the reformation

Questioning identity (including the idea of ‘identity in Christ’)

There’s been a thread running through some of my recent posts that’s maybe not simply a thread, maybe it’s an elephant worth naming. And patting. And seeing if we can teach it to sit and let us give it a good scratch behind the ears.

I don’t believe ‘identity’ is a coherent category for Christians to use; not in politics, or in theology.

I don’t think it’s a category you find in the Bible, and I think when we shoehorn Biblical categories into this ill-fitting modern boot, we end up with terrible pus-filled blisters, and ultimately, deformed feet.

I think we should stop. And here’s why.

I think the Bible has an utterly different concept of personhood — both in terms of who we were made to be in relationship with God, and with what personal choice and the things we might ‘identify’ as indicate about us as people. I think the word is freighted with too much baggage to be a useful word if ‘identity’ is being used either descriptively (ie drawing an analogy between its use in popular psyhcological/sociological/political thought), or prescriptively (ie seeing those psychological/social/political concepts mapping on cleanly to a Biblical anthropology such that the word is something real and fundamental to our theological schema).

When we talk about ‘identity in Christ’ we’re talking about an act of ‘self-definition’ in Jesus, an enshrining of my own personal decision making and my decision to ground my sense of self in Jesus; this might be experientially true, but I’m not sure, for Reformed types, that it is theologically coherent to speak in these terms, and I think it comes with a whole anthropology that, appears to be a fruit of the Reformation but is actually a fruit of Renaissance Humanism (which in turn, influenced the Reformation). I suspect we’re better off talking about personhood as something given and received — even given by false gods — than something self-defined, grasped, activated, realised and performed as an autonomous action.

This might be oddly pedantic for someone who keeps saying that words have a descriptive function, not just a prescriptive one, and maybe we can fight the good fight to reclaim the word “identity” as something given to us by God, or reflective of heavenly, spiritual realities here on earth, not just a thing I self-determine as I project and perform my autonomous self-understanding and desires into the world… but if we’re going to have that contest we need to know we’re having it, and what we’re up against —  what’s ironic is the same people who reject using ‘gay’ as part of an identity statement for a Christian, because of the way it is understood by the average punter, is that they don’t apply the same standard to the word ‘identity’… There’s a whole other compelling argument, made at Mere Orthodoxy, that when we use ‘identity in Christ’ language we do that in a way that can eradicate a whole swathe of creaturely things that are good and God given as part of our personhood in the process, especially when that becomes a totalising weapon used to stop people making identity claims we don’t like (for eg ‘gay Christian’).

I know I’m unlikely to convince many people. But here are some of my thoughts.

The concept of identity is very closely linked to the concept of individuality. The need to define ‘who I am,’ let alone the need to have my answer to that question recognised and legitimised by society and the state (via laws or ‘identity politics’) is a relatively new concept. Previously you knew who you were because that reality was given to you by God, or the gods, or your nation’s god-ordained political system/structure.

The concept of the individual is both new, and humanist. That is to say, it emerged as society sought to decouple our understanding of the self from God and a cosmic order. When I say ‘new’ I mean in the scheme of human history, not relative to my lifetime. It’s new in that we had a really long time, including the periods in which the Old and New Testaments were composed, where people did not think of themselves as ‘individuals’ at all, but rather, as belonging to a series of systems — family, clan, tribe, nation, etc. In 1860, in a chapter ‘The Development of the Individual‘ in a book on Renaissance history, Jacob Burckhardt, a historian, traced the development of ‘the individual’ as a concept, to the start of the renaissance period in Italy. He said:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness — that which was turned within as that which was turned without — lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognised himself as such.

This ‘veil’ was, in some ways, the idea of a divinely ordered social structure that you were born into, that meant your position in the world, in this system, was given as part of God’s providential design. Now. Maybe some liberation from those structures is good and necessary (and we’ve all benefited), but it’s possible there’s a baby and bathwater situation going on here, because it didn’t take long, once this veil was removed, for us to get quite comfortable not just with the idea that God didn’t have designs for how I lived in my private life, or what I spent my leisure time on, or where I worked, but with the idea that God didn’t have designs for me at all — or, indeed, that God was not in the picture. This sort of humanism is a necessary precursor for the deism that then developed (the idea that God is not actively, or providentially, involved in creation at all — but is distant, having made the universe and then left it to its own devices), and deism was necessary for atheism.

