Archive | Christianity

Check Your Privilege

I mentioned a few weeks ago, that I’ve been doing some reading on intersectionality and identity politics. One item that I have observed in this reading is the tendency among some to assign moral guilt based not on moral action but based on identity.

The thinking goes like this. If a person possesses a privileged identity (e.g., straight, male, abled, etc.), that person benefits from an unjust system of social privilege. Therefore, the person benefitting is morally guilty of injustice just by virtue of possessing the so-called privileged identity.

A few weeks ago, I came across a column in the Harvard Crimson that illustrates the point. In this column, Nian Hu is warning women to “Beware of the Male Feminist.” She writes:

What these male feminists fail to realize is that, as men, they will always be oppressors. No matter how many feminist marches they attend or how much feminist literature they read, they are not exempt from perpetuating the subordination of women. Their support of the women’s movement does not erase the fact that they, on an individual level, are capable of harassing, assaulting, or silencing women—nor that, on a structural level, they continue to benefit from a system that establishes male dominance at the expense of women. And even though male allies may genuinely feel guilty, they will continue to benefit from male privilege. The patriarchy does not offer special exceptions for men with good intentions. Men, as a class, are culpable for misogyny, and male allies are no different and no less capable of demeaning women through their words, actions, and complicit silence.

Notice what she argues here. One does not have to commit an act of oppression to be guilty of oppression. One merely has to be “capable of harassing, assaulting, or silencing women.” Just by virtue of being male, therefore, every man is guilty. And no amount of feminist allyship or “good intentions” can erase the stain of his guilt. “Men, as a class, are culpable for misogyny.”

As I have been reading through some of this material, I’ve become more and more convinced that Christians are going to have to think carefully about some key concepts that are driving articles like the one above. We are going to have to think carefully and biblically about identity, privilege, allyship, intersectionality, and a host of other related topics that are driving the conversation in the culture today.

To that end, Jonathan Leeman has a really helpful post over at The Gospel Coalition helping us to think through the issue of privilege: “Identity Politics, White Privilege, and Gospel Peace.” Jonathan is thinking through the privilege motif vis a vis racial inequalities, but the larger point that he’s making about guilt and privilege would apply to any social identity, including the ones implicated in the article above from The Harvard Crimson. Jonathan writes:

In the American context, the phrase “white privilege” refers to the structural injustices affixed to ethnicity and skin color.

More specifically, white privilege can mean at least three things, two of which I accept and one of which I don’t. First, it means that I possess, by virtue of my skin color, social and material advantages. This is simply a statistical reality…

White privilege means, second of all, that I possess those advantages by virtue of systemic and historic patterns of discrimination and injustice… I accept this second plank of white privilege as well…

But there is a third, more profoundly ideological and typically unstated meaning of white privilege that I do not accept. And that is the automatic transfer of guilt to anyone who possesses such advantages… As author Eula Biss put it, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem. Whites are moral debtors simply by being white. If a black 4-year-old is demonstrably indicted as guilty by the structures of society, says Ta-Nehsi Coates following Malcolm X, then “it is impossible for white 4-year-olds to be innocent.”…

The bottom line here is: Identity politics, at its most careless, undermines moral agency. The white 16-year-old at Northeast High is not guilty simply for being white or for the advantages he possesses by virtue of his skin color. We cannot forsake the demands of justice at an individual level. We understand from Scripture that guilt and culpability are individual; punishment and responsibility are individual. To say otherwise is its own kind of Nietzschian power move—creating a concept of guilt for the sake of leveraging power.

This excerpt doesn’t do the full argument justice, so you really have to go read the whole thing. I think Jonathan is spot-on here. There is no question that privilege exists in the first two senses of the term, but the third sense is problematic. If privilege implies guilt, then it is possible to be guilty of a sin that you didn’t commit and for which there can be no atonement. Moreover, there would be no possibility of reconciliation on an individual level as long as systemic injustices persist in the world.

Obviously, these conclusions are squarely at odds with biblical teaching about guilt, justice, and reconciliation with God and with one another. And that is why we are going to have to give careful attention to the claims being made by proponents of identity politics. Their claims are theological at their core, and they require a theological answer. Jonathan gets us started in the right direction, and I encourage you to read the rest of his piece here.

Treating young women as sisters in absolute purity

Yesterday, I wrote about how pastors are to relate to different sex and age groups within the congregation. The apostle Paul helps us to think through this in his instruction to young pastor Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:1-2. Here’s the rendering I provided yesterday:

Do not speak harshly to an older man but exhort him as you would a father.
Do not speak harshly to younger men, but exhort them as brothers.
Do not speak harshly to older women, but exhort them as mothers.
Do not speak harshly to younger women, but exhort them as sisters, in all purity.

