Domestic Violence, the ABC, and the spirit of the Reformation

The ABC ran a longform piece on domestic violence in churches that take a ‘complementarian’ approach to gender roles in marriage yesterday, ahead of a story that will appear on 7:30 tonight. The piece is written, in part, by ABC journalist Julia Baird, and the response within the virtual circles I mix in has been fascinating… especially given stuff I’ve written recently about women, the internet, and the Spirit of the Reformation.

This might just be my observations, and I might be biased, or have an agenda, or whatever… but I’ve seen quite a few blokes (especially in ministry) getting defensive (or going on the offensive — and yeah, there’s Andrew Bolt’s response), and so many women gently suggesting that getting defensive isn’t the response in this moment on this issue.

In the Bible, wisdom is personified as a woman; perhaps we should take our lead from that and listen to some wise women sometimes? All the time? Perhaps Julia Baird is a voice worth listening to?

500 years ago this year, Martin Luther was so motivated by the inherent brokenness in the system of the church he loved and served, and by the cost of its corruption on the vulnerable (through the sale of indulgences), that he nailed 95 things he believed the church was doing wrong to a wall and kick started a movement we now call ‘the Reformation’ — the great irony is almost all the churches this ABC piece specifically mentions (apart from the Catholics) trace their history back to this moment. We should, according to our narrative, welcome voices that call for us to consider how our theology and practice are coherent, or not, and when our practices are damaging to vulnerable people in our world. We should be committed to a ‘priesthood of all believers’, where we expect God to raise up and use all sorts of people to speak truth to the ‘establishment’ (be it church or state)… and we should welcome criticism as the chance to consider whether or not more reform might be necessary.

We, more than other religious traditions, should welcome this sort of criticism as an opportunity for self assessment and reform (and it’s probably worth noting that Baird wrote part 1 of this series about domestic violence in Islam). We have a chance to respond to the publication of a thesis like this the way the Catholic Church should’ve responded to Luther. We should see Baird as a sister in Christ who is so moved by the injustice she has witnessed in this investigation on domestic violence in our churches that she has used her platform with the national broadcaster as a ‘Wittenberg door’. We should see this not as an ‘attack on mother church and all we hold dear’, but as a cry for reform from someone who has, by her account, heard dozens of the sorts of stories she shared in her piece yesterday in the course of her investigations.

And yet; today, on the Christian interwebs, I’ve seen countless heartbreaking examples of the counter-reformation; people expressing suspicion of Baird because she’s an egalitarian who is out to get us, or the ABC (and Baird) hate Christians and is out to get us.

I’ve seen it called ‘a hit job on Christians,’ a ‘conflation’ of her theological agenda with an emotive political one, a ‘smear of the church in general, and Christian men in particular’… I’ve seen people cite Andrew Bolt’s hatchet piece on the article as a voice for Christian values, when he doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but Baird does…  and I’ve seen so much discussion that wants to make the point that Baird draws on (peer-reviewed) publications about statistics in the US for part of her argument, and these stats aren’t from our own context and she hasn’t completely summarised the sources (while she has provided links to them).

It is awful and depressing. I get that people feel horrified by the idea that we blokes in leadership might be complicit in this problem (or that it might be as bad as the article suggests). I feel horrified. I get anger and denial as responses; that’s part of the grief cycle. It’s just important we don’t stay there, or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the ‘establishment’ in reformation history… we’ll try to shoot the messenger and that’ll only bolster the message (that churches led by blokes are more likely to be hostile and abusive to women).

Here are some key quotes from the article (which is largely first hand accounts of abuse and the response from churches in Australian churches from real people).

“There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.

But church counsellors and survivors of family violence report that many abusive men, like Sally’s husband, rely on twisted — or literalist — interpretation of Bible verses to excuse their abuse…

What is clear from the women interviewed by ABC News is that they do not resent the church — they urgently seek its reform.”

We need Julia Bairds like we needed Martin Luther. We need to listen to the stories she is telling from real women in our churches about how our real theology has been used to create bad practice, but also to see how it is clear from her piece that bad practice ultimately comes (from the perpetrators) from wolves who twist the words of God to create their own bad theology to justify their insidious practice. Her point is that if we aren’t clear about our theology and practice we provide cover for wolves — ‘false teachers’ — the kinds of people the Bible warns us we should be looking out for.

Baird’s piece is certainly a result of her egalitarian convictions but it doesn’t require egalitarian convictions to agree with her in her observations of the problems, or to listen to the stories she tells and ponder how we might reform from within before a reformation movement happens without us.

I’m thankful for Julia Baird. I wish the church had a thousand more journalists like her. I don’t believe that complementarian theology causes abuse, or that egalitarian theology is the silver bullet (here’s a post I wrote specifically about gender and abuse a few months back); but she is certainly right that the abuse of complementarian theology can be used to keep people in abusive situations. Neither complementrianism or egalitarianism will provide a model that protects people from abuse; Jesus will. And how we respond to the calls of reformers is a chance for us, like it should have been for the Catholics, to keep reforming so that our theology and practice are more closely tied to the God revealed in Jesus, and the way of life demonstrated by him.

In churches where men are in positions of responsibility and ‘authority’; where disclosure of domestic violence in relationships within the church will likely be to these men, and where there’s control and abuse being perpetuated using twisted theology, how we respond to this sort of piece matters; it communicates something. It’s an opportunity either to perpetuate the exact cultural problem that allows wolfish abusers to operate under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, or to reform the culture.

I fear too much of the conversation about this article online has been defensive and about theological differences, where we could, and should (and many have) simply been welcoming this call for reform and heeding its advice (and the accounts of many Christian sisters who have been abused) to bring about real change in how we approach this issue. We might as a reformed church (and by this I mostly mean protestant churches in Australia that hold to broadly complementarian gender roles), bang on about remembering our history and celebrating 500 years of the Reformation; but we’ve possibly missed the essence of the Reformation (a pursuit of Christlikeness through reforming practices and institutions that have become broken by our sinfulness and the enshrining of broken traditions as norms).

What if instead of being defensive we welcomed the light being shone on this issue (and the one shining the light, even if we disagree with her brand of torch).

What if we used this as an opportunity to produce clear statements about our approach to domestic violence, and how the cross of Jesus shapes Christian marriage and also our sense of leadership (what the strong do for the weak)?

What if we’d used this to clean our laundry rather than accusing Julia Baird of either airing the dirty laundry or throwing mud at our clean clothes?

What if we’d used this to thank Julia Baird and celebrate the way she has used her gifts and her platform to both bring this attention into the light (ala Ephesians 5 — which is about more than just marriage), and to attempt to reform the church out of a love for both Jesus and his bride?

What if instead of expressing dismay at ‘shoddy statistics’ we’d simply said ‘this is awful, we commit to working to change’?

I suspect we’d be bringing honour to Jesus and we’d be committing ourselves to healthy change and a healthy expression of how men of God relate to women of God who bring wise counsel… maybe we’d be practising what we preach…

Some positive links.

Census sensibility: 10 thoughts on the 2016 Australian census results and what they mean for Christians

Almost no Christian commentator involved in church ministry that I’ve read this week is particularly surprised by, or concerned about the findings of the 2016 census. Which might come as a surprise to those out there who’ve used the data as some sort of evidence for the decline of Australian religiousity, or to suggest that the influence of the church on Australian life is on the wane. There is, however, one Christian position that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of the data — and that’s the assumption undergirding some political Christianity that has mounted political arguments based on the size of the Christian population; one such lobby group — the ACL — even urged people to tick the ‘Christian’ box (or fill out the question appropriately) to maintain a strong Christian constituency.

Why is it important? While the census data is rightly used to assist the government to plan for services and infrastructure, other groups, including some atheists, are seeking to push their  agendas by encouraging people to leave the form blank.  Not every person who holds judeo-Christian values attends a church, but if enough of them leave this section blank, some will use this to minimize the importance of basic Christian values in this country.  We need to prove the size of the constituency who hold these values.

I reckon we’re in big trouble if we Christians are reinforcing the idea that Christianity is a values system, not a lived belief in the resurrected Jesus Christ, and we open ourselves up to the sort of chest-beating we read from aggressive secularists if people think ‘Christian’ is just a box you tick on a form. Here’s some more of what I think, and how I feel about this census stuff; and what does have interesting implications for the church in Australia, and what doesn’t, from the data.

1. The Bible takes a pretty dim view of census taking because they’re often a measure of worldly kingdoms and their power.

Which isn’t to say we should pay no attention, just that we should remember who the real king is and what kingdom we Christians belong to. The census data provides us interesting insight into Australia as a mission field; but terrible justification for Christians to wield our influence in the political sphere as a ‘majority’ — we should put this data in its place.

In the Old Testament, David conducts a census (1 Chronicles 21, 2 Samuel 24) to gauge his own might; which is a slap in the face to the idea that God gives strength to his kingdom and he gets rebuked and punished.

In the New Testament, Caesar Augustus conducts a census as a measure of the might of his empire (Luke 2) — this even gets a mention in his eulogy the res gestae, which makes for interesting reading), and as history unfolds this is the moment of Rome’s undoing — cause it’s the mechanism by which God brings about the birth of the true king, Jesus, as prophesied, in a way that would ultimately be the undoing of Caesar’s ‘divine’ dynasty, as the empire became Christian. I don’t want to overstate the case here against being too worried about shifting dynamics in the worldly kingdom of Australia, but for Christians tempted to panic because we’re going to lose influence, it’s worth pondering this little interchange between Jesus and Caesar’s representative, Pilate:

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” — John 18:33-37

2. Australia has never meaningfully been a Christian nation and the decay of nominal/cultural Christianity is a good thing

But wait, you’ll say, our laws are founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and the church was part of the establishment of Australia as a colony, and we had all those ‘impressive’ Christian types like Lachlan Macquarie and Samuel Johnson running about early in our history.

To that, I’d say, there’s more than one Australian story… there’s a difference between the educated upper class establishment being Christian, and a whole host of other Australians not being Christian but being governed by Christians. Once church attendance was no longer compulsory (as it was for convicts), the population largely stopped going (and early population stats don’t count the significant number of indigenous Aussies not going to church either). So, for example, in 1907, less than 11% of those who identified as Anglican in Brisbane in the census regularly attended church (source: An inquiry commissioned by the Anglican Church diocese of Brisbane, conducted on the “Religious Knowledge and Habits of the People” cited in Tom Frame’s Losing My Religion a book on faith and practice in Australia — I wrote an essay on this census data stuff while at college).

Banjo Patterson’s The Bush Christening describes settler life outside the urban centres…

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few, And men of religion are scanty, On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost, One Michael Magee had a shanty”

3. This data isn’t news it has been a long time coming and Christians have been too complacent on our definition of ‘Christianity’ in part because our understanding of the Gospel is more geared towards ‘decision’ and ‘cultural identity’ than ‘discipleship’ and following Jesus. 

A prominent Christian lobby group in Australia urges people to identify as Christians in the census if they wanted to maintain conservative Christian values by ‘proving the size of the constituency’. I’d rather sign up with the movement that urges people to only say they’re Christian if they hold to the historic creeds.

I’ve finally, after having it on my shelf for years, started reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, and while it’s responding to the US context and I don’t want to extrapolate their data too much into our own context, but his diagnosis of what has gone wrong in America where so many people identify as Christian but don’t practice nails us for our wrong understanding and presentation of the Gospel (and what being Christian means), rather than trying to understand ‘Christian’ as a cultural identity thing; and I think he’s on the money.

“The correlation between making a decision and becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not high. Here are some approximate numbers: among teenagers (13-17) almost 60% of the general population makes a commitment to Jesus — that is, they make a “decision”… However we look at this pie, most Americans ‘decide’ for Jesus. But if we measure discipleship among young adults (18-35), we find dramatic shifts in numbers. Barna has some measures for “discipleship” including what they call “revolutionary faith,” a “biblical worldview” and “faith as a highest priority in life.” Take revolutionary faith, which sorts out things like meaning in life, self-identification as a Christian, Bible reading, and prayer, as well as questions about how faith has been or is transforming one’s life. That almost 60% becomes about 6%… Our focus on getting young people to make decisions — that is, “accepting Jesus into our hearts” — appears to distort spiritual formation”

You should read the book. But his point is that we’re sloppy about our definition of Christian and that costs us and creates a perception that isn’t real — and throw in campaigns to distort the data in our favour, for our political advantage, and we’re in a terrible mess.

4. If you’re shocked by this Barna group data, or the census results, you should probably go out and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, then make things worse cause we’re in Australia and have less definitively Christian heritage.

Christianity has not been profoundly part of the Australian experience in the way it is part of the narrative in the United States (again, ignoring the elephant in the room that is the religiousity of the indigenous peoples in both nations). We are not a Christian colony set up by religious people escaping persecution, but rather the church was part of the way the European establishment sought to control the penal colony… we are much more profoundly secular and pluralist in our outlook/story (including in the constitution), I found this vision of religiousity (or secularity) in Australia from this paper on Indigenous Religion in Secular Australia a pretty compelling description of how religion works in our psyche (and history). It’s talking about what exactly our Constitutional provision around religion (that we have no official state religion or church) emerged from (which is different to similar provisions in the US).

Australian secularism owes less to theory than to culture. It emerges in our foundation myths of frontier self-reliance and working-class larrikinism and in our modern self-image of cosmopolitan hedonism. Where other nations have often developed secular constitutions while retaining vibrantly religious cultures, Australian cultural secularisation was arguably well-advanced before Federation opened the agenda in which the issue of constitutional secularism became relevant.”

Or, as this paper on Secularisation and the Church/state relationship puts it:

As religious organisations became differentiated and secularised from the state, their relationship to the state was changed in three fundamental ways. First, the state no longer maintained a monopoly over religion. As a result, individuals were now able to choose whether they would follow a particular religion. Second, religious plurality was able to be developed and maintained. Third, all religious organisations would receive equal rights under the law. In addition, religion could maintain public significance as it would be supported but not controlled by the state.”

This ‘secular frame’ means that Taylor’s secular age thesis happens on steroids in Australia… because our national narratives are already a couple of steps down the path towards irreligion than in the US. I’d suggest our religiousity in the census is much more ‘cultural’ than a product of a meaningful narrative that people see themselves participating in (or a story that shapes one’s experience/identity). One implication of this sort of secularity though is that Christians should be more upfront about how our religion shapes us in public conversations as a legitimate secular/pluralist expression of our national identity.

5. Migration is part of the story of the decline in cultural Christianity, but also part of the story of opportunity for the church

26% of Australians alive today were born overseas. Many more are second generation Australian. Migration from non-European nations has altered the responses to the census religion question since it was first asked… This change isn’t all ‘European-background Aussies de-converting’… there’s a more complex picture underneath the data.

It should be obvious, but the more Australians born overseas, or born to parents who have migrated from overseas, from countries that are not Christian by heritage, the greater percentage of Aussies there are who aren’t likely to identify as Christians, culturally. And this is a fantastic opportunity for churches in Australia to grapple with multi-cultural/multi-ethnic outreach.

6. We’re increasingly going to need (at least a) ‘two-speed’ approach to being the church in Australia

Multi-ethnic ministry is probably a third speed altogether — but there’s another rapidly growing divide in the Aussie population based on age and worldview.

Us churchy types need to figure out the balance between gearing ourselves towards Australia’s aging population, with its particular suppositions and ‘cultural Christian’ baggage, and younger generations who have none of the baggage, or the assumptions.

39% of people aged under 34 said they have ‘no religion’ as opposed to 31% aged over 34. Younger Aussies are less religious than their older counterparts.

These two are related.

The stats amongst young people are much more dire than the stats amongst oldies — though the ‘aging population’ conundrum means oldies are becoming increasingly common, or as the ABS puts it:

Australia’s once youthful population is ageing slowly. Our median age is now 38. It was 23 in 1911, 28 in 1966, and 37 in 2011.

As our baby-boomer generation ‘matures’, we find that one in six of us are now over 65, compared to one in seven in 2011 and only one in 25 in 1911.

We’re probably going to live longer and the birth rate is down on what it used to be, but there’s a good chance that the ‘no religion’ stat will keep accelerating amongst young people which means we need a sort of ‘two speed economy’ approach to mission in Australia.

If we want to think about what the future of the church looks like beyond that aging population we might need to start recalibrating the way we do church to post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth types (how we present the Gospel and grow people to Christian maturity) a little more urgently; while also figuring out how to reach out to the old modernist Aussies who either think they’re Christians but don’t meaningfully follow Jesus, or have decided Christianity isn’t for them.

7. If you didn’t believe Australia was already post-Christian, post-modern, and post-truth, maybe now is the time to start figuring out how to change the way we do stuff both in the public realm and in the church?

Campaigns encouraging Aussies to tick ‘Christian’ in the census to maintain Christian values, that are disconnected from campaigns to embed those values in people’s hearts are part of the problem, not the solution. Public Christianity that confuses people about what Christians believe is deleterious to the church’s mission and we need to get better at expressing what the Gospel is and why following Jesus as king leads to a better, wiser, fuller, more beautiful and eternal life in a compelling alternative community where love is a reflection of the character of God revealed at the cross of Jesus.

I’ve written some thoughts on how we might be the church for the post-truth/post-modern generation here. Our challenge is to match our rational truth with the sort of experience and community that makes it emotionally plausible.

8. Pessimism is for losers. 

On the flip side, you might not think the census data is particularly bad, or particularly accurate. Because you might think the numbers are actually much lower than it suggests and it isn’t particularly newsy. You might agree that Christianity isn’t a box ticked in a census, but membership of an alternative kingdom following King Jesus, and you might already see Australia as a massive mission field in which we’re meant to be living and proclaiming the Gospel so as to make disciples while we follow Jesus in trying to seek and save the lost.

You might not actually think all this is that bad, because you might have friendships with people who’ve ticked the “Christian” box, but don’t follow Jesus, or plenty of friends who tick the ‘no religion’ box who are comfortable with the sort of historic ‘secular’ norm in Australia (so they aren’t out to silence you, although perhaps they might think it’s time our laws stopped reflecting values they don’t share). That’s me. Despite the odd coverage from places like Buzzfeed, and the weird chest-beating from the aggressive ‘hard secularist’ types who want to use this data to silence Christians altogether.

So what then?

Well. Here’s two more thoughts.

9. Qualitative data beats quantitative every time in terms of painting a meaningful picture.

McCrindle’s Faith and Belief in Australia survey, which asks more pointed questions, is a heaps better measure than the Census, and provides more reason for optimism, and a clear picture on how churches keen to proclaim and live the Gospel in Australia might shape that proclamation in ways that produce emotional plausibility and connect with the Australian psyche.

Here’s a couple of encouraging findings from McCrindle’s summary.

A genuine faith the greatest attraction to a religion or spirituality
Observing people with genuine faith is the greatest attraction to investigating spirituality. Second is experiencing personal trauma or a significant life change. On the inverse, the top repellent to Australians investigating is public figures or celebrities who are examples of that faith. This is followed by miraculous stories of healings or supernatural occurrences.

Perceptions of Christianity
Australians most value Christian organisations for their work with those in need, specifically looking after people who are homeless, offering financial assistance/food relief programs and providing disaster relief (74%, 72% and 69% respectively).  8% of Australian adults (1.5 million) do not know any Christians, while for Generation Y this is almost one in ten. One in 29 Australians have never heard of Jesus.

10. The problem here is with the church, not the world. We don’t need no Benedict Option, but we do need ‘thick’ joyful creative communities prepared to operate at, from, and for the margins.

The days of the Aussie church (and its dominant mission field) being upwardly middle class, educated, and of European descent (ie coming out of the ‘establishment narrative’ where to be Australian is to have a Judeo-Christian heritage and approach to life) might be over. And maybe that’s a good thing.

This data could feed all sorts of narratives out there about how hostile the world we live in is to the church, but maybe this sort of data shouldn’t be a wake up call about how hostile the world is becoming, but rather, about how disengaged the church is from the world, and perhaps how much we’ve been resting on our laurels with the assumption that we live in a Christian nation.

We might be tempted to withdraw into our own little communities by this data (and the response), and to work harder on reinforcing the boundaries…Maybe, if we’re going to tick a box identifying ourselves with Christ in a secular census, we need to be on about living out Jesus’ ‘golden rule,’ his ‘greatest commandments,’ and ‘great commission’

Maybe it’ll help us be more urgently on about the Gospel and less worried about civic religion and/or our influence in society based on inflated numbers.

Maybe being a good Aussie citizen, as a Christian, is actually about first being a good citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and then participating in a rich secular, pluralist, society. Maybe our participation should happen in such a way that how our religious views shape our lives becomes obvious, and in turn shapes how people understand what being a Christian is, and where our beliefs are evident to all (and plausible to some) because how we live is so different to many of our neighbours. It should be really costly to tick the ‘Christian’ box on the census; because, as Bonhoeffer put it, when Christ calls a person, he calls them to come and die…

Maybe we need to stop pretending that Christianity can possibly just be a values system that we hope other people will tick and flick so that we can maintain our slightly inaccurate belief that Australia is a ‘Christian nation’ with a ‘Christian majority,’ because those beliefs are becoming less and less plausible every census.

Why I use loaded words like ‘feminism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’: not just words used in the Bible (but I do think they’re Biblical concepts)

My friend Akos just wrote a post on his blog arguing that we Christians should not so readily use loaded/non-value neutral words like privilegepatriarchyfeminism. I think he’s wrong.

He says:

“Christians sometimes (increasingly?) discuss this sensitive topic using jargon like ‘patriarchy’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-equality’.”

I definitely do this. Often. Here’s a bunch of posts on Christian feminism from my archives (on just the first page of results I use the word privilege eight times, and the word patriarchy 12 times — by tagging this post as ‘feminism’ it’ll add a few more). Here’s a talk I gave on What The Church Gets Wrong About Feminism where I talk about the patriarchy, and privilege, as it operates outside the church and inside it (I also talk about ‘safe places’ and how the church should be the safest place for women).

Now. There’s an irony that two blokes are banging on about how we should talk about feminism in the church, and there’s plenty of great stuff out there by women (often left voiceless in these convos), and you’d be better off reading them (eg my friend Tamie’s posts on meetjesusatuni or fixinghereyes). But it’s important for blokes to get this right so we’re not treading all over women and/or excluding them from the conversation, and thus ironically making the point that we need words like privilege, patriarchy, and feminism.

Akos has some bolded summary statements to explain why this is a bad idea, and what ‘better’ might be.

  • These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded 
  • They’re not ‘value-neutral’. 
  • Jesus Often Comes off Looking Second Best When He’s Evaluated By Secular Feminism 
  • When We Feel Embarrassed By What The Bible Says, We Can Start Doubting The Bible
  • A Better Way To Engage This Topic: Leave out the buzzwords, and grapple with the Bible. 
  • Let’s discuss the roles of men and women – but on the Bible’s terms.
  • We’ll Always Be Out Of Step With Our Culture: But that’s God’s design.

I have problems with the last one — I think the crucifixion of Jesus will always put us out of step with our culture and provide and create an alternative one; but I also think the framework provided by the Bible is the best and wisest account of life in our world (it might take the Spirit for people to see it); we shouldn’t be afraid to engage with where people in our world are identifying that it seems broken, because there’s a good chance the Gospel will provide a more satisfying and eternal answer.

One of Akos’ paragraphs says:

“If we allow our embarrassment to drive our view of the Bible, then it’s not long before we’re relying on our own experience and insight (influenced in large part by our culture’s views) to interpret – or even supersede – the Bible.”

Now. My problem is, I think all these terms are actually descriptions the Bible would be comfortable with to describe particular aspects of our sinfulness, and the way sin (and specifically the curse) plays out in the world. I think we get these categories — or something very like them — if we do grapple with the Bible, and, for example, observe how men in power behave towards women in the Old Testament and how Jesus is different.

Here’s one reason to use them… I’ll put it in bold.

We Christians are in conversation with the world, and conversations require listening

These aren’t just internal Christian discussions; they’re discussions we’re entering into in a world where feminism, patriarchy and privilege are live issues — and it’d be silly not to listen to people identifying how the curse of sin affects our neighbours and to not ask if it might have infected the church too. This is also an area that is in the top belief blockers for non-Christian Aussies — and if we’re going to be different to the world maybe it’s worth being different in a way that is less cursed, not more — it’s quite probable that the crucified king will leave us with very different answers to the world’s, and that these answers will confound both the solutions offered by conservatives and progressives outside the church.

When Paul steps up to the podium in the Areopagus in Athens he uses a bunch of values-laden words that describe Biblical concepts, but come from Greek poets and philosophers, and Athenian observations about how the world works. He uses these words because he has listened carefully to these poets and philosophers, and he has carefully observed Athens, and has been in dialogue with the people of Athens using their categories. He shows how their categories actually find their best answers in Jesus.

If I want to say that sin and the cursed pattern of relationships between men and women plays out structurally, I think it’s ok to use the word patriarchy to describe how men have systemically used our strength and power to shape the world according to our desires (and in a way consistent with the Genesis 3:16 curse). We see this in the way, for example, Solomon has 1,000 wives, and David treats Bathseba as an object to be claimed, not a co-image bearer (having previously discarded his wife Michal). We see it in modern talks on this passage when male preachers make the issue David betraying Uriah rather than David raping Bathsheba (sending soldiers to ‘get her’ doesn’t particularly imply consent, nor does anything in the narrative). Men and women in the Old Testament, after Genesis 3, don’t seem to operate very often in the way envisaged by Genesis 1-2.

If I want to talk about the advantages I enjoy as a man because of this system I’ll use privilege — stuff like not really ever fearing that I’m going to be raped, ignored (especially in churches), patronised in conversations about science, engineering, math, etc, not employed or paid the same as my peers because of my gender, or in a positive sense, that I’m more likely to hold a leadership position in a company, the church, or politics, and I’m more likely to find protaganists in stories that our culture consumes and is shaped by that are just like me (and talk to other people of the same gender but not about romance). These aren’t small things. And they are privilege.

If I want to say this is a problem because men and women were made equal in value, and equal in ultimate function, as image bearers of God (which is a function), I’ll use the concept of gender-equality. 

The honus is on us Christians, just as it was with Paul in Athens, if we’re going to use these worldly words, or categories, to reframe them according to the Bible’s story, so that the Bible is the best explanation for this status quo, and the curse-reversing work of Jesus the best treatment of is the best solution. But not using the words means not participating in the conversation that the world is having (it’s not just a conversation happening in the church), and this means missing out on opportunities to present the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus. Who is a better feminist than any merely human feminist because he actually does something substantial and eternal about patriarchy, privilege, and gender-equality. Sometimes we non-egalitarian Christians have been so scared of how this verse is used that we make it say almost nothing about gender; but what it is is the reversing of the curse; the promise of what will be in the new creation, and what begins in the church (though we, the church, are still in dialogue with and operating within a cursed and broken world).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26-29

 

PS: I don’t see complementarian or egalitarian coming up as terms in the Bible either… and to quote Akos with a minor edit:

“At best, they’re confusing to most people (who aren’t up on feminist evangelical terminology); and at worst, these words prejudge the Bible’s teaching and impose a secular worldview onto it.”

