Parable of the Hats

13 July 2022

Once upon a time, a feller named Jack grew disturbed at the number of people running around without hats. Finding hats both useful and stylish, Jack set about to change the trend, to which end he founded the Hat Society “to promote the wearing of hats.” Jack worked hard at helping see the advantage of hats, and the Society grew to the point that they were running on a half-million dollars or so a year, all to promote hats. Now Jack himself had always worn a fedora, but at Hat Society meetings you could find cowboy hats, homburgs, berets, bowlers, baseball caps, tams, even a few propeller-topped beanies.  

Over time, that began to change. The propeller-topped beanies were the first to go, but they hadn’t done much for the dignity of hat-wearing, and nobody really missed them. The guys in berets and tams kinda disappeared a few at a time. A few years later, baseball caps began to get scarce, and that feller in the fishing hat with all the flies on it was asked to never come back. 

Fast-forward a few more years, and there’s an occasional cowboy hat around, but pretty much everybody at the meetings is wearing a fedora. Jack himself is maintaining that a dark fawn fedora is the perfect epitome of hat-ness, and he never wears anything else. At one point, this led to a confrontation between Jack and the board; Jack asked all the non-fedora-wearing board members to resign, which they did.

Some folks claim that back in the day, Jack used to sometimes wear a grey fedora. Others maintain that it was always dark fawn. Nobody seems able to prove it for sure either way, and most of the people who were around back then have long since left. Oddly, it’s not called the Fedora Society; it’s still the Hat Society, and the mission statement still reads “to promote the wearing of hats.” 

Now Jack may be within his rights to promote the dark fawn fedora, and perhaps even to use Society funds for the purpose. But he can’t really claim to speak for the community of hat-wearers anymore, can he? 

Precisely Personal

21 September 2021

It’s been a good while since I wrote anything about the Free Grace Food Fight — for a long while, there didn’t seem to be much to say. Of late, I had occasion to interact with a GES ally, and found that the discourse has (and in some ways, hasn’t) shifted. The current presentation, according to him, looks something like this:

If these 3 things are true of a person then that person is saved no matter what misconception he may have or hold…

  1. The right vehicle for reception of the gift of God: faith
  2. In the right Person: Jesus of Nazareth
  3. For the purpose of receiving the benefit of His offer: eternal life.

If it’s the correct condition – faith – in the right Person – Jesus of Nazareth – for the benefit He offers – eternal life – then this man is saved no matter what misconceptions about reality he may have. Period.

This person has, with the divine needed precision, fulfilled the condition to receive everlasting life.

Compared to that simple and precise formulation, I’m told, my own position is imprecise and will lead people to doubt. I see two problems here.

First, the precision they think they have is largely an illusion. It looks pretty clean: three well-formed, carefully worded statements, and that’s that. All neoclassically bright and shiny; what could be the problem? The problem is that in order for those statements to convey the precise meaning they have in mind, the terms have to be defined. Chiefly: Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Without a definition there, the statements don’t mean much, and once we start defining who exactly we mean by “Jesus of Nazareth,” we’ll find that the position is a bit more complicated than they’re letting on.

Second, my position only looks imprecise from that vantage point because they’ve committed a serious category error. I actually agree that the Bible has specified precisely what is required to receive eternal life. It’s right there in John 3:16: believe in Him.

The difference between us is that they think “believe in Him” is imprecise shorthand, and their three propositions define it more precisely. I do not agree. That position requires an unstated (and insupportable) premise: that faith is always and only assent to certain specific propositions. If that is the case, then we can quibble over the exact content of the propositions (and boy, have we!), but something like their position absolutely must be true.

However, the unstated premise is flawed. Faith is a fundamentally personal interaction that can be truly described in propositions but is not reducible to them. You trust in Jesus to save you; that’s all. What if you stole a candy bar or committed a murder? Trust in Jesus; He’s got it. What if you flunked a soteriology exam? Trust in Jesus; He’s got it. Even if it was that really short exam from Evangelism Explosion? Yes, even then. Trust in Jesus; He’s got you. What if I somehow trust Him wrong? He’s already planned for that. Trust in Jesus; He’s got you.

