Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) and Amorphous Affiliations; Part 4: ‘(Post) Evangelical Anglican Wimberite’?

*Links are highlighted.

This is the fourth and final post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my 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 part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] In my most recent post, I grappled with the reality that I am therefore now some kind of ‘post-evangelical’, and very briefly discussed the relationship between ‘Evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism(s)’In closing, I considered to what extent I had unwittingly absorbed ‘fundamentalist literalism’ within my emerging understanding and experience(s) of the Christian Faith; Having reflected upon this at length, I have decided that the time to jettison this particularly unhealthy influence is now long overdue.

As an unintended consequence of engaging in some critical reflection upon my own faith tradition, I shall now delve into a book by the Anglican theologian Martyn Percy called Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, before sketching my currently ‘amorphous’ affiliation to both the Vineyard movement and Anglicanism (broadly conceived). I stumbled across Percy’s (albeit, somewhat dated) book in one of my recent charity shop raids, and simply could not resist its ephemeral allure. Given that he focuses almost exclusively on John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard Church movement) throughout his study, it seemed uncannily relevant to my present circumstances. Alongside Percy’s work, I have also selected a number of other resources which provide useful insights for ongoing reflection upon my deepening relationship with the Anglican Tradition whilst being part of the Vineyard movement.[3] 

John Wimber: A ‘Sophisticated Fundamentalist’?[4]

Writing in 1996, Percy described Wimber as a ‘pre-eminent contemporary fundamentalist in the revivalist tradition’.[5] Having set out his own (highly nuanced) fivefold understanding of the characteristic marks of ‘fundamentalism’, Percy identifies four key reasons why Wimber was a useful and important figure to study at the time. Firstly, ‘his appeal is international and crosses denominations’, which of course means that Wimber has been particularly influential upon the UK Anglican church.[6] Secondly, ‘Wimber fits well with [Percy’s] fundamentalist criteria’, particularly as regards ‘the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy’.[7] As such, [Wimber’s] fundamentalism makes ‘such a fascinating case study’ because he expected ‘his followers [to be] actually experiencing and promoting ‘signs’ of God’s presence’.[8] Thirdly, Percy describes ‘Wimber’s fundamentalism [as] a tendency’ consisting of a desire for ‘the spiritual renewal of the Church’ by way of ‘propogating a whole host of phenomena’ such as ‘spiritual gifts’, ‘signs and wonders’, ‘healing’, ‘prophecy’, ‘deliverance’, and ‘speaking in tongues’.[9] Finally, Percy notes that:

Wimber’s ‘particular theological methods, with their tactile emphasis, form the basis of his social organisation in all its distinctiveness, as well as characterising his opposition to other belief systems. [10]

Thus:

Analysing his work will highlight how this form of fundamentalism offers a complete interpretive framework for participants in which their understanding of God, the self and the world is formed through the words that are used and the experiences and behaviour that are valued.[11]

Whilst Percy’s critique focusses primarily upon Wimber’s written and recorded works, he has visited Wimber’s conferences in order to ‘experience first-hand how Wimber and his followers operated in their preferred context’.[12] At the very least, this ought to mitigate against those who might be tempted to dismiss Percy’s criticisms as being solely ‘academic’ or detached from lived realities. As one might expect from a thinker of Percy’s calibre, his subsequent observations are acutely insightful.

Power Play?

One of the most troubling, sobering, and yet strangely reassuring aspects of Percy’s thesis is his analysis of power as a ‘principle of coherence’ for his interpretation of John Wimber’s theology and praxis. [13] As he puts it, Wimber’s ‘insistence that the power of God is by nature a visible, tangible phenomenon’ means that Wimber ‘locates power in God’s activity’, which necessarily excludes ‘other avenues in which God’s power might be manifest’.[14] This is particularly (and notably) the case with respect to the lack of any sense of a revelation of God in ‘failure, sickness, or powerlessness’.[15]

Power, in the sense that Percy describes it, ostensibly results in individuals and even entire congregations, denominations, and movements becoming subject to a crass, authoritarian hegemony which lays claim to a divine mandate for exercising emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and functional oppression. Such a hypothetical worst-case scenario is surely more anti-Christ than Christlike? Or do Jesus’ words about the nature of Christian leadership (read: servanthood) not apply to pentecostal-charismatic leaders like Wimber et al? (E.g. Matt 20:24-28, Mark 10:41-45, Luke 22:24-30, 1 Pe 1:1-5). 

Indeed, Percy notes the significant issues and power dynamics that arise when influential leaders claim to speak for God:

…in Wimber’s churches ‘words of knowledge’, reputedly supernatural in origin, are used to persuade, convict, and transform individuals in order that they might respond to God (Power Evangelism, 47). Although there is some biblical precedent…the problem with Wimber and his followers’ use of words of knowledge is that they frequently do not permit a free response, or constitute an invitation. They can be tools for persuasion, alteration, and coercion.[16]

Percy goes on: 

So the speech of God for Wimber, here in words of knowledge, is a notion of the power of God that competes with the freedom God has given in creation, ultimately quashing it…this view of power has an implication for church communities, though it is masked in authority structures. Some of Wimber’s followers… believe in what they call the recovery of the ‘Ananias and Sapphira scenario’ amongst their churches (Acts 5:1-11). Followers who resist or lie to leaders are…lying to God, and are therefore immediately liable to the power of God in the form of judgement… Thus, the room to respond to a word of knowledge is severely restricted…[17]

I find Percy’s observations strangely reassuring since they have confirmed my own latent concerns with evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic power language and dynamics. I am disturbingly reminded of my own experiences of church and para-church settings wherein presentations of Christianity seem to be replete with words like ‘power’, ‘revival’, ‘victory’, ‘breakthrough’, and relentless triumphalism twinned with fundamentalist certitude and saccharine sweet positivism. All of these sinister platitudes are typically expressed in both song and sermon alike, wherein the latter is proclaimed by untouchable ‘anointed’ leaders bereft of accountability. I get profoundly uncomfortable when I ponder the reality of these situations routinely playing themselves out on any given Sunday. 

Unfortunately I have seen, imbibed, and thoughtlessly regurgitated the kind of prosperity driven power language that Percy describes all too often. Reading his initial critique of Wimber is thus unsettling, to say the least. Therefore, to the extent that any evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic spirituality becomes conflated with an imbalance of power within the Church, my instincts are to resist and reject such practices as being wholly inconsistent with Jesus’ Gospel. For the Vineyard and those sympathetic to/influenced by the movement, any legacy of John Wimber’s theology and praxis that equates to a power play must be jettisoned just as quickly as similarly toxic elements of Evangelicalism, or indeed Fundamentalism(s).

None of this is to say that every aspect of the baby that is Vineyard theology needs to be thrown out with the evangelical bathwater of course. Discernment must be balanced with faith; at least as far as I am concerned. Nor is it merely the evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) that need to beware of the misuse of power within their ranks; all denominations and expressions of Christianity are arguably flawed and ridden with sinners like you and I. Power must be kept in check and brought to the foot of Jesus’ cross, even (especially!) in more well established traditions and institutions like the Church of England. Friends, the grass is never greener, and I’m sure that I’m already preaching to the choir on that front. 

Anglicanism?

Amidst all of this lengthy, verbose, meandering diatribe (of sorts) against aspects of Western Evangelicalism, and the pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) in particular, one could be forgiven for asking the question (as a friend of mine did recently): So what? Why has this faith-shift of yours led you to embrace the Anglican tradition?

