Tag Archives: women

Does Deborah Help?

I am 100% supportive of women’s full participation in the ministry of the church. If your church ordains, it should be ordaining women. If your church has teachers, women should teach. If your church has elders, your women should so participate in the church’s “rule.”

But there’s one argument in favor of women’s full participation in the leadership of the people of God that I don’t find compelling. It’s the example of Deborah in the book of Judges.

Judges is a book replete with irony. The book as a whole (OT scholar types, please shelve your composition history theories for a few minutes, thanks) works by showing (a) how faithless Israel was; and (b) what losers the judges are, whom (c) God nevertheless uses to save Israel.

To take but one example: you know that great and awesome mighty warrior Gideon? He’s hailed as mighty warrior when he’s hiding in a wine vat. Hiding. And when he pulls down an altar he does it at night–when no one will see him. And that great golden fleece of his–that’s awesome! Until he takes the gold the people give him and make a golden fleece to worship. And then there’s his tremendous humility in not accepting the people’s acclamations of him as king–right… and then he names his kid Abimelech: “my father is king.”

There are no heroes in the book of judges. The judges are not examples to be followed, but pointers toward the necessity of a different kind of rule for the people of Israel.

So when Deborah comes along and serves as judge, we should be cautious about seeing this as normative.

The fight into which she ends up leading the people is a fight that should have been waged by Barak. When he is too afraid to go out and fight, she says she will go with him. But in consequence of, literally, hiding behind the skirts of Deborah, Barak will not gain honor from his victory: “for YHWH will hand Sisera over to a woman” (Judges 4:9).

The prominent place of women in the story is part of how the narrator is communicating how far Israel has fallen. When the men have not the faith to lead like they should, then God can even hand over Israel’s enemies by the hand of a woman. The prominence of women is a source of shame to the man who should be the prominent victor in the story.

In all, the book of Judges shows Israel what its life should be like by depicting things as bad as they could be. The era of judges is the time when there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Israel needs a king.

The indications of gender equality are few and far between in scripture, and the New Testament itself sets us on a trajectory toward embracing one another as equals before God without ever fully attaining to a vision of such equality itself. There are some really good ways to get to gender equality in scripture, but I’m not sure that Deborah, falling as she does in the book of Judges, is much help.

You?

Fuller Faculty on Women in Ministry

Fuller’s faculty have a series of videos in which they discuss various dynamics of women in ministry. Enjoy.

Marianne Meye Thompson on Women in Ministry:

Women in Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Marianne Meye Thompson approaches the question from the standpoint of creation:

Women in Ministry: The Basis in Creation from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Joel Green approaches the question from the perspective of the Gospels:

Women in Ministry: The Basis in Jesus’ Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Erin Default-Hunter talks about a personal journey on the issue of women in ministry:

Women in Ministry: A Personal Journey from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Complementarian Interpreations of Creation

Over the past week or so we have been revisiting the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3. In reading them, I suggested several indications of how especially Gen 1 but also Gen 2 could be read as indicating a basic equality between male and female. They share in the rule of God in Gen 1, the woman is “helper” to the man as God is “helper” to Israel.

But the NT reflections on the creation narrative tend toward a hierarchical reading.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul appeals to creation. Echoing Gen 2, the passage reads:

7 A man shouldn’t have his head covered, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is man’s glory. 8 Man didn’t have his origin from woman, but woman from man; 9 and man wasn’t created for the sake of the woman, but the woman for the sake of the man. 10 Because of this a woman should have authority over her head, because of the angels. (CEB)

Conflating the two creation stories, 1 Cor 11 assigns the image language to the man in particular: he is God’s image and glory, derived from God, as God’s son, it would seem. The woman, derived from the man (made from his rib) is created for the man’s sake (an allusion to her as “helper”) and is his glory.

In this passage, Paul uses Adam’s being “first” in creation as the basis for an argument that dress in public worship should reflect the hierarchy of God/Christ over man, and man over woman.

Thus, Paul gives significant weight to a hierarchy based on creation order here. But even as he does so, we should notice that the role of the “subordinate” is considerable: man is God’s glory. Woman is the man’s glory.

