Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why I Can't Go to Christian Conferences

Canadian author and Christian blogger Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this week a piece called In Which I Have All the Feelings About Conferences.  Here are some of the things she said:
Conferences are the new church planting phenomenon: everyone wants to do it. Everyone thinks theirs is different. Everyone thinks they’ll be the real voice of Jesus or the one to reach their generation. We’ve got a niche for you! conferences for everyone! you get a conference! and you get a conference! and you get a conference! but part of me doesn’t like conferences – not as a model, not as an experience, let alone as a method for real and lasting change. 
The real transformations of my life didn’t come about at a conference or on a mountain top; the real transformations in my spirit and my character and my life were born and tended and raised in the daily mundane habits and faithfulness of my life.

I see conferences as entertainment and mass commodification of the Gospel. Some of them smell like a machine, like a big hairy complex business to me, and so I am suspicious. Probably it’s in my nature to be suspicious, after all I’m a Gen-Xer and a western Canadian. I guess my bullshit detector is set at a bit too high of a setting. I am wary of Group Think and emotional manipulation and spiritual manipulation because I’ve experienced – and committed the sin of – them all. We know how these things work once we’ve been on the inside, it isn’t rocket science. I have seen behind the curtain. What’s the line between hope and hubris?
But here’s the rub: I still like conferences.
I do. 
I love the big hairy worship events. I can shout down a preacher for preaching good. I love to take careful notes and cry at the altar and dance in the aisles. I love the bonding experiences of conferences, the friendships I make, the networking connections. I love it. I get it.
I worry that conferences are fracturing the Body of Christ. That they are making us go from experience to experience, stadium to stadium, round table to panel, think tank to gathering, instead of burrowing down into our real lives. 
I worry that they isolate us from our communities because we have these big gigantic teachings that blow our minds and set our hairs on fire, but we have no one to actually live it out with and so we end up feeling like failures or like “no one gets it” and we vacillate between failure and pride. 
The average conference ticket costs between $100-500 but factor in airfare, hotels, food, and you’re looking at nearly $2,000 sometimes.
Now we’re down to the brass tacks: I don’t go to conferences because I cannot afford to go to conferences.
I’m baffled at the sheer number of people who go to conferences, seemingly endless Jesus camps with meet-ups for old friends, and I think who are you people? There must be a lot of money in the world. I guess these things aren’t for people like me. By their nature, they are exclusive, and we’re there because we’re people of privilege.
I get all of this. Everything she said resonates with me-- the love and the suspicion and the worry and the bafflement. I used to feel all these things when I went to conferences. But when I viewed her post, and now as I sit down to write this, tears are gathering at the back of my throat and I'm much more upset than I thought I was going to be. But I'm still going to talk about this because I need to say it. And maybe, maybe it will heal some old sore spots that it turns out are still much sorer and more painful than I thought they would be after all this time.

I can't go to Christian conferences anymore.

I haven't gone to a conference since I was in my twenties-- and I'm turning 50 in a month. Every year my sweet friend who is the leader of the women's ministries in my church sends out a mass invitation to the Jubilee Women's Conference. It's a local conference that costs just $35 and is held right in my own church's sanctuary-- so it really isn't exclusive or just for people of privilege, and somehow I doubt if it's a big complex business machine full of emotional and spiritual manipulation. The webpage for the conference doesn't even mention any glitzy worship band or high-powered team of speakers-- just a local author sharing from her book. This conference seems to avoid all or most of the things that made "Christian conference" into such a negative thing in my mind and heart.

And yet I still can't bring myself to go.

When I was in Maranatha Campus Ministries in my college years and after, every year there was MWLC - the "Maranatha World Leadership Conference." Held in a large city-- usually Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas-- it gathered together all of the members of Maranatha from churches all over the United States and Canada, as well as many from Australia and other church plants overseas. It constituted three days of famous speakers, world-class worship bands, dance teams, light and sound and glory. There were individual classes in the daytime and stadium events in the evening, and people who had moved across the country to start new Maranatha churches would reconnect with their old friends and get a chance to hear Bob Weiner and Joe Smith in person.

Attendance was mandatory.

That's right-- mandatory. Most church members were either in college or married with young children, and yet we were all required to "step out in faith" to raise the money to attend. We were supposed to ask our parents, our aunts and uncles, or our (hopefully) rich grandparents; we were supposed to contact local businessmen and request donations; to participate in car washes, bake sales and other fund-raising events.

It was hard.

What was especially hard that first year is that the young church I attended was brand-new in the city of Eugene, Oregon, and was finding it hard going just to pay for the huge house we were renting (formerly a fraternity house), even with most of us living in the house and paying rent. The car washes and bake sales that were supposed to help members pay for the conference were actually going towards house utilities. And it was 1982, right in the middle of a terrible recession that kept many of us from finding summer jobs.

I tried everything. My parents wouldn't help pay for it and wanted me to find a job. And I tried; I really did, but without success. We were new to the area and I didn't know any businessmen I could ask. I remember in desperation trying to sell my old flute to at least be able to pay the registration fee. The most anyone would offer me was $35, and I needed $100. I was near despair. Most of the other church members had found some way to attend, but I was getting nowhere.

At last the church leaders told me they were giving me permission to miss the conference. They knew my heart was in the right place, they told me, because I had done all I could to try to go, but maybe for some reason it wasn't God's will for me that year.

I knew what they were thinking, though. The problem was my faith. I didn't have enough faith to move mountains, and so God could not or would not bless me. Maybe, I thought in my heart of hearts, God just isn't pleased with me. Maybe God doesn't think I'm a good enough disciple.

So I watched tearfully as everyone else went to the airport, and I stayed behind.

