Category Archives: Social Issues
In his classic work The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined Georges Duby describes the way in which the medieval church understood the inequality of earthly society as a divinely ordained reflection of the heavenly hierarchy. “The harmony of God’s creation results from a hierarchized exchange of respectful submission and condescending affection” (p. 34). Like the angels, divided into ordinary angels and archangels, so human beings are divided into those that submit and those that serve. In addition, human society is organized according to three functional orders: those who pray (the priests, at the top of the hierarchy); those who fight (the kings and princes); and those who labor (the peasants).
To be sure, medieval theologians recognized that God had created all people equal. But they insisted that he did not expect them to live in functional or hierarchical equality. Duby quotes one famous statement by Gerard, an 11th Century Bishop of Cambrai: “Although nature creates all men equal, error subordinates some to others in accordance with the variable order of merits; this diversity arising from vice is established by divine judgment so that, since man is not intended to live in equality, one may be ruled by another” (p. 35, emphasis added).
There were egalitarians in those days, Duby points out. For instance, in 1024 Gerard was confronted with one campaign by a bishop who claimed he had received a letter from heaven calling for the restoration of peace in the world in anticipation with the millennium, expected by many on the 1,000th anniversary of Christ’s death. The letter called for human society to be renewed according to three forms of equality: equality in agreements (society should be grounded in egalitarian oaths); equality in grace (fasting as the only basis for the forgiveness of sins); and equality in peace (an end to vengeance and war).
For bishops like Gerard, of course, such a vision was horrifying, a heresy that threatened the equilibrium of the universe. Gerard argued, and his arguments were representative of the views of the church of his day, that the kingdom of heaven is not expressed or realized in terms of equality. God imposes certain rules and commands on some that he does not impose upon others.
There were distinctions between men, an essential inequality which could be compensated only by charity, mercy, and mutual service, service which everyone was obliged to give and entitled to expect from his fellow man…. This reciprocity was the source of peace on earth. Others spoke of heaven. Heaven was exactly the same. There were several abodes in the house of the Lord. It was God’s wish that even in paradise a certain inequalitas prevail, reduced to nought only by charity, collective communication in the glory of God, common participation in the ineffable joy of salvation. This is the cornerstone of Gerard’s ideology: a generous redistribution of the available wealth within an inevitable framework of inequality. (38)
Redistribution of wealth is the right way to think about it. The power and prestige of the church (those who pray) and of the magistracy (those who bear the sword) was built on the labor and taxation of the peasantry (those who grew the food). Life expectancy for a peasant throughout much of the middle ages was somewhere in the thirties. The peasants were expected neither to understand the teaching of their faith nor to rise out of their poverty to any sort of mobility or prosperity. For all the emphasis on the need for superiors to serve their inferiors (after the example of Christ), we all know what usually happened.
The Reformation was one of the great catalysts that destroyed this system. The reformers rejected the church’s claim that believers had to draw near to God through the sacramental system controlled by the clergy, replacing it with the priesthood of all believers in response to the preaching of the gospel. Although Calvin and others insisted that the liberty of the spiritual kingdom had no obvious implications for liberty in the political kingdom, the flow of history dictated otherwise. As Charles Taylor and others have demonstrated, the rejection of a hierarchical order in the church was gradually followed by the rejection of hierarchy in government (i.e., the divine right of kings), the prohibition of radical economic inequality (i.e., slavery), and eventually the abandonment of hierarchy in the family (i.e., male headship).
We American Christians now find ourselves in an interesting scenario. We would all affirm, with the medieval church, that God created human beings equal, but most of us would be terribly uneasy about the way in which the church assumed the legitimacy of a hierarchy of orders (and of hierarchy within orders) that permitted no mobility, no avenue of ascent for those of talent. We don’t like Calvin’s declarations that ordinary Christians shouldn’t concern themselves with changing their day-jobs or with judging political affairs. We are uneasy about the way in which many of our forbears described or treated women.
To be sure, we recognize that there is a need for leadership in the church and in society. Not everyone can hold the same vocation, nor should everyone possess the same wealth and the same honor. But we like being able to hold our leaders accountable to us through elections, and we have a strong, visceral reaction against those leaders who would claim the right to confiscate our property through taxation, even if that property is directed to the lower ranks of society rather than to the elites. We expect that if we are willing to study and work hard we should be able to pursue a vocation suitable to our interests and talents, and even to change vocations if we feel so inclined. Most of us, while rejecting radical feminism, have no desire to force women back under the social and legal constraints within which they have lived for most of western history.
The rhetoric of equality is thrown around loosely by politicians and believers on the left and right. For some equality is the reigning norm that trumps all norms in all circumstances. The only differences that should be tolerated are those that are consensual and absolutely necessary (i.e., that we cannot possibly eliminate). For others equality is a great evil, a Trojan Horse that enables ideologists to exercise their tyranny over the rest of us. But most of us recognize that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.
In that sense we have a lot in common with the medieval church. We believe that God created human beings equal even though we don’t think human beings are made equal in all respects. But what do we affirm beyond that? Is there a Christian teaching on equality? Should the liberty and equality of the spiritual kingdom have any implications at all for life in the political kingdom? How do we evaluate various claims to equality: legal, political, economic, gender? How do we justify defending equality in one area but not in another?
I’m curious to hear how many of you would answer these questions. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section or feel free to send me a reply through the contact page.
I am loath to comment on the criticisms World Magazine has been heaping upon the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) for taking money from the pro-contraception National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, but there are a few points of contention here that are worth your attention.
For those of you not following the story, World editor Marvin Olasky, a leading Evangelical in the (compassionate) conservative movement, summarizes the story as he sees it here. Olasky writes,
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, founded in 1996, is devoted to promoting contraceptive use by the unmarried. CEO Sarah Brown clearly enunciates its mission: “Whatever the proposition on a given day, ask yourself one simple question: Does it increase women’s access to good contraceptive care? If the answer is no, oppose it!”
