Blog Archives

Richard Land, respected warrior of the Christian Right

The Tennessean has an excellent article out on Richard Land discussing the investigation of Land’s controversial remarks on the Trayvon Martin shooting as well as his confession of having been guilty of plagiarism on his radio show Richard Land Live! Land has been a crucial figure in contemporary Christian public theology for the past few decades. He has far more influence among most Christians (and with the media) than does anyone in the Reformed world. Lest we be distracted to the point of obscurity by our own petty in-house debates, we should pay attention to Richard Land.

Land, as the article points out, is a warrior for the Christian Right, closely identified with the Republican Party, even as he has degrees from Princeton and Oxford. He understands how to engage liberalism and academia in a thoughtful and friendly way, and so he holds grudging respect from many in the academy and the media. Indeed, Senator Joe Lieberman, recent Democratic nominee for vice-president, wrote the Forward to Land’s latest book, The Divided States of America. While Land takes traditional conservative positions on matters of sexuality, abortion, the size of government, and taxation, he has also been a leading figure in more liberal causes like immigration reform and racial reconciliation. Land strongly defends the Baptist tradition of the separation of church and state and was critical of Alabama Judge Roy Moore for defying authority by refusing to take down his display of the Ten Commandments.

What makes Land so interesting is his view of America and the church’s role in America. Land believes America was an essentially godly nation before the 1960s hit, and he argues that many of the problems our country faces today are a direct result of the turn away from God since that time. He wrote a whole book explaining how the famous promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”) continues to apply to America. As he put it in that book, “In this passage God defines the conditions for His blessing on any nation – the people of God must get right with Him.” (xii) God is waiting for his people to turn to him, and if a sufficient number of people do that with a sufficient degree of piety and faith, they will reach a “divine tipping-point” at which time God will pour out his blessing on their land. “God has already established the conditions under which He will bless America, and what that America would look like. This primary Scripture passage provides a blueprint for restoration of a nation.”(13)

Land wrote a sequel to that book explaining “how it could happen and what it would look like,” urging Christians to take up their tasks of cultural engagement in order to bring about a God-blessed America.

Let us refuse to leave the future of this country to those who dream impossible dreams of man-made utopias. Let us refuse to settle for merely ‘Christian’ dreams, which never rise above wishful thinking, while we wring our hands and tsk our tongues over how much worse things will get before Christ returns. Let us commit ourselves to a vision of humbling ourselves, praying, seeking God’s face, and turning from our wicked ways … a vision of what our country might become if the blessing of God Almighty began to turn the tide. (xiii)

Land pounds his readers with the warning that it is our own fault if this does not occur. “But if we don’t envision it, it won’t happen. And it won’t happen unless individual people of faith commit themselves to living godly lives.” (5)

Land, it is crucial to remember, is not just a thoughtful Christian employed by a think tank or university. He is a minister of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). His office is to speak for the church, and under his leadership the ERLC urges Southern Baptists to vote their values by rejecting policies like Obamacare, or Cap and Trade. If you think the church should apply Scripture to policy and politics in concrete and practical ways, Richard Land is your man.

Any man with the influence and prestige of Richard Land will create many enemies. And in recent months those enemies have struck, accusing Land of racism and plagiarism. It is no accident that these are charges that hold most power among the mainstream media and among academic elites. As the Tennessean quotes one critic,

[Robert] Parham thinks Land is more a Republican activist than a Christian leader. He said Land’s influence among Baptists is waning.

“I don’t see Land as influential among rank-and-file Southern Baptists, not as a mega-church preacher or a seminary president would be,” he said. “His main constituency is probably the media, which given the media’s aversion to plagiarism ought to be a major problem for him.”

While it is true that Land does not speak for all Southern Baptists, and while it is true that the media probably enhances his influence and prestige because of its own fascination with him, Land nevertheless does speak for massive numbers of Evangelical Christians in this country. That’s precisely why his enemies want him removed.

Not all of Land’s opponents are liberals, however. Some recognize that there is something inherently problematic about having one man speak for a whole denomination in such concrete political ways.

The Rev. James Porch, former head of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, believes it’s time for Land to go — and not just because of the current controversy. He believes that for many people, Land has become the face and voice of the Southern Baptist Convention. But no one person speaks for Baptists, he said.

“Any time someone tries to speak for the denomination, they have exceeded their authority,” he said. “It’s a violation of Baptist polity.”