The rejection I'd faced from prospective employers all summer was intensified by what felt like God's abandonment, as I missed what everyone later told me was a fantastic time in the Holy Spirit, a life-changing encounter with God and destiny.

The next year I did manage to get a summer job. My parents had wanted me to put the money I earned towards my living expenses that summer, so they could have a break from supporting me (they paid my way through all four years of college, bless them!), but when they saw how desperately I wanted to go to MWLC, they said I could use the money for that. Excitedly I contacted a travel agent and bought plane tickets, sent in the check for my registration, and when the time came, boarded the plane with my friends and pastors.

And I had a good time. Really, I did.

But. . . .

Well, there was the speaker who used his one-hour slot to give the entire stadium a tongue-lashing about our lax spirituality and our selfishness.

Then there were the intense, hyped-up testimonies about the mission field and how important it was that everyone go on at least one short-term mission during their lifetime-- no exceptions. We were all told to bow our heads in prayer, then take out a card and write down on it what nation we felt God calling us to.

I felt like God was saying, "The United States."

All I could feel was intense gratitude that we weren't required to put our names on the cards and turn them in.

It is true that when the lights were playing over the stadium and the music was rushing, and everyone was shouting and dancing and crying and praying, I felt the presence of God very strongly. I will never forget the emotional and spiritual high.

But then when it was over, it all felt sort of fake and hollow. Was that God's presence I had felt, or merely the frenzy we'd all been whipped into by the speakers and the band?

I think now that it was probably both. I know what God's presence feels like when I'm not emotionally hyped up at all, and I'm sure it's real. But the hype and emotionalism actually made it seem less real.

But the worst thing was the feeling that somehow we weren't just adoring God, but the keynote speakers and the Maranatha leaders and the worship-team stars. It was a celebrity event, and I was sure those people up there were spiritually above the rest of us down in the seats. They were on a higher plane where God's favor and blessing rested on them in ways I would never experience.

Deep down I resented them for being closer to God than I could ever hope to be.

And I felt guilty for it.

The conference came to an end, and we all went home, and somehow the grand and glorious things we knew we would do when we got home, never quite materialized. Our hyped-up faith that can move mountains returned to the normal, gritty faith that finds a way to do the chores, attend the prayer meetings and hand out flyers for the next local meeting while trying to complete two 20-page lit papers and study for three midterms.

There was another conference the next year. And the one after that. And I managed to go to one of them, but the next year I had just graduated from college and needed to get a job, and that was the year the Eugene Maranatha church merged with the Maranatha church in the next town, and somehow no one was requiring us to step out in faith to go that year.

I think, all in all, I went to three MWLC's. The leaders eventually stopped holding them every year, and then finally the entire ministry dissolved, and the local churches were left on their own to sink or swim. Ours swam, but it became a kinder, gentler fellowship, and in the end my family and I left it without acrimony on either side, and we joined the kind, gentle church we attend now.

Where, every year, I get invited to a local women's conference that I can't bring myself to attend.

Too much baggage. Even the thought of paying a registration fee I know I can afford, brings back the old feelings of being coerced and not measuring up.

Even the thought of spending a couple of days with a group of women I enjoy, listening to a calm speaker and (probably) the regular church music group, brings back old feelings of confusion and resentment and guilt, and of being asked to give out of myself beyond what felt comfortable or even safe.

I guess what it boils down to is that those old conferences equate in my mind with a vast array of personal boundary violations that I can't even quite articulate.

So I'm staying home. And I'm writing this, about my love-hate relationship with Christian conferences, which is about confused love and guilty hate, from a past I still have not managed to lay to rest. I think writing this actually has helped a little. . .

I'm glad that people today go to conferences and are blessed by them. I really am.

But until further notice, count me out.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The "Jezebel Spirit" Teaching: Priming Churches for Spiritual Abuse

It's a story my husband Jeff likes to tell from before we were married.

We were both members of a coercive Christian group of "charismatic" persuasion-- meaning that the group believed in supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Like most charismatic groups, our church believed that Christians and churches could be harassed by, or even come under the power of, demonic spirits. We believed God had called us to "rebuke" such spirits in the name of Jesus and drive them out of our lives and the lives of others.

One evening Jeff was sitting in the living room of the apartment he shared with his roommate (I'll call him Mike). Mike's best friend (let's say his name was Dave) was visiting, as he often did.  The evening news came on.

Dave stared for a minute at the female news anchor, who was speaking in an assertive, confident voice.  He raised his hand in a karate-chop motion and shook it at the screen.  "I rebuke that Jezebel spirit in the name of Jesus!" he said.  Mike nodded agreement.

My future husband stopped himself from rolling his eyes.  "Why are you doing that?" he asked.

"Look at her!" Dave said.  "She's controlling and bossy.  She thinks she can take over a man's role.  She's got a Jezebel spirit!"

Jeff sighed, but didn't try to argue. There wasn't really any point.  Mike and Dave's ideas were right in line with our church's teachings.  Jeff's disagreement would only be looked at askance.  But even then he didn't see that simply doing a news anchor's job while female indicated the presence of a "Jezebel spirit."