There is no precise mechanism. There is no mechanism at all. There is a Person, arms outstretched, ready to rescue anyone who calls to Him for help. “Believe in Him” means precisely what it says: trust in this Person, and He will save you. It is as simple as that.

In nearly 20 years of pastoral practice and nearly 40 years of evangelism, I do not find this message to be grounds for a lack of assurance.

A Prescription for Free Grace Theology

8 June 2021

Any theology can become a dead ideology instead of a living knowledge of God. For some people, Free Grace theology has become that, and you can see it in their lack of love. But the problem is not universal, and I see that as a promising sign; therein lies my basic prescription. The Free Grace movement must internalize the truth of 1 Corinthians 13: without love, it is nothing. When it begins to genuinely love God and its brothers first, with everything else a distant second priority, then we’ll see real growth.

Where love revives the movement, we’ll see a shift toward service and mission. Many Free Grace people are admirably engaged in evangelism, missions, and discipleship already. What is lacking is for the Free Grace movement as a movement to become outward-facing. As the movement is able to receive and embody life from God, it will serve the broader Church beyond its borders, and in the process, it will recover a robust practice and doctrine of Church unity.

I have written much about unity elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it all here. I will just say that we should love one another and get along together for the sake of our mutual friend Jesus. In my experience, that leads to doing as much as we can in partnership with as many of Christ’s people as we can, across all the denominational boundaries. When God’s people obey in this way, we find that all the scattered branches of the Church have something to offer us, and we to them…and we’ll get a chance to both give and receive. (And you don’t need to be in a Free Grace church to do this, either.)

I expect this proposal to be met with skepticism, if not scorn. I am sure a multitude of theologians can advance armies of reasons why it can’t work. I am willing to hear the counter-arguments, but at the end of the day, I will answer them all with a Chinese proverb: “The man who says it can’t be done should not interrupt the man doing it.” I am already living the proposal I am making here. It can be done, and productively, too: I am far more productive for the cause of Christ now than I ever was in my sectarian days.

Getting the Questions Wrong

30 March 2021

Once upon a time, many moons ago, someone asked, “What’s the bare minimum that a person would need to believe in order to be saved?”

Some of us, myself among them, were silly enough to venture an answer to that question. I have since repented.

There are two problems with this question, one exegetical and one practical. The exegetical problem is that the Scriptures never answer the question directly, which makes it very difficult to substantiate a “Thus saith the Lord” answer — which, in this case, would be the only answer worth fighting over. An answer based on theological reasoning isn’t out of the question — logical consequence is fair game in theology — but difficult, in that it’s easy enough to put forth an answer, but very hard to rule out competing answers. Thus far, nobody’s in any danger of decisively winning that argument.

But the practical problem with the question is the real clincher: why would you want to give anybody the bare minimum? Where does the Bible suggest giving no extra? No matter what you think the bare minimum is, you will find very few, if any, biblical passages that present only your bare minimum content. Meanwhile, there will be many, many passages that present additional (from your perspective, “extra”) content, and even more damaging, a number of passages that leave out something you regard as essential.

But over here in the real world, we don’t aim to convert anybody to a minimum understanding. We want them to get all of Jesus that they possibly can. We want them to know Jesus, and the more of His word we can give them, the better.

Missing an Important Point

18 February 2020

In last week’s post, I commended to your attention a set of Theopolis Conversations posts on Paths to Human Maturity. As you’ll have noticed if you read them, there was one very sharply dissenting voice. In a follow-up post after Dr. Field’s rejoinder, Wilson moderates his stance somewhat. Now to my eye, Wilson missed a whole slew of considerations, about which more later, perhaps.

More important, though, the entire conversation about whether to undertake projects like Dr. Field’s missed a vital point.

