Posted on Monday, August 24, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Perhaps six days is a little short for an accidental feminist retrospective, but, given the feedback Aimee and I have received for our two posts on John Piper, the time seems ripe for such.  Some cheered us for speaking out against the increasingly patriarchal sounds coming from leading complementarians.  Others jeered at us for betraying the gospel.  So to help the  dazed and clear up the confusion, here is a final helpful summary of what we actually claim:

 

1. Women should not be ordained.

2. Men should take the spiritual lead in their families, although marriage is not to be construed in terms of submission to the exclusion of other biblical categories.

3. But male-female relationships elsewhere are complicated and attempts to parse them narrowly along strict lines of submission simply end up utilizing more or less subjective and nebulous categories.

4. This leads to logical confusions, inconsistencies, silliness and, at a more sinister level, a view of women as ontologically inferior to men.

5. Therefore we need to be careful in these areas not to allow our churches to become cult-like by binding the consciences of believers and creating cultural attitudes which can legitimate abuse.

 

Interestingly enough, the key point on which our conclusions turn – number 3 above – was basically conceded by John Piper in the podcast in question.  The problem is that he then seemed functionally to ignore this, perhaps on the basis that it is better to be safe than sorry.

 

By my reckoning, the position articulated by us Spinners is perfectly consistent with the theology of the Bible as expressed in the Westminster Standards and thus with that of historic, confessional Presbyterianism.   It also places us only slightly, very slightly, to the left of Vlad the Impaler in the context of modern American society.  Indeed, it surely makes me unemployably conservative even within great swathes of the evangelical world.  Hysteria about this being a sell-out is just that: hysteria.   Yet it also perhaps has a deeper significance.

 

That this position is now apparently deemed by many to be a contentious compromise is surprising and would perhaps indicate that the loudest and most influential voices on the issue are moving complementarianism distinctly to the right, encouraging it towards positions more akin to patriarchy, and pushing its remit into the micromanagement of lives via expanded church power, whether explicitly or in more subtly coercive ways. That is very disturbing. While I have little interest in complementarianism as a social movement myself, I worry at the influence such voices may have on congregations and Christian families.  It would thus be very helpful for groups like CBMW to make it clear where they think the acceptable rightward boundary of their movement is. And, while we’re at it, it would also be useful to have some of the talented women involved in the complementarian movement speaking up on the apparent direction being taken by some of the leadership.  Such women have made signal contributions to the church over recent years and the influence of this  rightward trend would seem set to become the pressing issue of the day within their circles.  This is not a moment for silence.

 

In the meantime, if you get lost on your travels over Labor Day weekend, better wait for the next available man so that you can ask him for directions. That should help you avoid crises of conscience.   In fact, why not sidestep the dilemma entirely and simply use a GPS?  Though please do make sure it is set to a male voiceover.  Better to be safe than sorry, after all.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Yesterday my fellow Spinblogger, Aimee Byrd, offered a penetrating and welcome critique of the advice given by John Piper to an inquiry about whether it was legitimate for women to serve as police officers.  She cited this passage in particular as problematic:

 

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way a husband will, but he will be a man. At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.

 

The passage is arguably even more problematic than Aimee allows.   It seems to me to make women in themselves into nothing more than defective beings and to rest upon a definition of complementarity which is really one of radical, across-the-board subordination.   It also leaves me wondering what I can say to single women in my church.   Find a man, any man, to submit to in some context or other?

 

The whole piece also indicates the problems that occur when the issue of male-female complementarity is detached from the specific issues of marriage and church.  Once you try to extrapolate to the world at large, three things follow.  First, you find a proliferation of questions such as this and indeed even more trivial ones – for example, how a woman should answer a man asking for directions when he is lost.  Second, you become increasingly dependent upon subjective and vague criteria for making decisions, criteria which are as malleable as those in positions of (sub)cultural authority – formal or informal -- wish to make them.   Third, the consequent complication of even the most routine male-female encounters creates a world where people are practically infantilized.  They are ever fearful of doing the wrong thing even in situations of no real consequence, and always dependent on the advice of the gurus who own the criteria mentioned under the second point – and who now have power and influence way beyond the bounds of that ministerial authority given to the church and her officers.

