On Southern Baptist Blind Spots

This is precarious time for Baptists. My concern is that too few seem willing to admit it.

It’s been a spring to forget for Southern Baptists.

It was only a few weeks ago that Baptists were wrapping their minds around Frank Page’s retirement-turned-disgraced resignation and his confession of unspecified (but presumably sexual) moral failure. In recent days the attention has turned toward Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson, one of the most elder statesmen of the convention. His old but recently unearthed comments about divorce and domestic abuse are deeply troubling, and nothing about Patterson’s public statement makes them better.

While it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to infer from Patterson’s remarks that Southern Baptists as a whole share his views about abuse and divorce (in my lifelong experience of SBC culture, many Southern Baptists are functionally more liberal in their views of divorce than other evangelicals), the comments matter, especially since their original context concerns pastoral counseling within a local church. It would be one thing (though still troubling) if Patterson had said that he would pray for an abused spouse to stay in the marriage as long as possible. To actually tell abused women in the church, as a pastor, to bear it prayerfully is a violent reminder that our theology matters, and the consequences of getting it wrong are often higher for everyday churchgoers than for pastors and leaders.

Patterson’s dispiriting remarks top off a dispiriting two years for Southern Baptists like me. In 2016 the denomination was eating at itself over Donald Trump. Russell Moore nearly lost his job over his criticisms of the then-candidate (interestingly, both Page and Patterson were quoted as being critical of Moore and supportive of Trump). The SBC’s tone-deafness toward their churches’ communities was further displayed by the embarrassing flop at the 2017 convention over a proposed resolution to condemn white supremacy. The resolution passed eventually, but only after Moore had rallied young Baptists to the voting floor, showing far more concern for the future of the denomination than the denomination had shown for him.

The last two years for the Southern Baptist Convention raise serious questions about the denomination’s ability to overcome cultural blind spots and political partisanship. The politics of the average SBC voter are not even the key problem here. The key problem is rather the institutional structure of the denomination and its internal politics of say-nothing, do-nothing, that keep un-Christian and un-biblical attitudes coddled within its walls. Whether we’re talking about white supremacy, or Calvinism, or divorce and domestic abuse, the elephant in the SBC room won’t go away on its own. Moral failure and horrifying pastoral counsel from SBC leaders are clues that something needs to change, and that the change that needs to happen cannot happen at the leisurely, step-on-no-toes pace that Baptists seem to value above everything else.

Moore’s saga two years ago illustrates much of what I’m talking about. Moore was hired by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s trustee board in part because he represented a break from the culture-warring political tribalism that his predecessor was known for. Despite the fact that Moore was and is completely orthodox and effusively Baptist in his theology, many Southern Baptists, including several with influence and power, cannot get comfortable with an ERLC head who doesn’t see the agency as an outpost of the Republican Party.

Ideally, younger Southern Baptists could effect change in the denomination by being patient, by participating in the life of the institution and by working within the existing structures to change minds and build new things. The problem staring at the SBC right now is that there is no good reason to think this will happen before those in current positions of power over large churches and denominational agencies simply use their power to keep this from happening. This is precisely what happened to Moore two years ago. As Moore was busy keeping Baptists consistent on their Clinton-era mantra that character matters and reminding us that God cares about sexual immorality and hateful words toward our neighbors, many of the big “B” Baptists—such as Jack Graham—were busy trying to remove Moore. It was a bitter season for Southern Baptists, and one that sends a discouraging message to young Baptists who identify with Moore’s gospel-centered agenda. One wonders if that was the whole point.

I realize that many will probably dismiss this perspective as “divisive.” Why do people like me keep talking about Trump and Martin Luther King, Jr., when what we really need to be talking about is sharing the gospel with the nations?

I’m sympathetic to this objection. It would indeed be nice if we could all focus on sharing the gospel. But there’s the rub. Before one shares the gospel one has to settle two things: What is the gospel and what does it mean to share it? Southern Baptists right now are deeply confused on both. For many in our denomination, the gospel is the good news of how you can walk down an aisle and “make a decision for Christ” at 9 years old and be permanently and unquestionably a member of the church and of the decent folk around town. Consequently, “sharing the gospel” means for many Southern Baptists nothing more than door-to-door tract sharing with the friendly people in the nice part of town. If by any chance a young black woman wants to talk about Jesus AND racial justice, or if a young seminarian wants to talk about Jesus AND historic theology, or if a group of people in the church want to talk about Jesus AND overcoming political divisions in the name of Christ…well, that’s a bridge too far, and those people just need to talk about Jesus.