But more significantly is that Paul is not willing to give creation the last word. Even more important than creation is life “in the Lord,” i.e., the life of the redeemed community in Christ:

11 However, woman isn’t independent from man, and man isn’t independent from woman in the Lord. 12 As woman came from man so also man comes from woman. But everything comes from God. (CEB)

More significant than hierarchies is mutual interdependence on one another, and mutual dependence on God.

While Paul has used a complementarian reading of Gen 1-3 to argue for certain dress codes in worship, he does not give that reading the last word. There is a mutual interdependence that comes into the narrative both because of creation (both the idea of man’s birth through woman and our mutual dependence on God) and because of our having been united to Christ.

Two things are significant here, as we think about how the Adam and Eve story helps us understand how the world is versus how it should be.

First, Paul himself does not give merely a hierarchical reading of Gen 1-3. He also gives an egalitarian reading when he appeals to birth and mutual dependence on God.

But even more importantly for those of us who are committed to reading the Bible as a narrative, it is the Gospel that finally will not allow hierarchy to stand. Who we are “in the Lord” transforms our understanding of mutual interrelations, so that it no longer makes sense to say, “Here is man, who simply rules over his wife and family.” Now mutual interdependence and dependence come to the fore, such that both depend upon the other–a kind of relationship in which there can not, for long, be any sense of one ruling the other.

This picture of a redeemed humanity, of an order of new creation that does not simply affirm a first-creation subordinationism, is the picture in which fits Paul’s statement in Gal 3:28: there is no longer “male and female”–a precise echo of Gen’s statement that God creates them “male and female.” In the Gal 3 context, the paragraph is undermining hierarchies of superiority whereby one would have to become like the other to be fully a part of the kingdom of God.

Paul’s new creation theology will not allow him to give a creation-based hierarchy the last word. Even if he does not work it out with full consistency in his own letters, he tells us how the story is supposed to play out. If male is first and therefore female is his subordinate based on creation order, then in new creation we must affirm that something has been transformed–there is no longer “male and female” in this hierarchical sense.

Thus, even if the NT contains complementarian readings of Gen 1-3, the very gospel story it tells demands that we reread the eschatology anticipated by those stories as an end in which male and female are not only of equal worth, but equally positioned to serve as God’s under-rulers in God’s Kingdom.

Half the Church (for the 2/3 world): Part 2

Yesterday I began a look at Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church.

James is intimately familiar with the conservative North American environment in which a focus on marriage and home-life as a “woman’s calling” creates anemic exhortations to marry and bear children as the highest possible calling. Women, though strangely, not men, are often exhorted toward marriage and child-rearing as the heart of what they need to find significance in God’s world.

One of the most amusing moments of the book was when she looked at Genesis 2. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Why, she prods, do we not hear more preachers following the biblical example and preaching that it is men who need to marry and get a home life going if their lives are to be complete?

Well played!

But this intimate familiarity with, and participation in, the conservative evangelical world ultimately compromises the message of the book.

As I indicated yesterday, James digs deep into scripture in order to develop a theology of women as sharing in the subduing and ruling over creation; women are like God: “helpers” and deliverers in the battles that confront God’s people.

So what of the situation of women in North American churches? As I highlighted yesterday, James points out that a culture-shock awaits women who come to the church, where egalitarian assumptions are undone in patriarchal systems. She tells a story of a friend who is petrified to get to the point about gender roles in the church in conversations with a woman he’s sharing the gospel with at work.

In short, James knows and tells us that subordination of women in the church is not good news–and not the best reading of scripture either.

But when she comes to address the question head-on, she ducks. She won’t say it. She won’t say that women should be allowed to be ordained.

That’s a question that theologians disagree on, she says. It comes down to a few key texts that people disagree how to read. So there’s no answer to be given, and we just need to develop a more holistic vision of women as leaders in the church and God’s agents in redemption.

No.

What James has argued vividly is that the question of women’s relationships to men in the church is not a matter of a few isolated prooftexts.

Those texts depend for their interpretation upon any number of things, foremost of which is this: what did God intend in creation? It is, in short, impossible to disagree vehemently with 1 Timothy 2’s theology of the inherent subordination of women at creation (as James’ theology of creation does, though she never says so) and then go on to support its application of that creation-theology in the church.

James has created a theology of gender that is inherently egalitarian, but refuses to say so at the crucial point at which most of her likely audience will be confronting the injustice against women. To put it differently: the upshot of this book is that injustice is to be opposed when occurring in a distant land, but not when when occurring in our own.

