What Do I Want From Our Government?

Politics is a subject I don’t often want to talk about, especially in the context of faith. It can easily derail the conversation because there is just so much heat and so many people with different perspectives. But here we are, USA in 2016. Politics is everywhere, and the way we respond as Christians matters. Someone recently asked me “What do you want from the election?” and I thought it was a very good question with a very important answer. Because what I want from the election is dictated by what I want from our government, and there’s much disagreement about what that should be.

All but the fringe in our country agree we need a government but we cannot seem to agree on what our government should do. Some believe the government needs to enforce a degree of morality. Some think the government needs to solve social problems. Some just want the government out of it all together. And it’s easy for us to have laudable goals for the government that backfire and harm us all.

I’m not good on detailed policy. A lot of these discussions are very complex, and it’s hard to know who to listen to is speaking the truth. For example, a social liberal will say that we should raise the minimum wage because no one should have to work and not be able to survive. A libertarian would say there should be no minimum wage because we harm people by limiting their opportunities. And there are perspectives in the middle. I’m not here to debate the specifics, only to admit that I don’t know the answers (though I do have an opinion on this particular one, but it’s an example, not the point of the post). I’m not an economist, and either side of an issue can look good and right if you don’t come in with knowledge or bias (which are not the same things, but often the latter masquerades as the former).

So it’s hard to say “I want xyz policy”. But I do have two main objectives for the government, driven by my faith. The first objective that is I believe government should be as limited as possible in order for the individual to take responsibility for him or herself. I see Christianity as a personal faith, that no one can “convert” another. We must all make the choice about what we will serve in this life, and that choice can only be made without coercion. Morality is not the responsibility of the government, but rather the individual. Our government should give us the freedom to follow faith, values, or any personal system of belief, or the freedom to deny these things. This is why I do not understand much of contemporary “conservatism”, which seeks to control the behavior of others. I can find someone else’s behavior terrible, but still believe that person should have the freedom to do it. When that person chooses to walk away from that behavior, then it shows real faith. Forced behavior by the government isn’t something that is good for anyone.

The second objective I have for the government is that it should handle our common goals. Sometimes these things are obvious, such as roads or public utilities. Sometimes they are less obvious- public education, for example, creates an educated population which is beneficial to all (even if you are not the recipient of public education, your are a recipient of living among a people who are educated). But beyond that, I believe a common goal we have is to ensure everyone in our country is given his or her “due” as a human being. We should not be content with a country in which parts of our community live in more fear than others, or where people are unable to survive regardless of how hard they work. I understand some don’t see this as a shared responsibility, but I do. I believe the Bible teaches this by example when Israel was commanded to do the work of justice for the weak and vulnerable. This doesn’t mean equalizing outcomes, but it does mean there are certain basic needs that we are responsible to meet for every individual.


These objectives can create a tension, and it’s easy for us to spiral out of control one way or the other. What begins as a laudable way to help the impoverished can end up in a government power play, and a desire to grant freedom to individuals can end up with oppression that denies basic human dignity. But this tension is where we need to work: we can learn and grow as we struggle through these issues and do our best to find the godly way forward.

In our current climate, we do not try resolve tension by working through these questions together. Instead we resort to rhetoric and polarization that does not resolve, but rather gives and takes power. We don’t see our government as a journey we are all on together, but a tug-of-war that we places on sides and in opposition. So much of what I hear on a daily basis is an attempt to paint someone else’s position as so abhorrent that it can be summarily dismissed. This is easy, as it means we don’t have to think or talk to one another. But thinking and talking is how we resolve the tension and get to a government that can provide both freedom and work toward common goals.

I will bring up one example with some trepidation, but I feel I must move to something concrete and not only present my thoughts in the abstract. Abortion in the US is a high-tension topic. People are quickly labeled as women haters or baby killers, and that language forces all conversation to cease. After all, who is required to break bread with a “baby killer”? But they are unjust labels that do not resolve the tension; rather they divide and obscure the truth. Because truth is, very, very few people in this conversation actually want to kill babies. And very, very few people in this conversation want to control women’s bodies.

Those accused of being “baby killers” don’t actually hate babies, and labeling them as such an outright falsehood about their motives and a smear against their character. Yes, it makes the conversation easier because you can write off what they have to say, but it doesn’t make it better. If anyone actually thinks that pro-choice advocates look at a baby and think “I really want to kill this baby”, it’s news to me. The reality is that pro-choice advocates are very concerned about the health and well being of women, and that is a laudable goal. Can we not learn from their compassion and love for the weak and vulnerable women who are pregnant and believe that an abortion is the best option?

On the other hand, those accused of wanting to control women’s bodies aren’t usually driven by a conviction about the woman’s personal choices regarding her body, but rather the value of the unborn. This is the only case in which they will suggest a woman be prevented from taking an action with her own body, and this case is unique because another life is involved. Again, ignoring that this is a special scenario may make the conversation easier, but it doesn’t make it better. To summarily label pro-life views of women based on this singular, very complex situation is unfair and unhelpful.

The way that this conflict over abortion is waged is telling: we deal with it in the political realm. We want to pass laws so that others must conform to our point of view. We constrain our votes on all other issues by this one issue. It’s understandable why this happens: when one side sees abortion as equivalent to murder, it’s sensible to bring the force of law in to protect those they see as victims. However, it’s not that straightforward, since not everyone agrees upon the value of the life of the unborn. The reason that laws against murder work is because we all agree that murder is bad. And for whatever reason, this same perspective isn’t agreed upon when it comes to abortion. But the goal shouldn’t be policy anyway. The goal should be less abortions, and despite all the vitriol surrounding this topic, I’d wager that most people would probably agree. I suspect the general population of the US would view a lower abortion rate as a strong indication of our health as a nation. That could be a common goal, but we never go there because we’d rather stand on political ideology.

Again, this is an example. I don’t want to resolve abortion in this post. I just want to point out where our instance on resolving tension through rhetoric and polarization prevents us from working together toward real results that matter. If we can unify rather than separate, we can be powerful drivers of change. We can work together and wrestle with the tension to find the right ways to achieve liberty while meeting our common goals. Alone, I’m not capable of knowing the answers on every topic. I’m not smart enough or able to see all the angles. But together I think we could do it if we would wrestle together in the middle rather than hurling rocks from the sides.

This election cycle, a lot of ugly stuff has been exposed. I believe this exposure has given us an opportunity to reject the old ways of rhetoric and polarization and try something new. And that, as a Christian, is what I want.

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Can Others Harm Us If We Have Faith?

Pastor Wade Burleson and I had quite a discussion recently on his blog over his article 15 Words And 15 Seconds That Save Any Marriage. I’m sure those who know me are not surprised that I took issue with what he wrote. In the comments, he was quick to say that it was not intended for abuse victims. This led to quite a discussion, and one that made me sad for the state of the Church, because I think Wade’s perspective is both common and harmful.

In a nutshell, Wade asserts that neither circumstances nor people are the source of our inner trouble or pain. He readily admits that people can hurt us externally, but that ultimately this does not harm us at the level of our inner peace. He pulls this distinction from Philippians 4:11:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

The crux of his argument is what it means to be “content”. Wade suggests that it means we are “self-sufficient” and thus cannot be harmed “internally”. I disagree, strongly. I believe that the idea of being “content” does not mean we are invulnerable to the effects of a sinful and broken world. I do not see any reason to believe that we cannot be harmed.