The annual budget of the NAE, of which several confessional Reformed denominations are a part, is approximately $1 million. That the National Campaign has given the NAE a $1 million grant is therefore as significant for the functioning of the NAE as it is noteworthy in bringing together what Olasky calls “strange bedfellows.”
The Campaign’s website describes the benefits of its NAE investment: “Through a series of papers, projects, and meetings, the NAE seeks to spark productive conversation, deliberation, and action among evangelicals regarding sexuality, healthy family formation, and abortion reduction.”
So what happened? You should really read Olasky’s entire piece, but here are the most important parts:
In April, the Relevate Group, headed by Gabe Lyons, held its Q Gathering in Washington, D.C. Young evangelicals gathered to hear speakers and panels address numerous topics, including abortion reduction. The speaker who dominated that panel was none other than the Campaign’s Sarah Brown. It turns out that the NAE paid $10,000 to Q and pushed to include Brown. Brown argued that churches should promote contraceptive use by their unmarried singles….
As the one-sided panel concluded, 372 audience members had the opportunity to answer electronically this question, “Do you believe churches should advocate contraception for their single 20-somethings?” Almost two-thirds voted yes….
News reports noted that result as evidence that the debate over contraceptive use by the unmarried is over, since even evangelicals favor it.
On the website of the NAE one finds the following statement:
Several sources have mistakenly claimed that the National Association of Evangelicals endorses or promotes the use of contraception by unmarried Christian young adults. No. NAE has never done so. NAE promotes, endorses and teaches the biblical standard of God’s gift of sex only within marriage between one man and one woman.
At the same time, in another article Olasky presents the following as part of the response of NAE President Leith Anderson to Olasky’s concerns:
“We never want to promote or condone sexual immorality,” NAE President Leith Anderson wrote in response to my questions: “But, we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.” (Olasky provides a link to this article where one can find the fuller conversation.)
This is a fascinating story. We have a conservative Evangelical journal going after a quasi-ecclesiastical organization (i.e., an organization that represents denominations) for compromising its fidelity to biblical teaching on sexual morality in the name of a prudential effort to reduce abortion. Now for the purposes of this blog post let’s set aside all questions of whether or not handing out free contraceptives is the wisest way to reduce the prevalence of abortion. I would submit that the NAE has brought this trouble upon itself by failing to see that the purpose of an ecclesiastical organization (even a quasi- one like the NAE) is to speak the revealed truths of the word while abstaining from involvement in politics or in civic campaigns that involve prudential judgments about the application of biblical teachings in the effort to achieve particular goals of justice. Political and civic organizations may rightly reason that particular ideal ends (i.e., reducing abortion) sometimes justify unideal means (i.e., handing out contraceptives to singles), but churches have no business diluting their presentation of the word by making these sort of judgments. At the very least, asWorldpoints out, NAE ought to be providing moral clarity on this point. Given the response of the media to what NAE has been doing, whatever the NAE may claim, this clarity is not getting through.
The fact is, the best thing the church can contribute to the cultural crisis of abortion and sexual promiscuity is to speak clearly to what Scripture says about these matters, both in terms of law and of gospel. To be sure, the church sometimes needs to make public statements regarding issues of broader cultural concern. But the content of those statements still needs to be that of the word, nothing more and nothing less.
What is the nature of the crisis at hand? It’s not just about abortion. Olasky writes,
Contraception among the unmarried, sold as liberating, has created a new slavery: Many young women feel pushed into sexual activity because guys want them to do what “everyone else” is doing, purportedly risk-free. Many young evangelicals understand that contraceptive use by unmarried individuals enables sinful behavior.
In a book review in Christianity Today Sharon Hodde Miller makes a strong case for the devastation that has been brought by the sexual revolution, and the decisive role the birth control pill has played in that process.
As [Mary] Eberstadt sees it [in her book, Adam and Eve After the Pill], the contraceptive pill has launched us into a new age in which responsibility has been divorced from sex. And while it is easy to point fingers at the secular world for embracing this reproductive technology, Christians are complicit in its hold on our culture. Most Christians do not want to be told what to do with their bodies any more than non-Christians, and the Pill has made that freedom possible….
Using contraception is not a private act, nor is it a neutral one. Eberstadt’s book is Exhibit A of this reality.
Knowing this, pastors cannot address the widespread sexual brokenness in our culture simply by encouraging married sex. They must also address the ideology and theology behind the brokenness, and contraception is Ground Zero for those discussions.
If the church is to have anything at all to say to the broader cultural crisis it is to proclaim the whole truth of Scripture regarding sexuality, marriage, and care for children. To be sure, the broader society will not be able to uphold this moral standard, particularly not through government coercion. But simply hearing the truth about human beings and sexuality, loud and clear, is absolutely crucial in a world in which people are being bombarded continually with a completely contrary (and deceiving) message. Sex is not an arena of private morality. It matters for the basic health and prosperity of human society as well as for individuals, and the church needs to demonstrate why that is the case.
There is a place for governmental and civic organizations to ask the questions about what we should do when people do not live as they should, what prudential steps we should take to eliminate the worst evils, and so forth. In fact, this fits nicely into the mission of an institution like World Magazine. But it is not the job of the church. Indeed, if there was ever an illustration for the need for the two kingdoms doctrine this is it. The task of the church is to proclaim the whole counsel of God and to exhibit that counsel in the love of its members (whom it lovingly trains and disciplines). That task should never, ever be confused with the need to work out ways of restraining evil or alleviating its tragic consequences through coercive or otherwise prudential civic endeavors. The clarity of the gospel depends on it.
