Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Thus, Male Headship" - Christianity and Gender Essentialism

My last two posts have involved the use of sociological studies by Christians, in support of the doctrine of male headship, known in its harsher and gentler forms, respectively, as "Christian patriarchy" or "complementarianism."  Using science as a support for our premises is very characteristic of the culture of Western thought in which most of us have been steeped since birth. And of course, rebutting or debunking the science or scientific methodology behind premises we disagree with, comes from the same basic mindset.

The problem, as I mentioned in my last post, is when we pounce on evidence that seems to support our own position, while simultaneously ignoring evidence that seems to point the other direction. This is called "confirmation bias," which is defined in Science Daily as "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."  In addressing the science presented by male headship proponents, then, I'm attempting to avoid this bias myself.  Thus far, though, I have not seen any evidence that compellingly supports their position.

In this post I want to look a little deeper at underlying assumptions.  Why are these sociological studies being used to support male headship?  What is it that they are supposed to prove, that can then be used to say, "thus, male headship?"  The answer, I think, is this:

The studies examined in my last two posts, as used by male-headship proponents, are supposed to show that certain fundamental human traits are specific either to men or to women.  And these fundamental differences are then supposed to prove that men are meant to be in authority, while women are meant to be under authority.

This idea of specific, fundamental traits belonging to either one sex or the other, is called "gender essentialism."  Gender essentialism goes beyond biological differences between the sexes* to personality traits, fundamental desires and leanings, and so on.

This article at Ignitum Today illustrates Christian gender essentialism very clearly:
I am sorry to be the one to raise this issue but I am going to put it straight out there so there is no confusion: men and women are not equal. For two things to be perfectly equal they would need to be the same and it should be self-evident that a man and a woman are not the same. . . 
This is where society is getting it wrong; a false notion of equality. It begins at a subliminal level where the message is diffused that one’s gender is a social construction, meaning that a woman is a woman because she was dressed in a skirt and given dolls as a child, and a man is a man because he was dressed in trousers and given toy trucks. . . 
When a society fails to understand the nature of men and women it is true that everything can look unfair but we set rather arbitrary standards of where fairness lies. Men dominate senior positions in the largest global companies, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. Women dominate the raising of the next generation of humanity and professions which nurture and educate, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. 
Gender essentialists tend to resist the distinction between one's "sex," which is biological, and one's "gender," which is sociological.  They believe to be a man and to be masculine, or to be a woman and to be feminine are (or should be) the same thing.  They often do make a sort of disclaimer that not all men fit the pattern, nor do all women; as the article above goes on to say:
Of course there will always be men and women who have certain talents which mean they are better in tasks that are not as common for their sex and that is fine also.
However, when it comes right down to it, this deviation from the gender-essential norm usually isn't "just fine" after all.  The studies I examined in my last two posts show that there is always a percentage of the study group that goes against the trend-- but that doesn't stop male-headship proponents from confidently saying that the studies show the way "men" are and the way "women" are-- not "some" or even "most" men or women, but simply "men" and "women."  And thus, male headship.

My real problem is that the Christian assertion of gender essentialism is fundamentally unfalsifiable. That is, the way it is presented keeps it above the possibility of disproof, so Christians who believe in it never have to question it.  The argument is usually that if a man is presenting masculine traits, or a woman feminine traits, it is evidence of God's gender-essential design-- but if they fail to present those traits, or present opposite ones, it is because of human sinfulness.

Therefore, though deviation from the norm is acceptable in theory, in practice it's not, and many men and women who simply don't fit the norms are treated as if they were in sin.  As the Touchstone Magazine article I quoted two posts ago puts it, men who have been "feminized" by the Church of England's theological training become
wet, spineless, feeble-minded, or compromised. . . malleable creatures of the institution, unburdened by authenticity or conviction and incapable of leading and challenging. Men, in short, who would not stand up in a draft.
To not be "masculine" (which these gender-essentialists apparently define, fairly typically, as authoritative, independently minded and leadership-oriented) is to be weak and sinful. Similarly, the True Woman  website teaches that embracing the submissive, responsive, nurturing "Divine design of His female creation" will save us from the sinful, unfeminine pattern of unsubmissive, worldly womanhood:
Whether they realize it or not, the vast majority of Christian women have bought into this “new” way of thinking. In the home, the church, and the marketplace, they have adopted the values and belief system of the world around them. The world promises freedom and fulfillment to those who embrace its philosophy. But sadly, millions of women who have done so have ended up disillusioned, wounded, and in terrible bondage.
Thus, it becomes impossible to refute gender essentialism using the evidence of real women's experience. If a woman is quiet, gentle and submissive-- it's because it's natural for women to be that way. If a woman is assertive, extroverted, and leadership-oriented-- it's because of her sin nature that is fighting against her true nature. For real Christian women just trying to be themselves, it's a shaming and muffling experience. One kind of personality is honored and the other rejected and silenced, because God is limited by their interpretation of the Bible, as to what kind of woman He is allowed to make.

The percentages of deviation from the gender norms in the sociology cited by male headship proponents, therefore, might as well not exist.  Those who deviate are not being "real" men or "true" women, but are merely capitulating to wordliness or to sinful rebellion against their own natures. The sociology then becomes an unequivocable support for what male headship proponents believe the Bible teaches about the divine creation of the sexes.

But does the Bible actually teach that there are separate and distinct personality traits which God designed for one sex and not the other?  And even if it did so teach, would that lead irrevocably to "thus, male headship"?  Interestingly, Marc Cortez at Everyday Theology, who appears to be a complementarian, would answer "no" to both questions:
[T]he main problem lies in thinking that these two are logically connected such that complementarianism requires gender essentialism to work. So egalitarians invest considerable effort in defeating gender essentialism, and complementarians conversely go out of their way to defend it. As interesting as that conversation might be, though, both sides need to realize that complementarianism does not require gender essentialism. . . .
There does not need to be any essential difference between men and women for God to decide, for example, that only men can be elders. He can decide this for any reason he wants. He is, after all, God. 
People might worry that eliminating step 2 would render God’s decision somehow arbitrary, as though he simply flipped a coin to determine how the gender qualification would work. But that doesn’t follow either. The fact that God’s decision does not necessarily rest on some essential difference in human persons does not make his decision arbitrary; it just means that his decision rests on something else, possibly even something he hasn’t told us about.  [Emphasis in original.]
I don't think Cortez escapes the charge of arbitrariness simply by saying God, being God, must have some mysterious reason for denying and limiting women in church roles (the article doesn't discuss male headship in marriage).  If, as I have contended, denying and limiting women based purely on the fact that they are women is against "do unto others" and "love your neighbor," there seems very little justification for God to thus negate what He taught through His own Son, that "this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12.

