The Wrong Question

In his review of Thomas Kidd’s new book, Who Is an Evangelical, Samuel James begins with this anecdote:

Many years ago I was sitting in the basement of my Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, when a friend asked: “Do you think it’s a sin to vote for John Kerry?” This was 2004, and conversation was littered with talk of the upcoming contest between Kerry and President George W. Bush. I thought for a minute, then said no, I didn’t necessarily believe that. But it never occurred to me to think of the question as strange. The congruence between believing in Jesus Christ and voting Republican was as natural in my mind as the inspiration of Scripture. Only much later would I realize just how novel that kind of thinking truly is among we who call ourselves evangelicals.

Roberts seems to think that asking about the sinfulness of a ballot choice is fine. The problem is identifying evangelical fortunes with the Republican Party.

What if both are wrong? I mean, why on earth (as opposed to heaven) would anyone conceivably think that a vote for a Democratic candidate is sinful? Why, that is, if the person asking had any sense of Ecclesiastes, Paul, and Augustine, texts and authors that indicate politics is intrinscially a temporal, earthly, dirty affair because it happens post-Eden. To expect politics to correlate with redemptive purpose is to border on utopianism or immanentizing the eschaton. What is rich, for evangelicals at least, is that questions about sinful voting rarely extend to the visible church, which is locus of Christ’s kingdom this side of glory. Why not ask if it is sinful to think Beth Moore should be president of the Southern Baptist Convention?

And so, the better way that Roberts hopes for in the end is one where evangelicals are not so predictably Republican:

Nevertheless, Who Is an Evangelical? is a hopeful book, demonstrating that the word “evangelical” is rooted not in our present culture wars but in our past gospel commitments. The solution is to look backward, to break the tyranny of the now and remind ourselves of a way more ancient, more holy, more biblical, and more evangelical.

In politics? Hello. That older evangelical way (at least in the United States) had some role in apotheosizing George Washington as the father of the country and turning Abraham Lincoln (a Republican, remember) into a Christian martyr.

Roberts’ (and Kidd’s) critique of political evangelicalism is simple. Trump is a despicable person who puts the fall in fallen. If evangelicals remain loyal, it’s because they are so politically partisan. Their political partisanship blinds them to Trump’s wickedness (as if evangelicals have ever been known for subscribing to National Review). That analysis is both moralistic and pseudo-psychological. If evangelicals wanted to vote for the Democratic candidate, were they facing a clearly moral and holy choice? And what if evangelicals were not merely tribal in their attachment to Republicans but also felt alienated from the corridors of elite institutions where people associated evangelicals with clinging to God and guns or were worse, belonging to a basket of deplorables (without the loaves and fishes). In fact, the divide between elites and non-elites likely has a lot to do with Brexit and Trump. But some evangelicals who work in the academy and publishing world, and aspire for inclusion in those same sectors within the secular world, do not seem to understand the elite-populist divide.

This post overdoes it, but it also captures some of the reality of life among Protestants who want to be evangelical:

The 2016 election and the years that followed have revealed this truth: that the composition of the current “respectable” evangelical leadership does not derive its legitimacy from the evangelical many but from the few. They are a self-legitimizing, self-perpetuating, and self-anointed elite—unaccountable to and disconnected from those whom they are to serve and represent. In other words, as to form, they are no different than the elite of broader American society; and, materially, they are increasingly similar in political sentiment.

I might qualify “self-anointed” and refrain from attributing motives. But 2016 did reveal a significant gap between those people who observers thought were evangelical leaders and spoke for the movement and the ordinary whites who voted for Trump. To be so completely out of touch with the eighty-one percent does raise all sorts of questions about whether you have your finger on the pulse of the movement so you can actually represent it to reporters and scholars. Whether traveling in evangelical academic circles, Washington think-tanks, or on-line fraternities necessarily isolates you from the rank-and-file is a question without an obvious answer. But given the way modern life works especially for people who don’t work with their hands or in the service sector, it’s hard to imagine that evangelical professionals would be immune from elitism.

Then again, they could ask whether it’s sinful to think that your professional office or rank make your theological or political judgments more valuable than those of the average pastor or church member. Expertise does yield insights. So does the communion of the saints.