 

I rarely read complementarian literature these days. I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household.   I am a firm believer in a male-only ordained ministry in the church but I find increasingly bizarre the broader cultural crusade which complementarianism has become.  It seems now to be more a kind of reaction against feminism than a balanced exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationships of men and women.   Thus, for example, marriage is all about submission of wife to husband (Eph. 5) and rarely about the delight of friendship and the  kind of playful but subtly expressed eroticism we find in the Song of Songs.  Too often cultural complementarianism ironically offers a rather disenchanted and mundane account of the mystery and beauty of male-female relations.  And too often it slides into sheer silliness.

 

To borrow a phrase, yes, I guess I am in some sense an accidental feminist.

Posted on Monday, August 10, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Karl Marx commented that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.  When it comes to ministerial falls, sadly the tradition today is to go straight to farce.  Thus it is with Tullian Tchividjian’s fall and rise.  All of the celebrity conventions are there: The use of a well-known counselor brought in specially, the faux intimacy of the twitter feed, and now a slick podcast on coming back after a fall – less than two months since his confession that he betrayed his wife and broke his marriage vows.  There are even the predictable fans out there who seem to think that Tchividjian is essential to the gospel, as the message clearly depends upon his return to the pulpit ASAP.   I confess, I have no idea why he has this compulsive need to make the whole of his life a public performance or why people fall for it.  Patronizing pseudo-pious answers about seeing how great God’s grace is are beside the point.  This is showmanship so let's call it what it is.   Do such people exist in private in any meaningful way, I wonder?

I first came across Tchividjian in the context of his misunderstanding of Martin Luther as a supporter of his view of grace.  Eventually, I offered to fly to Florida to debate the issue with him.  His rather weird response was to go on some radio show and accuse me of breaking the Ninth Commandment.  At the time,  a number of his more ecclesiastically savvy supporters argued that such a debate was unnecessary, that he was a churchman and thus answerable only to church courts.  That response was a mixture of confusion and clarity.  Confusion, because ignorance of history is not in itself a matter for ecclesiastical discipline.  I simply wanted to correct his embarrassing misunderstanding of Luther’s thought.  Clarity, because yes, he is a minister and thus discipline matters do fall under the authority of Presbytery and due process.

So where is Presbyterianism in this latest debacle, a matter which most certainly falls under the category of a discipline matter?  Tchividjian is, or at least was, a Presbyterian pastor.  That binds him by solemn vow not simply to teach certain doctrines and to live in a certain way but also to act relative to his sin according to certain principles and processes.   When he finds himself delinquent in doctrine or life, he should report himself to his Presbytery and place himself under its discipline and pastoral care.   Anyone interested can find the relevant vows and processes in the PCA Book of Church Order, Chapters 19.3, 21.5 and 38.1.  His fellow Presbyters, not some life-coach to the Christian stars and least of all his Twitter followers, are the ones to lead him to repentance and to determine the passage back to Christian fellowship (though not, I believe, in the case of an adulterer ever back to a teaching or ruling office within the church).   Has Tchividjian followed this process?  He is bound by vow so to do and thus part of the evidence of a humble and contrite heart is precisely this submission to due process.

Perhaps he is following the PCA Book of Church Order's provisions.  But everything, from the role of Paul Tripp to the verbal diarrhea on Twitter, looks to me unlike any typical Presbytery discipline/pastoral process with which I am familiar.   More likely a comeback is being set in place and that that has been the case from the start.  And when we find slick podcasts about come backs after failure popping up on the web less than two months after the crisis – well, that seems more consistent with advice one might perhaps receive from another body beginning with a ‘p’: not ‘Presbytery’ but ‘Public Relations Consultancy.’

Posted on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Over at First Things, a Lutheran pastor has offered a critique of Gerhard Forde's Lutheran theology and connected it to the recent fall of Tullian Tchividjian.  Mark Jones has offered a measured response at Reformation21.   Both articles make good points.  Tchividjian's understanding of Luther was historical and theological drivel, a montonous mess confected from cool soundbites.  Whether it played into his fall, only God and maybe Tchividjian himself know.  Certainly adultery is no respecter of theology or even of the correct interpretation of Martin Luther.