Jeff and I left the charismatic movement when we left our Maranatha Campus Ministries church, some years after we were married.  I have nothing against the charismatic movement in general; I think their emphasis on real-life experience of the divine is a valuable and needed part of Christianity as a whole.  But even some charismatics have problems with belief in the existence of a "Jezebel spirit." As my online friend and respected colleague "TL" at SpoudazO Logos says,
It is unfortunate that there are those who have added to Scripture to claim that an evil woman of the Old Testament is now a female demon going about influencing mostly women to be like her in Christian churches. There is no biblical ‘spirit of jezebel’. What there is, is a real woman who lived and died. . . Her spirit does not roam the earth in the form of a demon and influence people.
Unfortunately, as far as online charismatic voices are concerned, TL is definitely in the minority. Googling "Jezebel Spirit" yields multiple websites dedicated to describing the supposed Jezebel spirit and giving points on how to fight it. There are also a number of books specifically about the Jezebel spirit: Iowa pastor Francis Frangipane wrote one simply named The Jezebel Spirit in 2001. Author John Paul Jackson put out a similar title in 2002. Florida minister named Jonas Clark has a website containing several pages devoted to stopping this evil spirit-- he even offers a CD learning course which will cost you $150 to break free from being Jezebel's eunuch. I even found a sales guide listing 10 or 20 titles on defeating this supposed "controlling" spirit and its corollary, the "passive" Ahab spirit.

There is even a website dedicated to information about this spirit:  To be fair, they may not subscribe to the idea that the Jezebel spirit is actually the same being as the woman Jezebel who was married to Ahab, king of Israel, as described in 1 Kings 16 through 2 Kings 9.  The way I understood the "spirit of Jezebel" when I was in Maranatha was that this was an evil spirit that possessed both Queen Jezebel and another woman called by the same name in Revelation 2:20-23, and which still influences women to manipulate, seduce and control men.

But what I found later, in the years when I went back to everything I had been taught as a Christian and searched the Bible in a reassessment of my beliefs, was that there is actually no biblical support for believing in a "Jezebel spirit" at all-- whether as the spirit of a woman in history which has become a female demon, or as a demonic spirit which possessed that woman and is still active today.  Neither the 1st - 2nd Kings stories, or the Revelation passage, say anything whatsoever about a demonic spirit.  Rather, the Kings passages describe the real activities of a real woman, and the Revelation passage uses the symbolic name "Jezebel" to refer to a woman whom the writer considered to be committing similar sins to those of the original Jezebel.

Charismatics are taught to test everything -- every experience, every teaching, every doctrine-- against the Scriptures, which are the check and balance to keep their emphasis on the supernatural and on spiritual experience from leading them away from orthodoxy.  I remember how carefully this was pressed on us when I was in Maranatha.  But the teaching on the spirit of Jezebel turned out to be only one of many areas where I found, on re-examination, that the Bible actually didn't say anything like what I'd been taught in Maranatha.

So why am I bringing this up now?

Because it appears to me that the teachings about the Jezebel spirit are continuing to escalate even past the beliefs I once had about it, to the point where Charisma News columnist Jennifer Leclaire says there is a "spiritual warfare culture" where this spirit has "rock star status" (Leclaire actually believes in these spirits herself, though she is one of the voices cautioning common sense and restraint.) This article considers the Jezebel spirit to be the primary spirit that attacks churches and church leaders in an attempt to control and take over, while a lesser "Absalom spirit" acts as a sort of chief lieutenant.

The spirit of Jezebel is called "a spirit of witchcraft."  This is fitting because this entire set of spiritual warfare teachings is teetering on the edge of a witch hunt.

And, as most witch hunts do, it is primed to target primarily women.

Looking more closely at the article linked above, here is how the Jezebel spirit is defined:
Jezebel is not just a principality or power. It is a stronghold of the second highest classification of demons listed in Ephesians Chapter 6. It is a “ruler of the darkness of this world” holed up in a strong and unbroken woman. . . Jezebel exists to undermine the authority and anointing of the man of God. 
No scriptural authority is given for the existence of the Jezebel spirit or for linking it with the "principalities and powers" described in Ephesians 6.  But though the article gives the following caveats:
All strong females are NOT Jezebels . . . All of the above is NOT to say that women should not be in positions of authority and influence in the local church. Priscilla is always mentioned alongside her husband Aquilla in the New Testament and appears to be the primary pastoral figure between the two,
it goes on to say:
Jezebel is a woman with issues in her heart concerning male authority. She has probably been wounded by a male authority figure(s) in her past, and hasn’t allowed God to heal those inner wounds. A Jezebel is often a woman who has great disrespect for her father, either because he abused her, ignored her, or because he spoiled her by never confronting her immaturities as a child, and who let her run over him. Regardless of the why, she has nursed a deep disrespect for manhood inside her heart. . .

Sometimes a Jezebel is a Jezebel because, by default, she had no example but her mother… who was a Jezebel herself… in the home.  Men ought to wear the pants in their marriages. Some have a quieter personality than the wife, but they should still assert themselves enough to clearly demarcate who is the head of the family unit. . .

A foolish woman will just take over the husband’s role because she senses he is unsure of himself and she has the stronger personality. But this is unscriptural!
This is very much in line with standard charismatic doctrine, which (unlike in most other evangelical groups) allows women to have authority in the church, but which (as in most other evangelical groups) maintains that the man has "headship" over the wife in the marriage and the home.  But notice what has happened here.  Though women are granted leadership positions in the church, if a woman is perceived in any way as "having issues concerning male authority," the next logical step is to conclude that she has a Jezebel spirit "holed up inside her."  It may be that it is not she who has issues with a man or men in authority in the church, but the male authority who has issues with her.  No matter. By default, suspicion rests on the woman, while any issues that the man or men might have are easily overlooked.

It may be that problems in this hypothetical woman's marriage are due to an overbearing husband who disrespects and belittles her, and she feels the need to resist him.  No matter.  If she has "a problem with male authority" or asserts herself so that she is perceived as not letting him "wear the pants," she is suspected of having a Jezebel spirit.  And this is where the demarcation of this supposed evil spirit as "a stronghold of the second highest classification" becomes deadly.  Here is how the church is advised to deal with a Jezebel spirit:
There can be no d├ętente with Jezebel.
Jezebel has to be dealt with.
Jezebel does not have it within herself to change.
Jezebel will strike again.
Jezebel must be run off.

