A Complementarian Crisis

The Biblical vision of gender offers real joy and flourishing. The question is, do we?

A couple years ago Ray Ortlund memorably described the typical lifespan of an American evangelical church as “Movement, monument, then mausoleum.” The early years are the movement, as enthusiasm and purposefulness characterize the church’s charter members and leaders. If the movement finds success, over time the church tends to lose its missional passion and instead devotes most of its energy to preserving itself against the sands of time. The result is an insular, nostalgic culture that can be stirring when excitement is highest but spends most of the time curved in on its own identity. If this habit goes unbroken long enough, eventually the church simply runs out of people who remember “the good old days” and has nothing and no one to replace them with.

Many evangelicals, including yours truly, can personally attest to how true to life this narrative is. You don’t have to go far in America to find a large, beautiful, ornate, empty church. Ironically, though many churches have abandoned the old practice of keeping a cemetery on their grounds, a sobering number of congregations have become their own kind of cemetery, where evangelism and community lie interred. While it might be oversimplified, the movement-monument-mausoleum narrative is certainly true of enough.

That’s at least one reason why many evangelical complementarians, like me, are a bit uneasy nowadays. What’s true of the institutions and movements explicitly commissioned by Jesus (churches) is doubly true of the institutions and movements that are mostly just extra, and in some cases the downward slopes are steeper outside congregational walls. As someone who is solidly convinced that the Bible teaches complementary gender theology over and against both secular feminism and Christian egalitarianism, the complementarian spectacle has not been pleasant of late.

Let me describe the spectacle as I see it.

First, evangelical complementarianism, based on the messaging and activity of its most important institutions and advocates, seems to currently lack a compelling identity. The debate over the Trinity a few years back was an impressive exchange of massively important theological ideas between gifted and faithful scholars, but it’s not at all clear to me what, exactly, that dialogue accomplished. There seems (at least to me, an interested layperson) to be no better consensus on issues such as the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS) now than there was in the smoke.

Such a lack of closure on what appears to be the most significant theological moment for complementarianism in the last ten years exemplifies what feels like a broad uncertainty over what evangelical complementarianism is: a position (on which issues?), a movement (including which people?), a dialogue (between whom?), a response (to what?), etc.  Hence, the feeling of some that current complementarianism, lacking a clear center of gravity, has turned its polemic energy on itself.

That is the second concerning trend. The uncertainty lingering after the trinity debate has led (at least partly) to a widening gap within complementarianism, between the “thin” and the “thick.” Again, the terms are maddeningly unclear. Thin complementarians appear to be mostly responding to arguments from divine ordering and natural law that bind consciences on questions like what jobs and roles women can have in the public square. The thick comps seem to view at least openness to such gendered ordering of the public square as integral to an authentically biblical theology of male and female.

It’s important to acknowledge the significance of this intramural rift for complementarianism writ large. The complementarianism of the Danvers days was explicitly presented as a response to evangelical feminism, e.g., the ordination of women in Christian churches and the downplaying of male-female distinctions in culture and politics. Most self-described “thin” complementarians accept male-only eldership and reject both same-sex marriage and transgender ideology (by contrast, a significant percentage of self-identified egalitarians seem to be LGBT and transgender affirming). Thus, the current rift between thin and thick complementarianism is not a rift over the core content of classic complementarianism as it has been most often articulated, but a rift borne of a newer, more active search to chart the true implications of this theology. No matter whether you identify as thick or thin, the biggest point here is where complementarian energies are being expended, and divided—not so much over the ordering of the home and church, but in the potential implications for public theology outside.

It’s certainly true that the various disputes between the thin and thick camps matter, and should not be dismissed or avoided. If nothing else, pastors and church leaders should define themselves as clearly as possible to avoid potentially catastrophic illusions of unity on issues that have real implications for the congregation. Granted that, I think it’s fair to wonder if the thin vs thick faceoff is doomed by the law of diminishing return. It’s hard to imagine a robust, coherent complementarianism with lots of different splinter cells, servicing competing evangelical sub-tribes that share digital space at places like TGC but work behind the scenes to undermine one another. Perhaps thin vs thick is not such a harbinger. Perhaps it’s a watershed moment that will yield a liberating amount of theological clarity and solidarity. Perhaps not, too.