What happens to Land in the next few months is a crucial story to watch, not so much because of what it says about Land, but because what it says about what kind of denomination the Southern Baptist Convention wants to be. Given that it is the largest Protestant denomination in America, and a conservative Evangelical one at that, we should pay close attention.

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.

Catholic Social Teaching: A Case Study for Evangelicals

The Aquila Report has published an article by me on the decades-old struggle over the political significance of Roman Catholic social teaching. Here is a teaser, but I hope you’ll read the rest of the article on the Aquila Report:

Many Evangelicals are not very familiar with Catholic social teaching, though they do tend to like conservative Catholic leaders like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Yet it is worth paying attention to what makes Catholic conservatives like Ryan tick, as well as to what brings them criticism from left-leaning Catholics. Not only does the tradition of Catholic social teaching have an immense amount of wisdom to teach us; there is always much to learn from watching how politicians and pundits try to turn theological principles into concrete proposals of policy.
Ryan described the way in which Catholic theology shaped his budget plan in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Particularly noteworthy was his appeal to two very important principles of Catholic social thought, generally endorsed by both conservatives and liberals.
On the principle of subsidiarity:
Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.
“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.
Read the rest here.

Should the PCA be part of the National Association of Evangelicals?

An ongoing point of controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is whether or not the denomination should maintain its membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Wes White has posted the text of an overture from one presbytery requesting that the General Assembly (which will meet in June) withdraw from the NAE. However, he has also posted the response of the Interchurch Relations Committee, which is recommending that the PCA not withdraw.

The arguments both ways are interesting, and they seem to revolve to a significant extent around the NAE’s perceived advocacy of policies and positions designed to curb global warming. As the Interchurch Relations Committee notes, however, the NAE’s position on creation care is actually quite nuanced, quite good, and avoids any position on global warming. That a former leader within the NAE, Richard Cizik, was and is highly involved in an effort to raise awareness about global warming does not mean that the NAE shared Cizik’s views.

Why should the PCA be involved in an association like the NAE at all? Interestingly, the presbytery requesting withdrawal does so on the basis of a two kingdoms type logic:

The PCA does not need a voice in Washington championing political concerns that would not even be permitted as a subject of discussion before its councils, let alone be adopted as positions.

Yet the Interchurch Relations Committee’s response questions the assumptions behind this claim and refuses to allow potentially controversial political issues to distract from the broader reasons for PCA membership in the NAE.

Through its participation in the NAE the PCA has contacts with other evangelical Christian denominations, organizations, individuals, and ministries, shares in the mercy ministries of the World Relief Commission, participates in world evangelization, and has a greater voice and influence in civic engagement through the NAE Office of Governmental Affairs in Washington D.C.

Membership in the NAE helps Presbyterians maintain the broader unity of Christ’s church:

We believe that “the catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, and the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Westminster Confession of Faith XXV-1). We do not believe that Presbyterian-Reformed believers are the only Christians or that the PCA is the only legitimate expression of the Church. (“This scriptural doctrine of Presbytery is necessary for the perfection of the order of the visible Church, but is not essential to its existence” Book of Church Order, 1-7). Fellowship and cooperation with other evangelical Christians is consistent with our theology.

Finally, the NAE’s political work is actually helpful and pertinent to the mission of the church:

The NAE’s presence in Washington and other venues champions such concerns as the defense of marriage as being between one man and one woman, the liberty of evangelical military chaplains freely to preach, teach, and practice the Gospel and biblical truth, the liberty of evangelical campus ministries, not only speaking out against abortion but actually reducing the number of abortions in America, seeking to reduce international sexual trafficking of women and children, promoting religious liberty in areas where Christians are persecuted, imprisoned or enslaved. Surely, such issues are not off limits for discussion or actions in PCA church courts.

I think all of these are excellent points, and there is much more in the committee’s response worth reading. The church does have an obligation before Christ to maintain unity – both informal and formal – with all churches faithful to the Gospel of Christ. Furthermore, the church does have the obligation of proclaiming to civil governments both God’s judgment and the Gospel when matters of basic justice are in view. The two kingdoms doctrine qualifies how the church should go about doing this, but it does not mean the church should remain silent before civil government. All of the classic Reformed two kingdoms advocates, from Calvin on, argued that the two kingdoms must interact and even cooperate together on matters of common concern. One need not be a theocrat to hold this position. And on that note, the NAE’s basic statement on the implications of the Gospel for politics is excellent, and anyone interested in these matters should read it.