[Emphasis added.]
Once a group of church leaders decides a woman has a Jezebel spirit, there is no appeal.  There is no argument.  And there is no mercy.

Many of these websites do say that it's possible for a man also to have a Jezebel spirit.  This, of course, simply subjects men to the same Catch-22 situation that church women may find themselves in.  But the deck is already stacked for women to be far more easily and frequently colored with the Jezebel spirit brush (sadly apropos, I suppose, since the woman Jezebel in the Bible is known for "painting her face!").  A man who challenges authority may simply be considered forceful.  A woman who does so is much more likely to be viewed as under the influence or possession of a demon of Satan's first echelon.

This is even more clear when viewing the website.  On its Introduction page it equates the Jezebel spirit with what psychologists call "narcissistic personality disorder":
The worldly term for the spirit of Jezebel is ‘malignant narcissism’ for which there is no cure. Some traits of narcissism include: excessive self-love; firm conviction that he or she is better, smarter, or more talented than other people; becomes irritated when other people don’t automatically do what he or she wants them to do; thinks most criticisms of him or her are motivated by jealousy; regards anything short of worship to be rejection; often complains of being mistreated or misunderstood; has fantasies of doing something great or being famous, and often expects to be treated as if these fantasies had already come true.
On this page the same basic idea is reiterated:
Those who are "infected" with the Jezebel Spirit are evil, and practice evil. Their character traits are well described and categorized in the secular world who classify these people as Narcissists or Psychopaths for whom there is no healing treatment or cure. [Emphasis in original]
Based on this, the website then warns:
When it comes to Jezebel, you can forget about praying for her to come to truth and repentance. You will be wasting your precious time. Also, you must never sympathize with her. You must be 100% against her, and stop having hopes for her recovery and well-being! She is not your sister or brother in the Lord. She is living in the strength of demonic soul power, absolutely sold out to doing evil, and completely out of the will of God and obedience to God. She is her own master, and ultimately she serves Satan. Yes, you are dealing with a human being behind the Jezebel spirit, but don’t be weak. This is a pure spiritual battle. You might ask: “Isn’t she just a poor deceived person herself?” Yes, she is deceived, but don’t you also be deceived to have any weakness for this person. If you love the person, cut soul ties immediately, and surrender her completely to God, for Him to determine her destiny. Remember again the book of Revelation where God gives her time to repent, but she refuses to do so. Do not try to save her, or you will go down with her. You need to alienate yourself completely, and have no patience and tolerance for her actions.
All these seemingly controversial points for a typical Christian mindset need to be dealt with before you are ready to fight Jezebel. Anything less than these attitudes will cause you to doubt, and fall prey to her. [Emphasis in original] 
Though there is truth in the idea that a person with narcissistic personality disorder cannot be trusted, and that churches should be aware of this disorder, recognize the traits and warning signs, and not let such a person destroy their congregations, the equation of this disorder with the Jezebel spirit is dangerous.  Narcissistic personality disorder is in fact quite rare.  False identification of church members as having this disorder and then shunning them as pure evil, is a real possibility.  This is particularly true since readers are encouraged to see the influence of the Jezebel spirit everywhere:
The Spirit of Jezebel is a dominating factor over the entire earth today. Jezebel hovers over the Television and Film Industry, causing most TV shows to portray a demonic, twisted, and perverted outlook on life. It cleverly teaches people to strive for material wealth, monetary success, and anything that has to do with instant gratification. . . The Jezebel Spirit is found in the church. Spirits like jealously, controlling submit-to-me pastoring, greed, possessive leadership, erroneous doctrine, focus on outward appearance, and self-promoting ambition all derive from the Spirit of Jezebel. . . The Spirit of Jezebel manifests in politics through narcissistic leadership, officials who love power and choose to steer a nation away from God through immoral legislation. The media is full of corruption, greed, desire for power, hunger for approval and attention, lies and deception, overindulgence, and money-hunger.
And then, even though none of these things are exclusive or even primarily found in women-- even though recognized medical websites like the Mayo Clinic state that narcissistic personality disorder affects more men than women, equates the Jezebel spirit almost exclusively with women:
The reason we believe the Jezebel spirit only pertains to women is because of the fact that men have been given natural authority from God, it’s not something they would need to fight to get, they already have it! Women, on the other hand, have not been given that same authority, and they would need tools to try to take that position of leadership that the man has. This is where the Jezebel spirit comes in. A demon will come to a woman presenting different tools she can use to regain power over the man. These tools are, among many others: manipulation, control, domination and seduction. For a wounded or scorned woman, these tools come as a temptation she cannot resist, and she grabs them, and starts using them. This is the moment she opens the door to become possessed by the demonic spirit that promises to provide her with everything she needs to accomplish her goal. She may or may not even be aware of what a devastating spirit she has just welcomed into her life. . .

At the other hand, when a man seems to be using some of the same tools as the Jezebel woman does, it is usually not a Jezebel spirit, but a power hungry spirit that comes from being an extremely wounded individual who has most likely been abused in one way or another, and need to control and manipulate his circumstances out of fear of being hurt again.
It is interesting how the website equates "controlling, submit-to-me pastorship" with the Jezebel spirit-- even though even in charismatic churches which allow women some church leadership, the pastorate is still overwhelmingly male! -- and then says that a man who acts like this probably has only a "power hungry spirit" that comes from being hurt and abused (the name seems to indicate that this is a spirit much lower on the totem pole and thus less dangerous than the Jezebel one).  The stage is set for men in the church to be treated with far more sympathy and less fear, even if the men are controlling or manipulative.