Everything that we observed yesterday—about treating people with respect and about honoring each member’s age and station in life—carries right over to the pastor’s treatment of younger women. The pastor must not speak harshly to “younger women” but must exhort them with the same respect and honor that he would owe to his own flesh-and-blood sister.

But notice that Paul adds one additional element when it comes to the younger women of the congregation—purity. Paul says Timothy is supposed to treat these young women “as sisters, in all purity.” The word translated as “purity” only occurs two times in all of the New Testament—here and in chapter 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” The word indicates moral purity, but its connection with younger women here certainly means that Paul has sexual purity in mind.

It is likely that Paul adds a word about sexual purity because there is a particular pitfall that is all too common—sexual immorality. A pastor who has learned the art of communicating with warmth and compassion can easily find himself in a situation of emotional connection with a woman that he ought not have such a connection with. And so Paul says that there must be no hint of impropriety in his ministry to younger women.

But it is important to notice that Paul places two obligations on Timothy’s relationship to younger women. Timothy must treat them “in all purity” and treat them “as sisters.” Pastors have an obligation to get this balance correct.

On the one hand, he must relate to these young women “in all purity.” That means that he must learn to think about and to talk to these women in ways that neither imply nor intend any sexual possibility. There are certain emotional and physical connections that are only appropriate to marriage. And the faithful pastor must avoid making those connections with women who are not his spouse. He must relate “in all purity.”

On the other hand, the pastor has an obligation to relate to these young women as “sisters.” This means that a pastor must not simply withdraw from relating to the women of his congregation. He may make private efforts to gouge out his own eye or cut off his own hand (Matt. 5:28-30). But the pastor’s quest for personal holiness does not authorize him to cut off the eyes and hands of Jesus (1 Cor. 12:21). And that is what these younger sisters are—members of the body of Christ. A pastor must not simply tune these women out as if they weren’t members of the body of Christ.

A female seminary student once told me a story about a time she said “hello” to a male classmate before class started. His response to her was “I’m married,” and then he turned away. This misses the mark. A pastor must strive for holiness, but he must be careful not to let his striving turn into stiff-arming the younger women of the congregation. How arrogant it is to assume that if a female says “hello” that she is trying to be a home-wrecker. No one should be naïve about the fact that there are promiscuous women in the world that all men need to beware of (see Prov. 5). Likewise, a pastor must be vigilant. But he must also not be so cynical that ordinary conversation with a Christian woman be interpreted as a sexual advance.

What does it communicate to a sister in Christ if a pastor treats her like that? It tells her that his mind is preoccupied with things it ought not be preoccupied with. It also communicates that he thinks her very existence is a threat to holiness. It communicates that he is not thinking of her as a sister “in all purity.”

Sibling relationships help us to remember that it is possible to have a warm brotherly love for a person of the opposite sex that involves no sexual intention or possibility. And that is why Paul presses the familial analogy in this teaching about sexual purity. We all know what it’s like to have female family members—perhaps a mother or a sister or an aunt, etc. And thus we can imagine what it is like to have relationships in which sex is the farthest thing from anyone’s imagination. Paul wants pastors to retrain their minds to think of the younger women in the same way—as family members.

Even though the so-called “Billy Graham Rule” has been much maligned of late, I believe there is great wisdom in it. Every one of us must be vigilant about holiness, and every one of us would do well to develop habits and disciplines that keep our eyes on the path in front of us. A pastor must be exemplary in this regard. He must also be exemplary in relating to all the members of the congregation as family members. This balance is not beyond the realm of possibility. It can be done. Indeed, it must be done. And we must not let worldliness and carnality steal the wholesome vision that the apostle Paul has set before us.

Pastors, don’t be a jerk. Be a shepherd.

The venting of the proverbial spleen seems to be the order of the day from cable news to social media and sometimes even in interpersonal interactions. We like to hear someone who agrees with our views “tell it like it is,” especially if the telling involves a few zingers against people whose views offend us. We thrive on this kind of outrage because it appeals to our sense of self-righteous indignation. It feels oh so good to be oh so right. And there’s nothing quite as satisfying as dressing down “those people” who don’t agree with us.

This spirit is destructive wherever it is found, but it is especially destructive when it stands behind a pulpit. Even for preachers, it can be tempting to turn the pulpit into a platform for outrage. When that happens, preaching can become more an expression of a carnal pastor’s irritations than a shepherd’s care for the people of God. This is not to say that preachers must avoid confronting sin. It is to say that whenever you have to confront someone, it matters how you say what you say—even if what you are saying is right.