Burckhardt talks about how, at first, this individualism didn’t rock the political system too much; people were content to have private individual freedom, without engaging in conspiracy or revolution. He says “political impotence does not hinder the different tendencies and manifestations of private life from thriving in the fullest vigour and variety. Wealth and culture, so far as display and rivalry were not forbidden to them, a municipal freedom which did not cease to be considerable, and a Church which, unlike that of the Byzantine or of the Mohammedan world, was not identical with the State — all these conditions undoubtedly favoured the growth of individual thought, for which the necessary leisure was furnished by the cessation of party conflicts. The private man, indifferent to politics, and busied partly with serious pursuits, partly with the interests of a dilettante, seems to have been first fully formed in these despotisms of the fourteenth century.”

Now, Burckhardt is writing a sort of ‘history of ideas’ a few hundred years removed from the period he’s describing, writing from a world shaped by the individualism he describes here, and its development through the renaissance, the Reformation, and the enlightenment.

The Renaissance produced ‘humanism’ as a philosophical outlook, this was a product both of the development of the idea of a ‘self,’ and the beginning of a departure from the idea that all positions in society represented a divinely ordained hierarchy. Humanism was, in particular, a product of the empowerment of the lay person rather than the clergy, and so reflected ‘non-church’ or non theological concerns. There are many good things about this move, and yet, the same move involved pushing God to the margins — to the ‘sacred’ space, carving out a ‘secular’ where God was not operating. Humanism was concerned with ‘individuals’ rather than a cosmic ordering of reality, or a system that people were born into.

Humanism eventually produced two lawyers who would reform the church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin (three if you count Erasmus). There’s lots to love about what Luther and Calvin brought to the church — both as lawyers who recognised truths about the Gospel that maybe only a lawyer could recognise, but also as humanists; and the church today would benefit if more people dug deeply into their thinking. But neither Calvin or Luther were infallibly objective commentators, the Reformation has the fingerprints of both humanism and the work of lawyers all over it. Again, these are not bad things where these perspectives gave access to truths about God that had otherwise been missed, but, they do freight in ideas from the Renaissance, and from humanism, that might obscure certain truths if these ideas aren’t held in tension. Like all of us, they brought their personhood into the task of understanding God, and his word.

One additional change brought about by the Reformation, as an implication of the sort of politics required to ‘consciously decouple’ the Catholic Church from state power, was a further breaking down of the idea that all monarchs (and priests) were appointed by God in a reflection of the divine order. The Reformation was another nail in the coffin of the medieval (or more ancient) conception of the world — where kings (and church priests) ruled by divine right and were part of the ordering of society. Luther had a much broader vision of God’s providence in his ‘priesthood of all believers,’ perhaps best expressed in his Letter to the Nobility. Luther didn’t want to so much do away with God’s providential ordering of society — he wanted to broaden it, so that the work of all members of the body of Christ, the church, were appointed by God to play a role in the divine order, and, ideally, all people would find life and their purpose — their true humanity — in Jesus. Luther wanted the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ — or the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ to be much more overlapping than the church of his day did — he didn’t want the Spiritual removed from the picture all together. He says:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

And, describes his ‘priesthood of all believers’ — “Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood,” before saying “From all this it follows that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of “estate”; for they are all of the same estate, — true priests, bishops and popes, — though they are not all engaged in the same work, just as all priests and monks have not the same work. This is the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:4 and I Corinthians 12:12, and of St. Peter in I Peter 2:9, as I have said above, viz., that we are all one body of Christ, the Head, all members one of another. Christ has not two different bodies, one “temporal ,” the other “spiritual.” He is one Head, and He has One body.” 