A graphically expressed third way on gender stuff in a messed up world: Complementarian? Egalitarian? Or the Cross?

Men and women are, on average, or typically, physiologically, anatomically, and hormonally different. To deny this is would be odd because the evidence is pretty concrete. Here’s a thing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 2011/12:

The average Australian man (18 years and over) was 175.6 cm tall and weighed 85.9 kg. The average Australian woman was 161.8 cm tall and weighed 71.1 kg.

This size and weight ratio, on average, means men are physically bigger and stronger. There are exceptions. But this average also means that men who throw their weight around are a danger to women, and we know this and talk about this beyond the church when we talk about violence against women, rape culture, and the patriarchy. Some approaches to gender issues want to deny or minimise this difference and the effect it has on the world assuming that equality or equity is the answer to this problem.

You might have seen this graphic.

Now. I like the sentiment there. But this other version an important corrective; acknowledging that sometimes inequality is a result of systemic injustice.

 

At the moment Aussie Christians are talking about gender equality in the church and home. And I thought of these pictures and wondered how applicable they might be. I reckon both of these graphics are a bit naive when it comes to problems of gender inequality and the solutions both in the church, and in the world.

Let me demonstrate this graphically with my own little picture. In the interests of using images that I own the rights to, let’s assume that the ultimate good, or what it means for humans to flourish, is represented by the ability to watch my old soccer team, Kustard FC, compete in a grand final (in an equal world this would be a mixed sport perhaps, but bear with me), so the ultimate expression of ‘gender equality’ is everybody enjoying the same view of the game.

An unimpeded view of the looks like this. No fences. Right behind the goal mouth.

 

 

When we talk about gender equality in the church and the world it’s worth acknowledging what we’ve said up front; the different physical strength of men and women, and a few other issues, means that over time men wielding influence and power has become systematised. There’s no fence in this picture; there’s people. Men. This is the patriarchy. A group of 175.6 pixel high, 85.9 pixel wide men using their size and weight to secure their own ultimate good at the expense of others.

Now. This is where it gets interesting for Christians.

Because we have a different sense about what the world should be to our patriarchy loving or patriarchy hating neighbours, that comes from our story, and an explanation for why, instead, the world is the way it is. It starts in the beginning.

Creation.

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:27-28

I’ve bolded them to emphasise that this is plural and the plurality in sight is ‘male and female’ people as created by God. They are blessed; not cursed. This blessing is caught up in, and enables their partnership. We Christians believe that at creation men and women were created to flourish together in partnership. To share in the task of bearing God’s image, ruling the world together, cultivating and keeping the sanctuary of God’s garden-temple and expanding it as we multiplied his image-bearing presence across the face of the earth. In Genesis 2 we see Eve, woman, created as a helper for Adam, man, because he can’t do his job alone, and the Hebrew word used for ‘helper’ ezer is elsewhere used of God in a military context coming to the aid of Israel, and means something more like ‘necessary ally’ than ‘servant’.

It was meant to look like…

Curse

But things broke. The ideal was lost in the fall (Genesis 3), amidst a bunch of curses (not blessings) in response to Adam and Eve’s sin (and the Serpent’s deception), God says:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

We were made to rule together, but now, and this is the pattern of life in the world in the Bible’s account of our humanity, man rules over woman. Over, not with.

So now, as a result. Here’s what happens when the average woman (161.8 pixels by 71 pixels) would also like to ‘watch the game’ ie flourish.

 

The ‘patriarchy’, or the problem of gender equality isn’t a problem where there’s just a fence impeding the view of the women; it’s a problem where men are impeding that view because they are bigger and stronger and it’s to their advantage. The worst form of this probably should be depicted with men trampling all over women because of their strength, not just blocking access to the ultimate good, but abusing women to secure something bad and treating it as good (eg abuse).

This ‘patriarchy’ is not what life was meant to look like; it’s not how men and women were made to live together. This is ‘curse’, as Genesis 3 puts it. This is the new ‘natural’ order of things. It is not good. It is not what God made life to be. It is not the ideal. We might think that because it is normal the best thing to do is to find other things for the women standing behind these men to do. Perhaps they could help them flourish and enjoy the game by giving them a back massage. Perhaps they could play a ‘different’ role, or find a ‘different’ sort of flourishing in order to let men rule. This feels a lot like having the curse be our norm.

So we’re left with three options to respond to this as humans, and as Christians, to deal with this patriarchy. Classically as Christians we see two options, the middle two. We reject the first (rightly), and I want to suggest we should embrace the fourth as we follow the example of Jesus.

Option 1: Embrace it (Chauvinism)

So when men like the four blokes on the right decide that they aren’t just going to secure a better ‘flourishing’ life for themselves by nature of being themselves and benefiting from the system, but rather they’ll use their strength to take advantage of others, trampling on them to secure an even better ‘view’… This is chauvinism. It’s abuse. It’s not just curse it’s sin.

The Changed Status Quo (Curse + Sin)

When sin happens on top of curse we get an even more messed up view of the world. When people take advantage of a power inequality for their own ends it amplifies the problems of a systemic inequality (a broken system). The world now looks like this. Part sinful abuse, part cursed system. Not what it was meant to be.

 

 

Christian Options

Now. Let’s for the sake of graphical clarity make Christian men and women colourful, and assume the status quo in the cursed world is part cursed system (patriarchy) and part abusive (chauvinism), that our challenge as Christians is to avoid sinful abuse (chauvinism) and overcome the curse (patriarchy) while living in this world.

Option 2. The Egalitarian Option (full equality)

Egalitarians stress the equality of all people; men and women; and our shared task in the world as God’s image bearing people. It is idealistic in that it looks back to the world before the fall, and the world as promised beyond the fallen world (the new creation) to establish an ideal for how men and women should relate.

Here’s how an egalitarian approach plays out with the status quo in place. And yes. It’s getting confusing. But let me explain what is happening. This is a set of coloured characters we’ll call ‘the church’ operating as equals, overlaid (in the main) over the status quo.

On the left you’ve a Christian man and woman operating where both the their access to a ‘flourishing’ life is blocked by a some abusers who have elevated themselves at the expense of others. The next four people are Christian men and women operating as equals in an unequal society, it’s easy for the man. He just has to be himself, and he gets to flourish without it costing him anything (he can see the game). The women notice no change, they just aren’t being abused; the patriarchy is still in their way. The last two men and women don’t have the patriarchy in front of them because those members of the patriarchy represent that proportion of the population who recognise the inequality and so have become egalitarians… it’s only when the systemic stuff is removed that that last woman on the right has access to the ‘flourishing’ life. It only works for the very privileged (particularly for middle to upper class western white women). It does offer an answer to the unprivileged, but because the diagnosis and the treatment are disconnected from (at least what the Bible describes as) the disease, it’s not totally effective in the face of the patriarchy. It relies, basically, on powerful people either being overthrown, or voluntarily giving up their power when confronted with it. This is why egalitarianism fails; in fact, it’s why I don’t think the Bible puts forward egalitarianism as a solution to the status quo.
Egalitarianism — the equality of men and women — is the world’s naive, or optimistic, solution to the problem of cursed life in the world; it’s a solution that comes without truly understanding that the problem is that life in the world is cursed, and that we can’t fix the curse ourselves just by pretending it isn’t there. It recognises a truth about our equality in dignity and value, and is less likely to accept the parameters offered to us by curse and sin. But it often settles for equality or equity as solutions, and doesn’t totally acknowledge that our difference is real, and that sin and curse have exaggerated the impact of that difference. It is an attempt to respond to a broken world by creating a new one (and in some sense, it does look forward to the new creation, but perhaps optimistically over-realises that picture in this world). So for Christians to adopt it just strikes me as missing the heart of the diagnosis, and the solution, that come with our story. As I’ve argued recently, the antidote to inequality is not equality, equality is a middle ground, a neutral, the positive antidote to inequality is service. A neutral option in a broken status quo won’t cut it (though it’s better than perpetuating or amplifying that brokenness).

Option 3. The Complementarian Option (equal but different)

Here’s one way Christians have approached the relationship between men and women in this world. Charitably it assumes that men and women are different (including physiologically) for a reason, and this difference manifests itself in different roles that do not negate our equality; and that somehow, as we operate as church and family in a fallen world, it makes sense for the stronger man to lead and the woman to help and support men in their work in the home or the church. This assumes that the best way to fight against patriarchy, abuse, or the broken status quo is to team up in a way that relies on strong leadership that challenges the status quo. Uncharitably, and sometimes in practice it assumes that the pattern of the curse is normal.

When it comes to the graph below, where the Christian men and women are in colour, it assumes that if you make a man a Christian it’s good to stand behind him and support him. That the man has a particular role to play in life in the world, as a Christian, and that the woman has a different role, reclaiming the task of ‘helper,’ only, the task looks perhaps different to the way it looked before the fall. Perhaps this difference is because the world is different, and a greater threat to the flourishing of women — but it’s possible that sometimes a Christian bloke is just as likely to get in the way of a woman’s flourishing as a non-Christian bloke.

So. Graphically, the way this plays out is that a complementarian man probably stands between a woman and an abuser (a bit like Jesus standing between the pharisees and the adulterous woman they wanted to stone), so that’s what’s going on with the the first two figures. But, in the next two figures, there’s some reasonable evidence to suggest that complementarian theology can misfire so that men are either abusive without realising it, or claim to be Christians in order to abuse women with some sort of divine support; this isn’t what is at the heart of ‘complementarian’ theology, but many Christian women escaping domestic violence say they were kept there by a theology much like it. In the next (the fifth) little vignette along, we see a complementarian woman standing behind a non-Christian patriarchal husband in order that by her way of life she might save him (eg 1 Peter), and then, in the last two, we see where in complementarian marriages and church structures (so ‘authority’ in the church), men and women model a different way of relating that is not abusive, but nor does it allow women access to the ‘full picture’ of human flourishing (unless to flourish as a woman is somehow tied to helping the flourishing of a man, not to a shared task). For many it’s hard to see the difference between this last category of relating and the patriarchy/status quo. Some though read this model back into the garden of Eden, and it’s hard to unpick then how much sin and curse have changed the way we view and experience the default.

It’s fair to say that complementarianism grapples with the physical reality of our difference and acknowledges the way sin has made that difference worse. It is a realistic response to the broken world, but it does, in the hands of abusers, perpetuate abuse, and it’s hard to argue that overthrows systemic curse or injustice to replace it with something better. There are many ways that because it is realistic, not just idealistic, it’s actually better than option 2, it also seems to assume the Bible has good reasons to argue for/create different roles for men and women that aren’t simply cultural but are a response to sin and curse, but I don’t think it’s the ideal because it doesn’t appear to challenge or change the cursed and sinful status quo.

Subvert it (The cross)

Let’s return to that image from the start of the post…

It would be nice to simply remove the fence; but in this case the fence is ‘the patriarchy’ — it’s a human fence created by the status quo which involves men using their strength for our own benefit.

The world is geared towards the success of men. We’re bigger on average, stronger on average, faster on average, less vulnerable to sexual assault on average, get paid more on average, take less time off work for family on average. We’re more likely to be in positions of authority and influence because of many of these factors. This is what the patriarchy looks like; and sure, sometimes men get into these positions because of the voluntary sacrificial love of women in their lives who genuinely want to help them flourish, and for many Christians the flourishing life looks different to most of these criteria. It’s possible to theologise and suggest that this is what difference should look like, and that this difference creates, through the Gospel, a particular responsibility for the husband to love and serve his wife (this is the best version of option 3 looks like).

It would be nice to simply remove the barrier (ala the boxes and fence graphic above); or to get boxes for women to stand on so that we enjoy equity when it comes to our access to the flourishing life. But this does not factor in the real heart issue behind the barrier; the barrier is people, not just a ‘system’…

I want to suggest the Gospel actually provides us with a third way that is both like option 2 in its idealism and option 3 in its realism. Men following the example of Jesus and laying down our strength and even our natural-but-cursed claim to power and authority is a different way forward that produces qualitatively different outcomes as men and women operate as different and equal in our world. It needs a funky name; obviously; and some friends online call it being an imagodeian (imago dei is latin for ‘image of God’). When I was talking about this with my boss (credit where credit is due) he suggested ‘imaginarian’ which is nice, because we’ve been teasing out how important imagination is in responding to the cursed and sinfully twisted world as people shaped by the Gospel.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:3-8

Philippians 2 is the background for lots of what Paul says about gender relationships (eg Ephesians 5, and 1 Corinthians 11-14). Paul is a realist about both the difference between men and women, and the way the world makes this difference harmful to women, and he is giving us the good news that in the Gospel we have an answer to abuse and patriarchy; to sin and curse. We have the start of something new that will bring us towards a new reality, ultimately. Submission, then, which gets brought up in Ephesians 5 is both mutual (Ephesians 5:1), but also a preparedness to be served, to acknowledge that difference should play out in such a counter cultural way, and that this is the best and most counter-intuitive inversion of the patriarchy/curse and challenge to sin/abuse. Authority, then, is about casting one’s vote, or using one’s strength, for the sake of those you are serving. The cross utterly inverts human patterns of authority.

Now. Both egalitarians and complementarians will read this bit and say “he’s misunderstood us, this is what we’re already on about,” and to some extent this is true. There are good and true things in both systems… But this is how the Christian story gears us to think about gender relationships and flourishing in a fallen world, and it both realistically recognises that men and women are different, that the cursed world makes this difference particularly apparent for women, particularly when abuse is involved, so that it’s harder for all of us to flourish in this broken world.

The solution looks like this, because this is what it looks like for the stronger (on average, men) to use their strength by laying it down on behalf of those who sin and curse oppresses (on average, women). This is what it looks like to follow the example of Christ in all our relationships, or to love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. It doesn’t, and can’t, look like abuse and patriarchy; and equality on this side of the new creation doesn’t fight the systemic injustice (patriarchy) or sin (abuse). What this imaginarian approach looks like is perhaps more in the realm of ‘different and equal’; it acknowledges what is real, and what is ideal, and aims to recapture as much of the ideal and to live out as much of the new as possible, in marriage or church this looks like the powerful utterly renouncing the use of strength and power for personal gain or comfort, and instead using it to enable the flourishing of others as we raise them up, by lowering ourselves. This isn’t to say that women are exempt from sacrificial service (we’re all called to that in our relationships in Philippians 2), but this re-levels the playing field somewhat so that they’re in a stronger starting point in which to then give things up in their relationships too. Without us first addressing inequality by cancelling it out (giving up power that is not really ours to grasp) we actually double the ‘service burden’ on women. What this looks like concretely will be worth unpacking, but here, at least, is a visual (note, it’s a metaphor for overcoming the barrier as the strong give up strength to allow all of us to flourish, I’m not suggesting we join the circus).

Wake up! The Aussie church needs hopeful wisdom and imagination; not the ‘status quo’

“The sad truth is that many of us are, at best, only half awake. We think we’re engaged with the real world — you know, the world of stock markets, stockcar racing, and stockpiles of chemical weapon — but in fact we’re living in what Lewis calls the “shadowlands.” We think we’re awake, but we’re really only daydreaming. We’re sleepwalking our way through life — asleep at the wheel of existence — only semi-conscious of the eternal, those things that are truly solid that bear the weight of glory.” — Kevin Vanhoozer, In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship

I’ve spent the last few days feeling like most of us Christians in Australia need a bit of a wake up call.

And not because the world is going to turn against us because of what we think and believe and teach… but because we need to wake up to ourselves… to think — to rethink— or re-imagine even — how it is we live in the world as Christians.

I’ve been confronted recently about the stark reality of death, and the incredible and real hope the Gospel offers in the face of death; and how the cross and resurrection offer us some really amazing models for engaging with the problems we face in our world when people do stupid and evil stuff to each other.

But…

Day after day, week after week, I read think-pieces on Christian blogs, statuses posted on social media, and books, even books, about how the world is falling apart.

How Christians have it tougher in the west then ever before. How people now hate us just for thinking what we’ve always thought.

The Margaret Court saga is the latest in a long line of this… and if you’re part of my weird corner of the Aussie church there’s now a fight about whether some people at a conference said Christian women should exist to make men shine, should view being CEO of a company as an opportunity to be a ‘helper’ to men, or should not cut their hair short, and should avoid tattoos or something.

What are we doing? Why do we keep treading such obscure well trodden unimaginative paths that make the Gospel less and less appealing to our neighbours. Can’t we when faced with interesting dilemmas choose to be interesting and category confounding while still being faithful?

And yet. Time after time… we’re just…

So boring.

So predictable.

So.

Utterly.

Without.

Imagination. 

We’re sleepwalking our way through a changing environment and wondering why we keep bumping into things.

Seriously. There might be new problems; or at least new manifestations of old problems… but we’re not offering many new solutions. We’re retreating to the same black and white ‘factual’ answers to a bunch of complicated questions where people are feeling the implausibility of the way we live out those facts and so rejecting the answers that got us into a mess; and we’re wondering why it’s not working.

We’re wondering why even our growing churches are barely keeping pace with population growth (which means we’re shrinking in real terms).

And our answers aren’t the Gospel.

They’re not hopeful.

They so lack imagination that we wonder why the church in Australia is stuck in a rut. We can’t imagine why it is.

But there are a bunch of people clamouring to describe what is; to explain why things are so bad, but offering very little in terms of imaginative or new solutions to the problem except perhaps to bunker down and hope for revival.

There are a bunch of voices attempting to out doom-say one another about the future of the church here in Australia, predicting greater difference between us and our neighbours if we maintain the status quo… and maybe they’re right. But maybe instead of considering how to maintain the status quo in the face of opposition we might rethink the thing. Some of those doomsday prophets have had to re-think their narrative a little in the face of the latest McCrindle Research on Faith and Belief in Australia (it turns out the aggressive ‘secular left’ commentariat might be out of touch with what most Aussies think about religion and Jesus). Here’s a few interesting snapshot findings from the report:

“Australians vary in their current attitudes towards Christianity. When asked whether they themselves say that they are a ‘Christian’, almost two in five (38%) ‘consider themselves a Christian’ (compared to 45% who identify with Christianity as a religion). A further 24% are ‘warm’ towards Christianity with 12% neutral towards it. The remaining 26% of Australians are ‘cool’ (negative) towards Christianity.”

“Perceptions of Christians and Christianity are negatively influenced by the actions and behaviours of Christians in society. Perceptions of church abuse are the greatest negative influence (73% say this is massive/significant), followed by religious wars (65%). Two thirds (65%) say they are negatively influenced by hypocrisy.”

I don’t blame those who are ‘cool’ towards Christianity in Australia who are negatively influenced by our actions and behaviour (and I’d say even our thinking). Not just when it comes to abuse and wars… but when it comes to our utter failure to live out a plausibly better alternative to the visions of the good life offered by our world. I’m a Christian; a pastor; and half the time I don’t even feel like the Gospel is ‘good news’ as lived out by our churches… Certainly not if you’re something other than male, middle class, english-speaking, at least second generation Australian, educated, and heterosexual. Ironically, I wonder what percentage of the 26% of Aussies who are cool towards Christianity also fall in those categories… it also turns out that of the 38% of all people surveyed who define themselves of Christians only 7% of all people surveyed (18% of self-identifying Christians) are active practicers/’extremely involved’…

And I can’t blame them.

Because we’re terrible. And boring. We lack imagination so we’re unable to put together any particularly coherent and persuasive case even to those who call themselves Christians about why they should be involved in church life… let alone for those people who describe themselves as warm to Christianity who aren’t Christians, the 12% who are neutral or the 26% who are ‘cool’…

Here’s my doomsday prophet statement. I’ll put on my funky wizard’s hat:

The problem for the church in Aussie society isn’t with the society. It’s with the church. 

We have so utterly failed to understand the people around us and why they don’t like us that it’s left us fearful, or worse, unimaginative. We trot out the same lines in response to new challenges and wonder why they’ve lost their edge; and we never really ask if the lines we’re trotting out are actually coherently Christian (or Biblical), or if the way we’ve implemented our theology (our traditions) might need reforming.

Wisdom and the imagination

Maybe we should rethink what wisdom actually is. That it’s about navigating between two seemingly contradictory poles rather than picking one and beating people with it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that wisdom requires imagination. Not a rule book. And we’re failing society at large (and ourselves) because we keep assuming wisdom is about having the right facts or knowledge; rather than about using our Spirit-shaped imagination to chart shrewd paths through difficult extremes.

That’s why Proverbs — a book of Biblical wisdom — can contradict itself within two sentences.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

Here’s two places where, in the New Testament, we’re called to be wise in the way we engage with the world.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Matthew 10:16

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. — Colossians 4:5-6

Now. These two use different words for wisdom (the word the NIV translates as ‘shrewd’ in Matthew 10 is φρόνιμος (phronimos) which means practically wise), but both attach wisdom to action rather than to knowledge; we’re to ‘be as shrewd as’ and ‘wise in the way you act’ — this isn’t about head knowledge but about the charting of a path in life, in Matthew it’s to live amongst hostile wolves, and in Colossians, where Paul has just mentioned his chains, it’s to live amongst hostile wolves who are ‘outsiders’ but in the hope they ask questions that we can then answer with the Gospel… he’s just said: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:3).

A way this wisdom thing seems to play out in Jesus’ life is in those moments where the wolves are out to get him; to trap him between two undesirable positions, when, say, the Pharisees ask him a question about tax and the scope of Caesar’s power where they’re trying to trap him and he confounds them by picking a grander third way between those two poles. He re-imagines their question and uses it to show where they’ve got humanity and power all wrong…

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”

This is wolf like. What Jesus does in response is shrewd.

Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. — Matthew 22

The implication here is that God’s image is on something other than these metal disks. It’s a bold gambit. It’s imaginative. It helps us re-imagine and re-image our humanity; and it avoids the obvious trap; Jesus would’ve been in trouble with the Pharisees and Israel if he’d claimed Caesar was the supreme power in the world, but he’d have been in trouble with Rome if he’d denied Caesar’s authority.

What a shame we appear to have lost the ability to imagine our own way through similar dilemmas and similar tests in the face of similarly powerful empires. Our answer now seems to be to just slam Caesar and those out there in the world who aren’t like us, and in doing so, to slam the door on Gospel opportunities.

I’m pretty sure our lack of ‘practical wisdom’ or shrewdness — our inability to imagine new ways — is limiting our ability to proclaim the mystery of Christ to people. And it is driving me mad. The way this manifests itself is that as soon as someone offers an alternative way they’re treated with the suspicion of liberalism or heresy, and interpreted in really binary labels; we can’t think outside the boxes that we’ve made for themselves.

Please. Can we start using our imaginations in the pursuit of wisdom… rather than simply doggedly repeating the same old mantras that got us here?

Here’s the thing; according to McCrindle’s research it’s not taxes and what we give to Caesar that’s the prime trap or ‘belief blocker’ for the church in Australia — for those Aussie Christians who want to take the Bible seriously as the word of God. It’s homosexuality. And again; this is an area where we rely on pat answers, ‘facts’, ‘proof-texts’, odd traditions and a total lack of imagination; both in the church and in our interface with the world at large. In a weird confluence; perhaps providentially… this is the issue that many doomsayers in the church are seeing as a sort of watershed, a sign that the culture has finally turned on us (perhaps, instead, this is just the only bit of the culture we’re prepared to offer some sort of resistance to, because for so long it’s been an area where we thought our norms were in the ascendency… we’ve ceded so much ground on stuff like economics and work (greed) and other types of idolatry so that we don’t look any different to our neighbours on that stuff). Here’s a quote from one famous piece of doomsaying, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (see my (mostly positive) review here):

“Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.”

I liked The Benedict Option because while it used metaphors consistent with doomsday prepping and heading to the hills; it did outline a positive and imaginative way of being the church in the world. It stumbled onto a some great solutions for the real problem facing us as the church despite perhaps over-reaching in its diagnosis of the problems (though writer Rod Dreher is as much writing to wake the church up to who we should be as he is to diagnose the problems outside us and what they might do to us).

But what if to read the situation this way as a ‘Christian conservatives’ v ‘cultural left’ ‘culture war’ is to be impaled on the horn of a particularly nasty dilemma; to choose between, if you’ll excuse the clumsy labelling of Christian conservatives as Pharisees, Caesar and the Pharisees. What if there are a bunch of alternative ways we might imagine to engage with people who disagree with us on this issue while maintaining our own faithfulness? What if Margaret Court had considered options other than boycotting Qantas? This sort of ‘third way’ is what I was outlining a bit in a recent post; but now we’ve got some interesting data from McCrindle to throw into the mix.

Homosexuality and Same Sex Marriage

“The biggest blocker to Australians engaging with Christianity is the Church’s stance and teaching on homosexuality (31% say this completely blocks their interest). This is followed by, ‘How could a loving God allow people to go to hell?’ (28%).” — McCrindle, Faith and Belief In Australia

Where I think we’ve failed here is that we’ve assumed faithfulness to Jesus means opposing same sex marriage for non-Christians in a secular nation. Because the Bible doesn’t recognise same sex marriage as marriage we should not allow anybody to; and, charitably, because same sex marriage will be bad for participants and families because it is outside God’s design, the loving thing to do is to oppose it. I understand this logic; I just think it lacks imagination and is ultimately a net loss when it comes to love and wisdom (in part because it becomes a significant blocker for people who as a result misunderstand how we feel about same sex attracted people and so stops them considering Jesus). If you stop someone considering Jesus because of a stance you take, you’re a bit like the crowd in the Zaccheus story in Luke 19; a barrier to Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost. You’re not loving. You’re hating. There are better ways to be clear about what the Bible says about sex than just to adopt a black and white opposition to same sex marriage.

Here’s a question. What would happen if we engineered everything we did and said around homosexuality around two scenarios (that might seem implausible to many of us).

  1. A gay or lesbian couple curious about Christianity who married overseas, have kids, and want to explore the Gospel.
  2. A same sex attracted Christian committed to Biblical teaching about sex who is pursuing a life of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage.

What if it was our prayerful hope that our churches would be full of people like the people in this scenario, and church life revolved around figuring out how to work out what it means for us broken people to follow Jesus together. With my doomsday hat on again — and backed by the stats — our current unimaginative approach to this complicated question is keeping these scenarios from playing out.

The lens these scenarios would have us bring to questions about same sex marriage outside the church is totally different to the lens it seems our Christian political organisations and institutions want to bring to the political question. I can not imagine many of my gay friends and neighbours wanting to explore the truth claims of Christianity when we take their current hopes, dreams, and understanding of what a fulfilling life looks like, and spit on it without considering that our thinking about sexuality might be at all shaped by our prior decision to believe there’s a God, who reveals himself in the Bible and in Jesus, who has a design for our present and future, and who we love above all other loves.