In his column today in the Washington Post Michael Gerson describes how President Barack Obama has made culture war central to his reelection campaign in a way that Mitt Romney has not. Romney, Gersom implies, wants to focus on the economy. Obama is eager to focus on anything but the economy. Gerson notes,
President Obama’s decision to lead with social issues in his reelection campaign — immigration, gay marriage and contraception — makes some political sense. His ideologically divisive performance in office has left him with no serious option but a base strategy. Cultural battles inspire the liberality of liberal donors. They may pump up turnout among target groups — Latinos, college-educated whites and single women. They can goad opponents into angry overreaction. And social debates, coincidentally, are an alternative to discussing the state of the economy.
One might question whether or not immigration is really an instance of the culture wars, but aside from that, Gerson seems to be on to something. Having spent most of this past week at Acton University, a conference held by the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it struck me just how seriously Obama’s challenges to religious liberty are taken by prominent Christian leaders. In one of the keynote addresses at the conference Eric Metaxas, author of a recent biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, challenged his audience of close to 1,000 to recognize the warning signs of a government encroaching upon religious liberty before it is too late. We are not in Bonhoeffer’s situation (Bonhoeffer was a pastor and covert resister of the Nazi regime in 1940s Germany), he was quick to point out, but we may be in a situation analogous to that of Bonhoeffer’s earlier life. State power is being used in such a way as to force religious and other civil institutions out of the public realm. Where the state demands the right to regulate everything in line with its own agenda, where religious and cultural institutions are rendered weak and helpless in comparison, anything can happen.
As Gerson puts it,
It is his assault on the liberty of religious institutions — forcing their complicity in the distribution of contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs — that remains the most dangerous overreach of Obama’s culture war… This issue concerns not just the outcome of an election but the nature of liberalism itself. In a free society, which should have priority: pluralism or the advance of liberal values?
Gerson points out that the growth of government is closely tied up with attempts to make all of society conform to a central, elite ideology, in the case of the Obama administration that of “liberalism.”
The task becomes easier as the role of government expands. The passage of Obamacare allowed the writing of regulations that impose a liberal value (sexual autonomy through cost-free contraception) on illiberal (Catholic) institutions. The Department of Health and Human Services prioritized the expansion of progressive rights over the claims of pluralism.
The establishment of the liberal view of autonomy as the single, publicly favored way of life is inherently aggressive. Why not use government power to undermine the resistance of private institutions to reproductive rights by giving funding only to charitable organizations that refer for abortions? The Obama administration already imposed this requirement on a recent grant dealing with human trafficking. So why not take a similar approach on gay rights or gender equality, denying public benefits to organizations with illiberal views? It is an apparently endless public mission.
It is also a recipe for endless culture war. Institutions targeted by government as backward will naturally resent it, and the members of those groups will feel alienated from a common public enterprise.
In the closing lecture of the Acton University, the institute’s founder and head Father Robert Sirico made a strong and passionate case for taking the Obama administration’s policy seriously as a threat not only to religious liberty, but to liberty in general. To be sure, Sirico acknowledged, the Catholic Church and its institutions are partly at fault for what has happened. They should never have taken the government money that enables the government to interfere so much in their internal affairs. In a free and virtuous society our goal should be to build up strong civil institutions that do not depend for survival or success on government. Whenever government tries to control and regulate social or economic affairs beyond what is necessary for basic peace, order, and justice it inevitably threatens to turn the civil institutions it regulates into virtual administrations of the state.
But is not the work of the Acton Institute simply a culture war in reverse? Do not many Christians simply seek to impose their own agenda and ideology by means of the power of the state? To be sure, I did hear some people at the Acton University talk in this way. While the speakers and attendees were very sensitive to liberal accretions on state power, there was less criticism of the ways in which conservatives have sought to use the state to advance their own ideology. In general, however, this was not the spirit of the conference. In general the speakers and lecturers recognized that it is vital for both freedom and virtue for government to be kept in its place.
As one speaker pointed out, Christians should not argue for a free market or capitalist society because Scripture or the Church has given us such a system. Rather, the moral case for a free market and for capitalism depends to a significant degree on the fact that it works. Principle, in that sense, is inseparable from pragmatism. If you want to help the poor, why would you support any system other than that which has done more to create economic growth and has lifted more people out of poverty than any other institution or force in the history of the world? If you value freedom, why not maximize it as much as is possible consistent with general prosperity, peace, and order?
That does not mean our arguments for a free economy should not be fundamentally moral. Human beings are fundamentally moral creatures and must always be addressed as such. That said, however, the arguments we make should not be designed to advance a particular ideological or religious agenda, but to appeal to human beings’ basic understanding of morality and truth in light of experience and sound scholarship. In short, while we may recognize that there are those who are launching a culture war on American society, our response should not be to launch a culture war of our own. On the contrary, our response should be to work as thoughtful, loving citizens, urging and convincing our fellow citizens of the best ideals, policies, and practices conducive to our prosperity as moral human beings. To put it another way, our aim should not be to conquer, but to win hearts and minds with the truth.
The last lecture I attended at the Acton University this week was a lecture on cohabitation and marriage by W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading sociologist on marriage and the family from the University of Virginia. Wilcox worked through a considerable amount of data that I will not repeat here, but I do want to highlight some of the important themes that arose from the lecture.
First, being raised in a loving home by two biological parents is crucial for the development, education, health, and even safety of children. Children who are raised in one parent homes are far more likely to suffer from various mental problems or from depression, and they struggle more in school and in work than do their peers. Children who grow up in a home with a single mother and a non-related boyfriend are many times more likely than children raised in stable homes to be sexually or physically abused.