This is a precarious time for Baptists. My deepest concern right now is that too few seem willing to admit this. It’s time we did. For Jesus’s sake.

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Of Paintings and Place

How the simplest of things can teach us a theology of home

In one of my favorite parts of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Jayber attends seminary and begins to realize he has a host of questions. Fearing this may mean he is not called to the ministry, he goes to speak with one of his professors and unloads the laundry list of doubts and questions. The professor, Dr. Ardmire, listens to his questions. The professor speaks up and says to Jayber:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.’
And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”

This scene came to my mind on Friday when hanging a painting in my office. With it came a rush of emotions that frankly, I did not expect. It recalled memories from the past and hopes for the future.

The painting has several memories, each woven into who I am. It’s an image of the 4th of July in my hometown of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Every year we’d gather on Main Street and watch a parade of floats, horses, dirt bikes, four-wheelers, tractors, cars, and youth sports league champions. My childhood was spent on this street and in a few of the stores with my parents. I learned how to drive on this street. I spent many a Friday night cruising with my friends up and down Main Street before heading over to a bakery that would open at Midnight. We would sit in my dad’s pharmacy parking lot (located right next to the bakery) or in the church parking lot across the street. Those memories are embedded on me like a deep scar, and I look back on those times with a fondness (and embarrassment at times) that grows with age.

It is a remarkable feature of humanity that something so simple can give rise to a host of complex thoughts, regrets, and hopes. To disentangle oneself from a scenario and contemplate your own humanity is an act of the moral imagination that still befuddles. Staring at an object that is filled with history, location, context, and memories might engender a desire for halcyon days where innocence seemed to roam the interiors of your mind.

But there’s more to this painting than the memories of growing up in a small-town. This painting was in my dad’s office for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of walking into the back door of his pharmacy as a young child, running toward his office, and seeing this painting hanging on the wall over my father’s shoulder while in my his — very tight — embrace. When I would come home from college to see him, I’d once again race back to his office. He’d be sitting in his chair, paying bills, sorting mail, and weaving back and forth between his office and the front counter. When he would leave I’d sit in his chair, feeling like a young prince sitting in his kingly father’s throne. Directly across from his desk was this painting, always in eyesight. It was a reminder to me that, despite moving away, this place will always be a part of me. It will always be home. 

I’ve never really asked my dad if there is something uniquely special about this painting or if he just liked it. I’m not sure it matters. He retired last July and I asked if I could have the painting to put in my office. As time passed after his retirement I assumed he had forgotten my request and I didn’t really want to bother him about it. For some reason, it seemed silly to me. After Christmas he gave it to me and it’s been in my office, hung within eyesight, ever since.

Since my son was born I have been thinking about what tangible objects might we acquire or currently have that can be passed down to our children. What physical embodiments of “Bryan” and “Danielle” do we have that mean the world to us that our children can hold and admire and say, “This is something Mom loved. This thing is something Dad loved”? I’ve chosen a life project that does this in hopes that my kids will one day be able to look across the room in their offices or homes and see a physical embodiment of something that brings back the memories of their parents.

It’s important, I think, to believe that this drive to remember, to honor those before us, is as old as humanity. From memorial stones in the Old Testament to paintings in one’s office, they are physical reminders of what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia, or a love of home. They are reminders of a “place where you and I belong and to which we return, if only in thought, at the end of all our wanderings.” What might seem lost can be restored. Home can be felt again and there is One ever-working to do precisely that. A love of home and place, under His rule and reign, takes a new — though no less physical — meaning. At the end of all our wanderings stands a bloody cross and a victorious Savior.

Freedom on the Fourth is a theology of place in a painting. Many of the individuals in the painting are likely gone from us now. Many more have grown up, forgotten the place to which we all belonged at one time and — potentially — forgotten who they are. I was painfully close to such peril. I don’t have full answers to the questions I’m seeking. Like Jayber, I have been given questions to which I cannot be given answers. I will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time. They are important questions and I hope to consider them for the rest of my life.