Let’s assume that deciding how to approach your sexuality and your desires is a decision you make (what you do with them not who you are attracted to) that is either pleasing or displeasing to this God… and that our sexuality is something that God’s law/outline for what a flourishing human life looks like teaches us about. How do we approach questions of homosexuality for those who do not love God when the Bible itself says:

The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. — Romans 8:7-9

What do we hope to achieve by taking God’s law (natural law, or revealed law) and arguing that it should be the law of the land? Where do our expectations for this come from?

Why have we just categorically assumed that marriage as defined by God (in the Bible, and as seen in human history in most cultures) is what marriage should be for a bunch of people who reject God, and see nature as a thing to be conquered by human will, freedom, and ingenuity? Our failure to imagine how to run a ‘shrewd,’ wise, loving and compelling line on this issue begins with an utter failure to apprehend the playing field (and this too, is a failure of the imagination. We’ve assumed a status quo that is no longer there, and then imagined the status quo is worse than it actually is, because we haven’t really understood why and how the playing field has changed and how we might actually be better equipped to play on it than we imagine).

What if people just want to hear that we also have a vision of the good human life, and that rather than beginning with loving another person intimately, and expressing that love in sex, marriage, and belonging to a family, we believe it starts with loving God intimately, and through that being part of his family in a way that changes how we view sex, love, and marriage. We understand that our views of marriage require a particular view of God, and for those who don’t share that view they’ll seem archaic and weird. But that’s ok. We’re happy to be weird, because we believe we’re right and nature and human history seem to support this conclusion but we recognise that people should be free to make their own decisions about God. I don’t know anybody at this point who would call me a bigot for holding these views (I’ve not yet been called one), but I also think it’s both Biblical and compelling. So long as we really believe and live as though God is more important to us than sex and marriage.

Let’s for a moment, consider marriage as an institution that is shaped by religious beliefs — not just a ‘natural’ order thing — we know this is a thing because the Catholics view marriage as a sacrament where Protestants don’t, because Mormons in some parts of the world allow polygamy as a result of their beliefs, and so too do some Muslims (so do the Old Testament patriarchs, so it’s not totally clear even in the Bible that marriage as monogamy is a natural rather than revealed thing)… Let’s for a moment draw an analogy with another religious practice prior to coming to love Jesus above all else; halal food. Do we expect a Muslim we hope to introduce to Jesus to stop eating halal food; perhaps even to eat bacon; before they become a Christian?

It seems an odd hill to die on, and like an impediment to Gospel ministry if the political changes happen (and it seems like they will); and even the most nuanced opponents to same sex marriage within the church get tarred with the same brush as the more extreme fringes because we’re not particularly good at explaining why Christian beliefs should shape secular legislation (let alone simply be accommodated by secular legislation).

Our responses to proposed changes to the Marriage Act have also been utterly without imagination; we’ve been worried about protecting Christian bakers and florists rather than thinking about how Christian bakers and florists might engage with the gay community who come knocking. Maybe instead of refusing to serve our gay neighbours because we hold to a different definition of marriage; we should refuse to profit from a changed institution and so offer our services for free.

Maybe we should pursue a generous pluralism; allowing other people to re-shape a secular/common understanding of marriage while still recognising our own religious distinctives, rather than seeking to defend the status quo for as long as possible.

Maybe we should, as much as possible, seek to create opportunities to have conversations with our gay neighbours from a position of love for them, and belief that Jesus is actually fundamentally better than sex or romantic love and could be more compelling than sex should a gay family come through our doors, and leave that for us to figure out with our neighbours in the context of a loving Christian community rather than relying on public statements that are interpreted as hateful or that close down doors and opportunities.

Maybe the voices we should be listening to at times like this are the voices of the faithful brothers and sisters living out the Gospel calling when it comes to their sexuality; about their experience of their desires, about what they find compelling about Jesus, and about what helps life in the church, following Jesus, be a plausibly better alternative than embracing an alternative ‘gospel’… Here’s an interesting piece in Eternity from this week, from David Bennett, a same sex attracted, celibate, Christian. Here’s a bit from him:

“The pressure that has been put on the Christian Church by the gay lobby only makes things worse for LGBTQI Christians like myself who are trying to bring a subtler, but far more profound change in the Church. You heap pressure on faithful Christians like me, most of whom hide themselves away. But we are part of you – we are just as ‘gay’ but we don’t have gay relationships.

We are defined by our relationship with Christ; we have had lives that are just as hard and if not harder as a minority within a minority. We are not trying to change the Church’s theology, but agree with it. Marriage between a man and a woman is scriptural and God’s design and a picture of the gospel. But we are trying to change a deeper ethic, bringing a revival to the Church’s worship life, which has for too long enshrined the idols of romanticised notions of love, money and middle-class life, which denies many from the gospel whether refugees, the poor, people of other cultures, religions and ethnicities, and LGBTQI people.”

Let’s re-imagine and hope for something better with David. A church where his sort of faith is more celebrated and more plausible… but this isn’t going to happen if we just accept the status quo.

How do we do create a new ‘social imaginary’? 10 helpful starting points

Maybe the doom and gloom scenario from doomsayers like Dreher and the Christian blogosphere is not totally accurate.

Maybe what we’ve seen is just a small development in the secular ‘social imaginary’ — the phrase philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe how we imagine the world we live in; the kind of structures that shape the way we understand life in the world. Maybe once the world’s social imaginary, when it came to sex and homosexuality, looked very much like ours; our vision of the ‘sexual person’ and how that part of us fit into the order of things was uncontested. We didn’t have to worry about being out of touch with reality because our cultural reality shared much of the same cultural furniture; and there hasn’t been this wholesale and sudden rejection of the Christian social imaginary, but rather this last piece of the furniture was chucked to the curb; and it was our favourite chair. Maybe if we want to respond coherently we should be thinking about what a ‘social imaginary’ is comprised of, how to spot what’s going on in the world, and how to build an alternative reality that can exist alongside the dominant one as a plausible, though weird, and reasonably welcome alternative. At the moment we seem to want to insist that everybody should imagine the world the way we do; with God present and revealing the image of the flourishing human. And, just to be clear, the imagination does not just mean ‘fantasy land’ but how we see the world as it is, and where we turn to plot what it could be.

This could be the first time I’ve positively linked to Desiring God; but this Kevin Vanhoozer talk/essay on the imagination and its place in the Christian life is good and important.

“We feel a discrepancy, a fateful disconnect, between the world in which we live and the system of theology we believe. The imagination can help. I have said that theology is about the new reality in Christ and discipleship is about participating in that new reality. I now want to say that imagination is the faculty that wakes us up to that new reality and helps us to stay awake…

Here is the marvel: the one whose story the Bible tells is not confined to that story. He is Lord, and he is here. To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ — this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus.”

These are ten basic tips to be less boring and more imaginative. They’re a bit abstract, and I’ll unpack them over time… but feel free to explore what this might look like by asking questions.

  1. Tell better stories.
  2. Build better (and bigger) institutions (communities with a purpose — churches and groups/organisations on a ‘mission’ to do or create stuff) that hold the Gospel and ‘action’ (eg social justice or ‘deeds’) closer together.
  3. Be a more compelling alternative to the world (be saboteurs).
  4. Prepare to significantly change the way we live together so we look and feel different to our neighbours.
  5. Read more ancient (less panicked) voices.
  6. Use these ancient voices to question modern ‘orthodoxy’.
  7. Imagine better answers to complex questions.
  8. Listen more (especially to the voices of people grappling with the application of our doctrines).
  9. Be comfortable with mystery not just black/white ‘pat’ answers.
  10. Get the relationship between belief, behaviour and belonging the right way around (maybe it’s actually belong, behave, believe).

What could the ‘priesthood,’ and institutions, look like in Australia’s Christian Blogosphere?

Right. So let me draw together some implications from the last two posts about this new reformation we’re facing because of the internet, and the dangers of reform creating a vacuum that gets occupied by an over-correction against the original establishment, and let me nail some colours to the mast, before positing some ways forward.

First, it’s worth remembering that the online conversation these posts are responding to is one about what authority and teaching look like outside the bricks and mortar and the fleshly embodied reality of the church; and perhaps how those realities inform the virtual space, and are in turn informed by it. They’re questions specifically raised because the internet has given a voice to women where women have previously been excluded from some institutions, and the nature of social media means these women gain authority by virtue of the size of their audience (just as men do in this space too). Platforms in a democratised space are much more obviously individual (personal blogs mean everybody has the capacity to publish and gain an audience); and yet institutions still exist online in the form of joint platforms where the platform itself gives weight and credibility to a speaker, and perhaps has some connection to a real world authority structure. There are also bloggers, those of us who are signed up members and employees of institutional churches, whose online words are held to account in the real world by these same structures (so if I write heresy here I get real world consequences). For some of us it’s not just the market that decides if we’ve crossed a line; but there’s also a degree of authority that comes from these connections.

The people who choose what (or who) a platform will lend its authority to are the people who reveal who that platform considers as part of the ‘priesthood’ — so, for example, Reddit allows anybody with an account to publish, and then the market decides what a published piece is worth; Buzzfeed has staff writers and editors but also allows user generated content that has its value determined by the market, and by a team of ‘community editors’; Medium is a platform where again, anybody can write, but the market dictates what is featured, as do Medium’s team of curators; whereas traditional media outlets maintain a sort of editorial structure and staff writers, while publishing OpEds from reasonable qualified people (and I mean that in terms of ‘people with a relevant sort of expertise that provides value’). In the Christian blogosphere there are lots of people running their own platforms, lots of individual bloggers and social media users (though this is bigger where there’s a bigger market in the US, think perhaps of John Dickson on Facebook, or Stephen McAlpine at his blog). There are some platforms that are multi-contributor platforms tied to physical ‘real world’ institutions (like church websites). There are some online platforms that are more analogous to traditional media like newspapers (Eternity, who, for the record, I think are the best example of what could be, and reformed evangelical types should spend less time throwing rocks at their agenda and more time writing for it) and book publishers (Gotherefor) who are grappling with the tradition to a social media world, and there are some platforms that are virtual platforms in their own right where the platform brings a sort of inherent online authority and credibility to its content (and the writers of that content); and it’s these platforms that are particularly interesting in terms of the conversation about authority online, and these that are the ones that would seem to have most at stake in this sort of technology-led Reformation of the notion of authority and the priesthood. Some of these platforms are set up precisely to bring reform the status quo (FixingHerEyes for example), some are set up to maintain the status quo (Thinking Of God), and some are set up to help us respond to the changing world from fixed theological assumptions (The Gospel Coalition). Each of these sites is, in some part, ‘social’ in its approach to content generation, each is, in some way, operating as an institution, but each have interesting authority structures that reflect certain assumptions about ‘the priesthood’ that mean a technology driven reformation will impact them (and the success or failure of their mission) differently.

So here’s where I’m at:

  • Institutional authority is a good check and balance against individual authority, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
  • Listening to individuals from outside the ‘establishment’ or a diverse establishment built on listening, is necessary to keep reforming practices that have deviated from Scripture and the service of the Lord Jesus.
  • Institutions need to keep being willing to be reformed in the face of individuals and groups who raise concerns, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
  • The relationship between real world authority and accountability and online authority and accountability is an important one, but not fatal to ‘virtual’ properties.
  • Martin Luther was right about the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and that online technology will cause an ongoing reform of our structures and practices beyond the structuring of relationships in the flesh.
  • The internet is a blunt instrument that lends itself to the destruction of institutions and expertise, and to populism under the guise of ‘democracy’ or ‘egalitarianism’  (not in the theological sense). True democracy requires institutions that create platforms big enough for ideas to be shared (like parties) and a place for ideas to be discussed (like parliament and the media), and it requires listening and a generous pluralism where we make space for those we disagree with.
  • Technology as it stands means that establishments that have set up non-democratic ‘priesthoods’ that favour an establishment voice over the marginalised face an uphill battle to keep ‘authority’ and credibility and that this will undermine such platforms.
  • We need to reform or create institutions that reflect a more robust priesthood of all believers such that we do not favour a particular gender, or class, or educational standard, or age, or race, so that we can listen well to voices from the margins who might prompt more necessary reform, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
  • When it comes to the question at the heart of this debate, and the voices of women, if we can’t make space online to hear women what chance is there for those of us who want to maintain a faithful sense of us being one body, a kingdom of priests, co-image bearers, who are different and equal in the flesh where there are particular Biblical principles we should be seeking to apply. The priesthood of all believers has interesting implications for church leadership, eldership, marriage and the arranging of our communities; but websites are neither the ‘church gathered’ nor the family unit, and it’s dangerous to extrapolate Biblical principles about gender differences in particular circumstances to all circumstances in ways that stop us listening to the voices of women.
  • Part of this listening exercise will mean being generous, and making space to hear, voices that challenge us and that say things that are untrue, but the cost of the priesthood of all believers is that the community needs to discern the ‘prophetic’ voices that claim to be speaking in ways that will continue to bring us under the authority of Scripture, in the service of the Lord Jesus.
  • A more important strategy than anything discussed here, is to think about how we operate not in our own media/social media/institutional bubble, but how we contribute to the bigger ‘bubble’ and to other institutions (this is where I think the Centre For Public Christianity is a terrific example).
  • Perhaps an even better and more important strategy than anything being discussed here is how we might, as Christians, be champions of a generous pluralism and a diverse public square beyond the boundaries of the church; one where we aren’t just listening to other Christians, but to other people, so that they might also listen to us.

And here’s the problem. I’m not totally sure that many of our current platforms have the diversity within their institutions or the theological vision/mission to withstand the brunt force of this new technology in flattening structures/institutions. I think our establishments (be they denominations or think tanks) have tended to accidentally marginalise those outside certain norms, and have created a sort of ‘priesthood’ that limits our ability to listen to, and reach, those outside these norms (or those who are marginalised by them).

The Gospel Coalition Australia as a Case Study in this ‘new media reformation’

I said above that those who get to decide who a platform raises up are basically the ultimate ‘priesthood’; and this reveals a lot about how much an institution is listening to people beyond a particular sort of narrow establishment. I don’t want to pick on or shame The Gospel Coalition Australia here, but I do want to use them as an example of an institution that I think is geared up to be smashed by this ‘new reformation’ because of the way it is structured; and I think the way that it is structured should be challenged on the basis of the points above.

The Gospel Coalition Australia is an almost exclusively online entity or network; it produces resources for the church, and according to some members of the council, is an exercise in ‘thought leadership’ for the Australian church. Valuing a certain sort of ‘resource production’ and a certain sort of ‘thought leadership’ has had the unfortunate impact of creating a certain sort of ‘priesthood’ for this platform. The council of TGC Australia all in either vocational ministry or Christian academia; they all have many years of ministry and leadership experience in Australian churches. They’re all men. Now, it may be that this is an expressly complementarian decision; that TGC made a decision that it would be led by men, but I don’t think that’s the most charitable assumption, nor is it borne out by the story of the formation of TGC AU on the site itself:

“… there are significantly different cultural and theological challenges to life and ministry in Australia. In addition, a growing consensus was emerging that we urgently need to form and foster vibrant gospel partnerships on the ground across our cities, States and Territories. And so last August, a group of 13 pastors and leaders from across our Nation met in Sydney for the first time.” — The Gospel Coalition Australia, ‘The Birth of TGC Australia’

If the group was put together with pastors and leaders from churches that share the theological convictions of the Gospel Coalition, then it was only possible for this group to feature men; it’s just perhaps a little short sighted to think that a parachurch organisation designed to help us form vital gospel partnerships to deal with the cultural and theological challenges to life and ministry in Australia need to exclusively draw on the expertise of pastors and leaders.

I’m going to assume these men were genuinely selected on merit and character, and there are many men there who I love and respect; many of them are family friends, or former teachers, or preachers I admire who minister in churches I hope to emulate. Yet. They are all educated men, of a certain age (and older), which creates a certain sort of impression about the ‘priesthood’ here; that it’s about education, and qualification via experience; and these criteria exclude not just women but large swathes of the church population and many of the people we’re trying to reach in Australia. When you make a composite portrait of the council and represent them as one person, who I’m calling Mr Gospel Coalition; you get this:

Now. There’s geographic diversity in the mix here; it’s a truly national group. There’s ethnic diversity. And yet, every one of these blokes is a tertiary educated bloke who is (by my calculations) aged 40+. This is a fairly exclusive sort of priesthood; it’s true that many of the writers who’ve had articles published on the Gospel Coalition are outside these demographics, but the institutional authority here is held in the hands of a relative narrow group who provide an interesting picture of what qualification to be a thought leader looks like; the thoughts published on the platform are given weight by the people creating the platform, not just the author.

Bill Shorten learned this week that if you want to represent a suitably broad church, like the Labor movement, you need to pay attention to diversity because your metacommunication about who is important and included can undermine your communication. Meta-communication matters. But it’s not just a token thing either; diversity at an organisational level ensures we’re hearing multiple perspectives; the same reason that led TGC to be a truly geographically national movement could perhaps have motivated them to be a more diverse movement too.

When setting an editorial agenda for a virtual publication designed to provide thought leadership for Australians dealing with the changing landscape of our mission field, there’s a lot of onus on these guys to be listening to perspectives outside their own experience, and I’m not totally sure that the content I’ve read on The Gospel Coalition provides the sort of thought leadership that the people my church family is hoping to reach are going to follow; it’s not thought leadership that is generally helpful in reaching the modern (or post-modern) Australian landscape; and, it meta-communicates something terrible; exactly the sort of thing this new revolution is seeking to

In terms of media strategy the Gospel Coalition is all very ‘establishment’/traditional media; it’s a site that operates more like the ABC’s Religion and Ethics page for our theological bubble, than like Buzzfeed; it certainly doesn’t seem to feature contributions from people who fall outside (or even particularly close to the edges) of its established orthodoxy (so it’s unlikely to feature genuinely innovative reforming ‘orthopraxy’… You’ve got a site operated by a bunch of mostly middle aged-to-elderly, tertiary educated (normally post-grad), (mostly) white guys; who are predominantly modernist in their outlook, conservative in their approach, responding with a sort of concern rather than optimism to the changing (and admittedly more hostile) world, and apparently interested in preserving the status quo in terms of our media practices, church practices, and leadership when the status quo appears to be failing us (so one appears to need a theological education to contribute, and certainly to be on the council). What does blue collar thought leadership look like? How do we reach the Aussies who don’t have a tertiary education? How do we empower and equip women to shape the life of the church? And how do we allow different experiences of life in Australia to shape how we love Australia and share the good news of Jesus with our neighbours in ways that match their plausibility structures? How would we not be better off with institutions like The Gospel Coalition that were truly diverse in their structure; that truly reflected a priesthood of all believers?

The problem for the Gospel Coalition is that if the thesis I unpacked over the last two posts is correct; and they represent the sort of ‘new media establishment,’ within the Christian blogosphere, that the ‘new media reformation’ is going to overthrow, then those of us who share many theological convictions with the Gospel Coalition are in trouble; because the reformers will become the ‘establishment’ within the church and these sorts of institutions will fail to take hold in the ‘new media reality’… the nature of the internet lends itself to those campaigning for more diverse or democratised platforms and priesthoods than offered by the current Gospel Coalition platform. It lends itself to those who want a priesthood based on populism, or a priesthood that is so broad that questions of authority rest totally in the hands of the audience-as-individuals (or even in the audience-as-a-collective), not in the hands of institutions. Even if that thesis isn’t correct, it seems to me that there’s a problem here in what it communicates about ‘the priesthood’ and its nature in the churches coalescing under the banner; the priesthood is educated, male, and probably ‘experienced’… this marginalises voices that we perhaps need to be listening to in a changing Australian landscape; like indigenous Australians who face an incredible gap in all sorts of living standards and life expectancy, like kids who’ve navigated faithfully following Jesus in schools that are ever more hostile to Christianity, like teens that have remained chaste and avoided drugs (and those who haven’t but have found hope in Jesus), like our same sex attracted brothers and sisters who remain single in a sexular age and need Christian community to make that plausible, like people who are living radically different economic lives, like people coming to Jesus from other cultures with other languages as their primary language, like refugees,  like artists and creatives who don’t have an education but might help us engage better with the people around us, oh yeah, and like women. Women whose experience of life in a pornofied world, a patriarchal world, a world where they are much more likely to be violently abused than I am… maybe we could hear from them for the good of our communities… how do we communicate, in our institutions that believers in these categories are members of the priesthood of all believers with important things to say; and how do we make sure we listen to them, rather than simply trusting our own perspective and expertise (and remember, I’m a white, very educated, almost middle-aged bloke, I’m speaking from experience when I say it’s hard not to simply believe I see the world more accurately than everybody else).

It’s possible that this reformation is actually a good thing; a chance for us to reflect on the sort of institutions we build and their aims (and their audience). It’s possible it might prompt us to create better institutions that truly capitalise on the diversity of experience, expertise, leadership, and examples of faithfully living for, loving, and proclaiming Jesus in our churches. It’s possible that we might build institutions or structures, real or virtual, that provide space for those our society marginalises (the young, the old, the disabled, the uneducated, the poor, the non-english speaker, the refugee, the abuse victim) to voice not just their concerns about how we, the church, operate in the world, but imagination about how we might operate differently to reach the people we currently miss because of our practices and our ‘priesthood of the educated’. It’s possible we might stop thinking that the internet is a place just for writing smart things, and start considering how we might use multimedia, or visuals, to equip people for works of service, and enrich our testimony to the goodness of the Gospel as we produce things that are good and true and beautiful; it’s possible that as we tell stories about the impact of the Gospel in the lives of a diverse range of people, it will become more plausible for our church communities to shape themselves so that a more diverse range of people might be accommodated; it’s possible that we do this first at the leadership level, making a commitment from the top down, rather than waiting for enough ‘bottom up’ growth that we need to provide some sort of ‘representation’ for the clamour of voices of those who’ve been excluded from the priesthood.

Diversity isn’t the answer, it’s a means not an ends in itself; but it’s a start. And if we don’t do it proactively, the market is going to do it for us in a way the ‘establishment’ won’t like…

Maybe we could do a Luther, and be moved by the plight of those being oppressed by our institution — the people lining up to purchase indulgences from the corrupt church, excluded from the life of the church by an exclusive priesthood — and move to make space for their voices to be heard, as we create opportunities for them to hear the Gospel. Maybe this means working really hard to give people other than educated men a voice in our systems; while staying faithful to how we think the Bible shapes our understanding of gender. If we don’t work at creating better institutions, the number of people who care about anything that looks remotely like an institution or an attempt to wield ‘authority’ is going to drop significantly; and we’ll end up with a Christian blogosphere of listicles, how tos, fashion tips, dating advice, click bait and hot takes on current events. We’ll end up looking like an awful digital Koorong where anyone who walks in has to wade through a bunch of dross and exercise huge levels of discernment even when it comes to the best sellers. And nobody wants that…

Successful revolutionaries become the establishment; and that’s why questions of ‘authority’ matter in the ‘Christian blogosphere’

“Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” — Martin Luther, Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants

 

When Luther, the Reformer, went head to head with the church establishment and won (at least in Germany); he accidentally-on-purpose became the establishment. I’m not totally sure he was ready for the power or responsibility; most of the stuff he’s infamous for, rather than famous for, came after he’d replaced the Catholic Church as the authority.

Luther’s ideas, particularly the ‘priesthood of all believers’ challenged the establishment beyond simply the power of the church; his use of the printing press as a ‘democratising’ platform that gave a ‘priestly’ voice to anybody with an idea, which undermined the power structures within the church filtered out beyond these structures and into the political realm; where power was certainly not democratic. The political power Luther was relying on for the protection of his reforms was not democratic… and the Reformation correlated with (it’s hard to say it directly caused) a peasant revolt in Germany. Luther didn’t want to lose what he had worked to establish, so he wrote pretty vehemently Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants. The irony here is that the same reforming impulse that saw him challenge the established church, was driving these peasants, and in a later justification of the harshness of this first missive, he doubled down, saying “a rebel is not worth rational arguments, for he does not accept them. You have to answer people like that with a fist, until the sweat drips off their noses…

Which is almost precisely what the church wanted to do to him… and here he is backing those who use power, possibly those who abuse power, with a theological justification, saying Christians should “suffer injustice, not to seize the sword and take to violence”… Luther added the authority of his voice against the cause of reform elsewhere… political reform. He was a certain sort of establishment… Then people within the Reformation movement started to disagree with each other and using the mechanisms of the new media technology at their disposal (the printing press) to publish against one another, and things got a bit worse (so Luther called Zwingli his ‘Judas’ after he and a bloke named Carlstadt started publishing pamphlets against him and then things got really ugly) and it was clear that in some ways Luther viewed himself as the new church establishment in Germany. He’d reformed and ‘democratised’ the church; but had maintained some of the institutions and power dynamics of the church establishment he replaced.

Questions of authority are vexing amidst questions of reform; especially when new media technologies give new power to voices that don’t want to conserve the status quo, or establishment, but challenge it. So in all the conversation around questions of authority and the blogosphere; conversations about something like a new technology driven reformation, in conversations about how we, the church, approach publishing/teaching on the web, we need to ask: what are we going to replace the establishment with? What will the new establishment be? How will it be different? Who will it marginalise even as it empowers others who have been marginalised?

Social media is a ‘new media technology’ — and it’s really where the democratising power of the Internet is finally starting to bite into establishments that are less democratic. In the analogy with the peasant’s revolt (or any revolution aimed at democracy) the traditional establishment media represents a concentration of power and influence in the hands of the few; the aristocracy (the company owners) and their nobles (the journalists). While this is a follow up to my last post which is about the state of the Christian blogosphere and the question of ‘authority’ in this new media landscape and the social media lead reformation, there’s an analogy to consider between how social media is changing church power structures, and how it is changing establishments outside the church, particularly in the media. Traditional media empires are falling to pieces (eg Fairfax) because they can no longer profit in this new landscape; they have been disrupted. The establishment is dying. The problem is they haven’t yet been replaced with anything better.

Citizen journalism and social media (a democratised platform) can produce a political movement like the Arab Spring (and that’s being damned with faint praise), and can produce an Obama presidency and then a Trump presidency. Citizen journalism, or the loss of power of ‘establishment authorities’ like the traditional mainstream media (the ‘institution’ or the press as ‘an estate of the realm’), also gives rise to ‘fake news’… because the fragmenting of media companies means that professional standards, regulations, and codes of ethics are out the door, and even the legal protections like defamation laws are less effective because the cost of going after a blogging operation running from a bedroom isn’t really worth it (like it might have been against a media outlet operated by News Ltd). It opens up the ‘publish first seek forgiveness later’ mentality, and removes the burdens of fact checking and source confirmation and all sorts of things that have protected us as an audience, but also given authority to particular established outlets.