If certain dynamics continue unchanged, there’s reason to worry about the above scenario coming true. In fact, it’s already started to happen. This is the third concerning trend: a surplus of “lumping,” a frustrating infatuation with ephemeral social media trends, and growing suspicion that what’s being talked about isn’t what’s really being talked about.

One vivid example took place just last week at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. After giving the ERLC’s annual report, president Russell Moore took questions from the floor. One of the questions was a pitifully obvious attempt at a gotcha: The delegate quoted an old piece by Dr. Moore that vigorously asserted a complementarian position on churches that allow preaching by women. “Do you still believe this,” the delegate asked, and only some of the members present would have been able to hear the dog-whistle for a condemnation of Beth Moore.

Of course, one question from one delegate at the Southern Baptist Convention does not a narrative make. Still, the Beth Moore “moment” that swept through large portions of influential complementarian social media was a disconcerting episode—not because a woman’s preaching on Mother’s Day is a good idea complementarians should just get over, but because the stakes of public complementarian theology are much bigger than subtweets and a Hallmark holiday.

These disconcerting trends have one possible, unifying explanation. It could be that the evangelical complementarian vision has pivoted from its focused, theologically hefty “movement” phase, and is currently more concerned with recreating its old polemical energy. In this hypothesis, what the “monument” phase looks like for complementarians is an attempt to re-win a war already won, regardless that evangelical feminism has largely collapsed fully into the mainline denominations and has, for the most part, become one thread in a thoroughly non-evangelical garment. Without the same clearly delineated purpose and target, a restless complementarianism turns on itself and becomes a monument to its former role and rhetoric.

Assuming this is at least partly true, what now? I go back to Ortlund’s original blog post, because the path he offers churches to renewal and rejuvenation rings true in more ways than one:

The responsibility of a church’s leaders is to discern when their movement is starting to level off as a monument. It is at this crucial point that they must face themselves honestly and discover why they have lost their edge, go into repentance and return to the costly commitments that made them great to begin with. They may need to deconstruct much of what they have become, which is painful and embarrassing. But if the leaders will have the humility, clarity, and courage to do this, their church will go into renewal and re-launch as a movement once more. Jesus will become real again, people will be helped again, and those bold, humble leaders will never regret the price they paid.

Unpacking this rich paragraph, I count several steps forward for a renewed complementarian vision:

1) Complementarians don’t need to agree about all the reasons in order to acknowledge that the movement needs help and revitalization. From #MeToo to the Trinity to trolls, complementarian culture needs to honestly assess its current health.

2) Complementarians need to repent of the role that any spiritual pride or anger may have played in the decay of the movement, especially that which may have caused us to deflect faithful criticism and compromise with un-Christian means to accomplish (in our view) Christian ends.

3) Complementarians should enter a season of self-examination, consciously pressing pause on polemics in order to define, clearly, what we believe Jesus is calling us to be and do. There needs to be a “return to fundamentals” in theology, resisting temptations to answer challenges with slippery slope angst and credential-checking and instead going ad fontes, to the heart of the full biblical narrative on gender and God’s image.

4) Complementarians should pray urgently that the Holy Spirit would be discernible to outsiders, including all His fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These aren’t the ingredients to heavy blog traffic or snazzy headlines, but they are the only fruits that matter to the Judge of all the earth.

I don’t believe complementarianism is a generational fad. Rather, I think it is the best, most serious attempt thus yet to make sense of the Bible’s radically counter-cultural ideas about maleness and femaleness. Biblical complementarity, like biblical sexuality, offers deep joy and real flourishing. The challenge, as always, is to resist making a theology that isn’t about us, really about us, and in so doing stand squarely between the world and the joy and flourishing offered by our risen Savior. Of course, Christ doesn’t let even mausoleums get in the way of his mission. The question is, will we?