Here is where James and I disagree: for her, ordination is a distraction to the message that we need a theology and praxis within which all women and girls are valued and celebrated as necessary workers in God’s kingdom. For me, the failure to ordain women is the manifestation of the very problem she’s fighting. As she highlights in the book, it is one of the most likely reasons for competent women in North America to be turned off from the gospel–churches proclaim a secondary status for women precisely through their hard ceilings. Moreover, here is my concern: this is the actual issue at which the actual readers of the book are likely to have to deal with the subjugation of women in their own worlds. And this includes James.

What the women in complementarian churches need is a champion to lead them forward in a more biblical vision, an ezer-warrior who will fight the fight to stop excluding half the church from the most celebrated work that the church itself does. What women in North America need is a fulsome biblical theology that will show women in “conservative, Bible-believing churches” that it is precisely in believing the Bible that the injustice and discrimination they are subjected to is shown up as a denial of the good news. It is disheartening that a book that goes so far in providing such a vision nonetheless stops at the point at which such discrimination is practiced in its own context.

As James’ own stories show, failure to ordain women, failure to treat women as equal, is not good news to women. The church in North America will fail to be the champion of justice for women as long as it continues to teach, preach, and embody the very patriarchal system that creates the injustices she has denounced around the world. This book is about the unimpeachable, biblical importance of women–but, I fear, only for the 2/3 world “out there”, not the 1/3 or the 1% who are subjected to the power of patriarchal systems here at home.

This book is a wonderful, winsome challenge to the normal way of doing business. But I walk away feeling somewhat like I read the definitive treatise on race relations only to have a passing reference at the end indicate that slavery is a very difficult issue, with biblical scholars on each side continuing to wrestle with a handful of texts that we’ll never agree on. I wish the paragraph weren’t there so that we could all be freed to draw the right conclusion rather than addressing it at all and giving us the freedom to draw the wrong one.

I think I can say that our disagreement is over this question: would addressing ordination shipwreck her program? or does refusing to address it? From my own experience with women in the church, the ordination question creates, perpetuates, and is part of, such a systemically toxic environment for women, that I think a pro-women theology that does not touch it remains only a theology for the 2/3 world at the expense of our own.


Disclosure: I received Half the Church from the publisher at no cost other than the understanding that the book would be reviewed on my blog. My agreement to review the book did not require a positive review or endorsement.

Half the Church (for the 2/3 World): Part 1

Carolyn Custis’ James latest book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women digs into scripture, in conversation with the worldwide struggles facing women and girls, to produce a holistic theology of women in the plan of God.

The book succeeds in demonstrating three things with crystal clarity:

    1. Scripture provides a wealth of resources for demonstrating that women and men are created not only with equal dignity but also equal function as image-bearing, world-ruling leaders.
    2. The deplorable situations in which women around the world find themselves require us to trumpet this equality and establish the church as a beachhead for the kind of equality that denounces and overturns all injustice based on gender.
    3. A commitment to live and serve within theologically conservative circles will ultimately compromise the integrity of theologically creative writers, or their arguments. This book is so compromised.

James lays the groundwork for her biblical exegesis and theological portrait by telling us in the west that too much of our conversation about women in general and gender roles in particular don’t make sense outside our highly privileged world. The idea that a family could survive on a single income, leaving the woman to mind the house with no commercial engagement, is a debate afforded our position in untold luxury.

And, as long as our theology of women has nothing to say to the 2/3 world, it is not, and cannot be, a viable theology of women.

But James isn’t finished. In conversation, particularly, with the book Half the Sky, James begins each chapter with a story of women’s plights around the world: four year old “brides” who are supposed to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their “husbands,” girls sold into sex slavery, girls turned out to die, girls who are sold for cattle as their marriage price. Globally, there is a problem of women being not valued, of being valued only for possible revenue they might generate when sold.

And so the book strives to articulate a biblical theology of women that shows how women are not only “equal” in some sort of vague sense, but equally entrusted with representing God’s reign upon the earth.

James creates high expectations as she begins the book with all this in mind. This backdrop of global exploitation is the perfect setting within which the church might speak a message that is truly good news. So she asks: (1) What message does the church offer women? (2) What will the church do to address women’s suffering globally? And (3) What message will we send to the world by how we mobilize our own daughters (41)?

