Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Pastors

Why responding to the scourge of pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism starts in the pulpit itself.

Last August, Daniel Mattson wrote a heartfelt essay for First Things entitled, “Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Priests.” Mattson made a gut-punching case that the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church owed, at least in great part, to another, persistently ignored crisis: Unrepentant homosexual priests. The presence of large numbers of same-sex attracted, sexually active priests had severely undermined, Mattson argued, the church’s moral authority on sexuality, and blunted its ability to enforce chastity and (consequently) protect vulnerable seminarians and laypeople from abusive situations. “If it is serious about ending the sex scandals, the Church needs to admit it has a homosexual priest problem and stop ordaining men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” Mattson writes. “The first “Uncle Ted” scandal was “Uncle Ted” becoming a priest.”

Mattson writes from a position of bracing honesty and realism. He is same-sex attracted and struggles with the sin of homosexual activity. Near the conclusion of his essay he relates a story about going to confession to tell a priest about a recent sexual sin with another (anonymous) man. To Mattson’s shock, the priest dismisses the confession and tells him to “get a boyfriend” and that “the church will change.” Mattson soon found out the priest who heard his confession was gay.

I’m not Catholic, but Mattson’s connection between systemic failure in the church and besetting sin in the pulpit feels very right to me, especially this week. On Monday the Houston Chronicle rolled out a brutal expose on sexual abuse and cover-up in Southern Baptist Churches. Two of the common threads running throughout the Chronicle‘s many testimonials are churches’ ignoring credible allegations of abuse and the abusive pastors’ ability to find new ministry even after losing their churches. That should sound familiar.

To what extent does a church or denomination’s inability to identify and respond to a pastor’s besetting sin set the table for abuse, cover-up, and scandal? If Mattson is right to suppose that Vatican indifference to homosexuality in the priesthood emboldened abuse and incentivized denials—and I think he is—could indifference to repeated sins by pastors be part of a similar dynamic in evangelical churches? One answer to that question also happened this week. James MacDonald was fired by Harvest Bible Chapel after a near decade’s worth of serious accusations of bullying, arrogance, and deception came to a head. The “head” was a hot mic that captured MacDonald making shockingly crude and hateful comments about his critics in the media.

On this side of the controversy, it’s extremely difficult to imagine that MacDonald’s fitness for pastoral ministry was clear until only recently. The question weighing on my mind in the aftermath of MacDonald’s fall is the same one that’s there after almost every report of a dynamic pastor’s exit from ministry: Why did it take whistleblowers and journalists to identify disqualifications that should have been obvious to those with the biblical mandate to do so? The answer may be that whistleblowers and journalists are less dazzled by charisma, smarts, and strong personality than the average evangelical churchgoer. But it could also be that, as Mattson observed in the Catholic church, there is in evangelicalism a complacency with sin in pastoral ministry that in many cases bottoms out in things like denial and cover-up.

In 2016, Barna released a report on cultural attitudes toward pornography. The survey found that 41% of Christian laypeople believe a pastor should resign if he is discovered using porn. Pastors were asked the same question, and the results were stunning: Only 8% of pastors agreed with this. The immense gap between the beliefs of laity and pastors strongly suggests an element of self-defense has come into play.

A question that most evangelicals aren’t asking but should is, to what extent does a pastor’s porn struggle affect his ability to protect himself from temptations to abuse? To what extent does it affect his ability to respond well to an allegation of sexual abuse against someone in his church? Comparably, to what extent does a pastor’s ongoing lapses into anger, whether at home or church, compromise his ability to receive criticism and accountability? Note that I’m not asking about a pastor who is clearly addicted to porn or clearly enslaved by selfish rage. I’m talking about the pastor who has installed measures of accountability in his life, is warring against sin, making progress and experiencing victory, but succumbing occasionally to temptation. Such a description should in no way disqualify a Christian from membership in the church or from lay service. But the epidemic of abusive (sexual and otherwise) pastoral leadership that we see demands a sober consideration whether there are certain kinds of besetting sins that the church should accept as part of the normal daily striving for sanctification among members, but reject as disqualifying in most measure for pastors.

I come at this question sincerely because, like Mattson, I see myself as someone who should almost certainly not be considered for pastoral ministry. My besetting sins are no match for the means of grace that Christ has poured into my life, and I praise God for his work of progressive holiness. But their particularities are of such a nature that I do not believe I could or should (now or in the immediate future), without reserve, shepherd a church, especially through a crisis that would call on mature, proven intuitions.

(I should say that I am not passing any sort of critical judgment on men who have struggled with pornography or any other sexual sin in the past and are now pastors, nor am I saying that it or any comparable struggle permanently disqualifies a man from ever being a pastor. My point is not to lay down an absolute, extra-biblical rule, but to provoke consciousness of the relational responsibilities of a pastor.)

Some will read the above paragraph and think I am either confessing to an extreme bondage or else arguing that pastors should be sinless. Neither. Both interpretations betray how thinly many Protestants, evangelicals in particular, think about the church and pastoral leadership. Nothing is more commonsense to me than the idea that few men are qualified to be overseers, and that the ones who aren’t qualified should be able to have a hearty confidence in the leadership of the men who are.

In other words, it should be obvious from the way Christians “do church” that pastors aren’t merely smarter, better-spoken, stronger-personality versions of everybody else. Rather, those who are qualified for the “noble task” of pastoring are men who have been both especially equipped and especially preserved. There are men who have not spent years trying to gain victory against lust. There are men who do not lapse periodically into emotional outbursts that wound and intimidate others. There are men whom God has kept, by his grace, “above reproach” in the qualifications of an elder. These are the men who should be leading God’s church—not me.

