Thursday, March 15, 2012

Women, Church Leadership and the Perils of "Relevance"

Dean said this was "Paul telling a woman off".
No, he wasn't being serious ...
As I am enjoying a brief delay in Qatar en route to Afghanistan, I thought I would share a discussion which came up when I was trolling my new Anglican friend Dean's blog, on which I have guest-posted twice recently (here and here).

There are many differences between Dean and I, both theologically and stylistically.  In particular, Dean frequently posts questions and invites his readers to answer them. On this particular occasion his question involved the very contentious issue of whether women "have the right" to positions of church leadership.

This framing of the proposition as one of "rights" really got my attention.  I carefully read both the post and the responses, which effectively ranged from cautious affirmation on one hand, to "the very fact you are even having a debate about whether women have a role to play just shows how ludicrous church theology is in the 21st century" on the other.  Anyway, it was clear I was about to wade in against a fairly strong tide ... which is precisely why I felt it important to do so.

First, it was imperative that we deal with this notion of the "right" to serve in leadership:
The question of “rights” with respect to church leadership is very presumptuous. Do any of us have a “right” to lead God’s people? Being an American, I’m a huge believer in rights in a political sense (our “Bill of Rights” and all that). But I think we can easily get carried away with the concept, often reframing our desires as “rights” in order to impose a claim on what we want. When we turn a question of God’s commands, purposes and design into a question of of our “rights” we are on very dangerous ground indeed.
Before he became the leader of God's chosen people himself, David clearly recognized this peril.  He twice had the opportunity to assert his right to the throne of Israel--to which he already had a legitimate claim based on his own anointing--yet refused to force the issue and raise his hand against "the LORD's anointed" (1 Samuel 24 and 26).  Leadership of God's people is a charge from God, given in His time and in His way.  It is not a right to be asserted!

Later in his original post, Dean said his theology with respect to gender roles had evolved from complementarianism (in which men and women have complementary roles, but men are charged specifically with leadership) to egalitarianism (full equality in all areas of service).  I thus turned my attention to the meat of the proposition:
Secondly, I have a problem with the “complementarian” vs. “egalitarian” dichotomy, because it masks too much beneath simple answers. Let’s be clear: that God made men and women equal in value in His sight is obvious from Scripture, as [a previous commenter] refers to in Galatians 3:28 above (“… nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”). That he made them to be different and complementary is also obvious from the Creation account and from Jesus’ own words in Matthew 19:4 (“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?”). One could also say it is an obvious biological fact. The problem with egalitarianism is that it tries to assert one against the other, rather than understanding one in light of the other.
First-century culture is the predominant argument for dismissing Paul's teaching on this topic.  Dean asserts that Paul was simply being "pragmatic" when he would not let a woman teach or hold authority over a man.  This search for cultural context ignores Scriptural context, however, and Scripture has much more to say on this subject.
This interplay between our equal value and complementary roles is no more clearly demonstrated than in Ephesians 5:22-27: "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless."  
To argue that man’s headship is cultural ignores the clear context of the passage, which calls out the eternal truths of Christ’s headship over and sacrificial love for His church. What is also clear is that man’s charge is both wonderful and daunting … he is to lay himself down for his wife with sacrificial love. The woman’s charge to submit gets much of the attention, but the command to the man is one of the most beautiful and challenging in Scripture, and often gets completely lost in the controversy. However, this passage provides important context for the larger discussion over God’s design for church roles and responsibilities (again, too often reframed as a human-centered quibble over “rights”).
Finally, it seemed important to widen the aperture to the spirit which gives rise to this impulse to reinterpret God's Word in order to keep it current and "relevant".  In fact, the more relevant we seek to become by becoming like the culture around us, the less relevant we actually are.
Beyond question there is immense good which has proceeded from clearly enunciating the value of women in our Western society. There is also much confusion over roles, because egalitarians have pressed so hard that there is no longer any room in the “enlightened” Western mind for the other half of the equation. There is a great deal to this discussion that owes to intellectual laziness and a desire to conform to our culture’s notions of enlightenment.

This was foretold by the Apostle Paul: ”For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim 4:3) We need to be very careful, and recognize that when the church becomes like the world (i.e., when we sacrifice obedience to “relevance”), we cease to be change agents. We lose our “saltiness” and are “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matt 5:13)
If we want the church to make a difference in the world, why not try God's way?  His perfect design for the sexes is enormously powerful, challenging, and, well ... relevant!
For those who are willing to see it, there is a beautiful model set forth in Scripture for men and women, in which we embrace both the great value and the distinctive roles God has creatively, ingeniously and graciously granted us. When we do so in obedience, we find ourselves transformed and joyful in submission to His design and commands.
And of course, a reminder that all of this confusion has its roots in a very ancient offense:
More thoughts on this here: The Curse: Your Desire Will Be for Your Husband
And here: The Curse II: And He Will Rule Over You

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Fortress, My Stronghold, My Shield, My Deliverer

Tomorrow I depart for Afghanistan.  This is my third deployment, so the Jailer family knows how to do this by now.  Still, there's never a great time to be gone, and this time I will miss Jailer Jr.'s high school graduation and departure for college.  I greatly covet your prayers for the success of our mission, the safety of our personnel, and the protection of my family in my absence.