But Cortez is quite correct that this is a viable alternative to believing that God designed men and women according to gender essentials, such that men are designed for authority and women for submission to that authority.  As he says:
[T]he simple fact is that even if complementarianism is true, it’s hard to find the Bible giving any clear reason why certain roles/offices are limited to men. Some might point to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a notoriously difficult passage. But whatever Paul intends by his explanation there, he doesn’t point to any essential differences between men and women. However you understand the reference to Adam being created first, that’s not an essential difference. My brother was born before me, but that doesn’t make his humanity essentially different than mine. And my parents may well give him greater authority in the family because he came before me, but that’s not an essential difference either. The same holds true for Adam and Eve. Adam’s being created first doesn’t present some kind of essential difference between men on women on the basis of which God decrees male headship. If the order of creation is significant for understanding gender roles in the church, a question for another time, it would only be because God decided to do it that way for reasons that he has not ever explained to us, not because mere temporal order establishes some kind of essential difference between the two genders. 
Again, I’m not going to walk through all the relevant passages. . . But for now I’ll leave it with saying that I don’t think there are any biblical passages that even complementarians should read as grounding ministry roles in some kind of gender essentialism. [Emphasis in original.]
Many times the Scripture passages that are used to support male headship are read in terms of gender essentialism: words like "head" are understood as showing God's design for men to be natural leaders and women to be natural followers.  But taking account of literary and cultural contexts results in grounding male authority firmly in the culture in which the writer was writing, and not as a divine mandate.  And when real, devoted Christian men and women just don't fit the norm, it doesn't make sense to simply write them off as being sinful or worldly.

There are plenty of other Bible passages that we don't interpret in the teeth of the evidence, insisting on face-value readings no matter what-- the passages on slavery, for instance.  We don't commandeer all the evidence we can find to prove that slavery is good and God-given (though we used to do just that), while we ignore all evidence to the contrary.

So isn't it time to give up on "thus, male headship"?

*This whole argument by Christians also tends to ignore completely the existence of transgender people or others who don't fit into the binary boxes of male/masculine and female/feminine.  It's not my intention to ignore them or their struggles here, but in examining gender essentialism as used to support male headship, it's easier to stick with the categories used by male-headship proponents.  Let me here promote the voice of a Christian sister who is not cisgender, to show that there are more sides to this story.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Men Need Respect, Women Need Love" - Really?

An anonymous commenter on my last blog post told me this:
God, in His wisdom, made man the head of the union between man and his wife. He has created a desire in the woman to be loved, and in the man to be respected, and there is no amount of social re-engineering that can change that.
This seems to me to be a good opportunity to address the whole love-vs-respect idea that most male-headship proponents espouse.  Where does this idea come from, that God made women to need love more than respect, and men to need respect more than love-- and that this is a basis for belief in male headship?

The chief source of this idea appears to be the very popular complementarian book Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs.  Eggerichs is quoted in his guest series on this topic on the Focus on the Family blog:
Women need to feel loved, and men need to feel respected. This may explain why Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:33 that a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband. Both commands are unconditional. The hard part is that respect comes more easily to men, and love comes easier to women.
To be fair, Eggerichs doesn't teach that men need only respect and not love, or that women need only love and not respect.  On his Love & Respect Website he elaborates:
We all need love and respect. I preach this and I teach this. I am not dogmatic in suggesting that a husband does not need love. I am not dogmatic in suggesting that a wife does not need respect. 
However, because Ephesians 5:33 reveals that a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband, we see a distinction that is full of significance. Maybe we can answer this way: though we all need love and respect equally, like we all need water and food equally, a wife has a felt need for love and a husband has a felt need for respect. Said another way, she feels hunger pains for her husband’s love more often in the marriage and a husband feels more thirsty for his wife’s respect.
Ok, but is this really what Ephesians 5:33 is talking about?  Do men really feel more need for respect and women for love?

Psychologist Shauna Springer, PhD., wrote a rebuttal in This Psychology Today online article, questioning the universality of the results Eggerichs obtained from his study samples of 400 men and a similar number of women.  Four hundred is not a very big number from which to extrapolate to what all (or even most) men vs. women want.  Springer used a sample group that was deliberately weighted towards highly achieving women, and obtained the opposite result from Eggerichs' sample of women:
To test my theory that respect is equally critical for many women as for many men, I set out to profile the marriages of some of the smartest women I have known and their equally capable friends (The Lifestyle Poll). The first phase of data collection for The Lifestyle Poll was based heavily on a Harvard college graduate sample. In this group of 300 women, 75% reported that they would rather feel alone and unloved than disrespected and inadequate.

In other words, within this group of highly educated, accomplished women, the tendency to favor respect over love was equivalent in degree to the preference expressed among males that was used to launch a best-selling book predicated on what now seems to be an inaccurate assumption of a consistent gender difference. [Emphasis in original.]
Given the differences between Eggerichs' study results and Springer's, it appears that at least for women, their felt need for love vs. respect depends a lot on individual differences between women. The same is likely to be true for men.  If Eggerichs' study samples contained, for example, a high proportion of evangelicals, then the results he obtained may have been more related to the expectations of evangelical culture than to any general tendency in all men as opposed to all women.

In any event, common sense tells us that respect is part of love. You really can't love someone if you don't respect them, and a person who is treated without respect will not feel loved.  As the same Psychology Today article puts it:
At times, I thought that Eggerichs might begin to see how disrespect is at the core of many marital problems for wives as well as for husbands. For example, he says that a wife “yearns to be honored, valued and prized as a precious equal” (p. 11) and that wives “fear being a doormat,” (p. 53) and informs his male readers that a wife will feel “esteemed” when “you are proud of her and all that she does” and when “you value her opinion in the grey areas as not wrong but just different and valid” (p. 73). Why not just substitute the word “esteemed” with the word “respected?”
Words like "honor" and "esteem" are really pretty synonymous with "respect."  In fact, the Bible does indeed tell husbands to respect their wives:
Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. 1 Peter 3:7, King James 2000 version, Emphasis added.
Honor, especially in the honor-shame culture of the New Testament, is pretty much respect and then some.  To give someone "honor" in that culture was not just to be respectful and show esteem in your private lives together, but to give them public recognition and respect.

The Bible also advises that wives should love their husbands:
The aged women likewise, that they be in behavior as becomes holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sensible, to love their husbands, to love their children... Titus 2:3-4, King James 2000 version, Emphasis added. 
 So why this emphasis on respect vs. love in terms of men as opposed to women?

Some of this is simply confirmation bias, which is defined as "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."  We Christians may think we believe in male headship because the Bible teaches it, but we have to watch our tendency to conclude that the Bible teaches male headship because we believe in it.*

The idea that men feel the need for respect more than women do, tends to confirm the idea that men are natural leaders, and the idea that women feel the need for love more than men do, supports the idea that women are emotional, dependent beings-- and thus, male headship.  So a verse like Ephesians 5:33, which tells husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, is easy to read as a statement of fundamental gender differences underlying the principle of male headship.