I fear that in the Reformed evangelical subculture I live in, this reality has become obscured. It’s become obscured by the financial aspirations of seminaries that lead to “recruiting” which indiscriminately encourages certain personalities to train for the pastorate. It’s become obscured by a defunct theology of vocation that still leads many to believe that professional ministry is a place for real Christians and the pews are for the B team. And of course, it’s become obscured by an infatuation with leaders who draw crowds, sell books, and promote brands, rather than leaders who labor faithfully in the obscurity that often aids holiness.

This isn’t the only way we must answer the scourge of sexual abuse and pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism. There is so much more that needs to be said and changed. But we must start somewhere, and the first place accessible to reform is the church itself and the men who watch over it. We need more than Christians willing to receive the power and privilege of an overseer. Yes, the church needs pastors. It does not need pastors more than it needs qualified pastors. The costs of this getting this wrong couldn’t be higher—or more apparent.

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The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

Interacting with Tim Challies on the future of Christian blogging

A few days ago Tim Challies published a helpful article that described three different kinds of blogging. The upshot of his piece was that Christian blogging, especially the evangelical kind, has to a great extent been reduced to one variety: The large, multi-authored “ministry blog.” Tim’s observation is that, whereas a decade ago there were lots of individual bloggers publishing regularly on their own platforms, today most of those bloggers have given up writing in their own space and are instead pitching and being published by the large ministry blogs. Interestingly, Tim then makes a case that this trend actually constitutes a decline of blogging and the ascent of something (resembling a traditional journalism industry) to replace it:

What is essential to those ministry sites (the ability to solicit, accept, reject, and edit articles) contradicts an essential element of a blog (the ability to write without editorial control). Where blogging is a medium by and for amateurs, ministry blogs have a paradigm that is far more professional. Again, they have their place but, while they may displace blogs, they don’t quite replace them.

Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work. So then, the displacement of personal blogging spaces by large ministry blogs brings us full circle back to the days of traditional periodicals, where editors and Boards of Directors and a handful of professional people dictate the writing agenda, select and edit pieces, and condemn most voices to obscurity.

Let me submit a qualified agreement with Tim’s concern. I think Tim’s right to believe that what made blogging useful in its heyday is precisely what’s being undermined by the proliferation of larger, edited blogs. If we think of the Christian blogosphere like an industry, with individual, personal blogs as small businesses, then the ministry blogs are the Wal-Marts and Speedways and shopping malls; they exist, in a sense, to get as big as possible and (in the process) put the other guys out of business.

Further, in the ascendancy of Wal-Marts and shopping malls individuals lose something more than a feeling of smallish intimacy and familiarity—we lose a significant amount of control over the industry itself. Thus, ten years ago, if you wanted to get people in your slice of conservative evangelicalism to talk about something, you could write a blog about it. Nowadays, the best way to get someone to talk about it is to convince an editor at TGC or Desiring God or Christianity Today to publish your 1,000 word article—something that most Christians (even articulate ones) won’t do and many can’t do. Tim’s point, if I’m reading him correctly, is that having a small number of paid editors basically regulate what the online evangelical world is saying is both an intellectual and literary downgrade from the days when blogs were a rule unto themselves.

Interestingly, this argument is not unlike what Alan Jacobs has written in defense of personal websites over and against social media accounts. Jacobs has privacy and ownership in mind moreso than the free flow of discourse, but it’s not difficult to see how his and Tim’s points might converge. In both cases, the impulse is against what we might call digital landlords and for a kind of cultivation of online space in ways that are personal and, thus, more responsible.

I said above I was going to offer a “qualified” agreement with Tim. In short, I agree with him that the decline of personal blogging is a net loss for Christian writers, and that there are problems to inherit with the rise and growth of larger ministry sites. Here’s my qualification: I think the proliferation of large, professionally edited sites, while a net loss for bloggers, is probably a net gain for readers.

As I see it, Tim is right in articulating the problems that come when evangelical online writing is heavily filtered toward these large sites. But I think we could add  that there are problems to deal with when it is not filtered, and that these problems are, for most Christian readers (not writers), trickier to deal with than the other kind. I’ll mention 3 of them:

i) The problem of theological authority. Tish Harrison Warren got right to the heart of the matter a while back ago when she asked, “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” As personal online platforms grow and grow, and as those platforms become a de facto source of authority in other people’s lives (most of these platforms call it being an “influencer” rather than an authority, but it’s really the same), a serious question emerges: How do we navigate the competing claims of dozens of bloggers whose voices are both equally present and equally ephemeral through the internet?

The proliferation of large ministry blogs is, I think, a partial answer to that question. You might think TGC publishes the wrong perspective on a given topic, but the point is that TGC publishes such a perspective only after a leadership group that coheres theologically (to a great extent) decides to publish it. This is part of what gives TGC’s platform a kind of spiritual authority to many people. It’s certainly an imperfect spiritual authority, as any earthly spiritual authority will be and any online spiritual authority will doubly be. But readers can locate these imperfections much more specifically and cogently because of TGC’s centralization than they could in the wild west of individual blogs.

ii) The problem of social media and online “presence.” I think it’s Tim himself who has pointed out that in the evangelical blogosphere’s golden days, the blog served the same role as Twitter now does.  Today, the only way to thrive as a blogger is to maintain an online presence through social media. For better or worse, social media is to blogging what a WiFi connection is to browsing the web: You don’t strictly have to have it, but you’re not going anywhere fast without it. Social media is by far the #1 driver of traffic to individual blogs.

Now of course, the same is probably true for the large ministry sites. But the consolidation of the evangelical blogosphere into professionally edited publications ameliorates this dynamic, especially for readers who want to become writers. One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this. You don’t have to have a bazillion Instagram followers and a gnawing sense of FOMO and despair in order to be taken seriously in your pitch.

iii) The problem of literary excellence. Near the end of his article, Tim writes that “we will develop better writing and writers when we can write substantially and freely.” I wonder if he has perhaps confused writing with blogging. While I absolutely agree that the best way to cultivate a healthy evangelical writing world is to encourage more of it, I think Tim’s formulation leaves out the integral role that editing plays in the development of literary excellence.

