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.

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.

That Sound You Heard Was Paul Blanshard’s Head Exploding

Paul Blanshard, for those born after Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern, was a lapsed Congregationalist (redundant?) who wrote the last best-selling work of anti-Catholicism. American Freedom and Catholic Power was perhaps the last gasp of Protestant bigotry, but it was still sufficiently forceful and plausible into the 1950s that Blanshard did not get cancelled for expressing hurtful thoughts.

That was 15 years before the end of Vatican II (roughly), when Rome still on paper and through political channels was skeptical about the kind of freedoms embodied in American political norms. In 1950 the church still insisted that “error has no rights,” a position that ran into something of a hurdle with the United States’ Bill of Rights which guaranteed rights for all sorts of groups who held erroneous views (even Roman Catholics).

But Vatican II sort of kind of ended all that and Rome changed its mind about freedom for false religions. That explains this post, an argument that assumes Roman Catholicism and freedom go hand in hand. That Americanist position is receiving push back from integralists (among others). So imagine writing advice about liberal democratic institutions with Roman Catholic integralists as the ones defenders of civil liberties need to fear:

I think the recent intra-conservative French-Ahmari debate can be partially resolved by determining the extent to which secular progressives integralists can be trusted to protect robust freedom of religion for religious traditionalists with conservative views about human sexuality.

If secular progressives integralists are trustworthy, at least by and large, then French’s strategy of working within liberal democratic institutions makes sense. Conservatives should hold secular progressives integralists to a constitutional order that they accept in general, but chafe at in certain cases. Secular progressives Integralists cannot always be trusted to uphold robust freedom of religion, but they’re trustworthy enough not to fundamentally undermine Christianity in the United States. They will obey liberal democratic norms on the whole; conservatives just have to fight to keep them honest.*

However, if secular progressives integralists aren’t trustworthy, then Ahmari’s approach starts ceases to make sense. Secular progressives Integralists will tend to undermine robust protections for freedom of religion in a systematic way, and so ignore constitutional constraints whenever they can get away with it. In that case, politics is war regarding freedom of religion, and conservatives may be permitted to respond in kind. Perhaps the liberal legal settlement is therefore unstable because the left cannot be trusted to uphold it, and so the only truly feasible arrangement is cultural and political victory in the fight against the left. There’s no peace and no middle ground because the other side isn’t trustworthy, and so can’t be trusted to keep a liberal democratic peace.

Actually, I’m not sure if more sentences need to be changed to maintain the parallels. Either way, secular progressives are not the only ones about which to worry. They would likely let Presbyterians worship (and other groups). That was not an option in Roman Catholic societies.

There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

Is God Holding Back Urbanist Presbyterians?

For those social justicey pastors who labor for the city, what’s wrong with this picture?

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

“It’s something I never thought would happen,” she said of the bond she has forged with the church’s community, if not the tenets of its faith. She was drawn to the church, she said, by “something in the spirit of Rutgers and something in the spirit of the outside world.”

Katharine Butler, an artist, was lured into Rutgers when she walked by a sandwich board on the street advertising its environmental activism. Soon, she was involved in more traditional aspects of the church, too.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this, singing away and all the Jesus-y stuff,” she said. “It was wonderful to find a place larger than me, that’s involved in that and in the community and being of service. It’s nice to find a real community like that.”

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions, pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless and a task force to help refugee families.

Houses of worship — including Christian churches from a range of denominations, as well as synagogues — have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues, promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But religious scholars said that Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadowed its religious one.

“Rutgers has periodically reinvented itself as the Upper West Side has gone through changes like this,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. “This isn’t the first reinvention. It is one of their more interesting ones.”

The approach at Rutgers reflects how spirituality has shifted in fundamental ways. Those who enter the unassuming brick-and-limestone sanctuary on West 73rd Street find a place for pancake breakfasts, fund-raisers, activism and developing ties to a neighborhood.

“People who otherwise feel marginalized or pushed out by regular congregations, more thoughtful people, say, or those who like to ask questions about faith, started to gather around our congregation,” said the Rev. Andrew Stehlik, the senior pastor at Rutgers.