The painting now hangs in my office, and now I’m able to pull my son into my arms while he looks over my shoulder with this painting in full-view.

Bryan Baise is an assistant professor of philosophy at Boyce College. He has three kids and is far too emotionally invested in his sports teams. You can follow him on Twitter.

In Defense (Somewhat) of Self-Help

When I was in Bible college, few things received scorn as unanimously and frequently as the self-help genre. The corner of your local bookstore dominated by big, bright covers and names like Oprah and Tony Robbins was, almost all of us young, restless, Reformed pre-seminarians agreed, poison. We understood that the self-help genre was a gospel-less, Jesus-less, church-less, and worst of all, theology-less morass of pop psychotherapy and New Agey gobbledygook. The enormous sales numbers of such books was an implicit challenge to my generation of Christian leaders: Whatever the cost, get these books out of your church members’ homes, and get them reading the Bible instead.

To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt whenever I am listening to a “motivational speaker,” the same kind of twinge I got as a 15 year old sneaking down to the basement to listen to Top 40 radio. Though I can’t hear any bad words, I know this “sound” is not something I, as a Christian, should enjoy. The sound of someone telling me to focus more, to identify my purpose, to take more charge of my days and to understand my limits and my potential and my calling—well, that’s the sound of non-gospel. Right? Right?

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with nowadays. For all my theological education, I tend to have only the foggiest, most vague ideas about my life. I know that the whole universe exists for God’s glory. That fact, alas, did not translate into a workable budget for me last year. I know that God works all things to the purposes of His will, and that no one can thwart him. But not one person in my church or seminary life has ever explained to me that the reason I feel behind at the end of most weeks is that I haven’t identified what was most important to me at a personal level. A few weeks ago, I randomly stumbled across a YouTube video of a motivational speaker who warned his audience against failing to set priorities. If you don’t identify what matters, he said, your days and then weeks would bleed into a directionless, reactionary existence. Whoops.

For all my Christian culture’s scorn of self-help, couldn’t we at least have talked about actually living life in a non-theoretical, non-gospelly cliche way?

One of the things I am having to slowly unlearn is the idea that having good theology is the most important thing in life. I cringe even as I write that sentence, because for years to even think a sentence like that indicated, I believed, a willingness to embrace bad theology. The only people who talked about moderating the importance of theology, I was convinced, were people who wanted me to believe the wrong thing. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out, on the contrary, that while those whose professional lives rest comfortably at the intersection of study and theoretics (which describes a huge percentage of the “thought leaders” in my corner of Reformed evangelicalism) can afford to say “theology” when they mean “all wisdom everywhere,” many of us cannot afford to do the same.

Sometimes it was supposed in Bible college that the real reason people read self-help books is that they don’t want to be confronted with the moral demands of the Bible. I actually think that’s incorrect. I think most people read self-help lit because they know they need insight, motivation, and perspective from outside themselves. What’s more, I think many Christians read secular self-help lit because they have tried and failed to resize their life to fit a 20 minute per-day devotional box. They read books on becoming a better them because they believe, rightly, that Jesus calls them to be something greater than what they naturally are, but so much of their “gospel-driven” books seem to think that their problems will go away if they know more about divine sovereignty and human agency. In the absence of a relatable explanation of what following Jesus means for being an authentic human being, most people will assume that what they need to know about being an authentic human being and what they need to know about following Jesus are two separate issues.

In my experience, Reformed evangelicals are often so eager to engage in polemics against culture that we often create a conflict that isn’t actually there. And in this case, we tend to create a conflict between common sense and faith. Self-discipline, forward-thinking, intentionality, awareness of one’s own weaknesses and strengths—how is any of this inherently frictional with Christian confession? If it’s not, then another question: Where is the theologically orthodox and accessibly literary body of Christian self-help literature? Perhaps we balk at the phrase “self-help.” Fine. What ideas do we have for alternatives? Is there a space for Christians writing about motivation and inspiration and discipline in a way that is decidedly spiritual but not decidedly reducing life to propositional theology?

I hope all will understand that my point is not that our reading or thinking should be less Christian. My point is that there’s something to be said for not setting up false antitheses, and for articulating a Christian vision of human flourishing that actually meets felt needs, not just intellectual ones. If we sigh at pop culture’s flocking to the latest TED Talk for spiritual guidance—and there’s much to sigh about there—perhaps we should ask ourselves what our seminaries and churches are doing about it.