As if to underscore how far we’ve fallen from articulating ideal answers to such questions, James later says,

Yet instead of casting a powerful gospel vision that both validates and mobilizes women, the church’s message for women is mixed at best–guarded, negative, and small at worst. Everywhere we go, a line has been drawn establishing parameters for how much or how little we are permitted to do within the church. As in the wider culture, there are always exception… But culture shock awaits many women who migrate from the academy or the secular workplace to the church. In the former, opportunities are vast and their contributions valued and pursued. In the church, what they have to offer often goes unnoticed or is restricted to “appropriate” zones within the church.

What, then, does the Bible have to say, that we should be listening to, if we are to build the kind of theology of, and place for, women that will be received as good news by the rest of the world?

Over two chapters, James develops a theology of gender based on Genesis 1-3. Genesis 1, she rightly shows, demonstrates a profound equality: male and female are both created in God’s image, and this means that both are charged to rule and subdue, not merely the men.

The story of women in a world gone wrong must be one where they are helping bring about the reign of God, his will being done on earth, through all sorts of endeavors, not least in seeking the liberation of other women who find themselves ensnared. Women must participate in the rule of God by making the world a better place for all–just like men are charged to do.

There are a number of high water marks for this book as it creates a fulsome vision of women within God’s created order. One is when she looks at Psalm 8′s recounting of the creation narrative. This psalm’s

words underscore the fact that the world is wide of the mark when it devalues and discards women and girls. By making us “a little lower” than himself, God affixed the highest possible value on his daughters and his sons. It also certainly means (and the church should surely openly trumpet this) that the Bible’s high view of women cannot be surpassed. Our tendency is to look sideways–to compare ourselves and compete with other people. The Bible calls us to raise our eyes and our aspirations and strive to be like God.

What the book demonstrates for those with eyes to see is that the question of women’s roles in the church, or their place in the cosmos, cannot be confined to a few proof texts that seem to limit women’s participation in church. Though all such creative and energetic theological pictures will call for points of exegetical disagreement at certain points, in general James paints a picture that is faithful to the biblical narrative and easily accessible to all readers.

In tomorrow’s post we’ll look at where her program falls apart–namely, when the theology needs to be applied, and the prophetic word needs to be proclaimed, in her own church context in the U.S. rather than the other side of the world.

Disclosure: I received Half the Church from the publisher at no cost other than the understanding that the book would be reviewed on my blog. My agreement to review the book did not require a positive review or endorsement.

Why I Use a Clunky Neologism

I recently tweeted the following:

Who God is in Godself is insufficient cause of praise: http://bit.ly/flAoBS

One of my Facebook friends wanted to know what was up with this “Godself” business. Besides being a horribly clunky neologism, doesn’t the Bible constantly use masculine language to refer to God?

Here’s what she commented:

    Daniel, I enjoy and appreciate so much of what you write – including this post. I’m wondering about the use of the (I think) very awkward “Godself” in the title. I’ve seen it before, but don’t get it. You’re making a biblical case about the God of the Bible but don’t seem comfortable using the language of the Bible to talk about Him. He has revealed Himself as the Eternal Father and Jesus as the Son, etc., etc. Why dispense with male pronouns? This is truly not intended to be snarky. I’m interested in your thoughts. I considered sending you a private inbox message, but figured some of your FB followers might have insights to share as well.

It is a great question! Here was my probably not-as-great reply:

    great question.

    I don’t have a problem with the Father-Son language of the Bible / NT; more that that, I think it’s important and should be preserved and promoted.

    But I do otherwise attempt to refrain from using masculine pronouns when referring to God, in part because the use of awkward neologisms like “Godself” draw attention to the fact that I’m avoiding masculine pronouns.

    I do this because I think it’s important to remind ourselves that God is not “male” as that those of us who are male humans are male. Consistently referring to God in masculine terms has the potential to serve the notion that those of us who are males on earth are more like God, closer to God, or occupying on earth the role that God occupies in the heavens.

    In other words, referring to God consistently as “he” has the potential to empower patriarchal systems that exalt men at the expense of women–such as the male-only leadership that is sadly practiced, still, in the majority of churches in the 21st century.