My problem with the whole Tchividjian debacle is akin to my problem with the Driscoll disaster.  Even setting aside theological issues, something was obviously wrong for quite a long time before the specific fall -- and would continue to have been wrong even if the public falls had never happened.  If Tchividjian had never betrayed his wife, the earlier questions about seeing him as some kind of evangelical leader would still remain, given the nature of his theology, the way he talked about his critics, and the model of ministry he represented. 

Tchividjian and Driscoll are both products of the way American showbiz aesthetics and values drive so much of the evangelical subculture. Style and swagger and soundbites -- and little else. And they both benefited from the fact that nothing immunizes one to accountability in America like success.  As long as you are successful, no-one calls you on your behaviour, no-one makes you answer the hard questions, and plenty of people are happy to use your name to sell tickets to their gig.  The tragedy is that good men are then allowed to go bad, and outright charlatans are allowed to continue with influence, with groups like TGC backing them until the public relations problems, not the obvious theological and accountability issues, render them too hot to handle -- long after others have been pointing out the obvious. 

The crises of the YRR are recapitulations of the crises of an earlier generation of televangelists, and the comparison I made years ago between the culture of the headline acts of the YRR and the creeps of the 1980s is sadly more apposite now than it was then.  They had their mischief mongers.  Well, looks like we have our equivalents, right down to the loyal camp followers who can never bring themselves to accept the consequences of the failure of their leaders.  Who could have seen that coming?  Well, just about anybody who looked at the branding, the twitter accounts, the swaggering, and the constant self-promotion of these people, and found themselves asking the questions 'Hang on a minute, where does Philippians 2 fit into all of this?' or 'What do these men's local elders think about that?'

Unless the culture of broader reformed evangelicalism in the US changes, the real lessons of these spectacular falls -- lessons which are not primarily theological -- will not have been learned and the phony will continue to be sold as if it were the real thing.

Posted on Saturday, July 11, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Dave Moore has an excellent post on the selective outrage of evangelicals over gay marriage.  Here is the core of his argument:

"We believe homosexuality is a sin.  We also believe that gluttony, gossip, adultery, sex outside of marriage, racism, unscrupulous business practices, the love of money, divorce, and a whole host of other things are sin.  Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job in communicating a comprehensive view of sin.  We have been selective.  Too many times we have been motivated by fear.  We have avoided addressing certain sins for fear our giving at church will plummet.  Too many of us have come across as both hating the sin of homosexuality and the homosexual.  We could go on with other specifics, but hopefully you get the point.  Our selective outrage has made us not act like Jesus.  We have been rather poor at modeling the “grace and truth” approach of Jesus."

Amen.

My one point of pushback or perhaps clarification would be this: While I cannot speak for others, the only reason I write regularly in the wider public sphere on the issue is that this is the one being used to leverage restrictions on freedom of religion.  If greed or gossip were being used in that way, I would write against them.    In fact, as I reflect on my Sunday preaching over the last years, I think I have mentioned gay marriage perhaps half a dozen times in the pulpit in the course of 150+ sermons, and then often only as illustrative of some wider point.  Probably I should teach more on sexual ethics than I do, given that one can no longer assume that all Christians necessarily grasp what the Bible teaches. 

It is the task of the preacher to be led by the text, even if the questions he brings to that text are shaped by present concerns, pastoral and otherwise. Our ministry should be as wide ranging and as balanced as the Bible.  But it is the task of the concerned citizen to speak specifically to those issues which are being used to undermine free and civil society.

You can read the whole thing here.

Posted on Wednesday, July 08, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Thanks to a lead from my favourite magazine, Private Eye, I found this conference online.  The prize for the title which packs more gibberish per inch than any other has to go to Daniel Massie (The Robert Gordon University), for ‘Jaws: The Case of the Archetypal American Villain as Queer Dissident Attacking the Heteronormative.’   

It has been some years since I saw the film but I confess that I do not recall the shark having an English accent -- so claims about it being archetypal in an American movie context are clearly exaggerated.  But hey, that's the beauty of critical theory -- you can make it up as you go along. 