 

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My Year in Books

Let’s get this out of the way: Year-end reading lists are usually more helpful for making us feel guilty about what we didn’t read than making us thankful for what we did.

My own year of reading was certainly no exception; the pile of books that I read this year seems so small compared to that of others. Yet, I think it’s important to actively fight against this feeling. There is probably a place for reading to have read, but it’s a place that is often far more prominent in my ego than it needs to be. Reading at whim and for pleasure is, all variables being equal, vastly superior to reading to keep up. The former can, and often has, turned something in my soul. The latter usually just confirms my preexisting insecurities and arrogances.

With that prologue finished, here are the books I spent the most pleasurable time with this year. This isn’t an exhaustive list of my reading (though I won’t pretend that the exhaustive list would be much bigger), nor is it a definitive breakdown of everything I liked this year. Rather, these are the books that stayed with me the longest after I read them, the books I thought about the most, the books I marinated in the deepest. Most are from 2017, though not all.

 

-Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A LifeA compulsively readable biography. While it doesn’t offer quite the psychological insights I hoped, Lucas’s eclectic, unlikely career is vividly told with lots of fascinating new anecdotes.

-Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t quite know the argument.

-Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise. An accessible and unpretentious assessment of a major cultural development. An essential read for anyone trying to understand the impact of the internet on how we think. Speaking of which…

-Alan Jacobs, How To Think. One of my most underlined books of the year. I like to think of it as a long essay about the epistemological consequences of social media. I can hardly think of a more timely work.

-John Stott, The Cross of Christ. This was my first foray in a Christian classic. Stott’s defense of penal substitutionary atonement is beautiful—so much so that it’s odd to even call it a “defense.” Of all the nonfiction I read this year, this one drove me to prayer and worship the most.

-Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter. Greene’s psychological novels dig deep in my soul. This story about a duty-bound English police officer and his crisis of faith and marriage kept me up late hours of the evening. The ending is one of the most spiritually moving pieces of fiction I’ve read.

-Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. An exquisitely written novel about some of the most fundamental human experiences. Aspiring storytellers should know this book.

-Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind. This excellent work is a rare thing: An evangelical treatise on race, white privilege, and community that is both thoroughly Christian and unflaggingly level headed.

-James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. Probably the second-best book I read this year. On that note,

-Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth. My #1 read of 2017. I will be re-reading this book regularly. It has given me something for which I’ve longed for a while: A theological perspective on enjoying what God gives, and why doing so doesn’t conflict with enjoying who God is.

Friendship, Loyalty, Honesty, and Theological Controversy

In my little corner of life recently there’s been some controversy over the firing of a professor, what part another professor might have played in that firing, and What It All Means for everybody involved. I don’t feel like litigating those issues here, mostly because I don’t know enough or have even strong enough feelings to make such thoughts profitable, but also because I have personal friendships and relationships that might be strained unnecessarily, one way or the other. That raises a question for me: How important do I see friendships, partnerships, and personal loyalties when it comes to navigating controversies, especially within evangelicalism?

The issue can become complex for me personally because I have friends and relationships with people representing many different “tribes.” I have young, restless, and Reformed friends, and I have friends who read post-evangelical blogs. I have Presbyterian friends who hate Baptist political theology and I have friends at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I have friends who believe in Biblical counseling and friends who believe in Christian psychology, friends who believe in Roger Williams’ soul freedom and friends who believing in a truly Christian public square. I have friends who believe in just war and friends who are pacifists, friends who voted for Donald Trump and friends who could not. My “loyalties” runneth over.

This can be awkward, because sometimes things are said by tribe A that tribe B interprets as uncharitable, or tribe C will announce something tribes A and B agree is heretical, or–even better–tribe D will come along and ask who in the heck all these tribes are to go around labeling stuff. There are many who would call this tribal brouhaha a tragedy of American Christianity, a symptom of a broken, dysfunctional religious identity. Maybe it is. Most of the time I find myself thankful to know and associate with Christians who really do take ideas and truth seriously enough to articulate it in a specific way. Yes, tribalism can easily turn toxic, but it needn’t. Often I find that those who complain the most frequently and loudly about Christian “tribalism” are those who always have something to sell me instead.