Paul seems to have had this dynamic in mind in exhorting young pastor Timothy about how he was to address the different people in his congregation. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Paul says this:

1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.

At first blush, it can be a little confusing to hear Paul forbid Timothy from “rebuking.” Is Paul really saying that pastors must never “rebuke” anyone in the congregation? Doesn’t that contradict what Paul has said elsewhere about the necessity of rebuking false teachers (1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:25; Tit. 1:9)? Doesn’t it contradict what the Bible says generally about the goodness of a faithful rebuke (Prov. 17:10; 27:5; 28:23)?

There really is no contradiction, however, as the problem is mainly one of English translation. The word translated as “rebuke” in the ESV probably isn’t strong enough. Rebukes can be life-giving and helpful, but that is not the kind of “rebuke” in view here. The literal sense of the term is to beat something with your fists. It is a term that in certain contexts suggests physical violence. But the word also has a figurative meaning that refers to verbal violence. The NIV’s “speak harshly” captures what Paul is trying to communicate. It is possible to abuse someone with fists. It is also possible to abuse someone with words. And Paul is saying that the pastor is forbidden from verbally assaulting his congregants. A pastor sins when he lords his authority over the flock by berating them (1 Pet. 5:3; cf. Matt. 20:25; Mark 10:42).

If we were to fill in the ellipses, the sense of Paul’s exhortation would go like this:

Do not speak harshly to an older man but exhort him as you would a father.
Do not speak harshly to younger men, but exhort them as brothers.
Do not speak harshly to older women, but exhort them as mothers.
Do not speak harshly to younger women, but exhort them as sisters, in all purity.

In this way, Paul tells Timothy not to obliterate but to conciliate with his words.

The term translated as “encourage” in the ESV usually has the sense of strongly appealing to someone, urging them or exhorting them to do something. Clearly, Paul has in view the manner in which a pastor exhorts his people, and this certainly applies to his teaching and preaching ministry. The term translated as “encourage” also has the added sense of speaking in a conciliatory, friendly manner. Paul wants Timothy to know that even if the pastor must bring a confrontation, he must do it in a way that respects the person he is talking to.

A wise and courageous pastor will always remember the wisdom of Solomon when exhorting his people: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18). A good pastor is not going to use his words like a sword but like a scalpel. A sword and a scalpel are both made for cutting. But a sword is for killing. A scalpel is for healing. Even in confrontation, a pastor’s aim is not to deliver the coup de grâce but to heal.

Some pastors seem to believe that if they aren’t getting through to their people, that means they need to yell louder. But Paul says that a good pastor must not hammer people with his words. Instead, a good pastor will do his ministry with a sensitivity to the different kinds of people that he ministers to. It matters how a pastor treats people. And a pastor must not treat the congregation in an undifferentiated way. He must treat people in a way that respects their age and station of life. A pastor will minister to all different kinds of people in a given congregation, but Paul tells Timothy to treat every one of them like family. And there are appropriate ways to treat family members.

First, Paul says that the Timothy must not speak harshly to “an older man” but exhort him as he would a father. Paul wants Timothy to know that he should avoid talking down to a man who is older than he is. Even if an older man is wrong and needs correction, Timothy must not draw the sword but the scalpel. He needs to speak with the same respect that he would accord to his own father. If a pastor pulls a sword, he may destroy the older man. Or it is just as likely that the older man may draw his sword as well, and the verbal fisticuffs can cause division and get out of hand very quickly. It is always good to remember that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).

Second, Paul says that Timothy must not speak harshly to “younger men” but exhort them as brothers. Addressing younger men is different than addressing older men. Both situations require respect, but it will be expressed in different way. A pastor will not say “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” to a younger man, but neither will he talk down to them. He must treat younger men like brothers. A man must not draw the sword on his own flesh and blood, and that is what a younger brother is in the body of Christ. A pastor must respect the younger men in a way that is due their age and station. This calls for honestly, truthfulness, and forbearance.

Third, Paul says that Timothy must not speak harshly to “older women” but exhort them as mothers. A pastor must not treat women who are his senior with careless disregard. He must care for them and speak to them like he would his own mother. The respect required for older men is also called for in relating to older women. But there may be an added dynamic that Paul wishes to accent. A man has a kind of built-in protectiveness when it comes to his own mother. Perhaps Paul is appealing to this sensibility as well and calling pastors to have a sense of protectiveness about the elder women of the congregation.

Paul’s final exhortation relates to the pastor’s treatment of the young women in the congregation. Because Paul adds a requirement of “purity” to this exhortation, we will consider this one in a separate post tomorrow.

Feed my giraffe?