I do believe that a Christian who has faith in Christ can find encouragement in knowing that his or her soul is safe, ultimate victory is assured, and that our condition before God is clean and perfect. To quote Horatio Spafford, I can find inner joy by recognizing that “it is well with my soul”, even when “sorrows like sea billows roll”. But I do not believe that the “wellness of the soul” means we cannot be harmed. It’s a promise of a perfect future in an imperfect and hurtful world. And that “inner joy” (or the “contentment” to use Paul’s word) I experience doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt. We can have inner joy and inner pain at the same time.

We are not invulnerable to external forces in this world. Not in the present. And asserting that we are can be very damaging to people, because no one is allowed to tell another person being harmed that he or she is wrong. If I say “that hurts”, then it’s part of affording me basic human dignity to believe me. We may not agree on the source of that pain. Indeed, sometimes we blame others for our self-inflicted pain. But, back to Wade’s view, he isn’t saying that the source of the pain is miss-assigned based on the facts of the case; he’s saying that it’s miss-assigned because it’s impossible for another person to harm you on the “inside”. If his perspective is true, then admitting internal pain is always admitting personal failure and we have to be willing confront our failures just to express inner pain. That is not a healthy barrier to place in front of a hurting person.

People who are hurting need to be able to express that pain. They may miss-assign the blame, or they may not even know who to blame, but that is completely secondary to the issue at hand, because until we can acknowledge and be vulnerable about our pain, we cannot address it. As I’ve witnessed people heal from the harm others have inflicted on them, one of the most powerful moments is when they’ve felt free to say “[xyz] hurt me”. So much healing starts here, but it will rarely happen if we return with “[xyz] isn’t the source of your pain”.

The Bible is set in a context of a broken world. It is the redemptive story of humanity that is making its way through a world that is not whole and healthy. That broken world affects us, both by infecting us with sin and forcing us to bump up against the sins of others. Brokenness is a part of life, and we are not invulnerable to it, at least not this side of Heaven. As long as we are in this world, it may harm us. It will harm us. And that’s OK, because we have a greater hope. Contentment isn’t avoiding harm; it’s knowing that the harm of this world will always end up defeated when all is said and done.

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Why I Don’t Believe Denying Male Headship Is Denying Scripture

This week in our small group at church we had a discussion about gender roles. Unsurprisingly, my view (that there should be no hierarchy on the basis of gender within a marriage) was not shared by the group. Going to a PCA church, which was formed on the back of the issue of women elders, I expected others to disagree. In fact, due to my views not aligning with the PCA, my wife and I almost skipped group altogether to avoid the perception of being divisive. After much thought, discussion with those we respect, and prayer, we decided to attend. We did our best to discuss our viewpoint with humility and respect, and the resulting conversation did seem profitable. Our group received us and appreciated our contribution, even though we clearly were in the minority.

I was challenged by one of our group leaders, not unexpectedly, with the idea that the Bible teaches male headship, and it’s a slippery slope if I begin to deny the clear teaching of scripture. This, however, is a misunderstanding of what I believe, and since we didn’t have time in group to cover my views on the scripture regarding gender, I thought it would be nice to instead write them up here, in a form that could serve a broader audience. But before I continue, I want to make clear that I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and what it contains is true; however, I also believe that we have to maintain a view of the whole council of scripture and not rely on a handful of verses to form important doctrines. Additionally, I believe that we have to be careful with text that is separated by both time and culture from ourselves, and that when verses seem to collide with teaching elsewhere in the Bible, we need to walk carefully and be ready to question what may initially seem straightforward and obvious.

To be clear also about what I believe, I have no problems with roles within a marriage. Nor do I have a problem with submission. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that Christians are to submit to one another. I have no problem with the idea that men and women function differently. The sole objection I have is to the idea God ordains hierarchy based on gender within marriage and the church. I believe that hierarchy based on a person’s being, not his or her gifts or circumstances, creates an power imbalance that is ultimately destructive to the individual.

The verses that deal with relationships between genders are relatively small in number. A few, such as those requiring women to wear head coverings or women to remain silent in church, are understood by most people to not be applicable in today’s culture. However, others verses are understood to teach female subordination even today, and those will be my focus, as the controversy of general roles centers around them.

As I mentioned above, the scriptures in question were written to a completely different culture from our own, a different time period, and the translations we read were created by men who believe in gender hierarchy. Such men, like all humans, can allow bias to sway them, so we must be cautions when reading through their lens. For example, the translation of the word deacon/servant, rendered in most modern translations as an office in the church when it is used of men (Deacon), and a quality when used of a woman (Servant, used of Phoebe in Romans). Is this evidence of bias? It may be. Because of this, I am careful not to accept English translations at face value; we are human beings who are flawed, and our preconceived ideas will influence our work, including those who translate the Bible.

Regarding culture, both of the texts that I will be discussing, 1 Timothy and Ephesians, were written to the church at Ephesus, a city which had a strong pagan influence from the goddess Artemis. This influence was so strong that a statue of her created there is one of the seven wonders of the world. Artemis was a female goddess, a protector of women, with a prominent role of midwife to aid women in pregnancies. Ephesus was a city where women had power and control (not to say that it was a matriarchal culture, but certainly women enjoyed more leadership opportunities there than many other areas of the Roman world). I believe this influence is very relevant to understanding both 1 Timothy and Ephesians because the church clearly must have been struggling with the influences of Artemis worship.

On my own journey, as I spent time wrestling with the Bible on this issue, I could not escape the tension I felt reading these verses and various commentaries. I would read text from those advocating an “egalitarian” perspective, and I would remain unconvinced. Much of what I read sounded like conjecture and creating confusion more than providing answers. But as I listened to those who teach gender hierarchy, I felt the same things. For every detailed egalitarian analysis I’ve read of why 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t mean what it plainly says in English, I’ve heard corresponding arguments from gender hierarchists as to why Deborah was not a leader, or if they concede that she was, how this fact could be consistent with a view that God doe not allow women to be leaders.

I am no scholar, nor am I trained in exegesis, so my options are rather limited. I cannot write this with the expertise to expound all of the text perfectly. So the goal here is not to teach; I’m unqualified. What I am sharing is my own journey, doing the best I can with the information I have, and being honest about my own convictions as I weigh the evidence I possess. At the end of the day, it was not exegesis that convinced me, since there is tension on both sides, but rather a wider perspective of what I read in the Bible: that all humans are image bearers of God and deserve to be treated with dignity. Given that truth, I cannot see how establishing hierarchy based on a facet of our being (gender), rather than circumstance or gifting, can ascribe to all individuals appropriate dignity.

Note: throughout this article, I will use the term “gender hierarchist” to broadly describe those who believe in gender based hierarchy. I understand that the popular term they use for themselves is “complementarian” and normally I try to respect terms people elect for themselves; however, it’s a problematic term for me to use because I *do* believe that men and women complement one another rather than being identical. Where I disagree is that complementarians universally ascribe to a hierarchy in which men lead and women follow. I could use the term “patriarchists”; however, I would like to respect those who are trying to distance themselves from traditional patriarchy. I believe “gender hierarchist” to be the fairest term to use.

1 Timothy 2:12-15 (ESV)

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Most of the doctrine regarding male leadership in the church revolves around 1 Timothy 2:12-15, though also mentioned scriptures are the qualifications for elder (“one woman man”) and Jesus appointing 12 men, no women, as his disciples. Since this is not an attempt to be thorough, I will focus mainly on this text, at is generally the one that presents the “clear teaching of scripture” that women are not to be elders in the church.

From the outset, I believe it is plain that we cannot take these verses at face value. That is, some kind of interpretation needs to be done to get at the intent and meaning. There are two immediate reasons for this (and more that are less obvious), the first being that absolutely no one takes this at face value and denies that women should teach in any context. The second reason is that the latter verses about women being saved through childbirth are completely against what Paul himself has written elsewhere. These facts alone to me suggest we need to dig deeper than simply accepting what our English translations have to say.

