

Yet, as fortune (or indeed, the Spirit) would have it, I had (inadvertently?) stumbled upon a veritable compendium of kindred spirits who had grown disillusioned with (and in some sad cases been rendered virtually dysfunctional by) their experiences of Western Evangelicalism. Dechurched and disaffected, their collective voices wrapped around my lingering loneliness like a warm, insulated blanket enshrouding a victim of spiritual hypothermia. It was time to face up to some cold hard facts about my own story, and take solace from the (dis)comforting reality that I wasn’t alone after all. Others had already embarked down these less well travelled roads, and the faint flicker of their fading candelabras beckoned me in psiren-like fashion down what I still hope will be the narrow path toward Jesus Kingdom.

Bolstered by this new sense of optimism and solidarity, I refused to allow the serpentine tendrils of middle-aged, sceptical apathy get the better of me (why be apathetic when a quasi midlife crisis is so much more fun?). Thus, after much protracted deliberation (aka procrastination) I recently applied to volunteer for a well respected Evangelical parachurch organisation (who shall remain nameless), which necessitated the formation of a written account comprising a sober, coherent, and honest summary of my past and present spiritual journey. This process was enormously helpful for me, as it forced me to recall numerous aspects of my faith leading up to the point of conversion and beyond; it is all too easy to suffer from spiritual amnesia once one has been a believer for any significant length of time. I had lost sight of where I had come from, was (and in some ways still am) struggling with where I had ended up, and consequently had no idea where I was supposed to be going. Disorientation gripped me like the ravenous maw of a diseased Rottweiler, and furiously thrashed my former certainty to and fro like a canine stress reliever.

A Background Story

My background as a Christian is relatively complex. I was originally raised Roman Catholic and, without really understanding why, I began my first tentative steps as a nascent believer in the tradition by being ‘baptised’ as an infant (yes, I wrote that in order to provoke a gasp of incredulity from my Baptist friends. More on this later). I then ended up attending a Catholic school, going to mass on a regular basis, celebrating my first communion, and even enduring confession. The latter struck me as being particularly farcical since I frequently attempted to fabricate various minor incursions in order to pacify the priest and thereby get off lightly with a few Hail Marys as penance. Smells, bells, rosary beads, and liturgy made a reasonably potent impression upon my earliest memories of the Church. Unfortunately, the tragic revelation (thankfully only by way of our local newspaper) that the priest in charge of our local Catholic Church was a paedophile who ended up doing serious time in prison left an even bigger indent upon my perception of organised religion.

By the age of eleven I was done with the Church (or so I thought!) and was relieved to not have anything more to do with it as my secondary school was thoroughly secular; ‘Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony’. [3] Fast forward nearly fifteen years and I was steeped in the kind of sinful behaviour that would have required more than several bags full of rosary beads and an awful lot of Hail Marys to start even chipping away at my spiritual debt (to say nothing of my material debts!). Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll might be a well worn cliché, yet I had spent the entirety of my adult life up until the point when I came to faith in Jesus Christ relentlessly pursuing all three of them. I found myself hurtling toward rock bottom without a safety harness and had reached the point when I was all but ready to give up entirely.

Salvation & Strife

Cue my first encounter with Evangelical Christianity and lifeline of the Gospel. Without going into too much detail (this is not a testimony as such) I returned to the Church, joined a local independent evangelical/charismatic congregation, and was (re)baptised by full immersion in a heated swimming pool. Before long, despite seeing much positive change in my own lifestyle and mindsets, I also began to have my first notable experience (as an adult) of the kinds of conflict that can occur between rival factions within Christian communities. Sadly, this first church which I attended as a new Christian became what felt like a relentless hotbed of ambiguity and unresolved internal tensions. To this day (at the time of writing), said church has arguably not yet recovered from that difficult period of fragmentation and retrograde motion, wherein the congregation rapidly shrank in numbers and lost any grip of their central focus on student outreach. [4]