The problem is that other verses (like 1 Peter 3:7 and Titus 2:2-4) simply don't support the use of Ephesians 5:33 as a proof-text for a love-and-respect difference between men and women.  After all, if we were to base our theory of gender relations on 1 Peter 3:7 all by itself (as we've been taking Ephesians 5:33 all by itself), we would conclude that what women need most from their husbands is actually public honor.

So, since the social science doesn't seem to bear out this love-vs-respect differentiation between men and women either, then it's most likely that Ephesians 5:33 is talking about something else altogether.

What it comes down to, I think, is a fundamental failure to consider the Ephesians 5 passage in terms of its original authorial intent, as it would have been understood by its original audience. As I've said before, until we understand what it meant to them, we can't understand how to apply it to ourselves.

The real question to ask, then, is what were the basic dynamics of marriage in the time and place Paul was writing Ephesians?  To refrain from asking this question is to read into the Ephesian passage the modern, Western dynamic of married life: that is, that two people who are essentially social equals, with equal rights and responsibilities, fall in love with one another and choose one another to commit themselves to.  Thinking of marriage in this way does give us very little reason to think why Paul would tell men to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, if these instructions were not related in some way to the male and female psyche.

However, what Paul was thinking about when he taught on marriage, and what his first-century Ephesian audience would have had in mind, was a different dynamic entirely.  As this brief synopsis on states:
Marriage in Roman times was often not at all romantic. Rather, it was an agreement between families. Men would usually marry in their mid-twenties, while women married while they were still in their early teens. As they reached these ages, their parents would consult with friends to find suitable partners that could improve the family’s wealth or class.
As this article from Women in the Ancient World explains, marriage in the ancient Rome-controlled world did require the consent of the man and woman involved, but they often did not choose their spouse, but only consented to their family's choice.  And for a woman, especially if the family had substantial assets and it was her first marriage, there was an even greater expectation for her to go along with her father's choice and put his authority first:
[Y]oung girls were in no position to fight their parents even on something as important as the choice of a marriage partner. Over the years there was a gradual increase in women’s economic power and in their status in society, but a father’s right both in theory and in practice to choose at least the first husband of a daughter remained constant throughout the Republic and the Empire. . . For the last century or two of the Republic and throughout the Empire most marriages were “without manus.” That is to say, the wife remained under the authority of her father. If a woman had to be under someone’s control, a doting father living in another house was a much better bet than a husband.       
Further, though men also may have simply consented to, and not chosen, their bride, the groom was not expected to confine his sexual activity only to his wife. This scholarly paper by Claude Dauphin states:
The fourth century BC Athenian orator Apollodoros made it very clear in his speech Against Neaira quoted by Demosthenes (59.122) that 'we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property'.
So instead of our understanding of a marital union by mutual consent of two partners who love each other and both swear to be faithful, the shared assumption between the writer and the audience of the letter to the Ephesians would have been an authority-subordinate arrangement for the benefit of the man, in which he would most likely have been 10 years or more older than the woman, and where she had little choice and few options.

I have written at length elsewhere about the historical-cultural understanding of marriage in Ephesians, in which I summarized:
Paul was trying to grow an infant religious movement, which meant not fighting existing authority structures– but if within the body of Christ, Christians in positions of authority did not act on that authority, but laid down their privilege and served, and where those in subordinate positions did not passively resist or actively rebel, but willingly gave their best and served, it would all end up in a kind of functional equality, existing in Christian households in an age where the concept of “equal rights” as we now know them, did not yet exist. Paul’s teachings on Christian relationships would, if followed, undermine ancient societal norms from within, eventually resulting in more just, equitable social structures in cultures influenced by these teachings.
 In light of this, what might Paul have been getting at by telling husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands in Eph. 5:33?

As the Scripture4All online interlinear informs us, the Greek word Paul uses for "love" in this verse is transliterated "agapato," while the word often translated as "respect" is "phobetai."  "Agapato" or "agapeo" is, according to Vines' Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, a kind of self-sacrificing, deliberate love that seeks first the good of the beloved, which is "the characteristic word of Christianity."(1966 ed., p. 20-21).  "Phobetai" or "phobeo," on the other hand, actually means "fear," and often refers to the respect one has for social structures of authority, as in Romans 13:6-7:
For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Emphasis added.)
Understood this way, what Paul is probably saying about love and respect in Ephesians 5:33 is probably something more like this:

Husbands, in this marriage relationship you have a lot more power and agency than your wife does. I've already told you to lay down your power and position just like Christ did, in order to raise your wife up as Christ raises up the church.  So love her as Christ loves the church!  Deny yourself for her sake; don't deny her for your own sake. Don't treat her as only a vessel to give you offspring, or as a servant to take care of your house.  Don't go visiting prostitutes or keeping mistresses.  Put her needs first, give yourself for her, and treat her with the care you use to take care of your own body.

And you wives, I know you didn't choose this man you're married to, and that your consent to this marriage may have meant very little.  I know he's much older than you.  I know that society has placed you as a woman, under male authority.  So I'm not expecting you to be able to give your husband the kind of self-giving love that I'm expecting him to give you.  But since in many cases you're still considering your primary authority over you to be your father, I'm asking you to turn to your husband instead.  I've already surprised you by treating you as not merely a possession for him to rule-- I've spoken to you as one who has a choice in the matter, because you're free in Christ.  I've asked you to choose to submit to him voluntarily, and to consider that a service to Christ.  So don't rebel against your husband, but respect the authority society has given him.  I've told him to lay down his power and privilege and raise you up as Christ raised up the church, so if he does as I ask, you'll find yourself by his side and sharing his power, rather than beneath him and obeying his power. 

Am I putting words in Paul's mouth?  Maybe-- but certainly not more so than those who say Paul was talking about some intrinsic characteristic of all women everywhere to need love more than respect, or of all men everywhere to need respect more than love.  If I'm putting words in Paul's mouth, at least they're along the lines of what he and his audience would have understood about marriage at the time he wrote his letter to the church at Ephesus.

If I'm putting words in Paul's mouth, at least they have the meanings he would have given to the words "love" and "respect," and not what they might sound like to us 2000 years later and half the globe away.

Love and respect are not gender distinctions supporting male headship.  As used in Ephesians 5, they're not stand-alone concepts that can be lifted out of context and used to make blanket statements about men vs. women.

And it really doesn't make sense anyway to build a whole theory of gender out of one verse.


*Of course, confirmation bias can work the other way as well, as male-headship believers often tell gender-equality believers: that we want the Bible to teach gender equality and so we find that it does. Christian egalitarians need to be aware of this possibility-- but there are other compelling reasons to believe the Bible teaches gender equality than simply that we think it should.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fathers' Influence on Children's Church Attendance: What Does this Study Actually Show?