    Reminding ourselves that God is not “masculine” in this sense is an important step in remembering that we are not able to lead because we are biologically closer to God, but because the Spirit of God has endowed certain ones of us with the gift and calling.

What do you think? How important is it to preserve the masculine depictions of God in Scripture? How do we do justice to the fact that God is not male, despite these masculine depictions? How do we communicate that men are not more God-like either in nature or in function than women?

“I, not the Lord”: When Paul Doesn’t Speak for Jesus

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes a move that many of us who look to the Bible for guidance might find surprising. He distinguishes between himself as someone giving a personal opinion and the Lord whose commands must be obeyed.

Speaking of marriage, Paul says, “To those who are married, I give a command–not I, but the Lord…” (v. 10).

But a few verses later he turns to those who are married to unbelievers and changes his tune: “To the rest I say (λέγω ἐγώ), not the Lord…” (v. 12)

Similarly, in v. 25 he distances his apostolic advice from Dominical commands: “Now concerning virgins I do not have a command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as someone who is faithful by the mercy of the Lord.”

Within our authoritative canon, we see that those with authority can signal to us that they are authoritatively telling us not to take their instruction as something to be taken as authoritative in the same way as other parts of scripture.

Not everyone reads it this way, of course. I remember a friend in seminary giving a class presentation and telling us that we know we can’t listen to Paul and blow off this advice in 1 Cor 7 because it’s our scripture. My thought was, and is, that precisely because it’s scripture we have to listen to what it tells us and allow it to establish for us what we are supposed to do with it.

In this case, there is a category of, “Pious advice, from the apostolic ‘I’ who does not speak ‘for the Lord.”

What I want to explore with you is whether such a distinction between an apostolic “I” and the commands of the Lord might help us with 1 Timothy 2:11-12:

    Let a woman learn in silence and total submission–I do not permit a woman to teach nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence.

There are any number of issues that the passage raises as part of the canon (e.g., that women, even in Paul’s churches, were not silent and did in fact teach and exercise authority over men). But the question I have been pondering is that of the “I, not the Lord,” of 1 Corinthians 7.

Might we take the first person singular of this passage as an indicator that what we are dealing with is a pious attempt at holy advice that, nonetheless, is not “the command of the Lord” but rather the “opinion of one” who was striving to be faithful?

What do you think?

The Blessed Dog of Mark 7

I want to dig into Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman just a bit more today. It is one of the more troubling episodes in Mark.

When this woman comes begging Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter Jesus in essence tells her she is a dog, unworthy of the gift: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.”

We have been told already that this woman is a Gentile, and the interaction with Jesus here bases his rebuff on that standing: she is not a child, a Jew; she is a Gentile dog.

There are a couple of curiosities here, however, that we need to get on the table.

First, Jesus in ch. 5 of Mark had already gone into Gentile territory to heal a demon-possessed Gentile. Such precedent makes this refusal all the more surprising.

In addition, the previous story had gone to great lengths to deconstruct Jewish notions of purity, particularly as associated with food. Elsewhere in the NT, such a distancing of the early church from food laws is associated with inclusion of Gentiles (Acts 10-11; Galatians 2).

Finally, and most importantly, when Jesus distributed bread to the children, in ch. 6, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. The readers know, Jesus knows, the disciples should know, that even after feeding the children so that they are satisfied, there are not only crumbs on the table but more abundance than was started with.

The kingdom of God, we know, is like a seed sown that produces a crop 30, 60, or 100 fold. Or, like a loaf of bread that can feed 1,000 men with leftovers in abundance.

So is there any such thing, in the economy of the Kingdom of God, as taking from the little allotted to the children and depriving them by giving it to the dogs?

No. We the readers know that the Kingdom of God admits no such lack.

And this woman knows, too.

I note with interest that this is the only person in the Gospel who gets the best of Jesus in verbal sparring. And she does so by having eyes to see the sufficiency of the economy of the Kingdom.

This, yet another unnamed woman, not only gets the best of Jesus but also stands in marked contrast to the disciples who, for all their participation with Jesus in the ministry of the Kingdom, never in the story have eyes to see that God’s is an economy of abundance.

When they see 5,000, they initiate with Jesus: please send these people away. When Jesus sees the 4,000 he invites them to express their understanding: I don’t want to send these people away.