Quite why this transpired the way it did and/or the precise details of what went on behind closed doors to precipitate such an exodus is (for the most part) beyond me; it would be easy to blame shift. Yet perhaps the mysterious, murky grey morass of our collective human condition provides enough explanation as to why body of Christ is as much a hospital filled with people suffering from the sickness of sin, as it is a holy temple replete with saints who are gradually moving from glory to glory (Mark 2:17, 2 Cor 3:18). Doubtless, I played my part in the dissolution of that community, even if I was new to the game, it were. It turns out that a fresh Christian convert can be just as much of an ignorant, indignant, narcissistic, blinkered, self righteous prig as the next person (who knew!). Whatever specks I may have perceived in the eyes of my brethren turned out to be mere splinters from the large plank(s) of wood firmly embedded in my own tunnel vision. [5] Whatever the case, people started to vote with their feet. It wasn’t long before I followed suit.

None of this is to say that my memories of my first church are solely negative (far from it!); I have only scattered a single layer of monochrome paint on this particular canvas. If I were to keep sketching a more accurate and balanced picture, this already gargantuan blog post would arguably spiral out of control! Read into that what you will, but suffice to say that whilst I refuse to sugar coat my potted history of recollection and have only mentioned some of the division that existed within this congregation, it would be unfair to castigate the flawed efforts of a great deal of (mostly) well meaning people; my purpose here is not to present a detailed account of every aspect of this churchs life. I am more interested in reflecting on the way I responded to my initial encounter with a revived faith via Western Evangelicalism, which was itself filtered through the already blackened contextual lens of this single, British, independent charismatic paradigm.

Fusing

In retrospect, I can see now that I had begun to enter a phase that Kathy Escobar calls ‘fusing’. She describes this stage in her adopted and adapted model of evolving faith as follows:

…we all experience a formative season in our faith journey that sets the stage for everything that comes afterward. Fusing, the first phase in the faith formation (and faith shift) process, is what most religious converts go through regardless of their denomination or faith tradition…New faith typically causes an ascent in which we move closer to God by moving farther away from where we were. [6]

She goes on to describe what fusing consists of more clearly:

Three steps comprise Fusing: Believing (the point where we come to faith), Learning (where we begin to embrace an influx of theology, spiritual knowledge, and group expectations), and Doing (when we start actively serving, volunteering, and participating). [7]

For Escobar, fusing is also characterised by three values or attributes; ‘affiliation’, ‘conformity’, and ‘certainty’, all of which ‘shape us in significant ways’. [8] Thus, we typically want to ‘belong’ and ‘align’ or be affiliated with groups of like minded people, so we try to conform to the rules (written or not!) and subculture of the groups we join (oftentimes subconsciously), whilst imbibing the elixir of binary thinking; the latter of which Escobar describes as being ’strengthened by a strong net of absolutes’. [9] I am at least vaguely aware now of how I exhibited all of the above markers (confirmation bias notwithstanding) in multiple different contexts over the past ten years. [10] As regards certainty, I even succumbed to the seductive temptations of fundamentalism in my quest for firm ground to build my fledgling faith upon. Needless to say I discovered that, much to my chagrin, the rock solid certainty being offered by many within the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ tribe was in fact little more than a sordid pile of sand which was itself resting on even shakier foundations and unquestioned presuppositions.

Many years and three churches later (yes I know, more on that next time!), my question is: what do you do when your faith begins to shift? What happens when your affiliations change, you resist conformity for its own sake, and find yourself plunged into the maelstrom of uncertainty?

Some might even call such an angst ridden process an identity crisis. I prefer Kathy Escobar’s faith shift model. If I ever get around to writing my next post, I’ll attempt to explore what some of these cataclysmic changes look like for me at the moment. Briefly, I shall consider how a formerly lapsed Roman Catholic can truly embody the parable of the prodigal son by leaving the sheep pen, encountering wolves, realising that he has lupine like tendencies, and returning to a different paddock only to discover that the journey home might require further pilgrimage. It seems that (amongst other things) I am (re)embracing infant baptism within an Episcopal framework which emphasises sacramental piety as a means of encountering the real presence of Jesus Christ. Can a Pentecostal-Charismatic Credo-Baptist *convert* to Anglicanism whilst retaining a firm connection with a distinctively Vineyard spirituality? What does any of that even mean?!

