Friday, October 31, 2014

The Legacy of Truth: Lessons from the Protestant Reformation

I walk past this Bible every day that I go to my office, as
it is housed at the Baptist Mission Resource Center in
Columbia, Maryland.  Its a 17th century copy of Luther's
translation of the Bible into the German language
Tonight, I will gather my kids--who will be dressed as Dr. Who, a "Minecraft" character, and a ballet dancer respectively--and visit a downtown area near our central Maryland home on the only night of the year in which it is culturally appropriate to allow your kids to beg strangers for unhealthy food.  For most in our culture, October 31 is merely that: a fun holiday that consists of costumes, candy, and haunted hay rides.  But for the church, October 31 marks a major turning point in our history, and provides lessons to us today.

The story begins in Medieval Rome.  The doctrinal integrity of the Catholic Church was at a breaking point.  Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Empire, enabled by the church.  Every kind of moral evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by priests to the fleecing of the poor and marginalized, was taking place in the "holy city."

Into this context, in the year 1500, walks an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther.  For most of his life, this young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed.  But what he saw when he arrived shocked him to the core.  His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed.  But Luther was more offended by the way the poor and marginalized were treated by those who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus on earth.  The system of indulgences that had been set up by the church to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor not only lived in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation. The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying "if there is a hell, Rome is built over it!"

Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences in Rome for the next seven years.  But by 1507, the escalation of the abuse of the indulgences, and the extension of these abuses into more remote areas outside Rome by Tetzel's preaching would compel Martin Luther to face the corruption head on.  And face it he did, through a document that you and I now know as the 95 theses--nailed to the door of a Wittenburg castle 497 years ago on this very day.  Though initially written to reform the Roman church from within, Luther would eventually come to learn that the immorality and abuse he was witnessing was enabled by twisted theology that held the edicts of the church as a greater authority than the commands of the Lord of the church.  Medeival Rome was preaching a counterfeit Gospel, and it was time for the true church to separate herself and rise from the ashes.  The Protestant Reformation had begun.

For those who would soon be called "Lutherans," this reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530).  For other groups who joined Luther's followers in the break from medieval Catholicism, subsequent confessions of faith would be written--each of which would proclaim themselves as the "true church" over against the Catholicism out of which they had just emerged.   The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complementary foundations of the priesthood of all believers and open access by all people to the Scriptures, which at this time were being translated into the various lingua franca employed around the world.

The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward.  Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well--as it was our theological ancestors who would bear the brunt of their persecution.  What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics--and force--to silence dissent were commonplace throughout this period of history, and included the execution of those who held different views.

The big idea is this:  by the end of the Reformation period, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel, but instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia that at times crossed the line into violence.  As a result, Protestants would ultimately--and legitimately--be accused of violating Jesus' "prime directive," as the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggested to Luther that these new Protestants couldn't possibly be the true church, because they had no missionaries.

To be sure, no period of Christian history proves that sometimes, Jesus' followers are Jesus' biggest problem so much as the Reformation period.  Two corollary messages rise from these events:

1. Truth is Immortal.  What Luther eventually discovered in those days leading up to the assembly at Augsburg is that a counterfeit message produces counterfeit disciples.  While maintaining what would be considered historically essential to orthodoxy (Belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, the deity of Jesus, and the necessity of salvation through His death and resurrection), the medieval church had hidden the Gospel behind centuries of syncretized tradition which, by the 16th century, was of great benefit to Rome's ecclesial institutions, but counterproductive to the spread of Jesus' message globally.  In short, the Gospel was not preached with clarity, nor was it applied consistently to Catholic followers.  The result was an immoral, greedy, self-centered church that sought the advance of its influence through power, and the intimidation of the marginalized.  Ideas, as the late Francis Schaefer was fond of saying, have consequences.

By the time of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther had come to realize that the dastardly and oppressive actions of the church were the natural result of the bastardized "Gospel" being proclaimed by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church.  If October 31, 1517 reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us that actions flow from our true beliefs.  Want to live a lie?  Then simply start believing and proclaiming lies, and you are well on your way.  On this day, the church is well-served by remembering that Truth, as revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture alone, is the starting point for any true church.  Without it, even those who claim to follow Jesus will devolve into a 16th century Catholic-style oppression, or a Word of Faith style materialism, or an emergent-style relativism.  Our Gospel determines not only what we say, but how we live.  We'd better be sure we have the right one!

2. Truth Has a Purpose.  Truth is supposed to be spread, not "guarded" to the point that we spend more time arguing about its content than we do spreading its hope.  Protestant Christians of every tribe need to remember that not everything in our DNA is healthy.  More particularly, we need to remember that while our ancestors--including Luther whom we all hold in common--rightly began this movement with a strong critique of Roman Catholicism, a recovered Gospel does no good if we merely maintain a posture of critique and as a result continue to fight over minutiae.  Erasmus was right: no church can truly be the church without a missionary impetus that seeks to make Jesus more widely known.  Furthermore, a clear understanding of sola gratia means that we will not approach non-Christians with the presumption that we are the sole monopolizers of God's message.  Instead, we are what D.T. Niles once claimed: beggars sharing enthusiastically with other beggars where we have found bread.

It would take a separate post--or perhaps more than one--to point out the flaws of Martin Luther.  But on days like today, I'm thankful for the legacy God gave us through Luther's fiery ministry--Scripture in the language of the people, the priesthood of all believers, and the non-negotiable element of saving faith--that it comes by faith alone in a crucified, resurrected Savior.  We too, are imperfect people, prone to wander from our intended missional path onto side-roads of dissension that keep us from the more effective spread of Jesus' message.  As we reflect on the historic significance of this day and the theological axioms we've been given through it, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions:

sola scriptura: Have you drank deeply lately of the very Word of God, which has now been available in your language for many centuries?

sola fide Have you shared your ultimate hope in Jesus with others?  When was the last time this took place?

sola gratia Have you approached non-Christians, not as an autonomous knower who is better than they, but instead as a trophy of the grace of God?

sola Christo Have you shared with others the identity of Jesus with clarity, and without so much of the western cultural baggage that weights-down His image?

soli Deo gloria Have you given God the glory for how he has worked through imperfect people throughout history, and for how He has worked through you?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Theology Thursday: A Little Heresy Goes a Long way

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.  -Ecclesiastes 1:9, ESV

As King Solomon wisely stated, some things never change, and according to a new survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries, old heresies may be the greatest proof that old habits--and old ideas--die hard.

Conducted recently by Ligonier, and reported on two days ago by Bob Smietana of Lifeway Research, the study reveals "the stunning gap in theological awareness throughout our nation," says Stephen Nichols, Chief Academic Officer at Ligonier.

You can find the full article below, and the accompanying piece from Christianity Today can be accessed here.

Here is my big idea on this Theology Thursday:  Biblical Doctrine, like set of dominoes, operates in a system of interdependence.  When you push one to the side, it affects all the others.  Casual observation of what people in American evangelical churches are saying about the trinity, the person of Jesus, and the exclusivity of salvation explain the cultural "ripple effect"that has resulted in more "ground level" heresy that we witness on a more day to day basis.