Taking Every Fluid Ounce Captive

Churches have specific associations with bodies of water. This Lutheran Church Missouri Synod writer claims the Mississippi (but I wonder if Mark Twain would let him not to mention what Lutherans in Germany might think about rivers in the United States):

A lot of evangelicals are swimming these days. They’re slipping on their metaphorical fins and masks and churning their way across bodies of water to emerge on the other shore as members of a different faith community. Those that move from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism are said to swim the Tiber; those that become Orthodox swim the Bosporus.

Reasons for their aquatic activities vary. Some like the art and architecture associated with the ancient faiths. Some like the ceremonial aspects–the liturgies, the veneration of icons, the Eucharist. Some like the history that oozes from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, a history that travels through great saints of yesteryear–through Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus–but goes largely forgotten in contemporary evangelicalism. . . .

But evangelicals interested in “swimming” to a different tradition should consider traversing a body of water much closer to home: the Mississippi River, on which is located St. Louis, Missouri, and the headquarters of the premier conservative Lutheran church body in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

This raises at least one question: what body of water should Presbyterians identify with for their denominational affiliation?

American Presbyterians would likely claim the Delaware River since the first presbytery and General Assembly met in Philadelphia. But the Chesapeake might also apply since some of the earliest congregations settled by Ulster Presbyterians were in Maryland.

European Presbyterians, if the look to Geneva, probably invoke Lake Geneva.

The Scots likely think about the Firth of Forth (I was thinking it was a Fifth) given the estuary’s proximity to Edinburgh.

The Irish? They may have the hardest time attracting converts if crossing the North Sea is necessary for being a Presbyterian in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure swimming the Belfast Lough is any less challenging.

Number 11: Don’t Read One Corinthians

Dwight Longenecker tries to walk Roman Catholic converts back from overly high expectations for the Roman Catholic Church in the manner of Joe Carter (where Carter produces 9 points, Father Dwight adds a tenth). That is a tad rich given the way some conversion stories go. But at least Longenecker acknowledges that Protestants who become Roman Catholic are in for a rough ride.

At the same time, he perpetuates a series of caricatures about Protestantism that again reinforce the point that no matter how bad Rome is, Protestant churches are worse:

Protestant congregations don’t really get together along doctrinal lines. They get together along socio-economic lines. The good, upper middle class white folks who go to the local Presbyterian church are all from the professional, affluent class. The working class folks who go to the Assembly of God live in the same lower income bracket. This is why they have warm fellowship.

Hasn’t Longenecker been reading Redeemer City to City Newsletter?

Or this:

Protestants are used to unity within their congregation. This is because Protestant churches are sects. They’ve split away from others for some doctrinal or moral teaching. Therefore there is an underlying unity of viewpoint. When this is combined with the socio economic factor that unity is a powerful and attractive force.

And Father Dwight just happened to go from Bob Jones and Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism for matters other than doctrine or morality? The music?

He does also say some revealing things about Roman Catholics that make you wonder what the difference is between them and mainline Protestants:

People blame “the church” for poor catechesis, and that is no doubt a problem, but the other half of the problem is that now we have a slew of excellent materials, resources, speakers, study course, books, videos, conferences and programs to catechize, encourage and assist, but the vast bulk of Catholics simply stay away. They can’t be bothered. If they practice the faith at all it looks like the Democratic party at prayer. Step around them and work with the people who do want to know more and love the faith.

But the most striking point in Longenecker’s list is the one about discipline or reform:

The really big problem for converts to the Catholic faith is to come to grips with the fact that in the Catholic Church the sinners and saints are all tumbled in together. The glorious church may be without spot or wrinkle in the final reckoning, but here and now, in human terms, it is spotty and wrinkled. It is dirty and soiled with sin. The heretics and the faithful sit side by side. The biggest problem many converts face is that the Catholic Church is soiled with sin. We want to purify the church. We want to weed the garden. We want to get rid of the rot. We want to clean the ship, patch the leaks and sail on with confidence and strength. The servants in the story of the wheat and tares wanted to do the same thing. Check out Matthew 13:24-30. Jesus says the wheat and tares grow together in the same field. The enemy has planted the weeds among the wheat. Live with it. God will sort it out in the end. That tension is uncomfortable.