But no, they never understand about the loaves, but their hearts are hardened (ch. 6); having eyes they don’t see, ears they don’t hear and they do not yet understand (ch. 8).

But the Syrophoencian–the female Gentile dog–has eyes to see. And so not only in the exorcism itself but in her act of faith as well the economy of the world is turned on its head.

The woman from farthest away geographically and socially can see what those who participate intimately with the ministry cannot: the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It might look small when sown, but its plant is large enough for all the birds of the air (even Gentile birds) to find rest in its branches.

Women in Mark: Least and Greatest

Read the Gospel of Mark, and on first blush you might not think that Mark (or Jesus) thinks too highly of women.

This is not a Gospel with a birth narrative–there is no affectionate depiction of Mary’s faithful carrying of the Christ child. This is not a Gospel where Jesus sees to the welfare of his mother from the cross. In fact, Mary appears on the scene in ch. 3 with Jesus’ siblings in an apparent attempt to get him to give up his delusions of grandeur.

Jesus, as is well known, calls only men to be part of the twelve. This has been taken in the history of the church as validation of male-only leadership.

Never mind that the twelve are, in the end, complete failures, evincing the hardened hearts appropriate for the rocky soil whose faith fades when persecution arises on account of the word. Peter, the rock, is their aptly named leader.

And when these disciples are most clearly failing to understand the ministry of Jesus, he tells them that they utterly misunderstand the kingdom of God: you know that the rulers of the world and the great ones of the earth lord it over their people–it shall not be so among you.

As I read over the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 it strikes me afresh that we see the women of Mark as second-rate characters only to the extent that we refuse the invitation of Mark’s Jesus to read his story through the lens of an upside-down, kingdom economy.

In other words: when we read the Gospel and assume that just because someone got to be close to Jesus, got to do miracles and cast out demons, that this is an indication of greatness or of true leadership in the kingdom, we use the disciples’ this-worldly frame of reference rather than Jesus’ cruciform, kingdom frame.

Feminist interpreters sometimes approach the Gospels as though the fact that the faithful women have no names is an indication that they are slighted in the narrative. The suggestion is sometimes offered that we need to read against the grain of the text in order to appreciate the women’s contributions to the story.

But I wonder if the overall economy of the kingdom doesn’t indicate that picking up on these unnamed, faithful women isn’t a true reading with the grain of the text that has been obscured by generations of “normal” reading that continues to offer a reading in which the named, powerful, and exalted are exemplary–and that despite the clear protestations of the Christ and the cross that loom so largely over the whole?

Is the Syrophoenician woman who demanded that abundance of even the children’s table scraps be shared with her not greater than the disciples who doubted that there was adequate bread in the desert?

Is the nameless woman who anointed Jesus as king and yet for burial not greater than Peter who, upon hearing Jesus’ prognostication of death, played the role of Satan and began to rebuke him?

And so if we care about the “marginalized,” I want to suggest that our goal should be not to read against the grain of the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion, but to better read the text with the hermeneutic of trust that is shaped by the upside down economy of the gospel.

When we read the text, and judge its characters, with eyes to see that greatness is found in being least, the margins move to the center and in these nameless women we discover what it means to be a true child of the kingdom.

Calvinism as “The Big Tent”?

Over the past few weeks I have had a thing or two to say about the kind of evangelicalism that I could see myself being part of. It’s the kind of place where folks can hold onto biblical authority with one hand while holding scholarly and historical criticism in the other. It’s the kind of place where what we do is as much a measure of who we are as what we believe. It’s the kind of place where women are equal. It’s the kind of place where getting our story straight is of tremendous importance, but where asserting the absoluteness of our particular version of Christianity is not.

One reason I want to keep having the conversation about the nature of evangelicalism is that other people are doing their own work to lay hold of the label and put it over very different content.

Today’s conversation starter is a recent video on the Gospel Coalition blog, featuring Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, and Kevin DeYoung.

The video is a round-table discussion of “the New Calvinism.” Based on comments made in the video, the basic tenants of this movement include: (1) a Calvinist/Reformed understanding of predestination of some people to life and other people to eternal death–what they refer to as “sovereignty;” (2) closely tied to point one is adherence to 4 or 5 points of Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints–what they refer to as “the doctrines of grace;” (3) authority (= inerrancy) of scripture, as something that (4) requires Calvinism and complementarianism (i.e., subordination of women to men at home and at church).