Good question. The answer is undoubtedly more complex than I can realistically articulate. However, since that is the very purpose of this blog series, I shall attempt to do so anyway (however ham-fistedly). Firstly, as various commentators have noted, Anglicanism is a ‘broad’ model of church indeed. Within the Church of England alone, numerous contrasting theological emphases somehow manage to coexist despite the inherent tensions such diversity necessarily brings. As Stephen Hunt puts it: 

There exists under the same umbrella theological liberals, conservative Evangelicals, Charismatics, the New Age fringe, not to mention a few agnostics and a handful of committed atheists.[18]

Indeed, I would suggest that the usual (somewhat arbitrary) approach of dividing the Church of England up into three streams, such as Conservative Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic (Liberal & Conservative!), and Pentecostal-charismatic, does not do justice to the lived realities that Anglicans encounter on a weekly basis within their own parishes and dioceses. 

Nevertheless it is clear that even from a cursory view of the tradition that British Anglicanism is, daresay it, refreshingly complex. It is for this reason amongst many that I have felt uncharacteristically drawn towards the Canterbury trail; there is room for a post-evangelical, pentecostal-charismatic thinker like me to feel oddly at home alongside a wide range of misfits. Within the confines of the English steeples, theological astuteness is not necessarily frowned upon as detrimental to one’s faith. Unity really need not equate to uniformity.

Re: Baptism?

As I have written about previously, my first formative encounter with Anglican liturgy was at the church service I attended back in the summer of 2015, wherein some friends of ours had their baby baptised (or christened for hardened credo-baptist folk!). Since then, I have come to realise that there are in fact solid, biblical reasons for embracing infant baptism as a Christian. For starters, Jesus rebuked the disciples for attempting to hinder little children from coming to him despite their youth (Matt 19:13-15). Whilst I have neither the time nor the space to address this more thoroughly here, suffice to say that I have moved from my prior theological convictions in this particular area. Consequently, the floodgates have opened for me to begin being immersed in the richness and depths of the Anglican tradition. After all, if I can accept their model of baptism, why not other aspects of Anglicanism? 

Liturgical Robes

As peculiar as the simile may read, I have found that a more consistent exposure to the liturgy at our local Anglican church has been akin to the comforting sensation of snuggling up inside a warm winter garment on a freezing February afternoon; indeed, for me it has felt remarkably reminiscent of a woolen blanket or even some kind of thick, pleated robe. It is almost as though liturgy has insulated me from the worst effects of my disorienting faith-shift, as if the tradition itself reached through the annals of history to envelop me in a protective cocoon and keep me from falling away.

I have discovered that there is something powerful (yet not coercive!) about reciting words which are saturated by the scriptures, and which have been passed on by our ancestors in the reformed faith as a gainful deposit for future generations to orient themselves God-ward. Reading aloud the ancient ecumenical creeds, confessing our common trinitarian faith, engaging in corporate repentance, intercessory prayer which isn’t simply a free for all of hapless babbling (punctuated by dubious tongues speech and/or overly frequent repetitions of the word ‘Just’, ‘Father’, and ‘would you’), and having moments of silence to reflect and humble ourselves before God are all elements of any given Sunday at our local church that resonate deeply within my soul. 

When I consider the hyped, multimedia saturated, rock concert aesthetic of many contemporary Evangelical churches I have attended, the distinct lack of all of the liturgical features I have just described seems glaringly apparent. Some might counter by comparing ancient liturgy to a dead form of obsolete ritual. Yet having been on both sides of the aisle, I would now beg to differ.

The centrality of the Eucharist

This factor is definitely the most stark contrast I can think of between independent evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic churches, and the Anglican tradition insofar as I have experienced it thus far. Every time I go forward with my family for communion at our local church, I rediscover the significance of sharing the Eucharist with my church family. The bread and the wine are not mere accoutrements of an outdated and sterile religious system, they are in fact the very body and blood of our crucified Lord and saviour.

Jesus promised to manifest himself to the disciples via the spirit, and this is surely something that pentecostal-charismatic types such as myself yearn for during sung worship; a genuine encounter with the spirit of the risen Lord. Yet in communion, we can not only encounter the Lord’s real presence (communing with God, and others), we can in fact partake of Jesus’ body and drink his blood, which scripture claims has the power to cleanse us from all sin and even grant us eternal life (1 Jn 1:7, c. f. John 6:53-59).[19] 

I have found myself profoundly affected by the simple rhythms of partaking in the Eucharist on a regular basis in an Anglican setting. Whilst I do not think that God’s presence is in any way restricted or even bound to the communion wafers and wine such that either a) God must manifest Godself this way, or b) God cannot manifest Godself elsewhere (particularly during sung worship, for instance), I have had what I might describe as ‘powerful’ (though not coercive) experiences during the Eucharist.

Sometimes, collapsing to my knees at the Lord’s table is all I can muster after a challenging week! Thanks be to God for grace and mercy!

A Via Media?

Some final thoughts include my relatively long-standing affinity with the notion of the great via media within the Anglican tradition; the middle road between two opposing extremes. I use this term as much in the philosophical sense of moderation as I might in the way some Anglicans have used it to define the tradition in the following terms: 

The term via media when used in reference to the Anglican tradition generally refers to the idea that Anglicanism represents a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.[20]

For me, the via media means (amongst other things) that I am no longer faced with binary questions such as: Am I a Vineyard person, or an Anglican one? Pentecostal-charismatic, or sacramental/Anglo-catholic? Conservative evangelical, or liberal progressive? Credo-baptist or reformed such that I embrace infant baptism? Such dualistic thinking is quite simply untenable for me now. The simplest answer to such questions for me would thus be: Well, yes.

I might therefore suggest that it is entirely plausible for one to reconcile aspects of the Vineyard movement with historic Anglicanism, particularly where responsiveness to the Spirit is concerned. Quite how one might go about doing this on an individual basis, or even a corporate and/or institutional one remains to be seen. However, as Hunt suggests:

The structures of the Anglican church are sufficiently pliable to allow for considerable adaptation of Wimber’s ministry. The church provides ministry for both Charismatic Evangelicals and the pastorally minded.[21]

Doubtless, my own journey shall continue unabated. Perhaps I shall be able to merge my pentecostal-charismatic spirituality with the Anglican tradition in a relatively straightforward manner. Time will tell.

In Sum

So, what to make of all this? It would appear that I am indeed some kind of odd, hybrid creature; a post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite who is attempting to learn how to do academic theology at Master’s level whilst raising a family and earning a living. I might frame my present state of mind as follows:

I am therefore in pursuit of a revived, renewed, and reformed pentecostal-charismatic spirituality, twinned with an irresistible tug towards ancient tradition, which seeks a reasoned via media between the innumerable false dichotomies of our current 21st century context as regards faith, religion, and spirituality. In so doing, I submit that to be truly Christ-like is to be willing to eschew power and one’s own self interests in an act of reckless, worshipful, wanton abandon toward God and in so doing learn what it means to love the other; particularly the ‘least of these’ (Matt 25:31-46).

Without further ado…

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to part two.

3. Full disclosure: For any readers who may be unaware, I am currently part of a new Vineyard Church plant in Cambridge, and have engaged with some of Wimber’s written works at length. I have a great deal of natural affinity for the Vineyard movement’s approach and emphases. Consequently, I do not approach this topic lightly, or as a dispassionate, detached observer. On the contrary, I am involved, and to a large extent personally invested in many aspects of Wimber’s ‘tendency‘ towards an experiential faith, Church renewal, and so forth. Nevertheless, in light of my previous post about ‘fundamentalisms’ and controlling people (see conclusion to part 3), the central thrust of Percy’s analysis is one I take very seriously: the use, misuse, and potential abuse of power.

4. Percy, Martyn, Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996, 13.

5. Ibid, 14.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 15.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid, 16.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Percy, Words, 23.

17. Ibid, 24.

18. Hunt, Stephen, “The Anglican Wimberites”, PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1995, 114.

19. This is, in many ways a disastrously naive interpretation of Johannine theology as regards the body and blood of Jesus. Nevertheless, it sprung to mind as I wrote so I felt led to include it (make of that what you will).

20. See <http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/doctrine.aspx&gt;

21. Hunt, Anglican, 116.

Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Three: (Post) Evangelical?