Now, this might all feel a bit repetitive, but the point of the repetition here is that while the Reformation often gets blamed for kickstarting individualism, or discovering that it is a theological truth — like ‘identity’ — that comes when you do away with the old spiritual ordering of the universe, like the Renaissance did, or humanism attempts to, Luther actually had a different picture that wasn’t about individuality, but about being called to an office within a body — whether the spiritual body, or the community. While he elevates all individuals to ‘the priesthood’ (or lowers ‘priesthood’ to ‘the normal’), he doesn’t champion a sort of autonomous ‘define your self with no rules’ approach to life, or give us the building blocks to spiritualise personal identity, he invites us to be people-in-community (or in a system). Luther said all our work, within our vocations either in the ‘temporal’ or ‘spiritual’ realms are meant to be contributions to the health of our body — and he doesn’t just mean our own person… he said: “A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

So, to be clear, I think Luther is right — and that the proper re-ordering of the disconnect between the clerical rule of pre-Renaissance Europe and the everyday human was to not create a secular/sacred divide, where the clerics ruled the sacred space but kept their hands off the secular, but a ‘priesthood of all believers’ that held the sacred and secular together, and saw human dignity and value as things given by God along with the call for us to operate in community in ways that reflect heavenly realities. This isn’t to say the humanism of the Reformation did not, at the same time, impact its understanding of the Gospel (for good and for ill). In his landmark essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,’ (a seminal text in the movement now called ‘the new perspective’), Krister Stendahl suggests that the Reformers in general, and Luther in particular, brought their modern, western perspectives (humanist concerns even) to a pre-modern (pre-individual) text.

What’s interesting about Stendahl’s paper is that he suggests a key difference between modern readings of Paul, and perhaps Paul’s own thought world, is that with the rise of ‘the individual’ as a construct, our understanding of our selves, or our identity, or our personhood — what it means to be human — becomes not an act of knowing God and understanding our calling in the created order (and so knowing nature as well), but introspection. When we overlay our method of processing the world onto Paul’s, when that processing of the world is reasonably novel, we end up reading Paul through our own eyes. This is the heart of the ‘new perspective’ as a theological movement — and, you can take or leave its conclusions, but its starting point — acknowledging that modern people think (and so interpret) differently to ancient people seems like a sound starting point.

Stendahl offered an alternative reading of Paul’s writing that challenges, but doesn’t totally overturn, the supremacy of the individual in a particular Reformation schema. This is to say that there is an element of the Gospel that relates to an individual’s position before God, and, at the same time, a corporate or communal aspect of the Gospel that is thoroughly integrated with the individual person. Stendahl says:

“Thus even justification by faith, important though we have seen it to be, must be subsumed in the wider context of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, part of God’s plan for his creation. Or perhaps we should say it this way. Paul’s thoughts about justification were triggered by the issues of divisions and identities in a pluralistic and torn world, not primarily by the inner tensions of individual souls and conscience. His searching eyes focused on the unity and the God-willed diversity of humankind, yes, of the whole creation.”

Stendahl’s contention here is that inasmuch as Paul is interested in ‘identity’ it’s about a communal identity found in Christ; rather than in being Jewish or Gentile. That we find who we are as people in communion (or union) with Jesus, rather than through introspection and the pursuit of an authentic expression of an individuated self.

In his conclusion, he says, that when we as readers are conscious of our tendency to impose our own views on the text, and tried to step back, we can observe the way western thought has developed — both theologically, climaxing with Luther, and in the secular frame climaxing with Freud, and then ask whether this trajectory is a valid and glorious one, building on seeds planted in the New Testament, or we can try to strip back those assumptions and understand what the text is saying (or try to do both). There’s almost an invitation in Stendahl to either read the Bible ‘westernotelically’ — where God’s intention was to develop the liberated (liberal) western human, through the intervention of Jesus in the world, or to read it ‘Christotelically,’ and then to keep looking back to the Jesus who arrived in the first century world, understanding the Scriptures as deeply connected to his life, and mission, and our life being caught up in his. Where you land on this question will impact how legitimate the concept of ‘individualism’ or even ‘identity’ is for Christians engaging in theology in the modern world.