Blogging has always had a catch-22: It promotes writing growth through constant access to the craft, but such access is purchased by eliminating some of the things that most help develop writers. Editing, both at the conceptual and copy level, grows writers. To the degree that bloggers learn how to write underneath the process and principles of editing, you will almost certainly see writing habits that express emotivism and logical fallacies. I would argue that in the some of the darker corners of both the conservative and progressive Christian blogosphere, you can see stark examples of bloggers who have rarely, if ever, surrendered their work to someone who could evaluate their approach. I think professional editors are a welcome antidote to this. Their growing presence in the evangelical writing world has borne good fruit.

As I said above, I think these three problems with an expansive Christian blogosphere are different problems for writers than they are for readers. Writers will always want more space to write. Writers can devote chunks of time to thinking through issues and shaping their ideas. Most readers, though, are at the mercy of social media and the level of theological confidence that online writers can project onto their own personal platforms. To the degree that large “ministry blogs” have pushed Christian bloggers to the margins, we should lament. But to the degree that they have reached more Christian readers with trustworthy content that takes form and message equally seriously, we ought to celebrate.

Look Up, Child

The next Josh Harris should grow up in an evangelical culture that values consistent faithfulness rather than momentary coolness.

In a post today about Joshua Harris’s new documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Tim Challies makes a very helpful observation about the mid-1990s evangelical pandemonium that made Harris and his most famous book into a “weird” moment for conservative American Protestants:

I think I was just a little too old and just a little too far outside the evangelical mainstream to be significantly impacted by I Kissed Dating Goodbye…But I do remember thinking this: Who on earth lets a twenty-one-year-old write the book on dating and courtship? Who allows someone that young to be an authority on something so important? Though I always had problems with the book, I never had a beef with Josh. I had a beef with the masses of Christians who would blindly accept it and with the Christian celebrity machine that elevated someone so young to a position of such authority. No, authority does not come through experience. But even Harris admits that he was a young man who believed far too much in his own abilities, just like every other twenty-one-year-old out there. In the film he says that when he was that age he was sure he had all the answers. But now, in his early forties, he knows that he didn’t then and still doesn’t today.

This is, I think, a reality about Harris’s book that is seriously under-discussed. Using I Kissed Dating Goodbye and its influence as a shorthand for the harmful legacy of purity culture is a more click-worthy approach, and there is some truth in it (promising more satisfying intimacy as a reward for chastity is, erm, not in the Bible), but where is the broader discussion about why a 23 year old would even have the opportunity to create such a formative moment for so many evangelicals? This isn’t to imply that 23 year olds have nothing good to say and should never be given publishing contracts, conference engagements, or public platforms. It is to imply that for an unmarried 23 year old man to write a manifesto on dating and sex is, in a very real way, an indictment on those churches and parachurch organizations that encouraged (and financed) such a radical reversal of generational discipleship.

Mainstream culture craves the leadership of children. It’s why the arc of digital history now bends toward 13 year old viral celebrities whose parents haven’t a clue. It’s why kids frequently get co-opted in culture war, by both the Sexual Revolutionary Left and the Values Voter Right. There is a lot of money and a lot of influence to be had by atomizing family life into non-overlapping categories of experience; kids have their “kid stuff,” teens have their “teen stuff,” adults have everything the kids and teens don’t want. This intensely commercialized structure creates an enormous opportunity—find a child or teen who talks or acts like an adult, and you have an amazingly lucrative spectacle on your hands, since teens who use grown up words and ideas to describe their own experiences are doubly valuable as influencers of both other teens and adults who want to understand teens.

This is par for the course in late capitalism. Unfortunately, it’s also common in evangelicalism. When the eventual publisher of Harris’s book was considering his pitch, I’m almost positive the argument that won the day was that a book against dating, by a twentysomething in the prime of his dating years, was going to make a huge splash because it was so counter-intuitive for both peers and parents. Did anyone in the chain of decision making consider the theological wisdom of letting such a young author (who was neither married nor a parent, the two most formative experiences possible in these questions) draw such deep lines in the sand? They may have, but I do wonder whether there was so much attention given to the wave-making potential of a child preacher that such concern rang hollow.

What Harris is saying today, via an apology tour, a documentary, and a pretty thick social media campaign, is that he spoke too soon. He’s not the same person he was twenty years ago, and he doesn’t believe the things he believed then. Should this really be an unsettling thing to hear? Is it even possible to go from 23 to 43 without radically refining our worldview, especially on those things that are so deeply intertwined with lived experience (dating, marriage, sex, parenting)?

Of course it’s not possible. God has not designed life that way. Instead, he has designed life and faith to require what Alan Jacobs calls “temporal bandwidth,” a humble awareness of the inadequacies of our own wisdom and the conscious consultation of older generations for perspective and guidance. This is the path of wisdom, a wisdom embedded into our own anatomy, since our bodies are designed to reproduce only after several years of growth. Generational depth is our Creator’s wise intention, and to the degree that we flout this design through commercialization of discipleship and demographic greed, we sacrifice the well being of ourselves and our neighbors.

Of course, by now you are probably hoping I’ll throw some numbers out there and argue for some sort of “age of prophetic-ness.” But I can’t do that. Hard and fast rules are sometimes what we need, and other times what we need is to be brought back to the complexity of life and the need for wise posture rather than rigid position.

So here’s a possibly wise posture: Evangelical churches, ministries, publishers, websites, conferences, et al, should not value what the outside world values. They should not dice up life into demographic points. They should, rather, follow the pattern in the New Testament and let seasoned saints teach younger ones, more experienced believers lead the way, and value consistency over coolness. The flavor of evangelical discipleship should be aged rather than hip. Of course there will be valuable young voices, teens and twentysomethings who should not be looked down on account of their youth, but allowed to be an example for the church. But this ought not be the fuel that drives our engines. The next Josh Harris should be told to look up, before looking out.

Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.

Don’t Argue Like Those Who Have No Hope

Christians seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as unbelievers. This is tragic.

“Mansplain.” “Feminazi.” “Social Justice Warrior.” “Colonizer.” This is the argumentative vocabulary of the world, which has no hope of ultimate reconciliation, atonement, or New Creation. These are words designed to make people feel chained to an errant identity and undeserving of serious attention and care. They’re precisely the lingo we should expect from those whom Paul describes as “without God and without hope in the world.”

What’s surprising is hearing them on the lips of those who do have that hope.

Even before I write these words, I know that many Christians will be revving up their “whataboutisms” to show me how much of a hypocrite I am. Don’t I know how condescending males can be toward the opposite sex? Haven’t I read the latest ridiculous diatribe from a leading feminist? Don’t I believe in justice? What about, what about, what about.

This kind of thinking is like a carousel. It will just go around and around and never reach an exit. We can signal our political ideals, compare and contrast each group’s relative suffering and indignity, and drag out sordid examples of the opposing tribe’s worst instincts all day long (especially on Twitter). There will never not be evidence against them and evidence against us. Trying to arrive at truly transcendent truth by playing tribal politics is like trying to drive an SUV through the ocean.

But this is the only way many unbelievers know how to think. In a secularizing culture where it is increasingly possible to go through one’s entire educational career without hearing one inkling about God, nobody should be shocked at the size of our political golden calves. We are “incurably religious” people being herded away from religion and toward social micro-identities. If we won’t love God, we shall love ideology. If we won’t hate Satan, we shall hate immigrants or straight white men.

Thus is the experience of many in America. But what about in the church?

The spirit of the age has found partnership with too many of us believers when it comes to how we talk about those with whom we disagree. I used to think the Bible college dorm-room debates over Calvinism represented the low point of evangelical discourse. Then I got a Twitter account. Then Donald Trump was elected president. For my money, the problem is not just that Christians aren’t nice enough toward one another. The problem is that we seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as the media moguls who stand to make a pretty penny from the coarsening of American public life. There is a continuity not only between what evangelicals and what unbelievers say, but between what captivates our attention and stokes our emotions. This is tragic.

Here’s an example. In a widely praised evangelical book about race published last year, I find the following line: “White privilege means that even if you’re the unluckiest white person born in the United States, you were still born into a fortunate race.” Now, the assertion on its face is questionable. But ask yourself this—what would the relational dynamics be like in a congregation that was preaching and teaching and structuring their benevolence ministries according to the dictum that even the poorest, most vulnerable white members were inherently better off (and thus, in less need of help) than their minority brothers and sisters? What would be the state of unity and gospel fellowship be in a local church that was committed to pigeonholing an entire ethnicity in their congregation as permanently “privileged”?

I’m certainly not interested in castigating any and all efforts to recognize the racist practices of American history as “cultural Marxism” (another dog whistle of a noun that should disappear from the mouths of serious Christians), nor am I veering toward a vanilla call for “unity” that is really code for “Stop talking about my brothers and sisters in Jesus whose experiences make me politically uncomfortable.” What I am suggesting is that too many evangelicals seem comfortable simply transposing the ideas and taxonomies of secular society into the community of faith.

But the gospel is too violent on our intuitions for that to succeed. We can’t simply baptize the excesses of intersectionality in order to correct the God-and-country Republicanism that led to a morally bankrupt Religious Right. The identitarian, truth-diminishing, Bible-ignoring lingo that some evangelicals have tried to program into Christian conversation is a sign that we’re trying, and failing, to do just that.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul has the audacity to suggest that there is a wrong way for Christians to grieve the death of their loved ones. This sounds unconscionably insensitive to modern ears. But Paul’s intrusion on our emotional lives is a glorious one: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In other words, there is a way to grieve that acknowledges that one day a risen Jesus Christ will call all the dead out of their graves and death itself will be conquered forever. So, Paul says, don’t just grieve. Grieve like that!

To which I would add: there is a way to speak to one another and debate one another and learn from one another that acknowledges that some day we will all know as we are known, and we will all be one in an endless mutuality of love. So don’t argue like those who have no such hope.


image credit (licensed under CC 3.0)

When Re-Conversion Is Easier Than Repentance

Many evangelical church cultures make it safer to deny last year’s Christianity than to admit you are a struggling believer.

Let me tell you a familiar story from my days in evangelical youth ministry.

A teenager with roots in the church would make semi-regular appearances throughout the year, be respectful during Bible study/church, but otherwise seem non-cognizant of Christianity the rest of the year. Then one year, the teenager goes with the youth group on a week-long “mission trip” to a Christian camp. At one point during the week, the teenager has an emotional (possibly tearful) experience and tells their youth leader they need to be truly saved. This joyous announcement follows the teenager home where she stands in front of the whole congregation a couple Sundays later and shares her story of “realizing for the first time” that she “actually needed Jesus in her life.”

Fast forward 12 months or so. Around winter the teenager had largely dropped out of the Bible studies and fellowship nights she had been regularly attending. Everyone knows this teen is a Christian—they were there at the camp—but nobody really knows where she’s been for the past few months.

Now the youth group is taking another week-long summer trip, and she’s coming too. And just like last year, at some point in the week, she gets emotional about Jesus. Also like last year, she asks to talk to her youth minister, and yet again like last year, she comes to realize that she wasn’t “really” a Christian after all. Through tears and hugs she announces her newfound authentic faith, and again brings her testimony home to the church. But like last time, summer doesn’t last forever. By February people are asking where she’s been, and some are already becoming cynical: “Just wait til she gets saved this summer.”

***

In my evangelical church experience, “re-conversions” were as common as conversions, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged church events, such as youth camps, revivals, etc, would almost always be the occasion for a re-conversion. Sometimes the re-conversion seemed less than authentic, but sometimes it stuck, too. At one point in my life these occasions became so common that we looked forward to the annual church camp trip simply because the trip represented a high point for the youth group that we knew wasn’t going to be repeated or even sustained throughout the year.