Advertisements

Why C.S. Lewis Was So Persuasive

A new book lays out why Lewis was such an effective communicator.

In the new book Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, James Beitler III looks at C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical strategy to reflect on what made him so successful at rhetoric. Beitler ascribes to Lewis a rhetoric of goodwill, and fleshes this out in three different categories. Lewis was a powerful and effective communicator because he

1) Defined his audience and addressed them specifically

Beitler writes that Lewis was not afraid to be explicit about the kind of people whom he was addressing in a given context. By deciding who it was that he was most trying to reach, Lewis was able to craft his logical approach in a way that was specifically effective for that audience. This meant, among other things, deciding what particular angle his particular audience needed most, and then putting his ideas where that audience could best access them. Beitler writes, “Lewis’s observations speak to the necessity of learning about one’s audience members before addressing them, and his willingness to do such legwork is an important aspect of his rhetoric of goodwill.”

2) Asserted objective truth humbly.

Beitler points readers to Lewis’s writings on hell—especially The Great Divorce—as exemplifying Lewis’s attitude that truth mattered, and that he (Lewis) needed the truth spoken most of all. Lewis doesn’t divide the world into those who get it and those who should; rather, he preaches intellectual and spiritual repentance to everyone, and to himself most of all. Granting that Lewis could be arrogant (in a footnote, Beitler cites scholarship testifying as much), Beitler finds in Lewis a persistent unwillingness to see himself as better than the ones to whom he was writing.

3) “Cultivated communities of goodwill.”

Lewis practiced the art of friendship. His intellectual work was not created in a vacuum but emerged from relationships in which Lewis practiced the virtues and mercies of grace. Lewis sought out the presence and advice of others, was generous with his critics, and showed kindness and tenderness to his students. On at least one occasion Lewis declined a publisher’s financial offer because he didn’t want to write the scathing review they sought. In other words, Lewis was not simply made of pure logic, but a Christian who lived out the beauty of Christianity and made its claims appeal to the imaginations of those who knew him.

Beitler’s essay on Lewis’s rhetoric is outstanding, and I’m enjoying the rest of the book. By laying out Lewis’s rhetorical effectiveness so plainly, Beitler offers the church at large a model to aspire to. Lewis was indeed brilliant, but that’s not why God used him.


photo credit: CS Lewis sculpture, Belfast (3)
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Albert Bridgegeograph.org.uk/p/2826954

The Empathy Trap

Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant writer Joe Rigney published a piece at Desiring God titled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” Provocative? Yes, and to be honest, my first response when I saw the title was, “Uh, no.” I balked at the suggestion that what we should be talking about in an age of intense polarization, shame storms, and racial and ideological violence is the sin of empathy. Obviously this was a case of someone trying too hard, no?

But as I read the satirical demonic letter  (in the spirit of The Screwtape Letters), the scales began to fall. Here’s how Rigney’s Screwtape describes the difference between empathy and compassion:

Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.

However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.

Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.

In other words, compassion multiplies sufferers, but empathy consumes all fellowship into the feelings of one. In the economy of empathy there is no currency except the sufferer’s own interpretation of their suffering; any other alm offered up is illegitimate. Compassion grabs hold (in one of Rigney’s metaphors) of sinking sufferers while keeping a firm grasp on that which is immovable, so that the sinking sufferer can be pulled up onto something. Empathy dives headlong in the quicksand. The point is not finding life after suffering. There is no point, except the experience of the moment. What we’re talking about is simply the abdication of pursuing the right and true in deference to feelings and experiences.

Now, even typing that previous sentence feels strange. It feels strange because for a while now the idea that feelings and experiences do not dictate what we should believe or do is an idea that has been lumped—lumped in with bombastic right-wing pundits (“Facts don’t care about your feelings”), scowling John Wayne boomers, and careless theologians. This is one of the essential difficulties of thinking in a polarized, culture war age: It’s impossible to believe anything that isn’t somehow trademarked by an obnoxious tribe.