“Not all of them are deeply interested in becoming yet another member of a denomination,” he added. “They are still coming and worshiping with us. We call them friends of the church. Often, they’re a substantial part of the worshiping community here.”

It seems that the worshiping community could use an injection of people. Mainline Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism have seen their followings diminish in recent years. (Leaders of the Presbyterian Church put out a news release in April announcing that fewer followers were leaving, declaring that they were “encouraged by the slowing trend downward.”)

To address shrinking congregations, some pastors are searching for new ways to use their churches and redefine what fellowship means. Churches have the space and the good will, after all, to commit to community works, social justice or arts and educational projects. And opening their doors in this way can bring in those looking for more than a Bible study class.

Some progressive Reformed and evangelicals are wont to insist that you can’t have the gospel without social justice.

But at churches like Rutgers Presbyterian, you do have social justice without the gospel. And this is not the Democratic Party. It’s a church.

So, where do you draw the line? At what point do you have too much God to be effectively social justice in your church’s orientation? If Rutgers’ pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see unbelievers less inclined to participate in church activities. Or, when does social justice begin to impede God? If Rutgers’ pastors pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see Presbyterians object to a broad church held together by left-wing activism.

Whatever the answer, a line exists. Or you can put churches on a spectrum. Either way, the gospel is not identical to social justice. Mainline Protestantism is example number one.

Being A Woke Christian is Biting Off More than You Can Chew

I have already wondered how you can throw around the phrase, white normativity, and not also need to add heternormativity to your Christian activism. But Andrew Sullivan, a man who is gay, married, Roman Catholic, and identifies as conservative, also gives reason for thinking that woke evangelicals and Reformed Protestants are playing with fire if they think they can hold on to doctrinal normativity while berating white normativity and remain silent (or not) about heteronormativity.

First, without even using the phrase, “cultural Marxism,” Sullivan explains why some Americans find the Left, and their woke evangelical supporters, scary (yes, it may be okay to be afraid):

A conservative who becomes fixated on the contemporary left’s attempt to transform traditional society, and who views its zeal in remaking America as an existential crisis, can decide that in this war, there can be no neutrality or passivity or compromise. It is not enough to resist, slow, query, or even mock the nostrums of the left; it is essential that they be attacked — and forcefully. If the left is engaged in a project of social engineering, the right should do the same: abandon liberal democratic moderation and join the fray.

I confess I’m tempted by this, especially since the left seems to have decided that the forces behind Trump’s election represented not an aberration, but the essence of America, unchanged since slavery. To watch this version of the left capture all of higher education and the mainstream media, to see the increasing fury and ambition of its proponents, could make a reactionary of nearly anyone who’s not onboard with this radical project.

Of course, Sullivan is not ready to join the OPC or to sign the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. He recognizes a difference between supporting Trump as the embodiment of American norms and seeing Trump as a hedge on the Left’s attempt to remake the nation (even while breaking things):

This, it strikes me, is one core divide on the right: between those who see the social, cultural, and demographic changes of the last few decades as requiring an assault and reversal, and those who seek to reform its excesses, manage its unintended consequences, but otherwise live with it. Anton is a reactionary; I’m a conservative. I’m older than Anton but am obviously far more comfortable in a multicultural world, and see many of the changes of the last few decades as welcome and overdue: the triumph of women in education and the workplace; the integration of gays and lesbians; the emergence of a thriving black middle class; the relaxation of sexual repression; the growing interdependence of Western democracies; the pushback against male sexual harassment and assault.

Yes, a conservative is worried about the scale and pace of change, its unintended consequences, and its excesses, but he’s still comfortable with change. Nothing is ever fixed. No nation stays the same. Culture mutates and mashes things up. And in America, change has always been a motor engine in a restless continent.

But you are not a white racist Christian nationalist supremacist misogynist sinner (where do you put guns?) if you don’t agree with the ladies or men of color who host certain podcasts:

In a new essay, Anton explains his view of the world: “What happens when transformative efforts bump up against permanent and natural limits? Nature tends to bump back. The Leftist response is always to blame nature; or, to be more specific, to blame men; or to be even more specific, to blame certain men.” To be even more specific, cis white straight men.