We may sometimes wonder how, for example, more progressive evangelicals could possibly arrive at certain conclusions about morality, sexuality, and evangelism, or have such anemic, short-sighted views of issues like social justice.  At least part of the answer must lie in the statistics we see in these two articles--which also polled more conservative evangelical churches.  Even in conservative churches, heresy is present, even if more silent.  Though the discussions we are having in our current cultural environment seem new, they are motivated by heretical ideas that are, in fact, as old as Christendom itself.

When you get the doctrine of God wrong, everything else just goes down hill from there!

Studies like these are a clarion call for pastors to emphasize the importance of sound doctrine in their churches, and to do so in a way that clearly demonstrates the practical applications and consequences of theology.  The trinity is far from an abstract issue that doesn't affect me personally.  Without it, there is no Gospel!

I have often used this venue to advocate for stronger emphasis in expository preaching, and connecting practical "felt needs" to something deeper and more eternally profound than the needs themselves.  In short, evangelical pulpits need to anchor this world with the next one, and demonstrate in practical ways the central role of sound doctrine in making that connection.

But based on the results of this survey, we have a tall order ahead of us!

By Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE, Tenn. Most Americans believe in heaven, hell, and a few old-fashioned heresies.  
Americans disagree about mixing religion and politics and about the Bible. And few pay much heed to their pastor’s sermons or see themselves as sinners.

Those are among the findings of a new study of American views about Christian theology from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The online survey of 3,000 Americans was commissioned by Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries. Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries, says the study was intended to “take the temperature of America’s theological health.”

Ligonier founder and chairman, R.C. Sproul, says, “What comes screaming through this survey is the pervasive influence of humanism.” Researchers asked 43 questions about faith, covering topics from sin and salvation to the Bible and the afterlife. They wanted to know how people in the pews—and people on the street—understand theology.

Many Americans get the basics right, but they’re often fuzzy on the details, says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “People like to believe in a generic Christian-ish god with cafeteria doctrines,” says Stetzer. “However, when we asked about harder beliefs—things that the church has and still considers orthodoxy—the numbers shift.”

Among the study’s findings:

Americans say heaven is a real place. But they disagree about who gets in.
Two thirds (67 percent) of Americans believe heaven is a real place. That includes, following standard demographic categories, 9 in 10 Black Protestants (88 percent) and evangelicals (90 percent), three quarters of Catholics (75 percent) as well as a third of non-Christians (37 percent).

Just under half of Americans (45 percent) say there are many ways to heaven—which conflicts with traditional views about salvation being linked to faith in Jesus.

Catholics (67 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are most likely to say heaven’s gates are wide open with many ways in. Evangelicals (19 percent) and Black Protestants (33 percent) are more skeptical.
About half of Americans (53 percent) say salvation is in Christ alone. Four in 10 (41 percent) say people who have never heard of Jesus can still get into heaven. And 3 in 10 (30 percent) say people will have a chance to follow God after they die.

Hell is a real place, too. But you have to be really bad to go there.
About 6 in 10 Americans (61 percent) say hell is a real place. Black Protestants (86 percent) and Evangelicals (87 percent) are most likely to say hell is real. Catholics (66 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are less convinced.

Overall, Americans don't seem too worried about sin or being sent to hell. Two-thirds (67 percent) say most people are basically good, even though everyone sins a little bit—an optimistic view of human nature at odds with traditional teaching about human sin.

Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans (18 percent) say even small sins should lead to damnation, while about half (55 percent) say God has a wrathful side.

When it comes to faith, Americans like a do-it-yourself approach.

Most Americans (71 percent), and in particular Black Protestants (82 percent) and Catholics (87 percent), say people must contribute some effort toward their own salvation. Two thirds (64 percent) say in order to find peace with God, people have to take the first step, and then God responds to them with grace. 

That sounds right to many people, says Stetzer, especially in our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture. But it doesn’t reflect the Christian idea that faith is a response to God’s grace.  

Many Americans also don't mind being disconnected from a local church. About half (52 percent) say worshiping alone or with family is as good as going to church.

Almost all (82 percent) say their local church has no authority to “declare that I am not a Christian.” More than half (56 percent) believe their pastor’s sermons have no authority in their life, while slightly less than half (45 percent) say the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose.

Americans believe in the Trinity. But the details don’t reflect traditional views of orthodoxy.

About 7 in 10 (71 percent) Americans believe in the Trinity. That’s the idea that one God exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But few—even those in evangelical denominations—seem to grasp the details of how Christians have historically taught the Trinity. More than half of evangelicals (59 percent), for example, say the Holy Spirit is a force – not a personal being. Ten percent are not sure, while 31 percent agree the Spirit is a person. Overall, two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say the Holy Spirit is a force.

More than 1 in 7 Americans (15 percent) say the Holy Spirit is less divine than God the Father and Jesus. A third (33 percent) believe God the Father is more divine than Jesus. One in 5 (19 percent) say Jesus was the first creature made by God. All of those run counter to Christian doctrine as found in historic creeds of the Church.

Some Americans like the Bible. Others are skeptical.

About half of Americans (48 percent) believe the Bible is the Word of God. Four in 10 (43 percent) say the Bible is 100 percent accurate, while a similar share of Americans (41 percent) say it’s helpful but not literally true.  
Evangelicals (76 percent) and Black Protestants (67 percent) are most likely to say the Bible is accurate. Mainline Protestants (50 percent) and Catholics (49 percent) lean toward the Bible being helpful but not literally true.
The Bible is not the only religious text Americans disagree on. About half (54 percent) disagree when asked if the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God. About 10 percent say the Book of Mormon was revealed by God, while another 36 percent say they are not sure.

Americans disagree about sex, God and politics.

About 4 in 10 (42 percent) Americans—and more than half (55 percent) of non-Christians—say churches should remain silent about politics.

Among Christian groups, Catholics (47 percent) and Mainline Protestants (44 percent) want less politics in church. Black Protestants (31 percent) and Evangelicals (26 percent) are less likely to want their church to skip politics.

Less than half (48 percent) of Americans say sex outside of marriage is a sin. Christian groups are split on the topic. Mainline Protestants (44 percent) and Catholics (40 percent) don’t see sex outside of marriage as sinful. Three quarters of Black Protestants (74 percent) and evangelicals (76 percent) believe it is.

The study’s overall results, Nichols says, show churches have a lot of work to do. “This study demonstrates the stunning gap in theological awareness throughout our nation, in our neighborhoods, and even in the seat next to us at church,” Nichols says.

Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine.

A demographically balanced online panel was used for interviewing American adults. Three thousand surveys were completed February 25 – March 5, 2014. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the online panel does not exceed +1.8%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Slight weights were used to balance religion and gender and remove constant raters.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Seeking Allah: Finding Jesus

On November 2, the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network Engagement Team, which I'm honored to lead, is hosting a simulcast in four churches across our region entitled "Seeking Allah: Finding Jesus."  The meeting will be hosted by Lee Strobel and Mark Mittleberg, but will feature the personal story of Dr. Nabeel Qureshi, a Pakistani American who grew up in a devout Muslim home, and who has become a follower of Jesus.