Stendahl critiques the Protestant tendency, in individualising the function of the Gospel, to individualise the function of the Old Testament law, such that it exists to teach us how to live morally and so convict our conscience and show us our need for Jesus, but also give us instruction after we trust him (so that gentiles are under the law), and instead suggests we should read the law as a necessary part of the history that leads us to Jesus. Stendahl explores a debate on the translation of παιδαγωγὸς (paidogogos) in Galatians 3:24 in various modern english Bibles as ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘custodian’ and the theological significance of those choices in terms of what gets freighted in to our understanding of the function of the law, he suggests the law is best understood as occupying a holding position for the Jews until their true teacher and king, Jesus, arrived. , understanding that we, as Gentiles, are not under the law, but are united with our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Luther might actually agree with lots of Stendahl’s observations, if not his conclusions. I think Luther gets misread pretty often through the prism of post-Luther Reformed thinking and emphasis, and that he actually grounds his understanding of the Gospel not in justification and its mechanisms, but in union with Christ (where individual justification and sanctification flow from that communal reality), and we see this teased out in, for example, his Letter to the Nobility quoted above. But you also see it in his desire to strip back the text of the Bible from the Latin translation of his day to the original languages; that same impulse might see us stripping back the thought worlds of our day, to the original thought worlds of the Bible.

Luther did, himself, attempt to hold communal realities and individuality (of sorts) together in a theological system, and, if anything, the communal reality (particularly in a social context where everybody was assumed to be part of the body of Christ) still defined the function, even the personhood, of the individual. Luther’s priesthood of all believers, and his application of this to the temporal and spiritual (or secular and sacred) roles people occupied was built from his understanding of our union with Christ, and so, with Christ’s body, the church.

But the reformation of the church, and as a result, the western world, didn’t stop there. And the Reformation itself provided some of the building blocks for ongoing reform outside the church; specifically the foundations of liberalism and the individualism we see at the heart of the modern west. Where Luther challenged the way a divine ordering of reality had been operating in the hands of a corrupt church, modern ‘secular’ humanism challenges the idea of a divine ordering of reality. What we get, instead, as secular humanism captures the imagination of the post-Renaissance/post-Reformation west, is not a ‘priesthood of all believers’ but the divine rule of the individual; the sovereignty of the self. This little snapshot definition of humanism from Oxford has a nice summary of the move involved: “The evolution of Italian humanism, grounded as it was on the study and imitation of the ancients, was marked from its beginnings with the concerns of lay society. Herein lay its claim to be a major progenitor of the modern world.”

When the divine ordering of human society gives way to the all encompassing secular space, built on the bedrock of humanism, the only authority that really matters is ‘the self,’ and any communal endeavours have to be built not on an understanding of, or appeal to, a divine order, or common good, even, but to common self-interest (or coalitions of over-lapping self-interests for the sake of holding power).

After Luther, but before Burckhardt, came John Locke. Locke is one of the founding fathers of liberalism; the political doctrine underpinning both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in modern political conversations in the western world. If the Renaissance created the individual, Locke was important in enshrining the individual as the supreme authority; completing the shift of locating human dignity in the ‘image of God’ imprinted on us, to the idea that each individual is Lord of his or her own domain. Locke spent a fair bit of his time arguing from the Bible to justify his understanding of the relationship between the person and the state, especially in his two treaties (treatises?) of government. In the Second Treaties of Government, Locke argues for certain principles of individual liberty that work to establish the sovereignty of the individual. Locke located legitimate exercises of political power, basically, in the protection of property — starting with the property an individual person has in their own self, and extending to rights for an individual to claim created things where their labour had fused with the created thing to give it a sort of value. Locke says:

“Every individual man has a property in his own person; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.”

This is an expression of a move from either an understanding of a commons, where natural resources belong to all (particularly as given by God), or an understanding that all ‘property’ is owned by monarchs or rulers (in feudal systems). For Locke, legitimate governments existed to guarantee these property rights (both to the self, and one’s work), and to afford individuals the liberty to pursue life, liberty, health, and property. Again, I’m glad Locke existed and brought a bunch of changes, but in bringing these changes life as individual people became further detached from the providence of God, and the ordering of creation such that our experience of its goodness was seen to flow from his hands. Instead, it flowed from our own individual efforts.

So. What does this potted history have to do with identity? And why it’s a nebulous, and perhaps unhelpful concept to build Christian anthropological (and political and ethical) thinking on?