This week I want to talk about a particular set of social science statistics published in 1994 by the Council of Europe called The demographic characteristics of linguistic and religious groups in Switzerland.  As I have dialogued on the Internet about gender roles in Christianity over the last several years, I have noticed that male-headship believing Christians, or complementarians, really love this study and bring it up over and over again.  Here is a detail of the results of the study, as set forth in Wikipedia's Article on Church Attendance:

Practice of religion according to practice of parents (%)
Practice of ParentsPractice of ParentsPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the children

The point, as I understand it, is that a father who attends church regularly is much more likely to have his children attend church regularly after they grow up, than a mother who attends church regularly; and if the father is not a practicing Christian, his children are very likely to grow up to be non-practicing themselves, even if the mother is a regular church attender.

There is also supposedly an American study showing that "If the mother is the first to become a Christian, there is a 17 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow. But if the father is first, there is a 93 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow."  According to this article in The Baptist Press, the study is cited in the book The Promise Keeper at Work by Bob Horner, but I have been unable to locate any reference online to the actual study which generated these statistics.

In any event, I have seen this Swiss study cited over and over again by male-headship proponents as a sort of definitive proof that male headship is God's blueprint for humanity. As one commenter on  this discussion of gender roles at the Wartburg Watch put it:
To briefly summarize, the mothers spiritual life has virtually no effect on her children. But the fathers is HUGE. What dad does is what the kids will do. 
This, in conclusion, is why I contend for comp theology. Can mothers and women be amazing teachers, Godly examples, skilled leaders, etc….Absolutely. Is there an internal wiring that is deeply dependent upon male leadership (in this case…fathers) that shapes us, and our communities, in a way that women, regardless of their “skills” do not have? I think it is obviously and observably true.
Touchstone Magazine wrote an article showcasing the Swiss demographic study in June of 2003, now available online as Touchstone Archives: The Truth About Men & Church.  Here is one of the main points Touchstone used the study to make:
The results are shocking, but they should not be surprising. They are about as politically incorrect as it is possible to be; but they simply confirm what psychologists, criminologists, educationalists, and traditional Christians know. You cannot buck the biology of the created order. Father’s influence, from the determination of a child’s sex by the implantation of his seed to the funerary rites surrounding his passing, is out of all proportion to his allotted, and severely diminished role, in Western liberal society. 
A mother’s role will always remain primary in terms of intimacy, care, and nurture. . . No father can replace that relationship. But it is equally true that when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world “out there,” he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for his role model. . .  
Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances.
[Emphasis added.]
Touchstone goes on to blame the advent of women priests for the decrease in church attendance in Switzerland-- and anywhere else where church attendance is declining.  According to them, men just can't stand going to churches that flout God's created order by letting women lead, and when men stop going to church, so do their children.  Touchstone goes on to blame feminism and the rise of women leaders for a plethora of society's ills:

The disintegration of the family follows hard upon the amorality and emotional anarchy that flow from the neutering, devaluing, or exclusion of the loving and protective authority of the father. . . In the absence of fatherhood, it is scarcely surprising that there is an alarming rise in the feral male. This is most noticeable in street communities, where co-operatives of criminality seek to establish brutally and directly that respect, ritual, and pack order so essential to male identity.
After going on to denounce the feminization of the church (which I have written a refutation of here), the article concludes:
A church that is conspiring against the blessings of patriarchy not only disfigures the icon of the First Person of the Trinity, effects disobedience to the example and teaching of the Second Person of the Trinity, and rejects the Pentecostal action of the Third Person of the Trinity but, more significantly for our society, flies in the face of the sociological evidence! 
No father—no family—no faith.
Never mind that the First Person of the Trinity is also described using mother images. Never mind that the Second Person of the Trinity never taught "male headship," and specifically spoke against the father-rule of His own earthly time and culture.   Never mind that the Third Person of the Trinity was poured out at Pentecost on "sons and daughters" alike. To challenge male headship is to challenge fatherhood itself, and to challenge fatherhood is to cause the demise of society.

The important thing to ask, though, is whether this one Swiss demographic study from 20 years ago really supports all the claims that have been pinned upon it.

We have to take into account, for one thing, the religious climate in Switzerland, especially from around the time of this study.  This Swissworld article on the religious landscape in Switzerland looks at the state of the nation six years later:
In a wide ranging poll of Swiss attitudes taken in 2000, only 16% of Swiss people said religion was "very important" to them, far below their families, their jobs, sport or culture. Another survey published the same year showed the number of regular church goers had dropped by 10% in 10 years. Among Catholics, 38.5% said they did not go to church, while among Protestants the figure was 50.7%.
Given that the same article shows that in the year 2000, roughly 42% of the Swiss population was Roman Catholic and 35% was Protestant (with another 2% in Eastern Orthodox and other forms of Christianity), this means Switzerland was 79% Christian in 2000.  And yet only 16% considered religion "very important."  Does the relative lack of priority given to religion in Switzerland, compared to the United States, have any bearing on possible causes of the study's results?

I think that if we're going to look at this in terms of sociology, we ought in fairness to consider another documented sociological factor: gender contamination.  In short, "boys and men. . . are more tightly constrained by the prevailing views of masculinity that associate being masculine with avoiding anything feminine.”  In a country like Switzerland, where very few people consider religion a high priority, what happens to a family's view of churchgoing if only the mother does it? Touchstone's article itself gives the answer:
When children see that church is a “women and children” thing, they will respond accordingly—by not going to church, or going much less.
Is this really the same thing as there being some intrinsic, God-given authority built into men and not women, so that children naturally follow their father's example and not their mother's?  Even assuming that the study's results are accurate (and corroborating studies seem pretty hard to find)-- and even if the same dynamic is going to repeat itself in every culture everywhere (which is not proven), there are three even bigger assumptions being made, none of which are proved by the study: first, that this father-influence is innate to humanity; second, that it is from God; and third, that it comes from or is part of what Christians call "male headship": that is, the essential spiritual authority of manhood over womanhood.

First of all, it cannot be definitively shown that fathers have an innate influence over their children that supersedes the influence of the mother.  After all, what the study's numbers seem to show is that a mother who wants her children to be regular churchgoers would do better (if the father is a regular churchgoer) to stay in bed eating bonbons and watching soap operas than to go to church with the family.  The numbers show that if the father and mother are both regular churchgoers, their children are 32.8% likely to be regular churchgoers-- but if the father is regular and the mother is non-practicing, this percentage jumps to 44.2!  This actually would mean that the mother actually has a big influence in pushing the children to follow their father even more closely.  But does this even make sense?  Is it logical to think children would react against their non-churchgoing mother to that extent?  Couldn't it be more sensibly accounted for by other factors?

For instance, what may be going on is that in Western culture as it stands right now, it takes a certain kind of man-- one with a great deal of energy, devotion and sense of responsibility-- to get his kids ready week after week to go to church with no help from their mother.

Comparatively speaking, a mother who is devoted to church attendance when the father is not, is a different story. We still have a culture (and this is apparently true in Switzerland too) where the mother does most of the day-to-day dressing, nose-wiping, and gathering-together-and-herding-into-the-car-ing. In short, mothers are used to it. But for a father to get his kids up in the morning, dress and wipe noses and herd them into the car while the mother watches TV or lies in bed, he's got to really want to go to church.