The website also uses the threat of the Jezebel spirit to keep women in a subordinate place within marriage:
One of the saddest things is the Jezebel Spirit's influence in Christian and non-Christian marriages, and the lack of understanding and effective arrest of these issues when they appear. . . Even if the woman possessed by the Jezebel Spirit is married, it will never be a marriage where she will acknowledge her God-given role in the marriage. She will have an attitude of wanting to be equal to the man in all matters — even try to prove to be a better leader than the husband. 
One of the main purposes of this evil spirit of Jezebel is to have the wives in the marriage take over the spiritual headship from their husbands, teaching and controlling them, and in doing so, reversing God’s order for marriage. Unless the husband fights his wife for supremacy, he will ultimately end up assuming the second place in the marriage.
Thus a marriage in which the man and woman desire to share authority equally is turned into a demonically influenced marriage controlled by the spirit of Jezebel.

So what we have here, in terms of spiritual abuse, is the makings of a perfect storm.

Here are some of's primary identifying marks of a person under the Jezebel spirit:
- Believes [themselves] to be right. Wants to win. Will argue till you drop.
- Has a blame/guilt mindset: Everything comes down to who is right and who is wrong.
- Is unwilling to compromise on priorities: Everything has to go the way they have planned it.
- Is strongly defensive when approached for criticism and correction, even guidance.
When ordinary human traits such as defensiveness under accusation become markers of demonic activity, it becomes impossible for an ordinary church member to deny she has one of these spirits, as denial would be perceived as one of the demon's tactics.  Accusation and conviction can easily become the same thing. And the worst thing is that it becomes easy to declare that simple disagreement that there is such a thing as a Jezebel spirit, is actually evidence of being under the influence of the Jezebel spirit.  This makes it impossible to engage in any sort of rational conversation about the factuality or even the scripturality of these claims.

Even when my husband and I were young charismatic Christians, the criteria for identifying a Jezebel spirit were vague and self-contradictory.  This is why a young man in Maranatha, years ago, could blithely decide that a woman he saw on television was possessed by a Jezebel spirit, simply because she sat at a desk where he was used to seeing a man sit, and spoke in a way he was used to hearing a man speak.

But now things have progressed even beyond that.  And it's far too late to nip this teaching in the bud; it came to full flower with the advent of the Internet and is now spreading its pollen on the wind.

My fellow Christians, my charismatic brothers and sisters, please: this sort of thing has to stop.  For the sake of innocent Christian women who sit beside you in church, combat this teaching!  Examine the passages in 1st and 2nd Kings and Revelation for yourselves, and search for any indication that they are talking about an evil spirit ranking first in Satan's army.  Examine the spiritual warfare passages such as Ephesians 6, and see if they give any warning of a Jezebel spirit, or of any spirit to beware of in one of the sexes over the other.

You won't find it.

It's extremely likely that even now, Christian women who do not have narcissistic personality disorder are being accused of having this spirit and are being disciplined or shunned by their churches, with no possibility of self-defense, simply because they have strong personalities or serious goals outside the home. A tendency to bossiness is sometimes a weakness of the stronger personality types, and though it's a flaw in both sexes, it should not be mistaken for demonic influence when exhibited by a woman.

This is not what the family of God should be involved in. Ephesians 3:10 says that the wisdom of God made known through the church is "manifold" -- meaning multi-faceted, varied and diverse. Christians, male and female alike, have a variety of personality types, gifts and talents.  Let's celebrate them and not be afraid of them just because they don't fit gender stereotypes.

We can be careful of the possibility of mental disorders within our midst without setting ourselves up for witch hunts.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Farewell NIV"?

Note: This post was originally written for the Bible Literature Translation ("BLT") blog, where I am one of the authors.  

Not long ago a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article at The Cripplegate called "Farewell NIV". My friend expressed her regret that the NIV (New International Version) of the Bible was gone and said she would miss it. I was surprised. The NIV was out in an updated version, I knew, but it hadn't gone anywhere.

Jesse Johnson, author of the Cripplegate article, puts it this way:
A brief history of the NIV: Translated in 1984, it quickly became one of the most popular versions, especially in schools. Then in 2002 Zondervan released an update (TNIV), which went over as well as New Coke, and the beloved NIV was resurrected. This time Zondervan learned from their errors, and released an update that they called the NIV2011, and for one year they sold both it and the NIV. But with a name like NIV2011, shelf-life was obviously not in view, and last year they simply dropped the old and beloved NIV, and then shrewdly dropped the “2011” from the updated one. In short, they pulled a switcheroo. What you see on shelves today is the new version which is sold and marketed as the NIV.
It just seems to me that there' something disingenuous about claiming Zondervan has pulled some kind of a switch. Isn't it a normal Bible-publishing thing to do, to release a new version which is then called by the same name as the earlier version, and to then discontinue the older one? After all, unlike the TNIV, the NIV 2011 was never given a different name than the 1984 NIV; the publishing dates were only used to distinguish the two. As far as I can see, it was reasonable of Zondervan to replace the 1984 NIV with an updated version. There are folks who claim the only true Bible is the 1611 King James Version, but that doesn't mean the publishers of the KJV were pulling a switch when they released versions after 1611 and still called them the King James Version.

Why would someone (instead of simply saying they have decided to switch from the NIV to another version) say, as Johnson says in his opening sentence, "The NIV Bible is no more"?