Well. Identity as a concept is a product of these movements — of renaissance humanism, secularisation, and the development of the absolute sovereignty of the self; sometimes justified with some implications of the Reformation, but often only paying lip service to a Christian heritage and seeking to cut loose from the roots and branches that produced the fruit. In a journal article from 1983, ‘Identifying Identity: A Semantic History’ (that became a book chapter), Philip Gleason traced the development of the concept of identity by tracking the use of the word identity. He found that this word that gets given so much weight in modern Christian theology has a very short history; and that alone should give us pause about how keen we are to use ‘identity’ and how people ‘identify themselves’ (ie with what terms or qualifiers) as a yardstick of orthodoxy. He says the emergence of identity as a concept in politics (or sociology) and psychology is very new.

The historically minded inquirer who gains familiarity with the literature, however, soon makes an arresting discovery—identity is a new term, as well as being an elusive and ubiquitous one. It came into use as a popular social science term only in the 1950s. The contrast between its handling in two standard reference works dramatizes its novelty. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1968, carries a substantial article on “Identity, Psychosocial,” and another on “Identification, Political.” The original Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published in the early 1930s, carries no entry at all for identity, and the entry headed “Identification” deals with fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation.

This fits with the Google ngram data I posted in a previous examination of how unhelpful the word ‘identity’ is when it comes to a Christian approach to sexuality.

When it comes to the links between the development of the individual, unmoored from a divine order — or a ‘given’ self — Gleason traces its usage back to Locke, and Hume (two key figures in the development not just of humanism, but secular humanism).

“The OED’s first two usage citations illustrating psychological “personal identity” are from Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1739). This tends to corroborate Robert Langbaum’s assertion that identity did not take on psychological connotations until the empiricist philosophers called into question what he calls “the unity of the self.” The unity of the self was not a problem so long as the traditional Christian conception of the soul held sway, but it became a problem when Locke declared that a man’s “Identity … consists in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized Body.” Langbaum argues that Locke and Hume “use the word identity to cast doubt on the unity of the self,” and he has written a book to show how writers from William Wordsworth to D. H. Lawrence reacted to this challenge to the integrity of “the self.””

Gleason tracks the emergence of the concept of identity as we might know it from the mid 50s, where he says a book titled Protestant-Jew-Catholic made the case that in a fragmenting culture where personhood had become disconnected from an established order, and was left in the hands of the self, religion was still the most satisfying way for “locating oneself in society” and answering the aching question “who am I?” He quotes a publication from 1963, to demonstrate how ‘Identity’ had moved from the fringes to the centre of moral discourse, and the defining question of a particular age, which asks “who, thirty years ago, would have thought that the problem of identity would become one of the most crucial issues for the searching individual in our society?” 

Gleason then traces the development of the concept of identity (especially identity formation) in psychology, specifically through the work of Erik Erikson (which is about as cool a ‘given’ name as possible for a bloke who then talks about the quest for the development of the self). He says that in the psychological realm, Erikson saw identity formation as a process that “involves an interaction between the interior development of the individual personality, understood in terms derived from the Freudian id-ego-superego model, and the growth of a sense of selfhood that arises from participating in society, internalizing its cultural norms, acquiring different statuses, and playing different roles.”

Charting its actual use in publications, Gleason identifies a contest within the modern understanding of the word ‘identity’ between its psychological and sociological uses, and, indeed, the present use of the word still seems contested in those spheres. This is true even when Christians try to appropriate it in order to ‘contextualise the Gospel’ and speak truths about God’s role in defining ‘the self’ into the modern conversation that often doesn’t realise what is lost through his absence… we use ‘identity’ in either psychological, or sociological ways, or interchangeably without recognising the difference. Gleason says the psychological and sociological understandings of the concept of identity can’t be easily reconciled:

“The two approaches differ most significantly on whether identity is to be understood as something internal that persists through change or as something ascribed from without that changes according to circumstance. For Erikson, the elements of interiority and continuity are indispensable. Working within the Freudian tradition, he affirms that identity is somehow “located” in the deep psychic structure of the individual. Identity is shaped and modified by interaction between the individual and the surrounding social milieu, but, change and crisis notwithstanding, it is at bottom an “accrued confidence” in the “inner sameness and continuity” of one’s own being.

The sociologists, on the other hand, tend to view identity as an artifact of interaction between the individual and society—it is essentially a matter of being designated by a certain name, accepting that designation, internalizing the role requirements accompanying it, and behaving according to those prescriptions.”