The apostle Paul once gave an exhortation to his disciple Timothy about the job description of a pastor. Among other things, Paul said this: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 4:6). In context, “putting these things before the brothers” means teaching God’s word to God’s people. And in this case, teaching that word involved a direct confrontation with false teaching.

This means that the main labor of a pastor is to understand and explain what the Bible means. But a faithful pastor can’t leave it there. If he does, it’s just a lecture. A good servant is going to connect the dots for the people. He’s going to tell them not only what the Bible means but also how it applies to their lives.

Some preachers think they are serving their people if they deliver eloquent theological discourses that are long on concept but short on connection to people in the pew. Everything they’re saying is learned and perhaps even true, but it’s going over the congregation’s head. Charles Haddon Spurgeon confronted this problem with a pointed, humorous quip:

Christ said, ‘Feed My sheep. . . . Feed My lambs.’ Some preachers, however, put the food so high that neither lambs nor sheep can reach it. They seem to have read the text, ‘Feed My giraffes.’1

Spurgeon is being light-hearted here, but he is making a serious point. A preacher has the responsibility to “put these things before the brothers” in a way that doctors and plumbers and lawyers and housewives and factory workers can all understand. A preacher’s job is not to complicate simplicity but to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, too many do the opposite. A good servant of Christ Jesus preaches the word in a way that connects to people.

I know that I need to do better here. Perhaps there are some other preachers out there who need this little nudge too.

—–

1 William Williams, Personal Reminiscences of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 2nd ed. (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1895), 145.

David Gushee: Our “differences are unbridgeable”

David Gushee has a column at Religion News Service about Jonathan Merritt, Jen Hatmaker, and LGBT “inclusion” within the church. Gushee says that he exited evangelicalism 30 months ago, and since then he has concluded this:

I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.

I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable. They are articulated daily in endless social media loops.

Gushee is absolutely right about this. We have “incommensurable differences” and the differences are indeed “unbridgeable.” On the one side are the traditionalists who believe that homosexuality is a sin. On the other side are the revisionists who believe that homosexuality is not sinful. The differences between the traditionalists and the revisionists go right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

If the traditionalist side is correct, then there can be no fellowship between the true church and revisionists—because the revisionists have revised themselves right out of the faith. And if the revisionists were consistent with their conclusions, they would recognize that no fellowship is possible from their point of view either. The only reconciliation is for one side or the other to repent and embrace the views of the other side.

This is why the whole Side A/Side B approach to the issue is a dead end. The Side A/Side B approach wants to convince people that differences over these issues shouldn’t really divide us. Some Christians will affirm sexual immorality and some will not. In terms of doctrinal priority, the issue is more like baptism than the deity of Christ. No big deal. We are all Christians after all. Why can’t we all just get along?

There are a number of problems with this kind of reasoning, but I will mention just two:

(1) The scripture casts sexual immorality as a first-order issue. In fact, it treats all unrepented sin as a first order issue that prevents people from entering the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11). No matter what side you come down on in this debate, there can be no question that our conclusions will define how we understand the boundaries of the church. This is not a debate about adiaphora but about the essence of our faith. A church can no more accommodate both points of view than it can accommodate both light and darkness (2 Cor. 6:14-16).

(2) The Side A/Side B approach is functionally no different from an “affirming” approach. Here’s the bottom line. A church either will or will not accept members who are practicing homosexual immorality. A church either will or will not discipline members for homosexual immorality. A church either will or will not ordain clergy who are practicing homosexuals. There is no middle ground between these practical polarities. If you are in a church that allows both points of view (Side A/Side B), then functionally your church is no different from a fully “affirming” congregation. You accept members and clergy who are practicing homosexual immorality. Again, there is no middle ground between the polarities of these two positions. Those who attempt middle ground will eventually have to move to one side or the other.

Gushee understands this, I think. It is time for folks on both sides of this debate to come to terms with just how much of a watershed this issue is. The evangelical movement is facing a moment of crisis over this issue. We are about to find out who is for real and who isn’t. We shouldn’t relish this moment as it reveals so much that is unhealthy in our movement. But neither should we shrink from it. We must contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). That is what the true church has always done. And that is what she must now do again.

It is not “character assassination” for the church to be the church.

Last night, Jonathan Merritt penned an article for Religion News Service excoriating Christians who have distanced themselves from Jen Hatmaker. He writes:

Hatmaker’s original sin is that she broke ranks with the evangelical powers-that-be on same-sex relationships. In an interview with me last October, Hatmaker stated that if she found out one of her children were gay, she would love that child just the same. If an LGBT friend of Hatmaker’s got married, she said she would attend the wedding. And Hatmaker said she believed LGBT relationships could be holy.