Starting with the prohibition of teaching and exercising authority over men, everyone readily admits that women may indeed teach in certain contexts. If we did not, we’d have a real problem with women in the scripture who teach. For example, Priscilla (Rom 16:3-4, Acts 18:26). Many gender hierarchists say that the reason Priscilla taught was because she did so in conjunction with her husband. This appears to be conjecture to me to make Acts 18:26 fit with a certain translation and understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12. It may be correct conjecture (as we do use verses to help us understand other verses), but I remain convinced it is not the only answer available to us, and either way it illustrates the point that even gender hierarchist’s do not take this text a “plain face value”. Everyone seeks to work out the context and application.

To my eyes, assuming that this verse represents any kind of universal prohibition on women teaching and leading is problematic, as there are many women teachers and leaders in scripture. I’ve listed a few here:

  • Deborah (Judges 4:1–5:31): clearly displayed leadership in service of the Lord without condemnation.
  • Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20): a prophetess who illuminated God’s will.
  • Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-4, Acts 18:26): taught alongside her husband.
  • Phoebe (Romans 161-2): a deaconess who Paul instructed others to support.
  • Junia (Romans 16:7): an apostle (in most translations). There is some controversy surrounding Junia- at one point she was considered male since she was an apostle, though now almost all NT scholars agree she was a female. Some translates (such as the ESV) translate the text that she was “known to” the apostles rather than actually being one.

Gender hierarchists have counters to each of these examples of women leadership and teaching; however, their arguments are usually as complex as the ones employed by egalitarians to say that this 1 Timothy 2:12 does not teach a prohibition on teaching and leading for women. That is to say, this verse is not clear and obvious when placed against the entire cannon of scripture. There is tension no matter which side you take.

As we dig deeper in these verse we find more points to question, though admittedly this is where I wish I was scholarly enough to be able to judge between good information and bad. My own limitations notwithstanding, translators debate over what the word rendered as “authority” here means. In fact, this is the only usage of this word in the Bible, so it’s impossible to say exactly what Paul had in mind. We do know that the women in Ephesus were doing something they ought not to do, and it did involve teaching and exercising control over others, but when we translate that into what it means for modern prohibitions of women, I think we need to be very careful. Building a doctrine upon an ambiguous scripture, especially one that creates a power imbalance, is unwise.

Some egalitarians believe that this verse was about a specific person (the words used switch from plural to singular, giving some amount of credence to this theory) and others believe it had to do with inappropriate teaching based on blending Artemis worship with Christianity. It is probably impossible to know, but what we do know is that no one believes that this verse prohibits all women everywhere from any kind of teaching or any kind of authority. Where we disagree is to the extent that it applies. Gender hierarchists say it applies to the official teaching of doctrine in the church, whereas egalitarians believe that it is a situational teaching and should not be broadly applied in any manner.

What I believe should cause even more concern about this verse are the ones that follow it, which in our modern translations appear to base a prohibition of teaching and leading on Eve’s role in the Fall. This is a curious verse, because nowhere else in scripture is Eve blamed for the Fall, nor his her role really addressed. And then to follow up with salvation through childbearing is even stranger, given that the teaching of scripture, by Paul himself, is that salvation is through faith, not works. Additionally, both Paul and Jesus are very clear that people do not need to get married to serve in the kingdom, so childbearing cannot be something required of women.

The complete disconnect between the plain meaning of the text and the rest of scripture gives me pause. Not that I have reason to doubt that it is the inspired word of God, but I will surely take a step back and question whether more work needs to be done to understand what Paul is telling us. In fact, I would say with such obvious plain text discord with the rest of scripture, I would say digging in for understanding is mandatory. We must admit this is a tough text and be very careful with it.

I have heard gender hierarchists use this text to justify the notion that the former text is universal. Since Paul, they reason, is appealing to history and not culture, this unbinds the prohibition against women teaching from any kind of cultural context. I find this very suspect reasoning, since, again, the idea of blaming Eve and somehow implying that her actions are representative of all women’s inability to lead and teach does not square with anything else taught in scripture.

I believe a far better potential understanding of this text lies square in the culture of Ephesus: the worship of Artemis and the leadership of women. I will admit that this is conjecture, but it seems far more plausible than Paul appealing to Eve as an archetype of female ineptness. Artemis was a goddess, one who was revered and worship in Ephesus, seen as a strong protector, especially during childbirth. It is very reasonable to think that the origin story of Christianity, Adam and Eve, and the origin story of Artemis had become conflated by new believers. That is, Eve takes on attributes of Artemis, becomes the central hero in the Fall, and is beset by poor misguided Adam. Under this kind of a backdrop, this passage takes on an entirely new meaning: Paul was explaining that Eve is not a goddess, she was not the hero, and she made the poor choice to eat the apple. And Eve/Artemis will not keep you safe in childbearing (women would call out for safety to Artemis during the pains of childbirth), but rather it is steadfast faith in the Lord. If in fact this was the intent of Paul’s words, it gives very much credence to the idea that he would be prohibiting from women teaching with authority in the church, not because they are women, but because their message is tainted by a conflation with a pagan goddess.

Now is this true? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know. Maybe there is some other equally plausible explanation for what Paul was talking about with regards to salvation and childbirth. I’m certainly not going to make my stand on the Artemis theory. However, it is MORE plausible than the idea the women (who Paul was pleased to minister along side) would suddenly, in this one verse that applies to all time, be prohibited from leadership within the church. As with any other text, it is the Bible that interprets the Bible, and I feel there are plenty of other texts that demonstrates women leaders and teachers to believe that, Artemis worship or no, this passage is not about a universal limitation on women.

Ephesians 5:15-33

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

This is the text primarily used to support gender hierarchy within the home, between husband and wife. I quoted here a longer portion of this text than is normally used, specifically because I think the context is important. The overall theme of this scripture is how to make the best use of our time and be wise rather than wasting it on being foolish. How are we behaving in the world? How do we relate to one another? Note that  submission is not problematic, as it is the call of every believer one to another.

This is the passage where “headship” is addressed. The meaning of the word for head, kephale, is one that egalitarians have contested.  While “head” carries a connotation of authority in our modern language (the head of a corporation, the head cheerleader, etc.), the literal word simply means “head” (the body part). It is used all over scripture to denote exactly that. Sometimes it is used metaphorically, but even then the usage doesn’t exactly mean “authority”, more like the “source” or “first”. For example, when discussing Jesus as the cornerstone of the church, the word used is the same (kephale stone- the stone laid before all others that all depend on). Centuries later this word would be used to mean authority, but as far as I’ve been able to tell, there are no documented usages of kephale meaning “authority” within a thousand years of the writing of scripture.

I’ll admit that I’m a little skeptical at how some egalitarians take the idea of “source” and imply that this has to do with women coming from man in Creation. To my eyes, that doesn’t seem to be the metaphor or rationale in view. Rather, the analogy appears to characterize the relationships between men and women presently in Ephesus and describe how they ought to relate to one another, using Jesus Christ and the church is an example of what that should look like. Christ’s relationship to the church was not only one of authority, and when the word kephale is used elsewhere, it does seem to have more to do with creation/provision (source) than it does authority. So I think we should be careful about inferring too much from the described “headship” and what it means for a man’s authority. We do know that in some way, Paul wanted to use the relationship between Christ and the church to emphasis the need for wives to submit to husbands (as they were already commanded to do a few verses earlier in the call to general submission). Gender hierarchists will take this is a special, new kind of submission, but I don’t think we can say that is for certain. We do know that Paul is correcting some unsubmissive behavior, but I don’t see warrant for a special kind of submission being called out here.