It is an understatement to say that Islam is a hot topic these days.  Once a largely regional religion that was, for the most part, confined to north Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the middle east, this faith has grown exponentially in recent years.  More than 1.5 billion people around the world call themselves Muslim, and the faith they seek to follow has now earned a respected voice in many nations all over the world.  Any faith that large and that wide-spread will also be incredibly diverse (think about the difference between an eastern orthodox Armenian priest and an Alabama Pentecostal pastor.  Both are Christian!)  That means if we are to understand those we befriend who adhere to this faith, we don't arrive at that understanding by merely reading their authority sources--in this case the Koran and the Hadith.  We understand them and what they believe by building relationships and asking questions.

As a missiologist, I look at this challenge from the standpoint of the Great Commission mandate the Lord Jesus gave to His followers.  As one who has many dear friends in the Muslim community, I want to engage this issue in a way that honestly represents who I know those men and women to be.  Doing so requires that followers of Jesus share their faith in the context of unconditional friendships.  My friends know what I believe--to the extent that it will neither surprise or offend them to find this blog post.  But they also know of my love for them, and that this love isn't conditioned on whether they become Christian.  Its a love that seeks to understand who they are and what they believe.

"Seeking Allah: Finding Jesus" seeks these same goals.  Dr. Qureshi has "walked in both worlds," growing up the child of a Naval officer Father and a mother whose parents were Muslim missionaries.  He will describe his journey toward faith in Jesus Christ, along with what it cost him to make that decision, and he will do it in a way that still honors his father and mother, while standing firm in what he now believes:  that Jesus is the Christ; the Son of the Living God.

Regardless of your faith, this is a compelling story that both Christians and Muslims should hear.  Muslims who hear Nabeel's story will come away with a much better understanding of the Gospel--which too many times has been presented to Muslims in a way that sounds less like the best news on earth, and more like a cultural invasion.  Christians likewise, will come away with a better understanding of the passion that resides in the hearts of most who follow Islam.  And in the end, the clear distinctions between these two faiths will be made known.  Jesus is either God or He is not.  Salvation is either by faith alone, or through human works and submission.  Both cannot be true, and eternity hangs in the balance.  Therefore, the greatest expression of love for another human being is to share your faith with them.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ, pick a site that is near you and join us at this event this Sunday night, and through it, learn to stop talking "about" Muslims, and start talking "with" them.  To my Muslim friends, I hope you join us as well.  The four churches hosting this will welcome you with open arms!  And regardless of your personal conclusions about this young man's story, I think you will walk away with a much better understanding of what it means to be Christian.

Again, the locations for the simulcast can be found here:  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sex: The New State Religion

Religious Freedom in America is dying.  Though this has been stated often, and ignored just as often, rolling one's eyes at the statement doesn't make it less true.

The biggest irony here is that the vehicle being used--possibly in an unintentional way--to kill religious freedom is the very vehicle everyone in the country was assured would not affect it--laws that now codify our current sexual revolution, and are most visible in cases involving abortion and LGBT rights.

Those who favor these laws have for years assured Christians that these changes in the law would not in any way affect religious freedom, or infringe on the consciences of those who believe these actions to be sinful.  Many of us responded by saying that these moves would in fact affect religious liberty--perhaps in an irreversible way.  Turns out, we were right.

A number of recent examples point clearly to this fact, most recently a California law that now requires churches with group health plans to cover abortion services.  And just last week, there was the debacle surrounding the Mayor's office in Houston, Texas, which in response to statements and petition drives from area churches sought to subpoena sermons and other correspondence.  Though I sometimes find myself in disagreement with Ecclesia Pastor Chris Seay, I found his open letter to Houston's Mayor to be a perfect combination of humility before Caesar, and bold confidence in the God who rules above Caesar.  You should read it here:

Additionally, my friend Tim McKnight, who teaches Missions at Anderson University in my home state, has written a thorough and accurate post on the history of religious liberty, the role of Christians in securing it, and the way it has been turned on its head over the past few decades.  You can read that one here:

In light of so much happening at once on this front, I expect those of no faith to believe and behave as they do.  But I've been particularly disappointed in what seem to be many misinformed Christ-followers who greet these developments with a shrug and a question of "what's the big deal?"

Well, to doctors, insurance administrators, bakers, photographers, coordinators and venue operators who have been sued and threatened with fines and jail time by the government, its a VERY big deal.  Earlier in the year, I wrote on the issue of gay weddings to encourage Christ-followers in those professions to consider serving gay couples as an expression of the love of Christ, but in that same article, I was also clear that such service should not be rendered by orders of the compelling influence of Caesar.

And now, continued threats of fiscal and criminal punishment have been leveled for the first time at ordained ministers who refused to officiate at a gay wedding, merely because they operate a "for profit" wedding chapel.  The message in this one case is clear:  Religious freedom only applies if you are "non-profit."

Yet from the other side, people of faith are told that even as a "non-profit" your free speech is limited.  Rather than deal honestly and straightforwardly with the honest differences we have, the far-left have sought to silence the voice of the church by categorizing certain moral issues as "political," and consequently threatening the church's tax-exempt status for speaking on issues that for centuries have been understood to be the clear domain of faith communities.

In short, the two-sided approach to killing religious liberty is clear:  Punish "for-profit" entities for living their convictions,  punish "non-profit" ones for speaking publicly about their convictions, and do both from a position of power wherein government presumptuously monopolizes the conversation, and silences dissenters.  This is intellectual and political cowardice at its worst.  And when taken together, recent events reveal three clear trends that, if not stopped, threaten the very existence of religious freedom in America.

Followers of Jesus who don't see these trends want to be compassionate--especially toward our LGBT neighbors, and like them, I want to see the church continue on its present learning curve so that these image-bearers of God are increasingly treated with the dignity and respect they are owed as human beings.  But those who shrug their shoulders at concern over our current sexual revolution in the west and its more recent effects on our legal system are looking past some rather ominous shifts.  In particular, this current revolution has resulted in the following:

1. It turns religious freedom on its head. The First Amendment to our Constitution places no limits on individuals, or even corporations--be they for-profit or non-profit--in regard to religious liberty.  Quite the contrary, the Constitution actually limits Congress. I find it incredible that government at any level presumes the right to instruct people of faith--individually or corporately--as to what they can and cannot say inside their houses of worship, and what they can and cannot do (or refuse to do) outside those houses of worship.  Rather than adhering to what the Founders of this country called our "first freedom," they are by legislation and judicial fiat establishing a state religion, and that religion is sex. But what I find more incredible are those who claim to follow Christ who seem to be OK with government attempts to be Lord of the conscience.