I’m glad you asked! Until next time then…

M

Endnotes:

1. Escobar, Kathy, Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: Convergent Books; Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 4.
2. Manning, Brennan, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Sisters, OR, USA: Multnomah Publishing, 2005, 23.
3. Name the formative film from which this quote was derived? If you can’t, stop reading and go and find out: you are unworthy of this level of intertextuality. If you aren’t sure what that means, I can’t help you. 😂
4. Size is, of course, no indication of spiritual vitality within a church. Yet the transition from being a thriving city centre gathering with regular attendance figures well into three digits, into a small home group comprised mainly of long standing members does speak volumes about the challenging aftermath of division. It turns out, as Jesus warned us, that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matt 12:25, Mark 3:24-25, Luke 11:17).
5. Go on, admit it: you probably have just as much propensity to point the finger at others as I do. Often what we loathe in others is a reflection of our own foibles.
6. Escobar, Faith Shift, 23.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid, 29.
9. Ibid, 32.
10. Take for instance: acceptable modes of conversation, leisure activities, lifting hands during sung worship, speaking in tongues (can of worms right there!), etiquette and unfamiliar social norms with regards to interacting with the opposite sex, Christianese, etc.

RE: Baptism?

image

*Links are highlighted.

‘Anglicanism has a side to it that is not found within the evangelical church. And the opposite of this is true. Evangelicalism has strengths that can enrich and strengthen the Anglican tradition as well.’ – Robert Webber. [1]

Imagine blending these two great traditions with aspects of Pentecostalism, Charismaticism, Methodism, Catholicism (particularly Liberation Theology), and Eastern Orthodoxy. Such is the kind of eclectic, multifaceted, Christian faith that is perhaps arising from the ashes of denominationalism today, and that increasingly typifies my own developing perspective. I find myself, perplexingly, on a peculiar and unexpected journey that refuses to accept the shackles of fundamentalism when the alternative is freedom in Christ via the Spirit. This brief post is thus an attempt to share my muddled, personal thoughts on my own spiritual outlook through the inadequate medium of garbled words and unsubstantiated generalisations; expect no theological treatise or scholarly efforts here (although I can’t help but include some references and footnotes!).

Confessions

My Christian journey has thus far been relatively short. It is less than a decade since I first made my commitment to Jesus Christ, and was subsequently (re)baptised by full immersion in a heated swimming pool, alongside several other people from the first Church I attended as an adult believer. [2] Based on recent church statistics, it seems that I represent a firm minority group in being a bona fide ‘convert’ to Christianity. This is, perhaps notably, contra Roman Catholicism, which was the religious background that I inherited from my family as a child. At the tender age of ten, I rejected the Catholic Church with a spirited indifference to what seemed to me to be a truly meaningless, ritualistic, hypocritical organisation largely staffed by child abusers (the resident priest at our local Catholic Church was arrested on such charges). Whilst I no longer hold such negative sentiments towards Rome (far from it, Papa Francisco!) I remember clearly deciding that, based on my extremely narrow experience, organised religion was certainly not for me.

To be blunt, I ended up considering Christianity to be at best delusional nonsense, and at worst a disparate collection of bigoted, self righteous, right wing, judgmental prudes who seemed obsessed with sex and never had any fun. I was determined to follow my own path, forget about God or church, and have as much fun as I pleased whilst learning how to play the guitar (the latter of which, it turns out, I can do rather well). God apparently had other plans for me.

Testimony

As I have often testified, at the age of twenty five I encountered Jesus and found myself taking a cataclysmic lurch away from what had became a staunchly atheist perspective; Granted, I may have occasionally flickered over the blurry boundary between (un)reason and faith into some form of agnosticism (i.e. believing in the possibility of “something”). Yet despite my occasional flirtations with various new age spiritualities, an eternal chasm separated me from any kind of affirmation or acceptance of the notion that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord of the cosmos. I certainly did not perceive the Jesus of History who was crucified by the Roman Empire to be God in the flesh. Nor did I consider it plausible that he died for the sins of humanity and set us free from the tyranny of death and evil in order that we might be reconciled to God the Father, and receive the free gift of eternal life. [3] I lived in an almost blissful ignorance of such matters. It turns out that Christianity was in fact true and I needed a saviour; Jesus obliged. Just as well really, given the dark, depressive, and debaucherous depths I had begun to sink into at the time.