But the difficulty of thinking is not an excuse for failing to try, and if we’re willing to listen, I think Joe is making a crucially important point about the empathy trap and the power it wields over many.

This empathy trap was on display in evangelical social media this week. On Sunday, president Donald Trump appeared onstage at McLean Bible Church, and pastor David Platt prayed with and for him. Joe Carter has a helpful summary of the background of the event, as well as a full transcript of Platt’s prayer. Nearly everyone seems to agree that Platt’s prayer was excellent. It was steadfastly non-partisan and unequivocal about the gospel. But did Platt make a serious error of judgment in allowing Trump to come onstage, in praying for him, and (perhaps most of all) in not forcefully shaming and rebuking him for his politics?  Since the moment resulted in some not-negative PR for Trump, and since Platt did not use the opportunity to challenge the president, a very vocal, very passionate group has reasoned that this obviously caused trauma and offense to many members of Platt’s church (and others).

It is, of course, entirely coherent to hold that a pastor must never allow a politician to be onstage at church. I’m actually sympathetic to that view and imagine that, all variables being equal, such a policy would probably solve a lot of problems at once. But nobody appears to be arguing from absolute principle that Platt was wrong to pray with Trump onstage. Instead, because it was Trump, it was wrong. The argument expressed so far has to do with the felt offense of members of Platt’s church at watching their pastor pray for a president they abhor.

The Platt drama reveals two of the biggest dangers of unchecked empathy. First, empathy is by definition selective (empathize with NeverTrump, or his supporters in the church?); thus it’s uniquely vulnerable to being held captive by passing fads, trends, and mobs. Much of the fiercest criticism of Platt seems to be deeply self-congratulatory, reverberating with Retweets and Likes in echo chambers that consistently take the ungenerous interpretation of a white evangelical pastor’s stage time with Donald Trump. Nary a thought is offered for the complexities of being a pastor of a politically diverse congregation, and the wisdom in refraining from partisan language and simply pointing the church and the president to the gospel.

Second, this kind of empathetic absolutism runs serious risk of becoming a ruthlessly utilitarian way of doing life and theology. Matthew Vines built an entire case for Christian LGBT affirmation on the basis of the hurt and alienation of gay Christians from traditional churches. “Bad trees bear bad fruit,” he wrote, an analogy that fails logically but succeeds emotionally. It’s not hard to see how a one-note emphasis on the feelings of others can become a mechanism for controlling revelation, particularly in the hyper-democratic and hyper-individualistic superstructure of online life.

The alternative, as Joe writes, is compassion. There should be much compassion for those who fall into the empathy trap, since, where compassion is lacking, unchecked empathy often rushes to fill the void. There is a true dearth of compassion in both secular and Christian culture—tribalism when there should be honesty, shaming when there should be help, and politics when there should be prayer. The inability to even mention these dynamics without seeing conservative backs stiffen is why the empathy trap is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should, in the name of wisdom and eternity. Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle, to hold a hand on one end and keep a grip on solid ground with the other.

The best I can tell, David Platt was put into a demanding position and asked to make a potentially explosive decision. In the end, he shared the stage with a seriously morally problematic leader and did nothing else but echo the exhortations of the Caesar-submissive Paul. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a political leader and feeling offense at his views or conduct, but there’s everything wrong with imputing that offense to the gospel itself and demanding that churches only obey 1 Timothy 2:2 through gritted teeth and scorn. Bible-trumping partisanship crouches at both GOP and Democratic doors, and it’s not less of a tragedy for it to master one tribe over another.

We must still master it. To that end, I don’t think we could do much better than to pray alongside David Platt: “Please, O God, help us to look to you, help us to trust in your Word, help us to seek your wisdom, and live in ways that reflect your love and your grace, your righteousness and your justice.”