2. It defines marriage as a "right." I have dealt before with the misconception of marriage as a "right" here, yet I must admit the highly effective message discipline practiced in recent years by those who use deceptively beautiful phrases like "marriage equality."  Those who aggressively favor homosexual unions have been largely successful in couching their agenda in the verbiage of "civil rights."  If interracial marriage is permitted, for example, then what is wrong with allowing two men or two women to be wed to each other?  In responding to this question, evangelicals have too often accepted the premise of that question.  Rather than speaking of who does and does not have a "right" to marry, we should continue to point out that no one--not even heterosexual couples--have a "right" to marriage.  Historically, this institution has been viewed as a status of privilege, and this truth is functionally proven by the fact that although a clerk of court may be forced by law to issue a license, no public official--minister, notary public, or judge--is required to perform the ceremony(at least, not until now).  Marriage is not a "right."

Consequently, a marriage license is not a statement of "tolerance," but affirmation.  Through a marriage license, the public via their local government is saying "this is a good thing, not only for this couple, but also for society as a whole, which has always benefited from strong families that have a strong marriage as their anchor."    It's one thing to ask for equality in public accommodations, or housing, or employment.  These are rights that should belong to any human being created in God's image and likeness.  But when the homosexual community asks for the privilege of marriage, they are asking for more than mere "tolerance," and we are seeing proof of this in the civil and criminal cases that are now unfolding before us.

3. It illustrates the results of postmodern thought.  Philosophical postmodernism can only ultimately lead to one place:  nihilism.  And, we are seeing the results of that slide before our very eyes.  The ironic foundation of a radically relativistic epistemology comes full circle when those who find themselves in the majority seek to impose one view of what "tolerance" means to them on everyone else using the power of the state.  This is precisely what we are witnessing in our current environment, which says to people of faith "keep it to yourselves, keep it in your church buildings, synagoges or mosques, and don't dare try to apply it outside those realms," and calls such restriction "religious liberty."

In the end, this isn't about the homosexual community.  Its not about "tolerance" and its not about protecting a vulnerable class of people.  Its about a guiding philosophy that is currently taking us on a dangerous, agenda-driven trajectory.  The next issue could very well involve your own church, and/or your own pastor.  It might even involve you merely seeking to follow your own convictions as a follower of Jesus, and facing fines or even imprisonment for doing so.  Followers of Jesus asking "what's the big deal?" need to be cured of their ignorance, pull their head out of the sand, and join pastors like Chris Seay in speaking out before its too late.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Theology Thursday: The Complementarian Conundrum, Part II. How Fathers Can Raise Strong Women

In last week's Theology Thursday, I spoke to the exegetical case for male headship.  This week, I want to focus on one expression of how this teaching is applied in a practical way.  Too often, those who hold to the complementarian position have a rather monolithic cultural expression of that position, and this approach is what often brings the well-known criticism from egalitarians that sounds a lot like "you guys just want to take us back to the 1950s!"  

In short, the monolithic way complementarian teaching is applied in the west often results in complementarianism itself being blamed as the culprit for why women are abused, stereotyped, or raised to be "weak."  What follows us a post I wrote sometime ago that demonstrates how the idea of male headship is working itself out in my own home.  

Can Complementarian Fathers Raise Strong Women?

I believe the Scriptures teach that in the marriage relationship, wives should submit themselves to the leadership of their husbands, as husbands conversely love their wives by ultimately sacrificing their lives for their brides.  That isn't limited to being willing to die for her.  It also includes living for her exclusively, and giving of yourself without thought.  

The cultural description for this position is called complementarianism, and it is the belief that while men and women are essentially equal image bearers of God, they bear functional distinctions that complement each other.  The theological term for this concept is "male headship," and even in many evangelical Christian circles, its about as popular as a Philly steak-laden belch in a crowded elevator.

I dealt with the Biblical and theological rationale for this position last week.  Today, I want to address concerns I've heard lately that ask what kind of women emerge from homes that follow this philosophy of marriage and family.  Many have implied, and a few more have explicitly stated that male headship teaches women to be "weak."

Well, as the father of a 5 year old daughter, I certainly don't have all the answers.  Truth be told, having a daughter has raised many more questions than I had prior to her arrival in our family more than 3 years ago!  Furthermore, I acknowledge that I can't ultimately control the outcomes of my children's lives.  They will all ultimately make their own decisions.  But this doesn't relieve me of my responsibility as a dad to raise them in the fear of the Lord, nor does it justify abdication of setting goals for what I want to help my children accomplish.  

I also admit that for far too many, "headship" is ill-defined as something that benefits dad, and it sometimes takes the form of Dad being a drill-sergeant to the whole family.  Those guys aren't leaders.  They are jerks.  And they aren't practicing Biblical headship.  Instead, they are practicing a form of chauvinistic, gender-specified fascism.  Men, if the way you lead your home makes you more comfortable and your family less secure, whatever you are practicing isn't what the Scriptures call "headship."

So, what is the profile of a young woman raised in a complementarian home?  Well, I'm going to do my best to see the following realized in my little girl.

1. I will teach her to love Jesus.  This is the most important decision any of my children can make.  I want my daughter exposed frequently to the message that she, like the rest of humanity, is fallen in her sin and in desperate need of a Savior.  I want her to learn how to share her faith, and how to present the Gospel above the fray of "comparative religions" so that Jesus is truly seen as being offered to the whole world.

2. I will teach her to be well-read and globally aware.  I want her to be able to have intelligent discussions relative to science, politics, technology, culture, and faith.  And when I say "intelligent discussions," I mean the sort of invigorating talk that will cause her to react with a yawn to tired "talking heads" on TV, or to the over-simplified arguments that are so often given in our current culture-war environment.  I want her to know how the world works--not just our country, but the world!  I want her to be comfortable having discussions about global issues with anyone on the globe! And, I want to instill a compassion in her that will serve as a "pilot light" to ignite the knowledge she gains into action that will serve others in the name of Jesus.

I want her to be comfortable living anywhere in the world, and competent with the cross-cultural skills that should befit any young person whose prime of life will span the mid-21st century.  Most importantly, I want her to develop a genuine love for people of every nation, tongue and tribe.  I want her to have fun exploring the world God created and the people He placed in it.

3. I will teach her to fight.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where too many young men are emerging as barbarians who have no idea how to treat a woman.  Everything from over-sexualized commercials to the trafficking and sex trade itself betrays that even full-blown, tolerant egalitarianism can't wipe away the propensity of some men to treat women like a commodity.  

To be sure, I have no problem being her protector, and in the event that her safety is threatened by said meat-heads, I would have no problem using my own bare hands to pound them into a bloody pulp to the greater glory of God and the joy of all mankind.  But since I'm realistic enough to know that I won't always be there, I intend to teach my princess how to defend herself.  If she needs training that can't be provided by her old man, we will send her to classes.  But at the end of the day, I want my young lady to know how to completely and permanently wash out a guy's kneecap, as well as how to be disabling with a groin shot or pepper spray, and if absolutely necessary, lethally accurate with a 9mm.  