In the interview, Hatmaker did not deny a line in the Apostles Creed. She did not promote a historical heresy. She merely claimed that after a careful study of the scriptures, she had arrived at a different understanding of same-sex relationships. But this was enough to outrage some conservative Christians. Lifeway Christian Stores even banned her books from their shelves.

Merritt says that Hatmaker has not only been “blacklisted” but that her detractors have engaged in “the nastiest character assassination.” In sum, Merritt believes Hatmaker’s endorsement of same-sex relationships should be treated as within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and that evangelical churches and ministries are mistreating her by excluding her because of her views on sexuality.

There are more problems in Merritt’s article than I can address in a single essay, but it is worth pointing out some of the more significant mischaracterizations. The entire 2,000-year history of the Christian church has spoken univocally about homosexuality. Faithful Christians have always believed what the scriptures teach about this. Homosexuality is sexual immorality and is therefore sinful (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:10). We understand that this is an unpopular point of view today, but it is nevertheless what the church has always believed and confessed.

There are many voices within the North American evangelical movement that are turning away from what the church has always believed and confessed. Hatmaker is now among them. They are trying to tell people that sexual immorality is compatible with following Jesus. And they are asking the rest of the church to accept their point of view as within the orthodox stream.

The problem is that their teaching never has been, is not, and never will be within the orthodox stream. It will always be a mark of those who have fallen away from the faith. Theirs is an ancient error—one that can be found within the pages of the New Testament itself:

“Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4)

What is this departure from “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”? What is this teaching that amounts to a denial of “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” and that puts adherents under “condemnation”? It is the teaching that distorts the grace of God into a permission slip for sexual immorality. It is the errant notion that somehow God is okay with sexual immorality after all.

But He’s not okay with it. And neither are his people, the church. Faithful Christians are never going to accept this teaching. The true church is never going to embrace this. It may look otherwise to those who are focused on Christian organizations in the secular west. But this is not an accurate picture of the church worldwide, which is overwhelmingly with the orthodox on this question. And if we give attention to what G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead”—the faith of the church throughout the ages—it becomes very clear that American revisionists are a tiny schismatic minority. Just an ounce of historical and global perspective puts the lie to the notion that the revisionists are winning the day on this. They are not.

That is why faithful Christian ministries and churches are not going to give their platforms to teachers who have stepped outside of the healing stream of Christian truth. The Spirit of Christ commands His bride to stand apart from those who are leading people astray:

“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Tit. 3:10-11).

The word translated as “division” is the Greek word hairetikos, which is the basis for our English word heresy. It is clear that the divisive person in this scenario is the false teacher, not the church who is standing apart from him in faithfulness to Christ. The church is supposed to be calling people to Christ, and she dare not platform those who are leading people away from Christ.

Merritt writes as if there is an underlying groundswell of evangelical support for this false teaching. He even claims that there are many well-known pastors and leaders who privately believe that homosexual immorality is compatible with following Christ. But, Merritt says, these leaders dare not say so publicly because they don’t want to lose their ministry platforms. I don’t have any way to verify this claim. But even if it were true, I think Merritt misconstrues the meaning of the presence of such hucksters. Their subterfuge is not evidence of where the church is going but of what the church will be casting off when their deception becomes known.

I was grieved by what I read in Merritt’s column last night. It represents a sad celebration of serious error that is completely incompatible with the Christian faith. The good news is that the New Testament does offer hope that false teachers might recognize their error and come back from the brink. Paul himself holds out some hope for his opponents:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

This is my prayer. It really is. I am hoping against hope that those who have embraced this error might come back from the brink. So much is at stake. Everything that matters is at stake. Our arms are open. Come back. Please come back.

The mistakes Christians make in dismissing biblical teaching on modesty

Katelyn Beaty has written an Op-Ed for The New York Times lamenting “The Mistake Christians Made in Defending Bill O’Reilly.” I agree with her main point that Christians should have no part in defending the indefensible. I think that much should be uncontroversial as the scripture is so clear on this point: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).

Having said that, I have to take issue with some of the evidence she adduces to establish her point. Beaty links to a 2007 article written by John Piper as evidence of what is wrong in the Christian church. She writes:

In churches, a quick forgiveness for perpetrators often dovetails with strict standards of purity for women. From a young age, many Christian women are taught to dress modestly so as not to cause men to “stumble.” John Piper, a prominent pastor and theologian, has said that “a lot of Christian women are oblivious to the fact that they have some measure of responsibility” in managing men’s lust. The moralizing about dress and behavior can be a setup for victim-blaming wrapped in a spiritual veneer.