First, there are a lot of very good things going on with Gospel Coalition.

They talk about the importance of being united on these essentials, even while they continue to disagree about theological points such as ecclesiology and baptism. While I might not agree on the importance of continuing to be separate on those points of difference, it is genuinely a good thing that Christians seek out as many venues as possible for expressing the oneness we have in Christ. That has far too often been at the bottom of the Protestant agenda (if there), so this unifying impulse is a good thing.

Also, I believe they have rightly assessed that a huge swath of Christians is done with vapid, theology-free Christianity. They are meeting this need with a robust theological system and tying it back to scripture. That is a good impulse.

Finally, their hope is that this vibrancy will result in the same sort of missionary fruit that other Calvinist resurgences have produced. They want to see God glorified where God is not, and the mission agencies of the Southern Baptists and the PCA are backing up that desire better than many other churches’.

There are also places where their assessment of themselves and of others is problematic.

First, based simply on this video and its emphases, this is not a group that is together for the gospel, it is a group that is together for Calvinism. Untold numbers of Christians have believed in “the priority of God’s grace” being exercised in the cross of Christ on our behalf without also insisting that we had, for example, no free will to accept that offering extended to us. Put differently, Arminians believe the gospel.

Next, they are not a group gathered around the authority of scripture. They are a group gathered around a commitment to a particular set of readings of scripture. Again, myriad Christians (one might think of Wesleyans, specifically Methodists) read Paul with submission and yet do not become Calvinists. And hundreds of thousands find that the biblical narratives of women’s equality is binding on their consciences when it comes to gender roles in home and church.

The rhetoric functions as a means to wrap up their own interpretation of various passages and positions with believing the Bible itself. This is very, very dangerous. To believe in the Bible is not to believe in what Al Mohler or Lig Duncan or Daniel Kirk or Tom Wright says about the Bible. It is to believe that God has spoken there not that I have apprehended its correct meaning.

I do find it significant that few of the most important Paul scholars in our day and age are Calvinists in the sense outlined in the video. Richard Hays and Mike Gorman are Methodists. N. T. Wright is an Anglican with Reformed roots but with quite a different modern-day expression. John Barclay, Lou Martyn, Bruce Longenecker, Douglas Campbell… there’s not much serious Calvinism coming out of careful reading of Paul–and not much complementarianism, either.

Another point where they seem to be missing the mark is Mohler’s contention that Calvinism is resurging because of the secularism of society, and people want to know about their salvation, “Why me?” and so they turn to Calvin’s answer. But when they outline the points they stand for, they are consistently positioning themselves against other Christians. People are coming to Calvinism not because they’re confronting secular society, but because it gives robust (I daresay, at times, easy) answers to complicated questions about being a Christian. It offers the security of a theological fortress at a time when other Christians are telling them that the world is more complicated.

People are not fleeing to complementarianism because the world is secular.
People are not fleeing to a 6,000 year old earth because they want to know why they are believers when their neighbors aren’t.

This is an in-house reconfiguration of loyalties that is being paralleled in the political sphere. While a bunch of people are taking their disillusionment with the status quo and reinventing a mixed-middle, a huge number of people are listing right both theologically and politically, while a mirror reaction is sending some people further to the left. The disenchantment with what we came of age with is causing a number of reactions at once: some people rediscovering the past to which they long to return, some reconstructing using materials that used to be kept secret, some trying to run even faster to a future they hope will one day come to pass.

Together for the Gospel isn’t about retrenching as Christians in the face of secularism. It’s about one kind of Christianity appealing to Christians who can’t hold onto an authoritative Bible while embracing some of the middle-to-left developments in church and theology of the past 15-50 years.

So yes, being together is good. And being together for the gospel is even better. The latter is a laudable goal, but it will never be reached until it includes being together with Arminians and others. And much of the rhetoric of this group that speaks as though it represents “Christianity,” really only represents one (relatively small) way of making sense of biblical Christianity known as “Calvinism.”

So while I celebrate their willingness to have a big Calvinist tent, it is important that we not confuse that with representing anything like a truly big tent Christianity.

(NB: I was corrected twice about including someone as Reformed who would not so identify. I hereby repent in sackcloth & ashes, and have corrected the post.)