Season three of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom grappled with this tension beautifully. Here’s a great clip.

“People don’t read this with the expectation of it being true…”

It’s actually based on a real world example. That’s the line offered by the voice from the margins — the voice seeking to challenge the establishment and the role of authority, the creator of ACNgage. And it’s almost the voice that says ‘the market will decide who is worthy of having authority’ coming from the new reformers.

Here’s the quote that Newsroom quote is built from…

“What the stalker map is is citizen journalism, people don’t read it with the expectation that every word of it will be Gospel, everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all. What they read it for is the immediacy… you get an unfiltered… the way that people perceive celebrities in real time…”

For those of us who are idealists about what role the media might play in transparent and accountable politics, this is diabolical in the sphere of the press; but for those of us wondering about Christian voices and authority in the social media world there’s a word of warning here; can we afford to be so blasé about truth and the idea that it’s ‘people’ as readers who have to do the work of discernment?

Do we really want to, in a rush to democratising the web using egalitarian (in the broadest sense, not the ‘technical’ term within Christian debates about gender) technologies really want to do away with all institutions (and credibility and expertise and accountability and ethics) to let populism rule?

In my idealistic wannabe journalist phase I was schooled to believe that what the public is interested in is not the same as what is in the public interest; the idea that journalists have a gatekeeping role to play when it comes to deciding what qualifies as news. The problem with our modern news institutions is that they’ve become more interested in serving up what we think we’re interested in at the expense of what we should be interested in in order to live in a flourishing society. Here, for example, are some of the stories from the news.com.au homepage last week.

 

 

 

How ‘Police Officer turns to career in stripping’ is a finance story escapes me; but these are stories that are designed primarily to entertain and titillate; not to inform the public about things that are important for the common good. This little picture of a ‘media institution’ in the new media landscape makes a very good case for democratisation and reform; so long as we replace it with something better — not just a thing that gives our itching ears a good scratch.

Reform could be a really good thing for the media; but I’m not so sure the ‘blogosphere’ or ‘citizen journalism’ is the answer to this problem. I’m not sure that bad institutions are a reason to do away with institutions altogether. If the media we consume shapes our common life, and is part of what helps us flourish as societies, then I’m not sure we’ll be richer without institutions. We just need different institutions that are able to harness the good parts of new technology without an overcorrection. Which is harder than it stands; because most revolutionaries are functionally aggressive monotheists (our way is the way), not pluralists (we want to make space for multiple ways held in tension); we want total victory over the other, especially when the other has been oppressive and there’s a sense of justice. The natural tendency of reformers is to replace; to fill the power vacuum you create by overthrowing the old system. That’s why in some revolutions the establishment get beheaded.

A power shift from the few to the many, without considering some of the limits of power that the ‘few’ faced (or ideally faced) that the many won’t, will be dangerous. While institutions can be terrible and corrupt and serve fairly narrow agendas, this does not mean that all authority structures are equally terrible. It’d also be naive to think that no structure but the totally ‘democratised’ audience is the best option; this is already happening in the traditional media; the media that is market driven gives the market what it wants rather than what it needs; it aims for excitement, entertainment and titillation rather than information for formation. The same sort of naivety that leads to the death of expertise in stuff like direct democracy political parties; populism is a terrible master. It’s funny that populism and the rise of fake news gave the US a Trump presidency, but Trump is so keen to be ‘anti-establishment’ that he’s calling the establishment media fake news… In a democratised platform we, the people, are responsible for deciding what behaviour is ethical, acceptable, and in our interest, we, the people, are responsible for deciding what content deserves a wider audience. The power is in our hands; and so questions of how to place limits on the power of the mob are worth staring down. It’s possible Luther was a bit right about the revolting peasants, even if democracy is actually a really great thing, and even if his motives were a bit questionable.

We don’t want the reformers to become the new establishment to wield exactly the same sort of power against their opponents as the previous establishment. We want to, I think, figure out how to create democratic institutions that have a clearly articulated platform, a clear code of ethics, and external (perhaps legal) accountability; but also an understanding of what these democratic platforms must do for the voiceless (they should give them a voice). New mediums lose lots of this stuff by their democratised nature; but they gain the ability to give a voice to those who have otherwise been voiceless (which is why they’re usually quickly adopted, or even developed, by the marginalised who are pushing for systemic reform). New mediums put more control in the hands of the audience/market than ever before; a platform itself isn’t enough; you choose what you read; but then you have the opportunity to become a contributor (by commenting), or a publisher (by sharing to other social media channels, or by publishing your own response elsewhere). The new establishment is fragmented; and authority now comes more from the audience than the platform. Some people are responding to this by producing new media platforms (Gawker, Buzzfeed, etc and Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti’s stuff on new media (linked to in this old post) is worth reading if that stuff interests you).

So here’s my theory; true reform doesn’t change who’s in the establishment but the nature of ‘establishment’ or the system itself (and technology can be part of that). What we’ve got to do here is navigate between media being in the hands of a powerful elite who exclude perspectives outside their own but have some in built accountability, and the media being in the hands of everybody with accountability being totally external (in the hands of the audience). This is true in the secular ‘new media’ landscape when it comes to how institutions function or what the establishment looks like…  but it’s also a thing for us to figure out as Christians. We, in the Christian ‘blogosphere’; have our little parallel institutions, aren’t immune from this stuff either; there’s an establishment (often in the form of the institutional church and its proxies, but also in the form of voices that have a certain amount of authority because of how they’ve been supported by traditional Christian media outlets). And these videos above are a beautiful picture of the current debate online and what’s at stake outside the church and inside it…

This new media is inevitably and inherently democratic, it will, as I suggested in my last post, favour the anti-establishment side where that side has not been perceptively inclusive or democratic; and the side arguing for the equality of all voices (a true ‘priesthood of all believers’) against a narrow priesthood… much as the printing press favoured the reformers and aligned with their framework. If you give everyone a voice with a new technology, it’s those who’ve been marginalised who (historically) who’ll be the quickest to pick up the new technology (if not to develop it in order to serve their agenda).

What would be a terrible idea in the face of this technological upheaval, or disruption, would be to attempt to play the game the way we always have; to be like the Catholic Church in the face of the Reformation, or the traditional print media in the face of the Internet… Those of us who believe there are some good things to conserve in our institutions, in the face of progress, need to grapple with how to make our institutions nimble and rightly progressive; to be better and more compelling than the alternatives. If a democratised, or egalitarian, technology favours those with totally egalitarian theology (be it on gender or just on questions of institutional authority or tradition) then we need to think pretty hard about how to offer a better alternative (possibly a generously ‘pluralistic’ one). The thing that worries me most about the egalitarian stuff isn’t so much the theology (there are many things I agree with as someone who, with Luther, is big on the priesthood of all believers and the equality of all people under God), but the potential that an egalitarian approach to life actually creates a meritocracy; that once there’s no sort of structural control or accountability, it’s the powerfully persuasive voices that actually get favoured and build the biggest platforms; and the message of the cross, I think, should totally undermine anything that looks like a meritocracy or powerfully persuasive human arguments. What an interesting alternative might look like is the sort of vision of a media that the ABC’s Scott Stephens put forward, that I’ve now quoted a couple of times:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

Maybe rather than being egalitarian we should be those who act to amplify the voices of those the world seeks to silence; even if those voices say things we disagree with, because we recognise the dignity and equality of those people too; this is what real democracy looks like anyway; not populism or a level playing field so that the meritorious can rise via the mechanism of the audience-as-market.

Part of the solution for surviving and thriving in the digital world is good content. Content that is virtuously good in the public interest/geared towards human flourishing sense, but also content that is good because it has credibility, and integrity, and a demonstrable commitment to an ongoing reputation. There’s a degree to which this means good content probably comes with some sort of connection to real world accountability structures rather than with no regard to things like the law and ethics (see the videos above), as Christians it probably means we ought to have some declared connection to a doctrinal framework or church community so that people know where we are coming from as they assess the content. But it’s not enough that the content simply be good; newspapers (apart from News Ltd papers) still produce good content, but they’re dying (so too, the content produced in the newsroom in The Newsroom). This content also needs to be truly social or liquid; part of the new media landscape is the idea that people are publishers not just readers, and publication (be it comments, responses, etc should be as frictionless as possible), and part of being democratised might actually be opening up our platforms to voices we might otherwise naturally exclude (in this case the call is coming from women, who are quite capable of producing their own compelling platforms and gaining a hearing, but perhaps it’s also non-tertiary educated Christians, youth, people from non-english speaking backgrounds etc).

We Christians are pretty good at setting up our own parallel (but lamer) institutions; so where in the past Christian publishing (particularly in Australia) was often closely tied to book publishing arms of denominations, we’ve now embraced the frictionless environment of the web. Where once we had our own newspapers and printed journals now we have websites as well; content portals or platforms that operate as ‘establishments’ that provide a sort of accountability, ethic, and authority to the content they produce. So we have newer properties like The Gospel Coalition, and Thinking Of God, and evolving properties like Eternity and Gotherefor; of these four I think Eternity is the closest to operating with the ‘social’/democratic nature of the web in mind (even as they employ an editor and journalists and maintain a reasonably high standard for their in house production). The Centre for Public Christianity is another interesting beast that seems to aim to contribute to the secular media rather than operate as a parallel institution (which I think is actually a much better model). But none of the other platforms in the Australian Christian blogosphere (coming out of, or seeking to play as, the establishment) are nailing this (in my humble opinion as a reader/writer/social media user with some professional expertise with the media). We’re far too wedded to the little priesthoods we’ve created — the priesthood of the educated; the priesthood of the male preacher; the priesthood of the large platform/personal brand; the priesthood of the polymath-styled genius/public intellectual who we’ll put up to talk about anything and everything because of who they are (and who they know). In my final post in this little mini-series I’ll consider the Gospel Coalition, Thinking of God, and Eternity as little case studies of this theory and show how only one of them seems geared for survival if the reformation the online conversation about women, ‘teaching’ and the Christian blogosphere is as important as it seems to be to me (as a reader of it, but also as a pastor of a church with plenty of women who say things worth hearing). If the revolution is coming, we do actually need to figure out what authority and accountability look like; these aren’t illegitimate questions to ponder.  We need to figure out what the establishment is going to be replaced with.

The internet, the Reformation, women teaching, and the priesthood of all believers (how a ‘democratised’ platform might keep us reforming)


Image: Behind the scenes of Christian Twitter

There’s a conversation going on in the Christian twittersphere right now about the challenges posed by the internet for a sort of traditional complementarian view that women should not teach or exercise authority over men. There’s a stream of complementarianism that would extend these words from Paul to Timothy far beyond the event of the gathered church (and streams within complementarianism that see this prohibition of ‘teaching and exercising authority’ as a very particular role within that gathering; it’s a broad church).

The firestarter was this piece from Tish Harrison Warren on Christianity Today ‘Who’s In Charge of The Christian Blogosphere’, there’ve been responses (apart from Twitter flame wars) from writers like Jonathan Merritt, Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson and Rachel Miller. These are all worth a read and a mull over (and I’m sure there are plenty more to read too). I’ve been sharing a few of these on Facebook, and I suspect some of the people joining in on the discussion have perceived my obtuse quoting and introductory comments like ‘Interesting…’ as endorsements; it’s not necessarily any one piece here that I endorse (though there’s much to appreciate in many of them, and I have learned from them (or been taught by them)), it’s the conversation itself I find fascinating because what is playing out here is a new reformation of sorts; the question will be what scope and size of change this reformation brings… it’s possible that the democratised landscape where there’s already lots more diversity simply means conversations like this are a flash in a pan, where once they might have overhauled the church as we know it…

There’s an irony here that each of these writers writes from the Protestant tradition and what’s at stake is how a new communication medium makes us rethink the role of authority and who is in the ‘priesthood’. In the year where we’re marking 500 years since Luther used the printing press and a stream of fellow pamphleteers to bring down the Catholic establishment; the challenge these writers are responding to, or conversing around, is one brought about by an even more frictionless and democratised communication platform. It might seem odd that it has taken so many years of the Internet for us to get here… except that it’s not odd, because what is happening here is another reformation of sorts; another challenging of the establishment ‘priesthood’ (at least as it operates, if not as it is conceived, within some streams of the ‘complementarian’ church).

There are legitimate criticisms directed at this conversation from those who aren’t stakeholders in it; it seems wrong that the controversy only really kicked off the way it did when a woman, contributing to Christianity Today’s campaign to #amplifywomen, wrote about some of the dangers (to the establishment/’orthodoxy’) presented by this new platform, why single out a blogging woman like American blogger Jen Hatmaker to raise concerns about teaching and authority outside ‘church structures’ when we haven’t kicked up the same stink about controversy-monger/outrage-peddler Matt Walsh (who, for what it’s worth, is Catholic, so there’s a sort of double irony if what he’s doing is acting like a child of the Reformation). It feels like an attack on the ‘theological left’ when we give the ‘theological right’ a free pass; and worse, an attack on a woman, when we give men a free pass.

It’s not a mistake to make this a gender issue though, and an issue prompted by women teaching with some sort of authority; at least if we view the conversation in the schema of the Reformation using its categories; because it really is a question of whose voices are priestly, who can speak as part of, or on behalf of, the church — and what happens when these speakers depart from orthodoxy? What would Luther have done to the next generation of Luthers who out-Luthered him? If you’re a keen enough student of Reformation history you’ll know that the fighting about Orthodoxy 2.0 didn’t stop after the schism from the Catholic Church, and that the seeds of what we’re dealing with now, in terms of a very diverse publishing industry for Christian readers (much more diverse than the duplication of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) kicked off with the Reformation.

It’s easy to scoff at this conversation (as some are in the habit of doing on social media) especially when people are trying to tease out what exactly a woman’s role could or should be in the church (if you’ve already decided to embrace a more egalitarian framework). But this is a question of the sort of practical order that prompted the Reformation, presented, in part, by a very similar technological advancement. The introduction of a ‘democratising’ piece of technology in the printing press meant lots more people could read lots more stuff lots more quickly… and social media/the blogosphere with its essentially frictionless and costless publishing is the printing press on steroids, and it could (and maybe should) have a similar seismic impact on the church. For good or for ill.

And that’s why this conversation is an important and interesting one.

It’s asking what responsibility in the face of almost unfettered access to a platform should look like (which we should be asking in an age of fake news, and Donald Trump anyway).

It’s asking what role the established institutional church, its traditions and its office bearers should play in determining what teaching is orthodox or Biblical (in content and mode); an irony faced whenever the anti-establishment movement becomes the establishment…

It’s asking in what sense we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what accountability in the life of the church looks like beyond those who take ordination vows or vows that submit themselves to church discipline within established structures (cause we’ve seen some pretty heinous forms of people setting up their own platforms apart from accountability (like a church in Seattle)).

It’s asking in what sense the Reformation really happened; do we really have a priesthood of all believers and what does that look like for women, and how do we have a priesthood of all believers with a 1 Corinthians 12 picture of church life and specific roles, and a sense that some of these roles might involve gender…

It’s we’re asking how the internet and the life of the universal church beyond a particular locality is like, or different, to a community that lives and gathers together as a particular expression of the body of Christ; and where authority fits in this picture.

It’s asking all these questions in the face of this new technological age which does inherently favour a particular theology and practice. The Internet is not neutral when it comes to these questions. A democratising platform operates in favour of egalitarian practices. Australian author Jane Caro made a pretty great case for this in an article back in January that is now paywalled; but I managed to quote this paragraph from her on Facebook at the time:

“As education and knowledge spread, Enlightenment followed theReformation, and then all the liberation movements that emerged thereafter, including the abolition of slavery, child labour, and increased rights for women. After all, if every man could have his own relationship with God, why not every woman? Why not every slave?

This democratisation of the word of God led inexorably to democracy itself; predicated on the idea that all men (even, perhaps, women) were created equal. Everyone ended up entitled to not just a relationship with God but with a vote and a say. One followed inevitably, I think, from the other. As those in power understand only too well, once a few difficult questions began to be asked, a great many more would follow.”

Whichever side you land on these questions there are lessons to be learned from the Reformation; even stepping aside from which side of the Reformation had a grasp of the truth there are lessons to learn here. You could be a Catholic complementarian, or a Protestant egalitarian, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two and history would be informative here. This isn’t just a conversation that matters for those facing the reformers with a new media strategy (and as a protestant in a Reformed denomination it shouldn’t surprise you which side I think had the better material to work with). There’s a pretty compelling case to be made that the Reformation ‘won’ where it won precisely because of its media strategy, and particularly because the media practices of the reformers lined up with their theology. You couldn’t really be a Catholic and employ the techniques the reformers employed if part of your theology was a belief that somehow the priesthood was set apart from the rest of the church not just in function, but by language, to play the game of engaging with the masses in the vernacular was to cede quite a bit to the reformers in a way that would’ve started to give some credence to their broader critique; while on the flipside, believing in a ‘priesthood of all believers’ meant there was less centralised control over the messaging of the Reformation, and anybody who had access to a printing press could, and should, use it to proclaim the theology of the Reformation; the Gospel.

The media practices of the Reformation were one of the driving forces behind my thesis (which looked at the media practices of the wisdom literature, Paul, Augustine, and Luther as historic case studies of communicators who had their practice shaped by their theology), I say this to acknowledge that this is an area I think is much more fascinating and fruitful than the average person on the internet… and to acknowledge that I may well be overthinking this present conversation; I’ve done lots of thinking and writing about this stuff… and lots of this thinking was prompted by an excellent Economist article How Luther Went Viral by Tom Standage, who would later write an excellent book on ‘democratised’ communication via Social Media called Writing On The Wall that’s worth a read if any of this interests you at all (here’s a TEDx talk with some of my thoughts, and a review of the book). In the Economist piece, Standage says:

“IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.”

This is, in many ways, a summary of the current discussion (and what has prompted it), but it is Standage describing the Reformation. Here’s his description of the mechanisms of the viral Reformation:

“The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.”

And here’s where his opponents, the Catholic establishment, failed:

“Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

Another key factor behind the success of the Reformation, according to Andrew Pettegree, a scholar Standage quotes (from a book called “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”) was the sheer volume of work published and distributed, even though it was published against the weight of traditional institutional authority:

“It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.”

Standing in the practical tradition of the Reformers should mean looking at new technologies — especially ‘democratising’ technologies that level the playing field by giving all people a voice — as opportunities to share the Gospel. To embrace new technologies to share our theology is part of our DNA… and at some point sharing, writing about, and discussing the Gospel is going to feel a lot like teaching… which presents some real challenges to people whose theology and practice is to see teaching and authority in the church as the domain of men. We might talk about a priesthood of all believers; but in practice in most churches in our tradition, we’ve very much got a priestly model tied to the pulpit, eldership, and the male-dominated (or exclusively male) governance structures of our churches. This isn’t a new question. Complementarians have had to grapple with women who write books for many years, and often do make a distinction between what happens in corporate worship and what happens in the broader life of the church; this is a distinction often not recognised by people outside the big-R Reformed scene; some of us make much of ‘WORSHIP’ in the super-capitalised Lord’s Day sense (others of us are puzzled at where the idea that there’s a major difference in the life and practice of the church between the Sunday gathering and all other communal life as depicted in the New Testament actually comes from).

For the big-R Reformed complementarian types there’s a scary scenario where one might have to put themselves in the shoes of the Reformation era Catholics to figure out how they could’ve kept the farm in the face of a new media strategy and new orthodoxy, because the risk, if this group’s position is correct, is that it will be overwhelmed if the response isn’t nimble and imaginative, but also theologically coherent.

For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition but are more inclined to be ‘reformational’ (always reforming) than historically reformed, there are some opportunities here to ask ourselves some pretty confronting questions about whether our media practices actually do line up with our professed theology; a priesthood of all believers; both men and women. And this is why I, personally, think this conversation is particularly important and worth following even if some of the articles linked above don’t really nail where I’m coming from or think we should be going…

Luther was sure his words were going to be held to account by God; and in some sense his speaking was an act of attempting to hold others to account to God’s word, but also to traditions he believed the church had walked away from. We can’t simply dismiss the voices of our forbears as though we moderns are more enlightened or our pressing questions more pressing… In purely effective terms, Luther is almost without peer as a communicator and an example of someone who grasped hold of a new technology to great effect. He’s also, for all his faults, a great model of harnessing the power of new mediums to promote theological reforms he believed were necessary, and grappling with the questions of institutional authority that follow… these words from the Diet of Worms (where he may or may not have said ‘here I stand, I can do none else’) are a reasonable starting point, and perhaps ending point, in this conversation for all of us:

“I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.”

What that looks like… well. Let’s keep talking, and listening.

 

Benedict Option or Golden Rule?

“We faithful orthodox Christians didn’t ask for internal exile from a country we thought was our own, but that’s where we find ourselves. We are a minority now, so let’s be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark. We will increasingly be without influence, but let’s be guided by monastic wisdom and welcome this humbly as an opportunity sent by God for our purification and sanctification. Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.” — The Benedict Option, pg 99


The Benedict Option? Or is it?

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher has been making waves long before the book was published so much that many have seen the book as a refreshing opportunity to get some clarity from Dreher about exactly what it is he means when he speaks of the Option; is he talking about withdrawing from the world? retreating to a bunker? being the church in the world? or simply a strategy for disciple making in the modern west?

He’s been accused of calling Christians to head for the hills; and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

He’s been accused of responding to the changing world with fear; and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

He’s been accused of suggesting Christians abandon worldly institutions (like the political realm); and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

I’ve read lots from Dreher (both pre- and post- release of the book), and lots of people talking about The Benedict Option. I think the difficulty as I’ve read the reviews and his responses is that I think Dreher has been misunderstood, but I think he’s also misunderstood the responses (and fuelled them), and that the problem is that Dreher is attempting to present a series of practices — an orthopraxy — for any Christians to reinforce and preserve our faith in a hostile world (he goes so far as to suggest Muslims should do this too), but he fails to account for how different belief systems — orthodoxies — view the world and God’s work in it. Because Dreher writes so broadly, for Protestants, Catholics, and his own Orthodox tradition, and assumes you can work from a right orthopraxy upwards to an orthodoxy, he’s been ill-equipped to handle responses that read from an orthodoxy downwards. The real problem is that his orthopraxy is actually a product of his orthodoxy, and it never really escapes that, but there are many, many, principles and practices he recommends that can and should be adopted by people whose orthodoxy is in the reformed, evangelical, tradition.

“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right? And I’m like, ‘Yes!’… But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” — The Benedict Option, pg 142

Another problem is that there are several times where he wants to have his cake and eat it too; he says, for example, that he’s not advocating withdrawal, but then he says Christian parents must pull their kids out of public schools and into either home schools or Christian liberal arts institutions, that Christian workers should abandon ‘contested’ professions (or be pushed out) and be entrepreneurial, starting great businesses but only hiring Christians (and that we should also buy Christian); even to the point of uprooting from life in hostile environments. There’s a protectionism at the heart of his approach to the church and the world.

The Benedict Option sees centripetal force — creating more pull in the church than in the rest of space — as our strategy in a post-Christian world; and life as a competition between the gravitational pull of two bodies — the ‘world’ and the Gospel. To be super confusing, in this diagram ‘the world’ (the earth) is us, the ‘world’ is the cosmos. Gravitational force is ‘centripetal’ so replace the ‘sun’ here with the ‘son’ (for the ultimate Jesus-juke)… but also the church, the Gospel, and God.

The problem is that the centrifugal force created by our motion, that keeps us orbiting around the sun, is also an important part of the picture (both in the diagram and in the church). Dreher’s  approach to being Christian in the world and engaging with the world is centripetal (pulling people in) rather than centrifugal (sending people out); and there’s probably a case to be made that the church should be both at the same time; that we should be creating a sense of loving, Gospel-shaped, community that is so beautiful as to have its own gravitational pull, but that this community should shape us so that we can respond to and participate in the world outside the church without fear of being flung off or caught up by the gravitational pull of some other body.

Dreher tries very hard to be optimistic and bold but he does so in the face of a tsunami-like narrative regarding a current cataclysm for the church that is, in part, of his own making and imagination. I don’t mean that it isn’t true; I mean that he is the prophetic voice proclaiming it as true. It’s his account of history and the present that his solutions are confronting (though he marshals plenty of supporting voices). He wants to simultaneously build an ark so that the church can survive and one day thrive, and play the weatherman proclaiming that the flood is coming. It’s not new to have to balance a message of salvation and judgment, but if one thinks the flood is different (has been here for much longer, namely, since the crucifixion of Jesus), or that the design for the ark is faulty, Dreher’s rhetoric can feel panicked and urgent. A little bit Chicken Little; not because the sky isn’t falling, so much as that it fell some time ago… and it’s actually that it’s really starting to bite us now. It’s also not that Dreher’s solutions lack creativity — his chapters on work, on education, on politics as local institution building, and on community (both local and church) are fantastic and contain plenty of fodder for churches to chew through. I’m also a bit confused about how he offers his historical account of where things went wrong largely focused on ideas (until he gets to the industrial revolution), and then his solution is largely focused on practices.

I share, to some extent, Dreher’s analysis of what he calls liquid modernity and the pressures the modern world places on Christians, I share the sense that part of the solution is a radically different community-based approach to life in this world. I’ve written about the Benedict Option already a couple of times — once thinking about Christianity as an X-Men like mutation, the other considering aggressive secularism as something like a zombie apocalypse; and I’ve considered what sort of recalibration of church life might be required in a “post-truth” world (and earlier started penning some ‘theses’ around an ongoing ‘reformation’ of the church). I share Dreher’s communitarian vision, and the sense that these must be communities built on rhythms and practices (liturgies) even, that counter the ‘liturgies’ of the false worship around us. I’ve read enough Stanley Hauerwas, James Davison Hunter, and James K.A Smith (and enough Augustine, and the Epistle to Diognetus) to be on board with the central thrust of Dreher’s solution; we need to invest our time and energy into creating communities geared towards the formation of Christians who will face a world hostile to Christianity. This is probably urgent. It has probably been urgent for some time.

“Here’s how to get started with the anti-political politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbours. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department” — The Benedict Option, pg 98

You can see why people are confused. In the same paragraph Dreher calls us to secede and to participate in public life. And this is the tension that drives the book (and arguably the tension underpinning our life as Christians who are ‘in the world, but not of it’). The answer to this tension, and where I think at times Dreher doesn’t quite hold the tension, is that we Christians might not be ‘of’ the world; but we certainly should be for it. There’s a couple of things in this quote, and the book, that bother me in terms of his theologies of art and technology (he values ‘high’ art over pop culture, and ‘local’ low-tech forms of media over ‘high-tech’ globalised forms, and that will be the subject of a future post, another future post will tackle the education stuff he talks about).

I don’t share Dreher’s sense that the tipping point is the sexual revolution (and increasing activism about LGBTI rights); I think we’ve needed this solution for some time. We’ve already had our imaginations and desires conscripted by capitalism and an anthropology that sees humans as economic units who should be educated so that we can get a good job, develop new technology to control the world, and buy the stuff we want. We needed recalibrating long before corporations were signing up as LGBTI allies. I share the concerns of many that when Dreher writes, his perspectives (even as he travels abroad) can’t escape his whiteness, or his Americanness; now, the tagline of the book is A strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”, so I don’t want to assess him for not having a broad enough scope; but there are plenty of marginalised communities operating within America as churches already, and instead of talking to them, Dreher headed off to a monastic community in Europe, and talked about the Mormons. The point at which the rubber really hits the road for me in terms of disagreement with Dreher, and how his orthopraxy clashes with my orthodoxy is on the question of education, and the best way to form our children to be Christians in the world. I know there are those within a reformed framework that share Dreher’s thoughts about the dangers of public education; but I don’t want to shape my kids to live in the world by having them box at shadows from the safety of a ‘home school’ or exclusively Christian school context (Dreher is down on church schools where many of your kids peers will be non-Christians who’ll pull them away from Jesus); I want my kids to learn to be in the world as Christians by being in the contested space of the world, with me (and their village) alongside them, not thrown into the world as adults for their first real ‘fight’ with people whose experience and understanding of the world is utterly foreign to them. I do share Dreher’s love for liberal arts educations though; and think Christians should be proactively starting alternative educational institutions for all built on this model because it is better for everyone.

80% of the Benedict Option contains really good and vital ideas and practices that should be factored in to how we approach life as the church in the world. I think what’s missing, or different, from a Reformed Evangelical perspective, is a vision for how to be in the world confident that it is God who saves and sanctifies and he does this through the Spirit, by faithAs someone in a different camp to Dreher, I think he puts too much faith in works to shape us, and is too afraid that the world will claim us; if you stand in the Calvinist tradition we certainly have a role to play in raising our kids in the Gospel-shaped community of the church, teaching them the Gospel in both word and practice, but we do this confident that it is ultimately God who acts to save, not our investment in our children. This should allow us to confidently engage the world with the belief that we have a more beautiful and compelling story that will be effective for those whom God calls, by the Spirit, through our presence.

“We have talked so far in this book about what it means to create the structures and take on the practices that train our hearts to be the Lord’s good servants first, even to the point of sacrifice. This is what the Benedict Option is supposed to do: help us to order all parts of our lives around him” — The Benedict Option, p 194

One of the issues with Dreher’s work, and the ensuing conversation, is that he really has considered and articulated a response to most objections; it’s just unclear which statements to weigh more heavily; ultimately your take on this book will be one of choosing which paradoxical bits to emphasise, or if you can live in tension; so he says:

“Communities that are wrapped too tight, for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible” — The Benedict Option, pg 139

Yet so much of The Benedict Option reads to me like Moana’s father and his vision for community life on a dying island. So much of its strategy seems to be ‘stay on the island, the island is safe, good, and beautiful, and people have all they need here,’ and yet so much of the solution to liquid modernity seems actually to be found in the Gospel continuing to go out into the world, to challenge the powers and authorities of this world. This paragraph features everything that is right and wrong about The Benedict Option:

“We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community. Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life. It must be a way of life shaped by the biblical story and practices that keep us firmly focused on the truths of that story in a world that wants to obscure them and make us forget.” — The Benedict Option, pg 121

This vision is contradictory to an evangelical orthodoxy — a belief that the Gospel is the central story of the world and the church community — and that the Gospel is the story of the son of man coming to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), and that we, as the ‘found,’ via the Spirit, become seekers in turn (John 20:21, Matthew 28:18-20). Dreher has emphasised the need for a centripetal community that has its own centre of gravity, at the expense of the centrifugal force created by the Gospel at the centre of our community. The Christian life is the life governed by this tension; by these twin poles simultaneously holding us close to God, and throwing us into the world as his people. It’s also possible that it is in part being thrown into the world that shapes our love for God and the Gospel. The challenge of course, facing the church, is that the world has its own centripetal pull on our hearts — that’s how idolatry works — and part of the work of formation (and how the Spirit appears to work to form us) is making sure how hearts keep being pulled by Jesus with more force than the world can exert. The solution the Benedict Option offers in part, to the pull of the world, is to avoid that pull altogether. It seems, in part, that mission beyond the boundaries of the community in Dreher’s world is a specialised role (and perhaps this is a result of his orthodoxy shaping his orthopraxy), not a role of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ or the body of Christ corporately in the world (except in creating the centripetal force of Christian community).

Just as there’s much to be said for Dreher’s emphasis on practices that cultivate a love for, and trust in, God, I think there’s a good positive case to be made for many of Dreher’s options — like starting counter-cultural liberal-arts schools built on the assumption that a person is more than their economic contribution, or creating ‘thick’ local communities built on charity, or becoming ‘social entrepreneurs’ whose goal is to make something good for people rather than operate for profit — as positive ‘neighbour love;’ good things that we can invest in both as Gospel witness and as expressions of common grace for our neighbours. Where I feel the solutions of his ‘options’, based on the Rule of St Benedict, fail is in their centripetal impulses, their protectionist streak, and their failure to genuinely grapple with the scope of Jesus’ command to love our neighbour, and the universal imperative at the heart of Jesus’ so-called ‘golden rule’. The institutions built via a true Christian option that follows the so-called golden rule, and the command to love our neighbour, will be equally good and available to everyone; public institutions for the common good; not simply private institutions for Christians.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 7:12

One problem with The Benedict Option is that it ultimately fights fire with fire; the world is increasingly going to force Christians out, says Dreher, it will create institutions that do not make space for Christian belief to flourish — including public schools — it will be harder for Christians to maintain jobs in both the public and private sector… and his solution is to create our own exclusionary spaces; not totally exclusive, certainly, we’re still to provide hospitality in our monasteries to those who are curious, but we should keep our kids from the influence of non-Christian peers.

The irony seems lost on Dreher; that as the hostile institutions of our culture (public and private) take steps to keep people from the influence of Christians we would do the same in our own ‘mirror’ institutions and communities. The golden rule is not ‘treat others as they treat you’ but ‘as you would have them treat you’… note that Jesus says here that this ‘sums up the Law and the Prophets,’ so it shouldn’t surprise us when he returns to this theme a bit later in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandments are for his people; the ones that should organise life in his kingdom. My sense is that Dreher emphasises the first, without thinking about how the second flows both out of, and into the first.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:36-40

Now, it’s fair to say that Dreher’s work gives us plenty of equipment for obeying the first commandment, cultivating a whole-hearted love for God (as opposed to for the world — another big theme in Matthew) and this is a pressing priority in a world where belief in the God of the Bible is contested (to use Charles Taylor’s terminology for our ‘secular age’), and where this contest is increasingly hostile (not just lost in our hearts being captured by alternative visions)… but the ‘as’ in ‘as yourself’ is important; it contains an echo of the ‘golden rule’ — if our solution is not the solution we’d like to see our neighbours practice to us, it’s not the answer for how we engage with them. He also attempts to address these two ‘love commands’:

“Though fear in the face of these turbulent times is understandable… the Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ, and dwelling with our neighbours in love, it ceases to be Benedictine… it can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or saving the world.” — The Benedict Option, pg 237

The problem is perhaps best expressed in the question Jesus poses in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbour? My fellow Christian? Certainly. But also the people on my street, in my city, and ultimately in the world beyond my national boundaries and the west. He explicitly cites these two commands here, It’s just the failure to mediate them through the golden rule that breaks part of his project; if our neighbours really did have the words of life in their secular agenda, would we not want them to do all they could to bring it to us? How would we have them love us? If we have the words of eternal life, how should we then love? This is where a centripetal model of being the church doesn’t cut it; and where we’re to be centrifugal; to go out; just as Jesus ‘went out’ to us.

One of the best things about The Benedict Option, and the Rules of St Benedict is that they are corporate in their orientation. One of my bugbears with the recapturing of liturgy and practice as tools for formation is that they almost always seem self-interested; like a sanctified masturbation (to borrow from Fight Club’s line about self-improvement); Christian love is love that overflows out of the self and is directed towards God and other. You might argue that a sort of personal love is vital for other love, but I think the practices we see promoted in the New Testament church are largely oriented towards the body of Christ, not just the self. The Benedict Option nails this; I think; in its rich communitarian vision, and this is perhaps a positive product of Dreher’s Orthodox orthodoxy (where protestants/evangelicals tend to be a little more individual in our outlook). But one of the problems with the Benedict Option is that it is not other-focused enough, because in many cases, neighbouring stops at the boundaries of the community (while including visitors to the community). It’s far more concerned about how the world might shape us than certain about how we might, through God’s sovereignty and the Spirit, shape others (and shape ourselves as we seek this).

It’s of course, also interesting, when it comes to the life of the church in a hostile world, that the way Jesus ultimately obeys both these commands is in the hands of the hostile empire, and with his own hands spiked to a bloodied timber execution device… arguably this is what we should expect as Christians operating in the world. 

At one point Dreher urges us to ‘rediscover the past’ (page 102) and he heads to Norcia where the modern Benedictines have re-founded a community based on the Rule of St Benedict at the fall of Rome; I suspect he should have looked further back than 1,500 years ago, to what it was that helped a crucified king overturn the very empire that had crucified him; ostensibly as a sign of its power, to crush his claims to the throne. Here’s what the Epistle To Diognetus puts forward as a summary of the Christian strategy in a pre-Christian world; the first half of this quote emphasises the difference in Christian community and practice (and the tension of being in, but not of, the world), while the second half suggests this practice is ‘other-oriented’:

But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Dreher rightly emphasises that our practices should draw people to us, but what the book lacks is a confidence that these same practices should also unleash us confidently upon the world, from the safety of such a community. He suggests beauty will be part of our witness, but it’s the ‘beauty’ within the metaphorical monastery, and our alternative communities; rather than the sort of faithful presence that James Davison Hunter champions.

“In an era in which logical reason is doubted and even dismissed, and the heart’s desire is glorified by popular culture, the most effective way to evangelise is by helping people experience beauty and goodness. From that starting point we help them grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emanate from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry.” — The Benedict Option, p 119

There’s lots to love about this quote; you’ve just got to hold it in tension with his call to move to rural areas apart from hostile civilisation that will counter-form us if we stay… I’m all for Christianity being a creative force from the margins; but I think out ‘marginalisation’ is felt more when it’s buttressed against the ‘centre’ than when it is removed from sight from those we are seeking to reach (or when we are removed from the reach of the ‘centre’ ourselves).

Dreher is also worth heeding inasmuch as he recognises that our job as the church now is not to win the culture war; but we need more, it’s not enough to simply become a ‘counter-community’ that centripetally draws people in. God is a sending God; we’re sent into the world as Jesus was sent into the world, commissioned to ‘go to the ends of the earth’ with the promise that God is with us… this isn’t a calling to go out and set up centripetal communities — new Israels — but to be a beautiful, alternative community, that goes into the world confidently modelling the beauty of our community and our trust in God even as it crucifies us. To be the sort of faithful witnesses envisaged in Revelation, a set of instructions for life as exiles in a hostile world; in Babylon… in Rome.

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

Perhaps rather than a plurality of ‘Benedictine communities’ across different orthodoxies (including Dreher’s suggestion that muslims and jews might adopt the same strategy) a better solution in the ‘secular age’ of ‘liquid modernity’ that is hostile to non-consensus views is to model how we wish to be treated; perhaps a confident pluralism is more in line with the golden rule and our hope; not confident that we will win our place in the world, but that the ‘categorical imperative’ of doing unto others as we would have them do (and as Jesus categorically did as a ‘categorical indicative’) is actually the right thing to do, and the right way for us to be formed, because we are confident that Jesus is victorious. Here’s how writer John Inazu (who wrote a short response to The Benedict Option) describes his strategy for life in the post-Christian world; in his book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference:

“The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us. Confident pluralism allows us to function—and even to flourish—despite the divisions arising out of our deeply held beliefs… Confident pluralism explores how we might live together in our deep and sometimes painful differences. We should not underestimate the significance of those differences. We lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing.”

The way to operate well in this world, following the golden rule, while also cultivating the sort of thick communities that help us love God and offer others the sort of love that we have had him offer us, as his co-missioned church, might not be to shut ourselves off from those who disagree with us, but rather to make space for them to speak, confident that when we also speak, our story is better, our community richer, and our practices more compelling to those whom God calls. Confident that the prayer of Jesus will be answered in us as we are sent into the world by Jesus to love like Jesus.

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” — Jesus, John 17:15-19

What is preaching? A conversation with Sam Chan’s Preaching as the Word of God

From time to time I write about preaching. The stuff I write about preaching isn’t necessarily going to be all that interesting to you (and sometimes these posts blow out in length), but preaching is what I get paid to do, so it probably pays to think about it sometimes, and it’s nice to be able to look back on how my thinking has developed over the years.

This is a post about preaching, and more than that, it’s a review of a relatively academic book on preaching, Preaching As The Word Of God: Answering An Old Question with Speech-Act Theory by Sam Chan. This is a very important book on preaching, and if thinking academically about what preaching is, or having a thoughtful academic approach from an academic/practitioner transform your practice sounds like a good thing, then you should read the book before you read the rest of this review.

It might help to think of the question at the heart of this book as the question of whether preaching is like holding up a cricket ball to be examined and understood, or as like bowling a ball with intent. That might help when we get into what speech-act theory is all about.

A primer on how/what I thought about preaching before this book

I read lots of book reviews; and write a few. I have a personal bugbear with book reviews that assess a book through some sort of unacknowledged/unexplained bias and or system; and I have issues with book reviews that don’t seek to use the thing they’re reviewing as a conversation partner; that simply assess a book through a grid and don’t look at how the book might modify the grid, or the grid might modify the book, a good book review — a review essay — takes readers somewhere new because it’s a re-mixing of the ideas of the book through the head of the reviewer. Those are fun. That’s what this is, and it’s what I hope to do whenever I review a book, or I can’t be bothered…

Sometimes I review preaching books like The Archer and The Arrow, Hearing Her Voice, and Saving Eutychus, and I use these books as opportunities to extend the conversation (and my own thinking) about what preaching is (or at least what our churches try to do on a Sunday). I wrote my Masters thesis on persuasive communication and how to do it ethically as well; this was about more than preaching (in that it was about public Christianity), but it also provides a lot of my framework for preaching and thinking through books like this. I’ve touched on it in posts about how ethos, pathos, and logos all need to be part of our preaching, and also about how ‘word ministry’; or the proclamation of the Gospel, is not just the spoken monologue, but can include singing (including the non-verbal communication bits (our pathos and ethos) both music and movement) and other media. I say all this, and link to all these, because nothing appears in a vacuum. I’m about to engage with a new book on preaching, and it’s worth declaring what my assumptions/framework are up front. Here are some of the things I thought about preaching before reading this book, in sum.

  1. Preaching is preaching (the Greek κηρύσσω) when it is the proclamation of the Gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus. Other forms of public speaking are not really preaching, because the preacher acts as the herald of the king. There might be other types of speaking that Christians engage in in public.
  2. Preaching is a corporate act of the gathered body of Christ (ala 1 Corinthians 12) no matter which individual speaks, all are speaking (and engaged in the act) just as when I make words with my mouth, my lungs, vocal chords (and hopefully brain) are engaged. It’s not the act of a special ‘set apart’ priestly mouthpiece from God who speaks to the people of God. It is for both believers and unbelievers because the Gospel is what both believers and unbelievers need to hear (with slightly different rhetorical ends, but it is possible for one piece of communication to say more than one thing to different people at the same time).
  3. Preaching is tied to who we are as the church — we are the body of Christ, we are the bearers of his image in the world (and image bearing is a vocation tied to representing the name and nature of God and his kingdom in his world), and we are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation between humanity and God (2 Corinthians 5).
  4. Preaching is one of the things the church does, along with the sacraments, as the essential function of the church in the world, and the church for the church. The sacraments are also essentially preaching (just with more than words, ala 1 Corinthians 11:26), and it is possible that preaching is essentially the same as the sacraments because, basically, when we gather in the name of Jesus, Jesus promises to be there.
  5. The authority behind any preached word comes from God’s word (it’s that we proclaim), it is the proper explaining of how God’s word in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus, and how Jesus being Lord shapes the way we live now as the people of his kingdom. It also comes from the role of the Church, and via the work of the Spirit. It isn’t human authority, and it isn’t in the hands of an individual, no matter how persuasive they are.
  6. Preaching involves words, but it also draws on (and draws credibility from) the life of our community-in-the-world, and the life of the speaker-in-the-community (our ethos), and our ethos is to be shaped by our message if we want to preach ethically and with integrity. You can’t have words without an ethos helping those words be interpreted and persuasive any more than you can have ‘the word of God’ without the God who speaks. Separating logos from ethos is like trying to separate the persons of the Trinity. Our message is Christ crucified for us, sinners. We preach as sinners being reshaped by the message of the Cross (a message that represents God’s power, but is weak in the eyes of the world). Part of our ethos and our pathos will involve the connection of our words to communication mediums that support the message and help produce an appropriate emotional response, not simply an appropriate rational response (and the medium is the message, so good preaching-as-communication involves thinking about what the best medium to effectively carry our message is, and what mediums (like singing) might support other mediums (like speaking) so that the body might preach Jesus together employing a range of gifts and methods).
  7. Preaching also, in order to be effective communication, involves some sort of listening to God (in his word, that we’re aiming to preach), to the people we speak to — outside the church in order to understand the barriers to the Gospel, and in the church in order to understand where the pull of ‘false gospels’ is being felt, and where people need reassurance and encouragement.

These are the basic assumptions I brought with me as I read Sam Chan’s new book on preaching

A brief overview of Preaching as the Word of God

Like me, Sam Chan thinks preaching is a really, really, big deal. This relatively recent book (based on an older dissertation) takes the reader through what the Reformers, specifically Luther and Calvin, believe about preaching, what the Bible suggests preaching is from the Old Testament to the New, and then gets super fun using speech-act theory to support his conclusion that when preaching really happens (according to a defined set of parameters), God is speaking. When we preach, according to certain criteria, God speaks. Preaching is God’s word.

I like it. I mean, I guess I’ve just outlined a framework where this idea seems relatively uncontroversial. And while there are certain bits of that framework that don’t necessarily get a run in the book, the book doesn’t contradict any of them (as far as I can tell), and I’ve been bouncing some of these ideas back and forth with Sam since finishing the book. But what I really like about the book is not so much the stuff that agrees with what I already thought… no. I like the implications of the way Sam gets there; via the Reformers, the Bible, and speech act theory, some of the stuff he suggests should change how we approach not so much the content of preaching, but the delivery, our intention, and our understanding of what is happening (and of our responsibilities as speakers and hearers). Now. The book is relatively academic, but it’s a fruitful read (and a challenge) for anyone who preaches or wants to be a preacher… since I don’t have any major disagreements with its thesis; indeed, I wholeheartedly agree… so rather than reviewing the book the ‘old fashioned’ way and telling you what it says, I’ll explore some next steps in the conversation from my own dabbling with speech-act theory in my thesis. Sam has been pretty generous as a dialogue partner online so I have some sense that he’s at least intrigued by where this stuff goes… but he’ll, like anyone, have right of reply here.

It’s worth saying that in a year where lots of people are wanting to celebrate the Reformation, preaching was a really big deal in that movement… and preaching of a particular sort. Gospel preaching. And this book is a worthwhile reminder that Gospel preaching isn’t just incidental to the life of the church; in some ways it is the life of the church. One of the things that struck me about Luther as I read his works during college, and again as I read Sam’s book, is that if anything Luther held the preached word as more important than the other sacraments (and I use those words provocatively and deliberately to suggest that Luther essentially treated the preached word as a sacrament where God is present in preaching in much the same way as he is present in the bread and wine). This book is a bracing picture of what preaching could and should be if we approached it in the Spirit of the Reformation, the Spirit of the New Testament, and, arguably, necessarily, in the Spirit of Jesus. Cause it’s ultimately the same Spirit.

What is speech-act theory?

So let’s do a bit of a breakdown of Sam’s argument here and some of its implications. First, it’s handy to get a little bit of a primer on speech-act theory. It’s a theory that when you first hear it, especially as a Christian, just seems relatively obvious. Words do stuff. Spoken words are actions that achieve results (wedding vows are a good example). Separating word and action doesn’t really work in our experience of the world (I’d argue for an Act-Speech theory too… that actions can communicate things, that we as images communicate by being and doing… but that’s far beyond the scope of this piece and you should read my thesis to get some of the thinking there). A ‘speech act’ performs something… in some sense it creates a reality, whether it’s a promise, a proclamation, an order, an invitation, a warning, a thanking, or a greeting (this isn’t an exhaustive list).

Sam does a really helpful thing of regularly summarising his argument so that you stick with it all the way through; what follows under these headings are the numbered summaries of his argument from the book, but I’ve split them into the component parts of a speech act, and then responded a little to advance the conversation (either by agreeing and considering implications, or positing some alternatives to consider).

The Locutor: who speaks on God’s behalf; or who speaks on God’s behalf?

1. God is a God who speaks his word.

2. God raises, commissions, and sends human messengers to speak on his behalf.

3. These human messengers are anointed, gifted, and empowered by the Spirit, who is the author of the word of God.

This whole speech-act thing is great, and these three points are foundational to the argument — but I want to broaden them a little bit… because where Sam goes here is basically to say that the individual preacher has this particular role in and for the church (and that the church is part of commissioning the speaker as a preacher); he suggests that preaching is an individual function, and certainly, in a descriptive account of what happens in our church services where the ‘preaching’ happens, this is true. There is a preacher, and they play this role, and hopefully they’re gifted… But here’s where I want to tweak things slightly — to suggest preaching is a corporate function of the body (working together in its various parts).

What if the ‘human messengers’ commissioned to speak on God’s behalf are coterminous with ‘the church’, that this commission is corporate, not individual; so it’s the body of Christ, which is ‘anointed, gifted and empowered by the Spirit’ and when the one speaks in our gathering, as the ‘mouthpiece’ they speak for the whole body; as part of the body, appointed by both God and the body to speak in this way; so ‘preaching’ shouldn’t just be seen as the job of the preacher, but of the body; and this is a bit of a game changer, because if we conceive of preaching in reformed terms, as Sam wants us to, we conceive of it not as a priestly act of a priest, but as a (even ‘the’) priestly act of the priesthood of all believers; which means the preacher isn’t detached from the body to speak to the body from God, but is, as part of the Body, speaking God’s word to the body and to the world the body is ‘incarnate’ in… which, in practice, means the preacher not thinking of themselves as a specially called individual — God’s gift to the church — but as the person appointed by the body to speak on its behalf and for its good. The ‘body of Christ’ is given life, and nurtured, by the word of God and this nurturing happens, in part, through preaching.

corporate model like this changes, for example, the way the preacher conceives of their task; the task becomes to listen carefully to God’s word, but also to listen carefully to the body (in order to speak corporately). This challenges an evangelical practice where preaching is essentially priestly in a pre-reformation sense; a special commission some how set apart from the life of the body, not from the life of the body. The preacher speaks the word of God, certainly, but it’s like they get amputated from the body of Jesus to do so, and then turn around and speak back to the body. In a practical sense the way this priestly thing works out is that the preacher sees their primary job as speaking for God to the body; rather than speaking God’s words as the body to the world (actively listening to other members, being supported in prayer, expertise, and the enrichment that comes from multiple perspectives from different ages, stages, and experiences of life), and also speaks God’s words to the body for its building up; its mutual edification.

Do I do my job best locked away in an office with the Bible and some commentaries open, typing into a word processor for 30 hours a week, or do I do my best listening to the wisdom of the body talking to others, with the Bible open, and thinking through how the passage best speaks to the diversity of people in the body, and to the world in a way that makes what is being said plausible and engaged, rather than detached and idiosyncratic. Let’s take Paul’s metaphor of the body seriously; and metaphorically — a metaphor is not an exaggeration of the true state of affairs, but an accessible simplification — a sign that points to a greater reality — a ‘simplification’ you use to make something more complex understandable… so when Paul speaks of the church as a body we’re not meant to think he’s over-applying the reality of our union (with Christ, by the Spirit), but pointing to a deeper mystery. And we might, to use Paul’s metaphor, understand preaching — as in the spoken word in the gathering — as the act of the body’s mouth; when my mouth speaks it is connected to my brain, powered by my lungs, informed by my eyes and ears… and representative of the rest of me (and my actions) if my words have integrity.

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.…there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” — 1 Corinthians 12:17-20, 25

The Locution: if we’re going to speak the word of God, what do we say?

4. These human messengers do not invent their own message, but receive it from God’s revelation; these human messengers faithfully proclaim this received message by preaching the message without modification.

5. In a general sense, any message received from God would be the word of God. But, in a special sense, as a result of God’s progressive revelation, an important content of the word of God is the Christocentric gospel. In this special sense, the word of God is now not only the word from God, it is the word about God, namely, his Son. This message is continuous with the message of the OT prophets, which was subsequently inscripturated as OT Scripture, but it is also a climactic new message that has only now been revealed through the preaching of Jesus and the apostles, which has now been inscripturated as NT Scripture.

One way of thinking of the locution is that it’s the message; it’s what is transmitted from speaker to audience. But the thing that separates ‘locution’ from other forms of communication is that it is part of a speech-act — it is spoken not just transmitted, or read. The message in this sense starts to include the ‘medium’ which is part locution, part illocution (the next bit); and here’s where some of my thesis intersects with Sam’s work; because in some sense the act of preaching is where the communication maxim “the medium is the message” kicks in a bit (which is from media ecologist Marshall McLuhan); the way this plays out in preaching is that somehow what we locute — the Gospel — is connected to who we are (appointed speakers of the Gospel; God’s ambassadors/image bearers), and in some way the act of speaking, as a dynamic and relational act is a ‘medium’ choice that reinforces the nature of the message (and that it comes from the God who speaks). This also helps speech-act theory integrate with classical ‘oratorical’ theory — where each ‘speech act’ incorporates elements of logos, ethos, and pathos — the locution is in a sense the overlap between ethoslogos and the action of speaking (I’d argue pathos is more caught up in the illocution but not totally removed from locution because we speak words that move our emotions too, not just speak emotionally).

There’s a reason God’s message is best spoken, not just read, that preaching is a thing and we don’t just hand out Bibles. It’s because God is a dynamic and relational God, and somehow our locution and our illocution is an opportunity to model that. Here’s more from the book, and they’re important, because it’s at the heart of Sam’s thesis that preaching is speaking the words of God, that we understand what the ‘word of God’ looks like.

In one sense, Christ is the Word because he is the Word from God; he is the climactic revelation from God. As the Son sent by God, he speaks the Father’s message on the Father’s behalf; as God incarnate, his words are also God’s words. But in another sense, Christ is the Word because he himself is the message. The message from God is about Christ; the referent of the word is Christ himself—his person, work, and message. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament message of eschatological salvation; he is the Messiah who will usher in the kingdom of God and bring salvation and vindication for God’s faithful people.

Therefore, today, God reveals his message of the gospel to his commissioned, Spirit-anointed preachers through the reading of the word and the proclamation of the word. This word is a Christocentric word, namely, the gospel that calls all to recognize Jesus as the Christ and to live a life of trust and obedience in Christ. In turn, the Christian preacher is to proclaim this Christocentric gospel message, and in doing so, preach the word of God. This message should be consistent with the message of the gospel in Scripture; and the hearers can confirm this by examining the Scriptures.

The question to determine whether or not God’s word is being spoken at this point in a speech-act, according to Sam’s thesis is:

“Does the preacher’s locution correspond with that of the gospel message of Scripture?”

The Illocution: If we’re speaking the word of God how do we say it?

“the illocutionary act is the performance of an act in saying something. It corresponds to the force of what has been said.”

In terms of speech-act theory the illocution is what makes the speech an action (so a ‘promise’ (‘I do‘) not just the words used in a promise (‘I do’) — it’s the difference between me reading aloud the words of an oath on a page and making an oath).

It might be helpful to think of the locution as a ‘ball’ and the ‘illocution’ as the throw. If the locution is the content of a speech act, the illocution is the act itself; the manner in which it is delivered consistent with its purpose and function. So if the ball is a cricket ball the ‘throw’ might, depending on context come from a bowler, a fielder, or a member of the crowd; each ‘ball’ is the same, but the meaning is different because of the context and understanding of the action (one is bowling, one is fielding, one is fetching).

In a speech-act, the locution is what is said; the illocution is how it is said (and what makes the ‘locution’ something more than ‘just words’). It’s partly context that determines this; including our expectations of the locutor (so, neither a fielder or a spectator ‘bowl’… but a fielder ‘becomes a bowler’ when they give their hat to the umpire and take their mark). It’s ultimately context that enacts the speaking of certain words to make them a ‘speech-act’; the words ‘I do’ become a vow in a wedding, rather than simply an expression of my opinion, or description of my actions (“do you eat chocolate?” “I do” is very different to the act of saying “I do” in a wedding ceremony but the same words). This context also includes things other than who the speaker is, who they’re speaking to (and the recognised conventions this creates), it also includes intent. So, to pick up the cricket analogy again; we know a ball is bowled in cricket when the bowler bowls to the batsman, and there are rules around what is recognised as a legitimate bowling action (behind the crease, between the popping creases, below the shoulders of the batsman), there’s also a certain force required and the intent to get the ball into play, but there’s still, in terms of how we assess the bowling, a required interaction with the batsman (this is where the next bit, perlocution, comes in). An over in cricket is not just six balls, but six balls bowled from bowler to batsman. A speech act is not just words, but words spoken in a particular context with a particular force.

It’s useful to think about illocution as the thing that makes you feel the weight of the locution so that it is an action (a bit like how ethos and pathos intersect in the old rhetorical triangle). And one act of speaking might have multiple illocutions; multiple purposes, and this depends on the contexts. A ball bowled in cricket is bowled to terrorise a batsman, to be hit by a batsman, to get a batsman out, to excite the crowd, to encourage the field, and to please the captain; the same ‘ball’ bowled can do all these things. And it’s the same with a speech-act; there can be multiple illocutions at play. And Sam argues this is true in preaching. It’s not our job simply to say ‘ball… ball… ball’… we actually want the ball to do something. Here’s Sam’s next point:

 

6. The human preacher preaches with a divinely commissioned intention, which is an expression of God’s purposes, on behalf of God; and God achieves his purposes through this human proclamation.

This is where we move from content to method; and though experience listening to some sermons that don’t nail the ‘gospel message of Scripture’ might suggest otherwise, there’s nothing particularly controversial in Sam’s thesis until this point. But this is where things get interesting. There are some popular approaches to preaching that see our job simply as describing the word of God propositionally; our job is to simply show what God’s locution is; one way this happens is in a certain sort of expository preaching.  Sam suggests this evangelical sacred cow is not all it is cracked up to be; that it may, in fact, be undermining what preaching should be. He’s quite charitable about the theory behind expository preaching, but asks a legitimate question about whether it might actually be imposing a pretty modern construct on a text that had a purpose apart from the delivery of authoritative propositions. He suggests it’s possible that our approach of turning the Bible into propositions (bits of data), or put another way, treating it as a ‘locution’ not a dynamic speech-act where illocution matters too, might rob it (and our preaching) of its speech-act nature (a way of thinking about this might be to say that when we do this the Bible, God’s ‘living and active word’ simply says something, but if the speech-act thing is captured in our reading and preaching, the Bible does something again, and the challenge of our preaching is that our spoken words don’t just say something, but also do something).

“The merits of this approach are that it is founded upon a high view of Scripture—for Scripture is the word of God—and it emphasises the need for objective controls in preaching, namely, Scripture itself. However, this approach is not without problems… often, this approach is somewhat dependent upon a “propositional” view of revelation, for the preacher is essentially gleaning ideas, concepts, principles, and propositions from the scriptural text. But this reliance upon a “propositional” view of revelation would share some of the weaknesses of such a reductionist approach. Further, much of the literary genres of the Bible are not easily reduced to propositions or principles. Is such preaching, then, committing the so-called “heresy of propositional paraphrase”?

Sam says expository preaching reduces the speech act to locution, so the word of God in the sermon is basically the bits where the Scripture is quoted, paraphrased, and explained, and “there is little attempt to recapture the illocutionary act of Scripture.” So sometimes, for example, when we preach a passage of narrative with the ‘three points and an application’ model, and we do this by picking out details and ‘facts’ rather than by telling the story, we rob the passage of its function (and thus, it’s meaning and purpose). He suggests, using speech-act theory and this concept of illocution, that we should not just be transmitting the locutionary content of Scripture, but that we should be seeking to preach in such a way that the purpose of a particular piece of scripture is achieved in our speaking; our illocution when we teach a passage should line up with its illocution (especially in the context of the whole Bible, so as it helps bring the Gospel to people in different contexts to produce different actions (promise, threat, etc) and these actions are shaped by the text. There’s a responsibility here not just for the ‘mouth’ of the body; the preacher; to speaking well, but for the rest of the body (and other hearers open to the premise that God might be speaking) to be playing a role “to check that the locution of the proclamation is indeed identical to that of Scripture.” Expository preaching makes this a bit easier because all the audience has to do is make sure the preacher is saying what the text says, not also doing what the text does, but the challenge of Sam’s thesis (which draws on the methods of preachers in the Bible, not just their content), is to aim not just to ‘teach’ the locution (the Gospel) but to bring it to bear. We don’t just hold up the cricket ball so all might see it’s a ball, we bowl it with the force required to achieve a purpose; God’s purpose, and just as a ball well-bowled achieves a variety of purposes depending on who you are relative to the ball (batsman, bowler, fielder or spectator), the preached word does this too, as Sam puts it:

And not only that, it must recognize that there is a variety of illocutionary acts that accompanies the single locutionary act of the gospel. In the proclamation of the apostles, the gospel message (“we preach Christ crucified”) is accompanied by a variety of illocutionary forces. For example, it is a promise to those who believe, an urge to repentance to those who don’t believe, a blessing to the faithful, a curse to the unfaithful, an encouragement to those who suffer, a warning to those about to fall away, a command to persevere, an assertion of a historical fact, an explanation to those who ask, an apology against the attackers of Christianity, and so on… there is a variety of illocutionary forces at the level of a single passage of Scripture, the level of a single book and its genre, and at the level of the entire canon. Thus, it also follows that there is a variety of illocutionary forces that accompanies the single locutionary act of the preached gospel. And a holistic understanding of preaching will appreciate this. In other words, it is important to maintain the distinction between the locutionary and the illocutionary act; for although there is only one locutionary message, there can be multiple illocutionary acts that accompany it. Thus, an approach that emphasizes one particular illocutionary act, such as “teaching” or “explanation,” and equates this with “true preaching,” has unfortunately confused the distinction between the locutionary and illocutionary act, and has become reductionistic in its use of illocutionary forces.

…when the gospel was preached by Jesus and the apostles, it was accompanied by a variety of illocutionary forces—promise, exhortation, encouragement, command, warning, blessing, assertion, explanation, judgment, etc. Thus, here, the preacher has a choice of a variety of illocutionary forces with which to preach the gospel; the preacher is not restricted to only one particular illocutionary force. In the same way that Jesus and the apostles used different illocutionary forces for different audiences and contexts, the contemporary preacher might also choose to use different illocutionary forces. Therefore, we cannot say that there is only one illocutionary force that is necessary for the preached gospel to be the word of God; there exists a variety of illocutionary forces that may accompany the preached gospel as the word of God.

 

So Sam’s question about whether a bit of preaching is a speech-act where God is speaking is: “Does the preacher’s illocution correspond with that of the gospel message of Scripture?” What is the illocutionary force?”
And it’s useful to think, briefly, about how we go about doing this, how we illocute, not simply locute. How we preach the purpose of the passage not just display the passage. How we approach narrative as narrative, not simply as a text to turn into propositions (Sam follows Kevin Van Hoozer in suggesting that both genre, and the passage’s place in the ‘canonical’ context of God’s grand ‘gospel centred’ acting in the world is really important for understanding the illocutionary force of a passage). We don’t just read Old Testament law as commands for us, but as part of the canon that shows how these laws help us understand the story of Jesus, so the illocutionary force isn’t in making people feel the weight of obedience to a command from the Old Testament, but in understanding the function of these commands.
But part of capturing and expressing the force of God’s word might also include things we might describe as media, or delivery decisions (just as a bowler at the top of his run considers pace, and line, and length, and swing, and seam position): do I shout, or whisper? What tone or expression or emphasis do I use? What body language do I employ? How do I distinguish in manner between, for example, a threat and a promise? How do I shape the delivery of the message in order for it to be heard according to its purpose (this leads into the next bit, the perlocution)? It also includes questions of audience like ‘what is my relationship to these people? How will they understand the nature of these words?

I know a promise is a promise not a threat, even if the same words are used, because somehow I’m geared to feel the difference not just by the words used, but how they’re used (and who is using them).

 

The perlocution?

The perlocutionary act is the performance of an act by saying something. It corresponds to the effect of what has been said.

The question at this point is: how much responsibility should the preacher take for the response to the preached word?

Can we talk as though we are responsible for the response to the preached word, or as though the response to the preached word should be part of how we measure the efficacy of preaching? Should we, for example, determine how good a preacher is by how persuasive they are? By how many people are persuaded? Or be aiming at persuasion at all?

And if the answer to the first question is ‘none’, then how much should persuasion be a factor in our preaching (how much should we think about the result for the hearer, not simply the act of speaking (locution and illocution).

For Sam, because of a theology I share, which sees God responsible for the effect of the preached word (and the effect produced by the Spirit), the answer to the first question is that God is ultimately responsible, and the speech-act is complete, so far as the speaker is concerned, with illocution, rather than the effect. The perlocution is the responsibility of the Spirit working in the hearer. Here’s Sam’s point 7:

7. Nonetheless, because of God’s “hidden” intention, and because of the different roles of the preacher, the hearer, and the Spirit, the ultimate result of preaching among the hearers is not a criterion for determining if the word of God is preached. Thus, the status of the preached word as the word of God is independent of its results. It is precisely because the preached word is God’s word that the preacher is not responsible for the hearer’s response and the hearer is accountable to God for his or her own response.

And a couple more quotes to flesh out the summary of his position above:

“The aim of preaching, as I have argued, is to perform a speech act on behalf of God…  in order to perform a speech act on behalf of God, the preacher’s locution and illocution are to correspond with God’s locution and illocution.”

“The distinction between the illocutionary act and the perlocutionary act is crucial. The preacher is responsible for the illocutionary act, which in turn is dependent upon the locutionary act. But the preacher is not responsible for the perlocutionary act. Instead, it is the Holy Spirit and the hearer who have the dual responsibility for the perlocutionary act, that is, belief and obedience.”

He draws on Paul’s words regarding his own approach to preaching (and ministry) to conclude:

“The proclaimer cannot coerce, manipulate, or force a hearer to believe or obey. That is, although the proclaimer must ensure that the gospel is illocuted, the speaker cannot ensure that the hearer responds with faith and repentance. The hearer is responsible for his or her response, not the proclaimer. Thus, a proclaimer is to illocute “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) without resorting to “wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor 2:4), that is, to coerce or manipulate. For that would be to confuse the illocutionary with the perlocutionary act.”

 

Now it would be possible to take this point of Sam’s on board and therefore not see preaching in terms of its fruit at all; or even to not aim to persuade as the human vessel of God’s speech. And exactly how this works out in the wash is one area where we hit the limits of Sam’s book (it can’t do everything), but also where my thesis picks up; I wrote mostly trying to figure out how we should be God’s communicating people in the world — how we might bear his image and so glorify him — and then approach worldly methods of communication like rhetoric, oratory, and public relations; how we might ethically engage in persuasion using some of these tools; rather than engaging in manipulation; how we might recognise the theological limits of our involvement in producing a result, not have our faithfulness measured by results, and yet still seek a result, and see results as a good thing to humanly pursue, and even to celebrate.

Here’s some stuff from my thesis:

“Most communicative acts, as actions of the sender, are produced for a purpose; this purpose may simply be to transmit the information, but usually the purpose is to produce a “perlocutionary effect” – such communication aims to bring sender and receiver to a common understanding of the information, and apply its implications. At this point communication becomes an exercise in persuasion, and while the sender cannot dictate the recipient’s response, they can “strategically” consider the desired perlocutionary effect in the communicative act. This consideration will affect the choice of content, genre, and form within certain “rules of the game,” supplying a context such that both sender and receiver are aware of the implications of the act.”

I go on to argue in this thesis that speech-acts that are open about their intent to persuade; and the ‘perlocution’ they intend to achieve are not manipulative, and are actually more ethical than communication because, in acknowledging the intent up front (or through genre/convention — and I think a ‘sermon’ carries with it a particular contextual expectation where the listener, Christian or otherwise, expects to be persuaded to act according to the word and authority of God mediated through the preaching). The key control here is that the what (the locution: in this case the Gospel) is thoroughly embedded in its connection to the who is speaking (the locutor: in this case, as above, the preacher/church/God); and for it to be ethical (for the ‘ethos’ component to work; the perlocutionary affect needs to reflect the life, or desired life, of the speaker, not just the audience).

Paul also says:

“Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” — 2 Corinthians 4:2

And this has often been used to suggest that Paul swore off persuasion the way it was practiced by first century orators; I’d counter that this is actually a rhetorical practice/strategy and ‘commending himself’ is actually a perlocutionary effect produced by his strategy (the sort of effect he relies on elsewhere when he says ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’). But. We’ve got to hold this alongside Paul’s statements about his own perlocutionary goals in his ministry (which includes his preaching); and it’s worth noting that his goals are to produce people just like him in their shared being just like Jesus — people who imitate him as they imitate Christ; but also people who by the Spirit are brought into the body of Christ-in-the-world — the church… the messengers who are commissioned to live and carry this message.

Like Sam, Paul suggests the heart of God’s locution (or his message as one speaking God’s word to the world (as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20), is the Gospel. His illocution is shaped by the Gospel too, inasmuch as it includes not just shaping his illocutionary speech-acts with the Gospel (renouncing ‘powerful’ and ‘underhanded techniques), but also shaping his ‘act-speeches’ — his ethos — around the Gospel. Here’s how the Gospel shapes Paul’s locution, illocution, and understanding of perlocution in his preaching speech-acts from 2 Corinthians 4… and this does support Sam’s conclusions about who produces the perlocutionary affect:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ… 

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. — 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 10-14

But this belief that it is God who will raise us from the dead by his word, and bring ‘light to our hearts’ so we might know the power of the Gospel truly; free from blindness, does not stop Paul believing that somehow he is involved in securing a perlocutionary affect, and so aiming his communication to that end.

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul spells out why he preaches the Gospel the way he does in Corinth (despite their preferences for flashy persuasive speech from people they pay to influence (orators). And having spelled out why he does not take up certain rights as a preacher, he says:

 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” — 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

This becoming is to produce a perlocutionary affect — it’s to win as many as possible. It’s also a reflection of the Gospel (parallel this with Philippians 2 and Jesus ‘making himself nothing’). How he understands himself (and the church) as ‘locutors,’ his methodology, his message, the force he gives it (in 1 Cor 1-4, and 2 Cor 3-5) and his intended results, and how that shapes the other elements so that they are in harmony. We see Paul shift methods and emphasis in his locution (and illocution) throughout Acts based on who he is speaking to (so compare his preaching in Athens, before the Pharisees and Sadducees, and before Felix or Festus), though the perlocution he aims for, under God, in this shifting strategy and method seems consistent, that people might know Jesus as Lord. And this is, I think, part of why he sees himself speaking the word of God (and it’s why Sam’s book is a good one for us to grapple with).

To pick up the cricket analogy, this means that while we expect good bowling to produce wickets, and we value wickets, and bowl with the intention of taking wickets, we measure the bowling on the effort of the bowler, on the quality and consistency of the balls delivered, their integrity within the team context and that they bowl in such a way that wickets are a reasonable expectation based on past experience and a reading of the present conditions. It’s not wickets being taken that determines if a bowler is bowling for Australia, but that they are selected to represent our nation and are doing what they are appointed to as part of the team (and on our behalf).

This is a great book on preaching not just because it is carefully thought through and argued, and not simply because it brings some fruitful modern insights into language and communication to give us a sense of what is happening as we preach, but because it reminds us as hearers and speakers of God’s word that preaching is powerful, and more than this, that God is a God who speaks and life happens.

A tribute to my dad, for the occassion of his 60th birthday

I love my dad.

I don’t just love him, I’m proud of him and proud to be like him in many ways.

I might not say this enough, and there’s years of hurtful stuff (including punches) flung at him while we were both figuring out who I was in my teenage years that I probably should work harder to undo with my words now… but I’m really, really thankful that my dad is my dad.

I’ve been struck, as I get to know my own son, he’s almost 4, at just how much it’s going to hurt me when history inevitably repeats and he first tells me he hates me. Or that I’m stupid, or fat, or apelike… sorry dad. I really am proud of you, you’re not stupid, or ape like, and I’m always told I look like you, so hopefully you’re not ugly.

I’ve also been struck by what I want to, and don’t want to, pass on to and teach my son. And I’m struck by how good a job dad did with shaping me in a way that means, on the whole, I’ve made reasonably good decisions.

I don’t know if I’d be me, or dad would be the dad he is now if it weren’t for those stormy adolescent years either. But I certainly wish I’d been able to see some of this stuff more clearly then, and that while we had slightly different visions for what my life could be, or should be, his was a voice I should have listened to more… this isn’t to say he got everything right, or that he gets everything right, I don’t want to lionise him in de-aping him… but let me tell you, for this auspicious occasion (his birthday was yesterday), some things about my dad. Perhaps you know him, and perhaps these will be some things that you know about him, or perhaps you’ll be surprised by some of this, perhaps you’ve never met him (or me), in whoch case… indulge me.

I’ve come to understand that dad does things excellently because he’s driven by passion — not for himself and his own name — but for the inherent value of things themselves, for the benefit of others, and to the glory of the God who makes excellent things too… whether it’s a song on the guitar, a well crafted table tennis point, a video game or gadget review in a national publication (sometimes when it was too socially awkward to admit dad was a minister I had the fallback option of telling people he was a freelance games reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald (which was true), sometimes I’d mumble the ‘minister’ bit and rush into the cool job so the conversation I was in would go there), a font (like Foxjump, the font Tourism Tasmania once used to brand the state, or the in house fonts for Mitchelton Presbyterian Church), odd bits of furniture, Bible talks, books (one on the Vic 20 computer and one on preaching)… dad is driven and disciplined and sets out to be a master, an artisan, because small stuff matters, because it says things about big stuff. And, I suspect, cause there’s joy in detail as much as there might be the devil. I realised recently when talking to someone about the experience of eating breakfast at a cafe with dad that he is basically a Platonist… there’s an ‘ideal’ form of everything (including eggs) out there, and all the ‘things’ of this world are opportunities to get close to that ideal (but sometimes they can also be judged against that ideal, so dad’s eyes will be drawn to the smallest inconsistencies)… I think this idealism is part of the drive, it’s not so much perfectionism (perhaps I’m recognising some of this in myself), but a wanting to get as close as humanly possible to these ideals (the difference, I think is one involves a striving for improvement, while the other involves always measuring yourself against unrealistic standards, I suspect it’s a mistake to see these as exactly the same thing). Not everyone sees the world this way, and seeing the world this way would be crippling if it weren’t matched with curiosity, imagination, intelligence, discipline, courage, and ability. What makes dad truly special is his God-given combination of these. What is, I think, the challenge of his ‘genius’ is realising that most of us aren’t wired this way, and it’s not just that we can’t see the world the same way, but that even if we could, we couldn’t do much about it… this difference can be hard, especially if people misunderstand the motives and expectations (even for those of us whose biology and environmental upbringing disposes us to being just like it). I don’t care as much about kerning or alignment as dad (but I care more about fonts than most people, statistically speaking). I, like many of his students, trainees, and staff, have endured robust critiques (according to his standards) of work I’ve produced. I’ve given up trying to write a non-run on sentence and adopted all manner of punctuation quirks like semi-colons, em dashes, parentheses, and ellipses in order to avoid comma pedantry… but mostly these bits of who dad is come together for my good, and the good of others. I’m a better writer (and preacher) because of him and this drive for excellence, and this is the testimony of many, many, others. It’d take me a long time to list out the ways these qualities manifest themselves on the ground in dad’s life, but I suspect this would be the testimony of many witnesses… One of the harder things, I suspect, for dad, is that he’s known as a practitioner of ministry when almost all his practice and preaching is driven by a coherent theological framework that is misunderstood (even by me), and I suspect he’d rather have passed on that, than a love for fonts, design, and 22 minute sermons (ask him about Deuteronomy 30, pronouns in Ephesians, and the destruction of the Temple sometime). I love that I’ve always been encouraged to dig deeply and imaginitively into God’s word, and to look for connections that make Jesus richer and more compelling and interesting. Two people I really, deeply, respect have commented to me recently about just how rare this capacity is, and I guess I’ve always taken it for granted as the way things are done.

I suspect it was not just misunderstanding each other, but also my taking dad for granted (and mum too, but it’s not her birthday) that was actually at the heart of our conflicts in my adolescence… but perhaps this is at the heart of the problems in most relationships everywhere, so that’s not all that profound…

This year at church we’ve been looking at Matthew’s Gospel, and at how Jesus is the archetypal epic hero. There’s this literary convention, or observation of how stories work, called ‘The Hero’s Journey’… the hero’s journey starts with a sort of willingness, a call to adventure, a willingness to take on the status quo and to bring change that is necessary and good. There’s a sort of contrarian streak at the heart of the hero, and dad and a bunch of his mates owned and embodied that streak for some time (within the context of our denomination), and they marked it by wearing red socks to the business meetings of the church. It’s interesting now that dad is no longer apart from the system… he ‘is’ the system… to be someone coming into the same system with the same contrarian instincts, but I do love and admire the way that dad has largely managed to be a gracious and generous contrarian with a modelled commitment to the greater good and even the ‘system’ (even when it is frustrating). The status quo of our denomination, as I’ve entered it, is very different now to what it was then, and this is doubtless a result of the work of the red sock brigade, and I want to honour them, even if they’re now the establishment… dad and his mates didn’t just say what the problems were, they created alternatives, they didn’t just throw stones, they created a Christian journal (before the world of the Internet) that went a little bit global, it seems to me that they did this to love and serve others (and to challenge the establishment.

Dad also married up. A great example to me and one I’m thankful I learned from. It shouldn’t be all that special to not be insecure about your wife’s brilliance, and, positively, to make space for that brilliance to shine. In fact, I don’t think it’s that special. I take it for granted. It seems normal. It blows my mind that it isn’t. And that’s another good thing I got from dad (still trying to figure out how that works with small children though).

There’s a line dad used in his induction speech last year, when he became ‘the system,’ or rather ‘the moderator,’ here in Queensland; where he said he hoped that his ministry to date, his life, had been marked and defined by ‘zeal for the Gospel’… it reminded me of the phrase from Psalms that people quote about Jesus in John 2,’zeal for your house will consume me’…that is dad. Consumed (maybe sometimes too comsumed, as I’m discovering as I try to figure out where the ministry role ends and I begin) by the work of the Gospel. There’s not, I don’t think, many idle moments in dad’s brain, many moments where he’s satisfied with what is, rather than driven towards what could be, and particularly when he’s not thinking about how to help more people follow Jesus. I’m thankful for this zeal, perhaps mostly because it is a thing he did pass on. By example and perhaps even deliberately. This Jesus stuff really matters. If it is true (and I believe it is), it’s the best and most important, most precious thing that you can give your children… or to anyone. I’m not sure exactly what worked for me here… but something did, and I’m not sure that there was any great parenting strategy on mum and dad’s behalf, other than perhaps to help us see the cost and to explain why the cost was paid gladly (most of the time).

Something remarkable has been happening in my relationship with dad over the last few years, as I’ve entered the family business, there’s a new sense of respect or recognition, that goes both ways. Maybe I’ve become a real person (I haven’t called dad any names for a few years). Maybe parenting has changed me. Maybe grandparenting has changed dad… but some of my favourite memories don’t come from childhood (though I have lots of good ones), but from the sense of serving in the trenches with the old fella. I remember playing soccer with a bloke in his late 30s or early 40s, back when I was a precocious teen, and I chipped away at him once about when he was going to retire. He said his goal was to play a few games with his son. Dad isn’t really a sports guy, but I think I’m enjoying the sort of thing this other dad was hoping for… one of the things that does blow my mind a bit is that the way dad makes space for mum to be mum is also there in how he now lets me be me… I say some relatively outrageous and provocative stuff when I channel the red sock thing, but I never doubt for a second that dad will be there supporting me, championing some things, listening to others, being proud right back at me. I suspect the older-younger dynamic in systems like the Presbyterian Church that have structured themselves to avoid violent inertia always advantages the ‘older’… you could, if you were ‘the system’ never listen to a younger voice, you could have the sense that your time to be influential has finally come, but dad hasn’t done that with me, and he hasn’t done it with others. He’s spent his time this year encouraging others… especially young blokes planting new churches. Though perhaps again this is the fruit of his labours… if you invest your time in changing the system, and training and equipping  young blokes to love the Gospel (and a 22 minute sermon where the Gospel is clearly communicated), maybe when you listen to them they end up saying stuff you’re happy to listen to… even if they don’t get the significance of Paul’s pronoun use.

What happens when you put all this stuff together in real life, under the sovereignty of God, are some pretty great things, for our family, for the church families dad has been part of, and for the denomination (and beyond)… that again, I’ve taken for granted, or appeared to, but, hey dad! I noticed (I’m sure others have too). Thanks for all of this. I’m proud of you, I love you, and I’m more and more ok with it when people say I’m a bit like you.

Happy 60th birthday dad!*

 

*Oh yeah, dad isn’t 60 for another couple of birthdays, but I thought I’d get in nice and early.

 

 

3 other ways the church can counteract abuse by following Jesus

I’m not a huge fan of the e-magazine Relevant, for a lot of reasons but perhaps because I’m not sure self-description via a name like ‘Relevant’ is the best way to achieve the thing you’re describing. Also, I’m not totally sure that ‘relevant’ is what we are necessarily aiming for as Christians, in terms of our relationship with other views of the world (all of which are derived from other forms of worship). If I was going to run an e-mag I’d call it Plausibly Weird. But that’s neither here nor there, except to say that in keeping with the name Relevant the site has published this piece 3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse, which essentially makes a claim that complementarianism as practiced in evangelical churches is inherently patriarchal and abusive. It seems to be also arguing that the answer to this abuse is egalitarianism.

Now. I want to say that I share many of the concerns of this Relevant article; I’m certain abuse is much more prevalent in the Reformed Evangelical church than it should be (and it’s safe to say that because any cases of abuse in the church are too many). I’m certain that some theological visions which fall within the definition of complementarian theology but are actually misogynistic (so not at all complementary) are used to harm women in our churches. I’m also so uncomfortable with the desire to resolve some paradoxes about the difference and equality of men and women in God’s design for human relationships that I see at work in both complementarian and egalitarian camps as they form around this discussion that I don’t actually want to be identified as either. But I do think complementarians are right to point to the difference between men and women, and to desire that difference be on display in our communities, and I do think egalitarians are right to point to the equality between men and women, and to desire that difference to be on display in our communities. I don’t think many communities nail these desires simultaneously, because we’re bad at living in tension, mystery, or paradox. We want resolution, and often our desire to be relevant shapes how we approach these tensions, but sometimes it’s our desire to be irrelevant (or counter-cultural) that shapes our response too. And the thing about paradoxes is that you can have both. I’ve read quite a few things in the last week or so that are totally uncharitable about complementarianism, equating it with ‘blaspheming against the Holy Spirit,’ and now with abuse. I think it’s fine to suggest complementarianism as it is practiced in our churches can provide cover for abuse, and can be harmful if it isn’t built from the Gospel, and even (as I believe) that it is just as harmful to a paradox at the heart of male-female relationships as egalitarianism (which is also, I think, a well motivated, but often flawed, attempt to articulate how we should live well together as people).

The logic of this Relevant piece is to:

  1. Define abuse as the use of power and control to cause harm.
  2. Define patriarchy as systemically enabled abuse.
  3. Define complementarianism as a form of patriarchy, and so a form of abuse.
  4. Suggests that even if complementarianism is not a form of abuse, it enables it.
  5. Suggests securing equality is the way to prevent abuse.

There are several things I like in the suggestions put forward by the Relevant piece for limiting abuse within the church (especially her second and third points), and it’s worth reading and being challenged by, but I have my own suggestions for how we might fight abuse better. I have grown up around the complementarian scene (though my experience is that healthy complementarianism looks and feels a lot like egalitarianism in most spheres); I do not recognise this scene in the description from the article (though I have seen evidence of this sort of complementarianism, and I’m not going to suggest that just because complementarianism doesn’t look like this, that it’s necessarily the answer, or the right position).

This belief gives men the role of authority over the wife and children, and only allows men to be church leaders. Women are expected to submit unilaterally to men, fathers, husbands, pastors. While many churches who subscribe to this encourage men to sacrificially lead their wives, there is still a power differentiation (emphasis mine). Men are still given the final say, and it still falls on the scale of patriarchy.

Equality alone won’t solve our problems — and the heart of what’s good about complementarianism (what it aims to get right (though it often misses)) is that it realises that equality alone (in an unequal world) isn’t enough; that what is required of men in the church (and for the world) is more than equality; it’s generous service. Equality is about justice; generosity goes beyond justice to love. This is where I think the answer to the problem of abuse in the church is actually found in the bolded sentence above; I want to argue that a properly ‘sacrificial’ relationship (marriage or church) involves a power differentiation; but that differentiation falls in favour of the powerless, not the powerful. The solution is about understanding that sacrifice goes beyond equality; because that’s what we see in the Gospel (it’s also what we don’t see in abuse, or in churches where leadership is about power).

My job as a church leader, and a husband living the Christian story, at least as I see it, is to show my wife and my church that I would lay down my life for them — giving my strength for them — because I actually consider them more valuable than me. This is the burden of Christian leadership. Though they are, in nature, my equals, I’m to give my power for their benefit, to see them flourish. If I don’t want to do that, then my options were a) don’t get married, and b) don’t be appointed as a leader of the church.

If you are a man appointed as a ‘leader’ of the church, I think this is your job too (it’s also the job of anyone who has ‘strength’ or power within the context of the church, so if you’re a woman who leads in any capacity including in churches where women are ordained (ie non-complementarian churches, this is how I think the Bible depicts leadership, and orients us towards power).

1. See Jesus as the model for relating to each other; and the Gospel story as the story our relationships are meant to display

The world teaches us that power is a good thing, and evil or abuse is a twisted application of power; where one party (or group) takes that power and uses it to keep themselves in power. We see this all the time in interpersonal abusive relationships (family violence, etc), but this also happens systemically as people build institutions and processes that serve their own interests.

What we’re told by the world — and what the Relevant piece picks up as wisdom, is that the opposite of power, or abuse, is equality.

Equality is the opposite of power and control, and leaders in the anti-domestic violence movement have long been proponents of equality-based relationships. — Ashley Easter, ‘3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse,‘ Relevant

Equality is certainly better than abuse. But equality isn’t the opposite of abuse. It’s the absence of abuse. It’s the middle; the ‘mean’ between two extreme approaches to power. It’s certainly better than evil, but it’s not necessarily good. The most loving use of power is not simply to give excessive power that you’ve accumulated to others as an act of creating equality (which is important), but also to use whatever power you have left for the sake of others. That’s, for example, what it appears Zaccheus (a powerful and privileged guy, even if he was short and unpopular because of his abuse of power) does when he follows Jesus; he doesn’t just return what he has unjustly accumulated, but is generous with all that he has:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything,I will pay back four times the amount.” — Luke 19:8

If we take the story of Jesus seriously and apply it to our relationships, and to how we approach worldly power, then there’s a much better good than equality — and I’d argue this is to be the good at the heart of our relationships and systems — it should shape how leadership works in Christian relationships (and all the stuff on how these relationships are to be structured in the New Testament are reflections on what it looks like to be Christlike in these relationships).

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus — Philippians 2:1-5

The assumption of equality in our union with Christ drives Paul’s logic in this passage, but the product of this realisation that we are equal is not to pursue systems that are focused on equality; but for us to ‘in humility’ pursue inequality. I think this is particularly the task of those who have power to give up for the sake of others, not so much for those who are already considered, or experience, being beneath others. The pattern here is where the subjugated are raised up precisely because the powerful lift them up.

The world as it is — the status quo — has distributed power to particular groups of people; typically men, typically those who are highly educated, typically from dominant racial and cultural groups within a place, and we often give positions of authority to people who we perceive to be powerful (really, this means people just like me). This presents a bit of a problem in the church if there’s a sense that to be given authority or power is to be invited to lead just like the world leads; via the application of power. The challenge for people like me is not to pursue equality — but to lower myself so that my experience is not equal at all, but one of servanthood. So that I can speak of myself like Paul does as he reflects on what it means to follow the crucified king:

 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

 

2. See Jesus as the model for approaching power and leadership; and so Christianity as a race to the bottom, not a race to the top

The Relevant article argues that doing away with any difference between genders (or rather sex and gender) at the level of roles in church community and in our relationships (egalitarianism) is the way to prevent abuse; it’s certainly a way that might do what it argues, especially in terms of undoing unjust systems (though I think abuse happens when people’s hearts cause them to cling to and wield power). It’s arguably closer to getting the answer right than the alternative it critiques… but I’m not sure it is the only way, given point 1, or the best way to approach power and abuse in relationships where ‘leadership’/headship falls to one gender (and whether that’s the case Biblically is beyond the scope of this piece to demonstrate/unpack).

Inasmuch as I think the Bible asks us to be mindful of the difference in roles (and mindful of equality in personhood)it seems to me that it says in this race to the bottom, Men should aim to get there first on behalf of their wives (so that our marriages reflect something); and so we should lead in sacrificing/serving. And this is true too within the body of Christ — the church — our leaders should be exemplary sacrificers. Servants. Not power-hungry authorities who abuse, or do anything that looks like abuse. We should long for our leaders to be models of the Gospel; examples for all of us. But also, we should all want that of ourselves — the role we’re all called to play in the church is to be imitators of Jesus… and this is what Jesus does with power in the example we’re asked to imitate:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:6-8

It seems to me that this self-sacrifice — this race to the bottom, not the top — if it was displayed by men in marriage and church leadership (well, in all our relationships) would not so much be about equality but about service and love. That’s not to say women can’t also follow this example, they should, but the challenge of leadership is to use whatever the world might consider strength to provide a context in which those the world views as weak can live the lives they were (re)created to live.

I think this would be a better antidote than equality than the one the Relevant piece offers… though I share the concerns the piece raises about the current state of play in some outworkings complementarian theology, which seem to equate leadership with being elevated into a position of power and influence, rather than seeing people placed in a vulnerable position of service/sacrifice.

“Since abuse is motivated by power and control, and patriarchy is a system based on power and control, it is not surprising that abuse is prevalent in these [complementarian] circles. Even writer Jason Meyer from The Gospel Coalition (a mainstream Complementarian parachurch organization) states that Complementarianism asks women to “take the most vulnerable position,” and can “quickly become a dangerous position when [these] views get distorted.”

If it feels like those not leading Christian community, but those being led, are in the most vulnerable position — if it feels like, to use a Biblical metaphor, the sheep are more in danger from the wolves than the shepherd — or that they’re in danger from the shepherd — then something has gone very wrong with our theology and our practice.

If this is how complementarianism is described and understood in its most honest and vulnerable moments, then there is something very wrong with it as a theological system.

Christian leadership imitates Jesus, and as such it is not about power being used for one’s own benefit, but about power being given up in sacrifice for others such that it looks like (or is) the laying down of one’s life for their good. That’s what a shepherd does when confronted with a wolf (though power, at that point, is also used to turn wolves away from the vulnerable sheep, and this is why, I believe, the Bible does conceive of a role in the church for people the world might perceive as strong. To stand between the wolves and the sheep, not to lord their strength over the flock). In a world where abuse happens; and a world where feminism is required because equality doesn’t exist except in theory, we need people who give their worldly strength for the sake of the abused and the vulnerable; not to make the abused and vulnerable feel abused and vulnerable in a different pen.

3. Listen to voices that are excluded by applications of power that look more like worldly power (the sword) than like Jesus (the cross); and make sure they get heard

This is a big role for the powerful in the eyes of the world, not just all of us. We operate in a world where privilege does seem to sit with educated, wealthy, white, men. The insights from feminism and elsewhere about patriarchy and how power forms self-perpetuating systems are worth listening to; but if you’re a white, educated, wealthy man who is used to listening to other people just like you, then you’re going to be blind. And if you’re the people occupying positions that look like the positions of worldly power in our world (and so speaking), you’re going to be the blind leading the blind to more blindness. Power often blinds us to the plight of the oppressed (that’s why privilege has become such a big talking point lately, and why it’s natural for white men in leadership to be suspicious when privilege gets raised as a rhetorical device… privilege is fundamentally about bias, and bias is often unconscious and a product of systems and cultures).

If we never listen to those we’re called to serve and sacrifice our power for; and if we never give their concerns the strength of our voices, we’re not doing anything to fight the system, or doing anything to provide a safe pasture in which those we lead can grow and flourish.

I’m uncomfortable with complementarianism as a system in theory because it seems to emphasise different over equal (and it does this at the level of definition where it says ‘equal but different’ when it could conceivably be expressed and practiced as ‘different and equal’). My own discomfort with how complementarianism plays out in practice, in our churches come from a sense that we tend to get power wrong in ways that do fit the definitions of ‘patriarchy’ because leadership often looks like ‘using power’ in a worldly way. It doesn’t feel like the Gospel is very good news for women in some of the ways I’ve seen headship and male leadership and authority play out in churches when, for example:

  • Our practices exclude and silence the voices of women far beyond the sort of limits Paul seems to have in mind in anything he says about the roles of men and women (Paul seems to, for example, have a place for women prophesying in a church context and we have no place sense of what ‘prophecy’ is apart from a sermon in our particular circle, and yet the sermon is ‘teaching’ and the responsibility of an ‘elder’ and our system has both teaching and eldership as offices held by men, Paul also doesn’t seem to say much about the sort of church governance/decision making stuff that our ‘elders’ in my denomination do in rooms where only men speak and vote)… this exclusion also limits the ability for whoever is speaking too and on behalf of the body in preaching is a man who doesn’t listen to women such that he also speaks for them and their concerns (and this plays out in the way men speak about pastoral stuff like sex, lust, modesty, abuse, work/vocation, etc).
  • We’re not prompted, as Christians, to be leading the fight for the good of women not just inside the church and our structures, but outside the church, but instead we’re told that feminism is a dirty word and a threat to Biblical understandings of sex and gender. Especially when we take what are very limited differences between the roles of men and women in marriage and church (structures that are meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and us, and the cross) and apply those differences to, for example, the question of whether women can have careers that involve ‘authority’ (like teaching in schools, politics, the army, or the police).
  • When women aren’t given space to use their God-given gifts to serve and build up the whole body (because we’ve collectively failed to imagine church gatherings as anything more than an opportunity for the leader to speak and teach with authority, leadership as more than preaching (because of the centrality of Bible teaching (logos) in our evangelical church culture at the expense of communal life and the power of Godly example (ethos), and our limited imagination of what the logos bit is (teaching, not prophecy etc), or life as the church as anything much more than the gathering (so leadership is limited to a role, that is largely visibly exercised by a man for half an hour on a Sunday, and then invisibly most of the time while this man is shut off in his office preparing the sermon)
  • When the women we do hear from publicly in complementarian settings speaking of their ministry roles are usually the wives of a minister who are heard from when they speak at conferences or ‘ministry wives events’ about their role supporting their husbands and being mothers, and figuring out the role of the ministry wife… Many of the times I’ve been present for these moments it feels like listening to someone with Stockholm Syndrome; and no matter how benevolent a captor their husband (or church) is, they’re still a captor; and Christian authority — shepherding — isn’t about keeping sheep captive, but about giving them safety and space to flourish.

Being white and male and educated and in a position of some sort of leadership that the world might recognise as having some sort of responsibility or authority means that I, and others like me, have a voice and a platform; and to some extent the Bible seems to suggest that there is a platform that comes from leadership in the church that is expected of certain men within the church. Being a leader like Jesus, who leads by giving up power means not using this power for self-interest, or as an act of power, but using it for the benefit of others, considering them, through humility, more valuable than myself.

It means seeing the pulpit more like Golgotha than Caesar’s rostrum.

It means seeing my job as one of listening and amplifying the Gospel-driven concerns of the bit of the body of Christ I lead, and so speaking (from my ‘strength’) on behalf of this bit of the body. And this means listening to people who don’t have the power or platform to speak for themselves both in the church community, and in the community-at-large.

It means seeing church as much more than just an event I lead on a Sunday where I’m the ‘main act’, but the main act being an act of the whole body, and the life of the body being much more permanent and all encompassing than the hour the body is gathered around the talk give.

For what it’s worth, I’m a big ‘priesthood of all believers’ guy because I’m big on what Paul says about the body of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 12; there’s nothing I do as a Christian that isn’t a product of me being part of the Body of Christ, and an application of the Spirit’s power — the same Spirit that vivifies and invigorates the rest of the body. No man, or woman, in the church is an island. No leadership is exercised as an individual apart from the body, it is something done for the body, with the body, attached to the body. I also don’t think all leadership comes from holding a position or a specific role; I think we’re all called to lead each other to Christlikeness by our example, as we imitate Christ… but there are roles described in the New Testament that seem to either assume a male is doing this thing, or be explicit that a role is a role, within a particular context, for a man (ie men are ‘husbands’, ‘fathers’ and in 1 Timothy, ‘Elders’).

I don’t think the problem the church faces, when it comes to abuse, is difference, so it follows that I don’t think equality will solve the problem (so I’m not an egalitarian).

The problem is sin.

The problem is a worldly approach to power and strength.

The problem is that I, given the opportunity by birth and circumstance to wield power, or to grasp more power, will, by default, take that opportunity and use it for my own interests and the interests of my ‘system’ or tribe (the people who give me more power, or perpetuate my place in the world).

The problem is that we have normalised the cursed pattern of behaviour from Genesis 3 and haven’t figured out how the Gospel challenges that norm.

The problem when it comes to different roles in the church is that often we approach this leadership as an invitation to wield individual power apart from the body of Christ (the church), rather than as a role we play because we are given responsibility and authority by God and the church as part of the shared life of the body.

Whatever this specifically male role in marriages (Ephesians 5) and the church (1 Timothy 2) looks like it can’t look like the application of worldly power out of self interest, or to abuse others.

 

The answer to the problem is not equality, it’s not better use of worldly power, it’s the Gospel. It’s Jesus. It’s his example. It’s giving up power for the sake of others; not taking it to wield it for your own sense of the good, or for your own good.

It’s leaders and husbands who have the mind of Christ in their relationships; not the mind of Adam.

It’s leaders who follow his example.

This can’t be abusive, or even a non-abusive “benevolent dictatorship” as the Relevant article describes ‘well-intentioned’ complementarianism (unless Jesus is somehow an abusive benevolent dictator)… not all uses of power are inherently abusive; some are loving (when power is given for the sake of others), some are just (when power is used against abusers to end abuse).  Jesus does use power. He does rule, but he rules those who follow him, and he rules by laying down his life, and by taking it up again to judge those who oppress and abuse; including those who claim to be shepherds but turn out to be wolves.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

Pluralism, same sex marriage, and the silencing of the lambs: charting a new way forward for Christians in Australia

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Jesus, Matthew 10

If some of the hyperbole I’m reading online is to be believed, the ‘enemy’ of the Australian church now has a face. And a name. Michael Barnett. His face and name might be familiar to you if you tuned in to the SBS show Living With The Enemy a while back, because he and his now husband, Gregory Storer, spent some time with Sydney Anglican, and fellow blogger, David Ould (I wrote about the show back then). I’ve been chatting online to both Gregory and Michael in the midst of this latest issue, and will feature some of that conversation below. I think rumours of Michael Barnett being the enemy are greatly exaggerated, and I do wonder if we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to how we Christians with traditional views on marriage speak about our views, and what we ask for in our political context.

The situation

Michael Barnett is a campaigner for LGBTIQ rights (not just a same sex marriage campaigner) and has been tweeting in support of a group called Pride In Diversity. Lots of Australian companies have signed up with Pride In Diversity to ensure work places are safe places for members of the LGBTIQ community. The list of companies includes IBM, and Macquarie University, and those companies happen to employ members of the boards of the Australian Christian Lobby and its affiliated training centre the Lachlan Macquarie Institute. Michael has publicly pressured Macquarie and IBM to act according to commitments they’ve made to the Pride In Diversity movement, and this is, in turn, being linked to the Coopers brewhaha (see my reflections here) in a narrative that says, essentially, ‘same sex marriage campaigners (especially activist members of the LGBTIQ communityare out to destroy free speech and religious freedom, the stakes on the marriage debate are higher than the marriage debate’.

I want to say at the outset that I wish we’d get better at talking and listening to each other across the divide on this issue, but that if you view the issue of same sex marriage, and other LGBTIQ rights through the lens of human rights where opposition to change is communicating that LGBTIQ people are sub-human, then I can understand the tactic being employed here with companies who’ve signed up to say they recognise the full humanity of LGBTIQ people. It’s also a shame that Christians in general aren’t better at understanding the position of LGBTIQ people and their desires (and I’m not casting aspersions at the particular individuals caught up in the campaign here, I’ve had some interactions online with Stephen Chavura, and met Lyle Shelton, and while we disagree on this stuff, I believe they do their best to be compassionate and empathetic across this divide). I have, however, been present (both in the flesh and virtually) when Christians have specifically claimed that we do not need to understand the desires of the LGBTIQ community, and I think that’s a terrible indictment on us all. I’m slightly (though not overly) concerned, as a Christian, that there might come a time when holding a traditional view of marriage within the Christian community will be cause for similar action from LGBTIQ rights advocates, and I’m hoping to articulate a middle way that listens to the concerns of LGBTIQ people (including Michael Barnett, see below), but charts a way forward for Christians.

I do think religious freedom is at stake in this debate, free speech even, but I think we (Christians) are actually doing more against these noble common goods than those who are fighting back after years of having their freedom to define marriage according to their own religious beliefs (religious freedom), and to call their relationships marriage (free speech). I’m hoping to demonstrate that this isn’t a disingenuous shifting of the goalposts, but is actually the way we should always have been understanding this issue Biblically.

The ACL’s Lyle Shelton framed the issue this way:

“The message from the activists is clear: if you don’t support our campaign to change the Marriage Act then you have no place in Australian society. The unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian nature of these activists should concern every Australian who wants to be free to believe in marriage.”

I wonder if the words ‘unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian’ could equally be thrown at Christians by members of the LGBTIQ community who are pursuing changes to the Marriage Act? And I wonder if, properly understood as a religious freedom issue, we might not be better off, as Christians, throwing our support in behind changes to the Act in order to preserve our ability to believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I don’t want this to be purely a pragmatic way to respond to what seems to be the inevitable changing of the Act. I don’t want it to be a thing we do because we fear that if, or when, we lose this ‘fight’ we will be facing an ‘uncompromising, totalitarian’ ruling class who want to stamp out our views. The fear driven ‘slippery slope’ rhetoric in this discussion serves nobody, but it is quite possible that having been perceived as uncompromising and totalitarian in our attempts to maintain our position on the definition of marriage at law, those who oppose us will treat us as we’ve treated them (and it’s interesting that the ‘golden rule’ for Christians is not ‘do unto others as they do to you’ but ‘treat others the way you would have them treat you’). I don’t believe we should respond pragmatically — to secure a certain sort of treatment — but rather our response should be driven by a consistent theological position — including a theological understanding of what it means to be human (which is that to be human is to love something ultimately (worship) and be shaped by that love), and this golden rule.

Like Lyle Shelton and Stephen Chavura, because of my Christian convictions, I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, entered into for life, and I believe this because when Jesus spoke about marriage he said:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ — Matthew 19:4

However, unlike Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby, and many other Christians campaigning to maintain this definition of marriage — Jesus’ definition of marriage — in Australian law, I do not think the view Jesus takes on marriage is necessarily the view that should define marriage in Australian society.

I believe that on the whole, people do better if they love Jesus, and order their lives (and their sexuality) around that first love, but I accept that many of my neighbours do not love Jesus above all else, and have that love shape how they live and love. I think we make a positive case for this by living good, and beautiful lives, as a community, amongst our neighbours. We make the most compelling argument for our way of life by living it, and explaining how our lives reflect who Jesus is.

A religious freedom solution in our secular, pluralist, democracy

We talk about religious freedom being at stake in this marriage debate, and yet we refuse to afford religious freedom to our LGBTIQ neighbours when it comes to how marriage is defined in a secular, pluralistic, democracy. This is our context and it’s worth briefly unpacking what each of these words means.

Religious Freedom

On the whole, Christians who advocate for religious freedom — like Freedom for Faith — do a fantastic job of advocating for religious freedom for people who are not Christians; we’re consistent in our advocacy for our Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their freedom to worship, even though we believe they worship a false understanding of God (even if they’re also Abrahamic religions, they worship a God who is not Trinitarian, and deny the divinity of Jesus… much like the Pharisees were participants in ‘man made religion’ once they failed to recognise the divinity of Jesus).

While atheists and other members of our community who do not identify with an organised religion might not consider themselves religious, and so subject to the need for protection of religious freedom, there are a couple of things I think we Christians need to consider.

Firstly, when we talk about religious freedom we all also want freedom from having religious views (including functional atheism)  imposed on us by law, part of religious freedom is freedom from the undue influence of other religions.

Secondly, as Christians, we believe that all people are ultimately worshippers even if they are not participants in an organised religion. This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as atheism, or that atheism itself is a religion (I’ll leave that to David Foster Wallace in This Is Water), rather it is to say that we all love and desire things in ways that allow those loves and desires to shape us (sometimes there’s ‘one thing,’ one ultimate love, other times people are polytheists and love many things that compete, or cooperate). We Christians recognise that this ‘worship’ is a religious belief that shapes the way people approach life, sex, money, work, knowledge… everything really. Including, importantly, how we believe humanity and marriage should be understood and defined.

That LGBTIQ advocates for same sex marriage view this as a human rights issue, and want to define marriage differently is an expression of what Christians should understand as religious views of the world (even if they don’t themselves understand things this way). When Paul does the ‘everybody worships’ thing in Romans 1; when he makes the case that everyone is religious, he says:

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator”

Our own theology makes this a religious freedom issue.

Secular

Secular does not technically mean that our public is free from religious interference, rather it means that there is no state religion that dominates all other religious views. This tends to mean that our law does not favour one religious belief over another, though a way this is commonly understood is that we should keep religious beliefs out of decision making; that we should make decisions on the lowest common denominator for the common good. I’ve suggested that we’d do best if people with religious beliefs acknowledged those beliefs, and the different impacts they have on religious communities, and that the secular state should attempt to make space for these community views to govern interactions in the ‘commons’We should say more often that our view of marriage doesn’t just come from nature, but from Jesus, and it is legitimate for people who believe Jesus is God to follow Jesus’ definition of marriage.

Pluralistic

That we’re pluralistic acknowledges that not only are we secular (with no state religion) but there are many religious views held and communities created by citizens of Australia, and the people who hold these different views can and should expect to be able to practice them in our nation (provided they don’t cause significant harm to other citizens). A pluralist approach to politics makes space for a plurality of views rather than enshrining the views of a majority (or coalition of minorities) over other minorities.

Christians, based on our theology, should be relatively comfortable operating in a pluralistic context. We are free to be pluralists, but not polytheists. The distinction is important. Christians are called to absolute fidelity to the triune God in our worship. We are to organise our loves around our love for God (which is why we’re to love the Lord with all our hearts, then second, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves). We are monotheists. In the Old Testament this monotheism meant there was no place for idols in Israel. Faithfulness meant the utter destruction of other gods in the hearts (and land) of Israel. But we are not in Israel. Australia is not the kingdom of God; the church is.

There’s still no place for idols in our hearts, as the kingdom of God, and we should take the metaphorical sledgehammer to those idols (or perhaps cultivate a love for Jesus that expels other gods and loves from our hearts). And there are implications here for same sex attracted Christians who hold to conservative/traditional theological convictions, just as there are for heterosexual Christians who hold to these convictions. Christians in the New Testament also recognised that the rules for Israel no longer applied — they certainly preached and lived in such a way that they hoped idols and false worship would be shown to be less valuable, good, and beautiful than the true God, true worship, and thus God’s design for humanity and relationships) — but they didn’t take a sledgehammer to other people’s Gods. This is also how the Old Testament prophets seemed to approach the idols of the nations around Israel — using rhetoric to remove the idols of their ‘power’ (like Isaiah 40, which describes how an idol statue is made from the wood that the craftsman then uses to cook his dinner, and offers the analysis that this probably isn’t what a god should be like). When Paul gets to Athens he shows what pluralism looks like for Christians. He seeks to understand the desires of those in the city that lead them to worship things other than God, and then he has a conversation with them. He doesn’t try to legalise Christian worship and make other forms of worship illegal. Christianity — at least theologically, if not always historically — makes space for other religions, and other gods, outside the hearts of those in the church; that’s part of what distinguishes it from other forms of organised religion.

Democracy

The nature of a democracy sometimes feels like it’s a case of majority rules, when we might be best to think of it as we all rule. Democracy does away with monarchy, and it stands in contrast to other forms of government where a powerful autocracy, or to totalitarian regimes where ideological groups or communities rule over people from outside that particular caste. The beauty of democracy is not found in populist politics, but in the way it views each citizen as equal, and in the promise that those who govern govern for all, to protect different minorities and communities not simply to reflect the will of most of the people. That we are secular and pluralistic and that we believe religious freedom and freedom of speech are common goods or human rights reflects that we are also democratic.

The proposed solution

A solution on the marriage equality issue that is democratic, pluralist, secular, and allows freedom of religion is an outcome that should be desirable to all. Sadly it often feels like we Christians want a solution that continues to recognise our beliefs at the expense of the beliefs of others; and we fight for this in ways that are more populist than democratic, and more theocratic than secular or pluralist (even if we predominantly make ‘natural law’ arguments for maintaining a traditional definition of marriage).

There is another way, one that few public Christians and representatives of traditional churches seem prepared to make. We could, as lovers of religious freedom, support changes to the Marriage Act to be more pluralist, secular, and democratic, where we offer our support to changes that recognise other religious beliefs in the common law, but maintain our own approach to marriage as individuals and within our communities. This would mean being free to hold and act according to personal convictions (though probably not in state institutions), while being prepared to let others do the same.

It seems so simple. We could say “I support your right to define marriage as you see fit, and to have that definition recognised in our nation’s laws, while holding my own convictions about what marriage is that are different, but also recognised in our nation’s laws.” We could say that understanding that the LGBTIQ community desires marriage equality for reasons that are essentially religious (as we understand religion), and that this is from a conviction that religious freedom is a good thing. Which is what we keep saying.

I can understand why it’s not simple, or why people don’t seem prepared to make it. Sometimes it’s a result of our historic privilege, and the belief that Australia is a Christian nation (or at least has been at the ‘establishment’ level); though it’s debatable whether this has ever been the case outside the elite, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case now (despite the census data). Privilege is hard to give up, especially for conservatives who tend to see this history as a good thing, and change for change’s sake as a bad thing. Sometimes this opposition is based on a belief about what is good (according to God’s design), and attempt to be loving (even in ignoring the desires of others). I’m not sure this is a feasible option given that Romans 1 says that the loves and desires produced by false worship now shape people because God makes it that way, and I’m not sure it’s truly loving to fail to understand others or offer them the freedom and privilege we enjoy. I’m also fairly sure that many of the reasons people give, like ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ or ‘this will ‘normalise’ something that is not natural (ie children have a mother and a father)’ are the result of people who’ve missed the memo; that these things are already ‘normal’ and that this comes from the bottom up in our society (via culture), and that this ‘new normal’ also seems to come from God in Romans 1. If the Christian framework is true then these are bad arguments that can’t convince, and if the Christian framework is not true then these are bad arguments that won’t convince.

But it won’t work!

One of the things I often hear when I raise this idea is that the campaigners for LGBTIQ rights want more.

That this campaign for marriage (and human rights/equality more generally) is a slippery slope. That “they” hate us and are out to get us. And they are people like Michael and Gregory. This is the thin end of the wedge in some great anti-Christian conspiracy. Now, this might certainly be true for some. But let’s get the golden rule back in the mix; even if it is true, we’re called to love people and treat them as we would have them treat us. It’s also very possible that people like Michael and Gregory intuitively recognise the irony of us Christians calling for ‘religious freedom’ and labelling our opponents as totalitarian, unrelenting, and uncompromising — when we also won’t listen to, make space for, or compromise with their positions, and that this irony is actually something more like hypocrisy, and it does actually cause hurt because it communicates that we actually don’t see the concerns of this community and its desires as fully or equally human to our own.

The objection I hear is that doing this won’t work.

That these campaigners want more and they won’t rest until they get it… despite their consistent statements that they want a particular thing, that they believe is a right according to their understanding of what it means to be human. We do tend to conflate a whole bunch of issues into a narrative (usually a narrative of fear) — and so the 18C stuff (which is about race) gets thrown in the mix here too (although, to be fair, the modern ‘left’ do this with the whole ‘intersectionality’ thing too). Losing some of the privilege we’ve enjoyed via a bad approach to democracy while white, protestant, men have been largely the ones in power is probably going to involve some real pain for us too. But maybe that pain is good, and maybe it’d be less painful if we’d been doing the ‘golden rule’ thing.

Now. One of the ‘golden rule’ things I’d like to try is to actually listen to people and take them at their word. So I asked Michael on Twitter if this sort of ‘pluralist solution’ would work for him. I first had a bunch of replies from Gregory, Michael’s husband, on Twitter, which he has given me permission to quote here, and then I had an email exchange with Michael. It seems to me that they (as in these two individuals, not the entire LGBTIQ community) would be happy with such a solution, and that Michael’s campaign is not about silencing Christians, but rather about securing the sort of equal rights that Pride In Diversity allied companies sign up for… and maybe the sort of equal rights they’re asking for actually do line up with our desire for religious freedom, and freedom of speech, and we need to start practicing what we preach.

I outlined the position I’ve gone into in more depth above in an email to him, and his response included these words (if they aren’t totally representative of how he’d respond to all these extra words here, he’ll have right of reply in the comments, and I’ll be sending this to both Michael and Gregory):

“Thanks for your thoughts.  I appreciate your thoughtfulness. This is how the story goes from my perspective. I just want to get on with my life, but since beyond 2004 I’ve been trying really hard to overcome the discrimination LGBTIQ people face in society, mostly because of the impact of the ACL and their supporters… I don’t want to take down the ACL and LMI boards but when Lyle Shelton names me in his blogs I feel I have no choice but to explore those possibilities.” — Michael Barnett

I had a longer back and forth with Gregory on Twitter.

Me: If I’m happy for people to live freely/for secular laws to govern all, does this satisfy goals?

Gregory: I’m not an expert on the requirements…

Gregory: It certainly is the ideal situation for all.

Me: Can a Christian hold traditional views within the church/progressive views outside the church & not be a hater?

Gregory: of course, I know lots of them

Me: If Christians were better at a ‘generous pluralism’ understanding the LGBTIQ community’s desires and limits of our ‘moral frame,’ and so were ok with SSM etc…Would it be appropriate for such Christians to hold public positions in ally organisations?

Gregory: They already do.

Me: cause the ‘enemy’ narrative is: once we lose this, we lose ‘everything’ and that there is no public place for us.

Gregory: “That is not true and not the case.”

Gregory: “There is no reason why people can’t live together in harmony.

Now. You, Christian reader, might not be prepared to take Michael and Gregory at their word, or might not be prepared to see them as representative of the whole (unless they’re the ‘villains’ who are out to get us). But I’m, because of the ‘golden rule’ going to take their words on faith, and believe that a generous pluralism is the way to go on the question of the definition of marriage and religious freedom. So I’m going to approach this latest kerfuffle as it is; not a reason to be hysterical about the future for those who hold traditional marriage, not a reason to jump on the bandwagon with Andrew Bolt and other commentators who want to use it to fuel outrage and division in the Australian community; but as an opportunity for us Christians to consider how we might better practice what we preach on religious freedom, and how we might be good neighbours in our secular, pluralist, democracy.

The _____ captivity of the church

Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart

Freedom.

Religious freedom.

Freedom of speech.

It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.

The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.

We’re captives.

We’re political captives.

We’re economic captives.

We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.

We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.

But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).

We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.

Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.

Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.

Freedom.

Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’  empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.

We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.

But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.

If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).

There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:

“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”

The Babylonian captivity of Israel

When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.

They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.

They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.

There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…

 When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5

The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.

“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27

Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.

 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28

The first Babylonian captivity of the Church

The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:

The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6

This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…

“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18

For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.

Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.

An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.

When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:

Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54

This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.

… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7 

The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.

But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).

The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church

Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.

The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.

Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…

“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?

You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.

It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”

This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.

Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)

I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).

I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).

It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.

If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.

This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome)but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.

This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).

This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).

This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).

This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising

This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.

This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitary brains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.

This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’…  There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.

Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.

When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…

“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment,  “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”

In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.

“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”

7 Types of speech that are more important than free speech for a civil society (and 2 for our role in it as Christians)

We’re told free speech is dead. And that the Coopers fiasco killed it (or revealed it to be dead, but let’s not get technical when making hyperbolic and overreaching claims).

But I don’t buy it. What we’re seeing in the rise of boycotts, no platforming, protests, and online outrage are exercises of free speech. Effective ones. So loud they drown out other positions.

Civil discourse relies on more than just free speech. Free speech means, essentially, that I am able to cover my ears and yell ‘la, la, la’ when I don’t like what you are saying. My children often exercise free speech in our household, and that doesn’t make for a more civil domestic situation.

Image: If there’s one guy who knows the cost of ‘free speech’ it’s Cicero. Who was executed and whose tongue was nailed to the rostra in the Roman forum, because of a series of speeches he wrote against Mark Antony. This painting depicts his arrest.

When we overreach in response to speech we don’t like what we’re revealing is just how good we’ve had it for so long. Our ideas; our positions; as Christians, have been the default. And it turns out they’ve been costly for people who don’t share them. And it turns out that part of the age we live in is that ideas are contested now. There are no sacred cows anymore. There are no ‘defaults’… at the moment it feels like the loudest voices are the ones that are winning, and we’re in trouble because we’ve been the loudest, freest voice for so long (did you know, for example, that the Bible Society is Australia’s oldest institution), and people are tired not just of listening to us, but of the way we exercise our freedom to speak without exercising a bunch of other civic virtues.

Free speech won’t, and can’t, secure a civil society. It’s part of it. But I’d argue a civil society is not where everyone yells at the top of their voices and the loudest voice wins; it’s one where all voices are listened to, and as many as possible are accommodated into the way it operates. This is what I mean when I use the word ‘pluralism’ — not that every voice is treated as true, but that every voice is listened to, and where the convictions are coherent, robust, and freely form a community of people within our society, those voices should be accommodated. Because that’s just — if I expect my views, and my community, to be accommodated, then I should extend that to others.

Seven types of speech more important than free speech for a civil society

Here’s a bunch of types of speech, built on the bedrock of free speech, that we need for a civil society. I’d suggest that free speech isn’t actually dead. What’s dead is a common commitment to these concepts as virtues, and it’s a mistake to lump them in all together to claim ‘free speech is over’… Most of these ‘types’ are explained with reference to how you get there from the Bible (cause most of the people who read this will be Christian, probably), but I think they’re pretty basic virtues for a civil society apart from Christianity too; it’s not that we’ve got a monopoly on civility, we do, however, have no excuse to be uncivil because it just doesn’t mesh with who we are as people who follow Jesus.

1/ Slow speech

Were you shocked by how many people talking about the Coopers stuff hadn’t even watched the video that started it (from both sides). One of the pubs boycotting Coopers admitted that they hadn’t watched it, but they were still prepared to grab the metaphorical pitchfork and head towards the large burning beer bottle.

We love a good hot take. A call to arms. The idea that our words might make a difference. Social media and clicktivism feed this. We feel like we’ve done something by clicking a link, or a virtual petition. We especially love hot takes that come from people we trust; from our ‘camp’… that’s why fake news has become so powerful, it’s always aligned to an ideology, and people like to be fed stuff that tells us what we already think. Algorithm driven social media platforms like Facebook feed this because they calculate what to serve up to us based on a growing sense of what we’re interested in. They feed us according to our self-interest. And that becomes a bit of a shortcut. Talk isn’t just cheap online; it costs nothing once you’ve got an internet connection. Media has been ‘democratised’… you’re a publisher. And we don’t just love a good hot take, we love being the first to share it in our circles, we love the likes and the acclamation (like old media loves good circulation numbers)… We also have FOMO (the fear of missing out). If there’s a bandwagon and it’s rolling and turning into some sort of juggernaut, we don’t want to miss out. So we don’t really have time to read and digest things (even the stuff we agree with, let alone other opinions), we just share stuff that we think lines up with some fundamental convictions about the world.

Ironically, the verse from James (in the Bible) that was used in that video is a good circuit breaker for outrage (with additional principles for ‘civil society’ for Christians).

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. — James 1:19-20

Just a few verses later, James also says:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” — James 1:26-27

2/ Loving speech

It’s pretty self-evident that you can use free speech to be a total jerk. And a bunch of people doing that makes society uncivil, not civil. Some of the points that follow are expanding on the idea that our speech should be loving if we want it to be worthwhile. Indeed, many of them are expanding on this verse.

 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. — Ephesians 4:15

The literal sense of the Greek word translated  ‘speaking the truth’ is ‘truthing in love…’ — there’s more than just speech in view. It certainly includes speech, and where Paul goes next in his argument talks about the types of speech that lead to a civil community (at this point he’s looking at the church). He says:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. — Ephesians 4:29-32

It’s not good enough just to have free speech, if we want a civil society our speech also needs to be loving.

This is all well and good within a community where identity is shared, and reinforced, as we speak to one another. But it should also frame how we speak with people outside our communities. We’ve too often traded loving speech for malicious speech (and by we I mean everyone, not just Christians), and that is a vicious cycle. A cycle of vice. A reinforcing feedback loop.

3/ Understanding speech

The sort of speech a civil society requires involves understanding one another. This carries a few things with it… it involves listening to others, it involves interpreting with charity so that when you respond, you’re actually understanding what the other person is saying, thinking, desiring, and experiencing. This involves cultivating empathy, and listening hard to people who disagree with us. It involves speaking with clarity, when we do speak, so that we to are understood — even if when we are understood people disagree with us still.

It’s very possible that we will never be understood; that the people we are speaking to will not be committed to this idea. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing this ideal.

I think Jesus models this over and over again, in every conversation. He understands the pharisees, and the traps they’re trying to catch him in, and the state of their hearts, and where the story is going. He also understands the people he heals, protects, calls, and saves. He understands the deep desires that the woman at the well has, and why she’s at the well by herself in the heat of the day, and what she’s looking for in her relationships with the men of the town. He understands why the prostitute who washes his feet with perfume, tears, and her hair, is doing what she is doing. He understands what is happening at his trial, and how Pilate wants an easy out, and he doesn’t give it to him.

But I’m not Jesus. Lots of his understanding comes from unspoken stuff and the ability to pierce the hearts and minds of others… I don’t have that. I think we can be a bit more like Paul, who observes the rhythms of a city, listens to its people, reads the philosophers and poets underpinning the society, and speaks in a way that shows he knows what is going down… he gets laughed at by most, but he has done the work of understanding Athens before he opens his mouth in Acts 17 (and in other moments like when he’s on trial).

4/ Space-giving speech

There’s been a whole lot of boycotting and no-platforming going on lately. Especially in universities. We’ve decided that one of the best ways to use free speech is to stop other people speaking as our own speech-act. And we’ve realised that it’s more efficient to simply close down opportunities for people to speak from platforms we control, than it is to shout over the top of them. To no platform someone is to make a statement about the value of what they say, as we perceive it. It’s an act of speech but not an act of understanding.

Churches have been doing this for years. We have a platform. It’s often called a pulpit. We also have buildings. Most churches I know have policies about who they’ll let into the pulpit, and most churches I know who own buildings have limitations on the sorts of people they’ll allow to hire the venue and the activities that happen there. This is free speech — and it’s fine for us when it’s stuff we control… so I’m not sure we are in a position to make loud angry noises when our access to spaces we don’t control is cut off.

People who have websites/blogs do this too. I have a comment policy. I limit spam (though that is a form of free speech), and once or twice I’ve blocked comments I thought were malicious or slanderous. We also, rightly, have censorship laws, defamation laws, and other ways that we limit free speech for the good of the general population.

If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to carving out space (physical and virtual) to speak from. It might be that it has been a bad strategic move for so many churches to now meet in space they do not own. One of the benefits of a freeish public square (especially a public square not controlled by the state) has been that the need for ‘temples’ for various ideas has dropped. We don’t need space for every club or society if they can hire a room at the library, or book the town hall… one of the costs of a fragmenting society will be a return to those sorts of ‘temples’ for different associations (including churches). That will be a financial cost, but it will also come at the cost of space being public and porous. People will have to decide to go into a ‘temple’ — a non-public space — and the people who are part of those temples will have to decide to leave and to listen to other ideas. Temples will become bunkers (except for polytheists). Churches could become bunkers too.

And when you get ‘bunkers’ you get stuff like fake news, and echo chambers, and a lack of empathy and understanding for the other. You stop getting a ‘civil society’ and start getting a tribal one.

I think we need to go further though. If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to giving space to people who don’t share ideas, definitely in common places like universities and public venues (and arguably within laws and legal structures and how we define words like marriage). This is where the pluralism stuff really kicks in. We need ways to be different and clear in our speaking so that we might be understood, but we also need space for other people to speak too.This is why I loved this idea from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics guru Scott Stephens:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.”

And why I think we should stop spending so much time as Christians building web space (TGC, Thinking Of God, etc) and physical space (church buildings with exclusive use policies) that reinforce the bubble. And start being generous space givers to other ideas, confident that truth wins, and our truth is true. This doesn’t always work. The podcast from the US called The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea shows that when other people aren’t committed to the same sort of civil society they’ll do their best to shut you down. But you don’t fight incivility with more incivility. And you don’t go into public space as Christians expecting anything other than crucifixion.

5/ Ethical speech

For speech to contribute something valuable to civil society it has to have a more civil society as its end; not just the self-interest of the speaker. Back when people were figuring out the power of human speech to persuade, and what limits should be put on that power if unscrupulous speakers were running around manipulating people by being super-persuasive, there was lots of ink spilled by philosophers and orators like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian on how to control the power of free speech for the good of society. There were lots of speakers who were great with words and fancy arguments (logos), that stirred the emotions (pathos), and moved people through fine sounding arguments to hold positions that weren’t good for them (but usually beneficial for the orator or whoever was paying the orator). The pen — or word — really was mightier than the sword.

These philosophers valued integrity, character, and virtue — and the sense that ideal speech both comes out of an ideal, virtuous, person, and shapes an ideal, virtuous, society. They often also wrote books on politics, and ethics, and oratory was the path to their vision of the good, well-ordered, ethical society. This worked best if they embodied the picture of the good, well ordered, society, and that created a sort of obligation underpinning speech. Speech wasn’t just ‘free’ — it wasn’t enough just to use flashy words that excited people and evoked an emotional response (though that is part of oratory) the control was your ethics. You didn’t just need free speech and the free exchange of ideas to produce a civil society. You needed speech shaped by action that shaped actions. You needed ethos. Character. You speech needed to line up with your actions, or pull you towards certain future actions if you were talking about a wrong you had noticed in yourself or others.

We’ve always, as humans, hated hypocrisy. And a civil society is one where people’s actions and words line up. Where our words oblige us to a certain sort of action. Where we say ‘tolerance’ and mean it. The apostle John puts the relationship with words and actions like this (and, on the whole, in this letter is making the case that our actions, and the experience of God’s love in them reinforces our speaking about the Gospel so that we can believe).

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

6/ Costly speech

This ethical speech idea underpins the idea that speech should actually be costly. Talk should never be so cheap that it doesn’t also involve action. You are the medium for your message. If we are ‘worshippers’ you are actually the medium for the gods we worship (be it sex, or Jesus, or any other thing we love ultimately). We are the model ‘citizens’ of the civil society we hope to see our neighbours live in (whether or not they worship the same thing as us).

The catch is, for Christians, our God is a crucified God. The message we speak is one that says love looks like self-sacrifice, but also that this way of living, exclusively, is the path to the true God. And people aren’t always going to like that. And, just as they killed Jesus for saying that other gods and kings (and god-kings, like Caesar) were false and that belief in them is totally permissible, but foolish, people will probably want to crucify us, even if we get our approach to speaking totally right. Aiming for a civil society doesn’t guarantee one, cause the barbarian impulse is strong in all of us. We do want, as humans, to tear down other societies when they do threaten us, or when we feel like they do.

As Christians the cost of living out our message — incarnating it, even — is that we’ll probably end up like Jesus. Or, as this quote I love puts it:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

I expect to be crucified — whether that’s laughed at, excluded, or anything up to execution, the goal of loving, costly, ethical, understanding speech for me is not just that in doing so I’ll definitely persuade everyone (though hopefully it’ll persuade some). My goal is that something like what happened at the cross will happen. That the person, or people, responsible for my pain, will, in inflicting it, see something true about what I’m saying and wrong about what they’re doing. That they’ll have a centurion moment.

My optimism is simply that God works through weakness and crucifixion. Which is the same optimism Paul brought to Corinth, a city obsessed with uncostly, unethical speech. Corinth loved flashy, substanceless, oratory that made them feel good about themselves and never questioned the status quo. Paul brought the message of the cross. In word, deed, and posture. And then wrote stuff to the Corinthians about their expectations (and his), stuff like:

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” — 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

And:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

His goal in doing this in Athens, where he was mocked (but some were saved), and in Corinth, where even people in the church thought he could’ve been a more impressive speaker, was that in ‘becoming all things to all people,’ even a slave, he might win some to the truth.

Society more generally would be better, I think, if people weren’t hypocrites but were committed to the idea that our words create obligation. It’d bring an end to clicktivism, and we might see Kony in chains, research for motoneuron disease fully funded, and a bunch of other substantial changes in the world around us.

 

7/ True speech

A civil society is built around a shared pursuit of truth. That’s why civil societies have libraries, universities, and education systems. These often become weaponised in ideological wars. But truth matters. Pursuing it matters. Listening for it is a good thing.

One of the biggest problems with the idea that free speech is what really matters is that it’s exactly the line used by perpetuators of fake news, or people who are spreading untruths who have that brought into question (think the anti-vax movement).

True speech is better than free speech, and more costly. It costs time, attention, energy, listening, wisdom, critical self-reflection, awareness of bias (and privilege), observations of structural, cultural, and individual power at work in our truth-seeking institutions, and a bunch of stuff most of us just can’t be bothered with.

People like Augustine, ages ago, recognised that all truth is God’s truth, and his vision of a civil society, built from his confidence that the Gospel is true, meant he really valued education. And his writing, and practice, on education has shaped much of the way the church has been, historically, involved in providing a liberal arts (wide) education to as many people as possible, not just a theological education. Maybe it’s time we rediscovered this  — first the value of knowing about things beyond just what will get us a job and beyond the things we think simply because of our prior convictions (theological or a-theological), and then the value of getting the sort of education that threatens us and gets us to read beyond our circles.

Two types of speech for Christians within our society

These are all more important for a truly civil society than just free speech, free speech is like a gun. You can give it to people, but unless you model how to use it, it’s dangerous.

1/ Prayerful speech

It’s not just opening our mouths and speaking to the world that should create in us a sense of obligation, and reflect our ethic (how we live). Prayer does this too, but ‘vertically’ not just horizontally. Christians who are worried about our place in the world need to keep reminding ourselves whose world it really is, and whose we really are. And we do that through prayer. Prayer reminds us that God is real, and as we pray that his kingdom might come (because his king has come and the kingdom is launched in the church), that shapes a particular way of living for us. Prayer is a vital part of how we’re going to go about creating a more civil society in the church. A society that models something different and compelling to the world around us.

If we think we’ve got it bad, Paul says:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. — 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

And he says something similar reflecting on his situation where the state has put him in prison for his faith…

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” — Ephesians 6:18-20

Without ceasing… continually. We’d be better users of speech in the public square if we were doing more of this I reckon… Also. If we want to speak meaningfully into the public square, it pays to keep Paul’s advice at the front of our minds too. The government he’s asking for prayer for is a hostile government… ours isn’t that yet, but it could be, and even if it is… this is the sort of speech he urges us towards.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-4

2/ Gospel speech

Oh great, you’re thinking, here’s the Jesus bit. I’ve been banging this drum for a while, but the reason to do all nine types of ‘civil’ speech outlined here is that we are citizens of a very different kind of civil society; a society built by the good news of Jesus — a message we heard about God’s great love for us despite our unloveliness. A society that ‘truthing in loves’ that good news to the people around us; in word and deed. The Gospel is the thing that should be shaping our ethos and our logos and our pathos. The words we speak, the lives we live, and the things we feel (like how we deal with fear and the threat of a changing world) all display what we think the Gospel (the good news) is. We all become the medium for what we think is true about the world, God, and life in the world.

If we live and speak the Gospel coherently it encourages people who already believe the Gospel to keep on keeping on, even in the face of danger and adversity. This is part of why Paul’s life — and chains — are actually an encouragement, rather than a discouragement, to the church. We serve a crucified king, and God’s power is displayed in weakness and its critique of uncivil, barbarous, societies.

The Gospel is good news because the society it creates is not exclusive in the way all other ‘gospels’ are. Think about what the average Aussie thinks ‘the good life’ looks like, and then ask how accessible that vision is for the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the refugee, the broken, the depressed, the fragile, the homeless, the uneducated, the addicted… the Gospel is actually good news for lots of people in our world, even if the elite in our society want to paint it as a terrible and oppressive thing. Their visions of the good life are terrible and depressing.We have the words of eternal life, that create a civil society that is life bringing and inclusive. Words that create love, forgiveness, and mercy for our neighbours, fellow Christians, and even our enemies; not words that create outrage, boycotts, hate speech and lynch mobs.

Things feel like they’re really bad… the sort of bad Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 3-4. And I’m just going to leave this here… because it has what Paul suggests is how we should respond to this sort of world; the sort of speech we should be exercising.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth… 

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. — 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 10-4:5