What is wrong with Beaty’s citation of Piper’s article? First, Piper’s article does not say that women have to take responsibility for “managing men’s lust.” That is a distortion of what he wrote. His article simply says that women should take responsibility for dressing modestly. I know that idea sounds old-timey and weird to secular ears, but it is pretty basic stuff as far as Christianity is concerned. “Modesty” is a biblical virtue, not an evidence of some sort of toxic “purity culture.” As the apostle Paul writes, “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Tim. 2:9). I wonder if Beaty would view the apostle Paul’s words as problematic?

Second, Beaty says that “moralizing about dress and behavior can be a setup for victim-blaming wrapped in a spiritual veneer.” Let us agree that men are responsible for their own sin no matter how the women around them are dressed. That is one of many reasons why no victim of abuse should ever be blamed for the evil deeds of abusers. But we can agree to that without dismissing the Bible’s moral instruction about “dress and behavior.” Beaty seems to dismiss such teaching per se as a pretext for some darker purpose. And yet the Bible is replete with moral exhortation about our dress and sexual behavior. Would Beaty say that the Bible’s teaching itself is aimed at “victim-blaming”? Are we to avoid what the scripture teaches us about modesty and sexual behavior in the hopes that it might discourage bad behavior at Fox News? This is absurd.

The Bible’s teaching on these things is aimed squarely at the kind of behavior now being reported at Fox News. The Bible’s “moralizing” on these things exposes such evil for what it is. It doesn’t enable it. The Bible has as much to say—if not more—about the behavior of lecherous men as it does about the modesty of women (e.g. Exod. 20:17; Matt. 5:28). Pastoral silence on such matters would enable the darkness not confront it.

And this is the real problem with Beaty’s citation of Piper’s article. She conflates bad behavior at Fox News with faithful biblical teaching. What Piper wrote about modesty in 2007 is something we would all do well to listen to in 2017. And the reason we need to hear it is because it is the wisdom of scripture. Our sexually broken world needs more biblical wisdom, not less of it. If pastors charged with preaching the whole counsel of God cannot speak to this, then who can?

I agree with Beaty that Christians must not excuse or defend bad behavior. Instead, we must expose it (Eph. 5:11). But our duty to expose evil must not be turned into an excuse for turning away from what the Bible says about modesty. We need to know what the Bible teaches about modesty, and we need to live it. But we are not going to be able to do that if we slander biblical teaching as “victim-blaming.”

Some thoughts on intersectionality and “activist science”

I’ve been doing some reading on intersectionality1 recently, and I came across an article by a feminist psychologist named Stephanie Shields. She argues that intersectionality should be an urgent concern for behavioral scientists and should determine the outcomes of their research. Shields writes:

“Intersectionality is an urgent issue because it is critical to the effective, activist science that feminist psychology should be. The goal of activist science itself is not to create policy, but to inform it. Research undertaken from an intersectionality perspective does originate from a point of view which includes an agenda for positive social change, but the agenda requires data to support it. This approach reflects a belief that science can be beneficial to society and that it is our obligation to study scientifically those problems and issues that bear on real people’s lived experience.”

-Stephanie A. Shields, “Gender: An Intersectionality Perspective,” Sex Roles 59 (2008): 309.

Thomas Kuhn famously said that science is theory-laden. If Shields is correct, intersectional science seems theory-burdened, or theory-predetermined. Shields contends for “activist science.” In other words, it’s not merely that the scientist has biases that inevitably (though perhaps unintentionally) shape his research. Shields is arguing that the behavioral scientist should have a bias for intersectional theory, and that the theory should function as an agenda in search of facts to support it.

To the degree that behavioral sciences are being conducted in this way and to the degree that they become an apology for intersectional theory, we should not be surprised to find conflict between such “science” and traditional religious perspectives (including Christianity). But it is crucial to note that the conflict is not between real science and Christianity, but between a thinly veiled feminist theory and Christianity. The feminist theory masquerades as “science,” but it is not really that at all. It is a religion of first principles predetermining which facts are relevant and which ones need to be suppressed or discarded because they don’t support intersectional theory.

This is just a reminder that not all “science” is true science. The discerning reader will understand that there is a difference between facts and evidence and the evaluation of facts and evidence. Sometimes there are agendas at work shaping the way researchers construe the evidence. Oftentimes, it is the evaluation of the facts and evidence that reveals that underlying worldview of the researcher.

For example, in 2013 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders removed “Gender Identity Disorder” from its list of psychiatric disorders and replaced it with “Gender Dysphoria.” Did they remove it because scientists had uncovered some new facts or evidence showing it no longer to be a disorder? No, that is not why they did it. As I have pointed out before in this space, the diagnosis was changed to remove the stigma of transgender identities being labeled as a “disorder.” Consider also, for example, how the scientific community has responded to the research of Mark Regnerus and Paul McHugh. Has the negative response been based on facts and evidence? Or has it been based on the fact that these men sometimes reach conclusions that depart from predetermined outcomes?