Even if the conversation were undesirable, it’s no longer optional. The horse has left the barn. The unbelievers we meet, and our parishioners as well, are neck-deep in depth psychology and Zen-derived mindfulness practices. Our whole culture is. They are having this conversation whether we join in or not. Many of them have found these beliefs and practices tangibly beneficial. I know addicts who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them stay clean, trauma survivors who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them recover, master their fear, embark on relationships they never could have had before. Similar claims can be rightly made for depth psychology. These people often testify that they sought aid and comfort in the church and found none, then found it elsewhere. The question, to them, is not whether these beliefs and practices highlight questions they should ask of Christianity. It’s whether Christianity has anything to offer to the conversation at all.

The truth is that Jesus will reframe the whole conversation in the most productive and glorious way possible. Unfortunately, the church is not really prepared to represent Him well.

Here is the claim we’re going to have to make: All the things that helped them, all those things exploit the way God made the world to work. Moreover, the features of the world that they have exploited without quite understanding them are more fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and what they have experienced to this point is the very least of God’s good gifts. Therefore, they should forsake these systems of thought and practice that enable them to muddle along without acknowledging God, and embrace the freedom that comes in knowing Him, and not needing to hide from His revelation.

That’s the case we need to make, and we will need to give a compelling, detailed presentation of it. Are we, their shepherds, prepared to make that case?

Very few of us are even marginally ready. Virtually none are ready to do it well.

How will we get ready? By going it alone, on the fly, caught flatfooted when someone starts talking about what meditation has done for them? Not likely. We’re Christians. We are a body. We prepare best together, in exactly the kind of public, collaborative, confessionally committed study that Wilson tried so hard to stop.

We Have To Do This Work

8 March 2019

There was an interesting little controversy last month over on Theopolis Blog, and now that I’m caught up on reading the whole thing (which took a little while), I’d like to offer some color commentary from out here in the cheap seats.

It starts with a forum called “Theopolis Conversations,” in which an author makes a proposal, four other authors respond to it, and finally the initial author finishes with a rejoinder to his four respondents. In this case, the topic is “Paths to Human Maturity.” The initial article by David Field (which is looong!) also has links to the follow-up responses, except for a surrejoinder Doug Wilson posted on his own blog after the discussion was over. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing; it’s worth your time. But there’s a particular aspect to the kerfluffle that I’d like to comment on, and in order for my comments to make sense, I’m going to summarize the initial proposal, below.

In a nutshell, Field proposed a project, thus:

Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.

Field then posed the situation of a pastor named Ira, “a sincere and spiritually mature man” who “meets the requirements for elders and bears the fruit of the Spirit.” Ira has carried a great deal of repressed anger since childhood, and although of course he is not conscious of it, his anger “does come out in various ways ‘above the surface’, i.e. in conscious, visible life. There are moments when there’s a [hint] that there is something lurking underneath, but Ira does not pay them any serious or sustained attention.”

Ira, though wholly sincere and genuinely godly, is not one to slow down, attend to the surface signs of unconscious passions, and connect with the associated emotions. He certainly has quiet times but in these his mind is busy – with intercessory prayer, memorising Scripture, and theological reflection. There is not time for extended, unhurried, radically honest, and exploratory conversation with another (therapist, counsellor, friend) and in any case, this would feel self-indulgent.

Moreover, drawing from contemplative traditions that might help Ira to notice what is happening in him seems “to represent a departure from the Puritan spirituality he so cherishes and therefore…to represent also a lack of trust in Scriptural ways of maturation.”

Therefore, Ira soldiers on,

And, in his case, the repressed anger manifests in his consciousness as a critical or reforming spirit which he identifies as the desire that things should be ‘right’….[H]e may control the conscious expression of this spirit and desire which can take the form of resentment at bearing responsibility, at an endeavour to control, at an obsession with correct doctrine or social conduct, as shame at the public sins or shortcomings of family members and so on….[H]e doesn’t realise…that underlying several of these various emerging ‘pressure-points’ is the one unresolved, un-named, unconscious passion of anger.)

Ira would like, of course, to be free of these besetting temptations against which he struggles. Field suggests that the only path from where Ira is to where Ira wants to be goes through “radical honesty with God,” which will require a kind of stillness and attention that Ira has not heretofore cultivated. Field further proposes that the Desert Fathers have something to offer Ira in such a season, as do the observations of the world gathered together by Zen Buddhism and depth psychology.