And, you know, every now and then a shark is just a shark.

Posted on Monday, June 22, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I was reminded by events elsewhere yesterday how much I rely on my elders.   The task of the elder is to pastor the pastor.  If they do not do it, nobody else will.  That means there will be times when the elder has to confront his pastor because he sees that his teaching, or his life, or maybe both, are starting to wander from the path of truth and godliness.   Whenever a pastor falls, one has to ask: Where were the elders?  Sometimes, of course, the pastor can be good at hiding his faults; At other times, elders just turn a blind eye to peccadilloes, assuming that the pastor is a good chap and could not possibly be heading in a  spiritually lethal direction. 

Unfortunately, ordination does not immunize one from total depravity and its consequences.  When a pastor falls, there but for the grace God goes every other Christian.

If you are a pastor, cultivate a culture where your elders are comfortable speaking frankly to you, where they feel part of a team of equals and not a subordinate part of a rigid hierarchy.  And if you are an elder and you do not have the backbone to confront your pastor, then for his sake and for the sake of the church you need to resign and find another role in the church.   I am privileged to have such men in my church.  If you do not, pray that the Lord will raise them up for you.  You need them.

 

 

Posted on Thursday, May 21, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Paul Helm has an interesting piece critiquing the critics of megapastordom over at his blog, Helm’s Deep.

Three things require a brief response.  First, it is clear that Paul does not understand how discipline in a Presbyterian context should work.  In actual fact, disciplinary charges need not be made public to the whole church unless the offence being charged is itself a public offence (i.e., already widely known to the congregation -- in which case, the problem of suspicion and the presumption of guilt is really a matter of fallen human nature, not the structure of the polity).   In my experience in such discipline cases involving sins known only to a few (i.e. those having the legal status of private offences), confidentiality among the elders (which connects to how Presbyterians understand 'church' in Matthew 18) has been maintained – but even if it had not, that would then be a failure caused by human nature, not a structural fault of the system itself.

Second, while I cannot speak for other critics of the Mighty Men (my preferred term is Top Men), my own concern has not been so much for the egotism etc. (though that can certainly be a problem) as it is for the manner in which such Top Men are received by their followers and the way their churches are viewed as normative aspirational models.  It may not be their intention to become normative role models (and thus to set unrealistic expectations for the ministry which today’s students anticipate) but that is what happens when they are so carefully and attractively marketed as such.   Paul does not address this issue, which is for me, as a teacher of future pastors, the central concern with the celebrity pastor problem.

Third, Paul’s comments are prefaced by his observation that the debate is not taking place because the critics are not engaging the other side.  On the contrary, the problem is that the Top Men and their followers have adamantly refused to engage the critics.  We have been dismissed, blacklisted and bullied.  When I first raised the issue, I was summoned to a phone conference with a Top Man who told me that I simply needed to shut up as his organization had no intention of acting on any of my criticisms (except, if I remember, the removal of the term 'VIP seating' at their conferences), a point which he and his assistants have since reinforced by email on a number of occasions.  Then, when we critics have been proved correct (as in the case of Mark Driscoll) we have still either been ignored or accused of being ‘smug’ simply because we then pointed out to those who were crying 'Somebody should have spoken up!’ that, well, yes, some of us did speak up and that the belatedly wise were at the forefront of dismissing our criticisms as the mean-spirited murmurings of mediocre also-rans.

Posted on Thursday, May 14, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

While Aimee was off not doing stairs and trying to become a female Bond villain, on Tuesday the rest of Team Spin was refreshing the parts ot the theological world which other, more transformational, evangelical organizations cannot reach. 

Day Two of the Yale seminar was somewhat more sedate than Day One.  It involved five discussions: Michal Beth Dinkler, professor at YDS,  spoke about her experiences as a youth leader in a megachurch; Charlie Dunn, Seth Jones, and Michael Walker spoke about life at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, which has just left the PCUSA for ECO; John Hare, professor at YDS, spoke about moral authority and the church growth movement; Steven Harris, a YDS student, former Capitol Hill Baptist intern and African American pastor, spoke on congregation, community, and growth; and Jennifer Powell McNutt, professor at Wheaton, led the final discussion of the day on ministry and academy.