The dynamic, then, wouldn't be so much that the children's tendency to stick with church attendance rises with the mother's slackness at all. The dynamic would be that children whose father puts himself to extra effort to get his kids to church while the mom stays home, is the kind of man who is more than usually devoted to church attendance-- and that superlative devotion is what rubs off on the kids.

I suspect that many dads who want to go to church, but mom doesn't, simply say to themselves, "This is too much trouble," and don't go at all, thus moving the family into one of the different statistical groups.  In short, this influence of the fathers is probably not innate, but a result of social factors. Raw numbers in a sociological study simply don't give us the whole story-- and because they don't, they  certainly don't prove that the fatherly influence they show is innate.

Second, it simply cannot be shown that this father-influence is from God, even if it were innate. Not everything that is innate to humanity is from God; orthodox Christian doctrine states that humanity is deeply affected by sin.  Often, indeed, society's role is to civilize humans so that we can live peacefully together, through the imposition of laws and social rules.  But then again, not every law or social rule is from God either.  As Christians, we can look to the Bible, of course-- but does the Bible ever advise children to pay more attention to their fathers than to their mothers?

Well, in fact it doesn't.  The Bible tells us to "Honor your father and mother." Exodus 6:2.  Proverbs 6:20 says, "My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching."  Even Ephesians 6:1, which continues from the Ephesians 5 passage so often used to support male headship, says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord."  Although the Bible often assumes a male power dynamic, it seems to be more in terms of accommodation than in any explicit teaching that says, "men, you are to take charge."

It's just as likely that this extra influence of fathers, if it truly exists, is a factor of sinful human power structures that enhance the influence of one group while marginalizing another.  Children pay more attention to their fathers because the world around them pays more attention to their fathers-- and so, sadly, does the church.  In a culture which still puts spiritual women on a pedestal (a place where we can be admired and yet be prevented from having any real power or influence), is it that surprising that there would be an attitude of “My mother was a saint, but she was just my mother”?  It certainly doesn't mean women should despair that no matter how devoted to God they are, it will do their children no good unless the father is also devoted.  It means we should work to counteract this marginalizing influence, not glorify it.

Third, even if fathers have a greater influence over their children than mothers do, and even if this influence expands beyond this churchgoing study to other areas of life, we can't actually move directly from that to "thus, male headship."

If the Swiss study tells us anything good, anything worth noting, what is it?  Only that children having a relationship with an involved and spiritually committed father is a good thing; something we already knew. Only that fathers have an important role in their children's lives-- that they should appreciate their powerful influence on their kids and act responsibly.

What the study certainly does not tell us is anything about mothers being subordinate to fathers. The study says nothing whatsoever about husband-wife relationships or that men belong in leadership over their wives. Neither does it imply that mothers cannot be leaders in their homes and churches, or that mom must be "first mate" and not "co-captain" with dad.

Finally, the study does not actually give any reasons as to why any of the study group went to church, or didn't go to church, or stopped going to church.  It doesn't address whether or not Swiss culture encourages grown children to do their own thing, like American culture does, or to stay more in line with parents' practices.  It doesn't address the individual dynamics of each relationship between a child and his or her mother, or in what ways it differs from that child's relationship with his or her father.  It's a sociological study; it's not a judge of internal motives, or a cookie-cutter shaper of every home into its own image.

The fact is that many complementarians are taking this one 1994 Swiss study and using it to support a large number of things they already believe, whether or not the study actually justifies or even addresses what they conclude from it.  Wouldn't it be better to recognize the study's limitations and keep our responses more in line with those limitations?

I would suggest that the best way to use this study is for dad to use any extra influence he may have, to make sure the children pay more attention to mom.

That would certainly be the Christlike thing to do.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


In the early 1980s I was in college, living on fraternity/sorority row.  But it wasn't a sorority house.  It was the local branch of Maranatha Christian Churches/Campus Ministries founded by Bob and Rose Weiner.  As I have described here and here, Maranatha was a Christian group with strong authoritarian control.   We lived in the Maranatha House and went to church in the meeting room of that house, and we slept on the sleeping porches on the third floor and tried to get our homework done or hold down our jobs, despite endless outreach meetings, prayer meetings and other Maranatha obligations.

On Labor Day this year, 29 years after gradating from college, I went to an annual get-together of  a long-standing group of former Maranatha members from my college town.  The ties I have with these people are very strong, indeed practically unbreakable.  As we ate and talked, laughed and took pictures and caught up on one another's lives, I found myself wondering what it is that binds us together so closely, after almost 30 years.

It's certainly not because we still agree on everything the way we did back then, when we had all the right answers to all the right questions and knew how big a part our group of "God's Green Berets" was playing in the advance of God's "dominion mandate."  It's not because we stayed physically close; though some members still live in the same city, some of us have been scattered long distances. And it's not because we spend our time together living in the past; in fact, I don't think the word "Maranatha" or our experiences there came up once in any of the conversations I had at the reunion this year.

No, the bonds run much deeper than that.

It probably helps that all of us in this group of former members somehow managed to stay married to the spouses we met in Maranatha (which seems a miracle in itself!), and that we all had kids and got jobs and watched the kids grow up-- in short, that we have lived basically similar middle-class lives. And we did all remain Christians.  But those are really just general similarities-- and we have met at least once a year since our children were in infant carriers, and now most of those kids are in college or have finished school and moved out-- but we have not grown apart.

The thing is this.  Even if we don't always talk about our shared histories, the fact is that for several intense years we lived together and ate and slept and washed together (though of course boys and girls chastely slept and showered in separated areas).  We rotated the cooking and cleaning, and we played games in the dining/fireside room and helped each other with homework and gave each other Christmas presents.

We held car washes almost every Saturday of every summer to try to pay expenses for the house's upkeep.  We saved as much as we could to buy oil for the ancient furnace.  When school started, and again in the spring, we had six to eight weeks of meetings every night and were required to hand out flyers for these meetings on campus right after dinner.  There were also shorter "outreach" periods (2-4 weeks each, with meetings 3-4 times a week) at other points during the year.  Once a month we piled into cars and drove to Seattle for a "Maranatha Leadership Training Seminar."  I'm really not sure why we didn't all flunk out of school!

Several times a year we fasted and prayed for up to three days, and sometimes we held all-night prayer meetings, joined via satellite to other Maranatha congregations all over the globe.  (I remember one year the central leadership found out that it's better not to expect even young, strong college kids to pray all night and fast at the same time.  After several kids collapsed, fasting and all-night prayer were never observed at the same time again!  The leadership was actually lucky that no serious health problems resulted that they might have been held legally liable for.)