My biggest caution against believing that Paul is here establishing a permanent hierarchy between men and women is that in the same chain of thought, only a few verses later, he discusses slavery and how slaves are to submit to their masters. Since slavery as an institution is immoral, this suggests to me that Paul is focused on how to behave within defined social constructs rather than establishing them as God’s intended structure. He is not in the business of endorsing those structures.

What is clearly stated in the passage is that wives are called to submit and respect their husbands. The direct implication is that at least some women in Ephesus were not doing so and needed correction. What is not implied, but many gender hierarchists assume, is that this means that husbands have a specific, gender amplified need for authority and respect. And what is certainly not implied is that husbands do not need to submit to or respect their wives.

Likewise, husbands are clearly called to love their wives. Again, the direct implication is that at lest some men in Ephesus were not doing so and needed correction. And again, what is not implied, but many gender hierarchists assume, is that this means wives have a specific, gender amplified need for love. And finally, again the text does not suggest that wives do not need to love their husbands.

In the end, I will concede that Paul may be talking about some form of hierarchy, but I am far from convinced that this was intended to be the pattern all marriages must follow, nor am I convinced that he was intending to expose the differences in genders here. I believe his focus was to describe what Christian living looks like within a certain culture so that Christians could “make the best use of their time”, and he used Christ’s relationship to the church to describe aspects of the husband and wife relationship that needed work.

Gender Hierarchy Applied

An additional concern of mine when understanding the above verses is how to apply them. For the “no women elders” position, the answer starts of clear, but quickly descends into ambiguity. So women many not lead churches as elders, but what are they and what aren’t they allowed to do and teach beyond that? For example, some gender hierarchists like Tim Keller will allow women to do anything a man can do in the church except church discipline. Others, like John Piper, will not allow women to even read scripture aloud in a worship service. Wayne Grudem, influential modern theologian who believes that gender hierarchy is a very important issue to the church, wrote an article wrestling with this very question. It appears to me that things are not very clear after all, because leadership and authority are not simple concepts, easily boiled down into a binary doing it or not doing it.

Even more problematic is the application of male headship. There is very little instruction on how this is applied, and the oft stated principle is that the husband gets a tie breaker vote in the event that a husband and wife cannot agree. I believe this application is problematic because it is not supported anywhere in scripture, nor does providing an answer to how to resolve the (infrequent) situation in which a husband and wife cannot agree on a decision seem to be the kind of major issue that God would created a doctrine around. Now the gender hierarchists will say it’s about MORE than simply who gets a tie breaker vote, but no one can agree on what that more looks like. It seems to me if this is an important doctrine, then we should have a clear way of actually DOING it in action.

The gender hierarchist main takeaway, as far as I can tell, is that we can disagree on application, but the one thing we MUST do is agree there is to be a power differential between men and women. That men must have more power than women. How this is applied is up for grabs, and obviously men must not abuse this power, but the power must go to the man in order to follow a Biblical model of gender. Or to say it differently, “work it out however you want, just make sure you remember that the man is in charge”.

Does this sound disturbing? It does to me, and it doesn’t seem to fit the redemptive nature of the God of the Bible. The God who loves to free the captives and elevate the oppressed. I believe if this is how our theology boils down, we need to re-evaluate because we are missing something.

A (Too Brief) Case For Accepting A Non-Hierarchical View Of Women

The reason I wrote this was to defend my view that believing scripture does not mean I need to accept gender hierarchy. Whether I’ve done that effectively, I can’t say, but at least it’s a glimpse into my thought process. At the least, I hope you can see that I’ve tried to take the matter seriously. That being said, I want to at least provide a launching point for those who wish to understand how I fill the vacuum left behind when I reject gender hierarchy (that is, those who want to understand what I accept, not just what I reject).

I do not believe that subordination is unloving. I go to work and answer to my boss. I command my children to obey and expect they will follow my guidance. Numerous areas of my life have me taking on both roles of authority and subordinate roles. The key, however, is that these roles are all due to circumstances or gifting. This makes sense. I know more than my children and have greater maturity, so they are to obey me as they grow into adulthood (I am gifted by comparison to them). My boss is appointed over me, so for this temporary period in time, I am placed under him.

Gender, however, does not make a person less or more gifted at leadership. Nor is it a temporal, circumstantial aspect of a person’s life. Gender is a permanent, created part of who we are. It may indeed affect our giftedness in some areas (for example, the ability to give birth to children), but authority is not one of them. We all know women who are better leaders then some men, but we do not know any men who are better at giving birth than women.

Creating a power differential between people based on being (not giftedness or situation) is inherently unloving. This is something we intuitively know (now) when it comes to race. We know that the color of a person’s skin does not qualify him or her for leadership, yet this was a debate not too long ago here in the U.S. People even used the Bible to justify forcing human beings with dark skin into subordinate positions. The were wrong., sadly wrong. Racism is harmful, and even worse when God is used to justify it. No one wants to hear “you are lesser because God commands it”.

The greatest command in scripture is love. Jesus says it, and Paul says it. How can we effectively love women with all the dignity they are due if we continually tell them they are lesser than men? And no, the “subordination is an equal, but different role” doesn’t fly. We would never accept that argument for race, how can we accept it for gender?

Rejecting a person’s ability based on gender, an aspect of his or her being, is denying the dignity due that person. We are all due dignity for being created in the image of God, and taking a part of a person and saying it is “off limits” is a failure to love him or her with all the love God intends. Yes, there are women who are happy and fulfilled living subordinate to tender, loving men, but are they all they could be? Are they truly being valued for every aspect of their created being? I think the principle of loving others demands more.


I know I’m not going to convince gender hierarchists to change their views about gender in a short (not short?) blog post. People have written volumes about this subject, and will continue to do so. People much smarter and better equipped than me. However, I hope this can be a valuable part of the conversation so we can all understand one another better. If anything, I want Christians to acknowledge the tension within scripture on this subject, because assuming it is a simple question already solved belies the truth. Cases can be made both for and against gender hierarchy based on numerous factors in how we read the text. This is not to say that scripture does not have a right answer for us, but we do debate what that answer is.

I’ve often read gender hierarchists accuse people like me of being influenced by the culture, but I believe the reverse is true. We live in a world that continually subjugates women, even while high minded individuals and feminists try to resist. As much as they try, however, it’s still a man’s world. Women are still too often exploited for the wants of men, and their ability to achieve what men can is limited. So “counter culture” is not a good argument for gender hierarchy. Counter cultural is to truly love and find the dignity in all people, and treat them as equals.

In the end, this all comes down to one question: Can equality exist when a woman is deemed subordinate in her being. I do not think it can, nor do I think is it the teaching of scripture.

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Thoughts About SCOTUS Ruling On Gay Marriage

It seems everyone has something to say about the ruling on gay marriage. And I’ve debated whether or not I even want to say anything about it. I think I’ll probably anger people no matter what I say, and I don’t know how much profit there is to adding yet another voice to the mix. But, I guess since I have a blog, like everyone else I feel compelled to speak just because I can. So here are my (as brief as possible but not brief enough) thoughts.