Johnson gives two main reasons why he will not use the new version of the NIV. The first is "the gender issues." He says it's fine with him if the NIV uses plural pronouns and other ways of rendering some of the language gender-neutral, but
many passages have masculine pronouns that possibly have messianic implications. For example Psalm 1:1 in the classic NIV vs. the New NIV: “blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” vs. “blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked.” Is there possibly an allusion to the Messiah that has been obscured with the gender neutral pronoun?
The other reason Johnson gives is theological:
that they allow their understanding of “overall theology” to affect how they render verses. When I got my first copy of the new NIV, I sat down and spent almost the whole day reading it (one of the reasons I love being a pastor). I saw things I liked and didn’t like, but then I got to 2 Cor 5:17. The new NIV says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” I am not as troubled by the way they rendered that verse as I am by the reasoning they gave for how they did it. . . It sounds like they are saying that their understanding of Paul’s “overall theology” (which in their view reads like some sort of post-millenialism) justifies moving away from a verse that is often memorized and turned to as a clear declaration of the radical nature of an individual’s salvation. In other words, they take a verse about how cool it is to get saved, and change it to what reads like post-mil who-ha.
If Johnson wants to see a possible reference to the Messiah in Psalm 1:1, that's his preference, but I don't think it's actually there in that particular text, and I'm not sure why he should expect the translators to support his interpretive preference. In any event, there really isn't any reason why "the one" cannot be a Messianic reference simply because it isn't specifically masculine. What was most important about Jesus, His humanity or His maleness? If it was His maleness, then all of us who are female are partially disenfranchised from Christ. We may be saved by our male Savior, but we can't identify with Him or be His representatives to the world. This is essentially a Roman Catholic viewpoint, and I'm not sure why as a Protestant, Johnson wants to adopt it.

As for "he is a new creation" being turned into "the new creation has come" in 2 Cor. 5:17, the fact is that in the original Greek there is no "he is"-- as this online interlinear of 2 Corinthians 5 shows. The passage does appear to read, when looked at in the interlinear, as though the person who is "in Christ" is an example of the new creation-- not that the person, individually, is a new creation. In other words, I don't think this passage is about individual salvation alone; it's about all the "old things" passing away and the new coming. Why that concept should be interpreted specifically as post-millennialism, I am really unsure. Surely the new creation can be both coming and have begun to come-- "already but not yet," I've heard it said-- without necessarily meaning we are in the millennial age spoken of in the book of Revelation?

I just don't think this 2011 NIV is doing the things Johnson says it's doing to cancel out his favorite doctrines. So I disagree with his beefs as he presents them. Further, I simply cannot see that any of these are justifications to tell everyone that the NIV as a translation has ceased to exist.

I actually like the NIV in its current update, and since there are two old versions and two new versions in my house, I'm certain the NIV is still here. I am also quite aware that the real reason many evangelicals are against the new NIV is not because of missed Messianic references or new-creation language choices. The real reason is set forth in the Southern Baptist Convention's June 2011 Resolution:
Southern Baptists repeatedly have . . . urged every Bible publisher and translation group to resist “gender-neutral” translation of Scripture.
My understanding of "gender-neutral " is that wherever the translators believed a word in the original text could refer to either or both sexes, the new NIV uses English that can refer to either or both sexes. The reason for this is that though in the English of past generations, masculine words and pronouns were often read as including both genders, this is no longer the case with today's English. As BLT's Suzanne McCarthy said in her blog Suzanne's Bookshelf back in June of 2011:
However, today, readers are no longer able to understand that the English pronoun "he" is generic and often occurs in English where there is no pronoun at all in Greek.
She cited how 1 Timothy 5:8 is often read nowadays as an admonishment to men to provide for their families, even though the context of this verse includes women taking care of their widowed mothers-- but because the word "man" is used in the translation, even Bible scholars apparently tend to read it as referring to men only.

The really interesting thing is that, based on a detailed study I was invited to do by J.K. Gayle of BLT, back when he was blogging at Aristotle's Feminist Subject, the Southern Baptist Convention's own favored Bible versions actually use gender-neutral language in multiple places where the NIV 1984 used male-gendered language. As we looked at the translation changes together, it became clear to both of us that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) doesn't truly object in general to changes from male-gendered language to gender-neutral language-- because its official version, the HCSB, and its highly recommended version, the ESV, both frequently use gender-neutral language where the 1984 NIV did not. The only place where the SBC consistently objects to the NIV 2011's use of gender-neutral terms is when the translation might have a bearing on women in leadership.

Here's what I think is really going on:

As I said, English usage has changed in recent years such that masculine constructions are no longer considered gender-inclusive. This change largely came about to address women's concerns about the way English held up maleness as the norm or default, while the language treated femaleness as an exception or deviation from that norm. But the result of changing the way we speak to include women specifically, is (as Suzanne pointed out) that the masculine forms are now largely understood as referring only to men.

Thus, holding onto masculine construction in the Bible wherever a passage might impact male-female relations, is a way to control the way people read the Bible. Who gets to decide when a particular usage of "man," "he" or "brothers" is gender-inclusive and when it means men only? The church leaders do. 

This enables these leaders to take advantage of the modern usage change whenever it suits them. Most people-- especially younger people-- don't automatically understand "humans" where a passage says "men" anymore, or "Christians" when a passage says "brothers"-- so when the Bible says "men" or "brothers," readers are going to read it as male-only, unless the leaders tell them it's gender-inclusive in a particular instance. And passages that say "brothers" are often only read as gender-inclusive when the passage is talking about salvation. Everything else is to be read as meaning "only male Christians." I came up against this a while back in a discussion where I was told that in 1 Corinthians 14:26, it was only male "brothers" who could come to a church assembly with "a psalm, a teaching, a revelation," etc.-- while a few verses later in 1 Corinthians 15:1, Paul was now speaking to both men and women when he said, "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel."

It is interesting in light of this to note that in my observation, it's often older church members-- people over 55 or so-- who are more tolerant of women having more freedom and equality in the church. I think they're used to reading the masculine forms gender-inclusively-- they've been doing it all their lives-- and therefore are more resistant to insistence that "'brothers' means 'men only' unless we leaders tell you otherwise."