But what are “permanent and natural limits” to transformation? Here are a couple: humanity’s deep-seated tribalism and the natural differences between men and women. It seems to me that you can push against these basic features of human nature, you can do all you can to counter the human preference for an in-group over an out-group, you can create a structure where women can have fully equal opportunities — but you will never eradicate these deeper realities.

The left is correct that Americans are racist and sexist; but so are all humans. The question is whether, at this point in time, America has adequately managed to contain, ameliorate, and discourage these deeply human traits. I’d say that by any reasonable standards in history or the contemporary world, America is a miracle of multiracial and multicultural harmony. There’s more to do and accomplish, but the standard should be what’s doable within the framework of human nature, not perfection.

Sullivan’s point about the Left blaming nature is what seems to be missing from the self-awareness of woke Protestants. They may agree and receive inspiration from opposing racial and gender hierarchies. But for the Left, these antagonism stem from a willingness to overturn nature. That is a line that Christians should not cross if they want to continue to believe in the God who created humans as male and female, and creatures as feline and canine. You start to argue that to achieve equality we need to do away with natural distinctions and you are going to have trouble with the creator God.

One last point from Sullivan that shows how woke Christians are becoming fundamentalist, but with a real kicker:

This week, I read a Twitter thread that was, in some ways, an almost perfect microcosm of this dynamic. It was by a woke mother of a white teenage son, who followed her son’s online browsing habits. Terrified that her son might become a white supremacist via the internet, she warns: “Here’s an early red flag: if your kid says ‘triggered’ as a joke referring to people being sensitive, he’s already being exposed & on his way. Intervene!” Really? A healthy sense of humor at oversensitivity is a sign of burgeoning white supremacy? Please. More tips for worried moms: “You can also watch political comedy shows with him, like Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj. Talk about what makes their jokes funny — who are the butt of the jokes? Do they ‘punch up’ or down? … Show them that progressive comedy isn’t about being ‘politically correct’ or safe. It’s often about exposing oppressive systems — which is the furthest thing from ‘safe’ or delicate as you can get.”

It reminds me of a fundamentalist mother stalking her son’s online porn habit. Doesn’t she realize that it is exactly this kind of pious, preachy indoctrination about “oppressive systems” that are actually turning some white kids into alt-right fanboys? To my mind, it’s a sign of psychological well-being that these boys are skeptical of their authority figures, that they don’t think their maleness is a problem, and that they enjoy taking the piss out of progressive pabulum. This is what healthy teenage boys do.

More to the point, this kind of scolding is almost always counterproductive. Subject young white boys to critical race and gender theory, tell them that women can have penises, that genetics are irrelevant in understanding human behavior, that borders are racist, or that men are inherently toxic, and you will get a bunch of Jordan Peterson fans by their 20s. Actually, scratch that future tense — they’re here and growing in number.

Many leftists somehow believe that sustained indoctrination will work in abolishing human nature, and when it doesn’t, because it can’t, they demonize those who have failed the various tests of PC purity as inherently wicked. In the end, the alienated and despised see no reason not to gravitate to ever-more extreme positions. They support people and ideas simply because they piss off their indoctrinators. And, in the end, they reelect Trump.

Re-elect Trump or no, you have ideological purity.

Pastor POTUS and Mass Shootings

Some bloggers claim to give you historical perspective, and others (like mmmmmmeeeeeEEEEE) simply cut and paste:

In the 19th century, presidents had little involvement in crisis response and disaster management, for both technological and constitutional reasons. Their influence was limited technologically because the country lacked the communications capabilities needed to notify the president in a timely manner when disaster struck hundreds of miles away. Even when the telegraph and later the telephone entered the equation, the nation still lacked the mass media needed to provide the American people with real-time awareness of far-flung events. Naturally, this affected the political call for presidents to involve themselves in local crises.