*Links are highlighted.

This is the third post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my 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 part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] I shall now begin to articulate, at least to some extent, what this means for me going forward. Without further ado:

(Post)Evangelical?

A UK based Anglican priest called Dave Tomlinson latched onto the phrase ‘post-evangelical’ in 1993, and subsequently published an influential book by the same name. This was of course during the murky morass of the dark ages before the widespread adoption of the internet, and I was a mere schoolboy (so it’s a somewhat dated term by now!). Dave describes the process on his website as follows:

What is a post-evangelical? I suspect the term had entered our consciousness surreptitiously a couple of years earlier, but no one had ever got around to elucidating what it meant. The next day I awoke, determined to have a go. The Post-Evangelical, was published in the UK two years later, just in time for the 1995 Greenbelt Festival.[3]

And so:

The book is, in fact, a pastoral essay directed at people who struggle with the restrictions in evangelical theology, spirituality, and church culture—yet who still want to journey with the Christian faith.[4]

He elaborates:

The post-evangelical impulse does not necessarily imply a move away from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical faith – though it does for some. Rather it demonstrates that in order to remain true to a tradition, we must come to terms with its changing cultural context so that an authentic expression of that tradition can be found…[5]

The desire for authenticity in the midst of rapidly changing global contexts seems particularly relevant to my own evolving faith shift, which apparently fits with many an anecdotal account of the purported postmodern mindset that tends toward a hermeneutic of suspicion, particularly where absolute truth claims, authority figures, and institutions are concerned.[6] Whilst the book itself is only just finding it’s way onto my never-ending reading list, Dave’s short blog post provides enough insight into what a post-evangelical looks like  for me to co-opt his broad definitions. For instance, he describes some of the correspondence he has received from many Christians, in response to his book, in the following terms:

The letters told stories about the struggles people experienced trying to make sense of their faith in churches where their questions were far from welcome. Some talked about intellectual tussles with doctrines they couldn’t swallow, others of longings for a deeper spirituality. Some were frustrated at the lack of social and political engagement in their churches, others cringed at self-righteous moralizing. Most found the evangelical subculture insular, self-congratulatory, and often, embarrassing.

Many of the letters I received also voiced exasperation at the sense of certainty and hype experienced in some evangelical churches, where they found it particularly hard to express disquiet or to question prevailing attitudes. In my opinion the fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology fuels this post-evangelical impulse.[7] – (Emphasis mine)

All of the scenarios mentioned above seem very familiar to me as I consider my own sense of disquiet and longing for greater spiritual depth in my walk with God. The words ‘certainty’ and ‘hype’ also stood out to me as being far too reminiscent of my experiences in Evangelical charismatic churches. As for the ‘subculture’, well, that could take up a whole separate blog series! It is fascinating to me that Tomlinson equates the influence of a ‘fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology’ as being relevant to the droves of people who seem to be adopting the term ‘post-evangelical’. I have quite recently stumbled across a number of similar references with regard to fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, which merit some attention in the next section of this post. It seems that Tomlinson is not alone in making this connection.

It is worth remembering at this stage that my writing here is driven by a number of questions which relate to the title of this post. Firstly, in light of my previous blog post: Am I now ‘post-evangelical’? It would seem so. A concomitant question might be: “What does that really mean?” In order to answer these, a more pressing question might be: “What is an Evangelical?” To all of these questions, we shall now turn.

Evangelical Identity?

A helpful study on this very topic was compiled relatively recently by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones. The introduction to Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century provides a number of useful starting points for a brief discussion of the matter in question. For instance, Donald Dayton is cited as a voice of scepticism which casts doubt upon the notion of forming any meaningful definition of the term ‘evangelical’:

Evangelicalism, [Dayton] argues, is a diverse patchwork whose constituent elements possess so little in common that an overall definition is impractical.[8]

By way of contrast, the editors also summarise David Bebbington’s broad definition of ‘evangelicals’ as Christians who define their faith by stressing a number of crucial factors.[9] As Bebbington himself puts it: 

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.[10]

Both perspectives ring true to me. On the one hand, Evangelicalism is far from monolithic; like any complex movement it is undoubtedly nuanced, fuzzy, and inherently difficult to clarify with any degree of serious, all-encompassing precision. On the other hand, it does not utterly defy a definition of any kind. Bebbington’s ‘quadrilateral’ arguably offers a very useful rubric for understanding the key features and tropes that characterise the movement as a whole; albeit only in a vague, limited, and generalised manner within the blurry boundaries of the ‘diverse patchwork’ that Dayton describes. 

My own journey has consisted of a staggeringly disorientating sense of uncertainty as regards ‘evangelical’ identity. Why do so many ‘evangelicals’ (especially close friends and acquaintances) hold radically different views on how to interpret Scripture, and where do I stand on any given issue that is being disputed? Whose ‘evangelical’ am I? Why do I seem to sit in the ‘progressive’ camp on some matters, and yet remain entrenched in the ‘conservative’ one on others? Studying for an MA in Theology has been enormously helpful in answering some of these questions, and at the same time has also added innumerable layers of complexity to my understanding (or lack thereof) of the Christian faith, and Evangelicalism in particular. 

To clarify, ambiguity is surely inevitable since the postmodern turn, insofar as one may conceive of the contextually bounded limitations of all human knowledge and endeavour; Uncertainty is arguably inescapable (though this is, of course, far from certain!). Thus, defining the meaning of ‘evangelical’ Christianity in any kind of detail is not a straightforward task; nevertheless, at least in terms of historic Western Evangelicalism, it has a vaguely discernible shape. 

Thus, despite such prevalent uncertainty I have in fact observed the distinct fourfold pattern that Bebbington describes. In my experience ‘evangelicals’ do indeed emphasise conversion (my own being a case in point!), activism (I have been on the receiving end of and engaged in evangelism, outreach, etc), biblicism (The Bible is held to be ‘authoritative’), and crucicentrism (Jesus Christ crucified and the implications of this event constitute the ‘main thing’). Even now, in the broad sense that Bebbington describes at least, I remain steadfastly ‘evangelical’, although the devil remains hidden within the details of how one actually defines each of these factors and, as ever, translates theory into practice. One may ask, for instance, to what extent is one person’s ‘Evangelicalism’ functionally synonymous with another person’s ‘fundamentalism’? Answering such a question may prove to be source of considerable discomfort and tension for many hapless, oblivious ‘evangelicals’ (I would include myself in such a category until very recently!).

For me, becoming ‘post-evangelical’ is, as Tomlinson noticed, driven by a desire to eschew what I consider to be numerous negative attributes which (my understanding/experience of) ‘Evangelicalism’ has imbibed from ‘fundamentalism’. Yet even drawing this comparison is problematic, as we shall see.

Evangelicals & Fundamentalism?

As the authors of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have also noted, ‘Fundamentalism is more complex to analyse’ than Evangelicalism, the latter of which they claim ‘is more or less understood’.[11] At present, insofar as the study in question is concerned, the authors assert that ‘Fundamentalism [has] emerged as a trans-confessional phenomenon’.[12] In other words, it is not confined to North American Protestantism, or indeed any single world religion or sociopolitical movement (or expression thereof). Thus, much like Dayton’s critique of attempts to clearly define Western Evangelicalism: 

Fundamentalism is not best seen as a single worldwide impulse channelling generic religious energies in a particular direction. Rather, as it has been argued, fundamentalisms must be regarded as plural.[13]

In Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Malise Ruthven illustrates the extraordinary challenge of attempting to capture and summarise the plurality of potential meanings, connotations, and associations that a term like ‘fundamentalism’ conjures; all of which effortlessly and indiscriminately criss-cross within and beyond the somewhat arbitrary geographical borders and historical epochs of human culture(s). Some of his particularly relevant insights include:

Fundamentalism, according to its critics, is just a dirty 14 letter word. It is a term of abuse levelled by liberals and Enlightenment rationalists against any group, religious or otherwise, that dares to challenge the absolutism of the post-Enlightenment outlook.[14]

And:

The F-word has long since escaped from the Protestant closet in which it began its semantic career around the turn of the 20th Century…Put at its broadest, it may be described as a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities as individuals or groups in the face of modernity and secularization.[15]

Ruthven applies Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblances’ to construct his discussion of ‘similarities and relationships’ between varying ‘fundamentalisms’, which, by virtue of their inherent diversity, defy scholarly attempts to produce ‘a single, defining feature’.[16] That said, Ruthven does aver that:

Fundamentalists everywhere tend towards a literalist interpretation of the texts they revere…At it’s starkest, literalism means that the letter or exact wording of a text carries the whole weight of its meaning, excluding any unmentioned or extraneous data. [17] – Emphasis mine.