Anyway, this may have something to do with why Jesse Johnson over at The Cripplegate has not just personally decided to switch Bible versions, but is writing to persuade the blog's readership not to move from the 1984 NIV to the NIV 2011, by publicly bidding "farewell" to the NIV and claiming that it "is no more." This is especially likely because at least one article over at The Cripplegate establishes it as firmly in the male-only leadership camp.

I may be wrong, and this may just be about Messianic references and eschatology-- but it's really hard for me to imagine that those alone, as presented, would be reasons to not just stop reading the NIV, but to sign its death certificate and attempt to bury it.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Christian Cliches - "Die to Self"

"Die to self" is such a commonly used Christian phrase that most people never question where it came from.  But "die to self," as a phrase, isn't actually in the Bible.  When Jesus was teaching along these lines, he never used those three words in that order.  Here's one of the things He actually did say:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Matt. 16:24-16
This teaching is in the context of Jesus asking His disciples who they thought He was, upon which Peter said He was the Christ.  Jesus then told His disciples that He was going to Jerusalem, where He would be crucified.  In the parallel passage in Mark 8:35, "whoever loses his life for me will find it" is rendered "whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it [emphasis added]." He was asking them to have the same mindset as He had in taking up His cross-- willingness to give up their own reputations and lives for Him, just as He was giving up His life and reputation for the gospel that He preached.  That gospel, according to Matthew 4:17 and Luke 4:18, was that the promises of the coming of the Messiah were fulfilled in Him, and that He had come to bring God's kingdom on earth.

In John 12:23-24 Jesus used similar words about life and death as He rode into Jerusalem the week before His death:
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The ideas of self-denial and losing one's life (or dying) are all present in these teachings.  But none of the passages actually, literally say "die to self."  "Die to self" can be considered instead a reworking of Christ's teachings into a sort of shorthand or slogan.  But slogans have a way of being somewhat less than accurate.  Does it accurately bring across the meaning that He saw fit to convey in several sentences, to reduce it to just three words?

These passages use the words "deny" and "self" together.  They also use the words "die" and "life" together.  What they do not do is use the words "die" and "self" together.  You see, when we "deny ourselves" we are simply making a decision to give up something we want.  But when we "die" we are letting go of something-- and that thing we are to let go of, Jesus says, is not our "selves," but our "lives."  Jesus was talking about having an attitude of willingness to sacrifice, of considering Him and His kingdom worth more than our own lives, of turning our plans and dreams over to Christ.  He was not talking about obliterating our very selves.

The difference is subtle, but I think it's important.  To deny the self still leaves the self intact.  To lose one's life is not the same thing as losing one's self.  What is getting lost in "die to self" is the idea that the individual human being, created in the image of God, has an identity that should be preserved.  When Jesus took up His cross, He did not lose His identity.  I don't believe He intends us to do so either.

I'm not saying that everyone who uses the words "die to self" is thinking this way.  Most of us aren't consciously saying or intending to say,"I'll turn self-denial into self-abnegation."  But words mean things, and over time, the words we're using as shorthand for a text, can change our mindset about what we're talking about.  In a very real sense in some Christian practices, the words "die to self" have had a way of removing  boundaries that should be there for the protection of healthy relationships between ourselves and others.  They have had a way of shaming us for wanting to keep our selves, our very identities-- what we mean when we think of who we are-- strong and intact.  They have had a way of making us feel we're doing something wrong when we take time to care for and rest ourselves, our bodies, our minds and emotions.  "Die to self" thus can easily become a tool for spiritual abuse.

Nancy Campbell, in her Above Rubies website article "Happiness or Misery?" is a prime example of this mindset:
Mothers are encouraged to take time for self-pampering. Does this make them happy? Unfortunately, no. I find that women who are so concerned about having time for themselves are usually more miserable than those who forget about themselves in the joy of serving their family.

It is a God-given principle that never fails to work. When we try to pamper self we lose our life. When we lay down our own life to serve others, we find our life. Jesus said in Mark 8:35,
"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it."  [Emphasis in original]
It's questionable in my mind whether the women who are supposedly so much happier never taking time for themselves, are actually simply less vocal about their own needs.  But look at the difference between what Nancy Campbell says the Bible is talking about and what Jesus actually said.  Jesus never said we would save our lives by laying them down to serve others.  He said we would save our lives by laying them down for Him and for the gospel-- the good news of the coming kingdom that He is inaugurating as Messiah.  Serving others is good, and it's something Christ wants us to do-- but it's not what He was talking about when He said "lose your life for my sake."

In fact, what Jesus did when He and His disciples had been serving others all day long, was this:
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Mark 6:31
Later in this passage, the people ended up following Jesus and His disciples to that quiet place, and Jesus, having compassion on them, went ahead and taught them.  This was self-denial.  But then, after performing a miracle in which everyone (including His hungry disciples) got fed, He again sent His disciples to a place where they would be away from the crowds-- this time in boat in the middle of the lake-- and He went off by Himself to be alone with the Father and refresh Himself (verses 45-46). That was self-preservation.  Jesus denied Himself, but He did not die to Himself.  He didn't serve to the point of losing His very Self.  He took the opportunity to get away, to take care of His own needs, as soon as it was practicable.

It wasn't "self-pampering" for Jesus and the disciples to go off and try to find some time for themselves.  It was self-stewardship.