All of this is to say that when I plunged into the murky waters of Christian (ana)baptism, a monumental change of heart and mind had occurred. [4] For me, baptism by full immersion was very much an outward sign of an inward truth; Jesus is risen and had revealed something of himself to me whilst rescuing me from a state of spiritual death. Life felt different. Cue the first steps on my current journey of faith seeking understanding: what on earth did all of this mean?!

RE: Calibration?

Fast forward nearly a decade, and my faith has begun to show tell tale signs of maturity and evolution. Nearly three years of part time theological education, which have been suffused with divine grace, have undoubtedly helped to broaden my horizons. I am not in the same place that I was in when I emerged out of the baptismal pool. For instance, until very recently I (somewhat uncritically) held resolute Baptist convictions which, amongst other things, would preclude the possibility of infant baptism or finding God’s sacred presence amidst the sacraments. In all likelihood, I absorbed these to some extent from my experiences in independent evangelical churches, and presumed that such ideas were unshakeably ‘biblical’ (meaning that non-baptists were simply wrong). I am not ashamed to say that I currently find myself softening toward the possibility that I was merely misinformed and unduly prejudiced by a particular faith tradition.

In fact, having recently attended several traditional Anglican church services in our local parish, I have been struck by a sudden affinity with both the Liturgy and the Eucharist, which I do not recall experiencing before now. Since then I have also been pondering the previously unthinkable prospect of embracing infant baptism. Just as Jesus himself eagerly welcomed little children when he allowed them to come to him unhindered, I find myself feeling almost compelled to release my own children to do the same, at the earliest possible opportunity (Matt 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16). Admittedly, there is much study, prayer, and dialogue to be had before I (or my wife!) could, with good conscience, fully embrace a different faith tradition which emphasises and defines the sacraments in such a way. Yet the fact that I am even seriously, publicly considering such a move is a testament to how much my theological outlook has changed shape in recent years. I suspect that this apparent recalibration of my faith and doctrinal convictions is to be expected for any burgeoning academic theologian, although it has caught me somewhat by surprise (to say the least!).

I can only assume that all of this is evidence of more divine grace enabling me to admit that I may have been mistaken. Quite how I go about reconciling this turn toward liturgical tradition and/or hold it in tension with what I might describe as a vibrant ‘Vineyard’ spirituality which emphasises (amongst other things) intimacy with God’s real presence in and through sung worship, and ‘prophetic’ (think Neo-Pentecostal spiritual gifts) ministry, remains to be seen.

In Sum

Whatever the outcome, there is no denying the reality that I am even finding myself feeling remarkably drawn towards the richness, theological clarity, steadfastedness, and heritage of longstanding faith traditions such as Anglicanism, and to a lesser extent Eastern Orthodoxy. On a slightly different note, it troubles me to see so many examples of overzealous believers castigating and deriding other faith traditions as being lesser expressions of Christianity than their own; think of throwaway phrases like ‘lukewarm’, ‘less biblical’, ‘powerless’, ‘compromised’, etc. Some, more (non)innovative charismatic groups even advocate ‘Rebaptism’ (yes, for Baptists too!) because, unsurprisingly, such new groups have rediscovered ‘real’ Christianity. They are of course right, and everyone else is wrong. That said, they do seem tellingly oblivious to the name Novation, or the notion that there really is nothing new under the sun. [5] Doubtless, those of us who are suspicious of such groups can learn something from the eschatalogical urgency and fiery, faith fuelled passion they bring to the ecclesiological table; even if the desire for ecumenical dialogue is not currently mutual.