No matter who it was that “re-converted” at a given summer, those of us in the group generally knew what had been going on for this person. They liked church, liked their Christian friends, and enjoyed studying the Bible, but for whatever reason the person they were at youth group was not the same person they were at school, work, or online. In a lot of cases we even knew the sins our friend was confessing to the youth minister in the corner. We didn’t know why last year’s trip didn’t stick. We only knew to pray that this one would.

Looking back, youth camp trips were the practical expression of our muddled Southern Baptist ideas about “once saved, always saved.” We believed that. We also believed each tear that fell from the usual suspects each summer. If we sensed a tension between our group’s annual ritual of “really getting saved” and what we said we believed about not losing one’s salvation, we didn’t lose sleep over it. After all, one can be genuinely mistaken about their own soul, and that more than once. Right?

But here’s what has bothered me for a while now. I’m beginning to think that the summer re-conversion ritual said more about our church culture than it said about the tearful teens. I’m beginning to think that the church camp re-conversions were really about how insecure, ashamed teenagers felt safer in the group denying last year’s Christianity than admitting that they were believers who were struggling. Confessing you were a bad Christian last year was a significant social risk that could be met with suspicion and shaming. Confessing that you weren’t actually a Christian at all, but you are now, was just good news.

I’m not saying that these friends were definitely Christians or were definitely not. I don’t know that and I’m glad I don’t know. But as I’ve encountered more evangelical culture as an adult, I’ve seen and heard enough to convince me that many church-going evangelicals have a far more vibrant theology of “getting saved” than they have of ongoing repentance in the life of a believer. Evangelicalism’s mentality seems to be that “repentance” is what non-Christians do when the Holy Spirit tells them they’ve been living a phony life. What do Christians do when they’re convicted of sin? Well, we’re not really sure, because we’re not really sure what to think of Christians and sin.

Re-conversion offers many evangelicals the emotional catharsis of acknowledging sin without the social shaming or awkwardness that comes when people who claim to be Christians acknowledge sin. If you weren’t really a Christian but you are now, wonderful! Enter into our joy. But if you actually are a Christian and you have to talk about sin that you’re not entirely sure how to address, well, how close should we stand next to you? How contagious is it?

Perhaps what was happening every summer is that teens who really did have a sensitive heart toward Christ and the church were just utterly confused as to what being a Christian meant for people like them…people who wanted to be liked by the coolest kids in school, people who wanted to be invited to the best things, people who actually had a life beyond Bible studies. They knew intuitively something was off between the Sunday morning testimony in July and the missed gatherings and neglected devotions in February, but they didn’t know why it was off. They just knew they felt differently during those church trips. What was it they felt? The Holy Spirit, which is what they’ve been told shows up when we’re about to repen…erm, get saved.

One of biggest tragedies of evangelical spirituality is that we’ve neglected the Bible’s tender, compassionate words to Christians. We’ve reduced Christian practice to avoiding the non-respectable sins and presenting the gospel to sinful unbelievers, trying to get them to convert and leave all that sin behind. But we’ve missed so much of the immense patience, lovingkindness, mercy, and encouragement in the Bible toward real believers who are struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Maybe it’s because we don’t know our Bibles. Or maybe it’s because our vision of God is too much like ourselves: We think of him not as a Father who picks up our falls but as the gatekeeper to an exclusive club that demands that old, imperfect members buy a whole new membership to keep the club tidy.

I wish my church experience had seen more repentance and fewer re-conversions. Jesus promises, after all, to forgive and cleanse the unrighteousness we confess to him. Better to be who we really are in front of our loving Father than to just find a new mask to wear. That’s the gospel. Is it evangelicalism?

There Is No Christian Argument Against Overturning Roe v Wade

The reversal of Roe is not less of a mandate for Christians merely because of Donald Trump

The news that Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy will retire next month has immediately conjured up images of a pro-life judge’s taking his place and becoming the crucial fifth piece to strike down Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 1973 affirmation of a universal right to abortion. For pro-life activists and observers, this is a historic opportunity to challenge the bloodiest injustice in America for the past 50 years. While overturning Roe would not itself criminalize abortion, it would blow away the barrier against state-based laws and almost certainly result in at least 20 states outlawing abortion in most circumstances. All it takes is five justices to intervene on behalf of the lives of millions of unborn Americans. It is very close.

It is close because Donald Trump won an astonishing election the same year that Justice Antonin Scalia astonishingly died, denying the Democratic Party an opportunity to solidify Roe via President Hillary Clinton. It is close because then-candidate Trump said onstage during a presidential debate that he would seek to overturn Roe if given the opportunity to appoint justices. It is because of the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, a relationship crafted by the men on our dollars and coins, that this opportunity has come. And it is also because of Donald Trump.

This is a hard saying. Who can bear it?

In our current age, we are given to making value judgments by association. Because Donald Trump is a man of vice whose administration has pursued some cruel policies (and whose rhetoric tends to exult in such cruelty), some evangelicals will struggle with feeling joy at this vacant Court seat. “I’m personally pro-life,” they might say, “but I just don’t trust Trump, and I don’t like it that people who voted for him seem happy about this.” Thus, they might try to reason themselves into the belief that Roe ought not be overturned, that a pro-life justice ought not be appointed, all because Donald Trump ought not be president and evangelicals ought not be feeling victorious right now.

The frustration is understandable, but the logic is not. Evangelicals don’t have to set aside their convictions about race, immigrants, women, or the Religious Right in order to perceive a moral mandate when it comes to abortion. There is no Christian case against overturning Roe. None.