With the benefit of the foolish wisdom of hindsight, it is this particular quality of religious fundamentalism(s) that most frequently springs to mind when I consider my past experience of, and participation in, Western Evangelicalism. I have, to my shame, both uncritically embraced and espoused far too many examples of fundamentalist literalism throughout my short time as an adult Christian convert. After all, if “the Bible says it”, and “I believe it, that settles it”.. right?[18]

Biblicism defined in this (admittedly very narrow) way, is one of the less helpful reoccurring features of my numerous encounters with diverse expressions of Western Evangelicalism that I am keen to shed. Familiar rhetoric springs to mind immediately, such as “the Bible clearly teaches…(read: it doesn’t, but I’m right and you’re wrong)”, “God’s word is clear, sharp, and precise…”(read: and I shall now proceed to stab you with it), ‘X’ preacher is “bringing the word of God” (read: their unqualified, biased, and oftentimes exegetically disastrous interpretation of various proof texts) to any given congregation or gathering; so one must suspend all intellectual faculties, eschew critical scrutiny, informed dissent, or open minded enquiry, and “submit”to the teaching in question (no questions asked). 

Perhaps most disturbingly, I recall numerous instances wherein a given charismatic preacher says something along the lines of “God/The Lord has told me/is saying.. [insert contentious assertion here]…So if you want to respond [obediently] come forward”. At this point either they, or one of their ‘ministry team’, can slap their palms upon your forehead after a time of “worship” (read: enthusiastic singing), and the Holy Spirit (read: or perhaps the power of suggestion and/or a firm shove through your center of balance) might just force you to the floor.[19] Apparently this is how one recovers authentic New Testament Christianity in certain pentecostal-charismatic circles.[20]

In short, this virulent variant of ‘evangelical’ biblicism is all too often nothing less than a sinister weapon which is used to manipulate and assert control over unwitting (albeit, oftentimes willing) participants. Fundamentalist literalism of this kind can be a dark, blunt instrument in the hands of both well meaning and malicious zealots. Either way it has the propensity to bludgeon the mind, body, and soul into submission to various ‘evangelical’ agendas such as ‘complementarianism’ (read: the functional subjugation of women), syncretism with nationalism, white supremacist ideologies, just war theories, anti-intellectualism, social conservatism, and so forth. Granted, some ‘evangelical’ agendas may in fact be consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching, although the examples cited are clearly (arguably) not.

I am increasingly ‘past’ the kind(s) of Evangelicalism(s) that adopt fundamentalist literalism in such a way that transforms so called ‘evangelical’ theology and practice into toxic, pernicious ideologies that bear all the hallmarks of ravenous wolves and false prophets.[21] In contrast to any such Evangelicalism(s), I am unashamedly ‘post-evangelical’. This clearly needs to be fleshed out, and my negative assertions must be balanced out by positive and constructive suggestions (particularly as regards my embrace of the Anglican Tradition). However this post is already out of hand and far too long! Until then:

Teaser: Next Post 

In my next post, I shall attempt to engage with Martyn Percy’s penetrating study of John Wimber, which is entitled Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism.  In so doing, I intend to offer a sketch of what my developing spirituality and mixed denominational affiliation is starting to look like: That of a ‘post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite’!

Comments are welcome!

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to my previous post.

3. http://www.davetomlinson.co.uk/post-evangelical/.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Whether such a hypothetical ‘postmodern’ mindset actually exists in the concrete lived realities of the human condition is itself, of course, a proposal to be highly suspicious of. Quite how one defines ‘postmodernism’, beyond a vague reference to Jean François Lyotard’s infamous ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, is another story entirely (well, almost).

7. See [3].

8. Bebbington, David W., and Ceri Jones, David (eds), Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 1-2. See also: Dayton, D. W., ‘Some Doubts about the Usefulness of the Category “Evangelical”’, in D. W. Dayton and R. K. Johnston (eds),  The  Variety  of  American Evangelicalism (Knoxville, Tenn.,  1991),  245–51.

9. Ibid.

10. Bebbington, D.W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Routledge, 1989, 2-3.

11. Bebbington, Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, 2-3.

12. Ibid, 3.

13. Ibid. See also: C. H. Partridge, ‘Introduction’, in C. H. Partridge (ed.), Fundamentalisms (Carlisle, 2001), pp. xv–xvi.

14. Ruthven, Malise, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 5.

15. Ibid, 5-6.

16. Ibid, 6, 53, 122, etc.

17. Ibid, 40-41.

18. Wrong. Drastically so.

19. As dreadful and provocative as this caricature may be, it is a fairly accurate (albeit it mildly sarcastic/playfully mischievous) representation of many experiences I have had in distinctly Pentecostal-charismatic settings. I have mentioned it previously, however it seemed worth reiterating once again in this context.

20. It’s not of course, but it’s very often framed in this way; we have the real deal, other so called ‘Christians’ are lesser, unbiblical impostors who need to be “set free”.

21. It may be a hangover from my uncritical embrace of fundamentalist literalism, but I see too many kernels of truth in Jesus’ recorded statements warning his people about false prophets and teachers. By their fruits, one can recognise them (e.g. Matt 7:15-20). 

Anglican Realignment? 

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Harriet Sherwood recently wrote two provocative and contentious articles for the Guardian which highlighted yet more of the (seemingly) prevalent tensions within the Church of England. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her work rapidly generated the usual digital brouhaha over the weekend. After a cursory glance at the tempestuous virtual furore, I felt suitability stirred to pen this brief missal as a means of engaging with the wider conversation around Anglican identity. I do so with a healthy degree of trepidation, in part because I consider myself an outsider who is looking through a glass (darkly) at the broad diversity of the Anglican tradition. I thus feel ill-equipped to contribute much of a meaningful, experience based commentary on the serpentine, schismatic nature of the internecine rivalries that apparently pepper the wafer-thin semblance of unity within the communion.

Nevertheless, for a trainee theologian (of sorts) who has developed something of an appetite for flirting dangerously with Anglicanism as a broader movement, debates such as these are almost irresistible. Controversy within a family that one feels increasingly drawn to is very difficult to ignore; a growing sense of urgent restlessness and calling to serve said family even more so. Indeed, as many of my regular readers will know, in recent months I have been seriously considering the possibility and ramifications of throwing my proverbial hat into the ecclesial ring, by becoming a fully fledged, confirmed member of the CofE. As (un)remarkable as that statement may be to some, I do have a potentially vested interested in the future of the Anglican communion.

So, without further ado, and with one or two cards laid firmly on the table, to the matter in hand:

An apparent Anglican realignment?

Sherwood opens her article called “Top cleric says Church of England risks becoming a ‘suburban sect’.”, as follows:

‘Plans to reverse decline in congregations may alienate even more people, says Oxford dean.

One of Britain’s senior theologians has warned that the Church of England is in danger of becoming a narrow sect “driven by mission-minded middle managers” who are alienating clergy, congregations and the general public.’ – (The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford).