Gleason suggests that the incredible spike in popularity of the term identity was that its dual use gave it currency in emerging questions in the 1950s, especially post World War 2. He describes how talking about ‘identity’ replaced talking about ‘character’ and how part of the traction it gained was a sort of reconnection between an individual’s quest for self-hood, and the way social identities (including national identities) were being studied, and/or redefined at the time.

The quest for an individual ‘identity’ alongside a social identity emerges as a significant concept in the west only in the period between 1955 and 1963, but piggybacks off the Renaissance, the Reformation, the work of John Locke, and others, including Freud and Erikson. While it has a heritage that stretches back to the 1300s, it this search is a product of what Charles Taylor calls ‘the secular age’ and specifically the plethora of individual identity-constituting choices that flows out of the rejection of the idea of a God, or gods, providing order and meaning, and a place for each person in the cosmos. Taylor explores this idea in depth in his work The Sources of the Self. Taylor notes that the roles we play in forming our identity after the ‘nova effect’ that comes from the social order being disconnected from a divine order often leaves us with a plethora of choice, and performing our identity not just through rituals (typically non-religious rituals of belonging), but also through choice (and particularly consumer choice).

Gleason’s paper is worth ploughing through, both for its substance, and its conclusion — one that urges caution in employing the word “identity” mindful of the contest or confusion caught up in its use; a warning that we Christians might heed when co-opting the word to use for our theological purposes (or even to try to show how the Gospel of Jesus provides answers to both the psychic and sociological quests for an identity). He says:

“For these reasons, responsible use of the term demands a lively sensitivity to the intrinsic complexities of the subject matter with which it deals and careful attention to the need for precision and consistency in its application. But of course its enormous popularisation has had just the opposite effect: as identity became more and more of a cliché, its meaning grew progressively more diffuse, thereby encouraging increasingly loose and irresponsible usage. The depressing result is that a good deal of what passes for discussion of identity is little more than portentous incoherence, and the historian need not be intimidated into regarding it as more than that.”

When Christians talk about our ‘identity’ in Christ, it’s hard to distinguish what we’re saying at that point from the idea that Christianity is just one ‘choice’ we make, that impacts the role we play and the community we belong to, while we ‘internalise its cultural norms’. The Christian story of who we are as selves, especially selves in Jesus, is something different to this. A Christian understanding of personhood makes space for a whole range of ‘identities’ as descriptions of roles we play in different relationships so that I can be, for example, husband, father, pastor, friend, sport fan, coffee connoisseur, or dog owner as ‘identities’  — I could even be straight, or Australian, or white (or if it were true, gay) and have that as part of my experience or story, and a description of communities I am connected to, without that threatening my understanding of my ‘self’ being rooted in God’s life and providence, and found and redeemed in the body of Jesus, through union with him by the Spirit, and so also find my identity in the body of Jesus, the church, and in the roles God has appointed, or provided, or calls me to in this world as a priest in the priesthood of all believers, in service of the body. I don’t need to claim a totalising ‘identity in Jesus,’ as an expression of my individualism.

That is to say, Christianity has something to say for those who are searching for a sense of self, who want to answer the question ‘who am I’, but the answers Christianity gives might, in their most satisfactory form, not rest in weird ontologically weighted labels around sexuality, race, or even religious belief, and the recognition of one’s individuality, desires, or ‘id,’ but instead might look to a more ancient schema, both in a divine ordering of reality that works its way through to the givenness of our personhood (in an integrated sense of body and soul), and the calling, or telos, we find in Jesus as we are united to him, and called into the priesthood of all believers, such that we can find meaning and purpose in both the spiritual and temporal realms. To push towards that sort of vision of the person might involve pushing back both against individualism (as a product of Renaissance/secular humanism), and identity (as a child of the uncertainty produced by that move), and to something more grounded in the life and providence of God.

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…

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.


22 Theses on the Australian Reformed Evangelical Scene and how we might continue reforming


On this day 499 years ago, the reformer Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. I don’t know why he chose a crass, commercialised American holiday to do this; especially because America as we know it hadn’t been invented yet, but he did.

Luther put forward his theses to invite debate from his colleagues within the church; a church he loved and served and wanted to see grow. This wasn’t an act of rebellion, though we’ve recast it that way since, because he certainly ended up being treated like a rebel; it was an attempt at reformation of the institution he loved.