Field is pointedly not suggesting that Ira abandon his Christian faith. “The proposal is that we should investigate these pathways [the Desert Fathers, Zen, and depth psychology], not that we should adopt them.” [emphasis added] Why would we look into these traditions in particular? “The address to the self and associated practices which are found in these movements…are impactful and…have interesting connections with key biblical themes.” He then goes on at some length (which I’ll let you read yourself), discussing ways in which these three traditions intersect with biblical themes and might be worth investigating.

Peter Leithart, Uri Brito, and Alistair Roberts all responded with some measure of endorsement, but also varying degrees of caution. Their responses are well worth reading, and fairly brief. (As a massage therapist who works with essential oils, I particularly liked Leithart’s jag on the biblical ramifications of aromatherapy.)

What interests me here is the fourth response, from Doug Wilson, in which he (by his own later admission) “pulled the fire alarm.” In an article titled “A Crisis, not a Conversation,” Wilson rebukes the principals for even starting the conversation, and does so on asbestos paper with napalm ink. Wilson is at his fightin’ fundie finest here, quoting the expected passages about philosophy and vain deceit and banging the drum for the sufficiency of Scripture. He voices a number of valid concerns, most of which Fields ably addresses in his rejoinder. (I’ll probably have something to say on that subject later, because Wilson’s argument here is weak in ways he doesn’t realize. He argues in ways common to, say, the NANC/ACBC/BCF group, who have made “integration” a theological swear word–but he’s publicly committed to integration. Lotta tension there.)

Wilson goes more than a little over the top in his closing recommendations that Theopolis’ financial supporters might want to reconsider their giving, and threatening to do the closest thing his polity allows to calling for church discipline for the folks that started this thing, but that’s also another matter for another time. The first thing I want to comment upon here is what he doesn’t say.

Because here’s the thing: Ira, the fictional pastor with the repressed anger problem? Not so fictional. He’s more like a cliche. I’ve known a dozen of him, at least. These guys are spiritually mature (to hear the community tell it, anyhow), doctrinally sharp, honest in their business dealings–salt of the earth, right?

Yeah, about that..multiple times I’ve seen Ira’s unacknowledged wrath tank a whole ministry when it finally found its way to the surface. (And a another one where the underlying issue was vainglory, rather than anger.) I’ve been treated to the spectacle of warring Iras in the same ministry–a lot of people (me included) got drowned in that particular pissing match. Twice, I’ve had different sets of Iras blow up my whole life. Stats on pastoral failure and burnout tell the same sad tale. Various Iras, with their unaddressed sins and consequent inability to get along with one another for Jesus’ sake, are shambling through the evangelical church, leaving bodies and burning wreckage in their wake, and nothing could be plainer than that standard-issue evangelical piety is not addressing the problem.

Field is proposing an answer. Wilson doesn’t like Field’s answer. I like the way Field addresses it better than the way Wilson doesn’t. When the problem is real, which it is, in spades, having no answer is often as bad as having a poor answer. You can’t make course corrections in a parked car, and at least the guy with the poor answer is moving….

…which leads to my second point on all this: Field’s answer isn’t a poor answer. We have to do this work. We have to do it because our parishioners are not all as clueless as Ira. Some of them know something’s wrong, and they have figured out that they aren’t getting the answers they need at church. They may or may not encounter the Desert Fathers, but depth psychology has permeated our culture, and Zen mindfulness and meditation practices are not far behind. Our parishioners are searching for answers, and they are encountering this stuff. They work alongside people who are trying meditation and getting benefit from it, who are seeing Jungian shrinks and sometimes growing as a result, because common grace works. Think they won’t dabble? Bah. Of course they will. So will Wilson’s–they just won’t tell him, and what a loss that will be, both for him and for them!