Whenever we could snatch any spare time, we'd go to movies together (if approved by the local leaders) or watch TV.  One of the girls' favorite activities was to listen to me read stories aloud (Winnie the Pooh, or the Chronicles of Narnia), while they did embroidery or cross-stitch.  (I was glad to be the reader because I loved to read aloud and secretly hated cross stitch, though as a woman I was supposed to like such things.)

We shared with each other the details of our lives and our troubles with parents or siblings.  We bundled up together when the furnace broke down from advanced arthritis or stopped for lack of fuel. We swam together in the house's swimming pool when it was hot (I'm sure the car wash money helped pay for pool treatment chemicals too).  We all knew what each of us looked like in the mornings before showers. We all knew what we looked like in the middle of the night without sleep.

All of this stays with us, even when we don't talk about it.  We have talked about it, of course-- at great length, over the years.  We walked with each other on our journeys out of authoritarian, spiritually abusive religion too.  And it turns out that what we have done together is something pretty rare-- the fact that Maranatha Christian Churches voluntarily disbanded in the early 1990s meant that we could leave Maranatha without shunning or estrangement-- that we were able to come out together.

And though we don't necessarily all agree anymore except on foundational Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection, we have all, I think, learned certain things from that journey out.

What have we learned?  I think it boils down to this:  that ultimately, there is no value in trying to force one another, or ourselves, to conform to some cookie-cutter standard of who or what we're supposed to be.  That each of us, in our own selves, is essentially and foundationally valuable.  And that our relationships with one another are more important than any differences we might have.

If nothing else good came out of being in a spiritually abusive religious group, this did: that in reaction to authoritarian control, we let go, once and for all, of any desire to control one another. Instead, we simply love one another.

And that should last us another 30 years, and beyond.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Matthew 18 and Spiritual Abuse

I have been asked a few times over the last several months to do a blog post on Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus teaches about what to do if a member of a Christian group is committing wrongs that are harmful enough that they cannot be overlooked.  Here's the text, from the 2011 NIV:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
The context of this verse is as part of one of Jesus' large teaching units in the gospel of Matthew.  He is here teaching about interpersonal relationships within the  "kingdom of heaven" [verse 1], which will include all who trust and follow Jesus.  He starts by stating that the greatest in the kingdom is as a little child, which, as I described in another blog post, meant letting go of earthly status and hierarchy. Then He goes on to warn against "despising" any of these "little ones-- those who believe in Me."  In other words, those who believe in Jesus should voluntarily become lowly and without status, like children ("little ones"), and their resulting vulnerability must not be taken advantage of or used to harm them. (For an excellent study of the whole chapter, see the Christian Resource Institute's study by Roger Hahn.)  He then talks about how valuable these "little ones" are to the Father, and how He will seek them if they stray.

It is at this point that verses 15-17 occur: just after the discussion of stumbling blocks put in the way of the "little ones."  The Christian group as a whole can choose to remove anyone who is causing grievous harm to one or more members of the group.  Jesus speaks in terms of "brothers and sisters" to indicate equality of status in the group.  He does not envisage the church as a hierarchy where leaders alone assume the power to excommunicate; an action as drastic as that should be done by the consensus of the whole group.

The rest of the teaching is about interpersonal forgiveness when brothers and sisters sin against one another.  Jesus speaks of the need to forgive "up to seventy times seven" times, and tells a parable whose point is that, since God has forgiven us so much, we ought also to forgive one another.  Taking this section together with verses 15-17 leads me to conclude that Jesus is differentiating between forgiveness (personal letting go of animosity) and reconciliation (restoring relationships).   To forgive someone up to seventy-times-seven times is one thing; to have them "listen to you" so that you have "won them over" is another.   The possibility of excommunication means that relationship is not to be restored when the person who has harmed you is unrepentant and unwilling to change-- even after being confronted with witnesses to the harm that was done.

The principles of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 are sound.  A group should have the power to disassociate itself from people who are causing serious harm to one or more members, and a graduated-step process seems the most appropriate way to deal with such people.  The problem is that these verses are so often misused, particularly by people in power to enable themselves to stay in power.  Here are some examples from around the blogosphere:

From Under Much Grace:
In many spiritually abusive groups, Matthew chapter 18, verses 15-19 is used like a static formula which is misapplied to manipulate and control others. Many misapply it as something appropriate for minor offenses instead of overt sin, as the consequences of the process can result in excommunication from that local church. A person can be offended by someone's behavior, but it may not necessarily constitute a sin, particularly not one that carries such heavy consequences. In aberrant Christian groups, the passage is used to rid the group of “problem,” nonconformist members (who are not sinning) and becomes a means by which clergy can micromanage if not threaten church members. (It is used to manipulate and control behavior.)

Among very litigious groups, the process is used to declare people non-Christian or never legitimate Christians so that they can be at liberty to violate a directive of the Apostle Paul who forbids Christians to sue other Christians, as it is found in a letter he wrote to the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). This practice of threatening to “de-Christianize” other professing Christians is actually common among those who follow patriarchy. This type of abuse of the passage has become popular enough that the saying that a person has been “Matthew Eighteened” has become somewhat commonplace among some Protestant Evangelical groups.
From Debra Bouey at Crossword Articles:
When Biblical apologists comment publicly on . . . aberrant, sometimes heretical, teachings, the principals involved, and their supporters, quickly and repeatedly raise the "Matthew 18 Argument", contending that the "brother" [or, as the case may be, "sister"] should have been approached privately, "according to Matthew 18".
Jesus's words here were not intended and should not be used as a general model for all conflict resolution. . . Matthew 18 instructs the church on how to deal with sin on an interpersonal level that is serious enough to remove an unrepentant member from fellowship. . .  Matthew 18 is not applicable for solving differences of opinion and other kinds of problems. 
From Slacktivist:
99 percent of the time, this is the way this passage is used and abused — as a cudgel to beat truth-tellers back into silence. How dare you expose my wrong-doing? Jesus commanded you to come to me privately, so that we could work this out just between the two of us. . .
From the Biblical Seminary Theology Blog:
Does this passage require that abuse victims forego reporting abuse to the authorities and to make a private confrontation of the perpetrator? Sadly, I have heard stories where not only were victims chastised for reporting abuse, but then made to go to the perpetrator and confess their sin of not following Matthew 18.
From Rachel Held Evans' Interview with Boz Tchividjian:
[T]his passage is used as a justification for 1) not reporting abuse disclosures to the civil authorities and 2) convincing sexual abuse victims to privately confront their perpetrators. Needless to say, this misinterpretation of Matthew 18 is hugely destructive on a number of fronts.
It's very important not to lift verses like Matthew 18:15-17 out of their historical context-- how they were meant to be understood and applied in their original setting, to their original audience. Jesus' words were meant to be understood in terms of a small counter-cultural group within an indifferent or even hostile surrounding culture.  Such a group had a much greater need to police its own members for things which today are crimes which should be handled by civil authorities.  Jesus also was not envisioning a church where power was concentrated in the hands of one or two people who would then be in a position to abuse their authority.  Neither was He setting forth some universal principle for conflict resolution to be applied in a blanket manner to all situations.  As Boz Tchividjian says later in the above-linked interview:
Matthew 18 is important for local church life, because Jesus commands us there how to deal with sin. But it is not the only passage in which Jesus tells us how to deal with sin. It must be properly synthesized with others that address the same subject directly and/or indirectly. It is critical to remember that all passages are regulated and interpreted by the balance of Scripture. . . [For instance,] on Romans 13, Jesus tells us through the Apostle Paul that believers are to be subject to the civil authorities.
I don't think that even in the early days when the civil authorities were mostly hostile, would the church have required a sexual abuse victim to privately confront a perpetrator.  1 Corinthians 5:1 seems to indicate a situation like this, where the man who "had his father's wife" appeared to be held solely responsible and the congregation was instructed to remove him from the fellowship.  Women had far less agency then than they have today in any event-- but there appears to have been no idea in Paul's mind that the woman should follow a Matthew 18 private confrontation.