Then there were the constitutional reasons. In the 19th century, there was a bipartisan consensus that responding to domestic disasters was simply not a responsibility of the commander in chief. In the late 1800s, both Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison made clear that they did not see local disaster response as a federal responsibility. Cleveland vetoed funding appropriated by Congress to relieve drought-stricken Texas farmers in 1887 for this reason. And Harrison told the victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889 that responding to the disaster, which killed more than 2,000 people, was the governor’s responsibility.

That may be the federal government equivalent of the spirituality of the church: POTUS has limited means for specific ends.

But what about the twentieth-century presidency?

The Austin shooting would remain the deadliest in the nation’s history for 18 years. (In order to abide by a standard definition of “mass shooting,” the following addresses those events identified by the Los Angeles Times in a compilation of mass shootings in the U.S. since 1984.) In July 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, a gunman killed 21 people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. Unlike Johnson, Reagan did not say anything publicly about the shooting. In fact, a search by the New York Times revealed that “[t]he Times did not report any comment from the administration of President Ronald Reagan. His public papers show no statements on the subject in the days following.” McDonald’s suspended its own commercials following the incident, and in this there appears to be some indication of Reagan’s approach to these kinds of matters. When the Tylenol poisonings took place in Chicago in 1982, Reagan had also stood back, letting Johnson & Johnson take the lead in the response. Reagan appears to have been of the view that local tragedies should be handled at the local level, deferring to private-sector entities, when appropriate, to handle problems.

Reagan also appears to have remained quiet after the other two mass shootings during his presidency, one in Oklahoma and one in California. The 1986 Edmond, Oklahoma, shooting appears to be the first one in which a disgruntled post-office employee was the killer, the start of an unfortunate trend of about half a dozen of these shootings that would inspire the phrase “going postal.” Similarly, Reagan’s successor and former vice president, George H. W. Bush, also generally avoided making statements about the four mass shootings during his administration. A January 1989 shooting at an elementary school in Stockton, California, which took place in the last days of Reagan’s tenure, did contribute to a decision early in the Bush administration to issue a ban on the importation of what the New York Times described as “semiautomatic assault rifles.”

Then Bill Clinton turned POTUS into the griever-in-chief:

On a clear spring day, two Colorado high-school students set out to methodically shoot classmates, murdering 13 and then killing themselves. This event was too big and too horrific for a radio address or a brief visit with some of the survivors in another city. Instead, Clinton went to Colorado the next month, just before the Columbine commencement. While there, he gave what appears to be the first major presidential address in reaction to a mass-shooting event. In front of 2,000 people, and joined by First Lady Hillary Clinton, the president told the moving story of a talented young African-American man from his hometown in Arkansas who had died too young. At the funeral, the young man’s father had said, “His mother and I do not understand this, but we believe in a God too kind ever to be cruel, too wise ever to do wrong, so we know we will come to understand it by and by.”

During the speech, Clinton made a number of noteworthy points. First, he recognized that these kinds of shootings were becoming a recurring phenomenon: “Your tragedy, though it is unique in its magnitude, is, as you know so well, not an isolated event.” He also noted that tragedy potentially brings opportunity, saying, “We know somehow that what happened to you has pierced the soul of America. And it gives you a chance to be heard in a way no one else can be heard.” At the same time, Clinton warned of the dangers of hatred: “These dark forces that take over people and make them murder are the extreme manifestation of fear and rage with which every human being has to do combat.” Finally, he expanded on his violence/values dichotomy, exhorting the crowd to “give us a culture of values instead of a culture of violence.” Clinton closed with the story of jailed South African dissident Nelson Mandela, who managed to overcome hatred and become the leader of his country.

All in all, it was a vintage Clinton performance — feeling the pain of the audience, highlighting the importance of values, and trying to bring the nation together in a shared enterprise.

What about Barack Obama and Donald Trump? So far, both have set records:

It is far too soon to know if the Trump administration will surpass the Obama administration’s tragic record of 24 mass shootings in two terms, but Trump’s presidency has already witnessed the worst mass shooting in American history. On October 1, 2017, a 64-year-old man — quite old compared to the profiles of other mass shooters — killed 58 people before killing himself at a country-music festival in Las Vegas.