Once upon what seems now like a lifetime ago, pro-life evangelicals were united in horror and imprecatory prayer at the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood released by the Center for Medical Progress. Those videos have been legally prosecuted and forgotten, but they have not been unmade. There are many of us who vividly remember where we were when we watched a physician “harvest” the tiny anatomy of an aborted boy (yes, “it’s a boy”), or when we listened to Planned Parenthood reps talk about the money and humor in the trafficking of babies. While these videos were being released, there was no question amongst most evangelicals whether abortion was a cause worth engaging at the highest possible level. There was no Donald Trump and no morally compromised Religious Right to complicate things.

Three years later, the producers of those videos are fighting litigation, and many of us who watched and cried and prayed are fighting ourselves. The illusion of virtue in our tribe was dismantled by 2016, by #MeToo, by the children of refugees in prison-like holding cells. It has been terrible. But evangelicals cannot allow the hypocrisy of their elders to blind them to the innocence of their infants. It is not remotely unreasonable or incoherent to stand as far away as possible from the rot of God and country Republicanism while charging alongside it against Roe v. Wade. In fact, it is the only option we have.

In a now-deleted tweet, a prominent progressive evangelical writer said though she was “convictionally pro-life” (those slippery adverbs!), she could not support the overturning of Roe v Wade due to all the “effects” it would have. After deleting the tweet, she said that Twitter was obviously not the right place to talk about abortion. Nothing more than a 2 minute perusal of her Twitter account reveals dozens of impassioned threads about everything from gun control to immigration to policing. This sort of double dealing has become rampant among younger, socially conscious evangelicals in the aftermath of Trump’s election. While abortion is a “complex conversation” that requires nuance instead of activism, the issues that the Republican Party morally fails on are apparently no-brainers.

I don’t think this attitude necessarily comes from apathy about unborn babies or rank partisanship. I think it mostly comes from fear—fear of becoming the wrong kind of person in the wrong kind of tribe. Again, the fear is understandable, but the rationalization seen above is not. To act as if morally upright Christians cannot support President Trump’s appointment of a justice who would tip the scales against Roe is to prioritize political consistency and tribal identity over human life itself. It is the literal opposite of a Christ-honoring public theology.

Martin Luther King famously said that laws could not make white people love black people, but they could keep white people from lynching black people. In other words, a law that doesn’t address the deepest problems but still preserves life is a worthy law. Evangelicals who say that overturning Roe would not destroy back alley abortions need to ponder the truth in King’s statement. The possibility that a law will be broken and that people will suffer is not an argument against a moral law. It’s an argument against us sinful people.  The overturning of Roe would allow states to codify the sanctity of unborn life, and laws do teach. We may not be able to change hearts, but we can shape them as they grow…but only if they’re allowed to beat.

Roe v. Wade is a legal catastrophe. It is Constitutional soothsaying. It’s a decision based on discredited scientific claims and cartoon philosophy. Worst of all, it has been the death sentence of over 60 million Americans. Worrying about whether its reversal will register as a win for a president who is unworthy of it is not a competing interest to its destruction. This should not, must not, and cannot be a “white Republican Christian” issue. It’s everyone’s issue. There is no Christian case for keeping Roe. None.

Is #MeToo an Indictment of Complementarianism?

Should we now disown “masculine Christianity”?

Dale Coulter’s argument that evangelicals should repudiate “masculine Christianity” begins with an important omission. His opening paragraph recounts the turmoil swirling in the Southern Baptist Convention over indefensible comments and behavior from (former) Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson. He submits both Patterson and “the authoritarian leadership structure” that supported him as exhibits A and A1 as to why evangelicalism must throw off the noxious, fundamentalist idea that only men should be teaching pastors in the church. At surface glance, this feels like a logical move. Wouldn’t opening the pulpit to women graft them more fully into the fabric of the church, thereby cutting off sinful attitudes like the one Patterson expressed?

But has professor Coulter already forgotten about Bill Hybels? Hybels was, until recently, the founding pastor of Willow Creek church in Chicago, one of the biggest and most influential evangelical churches in the entire world. Hybels resigned from his pastorate amidst a growing chorus of accusations of sexual harassment, including accusations from women whom Hybels had empowered in roles of leadership in his ministry (he has denied most of the allegations, though he did confess to being in “situations that would have been far wiser to avoid”). Hybels is an outspoken gender egalitarian, and Willow Creek quickly named Heather Larson as their new senior pastor.

I understand why professor Coulter would not incorporate Hybels’ scandal into his analysis. For one thing, the coverage of and conversation about the Willow Creek accusations has paled in comparison to the ink that’s been spilled about Paige Patterson. For another, the evangelical response to the two situations has been notably different. Even before evidence emerged that Patterson had tried to conceal a rape at Southeastern Seminary from police, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals used controversy over his pastoral counsel to a victim of domestic abuse as an opportunity for soul-searching. Patterson’s troubling comments warranted some hard self-examination among conservative evangelicals about gender dynamics and whether our churches and institutions were more concerned about waging a culture war than protecting and cherishing women. Because Patterson is a traditionalist on gender, many evangelicals—rightly—took his seemingly cavalier attitude toward abuse as an indication that something was deeply broken in their wider traditionalist culture.

Interestingly, the allegations around Bill Hybels didn’t seem to provoke an analogous self-examination for those on the other side of the theological fence. In fact, it almost did the opposite. In the wake of the Hybels story, both Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren and evangelical writer Aimee Byrd published pieces, at Christianity Today and First Things, respectively, rebuking not Hybels but conservative evangelicals who were practicing “the Billy Graham rule” of not being alone with a member of the opposite sex. On May 23, before Patterson was ultimately fired by the seminary’s trustee board, the evangelical magazine Relevant published an essay by Tyler Hucakbee titled “Paige Patterson’s Non-Punishment Shows the Church Is Not Prepared for True Repentance.” A search on their archives for “Bill Hybels” shows several news items reporting on the allegations, but not a single piece of analysis similar to the Patterson one.