That said, none of this justifies the PCA or the NAE or any other ecclesiastical body being involved in partisan politics or the nitty-gritty work of policy, let alone speaking out on matters that are inherently prudential. My concern about the NAE is that on various issues it crosses just this line. In its recent statement on nuclear weapons the NAE made numerous prudential determinations beyond the authority of the church, let alone the consensus of the denominations and individuals who make up the NAE. And while the NAE’s statement on immigration is somewhat better, its advocacy of particular policies of immigration reform is alarming and hardly represents the legitimate function of the church.

What all of this means is that there are excellent reasons for the PCA to be a part of the NAE but there are also good reasons for it to be concerned. The PCA should use its influence to curb the NAE’s problematic actions, reminding it that its influence is entirely dependent on its faithfulness to the Gospel and its representativeness of the denominations that form it. And the NAE should not take its influence or the membership of the PCA for granted. This stuff matters. The integrity of the church’s gospel witness is at stake.

Is the United Methodist Church still Mainline?

The United Methodist Church is the largest of the denominations generally viewed as the Protestant Mainline. Of course, the Southern Baptist Convention is much larger, but due to its theological and social conservatism, it is usually described as Evangelical. The question is, given the trajectory of the Methodists in the last decade – they are becoming more Evangelical, more African, more pro-life, and firmer in their defense of traditional sexual morality – should the Methodist Church still be viewed as Mainline? For now the answer is yes. The Evangelicals and conservatives do not control the denomination, though they may be its most powerful faction. But for how long will this remain true? The African and Southern portions of the denomination are only growing with time. Evangelical churches are doing better than their more liberal counterparts. It seems that it is only a matter of time before the Methodist Church will no longer be a Mainline denomination.

Consider just two crucial events of the General Conference that ended yesterday. First, the Conference decisively (61-39%)  rejected an amendment that would have declared that the denomination “agreed to disagree” on matters of sexual morality, reaffirming its condemnation of homosexual activity.

As the Christian Post reports:

The Social Principles section of United Methodist teachings on sexuality in the Book of Discipline states: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching;” and “Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

An amendment to these statements would have added the sentence: “As a denomination, we are conflicted regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality.”

That amendment was rejected.

“We have to say what the Gospel says even though we love our brothers and sisters,” said one commentator from an African UMC branch against the amendment.

The second key event, though receiving less public press, was that for the first time ever the Church and Society legislative committee voted to withdraw from the strongly pro-choice Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization including most of the Mainline denominations that the United Methodist Church helped found. As far as I can tell (I’m having trouble finding a report on this, if someone finds one please let me know), the General Conference has not followed the recommendation of the committee. Nevertheless, this is another sign of trends within the UMC. This is not your parents’ Methodist Church.

Should we care about Joel Osteen?

If you are in doubt about that question, read Brian Lee’s article in the Daily Caller. As Brian suggests,

It is not primarily the details of Osteen’s biblical sunbeams that are problematic. It’s the overall message. What’s missing is any sense of human sin. Osteen leads his crowd in a mantra at the opening of his performance: “This is my Bible. Tonight I will be taught the word of God. I can do what it says I can do.” Again, bootstraps.

Earlier Sunday, 45 worshipers (about 0.1% of Osteen’s crowd) gathered at Christ Reformed Church in Logan Circle — and other churches in this city — to hear a message of sin and salvation, the Good News of a God who loves those who are his sworn enemies. They responded to God’s word with prayer, song, and confession, and received the benediction of a God who pardons sin full and free.

As Orthodox Christians we need to work hard to get our message out amid all the clutter of preachers like Joel Osteen. Lee’s article is winsome and gets straight to the point. Read the whole thing.

The real crisis of Reformed worship: forgetting which testament we’re under

Arguments are constantly being thrown around in the “worship wars.” Some are far better quality than others. Those that tend to be more helpful, regardless of what position they take, are those that get to the foundational issues: what is the nature of Scriptural authority over our worship, how should we apply it, how is Scripture’s authority at stake in our current debates? Those that are less helpful are those that appeal largely to some standard not generally accepted (such as historical tradition, or contemporary popularity and effectiveness), or those that fail to address the foundational issues.