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1 For a primer on intersectionality, I recommend Joe Carter’s recent article “What Christians Should Know about Intersectionality.” Andrew Sullivan offers a powerful critique of intersectionality from a secular perspective in “Is Intersectionality a Religion.” If you want to take a deep-dive into some actual intersectional theory, I recommend Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139-67. For a popular introduction to Crenshaw’s theory, see her recent TED Talk, “The urgency of intersectionality.”

It is never right to be angry at God. Ever.

Over the weekend I posted a tweet that proved to be unexpectedly controversial. Well, unexpected to me anyway. I had no idea it would be so provocative simply to say that it is never right to be angry at God. But provocative it was—more so than I ever anticipated. Some readers were downright angry about the tweet. Not all of them were like this, but there were more angry responses than I could count. The objections people raised fell into two broad groups. And I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some brief reflections in answer to both.

1. To those who thought I was saying we should stuff our feelings down and not be honest with God about our pain.

This is not what I said, and it is certainly not what I meant. In fact, I believe just the opposite. Just this last week, I taught on the lament Psalms in my hermeneutics courses. And what I said then is what I always say in my courses. These Psalms teach us to cry out to God with brutal honesty when life hurts us. They make sense of a world in which we suffer real evils and have real tears streaming down our faces. They deal with death, depression, and all the other evils that make us feel undone in this life.

These Psalms teach us how to hope in God in the midst of suffering. They reflect the reality of the human condition in a fallen world where oppression, violence, and death hound the people of God. They reflect the same world that you and I live in where children get cancer, fathers desert their families, and strong men rule and oppress as dictators. They portray the world as it is, not as it should be. They reflect the whole range of human experience and do so with unflinching honesty and hope.

On Wednesday and Thursday, we took a really close look at Psalm 13, in which David’s suffering makes him feel abandoned by God. There is anguish, pathos, and a sense of desperation in David’s cries. This Psalm and many others like it teach us to cry out to God when we feel desperate. They teach us to be honest about just how desperate we feel in those moments. They don’t teach us to stuff our feelings down. On the contrary, they teach us to lay all our cards on the table. They teach us to make our requests known to God so that the peace of God which transcends all understanding might guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-8).

There’s no stuffing down of feeling and emotion. There is authenticity, confession, and hope. And they are for us. They teach us how we should pray.

2. To those who believe that the Bible (especially the Psalms) teaches us that it is right to be angry with God sometimes.

There is not a single psalm that teaches us that it is right to be angry with God. You can look high and low in the Psalms, and you will find no such expression. It’s just not there. What is there is desperation, grief, anxiety, frustration, and lament. But in none of it is there justified anger against God. There is a world of difference between “How long, oh Lord” and “How DARE you, oh Lord?” These Psalms have a great deal of the former and none of the latter.

This discussion is not an academic speculation about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We all have skin in the game, and we are all going to suffer. Some people reading this are suffering right now. Some may be feeling that they are hanging on by a very thin thread. The last thing that these sufferers need to hear is that it is right for them to be angry with God. What that tells them is that it is okay to disapprove of God’s character and His ways.

But that is precisely the opposite of what the sufferer needs. And it is the opposite of what the Psalms are leading the sufferer to do. The Psalms are doing their level best to show us that no matter how low we feel, no matter how low we go, God is good and holy and trustworthy in all that He is and in all that He does. The faithful response to affliction is to believe in God’s goodness and faithfulness no matter how bad things get. This is the fight for faith that all of us have to wage when the chips are down.

The Bible commands us to “Be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). What does this mean but that some anger is good and that some anger is bad? It is good and right to be angry at evil and at sin and at the Devil. It is sinful to be angry at what is good and right and true. And that is why it is never right to be angry at God. He is always good and right and true. To set yourself against God is to set yourself against what is good. No matter how painful and perplexing His ways may seem to us, it is never right for us to be angry at Him. Ever. But it is right for us to tell Him about it when we are.

I have seen people give in to their anger against God, and it shipwrecks their faith. When someone enters into a settled disapproval of God, that is the path of apostasy. It is not the path of healing and faith. If this path is pursued without repentance, it leads to judgment not to comfort. It is not loving or merciful to lead sufferers away from the only good and wise God who alone can bring them the comfort they need. And that is why there is so much at stake in this question and why we need to get this right.  If we love each other, we need to be able to say to one another that it is never right to be angry at God, even though it is always right to tell Him about it when we are.


