Babies & Bathwater
The hermeneutic of suspicion, which has been growing for decades, is now at fever pitch. Leadership in every sphere is questioned and suspect. The divisions and polarization created by the era of Trump and Brexit, the pandemic and the response to it, #BLM, #MeToo, #XR, and on and on, are placing incredible stresses on any institution or individual who lays claim to authority.
In the conservative evangelical world I inhabit all these wider cultural currents have been added to by realities that hit close to home. It is now seven years since Mark Driscoll left Mars Hill and many of us have been listening to that podcast with all the gruesome ground it has raked over. Quite apart from Driscoll, we have seen too many examples of coercive and abusive behaviours by Christian leaders. At the same time the cultural and political divisions in society have penetrated the church to an extent that sees respected pastors battling uprisings in their congregations, or even resigning from ministry. All this has meant a battering of confidence among those who are called to lead.
This state of affairs calls for those of us in pastoral ministry to careful reflection. Undoubtedly, evangelical culture has suffered from falling for the cult of the celebrity pastor. (While in the UK our smaller church scene and smaller churches mean we have been more insulated from this trend than is the case in the US, the reality is that many of us have been bruised by our association with celebrity pastors from across the pond.) In this we have aped the wider culture, with its cult of celebrity, and like wider culture we are now busily tearing down many celebrity pedestals.
While the high-profile ministerial failings of our times require us to humbly reflect on evangelicalisms cultural captivity, there is a real danger that the pendulum starts to swing too far the other way. The trend for Christian ‘deconstructing’ often seems to be little more than Instagram self-promotion: another evangelical aping of wider cultural trends. There is a real danger that even if we don’t go the full Josh Harris we could end up throwing out some babies with the bathwater. As I’ve listened and read and watched unfolding events there are a number of babies I think are at risk. Here are five of them.
1. Spiritual fathering
A claim increasingly made, or at least suggested, is that for spiritual leaders to be ‘fatherly’ reflects toxic masculinity and opens a door for abuse. Certainly this is possible: in the church as in the biological family, fathers are capable of abuse. But that does not mean we should dispense with fatherhood – to do the spiritual equivalent of capitulating to the demands of gender ideologues and abandon the term and reality of ‘father’.
Being a father is perhaps the best description we have for understanding what it is to be a biblically qualified elder. The character demands for elders given us in Acts 20, 1 Peter 5, 1 Timothy and Titus are fatherly ones. This is made especially clear in 1 Timothy where the whole letter is an extended description of how the church is to be like a family, and families are to be like the church. The job description of church leaders given in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 (we can assume elders are in view here) that they are to work hard for, take care of, and admonish their congregations could just as well be a job description for parents with their children.
In the church we need spiritual fathers. More than that, scripture demands that those who serve as elders are spiritual fathers. Let’s not throw that baby out with the bathwater.
2. Male sexuality
There is an obvious, direct, link between fathering and male sexuality. To be a father is defined sexually: despite the current ludicrous claims of gender ideologues, women can’t be fathers, any more than men can be mothers. (This is not the least significant reason why ‘female elder’ is an oxymoron.)
Our problem, and the oft-repeated claim, is that male sexuality is toxic. Certainly it can be. There is all too much evidence for that. I am treading on dangerous ground here, but it seems to me that we must wrestle with two problems.
The first is the danger of minimising reality: that we downplay or deny the shockingly all too real examples of men abusing and harming others. This has been conservative evangelicalisms historical problem, and many chickens are now coming home to roost as a consequence.
The second danger, and one I would argue is a current one, is the danger of pathologizing what is ‘normal’. This danger is that all male sexual desire or characteristics are treated as toxic.
Yes, male sexuality can be dangerous. Males are typically significantly larger and stronger than women and these physical traits combined with a strong sex drive can make men dangerous. This is why societies have always developed mechanisms for safeguarding women and children – safeguards that have tended to operate around clear social expectations that sexual activity is meant to be reserved for marriage.
A danger of seeing all male sexuality as toxic is that we can end up in a place in which it is only neutered men who are acceptable but there is a sense in which male sexuality is meant to be dangerous. Men are meant to be potent. Like other dangerous things (fire, water, electricity) male sexuality needs to be disciplined, controlled, contained and channelled. But it should not be emasculated. Emasculated men are not a better option for the health of our churches.
Acknowledging – and celebrating – the potency of male sexuality shouldn’t mean permitting abusive behaviour; rather, we need to find healthy ways to channel it. We have a muddy lake of bathwater to deal with here, but we must watch out for the baby.
3. Sexual purity
The claim being made here is that ‘purity culture’ was abusive. While acknowledging that there were aspects of conservative evangelicalisms approach to this that were unhelpful (and also recognising the significant difference between the US and UK evangelical worlds) we mustn’t throw out the baby of sexual purity. Sexual purity is important.
We don’t want a model of sexuality that is oppressive. We need to be alert and sensitive to the realities of different sexual orientations and so on. I’m grateful that we have a more nuanced and developed appreciation of these matters than we used to. But there is a biblically defined line to which we must adhere: sex outside the marriage of a man and woman is wrong. When the church ditches this baby it is hard to hold onto anything else.
Perhaps the most helpful, comprehensive, review yet available of gender ideology is Helen Joyce’s Trans. Joyce correctly identifies the precipices gender ideology is pitching us over yet she fails to see how the redefining of marriage is the door through which the trans lobby has stampeded. It just isn’t possible to redefine something as fundamental as marriage without creating many other hostages to fortune, whether that means lesbians being coerced into relationships with transwomen or biological males competing in women’s sports. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes the same mistake in an article condemning the growing moves to make paedophilia acceptable.)
Joyce is an atheist, not a Christian, and her advocacy for same-sex marriage is of a piece with her secular liberal views, but in the church we cannot afford to make the same missteps. We do need to fight for sexual purity, and the distinctiveness of marriage – as well as against hypocrisy, judgmentalism and coercion. We are not fighting for illusions of the 1950s but we must fight for a prophetic vision of what humanity is meant to be. Sexual purity is essential to that vision. Don’t throw that baby out.
4. Evangelical piety
That spiritual disciplines can become abusive is plain, but Bible study, prayer, confession and accountability are all good.
There is always a fine line between what is helpful and what is controlling. I’ve witnessed that in my own history. These, again, are dangers of family life. Parents can be controlling and manipulative. Parents can be abusive. But parents can also fail to parent.
Luther (quoted by Michael Reeves in Rejoice and Tremble) expressed these twin dangers well:
But let us call these two faults by name: softness and harshness. Concerning the former, Zech. 11:17 says: “O shepherd and idol, you who desert the flock.” Concerning the latter, Ezek. 34:4 says: “With force and harshness you have ruled them.” These are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come.
A maxim to live by is that the antidote to abuse is not disuse but proper use. Yes, the practices of evangelical piety have, at times, led to abuse but that does not mean we should abandon them. Instead we need to drain out the bathwater and keep firm hold of the baby.
5. The reality of hell
The final claim I want to contest is that telling people about hell is cruel. No: not telling them is!
We don’t have to fit the fire and brimstone stereotype of evangelical preachers – I would argue that we shouldn’t – but we do need to remember we are dealing in heaven and hell realities. When Christian pastors forget this we are reduced to being social workers. Social workers perform an essential role. We need good social workers. But pastor, if this is all you are doing you should resign your position and become a proper social worker and not a pretend one masquerading as a preacher of the gospel.
The many pressures we face and the examples of failure we see are leading to a real crisis of confidence amongst church leaders. We need to hold onto our confidence, and hold onto our babies.