I want her to cherish peace, and stay away from trouble if she is able.  But when confronted with a threat to her safety or the safety of weaker people with her, I want her to be able to take care of business. (and for what it's worth, she's already proving at 5 to have the spunk to do it. Just ask her two older brothers!)

4. I will teach her self-awareness.  I want her to discover how God has gifted her, and help her develop and use those gifts for His glory.  Through everything from choosing hobbies to determining how she will educate herself, I want her to know beyond a doubt who God has created her to be, and I want her to live out the purpose for why she was placed on this planet at this time in history.  

Her mother and I are keenly aware of her "life story" from the time she was born until the moment we met her at a hotel in Lanzhou, China.  There is no doubt in our minds that God gave her to us for the purpose of raising her up for great things.  So, she will need to learn what she is good at, and what she isn't good at.  She will need to learn how to check her own gut, and make sound judgement calls based on Scriptural principles applied to her own self-awareness.  Whatever she decides to do professionally will be greatly enhanced if she does it with a keen sense of self-awareness.

5. I will teach her discernment when it comes to boys.  In some sense, she is in the worst possible environment for meeting boys.  As a pastor's daughter, she will no doubt meet a lot of meat-heads who can fake it really well and talk about Jesus in a way that is so convincing that it seems they actually know Him personally.  But there is a huge, HUGE difference between men of God and "church boys."  And I intend to teach her the difference.

It is unfortunate that in so many churches, young men are allowed and almost blessed to remain immature, unemployed, uneducated, irresponsible, and generally ambivalent about anything in life except their latest high score in Halo.  Additionally, many young men are highly capable of employing "church language" to fool a gal into thinking that they are sincere in their walk with Jesus, when in reality they just sincerely want to take advantage of the girl.  

Regrettably, the church--the one environment where strong men should be ever present and ready to help young bucks with their needed cranial-rectal extractions--is often the place perceived to be filled with women and weak men.  And the result in too many churches can be a minefield of spiritual sounding 30-year-old adolescents who don't have their own act together and are consequently in no way qualified to marry--which means they have no business dating!  As blunt and crass as it may sound, most "Christian" young men are absolutely and completely full of crap.  Egalitarianism won't fix that problem. Real men of God, taking the lead, will fix it.

Fortunately, my little girl has a daddy who was once one of those young men.  I know them well because, well, I WAS one of them.  Thankfully, I had strong men who taught me Sunday School and walked with me in life in my church, which helped me more quickly cross over the bridge of authenticity from "church boy" to "man of God."  I honestly don't know where I would be today without men like Markley Edwards and Bill Merritt, who were straight and frank with me about what God expects from young men who belong to Him.

By the time she is ready to date young men, I want her "Bull meter" to be hyper-sensitive, because I don't want my young lady married to a loser she has to support one day because he is too busy still being an adolescent idiot.  And in the event that said adolescents try to force something on my little girl: well, see # 3 above.  :)

6. I will teach her to have a healthy self-image not defined by men, or by women's magazines aimed at men.  The percentage of young ladies today obsessed with their body image is astronomical, and sad.  So called "women's" magazines--which in reality are no more than rags teaching females how to be everything desired by a middle-aged boy who can shave--simply enhance this crisis of ladies who are implicitly told to interpret the whole of their existence though she shape of their bodies and the aggressive expression of their sexuality.

My little girl knows Dad thinks she is beautiful, and she always will.  But there is something else I think fathers should teach their daughters that is far more important; that GOD thinks they are beautiful just as they are.  As such, no one else's opinion matters.  If they disagree, then they are simply wrong.  From our Creator originates all things, including the base definition of "beauty."  In light of His all-expansive, multi-ethnic, expression of the concept through a myriad of body types, hair colors, and cultural fashion expressions all around the world, a nearly naked, borderline anorexic Victoria's Secret model shouldn't be seen as the "ideal."  If anything, that picture should be beneath our little girls.  And any boys who see that picture as the ideal should be beneath them as well.

Our daughters should have a healthy image of themselves as truly beautiful, and they should be given the creativity within Biblical boundaries of modesty to express that beauty in a way that enhances this healthy self-image.  Furthermore, she should never, ever change her appearance merely to satisfy a male suitor.

7. I will teach her how to be a voice of wisdom.  Though I don't believe God placed the burden of ultimate responsibility on women in the home or the church, I also reject the idea that male headship means that a woman's voice isn't to be highly valued.  I don't want my daughter bearing burdens God never intended her to bear.  But I do want her to be a meaningful contributor, and valued ministry partner with those who are charged with that burden.

I can't count the times I've been "saved" by no more than a gentle touch of my arm by my wife, who pulls me back from the edge, and speaks great wisdom by giving me a broader perspective I did not previously have.  Honestly, the churches I serve has been spared plenty by my hand because I have a godly wife who headed my stupid ideas off at the pass!  (And I'm not the only one who realizes this.  See Ed Litton's post here.)

I want my daughter to be a voice of wisdom like her mother, and I want her to use that voice frequently, whether it is a work, or at church benefiting her pastor, or at home benefiting her husband if indeed God grants her a spouse.

8. I will teach her that she doesn't "need" a man.  Too many women are encouraged to find the lion's share of their future as beginning on their wedding day.  To be sure, its a big day, and certainly a major milestone that should last a lifetime.  But there is a previous step to this vision that is all-too-often missed in many Christian homes:  If she doesn't know herself, and isn't confident in herself, marriage won't fix the problem.  It will make it worse.

I recently met a new leader at one of our churches.  She is my age, gainfully employed as a professional, confident in her role and calling, and has never been married.  She isn't some rabid feminist with a chip on her shoulder, and she isn't bitter toward men.  She simply learned who she was in Christ, and accepts that she can fulfill that role faithfully without a husband.  And she is right!

It is true that most women will get married, and most will want to get married.  That's OK.  At the same time, our daughters should be taught that they don't "need" to get married--at least not in the same way that they need food, shelter and clothing.  Our daughters have a greater daddy than us in their Heavenly Father.  If they are Christian, they have a husband in His Son, and they have a protector/provider/empowering affirming presence in His Holy Spirit.  I want my little girl to know that she is already complete, and doesn't need a spouse to be complete.  

If God grants her a husband, then that is a wonderful thing that she should cherish, and in that event, fairy-tale day dreams about the wedding day are fine. If however, she ends up like Lottie Moon and foregoes marriage for the sake of a greater mission; well, she will be in good company!  

9. I will teach her that men who can accept all of the above might...might be worthy of her submission.  Simply put, I will teach my daughter that men who are too weak to lead a strong woman--men who are intimidated by strong women--aren't fit to be husbands.  Typically, these kinds of men manifest in one of two ways: they are either the obvious "wimp" who never makes a decision and leads the way, or he becomes a "dictator" in his own home; overpowering the voice of his wife by intimidating her because, deep down, he is afraid to admit that sometimes, she might be smarter than he is!  I believe that wives should submit themselves to the leadership of their husbands.  I also believe that women who want to become wives should choose carefully to whom they will submit.