Immediately, her rhetoric is arguably tendentious. Granted, few would question the academic credentials of Professor Percy, who has a long and distinguished career in theological education. He is the 45th Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, a published author, and a recognised voice from within the communion that deserves plenty of thoughtful attention. For instance, one would be wise to listen intently when he critiques the sweeping program of ‘Renewal and Reform’ being foisted upon the CofE in the following terms:

‘It will take more to save the Church of England than a blend of the latest management theory, secular sorcery with statistics and evangelical up-speak.’

And:

‘There seems to be no sagacity, serious science or spiritual substance to the curatives being offered.’

Sherwood marshals his criticisms alongside those of other clergy who are sceptical of the Archbishop Justin Welby’s push to recalibrate the CofE in such a way as to focus more on inner city suburban areas, over against rural ones (such as my own, no doubt).

Yet the paucity of contrasting viewpoints within Sherwood’s article is made all the more conspicuous by the absence of any serious engagement with leading Anglican figures who support and welcome the Renewal and Reform agenda. Sherwood’s 3:1 ratio of perspectives on the current state of play within the CofE is hardly fair, balanced, or representative of the wider communion (despite Percy’s claims to the contrary). As soon as I had read this article I was left wondering if the following ancient Hebrew proverb didn’t speak volumes on the subject matter at hand:

In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines. (Prov 18:17 NIV)

Therein lies the the rub, as it were. Sherwood is under no obligation to be even handed, yet by stating that a ‘Top cleric’, who happens to be a ‘senior Theologian’ within the CofE, is being openly critical (even denunciatory) of the current status quo within the British arm of the Anglican Church, Sherwood arguably gives the deceptive impression that Percy is the solitary voice of reason. She thereby potentially evokes an impression of him as a peerless authority figure who is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of intellect and hierarchy.  His dissent is therefore cast as the result of an informed, intellectually robust mindset that is (presumably) sorely lacking within the ‘mission-minded’ ranks of the clergy who represent the movers and shakers inside the CofE. What is more, Sherwood’s closing barrage of sceptics align to suggest that the Renewal and Reform agenda is hopelessly out of touch with the lived realities of parish ministry. All in all, she presents a withering collective critique. 

Now, it may be that other ‘Top Anglican Clerics..and senior Theologians’ have yet to weigh in on the topic (or feel no need to). I am not au fait enough with the rest of the British arm of the Anglican communion to know ‘who’s who’, as it were. Yet the title, tone, framing, and thrust of Sherwood’s article is clearly not concerned with pursuing much in the way of objectivity. Neither is it even cautiously optimistic or vaguely positive about any of the current developments that Percy and others lambast. For those reasons amongst others, I might prescribe a substantial pinch of salt for any vaguely discerning readers before jumping to unwarranted conclusions. An Anglican realignment is definitely afoot in the CofE, even if the precise nature of the evolutionary process at work remains a hot button topic which is mired in controversy. 

Tradition vs Innovation? 

I find it ironic that despite my own misgivings about Sherwood’s article, I share a degree of sympathy with Professor Percy and others who lament the ‘secular sorcery’ of the CofE’s new church planting initiatives. Urban Evangelical-Charismatic church plants are a widespread phenomenon which I am reasonably familiar with, since I have regularly attended at least three in my time thus far, and technically am part of a fledgling one now. I have written at length elsewhere about what myself and others perceive to be the inherent dangers of large churches adopting branding and/or marketing strategies to stimulate ‘growth’. All too often there is money to be made, influence to be had, and sycophantic Yes-men waiting to follow quasi-celebrity pastor-CEOs who often refuse to tolerate tough questions. Such flocks seem to live on a steady diet of groupthink and hollow religious rhetoric, which is buttressed by proof-texts and devoid of genuine gospel content. All of this is carefully choreographed to a soundtrack of Christian Pop/Rock music, flashing lights, and projectors which cost more than it would to employ two full time staff members. Yes, I clearly have issues to work through, and I’m just getting started. Needless to say, I struggle to see how these kinds of churches can genuinely embody the humble, unpretentious, self-sacrificial lifestyle epitomised by Jesus of Nazareth. 

Whether or not the new church plants that spring up from the CofE over the coming years will end up looking much like their independent evangelical counterparts remains to be seen. Ostensibly some will, some won’t,  and others will fall on a spectrum somewhere in between extremes. Yet what troubles me the most is the apparent push toward embracing new evangelistic methods at the expense of what I find to be one of Anglicanism’s most attractive features: The sense of ancient tradition that suffuses what Percy calls ‘a broad church – capacious and generous.’ Whilst it lacks modern branding, the CofE can point to the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ enshrined in Scripture, and enact aspects of that gospel through the mysterious sacraments that have stood the test of time. It can demonstrate it’s unwavering commitment to the episcopal structures that have their roots in apostolic succession by continuing to take the role of priestly ministry seriously, yet humbly (as Christ did). Surely it can persist in striving for that elusive via media between polar opposites, which remains as inherently elusive as it does critical for avoiding stagnation and unnecessary division? Doubtless the CofE must be willing and ready to innovate and adapt to the persistently changing landscape(s) of 21st century British culture. Yet surely ancient Anglican tradition need not be in competition with modern innovation(s)? Time will tell. 

Global Perspective?

Of course, lines will inevitably be drawn in the sand over various issues such as sexuality, gender roles, pneumatology, and so forth. Broad church need not equate to an ‘anything goes’ mentality that risks undermining the very heart of Jesus’ Gospel message. Anglicans, like all Christians, must ultimately clarify their own understanding of the content, nature, and interpretation of the Gospel message if they expect to live it out faithfully. Perhaps it is an apparent failure to do this in a unified manner within the CofE that sparked this kind of statement from the (seemingly) less well known organisation called GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference):

‘In the beginning, the focus of our concern was North America and we thank God that he has raised up the Anglican Church in North America as a new wineskin in that continent. Now our concern is increasingly with the British Isles. A line has been crossed in the Church of England itself with the appointment of Bishop Susan Goff, of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, as an Assisting Bishop of Liverpool. The false teaching of the American Episcopal Church has been normalised in England..’ -The Most Reverend Nicholas D. Okoh, chairman of GAFCON (Emphasis mine).

Though not directly relevant to the topic of Sherwood’s original article, it is fascinating to get a non-European view that pulls no punches in it’s assessment of the spiritual health of British Anglicanism. I doubt many UK based ‘Top Clerics’ or ‘Senior Theologians’ would necessarily concur with Okoh’s opinion, however if nothing else it is clear that Percy is not the only high ranking Anglican to have serious misgivings about the current trajectory of the CofE. My questions in raising the GAFCON card are:

Do British Anglicans need a paradigm shift, not just regarding their evangelistic strategies or pneumatological convictions, but in terms of grasping the bigger picture of what God is perhaps doing in and through our brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world? To put it another way, do we need to be evangelised ourselves and be set free from our own blindness and ethnocentrism? Or do we persist in staring at the trees whilst failing to the see our place in the deep, dark wood?

What kind of Anglican realignment does the CofE really need? Is Justin Welby’s evangelical-charismatic church planting thrust the ticket to divine favour in an increasingly secular landscape? Or does British Anglicanism need to realign itself with the broader spread of the global Anglican communion? 

Over to you, Anglican friends! Father Edward B. Green has already published a swift response to Sherwood’s other article, which touches on similar themes. Another excellent viewpoint on the same broad topic is this article by Wealands Bell. Surely there are other voices like Green’s and Bell’s who can provide alternative perspectives on the Renewal and Reform agenda within the CofE? I for one would welcome more insider knowledge. 

M

Jesusology as Single Malt Whisky

image

*Links are highlighted*

Taste is acquired. Flavours remain ambiguous until the brain learns how to interpret the relevant electrical signals received from the tongue into a meaningful sensation. Familiarity breeds potential contempt for changes in our perceived status quo.