Two things were particularly noteworthy.  First, Steven Harris’s adamant refusal, in the face of some pressure from the floor, to make the gospel into social activism.  He was simply (and rightly) unwilling to be the African American pastor some in the group wanted him to be.  He argued for the social work he has to do in his community as ‘an integral implication’ of the gospel and not as being the gospel itself.   That concept struck me as helpful, pointing to the necessary connection between gospel and action without collapsing the former into the latter.

Most intriguing, however, was John Hare’s paper.  He started by offering a dramatic thesis: when we no longer know how to justify the higher demands of our faith, we will subside into the lowest common denominators of our culture.’   Hare saw this in the rise of three basic secular values in the church: success, happiness, and prestige.  These are highly problematic as they lead to emphasis on size, emotionalism/entertainment, and the implicit competition of growth by redistribution (aka sheep stealing).

I need to reflect much longer on this analysis but it immediately made sense of something unexpected I noted on day one and which became apparent at various points in the week: the strange affinity between the evangelical megachurchism and liberal ecclesiology of some of those at the seminar.   Numerical size and therapeutic impact were central to both.   I had never noticed that affinity before but it was clearly there and needs explanation.  Hare’s approach seems to me at this point as plausible as any: the abandonment of scriptural authority in liberal circles and the tendency to identify what works with what is true in evangelical church methods are both vulnerable to his thesis.  Neither can justify the higher demands of the faith.  Both therefore tend to end up as replications of the wider culture in a Christian idiom.

A fascinating day of five excellent presentations.  One more report to follow.

Posted on Tuesday, May 12, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Todd and I are spending much of this week attending a private Church Leadership and Growth seminar at Yale Divinity School, organized by my old postgraduate friend, Bruce Gordon, the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History and co-editor with me of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Calvinism. The attendees are eclectic: Yale students, pastors from the PCUSA and ECO, and a number of YDS professors.  Plus the Spin Team, pulling for the PCA and the OPC.  Aimee was meant to be with us but the seminar room is on the second floor and her conference contract contains that notorious Mariah Carey-esque rider about ‘not doing stairs.’

Bruce was inspired to organize the seminar by an article in Christianity Today written by one of those pragmatic, number-crunchers types who passes for an expert in church planting these days.  I think the email he sent to invite us all was sent at 2-34am one morning. Suffice it to say, the article had touched one of Bruce's raw nerves.

On Monday, the YDS Dean, Gregory Sterling, led a discussion focused on the decline in church attendance in the West over recent decades, followed by Todd and myself speaking about local church ministry and the use of media.   In the process, I think I probably became the first person in many generations to speak against women’s ordination on campus.  Or at least to say such and live to return the next day.   A tense moment, for sure, but one followed by trenchant yet civil discussion.   It was encouraging to know that even in this day of highly polarized and emotional identity politics, there are still venues where those of strong opinions can still engage in argument without attacking the person.

It was interesting that Dr. Sterling’s paper assumed that decline in numbers was necessarily a bad sign for the church.   I am not sure that this is the case.   If, for example, church is ceasing to be a place where attendance enhances social prestige and where coffee times are used to broker business deals, then numbers will decline; But it is hard to argue that such a decline is in itself a bad thing.  It might actually witness to the fact the relationship between church and society is changing because of the fidelity of the church to her message and mission, not because she is failing in some catastrophic way.  

When Todd spoke of his experience as a youth pastor in a megachurch, he told of the target quotas for attendance etc. which he had to achieve and that seemed to rest upon precisely the same assumption, that size is a gauge of fidelity, or perhaps (even worse) that size is fidelity.

It struck me as interesting that, for all of their material differences, both the megachurch world and the theological left seem rooted in a similar pragmatism when it comes to church and growth: Numerical growth is necessarily good and numerical decline is necessarily bad; And that the cause is the failure of the church to adapt her message or her methods to the questions, demands, and frameworks of the world around.

This is set to be a fascinating seminar week.  More reports to follow.  Now, if only Aimee 'did stairs'....