Why do we want to sort out the weeds from the wheat? Because we long for the certainty and security of belonging to a pure religious sect. It’s human nature to want to belong to a group that is pure and has all the right answers and has everything all neat and tidy and in place. But that’s simply not the nature of Christ’s kingdom. That’s not the nature of reality.

So on Rome goes with whiskey priests, mafia dons, and even lecherous cardinals. What can you do? You certainly can’t play judgment day.

But there is church action somewhere between should-shrugging and bowdlerizing the saints (and the Vatican does not seem to be bashful about revealing the saints). This is actually a recurring theme in conversations with Roman Catholics about the waywardness that afflicts the communion (from renegade nuns to Roman Catholic universities that are hardly Wyoming Catholic College). Interlocutors repeatedly tell me that to hold church members to moral standards, with threats of discipline is Puritan or fundamentalist.

Is is Puritan or fundamentalist to punish a child for not coming home on time? Is it Puritan or fundamentalist to require spouses to be faithful to each other? Is it Puritan or fundamentalist for Roman Catholic politicians to use the church’s social teaching in pursuit of the “common good” or “human flourishing”?

Roman Catholics do lots of things to try to prod sinful humans to behave. They seem to think that society would work better if people actually followed church teaching.

But when it comes to priests and bishops’ sinfulness, Father Dwight says there’s nothing you can do because of the way wheat grows (he ignores what you do with dead branches on fruit trees)?

Such passivity would appear to be at odds with Paul’s instructions in the fifth chapter of his first letter to the church at Corinth.

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Imagine a church that did not associate with sexually immoral people. So Pauline. So fundamentalist.

The Logic of Comfort

The folks who like to draw attention to obedience in the Christian life do not seem to consider the source of believer’s comfort. Consider the following:

Since the Bible doesn’t restrict the word “gospel” to a very precise meaning, we shouldn’t either. This is not to say that we can’t use the gospel in its narrow sense and distinguish between the gospel (what Jesus has done) and our response to the gospel (what we need to do). To do so is to distinguish between redemption accomplished and redemption applied, and that is a very helpful and necessary distinction. The point is that we shouldn’t oppose or separate them. The Bible binds them together and includes both under the term “gospel.”

Paul summarized the gospel he preached in terms of the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). But that is not all there is to the gospel, or even to the work of Christ. A summary of the gospel is just that—a summary—and it shouldn’t be set in direct opposition to its broader definition or fuller explanation.

There are some rather large problems that may arise when people limit the meaning of the gospel to its narrow sense. One potential problem is the unjust accusation of legalism or of mixing law and gospel. It is not necessarily legalistic to use phrases such as “living the gospel,” “obeying the gospel,” or “the conditions of the gospel.” But if you see what we do as only “law” and what Christ has done as only “gospel” then you will likely interpret the broad but biblical use of the term “gospel” as legalistic. Another potential problem is the minimization or outright denial of the conditions of the gospel, which is what the puritans called antinomianism.

If you confessed, however, the Heidelberg Catechism, what would its first answer do to efforts to make the gospel something you obey?

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together
for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

It’s not as if that assertion lacks good works. But the Holy Spirit is the one to produce good works. Obedience inevitably springs from a true faith that receives and rests on Christ. To speak of the gospel requiring good works places the burden on believers who thought they had comfort.

That may explain why in Paul’s short summary (too short for some) of the gospel in 1 Cor 15:1-5, he goes on to talk about the comfort that believers take from Christ’s finished work:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So glad Paul did not write, “if Christ has not been raised, your obedience is futile and your good works don’t count for anything.”

Laughing In the Face of Evil

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast on chutzpah contended that it was more audacious for Joseph Columbo to form the American Italian Defamation League than it was for Al Ruddy to pitch the idea of Hogan’s Heroes to executives at CBS. The audacity or chutzpah in both cases was huge. Columbo was himself the head of one of New York City’s major crime families and wanted the American Italian Defamation League to detect and denounce popular perceptions that Italian-Americans were mobsters. Ruddy‘s audacity stemmed from his Jewish identity and the incongruity of creating a show that portrayed Nazi prison camp officers as somewhat lovable and always clueless. To add to Hogan’s Heroes audacity, the chief writer, Bernard Fein, along with Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink), and John Banner (Sargent Schultz) were Jewish. In fact, Klemperer and Banner were German refugees who fled Hitler’s policies during the 1930s. One more audacity — the head of CBS, the network that bought the show, which ran for 6 years (1965-1971), won two Emmy’s out of twelve nomination, was William S. Paley, also a Jewish American.