Anyway, back to the question. What’s a fellow to do? When Facebook becomes an overnight blog battleground, and people I respect and admire and want to keep in my life are taking opposite sides, what should I do? Should I play politics and calculate which friends I *really* want to keep and calibrate my response to satisfy them? Should I try to prove to myself and others my own ideological purity and start saying things that will let my friends know they don’t “own” me? Should I make the bad theology into a t shirt that the offended party wears? Should I do nothing?

On the one hand, personal relationships don’t determine what is true, and therefore shouldn’t have an ultimate say on what I believe. Many churches and religious institutions have prioritized unity and solidarity over reality, and many times the results have been heretical, abusive, or both. Jesus wasn’t persuaded to relent when the rich young ruler walked away sad. Paul did not determine that Peter’s refusal to associate with Gentiles was fine just because they were partners in the gospel. Relational flourishing is not the supreme good. God is.

On the other hand, an arrogant dismissal of those who have helped  and served me is wrong too. When reminding Timothy to hold fast to the gospel, Paul reminded him of the trustworthy people who had taught it to him (2 Tim 3:14). Human beings aren’t merely thinking machines that just churn after propositional truth at all costs. Truth is enfleshed and embodied, first in Christ himself, then in the gathering and practices of the church. Christian friendship is not an obstacle to truth, it’s an expression of it.

Conservative evangelicalism has oft been so zealous for right “knowing” that it has, unwittingly and otherwise, denigrated the relational character of Christianity. I grew up believing that friendship was a bad reason to go to church. One went to church to worship God, individually. It wasn’t for many years that I realized the problem with this mentality is that it doesn’t explain why believers shouldn’t just stay at home and study the Bible on Sunday. Other people are not accessories to the church, they are the meaning of it.

So I don’t want to slough off friendships in the name of good thinking or theology. Nor do I want to outsource my convictions to in-groups and exchange honesty for belonging. So where does that leave me?

I think it leaves me with ears to hear. My instincts need to be questioned, because, like everyone else, they are fallible, biased, self-interested, and incomplete. That doesn’t mean curling up in an oven like Descartes and erasing everything I know. To be oriented toward trust in some ways and suspicion in others is to be human. We are formative creatures. I can hear someone say X and immediately think, “Knowing what I know about that person, I’m not sure I can believe X.” That’s a human instinct. But when that instinct empowers me to make up my mind in ignorance, to shut down the conversation and proceed with judgment, then I have probably cost myself friendship and mutuality. When the tingling sensation of distrust emerges, I want to be able to listen well.

When people that I know, love, and trust are accused or criticized, my striving for truth does not mean I assume that the accusations are true. It doesn’t mean tossing out the love and good faith that is so hard to build and yet so easy to destroy. I’m willing to venture that if it’s easy for you to believe bad reports about everyone, you probably love yourself more than anyone. It is the nature of love to dam suspicion. It hopes all things–and rejoices with the truth.

We are all sinners, and no sin is impossible for the best of us. Finite creatures as we are, we are almost always bereft of exhaustive knowledge. So we have to proceed in trust–trust of the Word, trust of each other, and trust in the sovereign hand of God. Trust is fragile. It doesn’t just break, it shatters. That’s why listening well and remembering our own frailty and sinfulness is important. But just because trust is fragile doesn’t mean we ought never handle it. Even when it comes to theological tribes, war, and rumors of war, a disposition of trust–bordered on all sides by humility and self-awareness–is a healthy thing.

10 Suggestions For New Bible College Students

From one Bible college graduate to another, here’s a brief word to students beginning their education this month:

  1. Do not use your school work on the Bible to replace your personal reading of the Bible. Even the most spiritually helpful class time cannot compare to the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of private quiet times.
  2. Don’t be thrown off by the way holiness has become “cool” on campus. This may seem dreamy at first, but it carries with it many temptations. If you find your popularity increasing with how righteous you are, stop whatever you’re doing and ask a trusted friend for an honest assessment.
  3. You won’t find every class, book, or topic equally interesting or helpful. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean your love for God is lacking.
  4. Read at least one work of fiction every semester, lest you unwittingly become, like Charles Darwin, a machine for grinding out (theological) facts.
  5. Don’t resent family members or former pastors who didn’t teach you all this wonderful new theology. People with fewer books than you may know something too.
  6. Don’t organize evangelism events if you have no intention of following up with or discipling those in your community. See suggestion #2.
  7. Being teachable is better, and more Christian, than being smart. That’s true in the classroom, the pew, and the dorm.
  8. Run from pornography as fast as you can. It’s a locust that will devour your years. Embrace flip phones.
  9. Remember Mom and Dad and grandma and grandpa. After all, you’ll be surprised how few of your college friends are still in contact 3 years after graduation.
  10. Go to church every week, preferably a church that would notice when you’re gone.