Is there a straightforwardly biblical answer for these folks that makes a foray into other traditions unnecessary? If so, then let’s flesh it out and offer it to the church. Do we need some response to these other traditions anyhow, since our people are encountering them? Obviously. Would we rather have something wise to offer them in this area of common grace, or just leave them to their own devices? For a shepherd, that’s no question at all.

And anyhow, we are called to retake the territory; we play offense. To the extent that there’s anything there of value, it belongs to Christ, and we are commissioned to return it to its proper service to Him. Field has thrown down the challenge; what are we waiting for?

A Thumbnail Theology of Alcohol

1 February 2019


Too often, the Christian take on alcoholic beverages is simply, “don’t.” The reasoning is usually presented thus: there’s no real upside to drinking, and there’s a huge downside. You might get drunk yourself, or cause someone else to stumble, and for what? Drinking is optional anyway, so why not just steer clear of the whole thing?

To hell with that cramped and lifeless pseudo-theology! Let it scurry back to the Pit whence it came. In its place, I offer you a look at the goodness and fruitfulness of God’s good alcoholic gifts, thus:

Part 1

Psalm 104 says that God gave wine to make man’s heart glad. Proverbs 31 endorses its use to help a grieving man forget his troubles. Jesus made wine — and He made the good stuff, too.

Thesis #1: If we write off alcohol as potentially harmful, with no upside — then our viewpoint is not biblical, however “wise” we think it. Alcoholic beverages are one of God’s good gifts.

Part 2

Ephesians 5 says not to get drunk. (For those who want a definition of drunk…really? But ok: If someone wants to praise or censure you for what you did last night, and the first thing that comes to mind is, “Well, I’d had a lot to drink…” — that. Don’t do that. Read Ephesians 5. If it was the liquor talking instead of the work of the Spirit, you’re doing it wrong.)

Thesis #2: If you get drunk, you’re in sin. 

Part 3

Romans 14 forbids causing our brother to stumble, and also forbids holding our brother in contempt.

Thesis #3: We may neither look down on someone for what they do (or don’t) drink, nor tempt someone down a path that leads to drunkenness.

Part 4

Colossians 2 says no one should judge you regarding what you drink (or don’t). There’s nothing wrong with taking good counsel, but ignore condemnations. If you don’t drink, there’s always someone who will tell you that you’re missing out. If you do, there’s always someone that will tell you it’s “just wiser not to.”

Thesis #4: Ignore other people’s condemnations about what you drink. Be fully convinced before God, and stick to your guns.

What Doesn’t Belong to Caesar?

4 July 2012

As I’ve acquired a deeper and more theological view of American history, I’ve grown deeply ambivalent about uber-patriotic church services.  There’s a pep-rally atmosphere to it, a partisan spirit that seems deeply at odds with the Great Commission’s leveling admonition to disciple all the nations.  We’re glorying in our team, simply because it’s ours.

There’s an idolatry in it.  The Christian flag is on the speaker’s left, and the American flag is in the superior position, on the speaker’s right.  Now, I have issues with the ‘Christian’ flag, too — modeled after the American flag as it obviously was — but if we’re going to have a flag with a cross on it, why are we displaying it in the inferior position?  Is Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords, or is He subservient to the American government?  “Well,” people say, “that’s what the law requires.”  So it does.  Once upon a time it required burning a pinch of incense to the emperor as a god — a different way of indicating the same thing.  Christians used to know how to handle that kind of requirement.  What happened?

The pledge — which we say in church — is to the flag, and to the republic for which it stands.  That’s right, a bunch of professing Christians stand up, put their hands over their hearts, and pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth, and they won’t even blink.  I mean, it’s not like it’s actually a graven image; it’s sewn.  That’s totally different.  The finial on the flagpole is a golden eagle, not a golden calf — again, totally different.  This is your god, who brought you out of the land of Britain.

We are Christians.  Support of the civil magistrate is required of us.  In a certain way, then, there is a form of patriotism that is also required of us.  But we must have no other gods before Yahweh.  If we actually pay any sort of attention to what we are doing, is not our participation in the cult of the flag a blasphemous idolatry?  The words “under God” in the Pledge don’t wipe all this away; they make us like the ‘good’ kings of the northern kingdom in Israel — Jehu destroyed Ba’al worship at Yahweh’s command, but he did not take away the high places and he continued in the ways of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.  Yahweh doesn’t much appreciate ‘true’ worship mixed with idol worship — because that’s not true worship.