In the authoritarian, spiritually abusive group I was part of in my earlier Christian life, the problem was not so much crimes that should have been handled by civil authorities, but the fact that confronting a leader with his sin would lead directly to leader-led discipline against the person who dared to complain.  Trying to discuss a wrong privately with an authoritarian leader is impossible-- it will immediately be turned around to be construed as your sin, not his.  As the above Slacktivist quote states, Matthew 18 thus becomes a way to keep the rank-and-file members from speaking out.

And of course, authoritarian leaders often also use Matthew 18 as if simply disagreeing with them-- about anything at all-- were sin.  And then once a person has been excommunicated using the Matthew 18 process, they can be treated as enemies and prosecuted or sued accordingly (as the above Under Much Grace article notes).

Finally, a person who speaks out publicly against spiritually abusive doctrines can be accused of not handling it biblically, by taking the disagreement to the person privately first. This has a way of simply shutting down all discussion.  But Jesus and the apostles themselves were actually quite vocal about publicly refuting doctrines and teachings they disagreed with.  Matthew 18 is not about doctrinal differences.

Other passages show situations which were not "Matthew 18" events.  In Acts 15:39 Paul and Barnabas had a "sharp disagreement" without handling it according to Jesus' Matthew 18 teaching, because His teaching simply did not apply to disagreements about who to travel with!  And when Paul found Peter, a fellow church leader, involved in public hypocrisy, Paul also rebuked him publicly (Galatians 2:11-14).  Paul doesn't seem to have expected any of the Gentiles who were being ostracized at the table, to confront Peter privately.  Jesus' Matthew 18 teachings apparently didn't apply there, either-- possibly because Peter's sin was not harmful enough that he needed to be asked to leave.  Or possibly because Peter's actions were in front of everybody, and so his correction needed to also be in front of everybody.  Or perhaps because Peter was an apostle, and Paul thought it best for another apostle to confront him.  Or all three.

It's never a good idea to isolate one set of verses from the rest of scripture and follow them slavishly as if they were universally applicable in every situation.  Particularly in ways that violate the good which the passage intended, and do harm the passage never contemplated.

In any event, Christians, and especially Christian leaders, need to be careful about using passages of scripture to their own advantage at the expense of others.  This is against every principle that Jesus taught-- and it's what most of His rebukes of the scribes and Pharisees were about.

A Bible used as a weapon against other human beings, is always a Bible misused.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Out This Week - Prayers for Ferguson & Racial Reconciliation

I have been following as closely as I can the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri after an 18-year-old boy named Mike Brown was shot to death by a police officer, even though his hands were raised in surrender, because he was black and the officer was white.

By Their Strange Fruit has details of the situation and important links to more information.  As I white person in a nearly all-white northern U.S. city, I haven't been quite sure what to say, but I find the advice from Janee Woods below very helpful:

Becoming a white ally to black people in the aftermath of the Michael Brown murder
A lot of white people aren’t speaking out publicly against the killing of Michael Brown because they don’t see a space for themselves to engage meaningfully in the conversation so that they can move to action against racism. It’s not so much that they have nothing to say but rather they don’t see an opportunity being opened up for them to say something or to do something that matters. Or they might not be sure what to say or how to do it. They might have a hard time seeing a role for themselves in the fight against racism because they aren’t racist, they don’t feel that racism affects them or their loved ones personally, they worry that talking about race and differences between cultures might make things worse, or they think they rarely see overt racism at play in their everyday lives. And, sometimes, they are afraid. There’s a real fear of saying the wrong thing even if the intention is pure, of being alienated socially and economically from other white people for standing in solidarity with black people, or of putting one’s self in harm’s way, whether the harm be physical or psychological. I’m not saying those aren’t valid fears but I am challenging white people to consider carefully whether failing to speak out or act because of those fears is justified when white silence and inaction mean the oppression and death of black people. 
Let’s talk about an active role for white people in the fight against racism because racism burdens all of us and is destroying our communities.
I am out of town camping with my family this week, and I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said anyway.  But my fervent prayer is that this incident will at last prove to be the turning point that will open the eyes of white people like myself across the country, to make real changes to halt the racism that's still going on in our nation.  I want to echo the apology at Beccyjoy to the family of Michael Brown, to the citizens of Ferguson and to people of color across the nation:
I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’ve had to be so loud to get our attention. I’m sorry that another beautiful boy had to die to make us notice that you are oppressed. I’m sorry that no one is listening. I’m sorry that no one believes your experiences. I’m sorry that this is still happening. I’m sorry for the ignorant, invalidating, and racist comments you’ve had to deal with on top of everything else. I’m sorry that I’ve turned a blind eye to your struggle. I hear you, I believe you, I stand with you for justice. You deserve way better.
I hope that "no one is listening" will change now; that we will listen, and pray, and try to effect change.  As Christina Cleveland says so eloquently:
 Can you see the suffering Christ in the oppressed, even the ones who aren’t responding perfectly to society’s oppression? Christ doesn’t just suffer for the innocent, the ones who don’t have the energy to fight back, or the ones who perfectly respond to injustice. He suffers for the ones who suffer now and sin in their suffering.
I pray that we will see the suffering Christ in the oppressed and stop judging them for not being perfectly patient under oppression we have never experienced ourselves (and thus have no idea how we would handle it).