If time, security and bandwidth permit, I hope to find occasion to blog while I'm there.  Otherwise, dear readers, I'll catch up you in September.

I have set the Lord always before me;
    because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. 

                         -- Psalm 16:8

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Jesus Flunks Evangelism Again

One of the Jailer's more notorious posts has made a guest appearance over in the UK, on the site of self-described "Charismatic Evangelical Anglican" and Theology student Dean Roberts.  Strange bedfellows indeed.  So, back for another run across the pond, Jesus Flunks Evangelism.

Note:  While you're on Dean's site, you may notice your mild-mannered Jailer has been engaged in a rather contentious debates with a fiery women's advocate known as Mrs. God Loves Women, whose post about Michelle Duggar (she of the 19 kids and the TV show) managed to evoke a response from me.  Actually, I carry no brief for the Duggars (of whom I know almost nothing), but I tend to have a rather visceral reaction against polemics and arguments built on logical fallacies (straw men, red herrings, all that jazz), and for whatever reason I didn't let this one go.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Jesus vs. Religion II: Jefferson Bethke Explains

Through the course of the discussion which followed yesterday's post about Jefferson Bethke's famous video, Presbyter pointed out that Jefferson has since revised and clarified his views in an article which ran in the Christian Post on 19 January of this year:
The 22-year-old shared that he was in the camp of young Christians pushing the church away. He recalled watching a panel discussion of well-respected theologians and pastors and one question really struck a chord. The group was asked about the most encouraging and discouraging aspect of the millennial generation – responding, that the most encouraging is that “they love Jesus more passionately, more furiously” than previous generations. However, in that same aspect the “most discouraging is that they hate the church more passionately and more furiously.”
“Right when I heard that, it just convicted me and God used it as one of those Spirit moments where it’s just ‘man he’s right,’” Bethke told CP. “I realized a lot of my views and treatments of the church were not Scripture-based, they were very experienced-based.
 He added, “And that’s when I realized that wasn’t right. God’s church is holy, that’s his bride.
He also said he agreed with Kevin DeYoung's now-famous critique, and even e-mailed the pastor to thank him for his wisdom:
DeYoung, who saw Bethke as a humble, sincere Christian in love with the Gospel, couldn’t “remember ever receiving such a teachable response to criticism.”
How cool is that?  Just for perspective, Jefferson's original video has been viewed nearly 20 million times and he has more than 46,000 Twitter followers!  It would seem to be a very difficult thing for a 22-year-old (or even a 45-year old, *ahem*) to humble himself in the midst of such a phenomenon.  Yet he did.

Color me impressed and, well ... humbled.

O Gaze of Love, So Melt My Pride

"Hymn" ranks as Mrs. Jailer and my favorite Jars of Clay song.  We're suckers for poetry.  Having said that, I must confess I have yet to figure out what all the lyrics are supposed to mean.  Even giving room for poetic license, "And Truth shall Thee forever reign?"  It almost has the feel of someone trying too hard.

Ah well.  If you have a better explanation I'd love to hear it.  Otherwise enjoy.  We always do.

O refuge of my hardened heart 
O fast pursuing lover come 
As angels dance around Your throne 
My life by captured fare You own 

Not silhouette of trodden faith 
Nor death shall not my steps be guide 
I'll pirouette upon my grave 
For in Your path I'll run and hide 

         [Chorus:] O gaze of love so melt my pride 
         That I may in Your house but kneel 
         And in my brokenness to cry 
         Spring worship unto Thee 

When beauty breaks the spell of pain 
The bludgeoned heart shall burst in vain 
But not when love be 'pointed king 
And truth shall Thee forever reign 
Sweet Jesus carry me away 
From cold of night and dust of day 
In ragged hour or salt worn eye 
Be my desire, my well sprung lye 
[Chorus x 2] 
Spring worship unto Thee 
Spring worship unto Thee

Friday, March 2, 2012

Jesus vs. Religion? Yes and No.

So I've brooded over this long enough.  It seems like everyone has had something to say about Jefferson Bethke's video by now.  My revolutionary friend Bill over at For the Sake of the Gospel has expressed some sympathy for his views, while most of my more orthodox friends are more critical.  So let's discuss ...