Then there are the comparisons between what we’ll do for America versus what we’ll do for the church.

America is an ideal, a culture, and it has its forms, which we conservative evangelicals respect.  When we have a July 4th service — and boy, do we put on a show for those — we do not remix the Star-Spangled Banner to some contemporary jingle so the young people can “relate.”  We don’t do this to America the Beautiful either, nor to God Bless America.   We stand when the national anthem is played, and we put our hands over our hearts.  We say the pledge, in unison, without a second thought.

Aside from the issues about the Pledge already noted, I’m happy with all this, in its place.  I think it’s great, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful that we’re willing to show genuine reverence somewhere.

But this in a church service, from people who won’t do anything approaching this level of reverence for the Christian faith?  Something is out of balance.

We won’t say the Creed in church because it might be vain repetition, but we think nothing of saying the Pledge.  We change our songs like they were dirty socks — an apt metaphor for some of them, I admit.  We can’t resist the temptation to ruin a centuries-old, grand, well-constructed song by resetting the chorus to some advertising jingle.  We forsake the music of the past just because it’s old, but we’d never think of doing the same with our iconic American music.  We stand for the national anthem without being told, but will we stand up for the reading of Scripture? Dream on.

We tell ourselves that this is because the truth of Christianity transcends all these low, material, ritual things.  We tell ourselves that.  But the truth is a little different. The truth is that our Americanism is profound, meaningfully incarnated in the life of our community.  Our Christianity is so weak and shallow we don’t even meaningfully incarnate it in church, let alone in the public square.

Survivor to Lifeboat: “You’re Losing Me.”

3 June 2012

This week I happened upon Fors Clavigera, the blog of James K. A. Smith, and read a suggestive little post on the millennial generation (for those of you who haven’t heard the term, it refers to people born from 1981 to 2000, or thereabouts).  In this post, Smith opines that it’s possible that millennials are just wrong about some things.  He links to a very well-written piece on the debates over homosexual marriage by millennial author Rachel Held Evans, which presumably articulates some of the attitudes he feels millennials may be wrong about.

In reading Ms. Evans’ article, one phrase leapt off the page at me.  “You’re losing us.”

It struck me for two reasons.  The first one is that it’s rather obviously true.  Millennials are, in fact, greatly put off by the culture wars, by continuing political battles over abortion, and certainly by the battles over homosexual marriage.  These battles are largely being waged by older generations, and millennials (taken as a group) want no part of it.  Millennials are famously one of the least-churched generations in American history, but Ms. Evans is speaking from the standpoint of Christian millennials who think of themselves as part of the church, but can’t stand the political battles.  Hence the message to the church: “You’re losing us.”

Which brings me to the second reason that phrase struck me so forcefully: “You’re losing us” is the language of consumerism, the complaint of a dissatisfied customer who is being kind enough to clue the business owner in on why his other customers are disappearing.  That is a really odd way to address the church, which a wise man once described as the pillar and ground of the truth. The church is the New Jerusalem, and she is the mother of us all.  Like the man said, “Forsake not the law of your mother.”

We have a duty to cling to her — including the past generations that are part of her.  The younger generation may well see the older generation’s follies for what they are, but “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.”   If the younger generation takes the older generation’s mistakes as excuses not to walk with the wise and learn what its elders have to teach, well…fools hate wisdom and instruction.  Solomon knew as well as anybody that the older generations were composed of sinners, but he wrote what he wrote for a reason.

Which is to say that I want to take a step further than Prof. Smith.  It isn’t just that millennials are wrong about some issues.  It’s that millennials have a fundamentally skewed orientation toward church.  They need to stop thinking of the church losing them, and start being concerned that they are losing the church. The church is a lifeboat, and it’s a wide, deep, shark-infested ocean out there.  Striking out on your own is a bit naive at best.  You might complain that there’s a centipede crawling around the bottom of the lifeboat, but you don’t jump overboard because of it.