An obvious question is how you can make a sitcom about the Nazis only 20 years after the defeat of Hitler. An even bigger question is how Jewish Americans, some of whom had experience in Germany, could include National Socialism in a humorous production.

For my money, Hogan’s Heroes is way more audacious than the American Italian Defamation League.

And yet, laughter is one way of coping with persecution and social injustice. Jews have a long history with using humor to persevere. One delightful avenue into Jewish humor is the documentary, When Jews Were Funny (it deserves way more than IMDB’s collective rating of 3 stars). Another is Joseph Epstein:

Why are Jews so funny? Jews are like everyone else, of course, only more so. They have what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster.” Optimism is foreign to them. They find clouds in silver linings. If they do not court suffering, neither are they surprised when it arrives. They sense that life itself can be a joke, and one too often played upon them. They fear that God Himself loves a joke.

Adam, alone in the Garden of Eden, brings up his loneliness to God.

“Adam,” the Lord says, “I can stem your loneliness with a companion who will be forever a comfort and a consolation to you. She, this companion—woman, I call her—will be your friend and lover, helpmeet and guide, selfless and faithful, devoted to your happiness throughout life.

“But Adam,” says the Lord, “there is going to be a price for this companion.”

When Adam asks the price, the Lord tells him he will have to pay by the loss of his nose, his right foot, and his left hand.

“That’s very steep,” says Adam, “but tell me, Lord, what can I get for a rib?”

So why don’t advocates for social justice have a sense of humor?

According John Gray:

Contrary to a familiar line of criticism, there are few signs of hypocrisy in [egalitarian thinkers]. Hypocrisy requires a measure of self-awareness, and there is little evidence of that in them.

The same goes for humor. You need self-awareness, and even self-deprecation, to have a good sense of humor.

So how did Dave Chappelle get so funny?

SBC Politics beyond Beth Moore (or will Southern Baptists save evangelicalism?)

I was listening to the Quick to Listen interview with Thomas Kidd about his new book, Who is An Evangelical, and heard a startling advertisement. Just about 32 minutes into the discussion, I heard Truett Seminary, the Southern Baptist institution for training ministers at Baylor University, plug its programs. Although the seminary describes itself as “orthodox” and “evangelical,” in that order, it also trains women to be pastors. The advertisement was explicit about that part of Truett’s endeavor. Here‘s an excerpt from a piece on Truett’s female alums:

Another reality for many Baptist women called to preach is whether to remain inside the Baptist denomination or to move to a denomination more open to female pastors. As Lillian enters her final semester at Truett, she is considering another denomination. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a Baptist all her life, this is a difficult decision to make. But Lillian is a woman in her fifties who has been divorced and she has to accept the fact that there may not be a place for her in Baptist life. She says, “I have already been turned down by one church as their music minister, because I was divorced. Being a woman and talking about preaching makes most people uncomfortable so I have to be careful what I say.” Lillian believes she is called to preach, not to divide churches. She loves the church and the people of God and believes that she will be a good pastor. Although the future is unclear, she resolves to remain hopeful, positive, and faithful to her call.

Leah also faced changing denominations, but says that she could not move because she is committed to Baptist beliefs and core ideas. She says, “…I see myself committing to this and so at the same time calling churches to committed to calling women, because I am not giving up on the Baptist church and the Baptist church doesn’t not need to be giving up on women either.”

Now, see if you can follow the bouncing balls.

Kidd has written a book about Protestants who have been generally opposed ordaining women. Evangelicals typically affirm traditional family values and roles for women (though that is not a big part of his book). Kidd is also a regular blogger at The Gospel Coalition which is firmly in the complementarian camp. The editors at Christianity Today who interviewed Kidd, at least one of them, is in a mainline Protestant denomination that ordains women. And the podcast is being sponsored by a Southern Baptist seminary that supports the ordination of women.