Orthodoxy, Sexuality, and the Local Church

James K.A. Smith’s post about orthodoxy, Christian creeds, and sexuality has provoked much commentary, most of it far more thoughtful than anything I could write here. I agree with Smith’s critics that his case against labeling revisionist sexual theology as “heresy” is weak and relies on a reductionistic appreciation of doctrinal formulations. I don’t necessarily agree with some who say Smith obviously is bowling to knock down the traditionalist pin. We must read others as we would like to be read. Prying into hidden motivations is always tempting when we encounter something we feel strongly is wrong, but it’s a temptation we should resist.

Since most of the commentators in this exchange are far more learned on the historic Christian theology than I am, I’m not going to pretend to add anything revelatory to the discussion. But I want to make one quick point, one that everyone in this exchange, from Alan Jacobs to Alastair Roberts, probably agrees on, but one that gets easily lost in theological disputes online.

There is an inextricably pastoral purpose to defining orthodoxy and declaring what’s outside it to be anathema. Smith is right that being wrong is not necessarily the same as being heretical. One major reason this is true is that the assembled congregation, the covenanted local church that is guided by overseers and whose members exercise the keys to the kingdom, must respond to the wayward member(s) in a particular way, according to the error. Church discipline does not exist to make every member agree on every theological dispute. But it does exist to enforce the boundaries that demarcate the embodied faith of the church. And it also exists to do practical spiritual warfare on behalf of the wayward member.

When Paul calls on the Corinthians to expel the man who is sleeping with his step mother, he is calling the church to protect its boundaries by executing its one appointed means of disenfranchisement. In doing this, the church also wages spiritual warfare that is intended for the man’s ultimate redemption and restoration. By throwing the member outside the camp, the Corinthian church was to assert its identity, its authority, and also its mission.

The proper end of heresy is excommunication. When the Christian faith is betrayed, the body of Christ must respond the same way that the Corinthian church, threatened by a member’s unrepentant immorality, did. The relationship between orthodoxy and ethics is more tight than we might assume, particularly if the local church is to protect both its confession and its purity by exercising the same power–the power of church discipline.

What does this mean for this particular debate? Three suggestions:

  1. The idea that we can infer from silence in historic Christian creeds what doesn’t rise to the level of “heresy” is a nonstarter, because the responsibility of the local church, as explained by Paul to the Corinthians, does not end merely at examining members’ personal doctrinal statements. The man whom the Corinthians excommunicated may not have failed a test of the Apostles’ Creed, but by being thrown out of membership on account of his unrepentant immorality, he was subjected to the same key-wielding power that governs his confession. The practical responsibility of the church with regards to heresy is the exact same as it is to unrepentant sin.
  2. Therefore, it follows that the real question is not whether homosexual sex is a violation of Christian creeds. The question is whether or not it is sin. Because the embodied community of God has the same obligation toward the heretical member as it does toward the unrepentant member, dividing orthopraxy from orthodoxy is simply kicking the theological can down the rhetorical road. For the covenanted people of God who wield the embodied authority of Jesus, heresy is sin, and sin is heresy, and the practical response to both depends not on sophisticated distinctions between belief and behavior, but on the question of doctrine itself.
  3. The reason this is important is not only that we can have an orthodox confession, but also so that we make practical distinctions between churches that have irreconcilable differences. Smith’s proposition is so attractive partially because it appears to relieve the hostility between churches that are “LGBT affirming” and churches that are not. If we can simply agree that this is a theological disputation, but not a fault line in basic Christian confession, we can, perhaps, start bridging personal and institutional gaps. But I submit an alternative thesis. I believe one reason there is so much heat and rancor in the Christianity and LGBT debate is because too many people, on both sides, are trying to behave as if this is a family skirmish amongst people who really do belong in the same pew. It is not. This is a fundamental question of what it means to be human. There is no reconciliation possible between churches that teach disparately about this, because there is no reconciliation possible between a church and a non-church. Embracing this, and quitting once and for all the delusion that this is a matter of some brothers and sisters being mean to other brothers and sisters, might actually relieve some of the anger and bitterness.