Some of what millennials are reacting to — the teaching that homosexual behavior is sin, for example — is just black-letter Bible, and they need to make their peace with it.  Yes, it’s hurtful to your LGBT friends.  Mine too.  Yes, that strains the relationship and causes you distress.  Loving your (sinful) neighbor and your God is tough that way; welcome to the trials of the Christian life.  “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”  Can’t handle that?  Can’t see how it all works out for anybody’s good?  “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”  Pray more.  Sounds simplistic, I know.  It’s not.  Pray more.

But let’s be honest.  The responsibility for the situation is not all on the millennials.  Just because they have a duty to remain in the lifeboat doesn’t justify someone stocking the boat with centipedes. Some of what millennials are reacting to is just plain sin.  For example, the outright hatred that many in the older generations heap upon the LGBT population.  Other things are perhaps not sin, but certainly a bit foolish.  For example, a commendable desire to defend the institution of marriage that inexplicably expresses itself as a ferocious dedication to setting up legal bans against gay marriage, but not a single word about re-criminalizing adultery.  Really, guys?  Which destroys more marriages in your experience, old-fashioned adultery or a couple of gay guys getting hitched?  If the goal was really to bring the weight of the legal system to bear in order to protect the institution of marriage, which one would go further, do ya think?  (Which brings us back to the hatred issue, doesn’t it?  Try getting a law passed that re-criminalizes adultery.  Can’t be done, and we all know it.  Why?  That’s “protecting marriage” too.  But of course you know why — the gay marriage bans aren’t getting passed because people want to protect marriage; they’re getting passed because a sizable chunk of the population hates gays.)

There’s work to do on all sides here.  In the past year it has been my very great privilege to work with a group of millennials that cares very much about clinging to the church, about building bridges to the older generations.  It’s been wonderful to see.  I’m hoping to see the older generations respond by embracing the younger cohort and hearing the very real concerns their different generational vantage point allows them to see.  It’s a big Body; we need all the parts working together.

Why Complementarians MUST Ordain Women, Part 5: Cultural Exegesis and a Prescription

1 April 2012

Well, the discussion on 1 Corinthians 14 continues, but it appears that discussion is more narrowly focused on exactly how male and female differences affect the use of particular spiritual gifts in formal worship.  The question of whether to ordain women, and to what functions, is a larger issue, and even though it’s closely related to 1 Corinthians 14, I think for the present I can address it and steer around the not-yet-settled questions in that one chapter.

Back in Part Two of this series, we discussed how within North American church culture, we have created a monster through misconstruing (or just ignoring) what the Bible says a pastor is supposed to be.  Having failed to apprehend the biblical picture of a richly gifted team of leaders functioning in diverse ways in the church, we expect one pastor to fulfill all those roles.  By our lights, the lead pastor is supposed to cast the vision for the church, comfort the sick and afflicted, counsel the broken, resolve disputes, preach every Sunday, coach his staff, teach Sunday school, oversee the administration of the church, represent the church to the community, and much more.  He is, in short, supposed to have all the gifts at once, and use them all simultaneously.  This job description is not biblical, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  (This is not to say that nobody can live up to it.  In God’s providence, there are a few incredibly gifted and energetic folks who not only rise to this sort of challenge, but seem to thrive on it.  But they are few and far between — certainly not one for every church.)  Having created this Frankenstein paradigm of clerical ministry, we then use ordination as the vetting process for releasing someone into that ministry.

So if we’re going to return to a more biblical practice of church leadership (and I find encouraging signs that this is the case everywhere I look, these days), then it’s time to rethink ordination a bit.  At its core, ordination is the church recognizing the person’s calling, qualifications and character.  If we don’t think the person is called into the ministry to which we’re about to ordain him, then we won’t ordain him.  If we think he’s called, but he’s doesn’t yet have the skills he’ll need in the ministry, then we ask him to beef up his skill set before we ordain him.  If he’s got the calling and the skills, but is still struggling with immaturity or other character flaws that are going to significantly hamper his ministry, then again, we ask him to take some time and grow in the Lord before we ordain him.  To be ordained, he should have all three: calling, qualifications, and character.  He doesn’t have to be perfect, and there’s always room for improvement, so it’s always a judgment call.  But there comes a time when he’s ready to get out there and learn by doing, and the church’s job at that point is to appoint him to the ministry and send him out.