This post is inspired by the recent interaction between Jory Micah and Bekah Merkle regarding the increasingly strident divide over gender roles within Western evangelicalism. Quite simply, I couldn’t resist a brief contribution to the ongoing conversation, since Bekah’s post used the analogy of whisky vs lite beer to illustrate the difference she perceives between evangelical feminism and evangelical complementarianism. As a staunch advocate of single malt Scottish whisky, I immediately felt drawn to the subject. Without further ado then, some thoughts on theological purity vs syncretism:

Jesus is perfect Theology like single malt is perfect whisky

My own developing theological method is fundamentally Christological and seeks to reinterpret tradition accordingly. In a nutshell, given the prior faith commitment of affirming the divinity of Christ by declaring that Jesus is Lord, my approach to Theology embraces various presuppositions about Christian Scripture. Based upon scripture’s own testimony, I consider it to be God-breathed, and infallible as to its purpose of witnessing to Jesus himself. God’s word will not return to him void, and whilst heaven and earth will fade away, Jesus’ own words shall never fade away (2 Tim 3:16, Isa 55:11, Matt 24:35, c.f. Luke 21:33, Mark 13:31). Furthermore, since Jesus is also referred to as God’s word, and all scripture points to him, we must seek to interpret Christian Scripture in light of Jesus and his gospel, which is of first importance (John 1:1-3, 5:39, Luke 24:27, 44-49, 1 Cor 15:1-3).

In other words, as one helpful organisation I once had the dubious pleasure of briefly studying with put it: ‘Jesus is the hermeneutical key’ by which we attempt to make sense of Scripture. As a self-confessed, gentrified Pentecostal I would also submit that sound exegesis and hermeneutics require pneumatological guidance via the Spirit of God (e.g. John 16:13). Finally, in order to make sure that one has at least a fighting chance of correctly interpreting sacred Scripture and turning it into sound praxis, humility is utterly essential, since God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (Jas 4:6, Matt 23:12, Luke 14:11, etc). Take it from me, as someone who has stumbled far too many times already: pride goes before a fall.

Plenty of other dynamics surely exist, such as the necessity of a broad general education encompassing history, philosophy, an awareness of the natural sciences, and the ever present reality of spiritual warfare (Eph 6:10-18); unless of course one is hopelessly indebted to the legacy of enlightenment naturalism. In the latter instance, the postmodern turn has already pulled the illusory rug out from beneath the feet of both Deism and Atheism alike, thus rendering proponents of a closed universe all but mute amidst a glorious symphony of existential ambiguity. All of which is to say that Theology is a seriously complex and dangerous enterprise, and we do not merely wrestle with flesh and blood.

Beer, Whisky, and Brick Walls

However, to return to the analogy in question, if Bekah Merkle’s complementarian theology is supposed to be Whisky, and egalitarian theology is cast as lite beer, then Jesusology is more akin to single malt Scottish whisky, and is the gold standard elixir by which all lesser liquors must be measured. The trouble is that to the uninitiated, a blended, mismatched vial of Bells from myriad filthy barrels may pass as drinkable. Worse yet, to taste buds unaccustomed to the amber nectar of Jesus’ theological firewater, cheap imitations with a few drops of the good stuff in them may even seem like the real deal. In reality though, counterfeit whisky is from multiple sources, and it has tainted flavours. Single malt is far more pure, unmixed with the muddied streams of other casks, and retains an authenticity unmatched by its hybrid rivals.

So it is with Theology. As I have written about previously, ‘patriarchal’ complementarianism (which, despite bluster to the contrary, is what it is) has more in common with the prevailing tides of human culture throughout history, than it does the gospel of Jesus Christ. True, the apostle Paul may have prohibited women in Ephesus from teaching men in a domineering fashion (or wives from teaching husbands, as the Greek is ambiguous), and may or may not have expected Corinthian women to remain silent within their churches during the first century CE (1 Tim 2:12-18, 1 Cor 11:2-16, 14:33-35). Both of these contentious proof texts can be interpreted in various ways, yet to slavishly insist upon a universal, literal application of them as binding instructions for the Church across history runs headlong into a substantial set of brick walls; three of which are Junia, the well renowned apostle, Phoebe the deaconness, and Priscilla, Paul’s co-worker and host of a first century house Church (Rom 16:1-19).

As my previous post highlighted, patriarchal complementarians sail into tumultuous waters when faced with exegetical problems like these. If Junia was an apostle, ostensibly leading a church and/or planting new ones, did she do so in a silent manner? Perhaps she was unable to speak, or had taken a vow? As we can see, superimposing Pauline admonitions to localised congregations upon the entire Church begins to look like an embarrassing case of square pegs and round holes. Admittedly, what of the text in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36? Did women keep silent in all churches? If so, how did Phoebe remain silent and carry out her work as a Deaconess? What about prophesying? Or tongues? Was this done in a silent manner, akin to our modern day ‘silent discos’? Presumably, Priscilla merely gestured to her guests when welcoming them into her house Church? If the prohibition to speak holds, surely it holds here? At the very least, such an idea brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘quiet time’.

Back to the future

Herein lies the crux of the matter when comparing patriarchal complementarianism to whisky: It is the muddied, blended bourbon which masquerades as unadulterated single malt, yet ultimately leaves one with a stinking hangover and a cavalcade of regrets the morning after an impromptu binge. It boils down to a cornucopia of disparate proof texts from diverse casks, which are all too often used to buttress misogyny within the Church, under the guise of being ‘biblical’. As my previous post began to address, patriarchy is clearly stated to be a consequence of sin within a fallen world, and is not part of God’s original design (Gen 3:16). Jesus’ glorious gospel sets us free from the curse of the fall, as new covenant humanity begins to walk in the  mysterious transformational process of moving from being sinners into saints. God’s adopted sons and daughters are arguably redeemed and liberated from the curse of Eden, thus demolishing one of the  Devils’ key strongholds in his rebellion against God; patriarchy is a consequence of the Devil’s work, which Jesus came to destroy (1 Jn 3:8).

If the Kingdom of God can be partially realised here and now, then Jesus’ rule and reign can begin to manifest itself within our present reality (e.g. Matt 12:28).  In other words, we can drink deeply of Jesus’ finest, liberating, ‘now and not yet’ liquor, today. Aspects of an otherwise distant future can inhabit our world now. What is more, the wee dram he offers is more than enough to satisfy both host and guest. Imagine pockets of the Kingdom springing up across the globe as God’s people dwell together in unity as living witnesses to Jesus’ gospel. Picture an ekklesia where men and women coexist as equals, and are free to function in any sphere of Church leadership without hindrance, as the Spirit directs (1 Cor 12:11). Apostles, Prophets and prophetesses, evangelists, pastors and teachers can all be working together for the gospel in order to see the great commission fulfilled (Eph 4:11-13). Once this has been achieved, Jesus will return in glory to close this fallen chapter of history; he will thus decisively replace it with eternal peace. I think we could all, egalitarian and complementarian alike, raise a glass to that.