To add to potential confusion, maybe you younger readers have the visual dexterity, Kidd is going to teach part-time in the graduate programs at Midwestern Baptist Seminary, a school that admits women to the M.Div. but does not train them to preach:

Purpose: The Master of Divinity degree, Women’s Ministry concentration, cultivates a Christian lifestyle, offers instruction in classical theological disciplines, and develops theoretical understanding and practical skill related to women’s ministry.

Objectives: In addition to the Master of Divinity degree objectives, students graduating with the M.Div., Women’s Ministry concentration will be able to do the following:

Demonstrate understanding of the biblical and theological foundations of women’s ministry in the local church.

Demonstrate increased skill in the practice and leadership of women’s ministries in the local church.

In fact, women at MBTS take courses not in preaching but teaching.

If you want an additional shell to follow, consider that Ed Stetzer went from Lifeway Christian Resources to Wheaton College. Lifeway is the publisher for the SBC but also controlled by conservatives, the ones who are inerrantists and generally oppose female pastors. The moderates in the SBC look to Smyth & Helwys as their publisher for theology and biblical commentary. Wheaton College has many faculty in denominations that ordain women and even has had some female professors who are ordained to preach.

So, go ahead, try and correlate Southern Baptist conservatives with evangelicals. I dare you. See if it makes any sense for evangelical (what used to be a Yankee word in the SBC) institutions to establish closer ties with Southern Baptists except for increasing readership, audiences, enrollments, and subscriptions.

It makes you wonder about looking to conservatives in the SBC for leadership in evangelical circles if only because the Convention may be as soupy as evangelicalism. Look at what Trump has done to turn Southern Baptist conservatives from supporting Republicans to dabbling with progressives. Withdrawing support from the GOP is fine. It’s a free country. But it took Trump to do that?

And yet, because of their size and their presence in evangelical institutions like Christianity Today, Wheaton College, and The Gospel Coalition, Southern Baptists, no matter the previous identification with Republicans and their opposition to female preachers, are in a position to dominate an evangelical world that has no obvious successor to Billy Graham and the institutions that grew up around his endeavors.

Maybe the solution is Beth Moore. Maybe she can transcends all the parties and unite moderates and conservatives in the SBC along with evangelicals. Maybe she is the next Billy Graham. That way, if you like her, as George Marsden had it about Graham, you can be an evangelical.

Still Protestanting

Heck, we were even kicking and bellyaching back in Rome’s post-Vatican II glory days (from the forum, “We Protest,” a series of reflections on the legacy of John Paul II in the October, 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.

Celebrity Bible Teacher Culture

Some are worried about the culture of Christian patriarchy that allows John MacArthur to disparage Bible teachers like Beth Moore. But as the Christianity Today feature story on the Southern Baptist celebrity teacher indicated, Moore also inhabits a culture that protects her from criticism (not to mention pastoral oversight). It is also a culture that is distant from the one inhabited by evangelicals with Ph.D.’s:

It was not easy to get there. Just as Moore’s stories are at once personal and private, Moore in person is intensely friendly—and closely protected by assistants who allow very few media interviews. After several interview requests from CT, her assistants allocated one hour to discuss her latest book and ask a few questions about her personal life. Each question had to be submitted and approved beforehand, I was told, or Moore would not do the interview. Follow-up interview requests were declined. I was permitted to see the ground level of her ministry, where workers package and ship study materials. But Moore’s third-floor office, where she writes in the company of her dog, was off limits.

Living Proof Ministries is relatively small compared with the ministries of women of similar notoriety. Its total revenue in 2008, $3.8 million, is dwarfed by Joyce Meyer Ministries’ ($112 million) and Kay Arthur’s Precept Ministries’ ($12.9 million) in the same year. (Meyer’s ministry says its top priorities are evangelism and social outreach; Arthur’s ministry mainly supplies resources for women to study die Bible inductively on their own; Moore’s ministry is grounded in her unique gift of teaching.) Living Proof employs only 16 people, including Moore’s two daughters and son-in-law.

“I think she does a really good job of sharing but not sharing too much,” Amanda Jones, 30, says of her mother. “There have been a few times where we thought, Oh we shared a little too much there, so we’re going to try to reel it back in.” Jones’s own posts on the Living Proof blog, which sometimes include pictures of her two children, are vetted by ministry staff.