For the record, the number of mass shootings under the previous presidents runs like this:

Johnson 1
Reagan 3
Bush (I) 4
Clinton 8
Bush (II) 8
Obama 24

That looks like a trend but seemingly 2017 changed everything.

How Slippery is the Normativity Slope?

I listened to a discussion among Asian-American PCA pastors about race and ethnicity and was surprised to hear the use of “white normativity” as frequently as they did. They object strenuously to white normativity in the church. I wonder about that way of putting it since John Frame and I are both white and yet the differences he and I have about worship have little to do explicitly with being white. I do, by the way, like the idea that Frame’s brief for Contemporary Christian Music has as much white culture attached to it as exclusive psalmody since the old canard about so-called traditional Presbyterian worship was that it was too white, male, European, and suburban (even though none of the Westminster Divines had a clue that Levittown was on the horizon of white cultural normativity).

Here is one example of the use of white normativity from one of the interlocutors’ talks/homilies/speeches:

That leads to a deeper and better informed repentance, does it not? One that names with far greater specificity, repenting of specific sins specifically…one that names with far greater specificity the problem of white cultural normativity and supremacy in the church.

If you wanted to know the instances of white normativity in the church, like too much stuff that white people like, you might be surprised to hear that wealth is an instance of white dominance in the church and a way to repent is for whites to pay ecclesiastical reparations to black and people-of-color congregations. But wait, isn’t currency itself a form of white normativity? Can you really make up for it by relying on it in the way you make up?

Aside from that logical speed bump, the real point here is how do you head down the rhetorical path that relies on intersectional ideas like white normativity and turn off before you arrive at heteronormativity. After all, for the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the systemic nature of injustice does not stop with skin color but runs all the way to sexual identity:

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

This is not some threat about where ideas lead. Some PCA pastors could make a real contribution and explain how to address racial and ethnic inequalities or discrepancies while excluding discussions of sexual orientation, gay marriage, and Christian-family-normativity in general. Since I don’t rely on the arguments that lead someone to detect white normativility and then reject it with contempt, I can’t do the heavy lifting here.

But since the PCA is at a difficult juncture about homosexual identity, some in the communion may want to ponder whether white normativity and heteronormativity tend to pick up speed on the slope of normativity.

The Missional Church in Free Fall?

It started well seemingly with Tim Keller:

what makes a small group missional? A missional small group is not necessarily one that is doing some kind of specific evangelism program (though that is to be encouraged). Rather, (1) if its members love and talk positively about the city/neighborhood, (2) if they speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor with disdainful and embattled verbiage, (3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the people of the culture, (4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature, art and thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and critically, (5) if they exhibit deep concern for the poor, generosity with their money, purity and respect with regard to the opposite sex, and humility toward people of other races and cultures, and (6) if they do not bash other Christians and churches—then seekers and nonbelieving people will be invited and will come and stay as they explore spiritual issues.

That was 2001.

Then Kevin DeYoung raised objections even while trying not to offend the missionally minded:

(1) I am concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended using the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term “social justice” when I think “love your neighbor” is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think being “a faithful presence in the world” is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do. Or, sometimes well meaning Christians talk about “building the kingdom” when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We’d do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people they build the kingdom.

(2) I am concerned that in our new found missional zeal we sometimes put hard “oughts” on Christians where there should be inviting “cans.” You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say “ought” you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems we are being disobedient. It would be better to invite individual Christians in keeping with their gifts and calling to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for “not caring.”

(3) I am concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

That was 2010.

Now comes Mark Galli with even more criticism (the fourth column in a series):

But it turns out that the church is not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world. If you are passionate about feeding the hungry, for example, churches can help here and there. But if you really want to make a difference, really cut the numbers of the hungry and malnourished, it’s better to give your time to a government or nonprofit agency that specializes in such things.

The same is true whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, drug abuse, exploitation of labor, environmental degradation, and so forth. The church as church can make a donation, organize a committee, sponsor a food pantry, but it cannot really make a significant, lasting impact. It is not set up to do that. In fact, it has many other really important jobs to do.