Lots of protestants, especially reformed protestants, are trying to mark the 500th year in special ways, my senior pastor Steve Cree has had a crack on our church’s blog, in a post I think is provocative and worth reading.

I’m a Presbyterian Minister, which places me firmly in the Reformed Evangelical tradition; I’ve been deeply influenced by the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, by the ethos of the Sydney Anglican scene (largely through ministers trained at Moore College), and was educated at Queensland Theological College.

I’ve been reflecting on what got me to where I am, and what I’m thankful for when it comes to my heritage, but also on where I think things are going wrong for us as the church in Australia, and where we (these circles and how they’ve shaped me) might be contributing to that. I’m not trying to downplay God’s sovereignty in the mess we find ourselves in, but the church is not succeeding, broadly speaking, in reaching Australia, and even the reformed evangelical stream of the church which seems to record very modest growth while the liberal church shrinks is not growing at the same pace as the population. We need to ask some questions about what we’re doing wrong; and what we might do better; and so, channeling Luther, here are my theses on some of the issues. There are some institutions and churches already operating as counter-examples to the status quo and showing what a way forward might look like, so if you don’t think these apply to you, then maybe they don’t.

I’d love to hear yours… I’m also happy to defend any of these in the comments.


Thesis 1. We’ve made repentance more about turning from our sin than about turning to Jesus and his kingdom.

Thesis 2. In focusing on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (which is absolutely true), we’ve downplayed the other aspects of the Cross; the example, the victory, the establishment of the rule of Jesus and the peace he came to bring.

Thesis 3. We’ve tended to kill paradoxes in pursuit of clarity and pragmatic decisions rather than wrestling with them and living in tension and mystery.

Thesis 4. We’ve been confused about the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ and so have an anaemic doctrine of creation, and a poor theology of work…  especially when it comes to what ministry of the kingdom looks like; such that evangelism/proclamation has become the thing we push gifted Christians towards. As a quick example; I was president of our AFES group but not attending class and barely passing; we should push our university students to being excellent contributors in all sorts of industries; particularly, if Christians are going to be excluded from secular establishments (like health and education systems) we should be fostering resilient and imaginative entrepreneurs who will work for the good of their neighbours as a witness, but also be able to make a robust Christian case within a professional field).

Thesis 5. We’ve misunderstood worship and liturgy as being exclusively a Sunday thing; either about music or the sacraments; or not a Sunday thing at all but all of life; and both poles have involved reactive over-corrections against the other; and so we’ve downplayed idolatry and its significance.

Thesis 6. Our anthropology has been ‘head first’ so that we’ve bought into the modernist belief that education of the brain is the primary, even only, way to bring about sanctification; and our approach has been modernist so that we believe the way to bring about this change is via propositional truth and ‘getting the facts’.

Thesis 7. We’ve turned ‘scripture alone’ into ‘literacy alone’ and so excluded or marginalised those who are unable to read; or who don’t want to. Our churches tend to be white, or to assume that Christian culture looks like ‘white culture’ for people from other backgrounds, such that we’ve even created homogenous churches for other ethnicities.

Thesis 8. We’ve individualised salvation and so individualised the journey of the Christian life (think the Footprints poem, we should see our sandy beach as littered with the footprints of other people journeying with us and helping us through trials as God’s agents in our lives, and we should be that for each other).

Thesis 9. We haven’t been clear enough or persuasive enough about how to read and understand the Bible as centred on Jesus in a way that will help Christians engage with strange Old Testament passages and the way they are used in public debate by both Christians and non-Christians. We haven’t provided a robust enough safeguard against a hermeneutic of ‘feelings’…

Thesis 10. We have killed the priest as mediator when it comes to confession, but still see ‘preaching’ as a priestly function to the body, not on behalf of the body to the world. We also see preaching as a monologue by one very educated person.

Thesis 11. We see church as a Sunday gathering, and the gathering as being largely for believers and their edification, rather than being an opportunity for believers to love one another and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to their particular place, reflecting a community that exists all week.

Thesis 12. What we do when we gather, and the disciplines we call people to adopt during the week in pursuit of their spiritual growth tend to be the product of a particular personality type (often the modernist engineer type, usually the minister). We are suspicious of the emotions, and the imagination, and practices that are embodied or tactile (we’re suspicious of physical responses to music, but this also includes a view or practice of the sacraments that is sometimes totally devoid of significance, beauty or mystery). This leads to the danger that we are making disciples in our image, and making being part of the church, spirituality, and discipleship less plausible for people not like us.