To my mind, it would be extraordinarily naive to think that God has forgotten his universal Church. He is, after all, in the habit of breathing new life into dry bones. Perhaps he is starting with old men like me. I hear dog collars are the new skinny jeans for real Christian hipsters! 😉

M

Endnotes

1. Webber, Robert, and Ruth, Lester, Evangelicals on the Road to Canterbury: Why Evangelicals are attracted to the Liturgical Church (Rev. Ed.), (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: 2012, Introduction.
2. I use the term (re)baptism as a deliberate play on words, which alludes to the Anabaptist tradition that arose during the Reformation. See for example: MacCulloch, Diarmaid, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, (Kindle Edition), Allen Lane, Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK: 2009, 622.
3. Clearly, this is a very truncated, unqualified summary of the apostolic Gospel, which relies on my own hermeneutical presuppositions and alludes to numerous biblical texts (not cited here).
4. See [2]
5. See MacCulloch, History, 174. Eccl. 1:9.

Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

image

*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.

Planting a Vineyard

image

*Links are highlighted*

This is more of a personal news update aimed at friends and acquaintances than an overtly theological post. If you were expecting the latter, you shall simply have to wait as I am about to undertake two second year MA assignments in the next few months. Almost all of my ‘theological’ focus shall thus be aimed at those, at least for the time being.

To cut a very long winded saga short, as many of you will doubtless already be aware, our family has decided to take a leap of faith and join a brand new Vineyard church plant here in Cambridge. Our new pastor (pastorette?) is an inspiring, faith-filled follower of Jesus called Lauren Fearn. She has responded to God’s call and has a fresh vision and heart to see Jesus’ Kingdom being established here on earth; for people who don’t already know Jesus to encounter him and have their lives transformed by his loving grace. For some vague context and an insight into how I’ve personally been feeling about my own spiritual walk over the past year, check out my previous post around the theme of Cognitive Dissonance. Needless to say, we’re very excited to be a part of this emerging story and already we’re seeing fruit despite Cam Vineyard only being *officially* active as a new church plant for all of a month.

For us as a family, it almost feels like we’ve been on a very long, winding road which has finally led somewhere that feels like ‘home’. As much as anything, for me personally it also makes so much sense given my increasing affinity with the Vineyard approach to spirituality, theology, values, ecclesiology, and church planting (to which I also feel called one day). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt welcomed or well shepherded at our previous churches; we’ve experienced a lot of God’s grace, and been privileged to enjoy fellowship with some wonderful people, and direction from Godly leadership throughout our spiritual journey so far. Perhaps most importantly, we also are deliberately not in pursuit of the perennial illusion of that mythological perfect church, wherein the living is easy, the coffee is properly brewed, and the grass is always greener. Yet, in my reckoning, there’s a world of difference between calling and comfort (although one could, at times, be comfortable within one’s calling). So, although the road less travelled seems to be the one that currently lies before us (church planting is a risky business), I’m very happy to unashamedly say that we’re extremely glad and grateful to have been shunted onto the right track (for us that is) by Jesus.

For over nine years now, I have seen my life gradually shift and transform through my own experience of, and relationship with Jesus Christ. I say that in the most genuine, honest, and unqualified way that I can; I can’t necessarily prove to anyone that Jesus is alive and rescues people from seemingly hopeless circumstances, but that is quite literally how I would describe my own encounter(s) and experience(s) of/with God since late 2006. As I write, I’m reminded of that simple faith that awakened within me when I first heard the essence of Jesus’ Gospel message, and how brilliantly it was summed up by a line from the first Matrix movie:

Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. (Morpheus)

Jesus is recorded as saying something very similar in John’s Gospel:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”  They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”  “Come,” he replied, “and you will see…”
(John 1:35-39 NIV Emphasis mine)

Therein lies the beautiful mystery of the invitation to get to know who Jesus is, and how his Gospel changes everything. Come, and you will see.

If you’re curious, why not come along to see for yourselves? Check out our church website for more information, or you could drop me a line in the comments below.

Love to all!

M

Trajectories: Branded Religion vs Incarnational Diversity

image

*Links are highlighted.

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

image

*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:

image

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.