The Aquila Report has posted an article on worship written by John Payne, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, where these debates are particularly poignant and where a lot is currently at stake. In many ways I appreciate Payne’s argument. I would probably share his views on almost every practical question at stake, and most of what I am about to say is consistent with one of Payne’s basic complaints:

Isn’t it true that in many cases the reading and preaching of Scripture, the careful administration of the sacraments and substantial seasons of prayer have been crowded out by lengthy announcements, personal testimonies, and extended segments of music and praise?

However, I am concerned that Payne provides insufficient attention to the real “crisis” underlying the worship wars in the PCA, and that is the nature of Scriptural authority regarding worship. In short, there is a lack of consensus within the PCA on the nature of biblical authority in worship. The result is that traditionalists appeal to tradition and progressives appeal to contemporary effectiveness and there is no basis of common ground for any sort of agreement.

Let me try to illustrate my argument briefly. I will be sure to return to various aspects of it in future posts, to flesh it out more fully.

It is commonly noted that the fundamental Reformed contribution to the doctrine of worship, represented by figures such as John Calvin, was the argument that our worship is to be regulated entirely by Scripture. This is generally viewed as meaning that we must find warrant for everything we want to do, somewhere in the Bible (i.e., see John Frame’s influential book). But in fact, Calvin’s (and most of the Reformed tradition’s) point was much more specific than that. Calvin (like the church fathers) believed our worship is to be regulated by the New Testament. We are not to look at the Old Testament’s temple worship, illustrated in the historical books and in the psalms, for worship ideas for the new covenant church. Our authority for the new covenant church is the New Testament. In our worship we are to commit ourselves to practicing what the Lord commands, and nothing else.

In reality, many today who think they are Reformed in their views of worship really hold views that in the 16th and 17th Centuries would have been viewed as Lutheran or Anglican. It is not that the Lutherans and Anglicans said we can do whatever we want in worship, as is commonly thought. It is simply that they had a less strict understanding of what sort of Scriptural warrant was necessary, appealing freely to the Old Testament or to biblical principles of edification. In contrast, the Reformed usually threw out the instruments of the medieval church and limited their singing to psalms and other Scriptural texts.

Why does the difference matter? So many aspects of worship under such heated dispute today – musical instruments, choirs, liturgical dancing, etc. – are entirely based on Old Testament texts. They are not even mentioned in the New Testament. What does that suggest? These matters are entirely irrelevant to New Testament worship. They are not commanded by God. They are part of the Old Testament ceremonial law that has been abrogated by Christ.

What we should really be focusing on is those things highlighted in the New Testament as the focus of the early church: preaching, the sacraments, fellowship (including of material possessions), and prayer, according to the classic list in Acts 2:42. Note how little singing is spoken of in New Testament discussions of worship. It is clearly commanded (Colossians 3:16-17; Ephesians 5:18-21), but it does not make the list of basic things the church was doing. Singing seems to have been a means of doing other things; it was not its own element.

In fact, singing (and music generally) is a classic example of how by losing the focus of Scripture our worship debates have gotten entirely off track. We argue over what music instruments to use and how they should be played, even though the significance of instruments is entirely a function of the Old Testament. Instruments don’t matter. We argue over what kinds of songs to sing, failing to make use of Paul’s clear guidance that the content of our songs should be the Word of Christ (Scripture!) and that they should serve as a means of teaching and encouragement. We dominate our services with singing, forcing pastors to keep their sermons down to 20 minutes (a week!), and to keep their prayers short. We hold the Lord’s Supper once a month at best, even though unlike singing the Lord’s Supper is a basic element of worship.

What should Reformed worship be all about? We should gather each week to hear the preaching of the Word, to pray to our God, to break bread, and to fellowship together in song and in the sharing of our possessions. Nothing else really matters. Just like the medieval church, with which the reformers broke, we can fill our worship with all kinds of things based on human wisdom. Instruments, images, art, architecture, vestments, candles, on and on. These things are merely distractions to the real drama of worship as outlined in the New Testament. Returning to that standard would go a long way in restoring our worship to Scriptural integrity.

Hating Women Under the Veil of Orthodoxy

In a stirring article recently published in Foreign Policy Mona Eltahawy tries to shift America’s focus from the supposed war on women in America to the real war on women in the Arab world. Involved in the protests in Egypt last year, Eltahawy was beaten (she received a broken arm and hand), sexually assaulted, and detained by Egyptian police. Her anger is obvious. The treatment of women in the Middle East is far worse than you think, she says:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.