  • It appears to me that most people talking are not listening, empathizing, or even trying to understand.
  • The definition of marriage, insofar as it is between two consenting adults, has been left to the conscience of the individual and is no longer bound by the state. This is not the same as the state defining marriage or telling us what we believe.
  • From the perspective of the Bible, marriage has always been both a civil and religious institution. That is, marriages existing outside the faith or counter to God’s original plan for marriage are recognized by the Bible and treated as valid.
  • The U.S. Constitution grants people the freedom to make religious choices. This means that people are free to be wrong.
  • Supporters of gay marriage are not going to understand crying oppression because someone is being given more freedom. It’s one thing to believe that freedom is a freedom to sin; it’s another thing to say that you are being persecuted for freedom being given to someone else.
  • The Bible says that it is not the job of the Christian to judge non-Christians.
  • My hope is not in my country or the rules that govern us. It never was and never will be.
  • If you want to have a conversation about an issue that is so core to a person that he or she believes it is a part of his or her being, you will make more progress if you wait until you are invited to speak. To do otherwise is to give the impression that you believe you have authority over that person, and you do not.
  • To demand a person act against his or her beliefs is a very real concern. If someone views a wedding ceremony as a sacred act, demanding by law he or she must perform in a way counter to his or her religion is violating the first amendment.
  • This issue was decide a long time ago. It has merely been made official. It’s long overdue for us to move beyond the rhetoric and politics to real conversations with real people about what it means to struggle and find meaning in this life.
  • It appears to me that most people talking are not listening, empathizing, or even trying to understand (worth repeating).
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To A Watching World . . .

With the rise of social media has come some interesting dynamics in the church. We’ve seen a greater number of mega pastors who now have access to a larger audience due to Twitter, Facebook, and all of the other digital avenues open to them, but we’ve also seen greater opportunities for people who have been marginalized in the past to band together and find a common voice, many times in opposition to those who have traditional held the “power” in the church. I’ve seen social media decried a lot, but I will tip my hand and admit, I think it’s a great opportunity and the benefits outweigh the costs. It’s popular to put down Facebook, but, in my usage of it, it has mostly been a positive place for growth and meaningful discussing (buried within cat pictures, of course!)

One increasingly prominent conversation among Christians is the “image” of the church. Many will denounce critical posts and blogs saying that they are unloving and not representative of Christ. “The world is watching,” we will be reminded. Verses like Philippians 4:8 will be quoted: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Such thoughts are used to silence any critics of public ministry so the world can see the church is good.

The problem is that this is disingenuous. If ministries are misbehaving and sinning, the world is going to find out about it. We don’t need to hide it, or avoid talking about it. And when they do, our inactivity speaks volumes. God works in the light, he does not need us to shroud the truth in darkness. What is more, when leaders are sinful and harming others, it is the job of the Christian to stand up for the weak and vulnerable. If we do not, the results are catastrophic. These folks, and the watching world, will associate Jesus with an abusive faith that is dangerous. Many will leave the faith and never come back.

Ironically, by refraining from legitimate criticism in order to protect reputations, we are doing the opposite of the work of the Gospel. If we seek to preach a truth that hinges on humans being sinful and redeemable, presenting ourselves as perfect and without conflict does nothing to further that message. It might be attractive to those looking for perfection, but it is not the story of a broken people redeemed in grace.

As a Christian, my “image” should be the most robust there is, because it does not hinge on me being perfect; it hinges on my accepting my brokenness and turning toward God. On repenting when people reveal my sin. On cooperating daily with the Holy Spirit in the process of growing and becoming a better follower of Jesus. If that’s what people see in me, then they see Christianity, warts and all. If they simply saw the perfect glass house of never stumbling, that wouldn’t be realistic or truthful.

My last blog post was about Matt Chandler and The Village Church. They sinned grievously against a woman, Karen, whom they “disciplined” for her quick annulment to a pedophile. They sinned against the families in their church, whom they did not immediately alert to the pedophile in their midst, a potential danger to their children. This sin was exposed very publicly and discussed vigorously on the internet. Many rose to defend them, or to criticize those of us who wanted to bring it to light. Some accused those of us who wanted to talk about it as being slanderous or painting the church in bad light. And yes, the church HAS looked very bad for this. But it was a bad name that was well deserved, because TVC is only one of many churches to have done this.

But then something happened. Unlike many other ministries who have ridden out the accusations of sin and dug in their heals, Matt Chandler stood up and apologized. He said his church was wrong and had hurt Karen and others. He offered to meet with Karen (and others) on their terms, and Karen took him up on it. They met, they sought to understood, and they they apologized to her publicly, admitting that they were wrong. They said her annulment was Biblical and justified, and they were wrong to discipline her. They said they are going to take steps and review their polices so this doesn’t happen in the future.

I know some people are skeptical, and I know only the future will tell if they will address the systemic issues, but I know Karen was satisfied, and that speaks volumes to me. But even more, the point is driven home is that this is the Gospel to a watching world. Not a perfectly shiny house that everyone wants to be in, but a house where people blow it big time, repent, and seek reconciliation. Where we can, and must, be honest, and stand up for what is good and true.

I know Matt Chandler and the elders at TVC probably feel horrible for the way they treated Karen. They are probably blessed by her forgiveness. But more than anything, I’m certain they are thankful for a Savior who is sanctifying them even through a very difficult and public accountability for their sin. If Karen hadn’t stood up, and if social media hadn’t brought her words to light, they would still be harming women like her walking through their church. Now they have the opportunity and awareness to do better.

As a Christian, I want to be different. I don’t want my Facebook page to show a pristine faith that has all the answers. There are many questions I don’t know, and I get things wrong sometimes. I hurt people. And when I do, I want to know about it. And when I see other people hurting, I want to bring it to light. Because one of my callings as a Christian is to be a person of justice, elevating the weak and oppressed. I believe there is no better image we can have to a watching world.

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Making The Gospel Look Scandalous

I haven’t felt the need to write a blog post in quite a while- several months, in fact. But some recent events in the evangelical church have compelled me to write again. The Village Church, pastored by leader of the Acts 29 network Matt Chandler, has treated one of its former members in a way unworthy of Christ, and both what happened and the responses of the Christian community have concerned me.

The quick synopsis is that Karen and her former husband were missionaries, her former husband confessed to viewing child abuse pornography, they returned from the mission field, she filed for annulment of the marriage, the church placed her under “discipline” for doing so, and they did not place her ex husband under discipline because of his apparent repentance. There are many facets in this tragedy, not the least of which is how the church handled the confession of a pedophile and potential victims, but my focus is specifically on the treatment of Karen, mainly because the church has thus far been unrepentant in their choice to discipline her, though they do admit they could have communicated better. While there are many contested ideas and views about what happen, I believe that TVC and Karen agree to all of the above.

Now the first question might be, why is this important to me? I am not a member of the church, and I don’t know Karen. Shouldn’t I mind my own business? Well, it matters because Karen is a victim, and it is my job as a Christian to  stand up for victims. Because I am someone who went through a divorce and experienced the hostility of the church because of it, I can attest that this is bigger than disagreement of opinions. Karen was harmed very much by the way her church treated her, and there are many, many more Karens in the world who need people to stand up for them. This isn’t just about TVC and Karen, it is about a system that would decide that disciplining a victim is OK.

But even more important is the very nature of the Gospel itself. Is the handling of this situation directly tied to how some Christians view the Gospel? If so, then this is something that affects us all, because either we agree with it and we are comfortable with how Karen was treated, or there is a fundamental difference that we need to be very clear about when sharing the Good News with the world. Because right now, TVC’s view of the Gospel is what the world sees.

In my reading up on this situation, I’ve read many comments on many blogs. One in particular struck me very, very deeply. I don’t have the specific quote, nor the stomach to search for it, but the takeaway was this (my paraphrase): “The Gospel is a blessed scandal- and the idea that a pedophile can be redeemed while a woman who fails to submit to her spiritual authorities can be judged is a prime example of what the world finds odious but the Bible commends.”