Thesis 13. We’ve believed the plausibility of Christianity rests in good arguments rather than in loving community that imitates Christ (and makes good arguments). The love of Christians for one another is what makes the Gospel plausible.

Thesis 14. We are not very good listeners so fail to diagnose and engage with the problems of the world around us. We especially tend to mostly read people we already agree with who reinforce our views, rather than listening to other people who share our theological convictions from history, or globally, and assessing our practices in response.

Thesis 15. We don’t make very good media; and our use of new media seems to be geared towards reinforcing our circle, not growing it (which would arguably be more bracing for us).

Thesis 16. Our imaginations have largely failed us when it comes to public Christianity; we tend to see solutions to moral issues as being political, and have tended to play the political game on the basis of power and natural law arguments, rather than faithfully articulating our Gospel-soaked alternative in a way that positions the church as an alternative political reality to the world.

Thesis 17. We haven’t really grappled with what it looks like to be joyful optimists who trust in God’s sovereignty through our struggles; and so have failed to be adventurous.

Thesis 18. As a corollary to the last point; we’ve not yet charted a way forward where we actually function as exiles in the post-Christian wilderness, or fully grasped what it looks like to live in a pluralist and secular democracy. This relates in an interesting way to Thesis 16 as well.

Thesis 19. We tend to make change very difficult because we want to conserve our theological distinctives (the stuff the reformers fought for); but that means we’ve held on too tightly to practical things that aren’t working or aren’t right.

Thesis 20. We’ve been too interested in protecting our place in society and our political and social influence to be reaching those who society marginalises (our typically middle class, educated, whiteness is a result of many of the above points too).

Thesis 21. Our disenchanted view of the world; a product of many of the above; means we frame our lives in the world as something other than a fight against Satan and the idols and lies he uses to lure us away from God and to death; it also robs us of the practices and vocabulary that might see us doing something significant to fight against those for our sake and the sake of our neighbours. Instead, we treat life as a battle to think the right things.

Thesis 22. Our ownership of exclusive and expensive church schools that aren’t really preparing the next generation of Christians for engagement in a post-Christian world will be to our shame. The sort of education we provide should be accessible and excellent; fostering the imagination, training in virtue via example and the formation of habits, cultivating desires that run counter to our culture, helping people understand the world and a flourishing life in it (probably via the Liberal Arts), and teaching people to view life in Christ as an adventure. The schools that do this are too expensive, and the Christian schools that are cheap don’t do this.


Bonus 5. That I thought were equally, if not more important, than the above.

Thesis 23. We’ve somehow created church decision making processes that don’t really give 50% of the church an opportunity to be involved with the making of decisions as though authority rests in decision making of a bunch of priestly types. Particularly for the Presbyterians the decisions made in our ‘courts’ include a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with eldership even if eldership is what we think it is; that we think this is what the Bible has in view as the way leadership or gender roles play out in the church seems to me to be a total failure to imagine how the Gospel starts unravelling the impact of the curse on relationships between men and women; and a failure to re-capture the meaning of ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 as ‘necessary ally’ and to recognise the way God uses the spoken wisdom of women to leaders to help direct his plans in the world through the Bible (and the way Proverbs depicts wisdom as ‘lady wisdom’…).

Thesis 24.  We’ve imported worldly understandings of leadership and authority into the church; and into how we appoint and identify leaders; and what we expect from them.

Thesis 25. Our expectations of the clergy, and of ourselves as clergy, are unrealistic and reinforce a weird priestly view of ministry.

Thesis 26. As Christians we’ve bought into the trap of measuring success, or fruitfulness, by productivity and so doomed ourselves to being busy and perpetuating many of the problems facing our neighbours within the church.

Thesis 27. We’re inadequately prepared, theologically or practically, for dealing with the rise of mental health issues in part caused by life in the world as it now is; including, amongst other things the impacts of pornography, social media, and the changing pattern of media consumption that all fuel our culture’s rampant individualism, and create disconnection rather than connection between people.

Scroll to Top