My point is not that a pinch of hypocrisy proves anything. It doesn’t. Nor is my point that the Patterson and Hybels situations are totally equivalent. They aren’t. My point is rather that the straight line that many seem to want to draw from Patterson’s Southern Baptist convictions on gender to his apparent low regard for vulnerable women is a far more complicated matter than they assume. If our national #MeToo moment has proved anything, it’s that no one ideological camp has a monopoly on destructiveness. Whether it’s the self-described feminist and progressive Harvey Weinstein, the elder conservative culture critic Bill Cosby, or two ministers on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, sin, selfishness, and abuse are equal opportunity forces. Healthy change in any of these represented subcultures must begin with a penitent acknowledgment that no one is inherently better than their opposing tribe. All have sinned and fallen short.

With this acknowledgment in hand, evangelicals would do well to heed some of professor Coulter’s admonishment. He’s right that many evangelicals have little to no coherent vision for the role women should play in the life of the church. Coulter’s counsel is to fix this by heading straightway to church history and appropriating the perspectives especially of the Pentecostal movement. But while church history and tradition are certainly vital for evangelicalism, Scripture matters more. Grounding our doctrine of gender and polity in the Bible should take priority over picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of theological movements to assuage our #MeToo guilt.

Of course, this brings us back to very old debates about the meaning of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”) and wider theological questions such as the parallelism between the church and family, among many others. These are arguments worth having, and worth having well. But evangelicals cannot assume that their institutions will be magically reformed when it comes to hearing and protecting women simply by yelling “Fundamentalist!” and running as fast as possible the other direction. Without grounding our theology of gender firmly in Scripture, we are not merely being unfaithful; we are setting the stage for future exposures.

While urging evangelicals to throw off “masculine Christianity” may feel reasonable in the cultural moment, this kind of mantra does more harm than good. It conflates masculinity with misogyny (something that’s difficult if we take 1 Corinthians 16:13 as inspired Scripture). It obscures the beautifully gendered worldview of Scripture, which, far from flattening sexual distinctiveness, exults in it. And it inadvertently relieves men of their moral responsibility toward others and puts it on depersonalized systems and populism.

For theological conservatives, holding a dogmatic line on female pastors while equivocating on domestic abuse and sexual harassment has proven to be a catastrophic formula. Coulter is absolutely right to call us to sincere repentance. But he’s wrong to frame the choice as one between complementarian practice and Christian compassion. Coulter strangely suggests that recovering a tradition of female preachers and teachers would not “require complementarians to violate their consciences with respect to the Word of God.” Well, yes, it would. But complementarian consciences are not in the end that important. What’s far more important is the church of Jesus Christ, built upon the foundation of the life-changing, culture-transforming Scriptures.

We don’t have to ignore the hard, counter-cultural sayings of the Bible in order to hold the line against any and all forms of sexual abuse. The same apostle who wrote that he didn’t permit women to be pastors also commanded Timothy to see the women of the church as mothers and sisters, and to treat them “in all purity:” not as objects to be used, or temptresses to be fled, or strangers to be ignored, but as family.

Lord, make it so.

Love Isn’t a Liberal Word

Conservative evangelicalism’s #MeToo moment is about a failure to love.

As I awoke this morning to news that Southwestern Seminary had reversed course and fired president Paige Patterson (canceling the benefits of his original transition to Emeritus), I felt no outrage, or schadenfreude, or even joy. I was glad for the future of that seminary and the future of the SBC that the right decision was finally made. But I thought a lot about Dr. Patterson, his family, and what I’m sure is his utter bewilderment at the past three weeks. Perhaps there are some who believe that Paige Patterson hates women or wants to protect predatory men. I do not, partially because I identify with Patterson’s failure to love his sisters in Christ the way he ought. His failure is my failure, too. And that’s what it is: A failure of love.

Growing up in conservative, Baptist evangelicalism, I frequently saw two ways to live the Christian life contrasted against each other. In the churches and denominational culture, I saw an emphasis on love and acceptance that often precluded believing or saying hard things. Church members who were living in open sexual sin were encouraged to participate in all aspects of church life because to confront them would be unkind and judgmental and possibly drive them from the church. On the other hand, there was the Baptist seminary and institutional culture. The dynamics of this culture were diametrically opposite of the attitudes I saw in local church life: Truth was what mattered more than people. To be serious about Scripture was more important than to be serious about sinners.

Propositionally, I never heard anyone in the seminary or institutional culture say that love was for liberals, just like I never heard anyone in the local church culture say that the Bible was for cold-hearted fundamentalists. But the emphases, the formative practices, the meta-intellectual liturgies that emanated from both worlds was crystal clear. My experience of seeing such a stark contrast drawn between mercy and morality left a deep imprint. My instincts were shaped to hear words like “compassion” and immediately call to mind Scriptures on truth. Again, none of this was articulated. It was beyond articulation. It was formation.

One thing I’ve learned in the past few months: You can’t live like this and escape your own #MeToo movement.

In our evangelical #MeToo moment, I see contours of a stark divide we’ve drawn between truth and love. Because we complementarians are not afraid to define ourselves by a theology of gender that clashes with the outside culture, our inner life is geared (in my experience) toward seeing women as issues that need to be addressed rather than people who need to be heard. Our eagerness to love the women in our churches and institutions is constantly outpaced by our eagerness to not be egalitarians, not least because our formative liturgies continually feed the latter desire but not the former.  For much of our subculture, taking seriously the concerns of those who are more sexually and socially vulnerable than men is not quite as important as maintaining a battle line opposite Democrats and social progressives. This dynamic exists not because we tell ourselves that it should exist, but because we tell ourselves other stories—stories sometimes beyond words—that make its existence inevitable.

Why does fear of turning into our theological opposites control our hearts and shape our spaces like this? Why is it so hard to find joyfully complementarian advocates of sexual abuse victims streaming out of our churches and seminaries? Why does the idea of a “listening to women” immediately awaken defensive strictures about PC culture and the hypocrisy of liberals? We could go further. #MeToo is about women, but for the evangelicalism I know and love it could just as well be about black people, or immigrants, or Democrats. The evangelicalism I know and love has so, so often walked around love because it was afraid of its germs.