For Eltahawy the explanation for this phenomena is clear and needs to be said: they hate women. That hatred is hidden behind the guise of orthodox religion and revelation, and opposing it may be viewed as blasphemy, but if so, then we should blaspheme away.

It should be noted that the attitude towards women Eltahawy describes is not limited to the Middle East. One month ago there was a furor in Canada over a book on sale that instructed Muslim men on how to beat their wives. On a regular basis in the United States, women are beaten by their husbands in America, and the courts have to deal with it.

I am very thankful that this problem is not nearly so prominent in Christian churches as it seems to be elsewhere. But at the same time, stories like this should serve as warnings to us. Often conservative Christians who defend biblical prescriptions regarding traditional gender roles act as if the only danger regarding the treatment of women comes from the left, such that the chief danger facing the church is egalitarianism. Those who seek to address whether or not women may be mistreated or excluded under the guise of orthodoxy and tradition rather than on the basis of Scripture are tarred as liberals and called to buck up and submit. For instance, in the context of the Presbyterian Church in America’s current debate on the matter of women deacons one frustrated conservative pastor writes:

This is one of the presiding myths on the topic: women in the diaconate is an exegetical issue and must be dealt with on that level. I can feel some of my readers becoming nervous at this point. What about the authority of Scripture? What about the primacy of exegesis?

Does anyone really think this issue is about what Scripture actually says? Would that it were true. Why is it that men all over the PCA are bringing up this topic at this particular moment in history? Might it have something to do with the air we breathe every day?

Women run for president and vice-president; they serve as CEOs and they are our supervisors and bosses, our teachers and principals and cell group leaders and spiritual directors.

But the roots of this rebellion are not in exegesis, and so we must not fight this battle only on that level. The roots lie in our sin. We don’t love our wives and sometimes they become a seething cauldron of bitterness. We love pornography or commit adultery and so we refuse to call our wives to submit (in any area of their lives). Guilt over our compromised state eviscerates our authority. Fathers sexually molest their daughters and bring rebellion into the church for generations to come. Fathers hold their darling on their lap and tell her how she can become president someday. Mothers push their daughters to get the education she’ll need so that she can earn a good living after her husband divorces her and leaves her with three children. Single women, whose fathers and mothers have failed to teach feminine deference, whine about lacking a voice in the church. Wives of elders “get headaches” when their husbands come home and tell them of the latest action of the session. Why do our youth pastors make young women who muster the courage to say they’d like to become a wife and mother feel like idiots?

Now there is much in this that is worth lauding. I’m grateful to the author for pointing out some of the ways in which men abuse their wives and daughters, and I wholeheartedly agree that the calling to be a wife and a mother should be much more promoted and honored than it currently is. But notice the negative attitude towards women’s education, the value of women’s perspective in the church, and women’s right to discuss these matters of concern. Even worse, the author has no trouble suggesting that we should shove the authority of Scripture to the side and deal with this problem in light of a politicized cultural struggle over the role of women. Whatever Scripture may say, it seems, in this we have to hold the line for the conservative team against the cultural push to the left.

Now my purpose here is not to get into questions of PCA polity, or of what the PCA should do in this debate, although it is worth pointing out that a Reformed Presbyterian denomination significantly to the right of the PCA on the theological spectrum has long given women the office of deacon even as many of its female members (unlike most in the PCA) wear head coverings. There are other ways to view this matter than through the lens of the culture wars.

We need to recognize that in conservative Christian circles there are men who treat women like slaves created to serve their selfish pleasure, there are pastors who don’t want the women in their church to talk about theology, and there are those who don’t want to recognize the possibility that Scripture recognizes an appointed office for women in the church (an office Calvin strongly affirmed and defended from Scripture) simply because they are uneasy about how to interact with women as equals.

It needs to be said: Mistreatment of women and refusal to recognize their equality in Christ is just as great of a problem in the world – and just as harmful to Christian witness – as is radical egalitarianism. Until we learn how to discuss this matter on the basis of Scripture, without acting in reactionary mode, we will be guilty of failing to confront with the gospel the hatred of women that hides under the veil of orthodoxy.