We need to begin with Jefferson's poem.  Here it is for the few of you who haven't seen it yet.

Among the most well-known of responses to this--which Bill also cites--is that of Kevin DeYoung.  While he's critical of many parts of the video, he begins with this important statement, one which I agree with wholeheartedly:
... Jefferson Bethke seems like a sincere young man who wants people to know God’s scandalous grace. I’m sure he’s telling the truth when he says on his Facebook page: “I love Jesus, I’m addicted to grace, and I’m just a messed up dude trying to make Him famous.” If I met him face to face, I bet I’d like Jefferson and his honesty and passion. I bet I’d be encouraged by his story and his desire to free people from the snares of self-help, self-righteous religion.
Amen and amen!

Kevin then does a very thorough job of deconstructing the poem, which I won't confuse matters by trying to replicate here.  I will merely encourage you to read it in full and add what stands out to me.

First, Jefferson's most obvious problem is in setting up a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion, rather than reflecting the biblical dichotomy between pure religion and worthless religion.  I appeal here to James:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.  (James 1:26-27)
There's a little more to this than semantics.  Kevin rightly notes that Jesus was not exactly hostile to all religious practices.  What he couldn't stand was those which masked the practioners' hard-heartedness.  In other words, the problem was not that they were religious, but that their religion was proved worthless by their actions.

Semantics do matter, however, which is part of the problem.  Dean Roberts appeals to the dictionary to make the point that nowhere in the very bland definition of "religion" do you find the caricature Jefferson describes.  So why are we having this discussion?  Ah, for that we must refer to a different dictionary:
Religion - The biggest lie in human history. It has been responsible for more deaths throughout human history than all other unnatural causes combined. For a thousand years the Church was a tyrannical dictatorship that used religion to control the uneducated masses. Free your minds and come into the 21st century.
Of course, the Urban Dictionary is hardly known for its academic, dispassionate definitions.  Still, it is something of a weathervane for seeing which way the cultural winds are blowing.  The reason we need to listen to brothers like Jefferson is that they provide us important information about our own culture, which is the environment in which ministry happens.  In this case, it's important for my orthodox friends to understand that in the prevailing culture, the dictionary definition of "religion" his hardly the consensus.  Jefferson's views are important because they are prevalent, and that fact demands the church's attention.

Still, this is not to say I don't have problems with Jefferson's approach.  By accepting the prevailing culture's caricatures, he throws a lot of very faithful believers under the bus.  Again to Kevin here:
More to the point, Christians need to stop perpetuating the myth that we’ve basically been huge failures in the world. That may win us an audience with non-Christians, but it’s not true. We are sinners like everyone else, so our record is mixed. We’ve been stupid and selfish over the years. But we’ve also been the salt of the earth. The evangelical awakening in England in the eighteenth century is widely credited for preventing the sort of bloodbath that swept over France in the “enlightened” French Revolution. Christians ... give more to charitable causes than their secular counterparts. Christians run countless shelters, pregnancy centers, rescue missions, and food pantries. Christians operate orphanages, staff clinics, dig wells, raise crops, teach children, and fight AIDS around the globe. While we can always do more and may be blind to the needs around us at times, there is no group of people on the planet that do more for the poor than Christians. If you know of a church with a dozen escalators and no money and no heart for the hurting, then blast that church. But we have to stop the self-flagellation and the slander that says Christians do nothing for the poor.
Finally, I suppose something should be said about Jefferson's gratuitous slap at Republicans.  There are hypocrites across the political spectrum.  But there are also devoted lovers of Jesus.  I've taken note before of the tendency for the church to over-rely on political solutions, and that's a real problem, but it's a real problem for everyone.

So in response to Bill's question, "How Would You Respond to Jefferson?" I would offer this:  Dear brother Jefferson, I admire your passion, and I appreciate the call to authenticity.  Your energy is needed, but beware of the arrogance of youth.  Or to shamelessly quote myself circa 2009:
Arrogance and ingratitude are endemic to our sinful condition, and the young are especially vulnerable, as they have not yet been chastised by the hard lessons of years. Most of us learned to despise the wisdom of our elders from an early age, and then had to unlearn that hubris the hard way. As a young believer, I quickly grew to be an "expert" in many things, and I have grown progressively "dumber" over the years, as the experience of those years has exposed me to my limitations. We naturally cling to our vanity and pride until God lets us follow them to their logical, humiliating conclusion.
So that's the trick.  We need to hear the call to constant reformation and renewal enunciated by Jefferson (and shared by many), without being sucked in by the accompanying judgmentalism toward our brothers and sisters, or over-identifying with the world's cynical dismissal of all things "religious".  We need a "religion that is pure and undefiled before God."