I’m sure that Paige Patterson thought he was doing the right thing by encouraging the rape victim in his office to not tell the police. I’m sure he thought that by protecting the seminary from the attention of civil authorities, he was doing a service to the advance of the gospel and the formation of pastors and church leaders. I’m sure he thought that by counseling an abused woman to stay in the home with her husband he was striking a godly blow for marriage against the divorce culture. I’m sure he was out to win the war.

Evangelicalism doesn’t need a new Bible, edited by the spirit of the age. It doesn’t need a new Savior, proclaiming the good news of moralistic therapeutic deism. What evangelicalism needs is a new metaphor. It needs a way to feel toward the people of this earth that isn’t instinctively sword-drawn and battle-ready. It needs willingness to err on the side of gospel love rather than gospel swagger.

We are deathly afraid of being put in a corner next to those who are wrong, and so dutifully stay as far away from them as possible. In the meantime, we punt on abuse, we punt on racism, we punt on compassion for the poor. Let the Left handle that. Don’t contaminate our institutions with cultural Marxism. If you want to talk about those things, go to the Christ-less mainline, or go to politics. If you want to know about Christ, come to our churches.

Our seminaries and institutions are imperiled right now precisely because this does not work. Our arrangement of spirituality along American political lines has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The change that has to come must come in the form of a willingness not to pit love and truth against each other. We’re not rethinking our biblical faith. We have to rethink our identity.

And that’s much, much harder.

A Brief Postscript On Abuse, Church, and At-All-Costs Evangelism

An unbelieving husband’s body in a church pew is not worth more than his abused and vulnerable wife.

Evangelicals sometimes will reduce the Christian life to one thing. Sometimes that thing will be faithful church attendance. When this happens, the way these Christians speak of what it means to be a believer becomes radically attendance-centered, and often seems comfortable with a trade-off between going to church and acts of mercy, personal holiness, etc. You can often detect this attitude in churches that are filled with very superficial relationships. No one really has the knowledge or the will to get involved in the life of someone else. All that matters is that everyone’s there on Sunday.

Sometimes we’ll reduce the Christian life to individual Bible reading and prayer. When this happens, presence at church is usually one of the first things to be sacrificed. In the off chance you do spend time with this person, they will often say something theologically suspect, and you’ll realize that this weird, untrue idea would not last very long in the company of more seasoned believers. But of course, one has to be in such company first.

And then sometimes evangelicals, especially those on my own branch of the tree, will reduce the Christian life to evangelism. These brothers and sisters talk of the church as if it’s a gas station on the world’s highway; you’ll need to stop occasionally to get refueled, but then you’re back on the road again. When evangelism becomes the end all, be all of Christian faithfulness, everything takes a back seat to reaching out, sharing, witnessing, etc. Anything that could possibly prevent a non-Christian from coming in or staying in the presence of other believers is immediately opposed and discarded. If it doesn’t result in people coming to church and making decisions for Christ, it’s not worth keeping—whatever “it” is.

I thought about this dynamic when I was reflecting on Paige Patterson’s controversial story about pastoral counsel he gave to a wife who was being abused by her husband. Patterson has since apologized for the offense taken at his words, and I don’t want to litigate the controversy right now. What struck me as I thought further about his comments was that the counsel he gave this woman fits a pattern I’ve seen so many times growing up in conservative evangelicalism. No, I’ve never heard a pastor say he was “glad” a woman came in with two bruised eyes (and that’s why I do think the outrage over the comments is fair and just), but what I have heard, literally thousands of times, is that we cannot say or do anything to an unbeliever that would cause them to flee from us. If a non-Christian is willing to sit in church, our rejoicing at their presence should outweigh any other consideration…because isn’t that why we’re here?

To express joy at an unbelieving husband’s presence at church while his abused wife stands in front of you is a severe case of Christian reductionism. Why does her battered, vulnerable body not matter as much as her husband’s rear end in the pew? There’s certainly nothing biblical about the idea that the presence of an unbeliever in church hearing the gospel is the supreme good of Christian ministry that cannot be topped. In fact, the biblical teaching of church discipline makes the opposite argument: That it is worth it to remove from fellowship a person whom you think might not be genuinely born again if doing so models the discipline of Christ and preserves the integrity of the church. Excommunication would not make sense, and would not have been commanded by the Spirit through Paul, if an unbeliever needed to be “plugged in” more than anything else.

Similarly, some evangelical churches have abandoned or ignored orthodoxy out of concern that it drives unbelievers from the church. This is the same mistake, though more palatable for many of us. A fear to confront sexual sin that leads to shifting beliefs or inconsistent praxis is the same crippling reductionism that ultimately harms both Christians and unbelievers. I wonder how many evangelicals who nod and cheer when this standard is applied against crusty Southern Baptists and domestic abuse would hedge and squirm when the topic turns to sexuality and gender. The Bible punches both left and right.

Patterson’s story reminded me how severe the consequences of this reductionism can be. When the Christian life becomes about only one thing, we become willing to move other facets of faithfulness out of the way to have a clearer shot at the one thing. The hardest part is that evangelism, out of all the things we can reduce to the Christian life to, does not feel reductionistic. It does not feel like slighting the other parts of Scripture. It feels like maximal obedience. That’s why we often don’t stop ourselves until some intensely ugly sin shows itself.

I wish the woman in Patterson’s story would have experienced a more full, a more holistically faithful vision of the Christian life, instead of being told that her husband’s sin was no big deal as long as he showed himself in church. I wish many of the churches that I know from childhood would have recovered a more balanced obedience, instead of having cookout after cookout until the body finally shriveled and died (or going door-to-door with the Romans road while having not the foggiest clue what the Bible says).

We can do better.