Her mother’s openness about her struggles—and those of her family—is what makes her appealing to so many women, Jones says. And such references—like Moore discussing in 2001’s Feathers from My Nest her daughter Melissa’s eating disorder—are not causes for concern, says Jones. “I don’t ever sit there ; and shake and feel afraid that she’s going to ° share something crazy about our family that I ° don’t want anyone to know,” she says. “I feel 5 comfortable with her judgment on what to share and what to keep private.”

Moore describes herself as “fiercely and unapologetically private” about the topic of adopting a son for seven years and then returning him to his birth mother. Other than sharing his name (Michael), she offers few details in her talks, books, and interviews, other than to say that the boy had developed “alarming behaviors” and that his birth mother had “resurfaced, strongly desiring to reclaim her son” (Things Pondered). “I find myself wanting to say to my reader, who has become like a friend through the years, ‘May I share this without being expected to share much more?'” she wrote in Feathers from My Nest. She called the experience “complicated,” but says she references the story in her public ministry because other women may have had similar experiences that left them brokenhearted.

“It was an immensely painful time in my life, but if on the other side of it, God’s Word and his Spirit equip me to be able to turn around and minister to a woman, then it’s of value,” Moore tells CT. “We all deal with feelings of failure. It ranks right up there.”

In short, for Moore privacy is as important to authenticity as honesty is. Being the same person onstage and at home means acknowledging the existence and general shape of her struggles—but she works to leave her fans at the door of her home. It’s one of the key lessons she practices with husband Keith Moore, who recently retired from the home-service business he owned with his father. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Why Women Want Moore,” Christianity Today, August 2010)

Interpreting the Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School

Word of Walter Kim’s appointment as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals could have an upside if Dr. Kim studied with Harvard’s Jon Levenson. The pastor at Trinity PCA in Charlottesville completed a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, which would put him in the vicinity of Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, is one of the foremost voices in the study of Hebrew Scriptures. Heck, even Pete Enns studied with Levenson.

The positive influence from Levinson on Kim could be interpreting the Old Testament and not letting it become a proof text for social justice. Consider the following:

Liberation theology has long had a problem with Jewish particularism. Consider the liberationists’ penchant for interpreting the poor and oppressed as the beneficiaries of one of their favorite biblical events, the Exodus. That the God of Israel is especially concerned with the vulnerable and eager to protect them is exceedingly easy to document from the many biblical passages that enjoin Israel to show special solicitude for the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the (landless) Levite and that depict God as their special protector. Nor is it out of bounds to argue that such concern plays a role in the biblical account of the Exodus.

The problem is that what links the beneficiaries of God’s intervention in the Exodus is something very different: descent from a common ancestor. Those delivered from Pharaoh and his regime are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and it is explicitly God’s memory of his covenant with the patriarchs that galvanizes him into action in Egypt. Had the motivation instead been concern for the poor and oppressed, the story would have taken a very different shape. Not just Israel but all the slaves of Egypt would have been freed, and slavery, explicitly allowed in biblical law (including the possibility of lifetime enslavement in the case of foreign bondsmen), would have been abolished.

When the poor and oppressed replace the people Israel as the beneficiaries of the Exodus, an idea, or social norm, has replaced a flesh-and-blood people. It then becomes possible for any group that can be made to fit into that idea or to benefit from that social norm to be the new Jews. This is the replacement theology secularized, or supersessionism without the church—and it swiftly opens the door for the old anti-Judaism to reappear in a post-Christian culture—not in the mouths of theocratic reactionaries but in those of free-thinking progressives.

Imagine what that kind rigor would do to one of Kim’s colleagues’ handling of seeking the welfare of the city.

An End Run

Imagine you are a Reformedish Protestant around the time of George W. Bush’s election. You have entered the world of Reformed Protestantism by way of the biblical theology (which leaned Federal) of Peter Leithart and James Jordan, you agree with a number of Doug Wilson’s critiques of modern America, and you became acquainted with the West and the Great Books again through Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Say you want a Reformed or Presbyterian church with a narrative that inspires, that connects with the sort of intellectual creativity that Leithart displays, that shows little of the wear and tear that afflicts most denominations in the United States whether sideline or mainline, and that connects with the larger history of the West, from Plato to Erasmus.

Where do you turn?