No Divination Against Israel

When Balak the king of Moab sees the victory of the Israelites against the Amorites, he calls for one of his oracles, Balaam (Numbers 22-24). “Curse this people for me, ” he says, “since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed.” Balak offers Balaam an alluring reward: “Whatever you say to me I will do.” The king has offered the authority of the crown. There is no greater bribe. Surely Balaam will acquiesce and curse Moab’s enemy.

But there’s a problem:

“From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. ‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?”

Furious at Balaam’s blessing of Israel, Balak invites him a second time to call down a spiritual curse. But it won’t work. It can’t work. Not because Balaam is too faithful, not because Israel is too righteous (more on that in a second). It’s because there simply is no curse to call down:

“He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them…For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.”

There is no enchantment, no divination, no curse for Balaam to bring down. It’s not just that the weapon has no ammo. It’s that there’s no weapon there at all. There is no spiritual power of the air that can thwart the granting of the promised land to Abraham’s seed.

C.S. Lewis said there were two mistakes that Christians could make in their thinking about demons and spiritual powers. One was to disbelieve in them, to ignore them. The other mistake was to take an obsessive  interest in them. Both are harmful. But if I’m guessing, I’d say that for most readers of this blog, gravitational pull is toward the first more than the second. There’s a tendency for Western Christians, and especially us Reformed types, to talk and think and pray and preach as if there are no spiritual forces at work in the world–as if the sum total of what we mean by spiritual warfare is our Bible reading and prayer time pitted against our temptations.

That’s not the worldview of the Bible. Scripture plainly teaches there are invisible, spiritual forces at work right now. There are realities that transcend the physical and powers that we cannot hear or see. This episode in Numbers is not given to us 21st century readers by the Holy Spirit in order that we can laugh at how primitive pagan kings were. The Bible treats this narrative with soberness; a spiritual curse is a real thing, and Balak is not a fool for asking for one for his enemy.

But what Balak doesn’t understand is that there is no spiritual curse to call down on God’s covenant people. There is no demonic force or metaphysical malice that can arm wrestle God and win a round. “For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.” God’s people were united around God’s presence (Ex. 40:34-38), and in God’s presence all other spiritual strongholds are subdued.

This doesn’t mean that no harm can befall God’s people. God can discipline his sons and daughters, and suffering doesn’t take Him off guard (Joseph: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”). But it does mean that even when the Ark of the Covenant is captured, the idols of the nations must bow before it (1 Sam. 5:3). Dagon kneels before the King of the cosmos, who will bring His people, adopted into His beloved Son, into their inheritance. There is no divination against Israel.

4 Thoughts on Eugene Peterson’s Retraction

Eugene Peterson told Jonathan Merritt in an on-the-record interview that he supported same-sex marriage. I, along with many others, publicly registered my disappointment and reasons I wish Peterson would have held the orthodox line. Today, however, Peterson retracted his comments and issued a statement of support for the biblical definition of marriage.

Through the smoke, here are 4 things I think:

  1. It would be a mistake to be angry with Peterson, either from the left or the right. There are no hotter questions in American culture right now than these questions, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine ourselves giving a poorly thought out, poorly worded answer to them.
  2. It would be a mistake to be angry with Jonathan Merritt here. We don’t know exactly how these questions were phrased, and of course it’s possible they were presented in a misleading way. But Peterson himself has not made that accusation, and in fact has owned his comments by officially retracting them. The questions as they appeared in the piece were direct and clear, and we have no reason (at least yet) to think they were less direct or clear in the moment they were given.
  3. It would be a mistake to chastise writers and bloggers who commented on Peterson’s interview. Words matter because ideas matter. Irresponsible “hot takes” are one thing, but publicly critiquing a public figure’s public comments on a publicly controversial topic is not a hot take. If there’s one response to this whole situation that makes zero sense, it’s blaming those who took Peterson seriously.
  4. It would be a mistake to let this whole episode pass by without reminding ourselves that there really is only two possible answers to the question of what marriage is and what sexuality is for. A “third way” is a fantasy. It’s wishful thinking that evaporates on contact with the pastoral and existential implications of either the orthodox or affirming theology. Not long ago there were some clever evangelicals who insisted that dogmatism on this issue was wrongheaded, and that were was plenty of room in close ministry partnerships for both a traditional and a non-traditional view. Today, many of those clever evangelicals are publicly deploring Eugene Peterson for betraying them. Not all dilemmas are false. This one is real, and if nothing else, Peterson has at least illustrated that.