Postscript: John Piper has two helpful articles on this that I would commend to you:

John Piper, “It is never right to be angry with God”

Anger at sin is good (Mark 3:5), but anger at goodness is sin. That is why it is never right to be angry with God. He is always and only good, no matter how strange and painful his ways with us. Anger toward God signifies that he is bad or weak or cruel or foolish. None of those is true, and all of them dishonor him. Therefore it is never right to be angry at God. When Jonah and Job were angry with God, Jonah was rebuked by God (Jonah 4:9) and Job repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).

The second assumption that may cause people to stumble over the statement that it is never right to be angry with God is the assumption that God really does things that ought to make us angry. But, as painful as his providence can be, we should trust that he is good, not get angry with him. That would be like getting angry at the surgeon who cuts us. It might be right if the surgeon slips and makes a mistake. But God never slips.

John Piper, “Is it ever right to be angry at God?”

This is why being angry at God is never right. It is wrong – always wrong – to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). It is arrogant for finite, sinful creatures to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. We may weep over the pain. We may be angry at sin and Satan. But God does only what is right. “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments” (Revelation 16:7).

But many who say it is right to be angry with God really mean it is right to express anger at God. When they hear me say it is wrong to be angry with God, they think I mean “stuff your feelings and be a hypocrite.” That’s not what I mean. I mean it is always wrong to disapprove of God in any of his judgments.

Can the mainline be saved? Not in the way Douthat suggests.

I’m a big fan of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and I am really grateful for his voice at the old “gray lady.” So it is unusual that I would take issue with one of his columns. But over the weekend I read his column “Save the Mainline,” and I thought this one might be worth a little push-back.

I should stipulate, however, that I agree with much of his analysis about the decline of mainline churches and about the ideological rootlessness of modern liberalism. Without some unifying principle, liberalism really has descended into a kind of “illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor.” Douthat is right that “The wider experience of American politics suggests that as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good.”

So we are agreed on the decline of mainline churches and the ideological listlessness of liberalism. I disagree, however, that a return to the mainlines would be a good thing. Here are three reasons why I think it would be a bad thing.

(1) Liberal “Christianity” does not have the theological ballast to right the ship of political liberalism. Or to put it another way, it is not at all clear that mainline liberal churches are any less prone to becoming an “illiberal cult of victimologies” than their secular counterparts. Can you think of any recent mainline examples of intolerance? I can. I don’t think this spirit will offer anything to counteract the intolerance emerging on college campuses across this country. In many ways, the mainlines have already capitulated to the very errors that Douthat thinks they are prepared to correct. If history is any guide, secular liberals are more likely to influence mainline churches than mainline churches are to influence secular liberals.

(2) Mainline churches tend to be theologically liberal, and theological liberalism is not Christianity. Theological liberalism in 2017 looks a lot different than it did in 1923 when J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism was published. But what Machen said of theological liberalism then is no less true of theological liberalism now. It is a different religion that is completely incompatible with the faith once for delivered to the saints (Jude 3). In that sense, it is a kind of apostasy—which is an old timey word for “falling away” from Christianity. Mainline congregations tend to deny the authority of scripture, supernatural elements of the biblical storyline, and the sexual norms of scripture. Some of them even deny the incarnation and the bodily resurrection of Christ. These are not theological sidebars. They are at the essence of the faith. Any congregation that denies them is at best Christian in name only. I am grateful for individual congregations within mainline denominations that are holding the line on these issues. May their tribe increase. But they seem to be the exception rather than the norm, and an influx of unbelieving secular liberals is not going to help them in the struggle they are engaged in.

(3) Christianity teaches that apostate religion is bad for people, and as a Christian I cannot recommend something I know to be harmful to people. Moreover, I cannot recommend something that scripture explicitly tells me to warn people against. I just finished preaching a series on the pastoral epistles at my church. One of the key themes that Paul hammers home time and again is how dangerous false teaching is. It doesn’t lead to “good deeds”; it leads to judgement. Here is a sample of the kinds of things Paul says about false teachers and those who listen to them:

“They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed” (Titus 1:16).

“…keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:19-20).

“If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions…” (1 Tim. 6:3-4).

“O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge “– which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20-21).

“But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13).

As a Christian, I can’t see any reason for commending churches that are Christian in name only. Such churches lead people away from Jesus and not to him. How could we possibly commend them to anyone?

I would love for mainline churches to be “saved.” But that salvation will not come from an influx of secular liberals. Moreover, “salvation” should not be cast in terms of institutional viability but in terms of faithfulness to Christ and his gospel. In the latter sense, the only way for the mainline to be saved is for congregations and leaders to repent of essential departures from the Christian faith. Anything short of that would be window-dressing at best.

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