Does this make your stomach sick? It does mine, and yet, I do NOT think this is a fringe belief. I think it is the way many churches approach the Gospel. They have turned the idea of grace into something where righteousness does not matter; it’s far less important than submitting to humans in “authority” positions and having the right doctrine. That is a scandal alright, but it is not a good one.

Do I believe that Jesus can redeem a pedophile? Yes, without question. I don’t even have to think about it very hard. Jesus can redeem anyone. But his ability to redeem does not mean that a marriage to such a person is mandatory or even close to healthy. Especially not one who has not yet established long track record of fruit consistent with a repentant heart. At best, right now we are certain that Karen’s ex has regret. Repentance is only going to be seen in the long run.

The Gospel is not about forgiving the wicked and punishing the vulnerable. It is about making the repentant heart right with God. In the example with Karen and TVC, it is evident that theology is placed above the dignity of the human individual. Despite Jesus’ words that Christians will be known by their love for one another, and Paul’s declaration that spiritual knowledge without love is useless, TVC’s stand on marriage theology trumped the welfare of one if its members who was only seeking peace.

Yes, TVC and many others I’ve seen commenting the last few days, have essentially labeled it “loving” to force working towards the reconciliation of marriage in the case of a pedophile. I would accuse them of being disingenuous, but I suspect it’s an honest mistake. Somehow, in the world of TVC, their picture of love looks like this. That is something that should disturb us all.When we redefine love to mean something that is fundamentally oppressive, we need to back up and realize we’ve lost it.

If you are one of those who does think it is loving to demand reconciliation for a woman in Karen’s position, I will make one appeal for you to re-think this. You are talking about forcing a woman into an intimate relationship with a man who is sexually stimulated by the molestation of Children. Could YOU share your bed with such a person? Would she be expected to sleep with him and create children he would have legal access to their entire lives? How would the resulting relationship fit a reasonable definition of what a marriage should be? No intimacy, trust, vulnerability, respect, or even friendship. Do you expect Karen to actually build a life with the man, or do you expect her to just suffer in silence and stop pestering others with her pain?

This is one of those areas where I will not agree to disagree. If your view of divorce theology includes it being OK to demand such a woman to stay joined to her husband in marriage, then I am going to just flat out say you are wrong and you do not understand the character of God. Bold? Yes, but I think it’s important to say, because I do not want to be a part of a scandalous church that could EVER think it’s OK.

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Why I Believe The Evangelical Church Needs To Stop Listening To John Piper (And Those Like Him)

This post has a been a LONG time coming. Years, in fact. I’ve been concerned by John Piper with increasing alarm as I’ve greater understood exactly what he teaches and just how pervasive it is. He is one of the most popular pastors in the world, and pastors who I respect, respect him. I first thought that I liked his theology and I just took a few issues with some of his conclusions, but as time has gone on I’ve realized there is something deep at the core of what he teaches that is fundamentally flawed to the point it brings death rather than life. And he is by no means alone.

Part of coming to grips with my view of his teaching was coming to grips that I don’t view faith through his lens, and because his lens is so popular, it’s easy to fear being put on the outside. I go to a good Reformed church, and I want to be accepted by my good Reformed community (after all, John Piper is SO reformed he considers himself a 7 point Calvinist!). Am I risking that by questioning the underpinnings of John Piper’s teaching? Maybe, but I know that I’m strong enough now to be honest with myself and others, and I believe that the Gospel itself demands those of us who see error speak up when we feel the message is being perverted. For me, it has come time to heed the words of Martin Luther who said “. . . to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

I have read many criticisms of John Piper (and made some myself). Any pastor as popular as he is will have his detractors: his views on women, his views on divorce, his views on the sovereignty of God, his views on domestic violence, etc. But I think his true error originates from a deeper place. A darker place. And it’s a place that is becoming pervasive in the church. A place the world sees and has learned to avoid because we are not safe to be around. He is just one such preacher of this lie: that human beings are not valuable.

To prove my point about Piper specifically, I will cite this article that he wrote about self worth. In it, while he admits that people have dignity because they are created in the image of God, he quickly dismissed that point as almost inconsequential (emphasis mine):

The imago dei is that about man which gives him the potential to be redemptively loved by God and to consciously depend in gratitude on God’s mercy. It is cited in unbelievers only in Genesis 9:6 (to justify capital punishment) and James 3:9 (where the implication is that we ought not curse man). It is not an important concept to the writers of Scripture, for they were not nearly so concerned as our age with what inheres in man. They were concerned not with who man was but rather whom he loved, obeyed, lived for. Man was fully man not when he fulfilled or expanded anything inherent in himself but when he ceased making claims for himself and took his refuge in God.

This is a crucial point- how we view human beings is a “launching theology”- so much of what we believe flows from it. In fact, I can think of no more crucial theology in all of scripture than this: that human beings are valuable. Everything hinges on it- it’s not a just a bullet point on the list of our redemptive qualities (to give us “potential” as Piper puts it), but it is the very reason our redemption happened at all. It’s the very reason for justice, for love, for mercy. It’s the reason that our scripture was handed down through men, and the reason for the most distinctive aspect of Christianity among all world religions: the Incarnation. There are many beautiful scripture, but this one remains one of my favorites for this reason:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:5-11 ESV)

When Jesus became one of us, he demonstrated something that no imagined deity every would- that we were so valued in our humanity that he chose to become one of us. This cannot be missed. It’s everything. And while Piper might readily agree with his words that we are valued, he is quick to dismiss it as a secondary point in his teaching and wholesale with his conclusions. By the latter, I mean he comes to conclusions that can only make sense if you treat humans as unvalued (for example, the statement “In the New Testament the question about remarriage after divorce is not determined by . . . the ease or difficulty of living as a single parent for the rest of life on earth” that occurs in his position paper on divorce).

Recently, a friend told me he’d be interested to know why I thought people were leaving the church. Well, while I’m far from an expert, I think this is it. I don’t think it’s because of light shows and loud music, and I don’t think it’s for a lack of teaching the Bible. I think it’s a lack of valuing people just as they are. And the popular evangelical Christians making the most noise don’t show that they value people. They value ideas. They value theology. Or they value great music. Or they value social clubs. But when you get right down to it, people will sit in the pews and the church will preach at them that they are worthless. That they are worms who should be grateful for God’s attention. And then, even worse, we’ll show them this hatred. This is terrible and nothing like the way the scripture talks about faith, but it’s part and parcel for modern evangelical Christianity. Wonder why the “liberals” are so hostile to us? I don’t. I’d hate us too.

Many of those who know me know that I think and talk a lot about the church’s response to domestic violence. I probably sound like a broken record to them because I return to the subject so often. But I have come to believe that this issue is a strong indicator that we’ve have some launching theology wrong- that there is a rotten core. Because even the world can see how bad it is when an abused wife goes to a person for help and is asked what her sin is. About how she provoked her husband. And told that whatever she does, she must not leave him. Only perverse minds raised on perverse theology could attribute such council to God, and yet it happens all the time. This is not a problem of a few misguided pastors out of their depth: it’s systemic, and it’s a problem at the root of what we believe, not the fringes. A truly Christian centered theology is going to START with “You are a valuable person, and this is not OK”. But domestic abuse is just one example that speaks to me- the results of placing low value on people show up all over the “ministry” of the church.

I believe the Bible is the only infallible source for truth concerning God’s relationship to man (and vice versa). That being said, sometimes we get away from the scripture and the truth is better proclaimed by the world than the church. Such is the case when Brene Brown delivered her famous Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability.
I’m not saying she’s not a believer, but she certainly arrived at her conclusions from research rather than scripture. And yet, her research bares out exactly how important it is to value people. She says that you can divide folks in to two groups, those who are unhappy and those who are happy, and the clear difference, the ONLY difference, is that the happy people believe they are worthy of love and belonging. Happy people understand that they are valuable. They understand they have the dignity that comes from being created in the Image of God (even if they don’t make the connection that the Image of God is the reason why they are valuable).