I ask my readers who are Christians to agree in prayer with these voices:

Accidental Devotional
I began to hear that there was a distinct danger you face every day, if people just assume that you are dangerous because you are black and you are male. And I began to hear the stories of police brutality, of unnecessary aggression, of my sophomore boys being treated like criminals simply because of their bodies. . . 
I began to see that my skin granted me access to pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. I began to see how no one ever starts out aggressively toward me, because I am never seen as a threat. I began to understand that my students, my colleagues, my neighbors were not granted the same access, the same pass. . . 
I am praying the people of this country have softer hearts than mine. I am praying that we are broken over Mike Brown and that brokenness is only a beginning. I am praying we listen when we are told that this is only one of many. I am praying we hear when brown mothers tell us they fear for their babies’ lives. I am praying we do something when our eyes and ears are opened to injustice. I am praying we speak out, we reach out, we educate ourselves. I am praying we care.
Five Minute Friday
Black men have the monopoly on unarmed civilian murder by an officer of the law. It’s a fact. As a Christian, I look to my community to share the burden, the questions surrounding racism in America and how we can move forward. I’m trying to navigate this without being written off as another angry black woman. And I don’t want to be quietly spiritually shunned from all the online communities I love, for saying what you have to already know. 
I don’t have to tell you, do I? – Racism is real. . .
God you are greater, greater…
I sang softly, swaying back and forth wringing my hands. Eyes closed. . .
God wasn't upset with me for being angry. And He hadn’t asked me to be quiet. He took those keys with Holy Spirit force. Sometimes that’s what it takes. 
Please understand. 
Being Christian doesn’t exclude us from the conversation. We have to speak up. To be clear, I understand we aren’t all called to every conversation and maybe you won’t write about it, but standing in solidarity with a hashtag or sharing posts you’ve read that resonate with the spirit of Christ and reconciliation could be a beginning.

Shalom In the City
I can’t do anything tangible with these hands, but raise them high. Lord, we are restless for change and anxious for hope. We are witnesses of injustice. We are the women at the foot of the cross, empower us to stay through the torment so that we can be present to bind up wounds and then—see resurrection. 
I raise my hands to God who out of his great love for his children heard their cries and carved a path towards justice when there seemed to be no way. Make a way in Ferguson, MO, Lord. Make a way and drown the Enemy of your peace in your waves of Justice.
Today, I raise my hands because the truth is Black Lives Matter and black kids don’t have to be college-bound for their deaths to be tragic. I raise my hands for the truth that Jesus identified with the poor, broken, marginalized, and ignored. I raise my hands because Jesus is our Truth and he will make us free.
God bless all of you.  See you next week.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Sola Scriptura"?

"Sola scriptura" is the Protestant doctrine of "scripture alone."  Here is a portion of the definition from
Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian. The Bible is complete, authoritative, and true. . . Sola scriptura was the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. . . The only way to know for sure what God expects of us is to stay true to what we know He has revealed—the Bible. We can know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that Scripture is true, authoritative, and reliable. The same cannot be said of tradition. 
The Word of God is the only authority for the Christian faith. Traditions are valid only when they are based on Scripture and are in full agreement with Scripture. Traditions that contradict the Bible are not of God and are not a valid aspect of the Christian faith. Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible. The essence of sola scriptura is basing your spiritual life on the Bible alone and rejecting any tradition or teaching that is not in full agreement with the Bible.
"Sola scriptura" encapsulates Protestant principles regarding church tradition-- and though historically this has generally referred to Roman Catholic tradition, it can refer to any church tradition. As a Protestant, I support the concept that church traditions-- even Protestant ones!-- should be tested in terms of whether they are supported by Scripture.  But the assumptions underlying this Protestant principle sometimes go completely unexamined, with the result that "sola scriptura" can potentially become a virtually incoherent teaching that is used to support authoritarian and spiritually abusive church practices.

Notice the statement in the quote above: "Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible." The unexamined assumption here is that subjectivity actually can be avoided-- that the Bible provides a method for examining church teachings and practices with a completely objective standard.

The problem is that we read the Bible as finite humans, and though we as Christians trust that God is the source and foundation of objective truth, we are not God and not capable of fully understanding God, nor can we fully step outside our own subjectivity.  The doctrine of sola scriptura sometimes leads us to assume that we can, as N. T. Wright puts it, "read the Bible straight":
There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply na├»ve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying.
 The fact is that "scriptura" by its very nature is a book that people read, so it cannot stand "sola" -- alone and isolated from the humans who read it.  Every time we read the Bible, we are seeing it through the windows of our own experience, and understanding it according to our own reasoning. And this practically always encompasses at least some church tradition regarding how to understand the text.  So sola scriptura, instead of giving us an objective means for judging the legitimacy of church tradition, ends up merely giving us the illusion of objectivity, while we fail to notice or examine the church traditions and other underlying factors which affect the way we understand the Bible texts.

That doesn't mean there's anything necessarily wrong with those traditional readings.  The consensus of a faith community on the meaning of a text is one check-and-balance against wild and erroneous readings that an individual might come up with on their own.  But faith communities are also human, and some traditional readings uphold human bastions of power and/or reflect human prejudices.  Protestantism arose because Christians like Martin Luther began to question and challenge the existing bastions of power-- but Protestantism itself soon adopted its own traditions and power structures.  Sometimes we Protestants fail to understand the extent to which our sola scriptura doctrine is informed by Protestant interpretative traditions.

And then there's this.  When we say, as does, that "Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian," we have to face the fact that "scripture alone" has simply failed to yield one self-evident and incontrovertible meaning for each of its texts.  The reason is, of course, that scripture simply does not stand alone, but must be read and interpreted.  This doesn't mean that each interpretation of scripture is equally valid-- some methods of interpretation are more likely to yield truer results in terms of both the original human and the divine intent.  But always, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we see "through a glass, darkly."  We can't prove the human author's intent and we can't always fully grasp the divine intent.  So our reliance on sola scriptura as the rule for our faith and practice turns out not to actually be reliance on an objective and certain standard.

Ultimately, we have to rely on the Spirit of God to "guide us into all truth (John 16:13)."  But though Jesus said, "Your word is truth (John 17:17)," He also said earlier in the same passage that He is the truth (John 14:6)-- and we know from John 1:1 that He is also the word!  As I have said in another post, God seems to place much more priority on our trusting Him than on whether we are right about what a given passage of scripture means.  I don't get the impression that the Holy Spirit is particularly threatened by how many different understandings of Bible passages there are.  The truth He guides us into is apparently something much bigger than being right about what this or that scripture says.

The real problem comes when a particular church group uses sola scriptura to uphold their particular reading of the Bible as if that reading and the divine intent were one and the same. Protestant churches that do this are actually setting themselves up as a new magisterium with the power to dictate to their members how to believe and practice.  "Sola scriptura" can come to mean, "Disregard your own experience and reason, and ignore your gut instincts about right and wrong-- they are not to be trusted.  Only the Bible (and by that we actually mean 'what we have decided the Bible says') is to be trusted."  Claiming that the scripture is "clear" and that anyone who questions it is rebelling against God, they actually raise themselves up to the place of God in the lives of their followers.

I believe we do need to take the Bible very seriously and to do our best to understand it the way God would have us understand it.  But we need to do this with humility and with the knowledge that the center of Christianity is the Person of Christ-- that the Bible points us to Him, not the other way around.

"Sola scriptura" without that understanding is simply bibliolatry-- idolatry of the Bible. And it's dangerous.