Stripped down to those basics, we actually see something similar to ordination in the New Testament.  The apostles laid hands on the seven (deacons?) appointed to the care of widows in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:6).  The Antioch church laid hands on Paul and Barnabas to commission them for their missionary ministry (Acts 13:2-3).  The eldership laid hands on Timothy, apparently not only to consecrate him for ministry but to impart a gift to him (1 Tim. 4:14).  Paul did something similar for Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6).

What we see in New Testament practice, though, is specific.  A person is not ordained to “gospel ministry” in general.  When the church lays hands on someone, it is because God is separating that person to a specific ministry: care of widows, taking the gospel to the Gentiles, and so on.  Perhaps our practice of ordination should follow the same pattern.

Within the tribe that raised and trained me, we actually have an institution like this already: it’s called a “commissioning service,” although the only time we really did it was for missionaries that we were sending out from our own local congregation.  We would lay hands on them and consecrate them for their particular calling and mission.  However, in these cases, we didn’t do much in the way of due diligence, because we were outsourcing that to Pioneers, New Tribes, or whatever mission board that person was going with.  The mission board would have primary responsibility for the missionary once he was on the field, so we trusted them to examine the candidates thoroughly (and generally, they did, but notable lapses are not unheard of).

Within that tribe, ordination was taken to be entirely a church function, and so the church would delve quite a bit more intensively into the candidate’s life.  We would give notice to the congregation, several Sundays in a row, that John Doe was a candidate for ordination, and if anyone knew of reasons why he should not be ordained, that person should speak to the elders at once.  There would be interviews.  The candidate was often asked to prepare a doctrinal statement and/or philosophy of ministry statement, and then provide an oral defense for them.  The process would culminate in a grueling several-hour ordination exam, where the elders and other interested parties would grill the candidate on his calling, his Bible knowledge and practical wisdom, and his character and experience. If the candidate passed all tests, then a day would be appointed, and the whole church would come together to see the elders and pastors lay hands on the candidate and ordain him to the ministry.

What I propose for ordination is a blending of these two categories.  Let the examination of the candidate be as intensive as ordination exams have tended to be.  But let us not ordain someone to anything so general as “the gospel ministry.”  No single part of the Body is the whole Body, and so no single part should be ordained to do the whole Body’s ministry.  If we are going to the trouble to examine a candidate’s calling and qualifications in detail, then let us commission that candidate to the specific area of ministry for which which God has called and qualified him.  Or her.

Of course, “or her.”  Because once we agree that the commission should be to something specific, and not to some Frankensteinian polyglot called “the gospel ministry” (which necessarily includes teaching and exercising authority over men, along with practically all the other gifts and functions), then we immediately see a number of biblically sanctioned roles to which a woman can be called without violating even the strictest readings of 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34.  Deaconess and prophetess head the list of New Testament categories here, but it goes further than that.  1 Timothy 5 implies an office of “church widow” — a widow over 60, with no relatives to support her, who devotes herself to service to the church, and in turn is supported by the church.  There may be more biblically attested categories.

In addition to the “big box” categories, there are more specific callings.  Just as Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to a specific mission work, and not simply to a general calling of “evangelist” or “apostle”, so other believers also have specific callings.  For example, I have a friend whose calling in this season of her life is to devote herself to encouraging and mentoring women.  I dare say that if she were pursuing this ministry among brown people in Jakarta or Nairobi — or even white folks in Zagreb or Madrid — few churches would have difficulty laying hands on her and commissioning her for the work.  But instead, God has called her to Denver.  What difference does it make if the women she’s mentoring speak ‘Merican?  Should we not commission her to the work all the same?