Second, people who have multiple sexual partners before they get married are far more likely to have marital problems that ultimately lead to divorce. Having sex with anyone other than your spouse, whether before or after your marriage, places that marriage at considerable risk. People who are sexually active with multiple partners struggle to create committed, faithful relationships. The skills and habits created by one form of life, it appears, do not translate well into the demands of another. Of course, while adults suffer from sexual promiscuity and the breakdown of marriage, those who suffer most are children.
All of this has its economic cost. Kids who struggle in school, who are sexually abused, or who wrestle with mental problems are less economically productive and much more likely to commit crimes. Children who grow up in a context of betrayal, bitterness, or even violence lose life’s best opportunity to learn the virtues and practices of just citizenship. A lot is at stake here.
What does all of this suggest? It demonstrates that marriage is not just a “moral” issue that should not be regulated by the government or addressed in politics. Marriage certainly should not be privatized. It also shows that marriage is not a “religious” issue that has no relevance to public law. On the contrary, it is in the interests of government to encourage men and women to build strong marriages and to only have children within those marriages. It is not just natural law as a philosophy that points in this direction. Natural law in the form of solid social science also confirms the argument.
Indeed, sexuality itself is of vital social concern and a healthy community must regulate it in some way. It is simply not true that sexual (im)morality is a private matter with which the government has no interest. At the very least, public schools should teach a basic morality conducive of monogamous morality. Through culture, education, and social policy not only should young people be taught that sexuality is integrally related to marriage. In addition, the message should be sent loudly and clearly to all people that sexual unions outside of marriage deserve social condemnation, not approval.
Conservatives like to focus on the issue of gay marriage and traditional marriage is certainly something worth fighting for. But Wilcox’s work suggests that the real struggle for the health and welfare of our communities needs to go much farther than the definition of marriage. We need to get to the hard work of recreating a national moral vision that supports and promotes sex only within the institution of marriage, that demands and praises marital fidelity, and that requires parents to order their families in a way that enables children to grow and develop into healthy adults.
It is time our country stopped pretending that questions of sex and marriage are anything other than fundamental issues of social justice. Pundits, scholars, and liberal politicians love to pretend that racial discrimination, economic injustice, or insufficient health care are the great issues of our day, and that matters of sexual morality should be kept private. The reality is the opposite. The family is essential to a just society and on our watch, American families are falling apart, and whole communities with them. Massive numbers of kids, and majorities in some racial and ethnic groups, grow up in broken homes. As Christians, as citizens, and as a country, it is time to face these realities squarely. Far too much is at stake to assume everything will work out nicely in the end.
Teaching Sunday School yesterday I was again struck by how well the household codes of Ephesians 5-6 address the controversy between the Neo-Calvinists and the two kingdoms advocates. Here is an excellent example of a set of secular institutions, limited in their duration to the present evil age, in which Christians are to serve one another in a manner worthy of Christ. On the one hand, the basic form of these institutions is clearly secular (the word secular comes from the Latin word saeculum which simply means age and was used by Christians to denote what belongs to this present age) and much of Paul’s ethical instruction is the mirror image of what could be found in the culture of his day. On the other hand, every single thing that he says is qualified by the commandment that Christians are to fulfill their vocations in Christ, and in obedience to Christ’s example. The commandment that kicks off the ethical instruction, after all, is to “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2) For believers that means “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21)
Let’s take the institutions one by one. Jesus made it quite clear during his ministry that marriage and sexuality are secular things. They will not take place in the kingdom of God: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore.” (Luke 20:34-36) In fact, Paul even tells us that gender itself is secular, for in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Nevertheless, though Christians are of the age to come, Paul commands Christians to submit to one another in the institution of marriage, just as do the “sons of this age.” Wives are to submit to their husbands and husbands are to love their wives. But the way in which Christians are to inhabit these secular institutions is radically different than the world because of the membership of Christians in the kingdom of God and because of their submission to the Lord of that kingdom. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord … Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5:22,25) Simply put, Christians treat marriage and their vocations within it as temporary, as relative to a higher loyalty to Christ. In that sense, despite inequalities in function in this age, in reality Christians are absolutely equal before God.
The same can be said of the relationship between children and parents. Obviously this relationship is temporary even from the perspective of this age. Children grow up and come to have an equality with their parents even as they are always to honor their parents. Paul affirms the basic secular relationship between children and parents but again he qualifies it with reference to higher, equalizing relationships before God. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord … Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:1,4)
Finally, Paul calls Christians to live according to the basic requirements of the secular institution of slavery. Unlike marriage and the family, slavery is a result of sin, just as is the coercive state, but because Christians live in the present evil age they must inhabit the institutions designed to give it order. They are not to be revolutionaries but peacemakers. They are not to turn the institutions and vocations of this world into “kingdom activity” (which is inherently impossible) but they are to function in these institutions as those who submit to Christ’s kingship.
Thus, having written that there is no slave nor free in Christ Jesus, Paul tells slaves to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ … as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.” (Eph 6:5-8) Both the authority of an “earthly” (secular) institution and the relativizing force of equality before Christ are emphasized here. Even more radically, Paul calls masters to treat their slaves in the same way, according to a reciprocity that destroys slavery as the world knows it. “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (Eph 6:9)
Paul’s exhortations here are so clear, and they obviously deal with precisely the things the Neo-Calvinists and two kingdoms advocates are debating today. What do we learn from this? Let’s sum it up in three basic points:
1) Christians are to function within inherently secular institutions that cannot be turned into the kingdom of God. The work of those institutions is not in that sense kingdom work.
2) Christians are always to serve in those institutions in obedience to Christ as the Lord of the kingdom in which they find their ultimate identity, which means that there is no realm in this world in which Christ does not claim authority, or to which the kingdom does not extend with its power of transformation.
3) Nevertheless, obedience to Christ and vocation in this world leave Christians in a tension that does not pass away, as the secular cannot be collapsed into the kingdom, nor can the kingdom’s authority be dismissed in the context of the secular. Obedience to Christ in these institutions never destroys their enduring secular character and form. Forms of inequality and coercive authority maintain their existence, during the present evil age, as ordained by God.
Let me ask the question again, is there really such radical disagreement on these points?
The PCA Needs to Stop Letting Culture Dictate Its Practice: We’ve been here before and it wasn’t pretty
There has been a vigorous debate on Wes White’s blog regarding whether or not establishing the office of deaconess (or placing women in the office of deacon) would push the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) down the same slippery slope followed by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). For those not aware of the history, the CRC voted to allow deaconesses in 1984, with the idea that the change was to hold no implications for the ordination of women to the offices of pastor and elder. Eventually, however, the CRC opened all of its offices to women, and the denomination has become increasingly liberal in recent years. Once a bastion of the confessional Reformed world, it is now moderately Evangelical at best.
The question is whether this path is inevitable for those who ordain women to the office of deacon. As one pastor writes,
When I was a pastor in Holland, I observed how the Reformed Church (GKN) began by allowing female deacons. They asserted that that was all they really wanted. A few years later, they got female elders; another few years and they had female pastors. From there they got male and female homosexual pastors. I really don’t care what name you give it (slippery slope; domino theory) there does seem to be an element of truth in the process.
Deaconesses is still around and some PCA pastors have a huge ethical dilemma by refusing to conform to PCA standards on this point. Now we have intinction and the historicity of Adam and Eve. Can we not discern a slip towards the slope? We need to ask ourselves who the main players are in these movements. I submit that it is basically the same people every time.
Of course, others point out that there is solid precedence for ordaining women to the office of deacon within the Reformed tradition. Advocates point to John Calvin as well as to modern denominations like the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The latter can hardly be considered a liberal denomination. It prohibits instruments in worship and demands that its congregations practice exclusive psalmody. Many of its women wear head coverings, but the denomination also ordains women to the office of deacon.
Now my concern here is not to defend one side or the other in the debate over whether or not the PCA should ordain women as deacons. What worries me is the tendency of conservatives within the PCA to argue that this issue should not be addressed as an exegetical issue but as a cultural issue. In other words, while it may have been legitimate for the RPCNA and the ARP to ordain women to the office of deacon, and while Calvin may have been right to see some sort of public office of ministry in the church open to women, in our context of feminism and liberalism today, we should not take these steps.
With all due respect for my fathers in the faith who have observed and experienced with pain the decline of the CRC, allowing culture to provide our cues for how to handle theological, ecclesiastical, or moral problems is just as dangerous of a path as is liberalism. It is built on the assumption that the only real danger facing the church comes from the left, as if there are no dangers coming from the right. It implicitly suggests that Jesus’ kingship over the church should be set aside for the more important struggle of preserving America’s culture. And it has historically been a disastrous path.
It is not hard to find an obvious example for this. During the 1960s the conservative wing of the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), out of which the PCA arose in 1973, was battling a liberalism within the denomination that threatened to lead the PCUS down the same liberal path once taken by the northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) earlier in the century. Liberals were pushing an egalitarian agenda that clearly compromised the authority of the church and that was more in tune with the politics of the 60s’ New Left than with historic Christianity. The problem was, they were right on perhaps the hottest issue of the day: racism.
The cultural conflict over racial integration had immediate practical implications for Presbyterian churches. Should the churches allow blacks as members, or even as pastors? Should they condemn the social reality of racism all around them? Many, many conservatives within the PCUS believed that the lessons of history and culture were obvious. It was the liberals who were pushing racial integration, the same people who destroyed the Mainline churches of the North. Everyone knew what these people wanted to do with the church, and the examples of other churches that had gone down that slippery slope were clear. This was not an issue about Scripture or even about justice. This was a matter of preserving the church from liberalism.
Cultural concerns like this shaped the founding of the PCA just as much as did a desire to be confessionally Reformed. While the denomination has repented of the racism in its past, it is still deeply shaped by the forces of cultural conservatism in a way that the other denominations of NAPARC are not. This creates reactionary tendencies on both ends of the cultural spectrum. Those ashamed of the sins of cultural conservatism tend to push a progressive agenda that seems only partially grounded in Scripture. Those worried about the liberal slide reject anything progressive regardless of its biblical merits.
If the PCA is to learn from the sins of the past, it needs to recognize that culture cannot dictate the church’s worship and life. If Scripture is truly authoritative and if Scripture suggests the church should recognize an order of women deacons, it does not matter at all that this has become a point of conflict in the culture wars. Indeed, the very integrity of the church demands that the church take the unpopular position of standing with Scripture rather than with conservative culture.
There are many people in this country who dismiss the claims of conservative Christian churches to stand on the authority of Scripture because they find those churches to be culturally selective in their use of Scripture. Many of these people – thoughtful Christians – simply become cynical. They turn away from those churches because they want nothing to do with a politicized gospel.
The gospel can be destroyed by cultural conservatism just as easily as it can be destroyed by cultural liberalism. Racism has driven just as many from Christianity as has feminism. That’s why we need to learn to trust Christ and allow him to be the king of the church. Our own cultural perceptions are influenced by worldly philosophy and our own sin. We need to choose whether Scripture or culture will be our guide.
Sociologists have been writing for years about the weakening of the bonds of association and community that once tied Americans together. My own doctoral adviser Steven Tipton coauthored the classic book Habits of the Heart, followed by its sequel The Good Society, to explore just this theme. As Robert Bellah, Tipton, and their other coauthors emphasized, Americans have long struggled to preserve community, virtue, and common institutions in a nation grounded on a faith in individual rights. Historically, in American history, individual rights nearly always trump group rights. My concerns are necessarily more important than our concerns.
The paradox is that the more weight we put on individuals, the more we need an enormously powerful government to ensure that those individuals rights are preserved. Someone has to prevent any other group or association from interfering with the individual, and ultimately that someone has to be Big Brother. The expansion of individual freedoms therefore goes hand and hand with the extended reach of the state.
In recent years this dynamic has led to growing conflict between government and religious communities. Note I did not say between government and religion. As long as religion is practiced individualistically, government cares little about what you do. Where religion is threatened is in its associational forms. Joseph Knippenburg writes in Christianity Today:
Examples of this intractable conflict come swiftly to mind. World Vision has defended its religious hiring rights against an employee lawsuit. Catholic Charities of Boston has abandoned its adoption placement services rather than submit to a state requirement to place children in same-sex households. The Supreme Court has affirmed the power of Hastings College of the Law to compel its chapter of the Christian Legal Society to consider non-Christian leadership candidates. Only months ago, the Obama administration failed (thanks, ironically, to the same Supreme Court) in its bid to force a Lutheran school to retain a teacher who had violated its teachings on conflict resolution. And the administration continues to defend its policy of mandating that all employers—with only the narrowest exemption for houses of worship—purchase health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.
Knippenburg makes this point in a review of a book by Stephen V. Monsma,Pluralism and Freedom: Faith Based Organizations in a Democratic Society.He goes on,
According to Monsma, both conservatives and liberals devote their attention primarily to the relationship between the (believing or unbelieving) individual and the government. Conservatives see “big government” as shrinking the realm of individual choice, while liberals expect government power to protect and expand that realm. (Consider their vigorous defense of the contraceptive mandate as safeguarding women’s rights.) But Monsma contends that neither side has an adequate theoretical framework for comprehending “the host of intermediary social structures—families, neighborhoods, religious congregations, associations, and nonprofit service organizations—that lie between the individual and the government.”
Darryl Hart makes a similar point in a criticism of Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Noting Bell’s defense of social conservatism based on the Declaration of Independence and its doctrine of individual rights, Hart explains,
The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions.
Sometimes individual rights trumps these lesser authorities and institutions in ways that people approve of. In other cases the consequences are more dire.
But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits… In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.
In fact, most Americans care deeply about the civil institutions threatened by this trend, whether families, churches, communities, schools, or any other institution that makes life worth living. Even those who do not seem to care most definitely do care once these institutions fall apart. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with broken marriages, corrupt churches, and failing schools. No one wants to receive their livelihood in a monthly paycheck from Uncle Sam, particularly if that paycheck is accompanied by a set of regulations thicker than your old-fashioned phonebook.
As we wrestle with what it means to be loving neighbors in a world we share in common with people of many religions and many political persuasions, we would do well to think long and hard about the importance of our common bonds of association and our civil institutions. This is a point at which we can appeal to our neighbors for the advancement of our common good in a manner that makes sense to them because it has to do with what it means to be human, and with what it means to be human together. Again, as Knippenburg points out,
Structural pluralism can make an additional pitch to more secular-minded citizens. Consistent with the view that faith and church membership can’t be compelled, structural pluralists have to be neutral toward the kinds of associations human beings form. I can’t claim for my local Christian homeschooling group any status that I’m not willing to extend to my secular homeschooling neighbors, let alone to Jewish day schools, Catholic and other Christian schools, and charter and other public schools. In other words, there is a common ground that Christians can find with their secular fellows …
Of course, to take this approach we have to appreciate our common human solidarity with those among whom we live, whether they are Christians or not. But as far as I can tell, that is precisely what it means to love our neighbors and to promote the welfare of the city in which we live.
If the essence of liberation is a career unconstrained by husband or children, yes, stay-at-home mothers should be depressed
Today Slate came out with an article by Sharon Lerner asking why stay-at-home moms are so depressed. According to a study cited by the article, 28% of stay-at-home moms suffer from depression, compared to only 17% of working women (with or without children). Now no matter what spin you’d like to put on the subject, this is bad news. The work that mothers do caring for children is not an interest or focus group issue. It is not even a culture war issue. It is the foundation of our society. The evidence is solid that devoted and sustained parental care and attention for children is crucial for their development. Children who rarely see their parents because they are always working suffer in a wide range of ways. In short, this is not an issue of the right or the left. We should all be concerned.
That said, what are the probable causes of this higher risk of depression among stay-at-home moms? Lerner speculates as to several causes. One is that
the findings do offer some evidence that stay-at-home moms, who make up 37 percent of Gallup’s sample of mothers with kids living at home, are more likely to be unhappy, resentful—and thus perhaps also likely to take umbrage, along with Romney, at being portrayed as lazy or irrelevant. [Ann] Romney tapped into a long and strong current of resentment among stay-at-home mothers when she tweeted that raising five boys was “hard work.”
But, Lerner points out,
if Ann Romney was spot-on about both the derision reserved for stay-at-home mothers and how offended they are by it, what she doesn’t get—and what was reflected clearly in the Gallup poll—is the economic expression of this same sentiment: that the work of caring for children is also undervalued economically, which adds to the financial and emotional burdens of mothers who don’t have jobs. Financial strain is, in many ways, a bigger problem than lack of appreciation. It hinders the work of raising kids, and it dogs women long after they’ve returned to the paid work force (as most ultimately do) in the form of reduced earnings and Social Security benefits.
So both in terms of social honor and financial reward, stay-at-home moms get the short end of the stick. This despite the fact that they do arguably the most important work on which our society depends. There can be no doubting that a society that fails to honor its mothers is a society that itself deserves no honor.
So what is the solution? Lerner has her own suggestions:
neither party is saying enough about the things that might help stay-at-home moms out of their financial hole, things like paid parental leave (the lack of which nudges many new mothers out of the workforce); protections for part-time workers, which would allow mothers to spend some time with their kids and get some income, job satisfaction, and recognition; affordable childcare, which would make holding down those part- and full-time jobs possible; and changing the way we track earnings toward Social Security, so the years spent at home with children aren’t recorded as zeros.
Isn’t this fascinating? The way in which we should help make stay-at-home moms less depressed is to make it easier for them to get out of the home and get to work! In other words, stay-at-home moms, you are depressed because you should be depressed. The good life is out there, and you are stuck in here.
Now I am not suggesting that none of Lerner’s proposals are good policy proposals. That is not my point. My point is that many of the elites in this culture push a version of women’s flourishing that demands that they work and loosen their ties to their children and their homes. It is not simply that our society tries to make it possible for women to have flourishing careers. That itself is a good thing. The problem is that our society suggests in a myriad of ways that it is better for women to focus on having a career rather than raising a family.
You would think it would be obvious that the solution is not creating more benefits for women who work in an office, but creating more incentives (whether financial or social) for women who do the hard work of caring for children. I grew up thinking my mother and grandmother were the most honorable people I knew. I now think that about my grandmother, my mother, and my wife. I am not suggesting we make it harder for women to work. Far from it. But somehow America needs to figure out how to give to women who stay home to care for children the incommensurable honor they deserve.
On Saturday the NAACP followed President Obama’s lead by endorsing same-sex marriage. On its face, the decision seems a little odd. Although 90% of black voters supported Obama in 2008, polls show that around 58% reject same-sex marriage (35% support it). Many prominent black pastors and leaders have been in involved in campaigns to uphold traditional marriage, from California’s Proposition 8 to the upcoming vote in Maryland. Why would the NAACP oppose the preferences of most African Americans?As a Washington Post blog report explains,
The NAACP now presents itself as a counterbalance to the influence of the traditionally socially conservative black church. It can also help establish closer ties between blacks and gays, two of Obama’s most loyal constituencies.
In taking this step the NAACP identified same-sex marriage as part of the legacy of the civil rights struggle for blacks during the past century.
Civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law,” NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement released Saturday. “The NAACP’s support for marriage equality is deeply rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and equal protection of all people. The well-funded right wing organizations who are attempting to split our communities are no friend to civil rights, and they will not succeed.”
Will Obama and the NAACP be able to hold the black community together as a voting block? Clearly some black leaders and pastors are willing to ignore the issue of same-sex marriage to continue supporting Obama, but many are not. According to Bishop Harry Jackson, a prominent black pastor in Maryland, blacks are in nothing less than an “adulterous relationship” with President Obama. The Christian Post quotes Jackson:
“Obama laid down the gauntlet on black leaders,” Jackson said. “The question we are being forced to address is ‘are you going to be black or be godly.’”
“I realized Obama was for same-sex marriage from the very beginning of his political career,” said Jackson. “Jeremiah Wright (Obama’s former pastor) has been performing same-sex ‘commitment services’ for years. Obama has been exposed to this belief for years and has demonstrated time and time again that he does not believe that homosexuality is a sin. Actions speak much louder than words.”
Jackson’s reference to Jeremiah Wright points to a theological struggle within many black churches regarding just how important race is to black identity. Wright’s theology is essentially that of the black liberation theologian James Cone, who has long argued that the basic meaning of the Gospel is that Jesus struggles with the oppressed for their deliverance. In America this means, as Cone famously declared, that “Jesus is Black.”
More orthodox black theologians have always contested this interpretation of the Gospel, pointing out that in Christ blacks have a new identity as Christians, having been delivered from their oppression as well as from the racial divide that makes that oppression so powerful. In that sense, the theological question of whether black Christians are primarily black or primarily Christian is an old one, and most black Christians have answered it by declaring their solidarity with Christ and with his church, of whatever race or ethnicity. Most black Christians want nothing to do with Jeremiah Wright or James Cone.
Jackson’s comments suggest that the same question now faces blacks in the context of politics. Will blacks vote as blacks or as Christians. And although white Americans don’t generally understand it, there have traditionally been excellent reasons for blacks to vote as a block in favor of the party most sensitive to their economic and social needs. “Laissez-faire” economic and fiscal policy has not tended to help black communities as much as it has helped white communities, in part because it has never truly been laissez-faire, and in part because blacks have never entered the contest with meaningful equality.
Jackson, like Owens, recognizes that the core issue for black Christians – like all Americans – is jobs. “Blacks want to be recognized and not taken advantage of,” Jackson said. “They want politicians to realize there are significant issues of race that still need to be addressed and that jobs and economic opportunity are more important that homosexual marriage.”
That said, should Jackson really characterize the issue as whether blacks should be black or godly? Do blacks really have to abandon their political commitment to their people in order to remain faithful to Christ? I have no doubt that Jackson is correct when it comes to the challenge of black liberation theology, but Jackson is playing into his opponents’ hands when he posits being black against being godly in American politics.
The reality is that the future of marriage may be of even greater practical importance to the black community than to other Americans. It is among blacks that traditional marriage has fallen the hardest, and it is in black communities where the tragedy of divorce and single-parent homes has caused the most damage. At the heart of the crisis among black youth (particularly for young black men) is the reality that massive numbers of them grow up in broken homes without fathers present, a reality that carries with it enormous social, economic, and intellectual costs. Weakening traditional marriage is precisely the wrong way to help these communities, a point that has been recognized by virtually every significant black leader (though not necessarily relative to the question of same-sex marriage).
In that sense, as I have argued over and over again, being godly has nothing to do with it. For the sake of the black community blacks need to stand for traditional marriage. Politicians may promise to enact policies that help blacks, but they have been doing this for decades, with only modest economic improvement, and with significant social decline. Money is important – as is economic investment and sound education policy. But what blacks need more than anything else – just like whites, or Hispanics, or Asians – are strong institutions that promote solidarity, responsibility, and care for the weak. Along with government, marriage is the most important such secular institution. For the sake of the black community, traditional marriage needs to be preserved.
Don’t believe the media: Christians have always viewed marriage as a fundamentally natural (i.e., secular) institution
In the contentious public debates over marriage and the relationship between religion and politics in America today, the significance of religion is viciously contested. The result of the high stakes of this contest is that an awful lot of poor theology and theological history is passed off in prominent forums as hard fact. For instance ,in a recent article in the Huffington Post, Bethany Blankley makes the following claim:
Were it not for the Protestant Reformation, marriage would not be considered a civil institution today. Had Christians followed the early church’s example, marriage would never have been thrust into the realm of the government at all.
This claim is based on an earlier statement she makes about the way in which Jesus transformed marriage:
Early Christians in the first through third century understood marriage to be a union between one man and one woman created by God as a consummated partnership described in Genesis 2. Early Christian leaders, such as the Apostle Paul, explained that marriage was more than just a union between two people. It was an act of worship that pointed to Christ’s sacrificial relationship with the church (Ephesians 5). Therefore, marriage was not about a contract or a financial engagement as had been the custom for centuries prior, but a sacred union that should reflect God’s love. Christ turned the accepted cultural norms about marriage on its head.
So Blankley finds us to be in an impossible conundrum:
In light of this, Christians find themselves in an ironic and divided situation. As citizens of a secular country they must be licensed by the state to validate a practice that is rooted in a religious belief. Should this be the case? Should a practice rooted in a Judeo-Christian faith even be under the auspices of government? If marriage had been left to the church, the church could marry those who practice and follow its beliefs. Civil unions among same-sex couples could be left to the government, providing the full range of civil liberties citizens in a democracy expect. The fact that marriage is governed by the state, defies its purpose intended by God for heterosexuals and prevents civil liberties from being granted to same-sex couples.
The sanctity of marriage, as defined in Genesis 2, would be best preserved if marriage were left to the authority of the church. Instead, most Bible-believing Christians find themselves defending a religious practice that was never designed to be governed by a secular institution.
Now despite all the seeming solid fact articulated in this article, Blankley’s argument horribly misrepresents the history of marriage. First of all, despite what same-sex marriage proponents like to claim, Jesus did speak clearly about the nature of marriage, and when he did so it was to appeal to the original norm of creation in order to judge the traditions of his day. In other words, Jesus appealed to creation norms (if you do not like the more classic term natural law) in order to judge human tradition.
Of course, it is true that the Apostle Paul characterized marriage in redemptive terms, calling Christians to express the loving service of the kingdom even in the natural institution of marriage by making their marriages pictures of the love between Christ and his Church. But did this teaching turn the accepted notions of marriage on their head? Did Christianity really remove marriage from the sphere of government?
It is true that the medieval church turned marriage into a sacrament and that it insisted marriage was to be regulated in church courts, not in secular courts. But this was because the church argued that marriage was relevant both to secular authority and to spiritual authority, and that in all such cases of overlapping authority, the church’s authority should trump that of civil magistrates. But contrary to what is often claimed by liberal theologians, Catholic theologians always emphasized that in its essence marriage is fundamentally a natural and civil institution.
For instance, Augustine argues in his On Marriage and Concupiscence that for human beings in general the natural goods of marriage are the goods of procreation and fidelity, and he suggests that only for believers is there also a sacramental good. This is not a turning of marriage on its head; it is placing a crown on its head. Augustine understood the sacramental good of marriage as a restoration of the purposes of marriage from creation. The natural good cannot be separated from the sacramental good, and the latter is incoherent without the former. After all, for Augustine there will be no marriage in the kingdom of God. If one does not need to marry for purposes of procreation and chastity, continence is the route of Christian love.
Similarly, while Aquinas does say that from the perspective of excellence the sacramental good of marriage is primary, he immediately clarifies that from the perspective of what is “essential” to marriage the natural good is primary. For Aquinas the sacramental good of marriage purifies and elevates the natural goods but it can never be separated from them or opposed to them. Taking faith as “the duty of remaining faithful” and offspring as “the intention of having children” Aquinas writes that “it is clear that ‘offspring’ is the most essential thing in marriage, secondly ‘faith,’ and thirdly ‘sacrament’, even as to man it is more essential to be in nature than to be in grace, although it is more excellent to be in grace.” (Supplement to the Summa Theologiae, Q. 49)
Even in the Catholic tradition, it is clear, marriage has always been fundamentally a natural and civil institution concerned with the procreation and raising of children. When the Protestant reformers eliminated the sacramental status of marriage they were holding true to Jesus’ emphasis on marriage as an institution ordered in creation, and to the clear argumentation of leading theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.
In light of this, Blankley’s claim that marriage as an institution is rooted in religious belief and that it was never designed to be governed by a secular institution is ludicrous. Contrary to what Blankley claims, if it weren’t for Christianity marriage would have always been a civil institution. The Protestants did not deviate from classic Christianity on this point; they used the core teachings of the church on marriage to point out that however the Gospel might elevate a marriage, the union of a man and a woman in the bond of love and for the purpose of raising children is a fundamentally secular institution.
As I said in previous posts, it is the advocates of same-sex marriage who want this to be about religion. But marriage is not first and foremost about religion. Marriage is a secular institution designed to order the sexual union of men and women in such a way as to ensure that procreation and care for the weakest members of society proceeds in the context of justice and accountability (For those of you who haven’t, once again, you must read Robert George on this). For the sake of love for our neighbors, not primarily for the sake of our faith, Christians need to defend traditional marriage.