M

The Problem of Patriarchy

Lady-justice-jury

I’m not ready to write this post. I’m unqualified (though in the process of formal theological study), under-researched, pastorally inexperienced, sinful, and prone to partisanship. I possess a woeful track record in the way I have previously thought of (or not), objectified, mistreated, disappointed, denigrated and misled young women. I am white, male, highly educated and from a relatively privileged background which has been largely devoid of prejudice and difficulty. Misogyny is a mystery to me in real terms, as I have never experienced it. In many respects, I am the worst kind of figure to write any kind of meaningful polemic against patriarchy, as I embody many of the things that are wrong with it, have benefitted hugely from it, and continue to inhabit a system, culture and tradition which are steeped in it. Despite momentum in a positive direction, women in the 21st century are faced with the tragic reality that, as the late James Brown once said, ‘it’s a man’s world’. Even a cursory glance at the news will reveal plenty of evidence attesting to the daily struggle which too many women endure throughout the globe. Here are some typical, clickable examples, in no particular order:

1. Jehovah’s witnesses.

2. ISIS.

3. Wolf whistling & harassment.

4. A range of stories from girls as young as 11.

5. Sexism in the US military.

6. Victim blaming.

7. Academia. See particularly #61 #55 #48 #15 #3 & #1.

8. A man’s view on women’s sport.

Granted, I haven’t exactly fact checked this narrow range of sources, and I’m sure that for every story that gets published, dozens remain unheard. Nevertheless, even if we take such stories with a sceptical pinch of salt, we needn’t look very far to be confronted with the scale of the problem. Often, such atrocities are taking place uncomfortably close to home, which brings me to the focus of this post. As anyone with one foot in the camp of evangelical Christianity, and another in the sordid land of social media will likely have heard in the past week, stories like the few I have listed are not the sole preserve of the ‘heathen’ (irony intended). Patriarchy, sexism, misogyny and victim blaming are alive and well within the walls of the church, as demonstrated by the reprehensible manner in which Karen Hinkley was treated by the Village Church combined with the Josh Duggar scandal. Predictably, reactions have been mixed. Some responses which caught my attention include this post by Kristen Howertonanother by Erin Wathen, and this one by Matt Redmond.

I’d recommend reading all of the aforementioned posts thoroughly, particularly the supporting documentation surrounding the way Karen Hinkley was treated by the Village church. The picture they paint is devastatingly bleak, or to echo the sentiment one of my Twitter friends chose to describe the original Village church article: miserable. Sadly, as another of my friends who happens to be a well respected academic subsequently remarked, neither the Duggar scandal nor the spiritual abuse at the Village church is particularly surprising. She was of course absolutely right, which brings me to the crux of this post.

The problem with patriarchy is that it is endemic. It is hard wired into humanity, and from a Christian perspective I believe that this is a direct consequence of sin. Without getting sidetracked by tawdry evolution vs creationism debates (for the record, I am no young earth creationist) I take the scriptures at face value when they record the story of Adam & Eve’s disobedience of God leading to a range of grave consequences for his creatures. One of these is described in the following terms:

“..Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen 3:16 ESV).

Scholarly disputes over biblical literature as regards historical accuracy notwithstanding (I take these very seriously as a burgeoning scholar), and whatever the literal/figurative nature of the creation narratives in Genesis may be, I think the authors of this text were onto something when they proposed a root cause for the corruption of the human condition. Put simply, why does the functional and deliberate hatred of women exist? Why does patriarchy exert such a stranglehold on humanity, and infiltrate church communities just as much as it does everywhere else? At the risk of oversimplifying to the extreme, I would suggest that it is because the kingdoms of this world (nation states, cultures, subcultures, etc) are not under the rule and reign of their ultimate creator: The God revealed in Jesus Christ, who promises that a new Kingdom is coming when all causes of evil are utterly eradicated. Until then, we have a fight on our hands.

Sin is the problem. Patriarchy is one of many consequences. The Church is called to witness to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed, part of which involves the embodiment of an alternative community where, amongst other things, patriarchy has no place as it is part of the old world order. Sadly, I believe that one of the many ways in which the problem of patriarchy manifests itself within the church is the so called ‘conservative’ view that male only leadership (also known as a ‘complementarian’ view of gender roles) is the biblical norm. Questioning such leadership is discouraged. Women are effectively silenced and relegated to roles wherein they are expected to be submissive. Abuse can and does flourish under such conditions as men are encouraged to dominate both in the home and at church. Victims of abuse can and do suffer from accusations of blame for their offenders actions. Male only leadership all too often instils a culture of male only privilege. Such a mindset is symptomatic of a patriarchal culture, and arguably led to and/or contributed to the disgraceful events at the Village church and the Josh Duggar scandal. Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again to bring us freedom from sin, death and evil, and thus any such patriarchal tendencies are to be vehemently resisted and challenged.

A patriarchal view of male only leadership within the church is thoroughly biblical, in the sense that it belongs to a corrupt, sinful world which Jesus Christ himself promises to destroy and make new. I contend therefore, that to be Kingdom minded requires the church to do likewise. Male only leadership is history. Biblical equality is part and parcel of Jesus’ grand mission of cosmic redemption. We are to live in the good of this here and now, as counter cultural witnesses to the truth.

Admittedly, this long standing argument won’t be settled by a hasty blog post like this one. My purpose here isn’t to write a theology paper, but rather to share some of my own partially formed reflections on a weighty and complex topic. I don’t claim to offer a conclusive theological solution to the problem of Patriarchy as regards church governance or marital roles. Thankfully, the scholarly discussion is well under way. Two pertinent examples include this extensive reflection on a recent book advocating a complementarian view by Dr Stephen Holmes, and this excellent looking book by Dr Lucy Peppiatt. Conservative scholars needn’t be concerned that we’ll lack theological depth as egalitarians. Rest assured, we’re coming for you, on a rescue mission, as it were.

To be blunt in getting back to the point, if the twin examples of the Village church and the Duggar scandal teach us anything, it’s that parts of the evangelical arm of the Western church are drastically failing to live in a manner consistent with the gospel. The way women have been treated in these two isolated examples is deplorable, sickening, outrageous, and unacceptable. Action must be taken. Repentance and change must be forthcoming. Particularly if these words by St. Paul are to become a tangible reality:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:28-29 ESV).

True, this verse is out of context. Yet so too are many of the proof texts used to buttress misogyny within the church. You’ll forgive my candour if I suggest that, for now at least, I’ll simply give as good as I get. Notably, Jesus’ own words regarding the one exception whereby believers can legitimately divorce were conspicuously absent from the correspondence between the Village church and Karen Hinkley (Matt 5:32, 19:9).

Silence is synonymous with approval. I may not be ready to write this post but I must speak up, since I am not just another hapless sinner perpetuating a dominant culture anymore. Seven and something years ago, I encountered Jesus Christ for the first time in my adult life and became a born again Christian (yes, one of those, the kind that makes you recoil and shudder whenever you hear one mentioned). For me at least, this was a game changer. My life since then has been one of gradual, persistent transformation and whilst I remain disastrously flawed and in desperate need of my Saviour’s grace on a daily basis, I am no longer a slave to the tyranny of my own sin. One implication of this is that I am not helpless against the problem of patriarchy. On the contrary, I am called to defy it.

So too are you. Especially if you are a born again believer in Christ, and even more so if you are male. Make no mistake, we shall all give an account to the Lord for our actions and inactions on the face of this earth. Men, I’m speculating, but I’m guessing that how we treated God’s daughters is likely to be very high on Jesus’ list in our final performance review.

Choose. Very. Wisely.

J

*Update* Matt Chandler has issued an apology on behalf of the village church, and the elders in particular, regarding their handling of church discipline. Though he makes no specific mention of Karen Hinckley he does address some of the broader, connected issues. Warren Throckmorton provides a link to the sermon here, and Chandler picks up the topic in question around 24 minutes in:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2015/06/01/matt-chandler-expresses-remorse-and-asks-forgiveness-in-sunday-sermon/

Tellingly however, he makes no apology for the underlying theological convictions of the church. Listening to his discussion of church discipline leading to excommunication (based on Matthew 18) he explains that a church in these circumstances is no longer able to ‘affirm’ that a believer is a follower of Christ any more.

It is difficult not to read into his comments as relating directly to the case in question, given the rhetoric he uses to describe the significance of removing a believer from church membership. In fairness however, Chandler doesn’t directly make this connection, and so charity should inform how other believers respond to his statements. That said, I remain unconvinced that the real problem is how to apply ‘sound’ theology in a ‘loving’ and ‘compassionate’ way, as Chandler suggests. I would seriously question just how sound the theology I have seen evidenced really is, and whether or not it would withstand robust scrutiny. As I’ve already said, I’m not writing a theology paper here, but if and when that day comes, there’ll be no hiding behind appeals to ‘good’ theology/poor practice.