The OPC is too small and too theologically sectarian. The PCA suffers from similar problems among the TRs (Truly Reformed) and is blithely naive about modernity and urbanity on its progressive side. The ARP and the CRC are too ethnic and suffer from a measure of parochialism within their Scottish and Dutch traditions respectively. The same goes for the RPCNA which is even smaller than the OPC. The CREC might work but in 2000 that communion is only two years old, not the strongest case for a church with roots.

To your credit, you were enough of a Protestant not to find Roman Catholicism as a viable alternative.

What then? Why not turn to Elizabethan Anglicanism, like this?

The early English church, despite all the misconstruals of it by Anglo-Catholics, was Protestant and Reformed. The history of the 19th Anglo-Catholic attempt to deny this is a painful one for those who prize integrity of inquiry. The work of Peter Nockles and the more recent, and excellent, work of Jean-Louis Quantin, have shown how wrongheaded that 19th century orgy of wishful thinking really was. But this was proved back in the 19th c itself by Nathaniel Dimock, regarding sacramental theology, and regarding ecclesiology, by the American Bishop Charles McIlwaine, in his Roman, Oxford, and Anglican Divinity Compared.

The English Church of Elizabeth, James, and Charles is, in some ways, a model of importance for own time. Reformed churches, their common mind constricted by familiarity only with Scots and English Presbyterianism, miss the riches of Reformed thought available in Richard Hooker, or Richard Field, or Lancelot Andrewes (just as they miss the riches available in the thought of German and French Reformed). Anglo-Catholic attempts to prove that the established church was somehow not really Protestant are attempts to deprive modern Protestants of useful heritage.

What is important to notice about this way of being Reformed is that it allowed you to occupy the catholic and moderate middle while also regarding the regulative principle as too Puritan and biblicist (and sectarian) and two-kingdom theology as a betrayal of the godly monarch (which allegedly made the English church tick until those rowdy Presbyterians and Puritans conspired to take down Charles I).

What is also striking about this line of argument about the American church scene at the beginning of the 21st century was that it was precisely the way priests and bishops who were part of the Anglican establishment saw Christianity in England:

The great innovation of Elizabeth’s reign was what we might term the internalization of anti-sectarian rhetoric, as anti-puritanism. In Edward’s reign that language had been used to associate the English church with the foreign reformed churches in the common defence of an emergent reformed orthodoxy. Now it was introjected, to precisely opposite effect, into the conduct of intra-Protestant debates between defenders of the ecclesiastical status quo and proponents of various styles and modes of further reformation. The central figure here was John Whitgift who, in an extended exchange with the leading presbyterian ideologue of the day, Thomas Cartwright, deployed the Edwardian version of the two extremes used to define the via media of the English church, popery and Anabaptism, to exclude, as he hoped, the likes of Cartwright and his ilk, from the charmed circle of English Protestant respectability. True to the spirit of his Edwardian forebears, Whitgift sought to assimilate Cartwright and his associates both to popery and to Anabaptism, using what he took to be their ultra-scripturalism and populism to associate them with the latter and what he took to be their clericalist opposition to the Royal Supremacy to associate them with the former.

Ostensibly a form of religious polemic, Whitgift’s anti-puritanism was also inherently political. It dealt with issues of governance and jurisdiction and stressed heavily the extent of direct royal authority over ecclesiastical affairs. In so doing it encoded within itself a set of (intensely monarchical) political values, defined against what he took to be the ‘popularity’ inscribed within presbyterian theory and puritan political practice. By popularity Whitgift mean a commitment to theories of government in which the role of the people was expanded. But he also used the term to refer to the political methods used by the supporters of the discipline to put their case to a variety of more or less popular publics through the pulpit and the press, and through the the circulation of manuscripts and of rumours and a variety of petitioning campaigns, some of them aimed at the parliament rather than at the prince. (Peter Lake, “Post-Reformation Politics, or On Not Looking for the Long-Term Causes of the English Civil War,” 28)

When Machen, Witherspoon, and Knox won’t do, turn to Whitgift and Hooker? In the United States, a country that made its name by rejecting Royal Supremacy?

It is an intellectually energetic way to find an alternative to American politics and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have persisted in the United States. But it is as arbitrary as thinking that the debates surrounding foreign missions and church government of Machen’s time are the terms by which Presbyterians in Australia ought to operate.