Candidly, this is the point where mate selection breaks down almost irrevocably in our culture.  Cultural pressures encourage young women to try and get the guy with the prettiest eyes, the best hair, or the hottest car.  Books and movies marketed to teen girls enable such surface-level criteria for establishing a long-lasting relationship.  I won't keep my daughter from those movies.  I'd much rather see her roll her eyes in disgust after seeing one.  But the only way that will happen is if Dad teaches her how to think critically and deeply about the kinds of relationships she develops.  If you can't see yourself ever trusting the leadership of a particular young man, then you shouldn't marry him.  And if you aren't going to marry him, then you have no business dating him!

10. I will teach her that it is up to her.  From a purely statistical standpoint, there is a 90% chance that one day, my role as provider and protector of my daughter will come to an end on her wedding day.  More than likely, sometime within the next two decades I will escort her down an aisle, and give her to another man.  In that moment, she will become his responsibility.  In the meantime, I can give advice and counsel.  I can offer my blessing on her relationships when I believe they are wise.  And, I can warn her when I perceive her to be going down the wrong road.  But ultimately, it is up to her to decide who she marries.  Ultimately, it is up to her whether she gets married.

Additionally, her own life decisions regarding education, career, and calling require the guidance of two parents who love her very much.  Yes, my wife and I want a complementarian daughter.  No, we do not want to raise a "doormat."  We want to raise a strong woman.  And by God's grace, and especially within the gender framework we believe He has designed, we believe we can.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Mission Monday: Social Media as a Digital "Mission Field."

In the first church I ever served as pastor, I had a sign conspicuously hung at the exit to the main doors of the sanctuary front.  That sign read "You are now entering the mission field!"  Though well-intentioned, I would realize over the next several years--as most new pastors do--that the real line between church and mission field is not geographic.  Its the line between belief and unbelief--between repentance and rebellion.  And that line can be found within nearly every visible church on the planet.

We now live in a world where lines of segregation with regard to mission are disappearing fast.  One example of this is the line between "domestic" and "international."  More than 120 languages are spoken within a 30 mile radius of my central Maryland home.  And even southern cities like Dallas now boast a foreign-born population that exceeds 40%.  The world is becoming smaller.  And even if you don't live in an area like that, the laptop, tablet or phone you are using to read this article gives you instant access to that world!

With these realities in view, this is a crucial time for churches to understand and participate in the social media revolution.  Last night, the Mid-Maryland Association held its annual meeting, which included a large  breakout session led by my friend Marty Duren on how Christians and churches can be the presence of Christ on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like.  A few in that room are just getting used to the idea and needed remedial help.  Other more tech-savvy folks received some great principles for how to establish your presence, draw an audience, and incarnate the Gospel into a digital atmosphere.

While Marty said many helpful things, the one principle I wish everyone in Christendom had heard last night was this one:

Don't obsess over anything except Jesus.

As he said this, my mind immediately took me to Paul's second letter to Corinth, where he calls Christians "ambassadors for Christ." (2 Cor. 5:20)  Never has there been a more important time for followers of Jesus to wear that identity and responsibility.  And never has there been a more critical place to live out this principle than cyber-space.

We all have our opinions.  We all have our political positions.  And we all have very strong opinions about a lot of things.  And every so often, its OK to let those be known.  If you troll my social media pages, you can probably find out how I feel about a wide range of issues.  But if I am to honor the spirit of 2 Corinthians 5, I need to ask myself whether people have to look very hard to know what I believe about Jesus.  

What about your social media presence?  If the average non-Christian looked at your Facebook page or Instagram site, what would they see?  When they turned off their tablet or closed their laptop, what would they say is your passion?  Your focus?

If you want to use social media as an outlet for evangelism, this question must always be at the back of your mind.  I'm not encouraging you to log-jam your friends' networks with pithy Christian memes (in fact, I'd say that's not 'mission' at all.  Its just very, very annoying, but that's another post for another day).  I"m just asking whether we talk more about Calvinism, college football, gun control, eschatology, Islam, alcohol, marginal income tax rates, gay marriage, Israel, immigration, the world series, patriotism, or Jesus?

In his first letter to Corinth, Paul put it this way.  "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."  Perhaps this morning is a great time to commit ourselves to that very same principle on Facebook.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Theology Thursday: The Complementarian Conundrum

One of the most noticeable cultural characteristics of evangelical Christianity are the counter-cultural elements that set us apart from the world, and there is possibly no more hotly debated topic that the issue of gender roles and relationships.  Where these particular issues are concerned, discussion becomes more heated because there is disagreement even within the body of Christ, and most of this heat is aimed at those who identify as "complementation."  

This group--which includes myself--believes that while men and women are created as equal image-bearers of God, Scripture prescribes a pattern in the home and the church that clearly call for male leadership.  Our egalitarian brothers and sisters attack this position from both exegetical and practical standpoints, and often the accusation is made that the complementarian exegetical case is weak, as well as practically untenable.

Admittedly, as a complementation I find much of the "scholarship" aimed at defending the position I hold to be lacking, and I certainly concede that a more hierarchical application of my position can lead to neglect, disrespect, and even outright abuse of women.  So for the next two "Theology Thursdays," I want to address these two issues as they are raised by my egalitarian friends.  Today, I deal with the exegetical case via an article I wrote years ago responding to Dr. Gordon Fee.  Fee's article "Male and Female in the New Creation," was published in the book Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy.  

My apologies for the length and depth of this post.  It is necessary to be appropriately thorough.

Next week, I will speak (with much more brevity) to the practical application of complementation teaching--specifically as it relates to my own daughter.  My egalitarian brothers--and the rest of the world--may still strongly disagree, but my hope is that they are forced to recognize both genuine scholarship and balanced application of "male headship" in the home and the church.

Equal in Essence, Distinct In Function:  A Response to Gordon Fee's Exegesis of Galatians 3:26-28

Gordon D. Fee is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College. He is a prolific author and articulate theologian, whose exegetical skills have been frequently utilized, most notably in his contributions to the New International Commentary on the New Testament. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God, and received his Ph.D. from the University of California.

The classic exegetical argument for egalitarians who believe all ecclesiastical offices and functions should be open to women has its foundation in Galatians 3:26-29. Based on this text, evangelical egalitarians contend that Paul is eliminating all social and ceremonial distinction within the body of Christ and therefore, is eliminating any barrier to service based on the criteria listed in the text. Since the distinction between “male and female” (v. 28) is among the barriers Paul seeks to remove, the classical egalitarian argument has been that to prohibit women from serving as pastors is tantamount to replacing the very wall of separation in Christ’s body that Paul himself sought to tear down.

Evangelical complementarians have historically responded to this rationale by affirming the soteriological implications of gender equality delineated in this passage, while simultaneously contending that the Pauline rationale behind the Galatian correspondence does not address the particular gender functions within the body of Christ. The complementarian hermeneutic of this passage is that while the soteriological principles contained therein require the elimination of distinctions, Biblical principles of ecclesiology place both genders, equal in essence, into distinct functions within Christ’s body. These functions are not described in detail in Galatians because, say complementarians, the primary focus of this letter is not ecclesiological. To discover gender role distinctions in the church, the appropriate place to look is the Pastoral Epistles, which deal more particularly with church order.

In short, complementarians contend that while the Galatians passage indeed makes all of humanity equal in Christ, this equality is only truly realized when men and women work within the church, within their Biblically defined roles. More succinctly, Galatians teaches equality in salvation, while the Pastoral Epistiles commend complementarity within the church.

Yet in his article entitled Male and Female in the New Creation, Fee seeks to overturn the classic complementarian argument by asserting that Galatians is in fact a primarily ecclesiological work. His own egalitarian views are in fact informed by his view that “the specifics of this passage itself indicate that this text has to do with Paul’s ecclesiology” (184). The process by which Fee arrives at this conclusion, and an exegetical response to his contentions, are the subject of the rest of this article.

Fee begins his chapter by introducing the crux of the exegetical debate; namely whether the Galatians passage is “limited to the justifying work of Christ alone, or does it include other aspects of life in the believing community as well?” (172). With this question in view, he proceeds with an isogogical analysis of the surrounding texts as a way of making the case for his view of the primary issue Paul addressed in the letter. Galatians, according to Fee, is Paul’s response to the crisis of “Christian ‘agitators’” who “had infiltrated these Gentile churches insisting that men be circumcised . . .the crucial item of a larger agenda of Torah observance that would have included the Sabbath and food laws as well” (173). On this point evangelicals of both the complemetarian and egalitarian viewpoints agree.

The first point of contention, as Fee sees it, is the particular historical lens through which this text is received. “Traditionally,” he states, “it [the strategy for reading Paul’s response] has been to read it through the eyes of Martin Luther” (173). Fee of course is referring to Luther’s monolithic understanding of Galatians 2:16 as applied to his own 16th century historical context. To view the Galatian correspondence only in this light is, according to Fee, “a slightly skewed reading strategy” (173). While Fee sees the theological concept of justification by faith as a primary theme of the letter, he views this theme alone as insufficient to procure a correct reading of the entire epistle.

As Fee sees it, the larger issue pressed in the letter is that of bringing together Jew and Gentile as one people of God. According to Fee, the bigger crisis in Paul’s mind “has to do with whether Gentiles get in on the promise to Abraham . . .without also taking on Jewish identity; especially those marks of identity that specifically distinguished Jews from Gentiles in the Diaspora (circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws)” (174). In other words, the issue of Justification by Faith is to be viewed within the larger framework of the inclusion of non-“God-fearing” Gentiles among the people of God. To make his case, Paul argues in a two-fold way for the “temporary, thus secondary, nature of the law” (175), and then concludes his argument with the passage currently under consideration, contending that the true heirs of the Abrahamic promise are those who have become “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28b).

After making his case for the primary purpose of Galatians, Fee then proceeds to cast what he sees as the primary issue of this letter within the larger theological motif of the “new creation.” If Jew and Gentile now relate to God on the same terms, then this reality is grounded in Paul’s own conviction “that Christ and the Spirit have ushered in God’s promised ‘new creation,’ which is now awaiting its final eschatological consummation (Gal 6:15)” (177).

Fee proceeds from this point to describe new creation theology, and then moves to draw implications of this theological method for the gender issue under consideration in his article. Primarily, Fee contends that new creation theology implies that “equality” not only applies to salvation, but to the entire created order. Thus, “one must begin by taking Paul seriously with regard to ethnicity, status and gender no longer being relevant for constituting value and social identity in the new creation” (179).

Furthermore, Fee asserts that this new order has a strong eschatological tone, which would have been “the primary way the earliest believers understood their existence” (179). Such thinking, Fee contends, is largely foreign to the Western mind, which is mostly accustomed to a culture of equality and thus, unfamiliar to a large extent with how radically counter-cultural Paul’s statements would have been to first-century readers. Fee states that the “nature of this affirmation, its counter-cultural significance, the fact that it equally disadvantages all by equally advantaging all—these stab at the very heart of a culture sustained by people’s maintaining the right position and status. But in Christ Jesus . . .all things have become new; the new era has dawned” (180)

Fee then spends the next several paragraphs extrapolating from “new creation” texts (such as that found in 1 Corinthians 7) how these implications affected the Christian culture of the first century. Within the body of Christ for example, no preference is to be given for kosher meals, and no disadvantage placed because of one’s status as a slave. Such distinctions “mean nothing in the new creation” (182).

Fee then applies the aforementioned new creation principles to the relationship of male and female, and in so doing, begins moving back toward the text under consideration with this assumption. In the newly created and Christ-centered home, the wife is no longer merely a member of the husband’s home, but is “in relationship to him” (184). Because they are both members of the one body without distinction, Fee contends that husband and wife are, “first of all brother and sister in Christ” (184). Fee’s conclusion on this basis is that “either may prophesy or teach (1 cor. 14:26)—which are matters of Spirit gifting, not gender—as long as some cultural norms that distinguish male and female were maintained (1 Cor. 11:2-16)” (184). I

n short, Fee’s logic is that if one is not disqualified from certain church offices and functions because he is a Gentile, or because he is a slave, then neither should a woman be disqualified based merely on her gender. He concludes this chapter by asserting that “to give continuing significance to a male-authority viewpoint for men and women, whether at home or in the church, is to reject the new creation in favor of the norms of a fallen world” (185).

Critical Analysis of Fee’s Exegesis

Before noting the many points of disagreement with Fee, it serves to point out the many places where Fee and other egalitarians find much common ground with their complementarian counterparts. First of all, there is general agreement regarding the overall theme of the Galatian correspondence; namely, the call for understanding that the people of God, Jew or Gentile, are all “one” in Christ. Though it is an oversimplification to claim this as the central theme, Fee will find no complementarian in disagreement with the notion that because of Christ, all distinctions, social and otherwise, become of no advantage or disadvantage. Paul’s declaration that “you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v.28) emphasizes a truth found in both didactic and narrative literature throughout the entire New Testament corpus; all ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross.

Second, Fee is to be commended for his strong emphasis regarding the essential equality of male and female. In Christ, gender is “no longer . . .relevant for constituting value and social identity in the new creation” (179). Though the Scriptures clearly delineate functional distinctions between male and female in the home and church—distinctions which will be defined and discussed later—Fee emphasizes well that because of the Gospel, one’s gender does not add or take away dignity or value, nor is one gender rendered inferior to the other. Contrary to Fee’s assumptions, complementarian theologians gladly stand with him in this contention.

Furthermore, though he apparently (and wrongly) believes that the complementarian viewpoint is one which generically places men above women, Fee is to be commended for reminding the body of Christ that the Biblical “chain of authority” is never to be understood as all women being subject to all men. Such a contention should serve as a solemn reminder to complementarian thinkers that maleness in and of itself does not warrant authority in the church or in the home. The insipid chauvinism this writer has witnessed in a few evangelical churches is a by-product of this misunderstanding, and those within Christ’s body who subscribe to and apply such a faulty hermeneutic should be strongly rebuked.

Third, complementarians can applaud Fee’s emphasis of the first-century, counter-cultural nature of Pauline thought. “It is difficult,” states Fee, “for us to imagine the effect of Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 in a culture where position and status preserved order through basically uncrossable boundaries, and where attempting to cross those boundaries brought shame instead of honor” (180). Indeed, even in the Pastoral Epistles, in the very texts where complementarians make their case for male headship, Paul insists that women “learn” and establishes a discipleship paradigm in which younger women turn to older, seasoned, and theologically-inclined women for instruction. The Gospel injected into a “male-only” culture like that of the first century gives the due respect and honor to being female, and Fee is to be commended for reminding us of this Pauline value.

Finally, Fee’s emphasis on the “new creation theology” of the New Testament and its place in the Galatian correspondence is a necessary reminder that the Gospel brings the male-female roles and relationships into the appropriate balance by redeeming each and setting it back in its intended place. The final application between Fee and complementarian thinkers is very different. Still, Fee’s emphasis on this truth reminds complementarians that the very male authority Fee rejects is given so that men can better fulfill the responsibilities he affirms, and not for the sake of male authority alone.

At the same time, an honest evaluation of Fee’s work on this passage must deal straightforwardly with several inconsistencies and errors. Primarily, Fee’s assumption that the soteriology of Galatians is secondary to its ecclesiology is simply without basis in the text, and when this hermeneutic is expanded, it leads to more error, such as the assumption that the essential equality of male and female in 3:28 predicates the inclusion of women at all levels of service to the church. To be sure, the soteriological themes of the letter naturally have application in the life of the church. At the same time, the letter is written with an almost exclusive emphasis on the restoration of the Gospel at Galatia. How this emphasis informs other issues such as social distinctions and church life are ancillary, if valid, concerns.

Beginning with verse 6 of the first chapter, Paul sets the most serious tone established in any of his letters. In observing the theme of these verses, MacArthur points out the great danger of Jews who had made only a superficial profession of faith, then quickly reverted to Judaism “and sought to make Christianity an extension of their traditional system of works righteousness” (MacArthur 1987, 13). This Judaizing contention that Gentiles must be circumcised was the worst of heresies in the mind of Paul, who cursed those who would promote such a message because it was “another Gospel” (1:6). Thus, the theme of Galatians “is that true freedom comes only through Jesus Christ” (MacArthur, 14). 

Likewise, the late F.F. Bruce contends that Paul’s aim in Galatians is to denounce the teaching of the Judaizers “as a perversion of the true gospel of Christ” (Bruce 1982, 19). These observations, along with a straightforward reading of the text itself, demonstrate that the main focus of the Galatian correspondence is salvation. Thus, Fee’s belief that a supposed ecclesiastical emphasis grants equal access to all offices and functions of the church to both male and female is without textual foundation.

Secondly, Fee contends that the complementarian approach to the gender issue is tantamount to full capitulation to the reality of the fall. To accept male leadership “in the home or in the church is to reject the new creation in favor of the norms of a fallen world” (185). This assumption is shared by other egalitarian authors like Richard Hess, who dedicates an entire chapter to the view that God’s ultimate aim is for equality in function as well as essence, and that any hierarchy is the direct result of the fall.

More specifically, Hess believes that “God’s judgment included for the woman hard work alongside her husband in addition to bearing children. She would also have a desire to rule him, though he would end up ruling her” (94). Fee shares this sentiment, believing that male leadership “usurps the work of the Spirit not only in the wife and her relationship to God but also in the church—the expression of the new order and new humanity that is already present, even while it is yet to be” (185).

Yet the history of the fall in Genesis 3 is precisely the reason for Paul’s prohibition of women from holding a position of church authority in 1 Timothy 2. Though Paul’s later comments in 2 Timothy and Titus seem to negate the possibility that he was seeking to prevent women from any and all teaching roles, Thomas Lea well notes that the “normative principle behind Paul’s directive is that the woman should not carry out the role of senior pastor” (Lea 1992, 100). Furthermore, Paul’s invocation of Jewish primogeniture to establish male leadership in the home appeals to the created order prior to the fall. Therefore, Fee’s contention that asserting male leadership is equivalent to accepting the “norms” of a fallen world is actually found to be inverse to the very logic Paul uses elsewhere in the New Testament to establish male headship in the home and church.

Similarly, Fee’s view that Paul’s instructions regarding male headship were grounded in the culture of the first century is also suspect upon closer examination. As regards male headship in the home, Fee contends that Paul’s ideal is total equality without hierarchy, yet in the same breath states that Paul was willing to concede on certain cultural issues. If indeed Paul intends to eliminate hierarchical roles in the body of Christ, one might ask why he would be willing, as Fee suggests, to “yield on certain cultural matters so as not to predicate the shame on lesser things” (181)? Furthermore, Fee’s belief that Paul capitulates in certain areas on this issue is to suggest, even if unintentionally, that Paul himself is “settling” for the norms of a fallen world rather than embracing the new creation that God intended.

In fact, the preferred and more consistent way to view texts like Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 2 is to see them as their author sees them. Although Fee rightly points out that Paul “radicalizes” the household norms of the first century, he mistakenly views Paul’s establishment of household hierarchy as instruction grounded in the culture of that day. In fact, Paul’s own words put this notion to rest, and clarify that the reason for his emphasis on male headship is that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13). Thus, Paul’s insistence on male headship in the home and church is not grounded in the culture of the first century, or even in the fall. Instead, male headship is grounded in the created order itself, and understood best through the lens of Jewish primogeniture.

Evangelical egalitarianism, unlike liberal feminism, deserves recognition for seeking to make its case under the authority of Scripture. Egalitarians of an evangelical bent have no desire to capitulate to culture merely for the sake of culture. Instead, they sincerely believe their position to be grounded in a sound hermeneutic of God’s inerrant Word. Egalitarian theologians such as Gordon Fee strongly affirm Scriptural inerrancy, the deity of Jesus Christ, the exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation, the necessity of the new birth, and the promise of the life to come. And like their complementarian counterparts, they care much about the church as God’s vehicle of redemption in the world, and forward their arguments because they firmly believe such arguments will help mold the church into a genuine “new creation” community.

With this in view, there is much on which complementarians can agree with their egalitarian counterparts. There is much that can be accomplished when these two groups work together on issues of common concern. At the same time, this debate cannot simply be treated as a tertiary theological issue tantamount to one’s eschatology or view of spiritual gifts. The issues under discussion in the gender role debate go right to the heart of the created order, and color one’s view of a wide variety of issues crucial to the life and health of God’s church.

Those representing the egalitarian viewpoint in Discovering Biblical Equality, including Gordon Fee, also understand the gravity of this discussion. Hence, the forcefulness with which they each make their arguments. This writer considers it a privilege to interact with a brilliant and dedicated brother in Christ. Yet even more important is that a Biblically-sound response be given so that the church can be led as God intends, and consequently, become the community of “new creation” to which Fee aspires.