It is called, for example, more than anything, to provide a time and place for the public worship of God and for people to participate in the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper—to meet God as we glorify him. It is also called to teach children, youth, and adults about who God is, as well as the shape and nature of the Christian life. It is a place where Christians gather to receive mutual encouragement and prayer. It’s the place where we learn to live into our destiny, to be holy and blameless in love, to the praise of God’s glory.

Galli adds that it is harder for a church to be simply a church than it is to be missional (even if the former is likely a lot less expensive):

But if you want to do something that is really hard, and if you want to push yourself to the limits, if you want to be constantly tested by love, if you want to live into your ultimate destiny—if you want to learn to be holy and blameless in love before God—there is no better place to do that than in the local church.

Many of us today rightly note the great defects in the church, most of which boil down to its superficiality. Because the church thinks it has to be missional, that it has to be a place where the world feels comfortable, it has dumbed down the preaching and the worship, so that in many quarters we have ended up with a common-denominator Christianity. It goes down easy, which is why it attracts so many and why many churches are growing. But it is a meal designed to stunt the growth of the people of God. And it is a way of church life that eventually burns people out, where people become exhausted trying to make the world a better place.

What if instead the church was a sanctuary, a place of rest and healing and life, where the fellowship of believers lived together in love, where we just learn to be holy and blameless in love before God? And what if, having encountered afresh some sort of beatific vision, we go out from church in our vocations and ministries, serving the unchurched neighbor and, by God’s grace, make a difference in their world?

You’d have thought Galli read Machen. You might have also thought that someone who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary had read Machen.

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You Don’t Have to Untuck Your Shirt (partially) to Follow the OPC

First, it was Christianity Today taking a page from the spirituality of the church.

Second, it was the PCA opening the way to be Presbyterian and not evangelical by leaving the National Association of Evangelicals.

Now comes a review of Jake Meador’s new book which seems to stress aspects of Reformed piety that have long been hallmarks of Orthodox Presbyterian expectations. Meador’s case is for ordinary piety (with no reference to shirt-tails apparently):

Meador argues for a Christian culture in which the faithful desire “a simple life of work and prayer in a particular place among a beloved people” (22). They delight in the created gifts of God and the ordinary means of grace in the church, the preached Word of God, and the blessed sacrament. For readers familiar with the arguments for good work, community, and the practice of Sabbath, Meador adds to the conversation a rich archive of Reformed theology, in particular excerpts from John Calvin’s Bible commentaries. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, one of the themes that arose during the Reformation was “the affirmation of ordinary life.” Meador draws from this theme to make his case for ordinary piety.

He even promotes observing the Lord’s Day:

Meador is interested in the teachings and practices that help us journey toward the Eternal City. For example, he suggests we practice Sabbath: on Sunday we can rest from exploitive economies we don’t admire but in which we are inevitably complicit. Preparing for the week ahead, we seek to return to the rhythms of a world sustained by divine love rather than human effort. For Meador, Sabbath also means attending public worship and perhaps going back to the two-service model in which the evening service would function as a time for theological rigor and catechesis. Churches tend to use the morning sermon to invigorate rather than instruct in the faith. The evening service could help Christians recover traditions of theology that would give them the confidence to understand and practice their religion in the world. In this and other instances, Meador strikes a balance between countercultural practices and recovering the traditional patterns of church life.

Holy moly.

The worry from here is an apparently ecumenical approach which could well turn into eclectic piety:

Even among Anabaptists who argue for a strong separation from the state, there is an emphasis on a life shared in common that runs “with the grain of the universe,” the phrase Hauerwas draws from Yoder for the title of his published Gifford lectures. Meador believes that these Protestant sources, coupled with the social ethics of the Catholic church, can help American evangelicals reorient the church: rather than just being an institution for individual fulfillment, the church ought to act as Christ’s body and minister to the wounds in American society at large, including those inflicted by economic inequality and racial injustice.

From my perspective, evangelicals have for so long lacked any rigor or discipline (which usually comes with confessions, church polity, and liturgy) that recommending other sources will only contribute to the phenomenon of boutique congregationalism. Some will be Hybelsian, others Hauerwasian, and still other’s sacramentalian.

Maybe lacking awareness of one’s shirt-tails has its advantages.