Nevertheless, I am tentatively encouraged by this development, and sincerely hope and pray that God leads the Village Church and any and all affected parties through a process of genuine repentance, healing, restoration, and where possible reconciliation. Even so, the wider issue of Patriarchy remains unresolved, and my challenge stands: we shall all answer to Jesus eventually. Choose carefully.

Framing the problem of evil

black-and-white-glass-game-chess

My initial ambition of blogging through the entirety of John Frame’s systematic theology turned out to be fiendishly unrealistic. It turns out that being a husband and (recent) father, working full time, studying for an MA, serving at church and being involved in live performance projects is surprisingly time consuming (who knew?!).

Nevertheless, I thought that I would make the most of some holiday time by resuming my brief foray into Frame’s weighty tome of Christian Theology. Given that it is one of my research interests, I thought I’d delve into his treatment of Theodicy, otherwise known as ‘the problem of evil’. Put simply, this all hinges on the question of how an all powerful, all knowing, loving, ever present God could allow evil and suffering to exist. It’s a great question, so without further ado, let’s see what John Frame has to say:

The problem of evil

“In a nutshell, the problem is this: How can there be any evil in the world, if God exists? Or to put it more formally:

1. If God is omnipotent, he is able to prevent evil.

2. If God is good, he wants to prevent evil.

3. But evil exists.

4. Conclusion: either God is not omnipotent, or he is not good.”

“The syllogism above is sometimes called the logical problem of evil, for it accuses the theistic worldview of logical inconsistency.” [1]

Very well then. Frame goes on to look at the creation/fall narrative in Genesis 1-3, rooting his understanding of evil in these passages. He distinguishes between what he calls ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ evil, stating that the latter came first and ultimately caused the former to exist. ‘Natural’ evil is defined as ‘natural’ disasters/sickness/et al, whereas ‘moral’ evil is propagated by sentient human and/or angelic beings by virtue of their choices. He neatly explains it this way:

“Scripture, therefore, gives us an explicit answer to the problem of natural evil. Natural evil is a curse brought on the world because of moral evil.” [2]

Granted, this still doesn’t answer the original question: why would God even allow this to occur? Frame looks at various ‘common defences’ against the problem of evil, which he groups into three categories: the nature of evil, how evil ultimately benefits the universe, and how God acts with regard to evil. He discusses evil as illusion (e.g. Hinduism) and privation (e.g. evil is the absence of good/’metaphysical entropy), as well as critiquing various forms of the ‘freewill defence’ (blame the creatures), and the ‘best possible universe’ defence (i. e. It doesn’t get any better than this, God did his best-for now at least). Finally, he lands on what he calls the ‘greater-good’ defence, described thus:

“When all of God’s actions are added up, it will be plain that the sum total of his works are righteous. From the evils of history he has brought unquestionable good, worthy of the highest praise.”

“It is important for us to define greater good theistically. The greater good should be seen, first of all, not as greater pleasure or comfort for us, but as greater glory to God.” [3]

Frame then poses a series of questions, one of which is:

“Does the greater-good defense presuppose that the end justifies the means? It does say that God’s good purposes justify his use of evil.” [4]

And in summary:

“Since the burden of proof is on the objector [presumably any objector to Frame’s greater-good defence], it is not necessary for us to come up with a full theodicy, a justification of God’s ways.” – (parentheses mine).

“My conclusion on the greater-good defense, then, is that God certainly does will evil for a good purpose. The good he intends will be so great, so wonderful and beautiful, that it will make present evils seem small.” [5]

Finally, Frame undertakes a more explicit and detailed analysis of how God acts in relation to evil. He draws the threads together with another tri-perspectival model of how humanity can (not) understand or question his (Frame’s) deterministic conclusion. When all is said and done, his perspective is unashamedly Calvinist. Frame deliberately refuses to offer a complete theodicy, and instead appeals to his own view of divine sovereignty and mystery.

Clearly, I have condensed a substantial amount of Frame’s thesis on this topic into a few selected quotes and summaries. For the sake of integrity therefore, I am not claiming to fully represent his position on this (or any other) matter. Rather, these examples are what stood out to me as being the most relevant to my attempt at simplifying his thinking. For clarity, of course, I would encourage any interested readers to explore Frame’s writing for themselves.

What do you think? Has Frame solved the problem of evil? Is his response biblical?

Until next time.

M

1. Frame, John M, “Systematic Theology: An introduction to Christian belief” (Kindle edition, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, USA, P&R Publishing Company, P.O. Box 817: 2013) 494.

2. Frame, Systematic Theology, 496.

3. Frame, Systematic Theology, 508.

4. Frame, Systematic Theology, 510.

5. Frame, Systematic Theology, 511.

Framing Systematic Theology part 2: A three sided frame.

black-and-white-game-match-chess

My previous post introduced some highlights from the recently published systematic theology by John Frame. Moving on from his introduction, he caps off a helpful summary of his thinking by emphasising the following attributes of God’s Lordship as being a central feature of his overarching theological framework (puns intended). In a nutshell, they are:

Control:

“So Yahweh controls the entire course and nature of history for his own glory and to accomplish his own purposes.” [1]

Frame justifies this classic Reformed theodicy mostly with a shallow reading of the exodus narrative, and snippets of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Genesis 1 and Psalms. Presumptions abound and the New Testament is nowhere in sight at this point.

Authority:

“The relation between control and authority is between might and right. Control means that God has the power to direct the whole course of nature and history as he pleases. Authority means he has the right to do that.” [2]

This section is considerably lengthier, and Frame makes the point that whilst Authority is not synonymous with Control, neither are these two attributes mutually exclusive.

Presence:

“Since God controls and [authoritatively]  evaluates all things, he is therefore present everywhere, as present as an incorporeal being can be.” [3]

Frame’s ordering of his affairs (thus far) seems to suggest that God’s omnipresence is dependent upon his omnipotence and (as Dr Greg Boyd might put it) ‘divine sovereignty defined as meticulous control’. [4] This certainly seems to fit with the standard Reformed view of determinism; which is a view Roger Olson takes to task in his seminal book called ‘Against Calvinism’, wherein he critiques the perspective championed by R.C. Sproul, amongst others. [5] In closing, Frame’s second chapter sketches his tri-perspectival approach to Theology, which can be loosely summarised as a model of human knowledge by which we view the world from ‘normative’, ‘situational’ and ‘existential’ perspectives, as a consequence of God’s Lordship. [6]

In plain english, all of this seems to me to be suggesting a method, or recipe for cooking up our Theology based upon God as the ultimate master chef. Frame’s God not only dictates and micromanages every aspect of the cosmic kitchen, he also makes sure that every sous-chef knows their place in the pecking order and doesn’t get any misguided notions about free will. Frame’s image of God is laden with presuppositions (as indeed would be the case for everyone) and he seems to be quietly reinforcing them from the outset. If you hadn’t already guessed, I struggle most with this aspect of his thesis (so far).

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that I once again find myself sitting atop the lofty shoulders of a serious theological heavyweight and barely keeping pace. The sheer breadth of wider reading and subject knowledge Frame possesses ought to make any nascent scholar a touch nervous about their own grasp of the literature by comparison. Next up, God’s transcendence vs his immanence, and opposing world-views as spiritual warfare (I’m as intrigued as you are!).

M

1. Frame, John M, “Systematic Theology: An introduction to Christian belief” (Kindle edition, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, USA, P&R Publishing Company, P.O. Box 817: 2013) Loc 1553

2. Frame, Systematic Theology, Loc 1600.

3. Frame, Systematic Theology, Loc 1772.

4. Boyd, Gregory A, God at war: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict (USA, Inter-varsity press: 1997) 32.

5. Olson, Roger E, Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s reputation from radical reformed theology (Grand Rapids, MI, USA, Zondervan: 2011) 77-79.

6. Frame, Systematic Theology, Loc 1853.