Brown lists many things people do to try to achieve love and belonging when they don’t believe they are worth much: over indulging, drug abuse, consumerism. The list goes on. And I think the church has become one more avenue for them try to achieve connection. People hurt for connection, so they come to us. And they hear the John Piper’s of the world tell them to not think much of themselves, and rather think much on God. They don’t establish connection or feel love or belonging. They just feel more of the same. And it might draw people in the way so many unhealthy things do as we try to prop ourselves up and achieve worthiness, but it won’t bring ultimate life.

Because, in the end, a low evaluation of self isn’t the Gospel. People don’t become worthy of love and connection when they accept Christ and enter the fold. Save for the few people among us who make connection impossible (psychopaths and sociopaths), people are already worthy of love and connection just for being humans. The scripture commands us to love widows, orphans, poor, and aliens. Many of these are people not of our tribe, not in the fold. But they are people who God loves, and they are people we should love.

Yes, the Gospel is that there is GREATER life beyond just love and connection within a community: there is ultimate love and connection with God as a son our daughter, adoption into the Kingdom. This is an unbelievable offer that we do not merit and only some receive by grace, but it is not the basis for love and connection. Those are human qualities, not believer qualities.

For too long we’ve listened to false teachers tell us that a low view of ourselves is the viewpoint of scripture. This results in so many distortions that our preaching sounds nothing like the language of scripture, and we don’t even realize it. I can no longer accept this kind of teaching in my life- it’s not Godly and it is not the Gospel. Until John Piper corrects his understanding of the nature of man, he is not worth listening to on any subject. It’s just too critical. I’ve often remarked that his answers about how to deal with domestic violence must mean he’s never actually worked with victims, because if he had and said these sorts of things, it would make him a monster. I still think that’s true, but I also think it’s his low view of human beings that allows him to say what he does. It’s tragic, but it’s a tragedy many are amplifying as they repeat it over and over again, often praising him for his “winsome” style.

We need to do better. We need to be a people that fundamentally view other people as worthy of love and belonging. As image bearers of God. As deserving of justice. Right now, so many people experience church as just another avenue where they can follow a plan to find acceptance, and that’s not what we are here to offer. Telling people who are hurting and in pain “you aren’t worth much” is just going to send them looking for a new drug, because this drug is as ineffective as the last.

No more.

We can disagree on a lot of theology. We can even disagree on important topics like gender equality. I might find your views oppressive and you might find mine too lenient. And those are conversations that we need to have- we can learn from one another. But what I will no longer tolerate is this idea that we must debase ourselves to fully magnify God. That isn’t humility (which is a fine quality), but rather asceticism, and asceticism may have the appearance of Godliness, but it has no real power to change us.

What does have power is love. Acceptance. Meeting the broken where they are. Having enough honesty to admit our own brokenness. To build connection with others, understanding we all need it and all crave it, but that we have a better plan than WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter. We have the Kingdom of God on earth. There is no grater institution and no greater plan for humanity then this. Let’s not miss it. Let’s preach it and go crazy with how infectious it can be.

And let the John Pipers of the world catch up when they realize that they’ve had it wrong the whole time.

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The Greater Good

I admit it, I’m a fan of The Walking Dead. So here’s a warning for anyone who hasn’t seen the episode “Slabtown” and wants to be surprised: this post will be full of spoilers. You will want to watch it and come back. Now if you aren’t a fan of the show, don’t worry and read on- you’ll get my point without knowing the ins an outs of TWD.

I’m not a big fan of gore or horror, but I really like exploring humans and how they might react in extreme situations. So while some might complain about episodes where zombies aren’t front and center, those stories are some of my favorites. In fact, zombies aren’t particularly interesting to me, but they provide a very interesting backdrop to study people. And Slabtown boasts maybe the most horrific scene of the entire show with nary a zombie in sight when a man uses a lollipop to suggest rape. It was so violating and convincing, my skin crawled.

For the quick rundown for those who missed it, this episode stars teenager-growing-up-fast Beth. Blond and pretty, she’s been largely uninteresting in the show, and maybe a bit weak. In a few previous episodes she started becoming stronger and more confident. Fair enough- she lost a mother and a father already to zombies- she’s due to be both weak and strong.

In this episode we find out she was “saved” from zombies by a group of folks who have made Grady Hospital their home. There is one doctor, some police officers, and a few other folks working lower on the totem pole to build a life. It’s revealed quite early on that Beth is not free to leave and that the leader of group, a female police officer, expects her to work off her debts (which is strongly hinted to be unending). The officer wields a tenuous leadership at best over the male officers, while the doctor enjoys a bit more freedom as the only one around who understands medicine.

While zombies infest the outside world, for the people lower in the hierarchy of “Slabtown” it’s the threat inside that is terrifying. One woman would rather flee and be killed by zombies than stay, and it isn’t too long until we find out why. She’s being raped by the male officers who are using their position of power to take whatever they want. Beth is revolted/scared by this, and she and the leader have a pretty serious talk. In that talk, the leader reveals she knows what’s going on and she allows it because of “the greater good”. In her reasoning, she needs to keep the male police officers happy because they are strong and they are the ones who will help the little community survive until help comes.

And then these words to Beth: “You are not the greater good.” The officer tells Beth that she is weak and cannot serve the way the men can, so her role is to be used and “play her part.” In fact, she should be happy that she has a role to play.

Is your stomach turning yet? I know mine was. The idea that any leader could force such a thing on someone is horrific, and yet the imaginary trials of Beth are very much a reality to many in the world today. In other countries under oppressive regimes, yes, but also in our churches.

There are women who are abused, emotionally, sexually, and physically, and are told that they are suffering for God’s glory- not so different from “the greater good.” But that’s something that happens only in fringe, crazy fundamentalist churches, right? Sadly, no. Take, for example, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who, according to his own words, told an abused woman he was happy she was beaten because it led to her husband’s repentance. On A Cry For Justice you can read story after story (especially if you read the comments) about women (and sometimes men) coming from churches that held them in abusive marriages because they believed that the marriage was more important that the welfare of the individual. Some (not all) would graciously allow separation for a time, but always with the goal of eventual reconciliation, a truly untenable solution for someone who has been repeatedly violated by her spouse.

The lead officer in this episode is pursuing peace at any cost, much like many pastors do. Pastors are the shepherds of their flocks, positioned to protect and defend them. Yet I’ve heard woman after woman tell of going to her pastor for help only to be accused herself and told that the marriage is more important than she is. In fact, you can see this sentiment in extremely popular pastor John Piper’s views on divorce where he bluntly states, “In the New Testament the question about remarriage after divorce is not determined by . . . the ease or difficulty of living as a single parent for the rest of life on earth.” No, for Piper, and many like him, it is about the law, the “greater good.” If a single parent separated from her husband is struggling to survive, that’s not the primary concern of John Piper. In fact, he diminishes such struggles to “Temporal frustrations and disadvantages”.

In “Slabtown” we are given a graphic example of all that is wrong with this “greater good” leadership. Like the pastors who diminish abuse victims, the leader at the hospital reduces Beth to a tool for male entitlement. Her worth is found in the lewd desires of men who would abuse her. And sadly, even the “friendly male” in the show turns around and uses her, justifying his abuse in that it was necessary for his own survival. At least he was honest.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about how a good God can allow evil to exist. There is a lot to say on the subject and I certainly don’t have it all worked out. But one thing I do know is that WE are the greater good. How else can we understand “For God so loved the world”? We may go through struggles and pain and suffering, but God never tortures and uses us to bring him pleasure. The Bible says clearly that God works all things for good for believers, and my faith is in that statement, even if I don’t know how it all works out. Yes, evil happens, and yes God permits it. But we should never mistake God’s permission of evil as a deal with the devil. If we struggle, it is because there is greater to come FOR US.