Most orthodox Christians are not white, and that’s a (really) good thing

Whether intentionally or not, the Aquila Report is again following a bit of a theme. Two of the world’s major denominations are facing tensions in which a significant factor is the increasing divergence between conservative African Christians and liberal white American Christians. The United Methodist Church is a broad tent indeed, but it appears as if the conservative faction is growing, both due to the non-American contingent and to growth in the Bible Belt. The Religion News Service describes the dynamic:

The homosexuality debate dates to 1972, when a phrase calling homosexual activity “incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s laws and doctrines. The UMC also bans noncelibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The UMC’s long and painful membership decline in the U.S. looms over the debate, as church leaders search for ways to reverse the decades-long drop.

Gay rights activists argue that the UMC must become more inclusive to attract young Americans who view the sexuality prohibitions as hypocritical. Conservatives counter that only churches that hold fast to traditional doctrines are growing.

There is no question that the conservatives are right on this point. While it is true that young Americans in general are increasingly accepting of homosexuality, that is not the case for young Evangelical Americans, as two scholars from Baylor University recently demonstrated in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Furthermore, whether due to the compelling power of standing for something or due to the tendency of conservatives to have more children, conservative denominations have moved well past the liberal Mainline denominations in numbers in the past few decades. Even at a place like Emory University, in my experience, far more young Christians are willing to self-identify as Evangelicals than as liberals.

In addition to the Methodists, there is a move within the Anglican tradition to reduce the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and increase the authority of the broader church, especially as it is found in Africa. The Telegraph writes:

A coalition of bishops and leaders from Africa, the Americas and Australasia said it was time for a “radical shift” in how the church is structured away from models of the “British Empire”.

They criticised what they called “revisionist attempts” to abandon basic doctrines on issues such as homosexuality and “turn Christianity merely into a movement for social betterment” during Dr Williams’s tenure….

The meeting of leaders of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans comes amid growing warnings of a split over issues such as homosexuality.

It is the first such meeting since 2008 when more than 200 bishops boycotted the official Lambeth Conference in protest at the presence of bishops from the US Episcopal Church, which had consecrated the first openly gay Anglican bishop.

As the article points out of the 77 million members of the worldwide Anglican Communion, 36 million are found in Kenya and Nigeria alone. Clearly the global face of Anglicanism, like that of Methodism, is changing. We should no longer associate those labels with Mainline liberalism.

It is not just Africans who tend to be more conservative than white American Christians. Although white Evangelicals do not often realize it due to the partisan political divide, studies show that black American Christians tend to be more orthodox in their basic theology than do their white counterparts. Blacks played a crucial role in California’s passing of Proposition 8, establishing traditional marriage, a few years ago, and black Protestants were some of the strongest opponents of same-sex marriage in Maryland.

Indeed, exciting things are happening in the black evangelical community. Just a few weeks ago in Atlanta more than 1,000 young men gathered for a conference on biblical manhood to listen to the likes of Reformed preacher Tony Carter, as Christianity Today notes.

I have often heard white Christians (particularly older ones) bemoan how “things are getting bad these days – we must be in the end times.” There are certainly cultural trends to be disappointed about, but often that sentiment reflects a white West-centered perspective on what is really going on in the world. In so many ways and in so many places, orthodox Christianity is thriving, and liberal Christianity is withering on the vine.

Paul Ryan and Catholic Social Teaching

Many Evangelicals are not very familiar with Catholic social teaching, though they do tend to like conservative Catholic leaders like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. It is worth paying attention to what makes Catholic conservatives like Ryan tick, as well as to what brings them criticism from left-leaning Catholics.

Ryan describes the way in which Catholic theology shaped his budget plan here. Particularly noteworthy is his appeal to two very important principles of Catholic social thought, generally endorsed by both conservatives and liberals.

On the principle of subsidiarity:

Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.

“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.

And on the preferential option for the poor:

The Wisconsin Republican said that he also drew on Catholic teachings regarding concern for the poor, and his interpretation of how that translated into government policy.

“[T]he preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence,” said Ryan.

As the article says, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has praised Ryan for his attention to Catholic teaching. On the other hand, Joe Knippenberg points out the top bishop in the USCCB committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development disagrees.

This debate within the Catholic tradition is an old one, involving Catholic theology and politics at the highest level. It is one that Evangelicals would do well to pay attention to, both because there is tremendous Christian wisdom in the Catholic social teachings that have been articulated over the years and because the struggle of the Catholic Church to resist politicization and polarization in terms of right and left is illustrative of the challenges to being Christian in America. I will certainly return to these matters in future posts.

%d bloggers like this: