The Pastoral Necessity of Name-Calling image

The Pastoral Necessity of Name-Calling

I have a new podcast, called Mere Fidelity. Derek Rishmawy, Alastair Roberts, Matt Lee Anderson and I are having a half hour discussion each week, on a contemporary theological topic, and posting it online here. Our most recent discussion was over whether there is such a thing as "moral orthodoxy" - are categories like "orthodoxy" and "heresy" applicable to moral issues like sexual ethics, or only to theological issues as ensconced in the creeds? - and I found it fascinating. It's a privilege to be involved with these (scarily intelligent and thought-provoking) individuals.

But that’s not what I’m posting about. In the comment thread below the podcast, Alastair Roberts (who says smarter things in comment threads than most people do in their posts) got into a very interesting conversation with Rachel Held Evans, in which he reflected on the use of “loving” language, the violence of biblical shepherding, and the pastoral necessity of name-calling. (I remember Phil Moore making a very similar point years ago, but in less detail.) Rachel had used Doug Wilson as an example of someone whose language is unloving, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of his theology. Alastair’s response is worth reading in full (emphasis added):

I think that lack of love is most definitely fundamentally inconsistent with right theology. If left unchecked, it can and will pervert the whole. This does not mean that someone’s theology is automatically wrong because they display a lack of love. We are all inconsistent creatures and the leaven of certain attitudes is often arrested before it has the time to work through our thinking.

That said, the label of ‘unloving’ is far too readily applied without biblical warrant. The biblical vision of love doesn’t straightforwardly align with contemporary values of sensitivity and empathy. Often quite the opposite. On a number of occasions in Scripture leaders are praised for resisting the urge of pity and empathy and accused when they gave into it inappropriately. The true leader in Scripture needs to have the nerve to hurt people and is often called to do just that. Practically every biblical leader was called to take life as part of their vocation and most were marked out as men of violence when God called them. People like the Levites or Phinehas were set apart for special service precisely on account of their willingness to perform radical acts of violence in God’s service.

Much of the language of Scripture is far from kind. Indeed, some of the language of the prophets is fairly brutal. Paul used a fair amount of unkind words in his letters when dealing with Judaizers and others. The Bible consistently and often purposefully uses rough language: for instance, Deuteronomy 23:17-18 doesn’t speak of ‘sex workers’, but of ‘whores’ and ‘dogs’. Biblical language is often calculated to hurt our feelings and offend our sensibilities, to tear away our palliating euphemisms and present us with the face of sin in all of its ugliness.

The most common biblical picture of the leader is the shepherd. However, the biblical vision of the shepherd is quite different from ours. The biblical shepherd is, like our conception of the shepherd, a figure who is gentle, nurturing, and protective of the flock. However, a large proportion of the biblical images of the shepherd focus upon the shepherd as a figure of conflict and violence, someone who protects the sheep by killing wolves, bears, and lions, who fights off thieves, bandits, and rival shepherds, who lays down his life for the flock. The shepherd is clearly called to act out of love, but this love is far from a generic niceness. Rather, because the shepherd loves the sheep, he gives the wolves no quarter. Attacking wolves is the loving thing to do. The sheep are comforted by the rod with which the shepherd drives off or destroys enemies, like God brought the land of Egypt to its knees using the rods of the shepherds Moses and Aaron.

Of course, supposed righteous anger and violence can be intoxicating and can only properly be exercised by those who do so, not out of any love for violence itself, but out of a principled love for the flock, commitment to its Chief Shepherd, and a prudent and wise employment of appropriate means for each situation. I have issues with key occasions and ways in which Wilson uses his rhetoric: indeed, I’ve said as much directly to him. I also get frustrated with many of his fans who use the biblical mandate for sharp language as an excuse for their love of fighting. I am also concerned that we make sure that we are dealing with wolves before we leap to attack mode.

However, unlike many of his critics, Wilson is absolutely right to hold as a principle that, as a shepherd of a Christian congregation, it is appropriate to follow the example of Paul, Jesus, and the prophets and to use painful rhetorical barbs as a means of protecting the flock. Of course, such barbs need to be employed highly judiciously and it is in assessing the appropriate ways and sorts of barbs that are to be used that Wilson and I part ways. My more substantial concerns are with those who elevate generic ‘kindness’ and ‘empathy’ above most else and use these values to dissolve any biblical principles or teachings that might be experienced as hurtful by any party.

Finally, I think that there is profound danger in making the heightened sensitivities of some persons the measure of all appropriate speech. I think such persons should be protected as much as possible from rougher contexts of speech for the sake of all parties. It is not our desire to wound the weak. When a book like Wilson’s (written in the days before the Internet was anything like what it is today), with an explicit warning at the beginning that it is written for men and that some of the rougher language used—the objectionable sentence in question was a softened version of a C.S. Lewis passage—was not written for women’s ears, has to be judged by the way that it will be heard by victims of domestic violence, I think that we have a problem. This doesn’t make his description or Lewis’ an appropriate or accurate one or mean that it cannot be challenged on that basis. It just means that some contexts of discourse should be off-limits to those who, for whatever reason, have thinner skins.

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