Pastors should take heed from an episode like this because it reveals the ugly truth of what happens when our leaders are weak and permit evil among them. We are not called to make peace at the expense of the weak. We are not called to preach at the expense of the weak. We are not called to have squeaky clean images at the expense of the weak. Because “the greater good” will always be the people of God whom he loves and calls his children.

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The Abuser’s Entitlement To Marriage

“You are not entitled to a happy marriage”. I heard and read some variation of these words countless times when I was going through my divorce. I’ll admit they caused me pause every time, and they still do. They are true, after all. Not everyone gets to have happiness in their marriage, and some people don’t even get to be married at all. But in the context of divorce, this can be a really cruel way to try and motivate people to stay in a marriage. At least, it can when there have been serious transgressions.

I agree that becoming dissatisfied with a spouse is no reason to seek divorce. Happiness in a marriage doesn’t just happen: it takes work from both individuals. When that work isn’t done, unhappiness and dissatisfaction will be the result. The answer isn’t to throw in the towel, but rather to do some pretty hard self-examination and work on building up the relationship.

But in a destructive, abusive relationship these words are something else entirely. You are telling a person who wants peace and safety that he or she is having entitlement issues. Only someone with a very dispassionate attitude toward other humans could label “I want to go to sleep knowing that I will be safe” as “entitlement”. It’s a cruel twist of words, but they can easily bring shame to the peacemaker who is doing his or her best to stay safe, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

What I’ve found ironic as I’ve listened to stories of abuse victims, however, is that the aggressor is afforded a great deal of entitlement by many churches. He or she is entitled to a marriage, whether the victim wants out or not. I was re-reading John Piper’s take on abusive marriages and I came across these words:

A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries. This legitimate recourse to civil protection may be done in a spirit that does not contradict the spirit of love and submission to her husband, for a wife may take this recourse with a heavy and humble heart that longs for her husband’s repentance and the restoration of his nurturing leadership.

Leaving aside the whole issue that apparently a wife is only able to “not submit” to her husband because the civil authorities protect her (rather than realizing a wife is never required to submit “to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries”), even when a wife flees to protect herself she is to long for the marriage to be restored. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that her husband, no matter how much evil he has done, is entitled to be married to her.

This really hit home as I read a letter from a “former abuser” on ACFJ this week. The part that really got my ire up was his last words:

I am not ready to give up the fight of my life, or my marriage of about 35 years, or my family just yet.

By his own admission, this man abused his wife. He harmed her so much that she decided to end the marriage. He claims repentance, and yet he still believes that the marriage is his to fight for. It is “the fight of his life”. But the real fight of our lives is to be called sons and daughters of God, a right we can never secure on our own; Jesus did it for us. The point is, repentance is not a means to an end. It is not the pathway by which we get things back that we have destroyed.

In the (in my opinion misnamed) parable of the Prodigal Son, there is a son who leaves and a son who stays. The son who stays puts great stock in his own behavior, seeing it as a means to gain his inheritance. But he is not grateful for the presence of his father, something he had the entire time. Ironically, it is the son who squandered what he had who learns the value of the father’s presence. He was willing serve in the lowest of positions just to have it.

That is the attitude of repentance. Whenever someone says “I’ve repented, so now . . .” he or she is already wrong. The gift we get from repentance is the forgiveness and grace of Christ. Anything else we demand means we are feeling entitled.

Abusers have a spirit of entitlement. They believe there are certain things that are their rights, and sadly the church plays right along. The loophole is wanting a marriage to stick it out isn’t entitlement in so many Christians eyes because they reason that God always wants marriages to succeed. But this is false: God does care more for victims than he does for marriages. Take the metaphor of God’s relationship with Israel: Scripture says that God issued Israel a writ of divorce for her transgressions. Would any of us accept Israel turning around and saying “I’m sorry, I’ve stopped my idolatrous behavior, now God you must take me back”? Never- under such logic Israel was owed the crucifixion rather than it being an act of grace. Israel was never entitled to be received back by God after he reached the end of his patience.

The woman fleeing the husband abusing her? She’s not waving around the “R” word to try to get something. She’s exercising healthy self preservation. Please do not even hint that her act is one of entitlement. Save that for the abuser who believes it’s time for her to come home.

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Merit vs. Worth

My post last week on “Worthiness” was a little controversial as I knew it would be. Underlying the discussion was questioning the idea that we cannot be “worthy” if we were dead in our sins and unable to earn salvation. I was arguing that ALL people (Christian or not) are worthy of love and belonging, and I stand by that view based on the scriptural view that all people were given the image of God, which is the basis for human dignity. However, I drew some criticism for saying that Jesus dying for our sins demonstrates our worthiness. I understand the objection: isn’t part of the Gospel that we did not merit saving?

My counter is that obviously we were worth saving because God did it and God doesn’t do anything that isn’t worth doing. But I’ll admit it sounds strange to say “We were worthy of being saved”. I think the disconnect here is that the word “worthy” has become synonymous with “meritorious” and carries a connotation of entitlement. This becomes a question of definitions, so that’s where I want to go to make my meaning clear.

What is the difference between “merit” and “worth”? I’m no expert on meanings, but my sense is that merit is meeting an objective standard, whereas worth is subjective value. That is, everyone can evaluate the merit of something and will come up with the same answer if they are evaluating the same criteria. Something’s worth, on the hand, is going to be different for different people because we all value things in our own ways. As I was growing up I remember my dad saying a million times over “Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay”. That’s a true statement. Whatever the merits of something for sale, people won’t pay anything if they don’t value it, and they will pay exorbitant amounts if they do.

A real example, one that the Bible itself uses a lot, is the relationship between father and son. If you want to look at the merits that my son brings to my life, an outward observer would be hard pressed to objectively understand why he means so much to me. Logically, he consumes time, energy, money, and a large amount of my resources. By an external standard this world has many children like him who have the same amount of merit. But to me, my son is tops and I won’t hear differently. Whatever he merits, to me he is worth more than everything I have and then some. I love him not on the basis of merit, but on his worth to me.

Spiritually, I think this difference between merit and worth is an important distinction. Our worth is truly found in Jesus and how he values us, not in the world and its brokenness. It is true that no one merits salvation, but Jesus found us worth saving, and how wonderful is that? This leads to a very simple definition of grace: grace is the gap between merit and worth, and what a large gap that is!

The Bible itself uses the metaphor of father and children to describe our relationship to God, and what could make it more clear that our basis for value is not found in our merits, but in his view of us? So yes, we have worth, tremendous worth, that is demonstrated by the grace he has poured out on us.

I suppose the only disconnect here is whether us having “worth” means we are “worthy”. For some reason, the second word smacks of entitlement, and that is certainly not what I meant. Those who follow Jesus are not entitled to salvation, nor do they merit it. But God found us to be worth saving. For me, that makes it safe to say “worthy”, but it’s a foreign worthiness given to us by God because of the value he places on us.

I think it’s a shame that Christians walk through this world believing that they have very low worth. If the God of the universe who created everything in it says we are of great worth, we should be red-faced to think or say any differently. I’m not saying we should be self-centered or self exalting, but to not accept the great worth he places on us is to not accept an aspect of his amazing grace.

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