The Missionary Care website describes the Christian doctrine of self-stewardship like this:
When Jesus came, he gave the promise of the Holy Spirit who would not live in the temple in Jerusalem but in his people (John 14-17). Paul later wrote about our being God's temple, the temple of the Holy Spirit and God living in us. . . .
As God's temple and his messengers to make known his gospel to those who do not know him, we have a responsibility to care for his dwelling place - us. . . We are not selfish to care for ourselves if our reason for doing so is not only for our own benefit but is also out of respect for our own value in God's eyes and so that we stay fit enough to be good servants of others. [Emphasis added]
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend's book 12 Christian Beliefs that Can Drive You Crazy says:
 This crazy-making assumption-- "It's selfish to have my needs met"-- fails to distinguish between selfishness and a God-given responsibility to meet one's own needs. . . The Bible actually values our needs, which are God-given and intended to propel us to growth and to God.  Neglecting them leads to spiritual and emotional problems. [p. 17; Emphasis in original]
Here are a few more Bible examples.  Matthew 26:36-46 is the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is just about to give His life for the world. A greater example of self-sacrifice could not be shown. But listen to what He says to Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, His closest friends:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Isn't Jesus here expressing a deep emotional need, and asking His friends to help meet it?

"Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. 'Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?' he asked Peter." Isn't this an expression of disappointment that His needs have not been met, telling His friends honestly that they have let Him down?

Jesus did think about His own human needs and ask for things for Himself.  Even though in Gethsemane He was actually in the process of laying down His life, He didn't "die to self"-- instead, He asked for what He needed, and then spoke out about how He felt about not getting His needs met.

And then there's Paul in the city of Philippi, in Acts 16:12-40. He and Silas are preaching, and a group of powerful men arrange to have them arrested, beaten and thrown in jail. When the magistrates send for them the next day, saying “let those men go,” Paul says (verse 37), “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” Is Paul "dying to self" here?  Or is he standing up for himself and practicing limits on submission to those in governing authority over him? Isn't he acting in his own best interests? Isn't he asserting his own rights?

Yes.  And the passage says nothing to condemn what he has done, nor does Paul ever express remorse or show in any way that he believes he has done wrong. Paul was taking care of himself as best he knew how.  He knew he was made in God's image, valuable and loved.  He knew Jesus had said "Love your neighbor as yourself." He apparently didn't agree with the Christian teaching we hear so often nowadays, that Christians should not consider their rights, but only their responsibilities. Going to prison for preaching was self-denial.  But Paul stopped far short of self-death.

Finally, let's talk about the Proverbs 31 woman for a moment.  The Proverbs 31 woman is held up to evangelical women as their role model. Women are taught to focus on verse 13: “she . . . works with eager hands,” verse 15: “She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family” and on verse 27: “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.” But look at verses 21-22: "When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.  She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple." [Emphasis added.]

Here we see a woman who treats herself to the finest. She clothes her household with scarlet  – good, high-quality clothing. But she makes her own clothes fine linen and purple – the very best! Yes, she gives and makes sacrifices for her family. But she makes herself a priority too. And nothing in the passage faults her for self-indulgence; in fact, she receives nothing but praise.  

In the way she dresses, the Proverbs 31 woman "pampers herself."  Perhaps Nancy Campbell ought to read this passage a little more closely before condemning other women who do so. 

In fact, if we say that it is wrong to seek good things for ourselves, or that it indulges our flesh to take care of ourselves, then what are we saying? Since Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” then if it is wrong to seek good things for ourselves or to take care of ourselves, then it wrong to seek good things for others or to take care of others. If good things for ourselves indulge our own flesh, then good things for others indulge their flesh, and the best thing we could do for others is to help them deprive themselves. But obviously, since the Bible teaches us to do good to and give to others, it cannot be wrong to do good to and provide for ourselves-- as long as that doesn't become our sole focus, at others' expense. 

In Colossians 2:22-23 Paul talks about the kind of service to God which looks good, but is actually "merely human commands and teachings." This type of service, he says, is characterized by "self-imposed worship, false humility and harsh treatment of the body." Humility to the point of neglecting our own bodies is not true worship to God and does not help us become more godly. This is not the kind of self-denial Jesus wants. The rest of the verse says that these practices "lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."  The reason for this is that we have within ourselves a strong instinct for self-preservation.  If we continually "die to self" to the point of ignoring our own needs and immolating our own identities, it will eventually backfire on us. Our own neglected needs will become so pervasive that we will be unable to concentrate on anyone else; nor will we have anything to give to others.  We may also become self-congratulatory over how "godly" we are in our self-abnegation, which is the antithesis of the humility Jesus taught.

Now, many of my readers may be saying, "But I never meant any of these self-destructive things when I said 'die to self'!" Aren't you just taking an innocent short-hand version of Christ's teachings, and making too big a deal out of it?

For many of us, that may indeed be true.   And I'm not saying to never use the phrase "die to self" ever again.  But I am saying we should be aware that Jesus never actually said "die to self," and that it can have this destructive meaning to it.  Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons knows exactly what I'm talking about.  As she puts it:
You might be used to being told that concepts like “self care” come from the “pseudo-science” of psychology, that “self care” is just psycho-babble for selfishness. You might have grown used to coupling “being a good Christian” with what is, in reality, burning yourself out. You might have been trained to dismiss the notion that “healthy people take care of themselves.” I’ve watched many of my childhood friends and women I grew up respecting have nervous breakdowns because of this. You might have been trained to be constantly looking for “areas of service.” You might have been trained, not even intentionally, to volunteer for everything. 
If you’re like me, you were taught that having boundaries and respecting your own needs was wrong. 
It’s taken me a very, very long time to learn that “taking care of myself” isn’t selfishness- it’s just plain necessary.
So let's love ourselves and care for ourselves-- because self-denial for the sake of the kingdom, and sacrifice when necessary for the good of others, are different from self-deprivation and self-neglect.  “Deny yourself” is supposed to be about putting His kingdom first (Matt 6:33). But we are part of His kingdom too!  And we have good desires and legitimate needs that God values.

Let's all value ourselves as God values us.