Virtue and Signaling

One of the responses I keep seeing to the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement about alt-right and white supremacy goes like this: “I agree that racism is bad, but this just feels like political correctness. It seems like the SBC just wants liberals to think they’re good people. Why aren’t we condemning all forms of racism, like [insert group here]? This just reeks of virtue signaling.”

Of course, the proper response to this objection is to ask the person saying this, “Do you mind explaining to me in this context what the difference is between virtue signaling and being virtuous?” That’s the correct answer because the burden of proof is on the one making the accusation of virtue signaling to explain why condemning a politically active group of racists is by definition performative, but condemning abortionists, LGBT lobbyists, and doctrinally wayward churches is not.

But too often, I see friends try to respond to this accusation by saying that it’s not virtue signaling, because racism is a serious threat, it matters how we as a denomination respond to it, and our black and brown brothers and sisters in the faith need to hear us call sin against them what it is. That’s all true, of course, and it all matters. But I don’t think that it’s the best response to the charge of virtue signaling, for two reasons. The first reason is pragmatic, and the second reason is philosophical.

The pragmatic reason is simple. If someone is trying to argue that denominational statements against racism or the alt-right are virtue signaling, you’re not going to get far with them by using arguments that emphasize how brave or necessary such statements are. You see, the trouble with accusations of virtue signaling is that when the stakes go up, the accusations get stickier and stickier. By saying this issue is just too important not to speak up on, you are merely ceding the fact that “liberal media” (by which most people who say this phrase mean everybody who is not in their sociopolitical in-group) determines what’s important to talk about. Like a conspiracy theory, it’s a vicious cycle: Of course you think it’s important to talk about racism, because that’s what the media keeps saying, and what’s important to you is being on the right side of the media, etc etc etc. You can’t defeat this line of thinking with logic, because it’s designed to entail every single response you can give to it. It’s a faith commitment, not a rational deduction.

The philosophical reason is more important, though perhaps less obvious. What makes virtue signaling morally dubious is the fact that it’s basically a synonym for hypocrisy. People who virtue signal are essentially performing virtue for the approbation of others. They either don’t really mean it or else don’t mean it as much as they’re letting on. They want to be known a certain way, and their desire to be approved far outweighs their intellectual commitment to what they’re saying.

That means that the person who is accusing you of virtue signaling because you explicitly condemned racist speech or attitudes is actually changing the subject. The subject has changed from racism, and those who promote it, to you–your motivations, your morals, your authenticity. Here’s the thing: Once the subject is changed in this way, it can’t un-change on its own. Once the issue becomes the where the info came from, instead of whether it’s true or helpful or necessary, that’s it. The conversation has calcified. We aren’t talking about black people, or white supremacy, or theology, or American culture anymore. We’re talking about you.

It’s this rhetorical move that has to be thwarted at all costs.

Part of the reason American racial politics are not better than they are is that both the Left and the Right have tried to change the subject in this way. When the conversation threatens to become about undue economic hardship in redlined black communities, conservatives have too often said, “But look at how liberals have benefited from gerrymandering!” When the conversation threatens to become about Planned Parenthood’s absolute ravaging of urban communities, liberals have too often said, “Conservatives only care about babies until they’re born!” The movement away from racial justice issues toward the motivations of those trying to parse them out is a cultural and political feature that has been devastating, because it has been so effective, and so few people know how to quit its cycle.

If I had 10 seconds to be broadcast on all major TV networks to say whatever I wanted to say to America, I’d say: “Jesus offers life, and don’t be afraid of finding truth outside your tribe.” The intense, life-crushing political polarization of our culture grinds the mechanisms of actual positive change to bits. And it’s due in large part to the fact that people actually believe “But what about them” is a good, morally responsible argument.

It’s not.