Gendered Visions of The Piper Pastorate

To rage or not to rage: that is the question you always have to ask yourself when Satan strikes in the form of evangelical sexism, unimaginative biblicism, and the fresh propaganda of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which never fails to condemn Christian persons to sex-based behavioral prisons that make the regular old gender binary look as lush and liberating as the Promised Land.

It may be that rage is a more merciful form of hostility; it is certainly a more honest reaction, however infantile and unpleasant to endure. It may also be a safer form of emotional ventilation than other more elaborate methods of confrontation intended to keep others in submission. It was Anna Freud who expanded her father’s idea of intellectualization as an ego defense, claiming that the primary function of this unconscious mechanism was “the thinking over of instinctual conflict.” Britzman states that intellectualization can also function “to berate others, to punish others with moral discourse.” When Piper came out last month with his latest “biblically-based” article that argued against women holding teaching positions in seminary not because the bible outright forbids it, but because it contradicts the complementarian “pastoral vision,” full-fledged suspicion kicked in. There was some psychological mischief happening here, as the usual prohibitions denying women access to the pastorate now suddenly applied to women who aspired to teach theology. Call it concern for ideological consistency or historic Protestantism all you want, the end result is the exorcism of every contaminating she-demon from important vocational offices.

After reading that piece, there was only indifference where there might have been rage a year or two ago. It is hard to be sincere about a certain matter once your perception of it clarifies, when the grandiosity of its supposed seriousness fades to absurdity. I felt forced to question my own (and everyone else’s) intellectualizing habits, feeling that “the complementarian position is patriarchal and misogynistic” was off the mark, and too banal and impotent a rebuttal anyway. The truth is that complementarianism probably has little to do with a “high view of scripture” or a continued faithfulness to church tradition, at least not for its foremost architects and advocates. Some of them are apparently just as gender obsessed as Judith Butler, postmodernism’s evil queen who said that gender is arbitrary and entirely performative. Biblical literalism is cool and all, but have you tried devising soul-suffocating systems of gender ontology using God’s Word as your theoretical ground? When you wed this delightful pastime to your inner sense of Christian calling, it’s easy to allow your fleshly, subconscious gripes about emasculation and women’s wavering enthusiasm to incubate your progeny to transfigure into something more spiritually acceptable, so that to preach on gender improprieties is actually to carry out Heaven’s work.

Theological conservatism is typically very good at using Christian principles to shut down political struggle, and usually it’s progressives who fixate on materiality, social liberation, and the realities of human embodiment. But something about today’s complementarianism doesn’t stick to the typical conservative script. Its ethos feels fiercely political, though many find this hard to see because it still maintains a smokescreen of spiritual devotion that presents male-female relations as a matter of piety or orthodoxy rather than gender politics proper. Committment to the later would be to make the progressive’s error of using Christianity to further agendas which are not properly Christian. I really do not see why this needs to be so. I do not understand why conservatives cannot care about people’s social lives without the veil of spirituality. Regardless, complementarians need to confess their preoccupation with gender itself (especially given our contemporary context where traditional, inherited notions of gender have undergone such profound changes), not just proclaim adherence to biblical teaching or church doctrine alone.

I think we must do more than question the theological or ethical validity of complementarian teaching. We need to probe beyond the surface concern for scriptural fidelity, and ask why the constant commentary on what it means to be a godly man or woman is not viewed as an inherently political and gendered activity. And we need to ask why it is wrong or insufficient for Christians, particularly Christian men, to care about their gendered existence outside the protective intellectual walls of their religion. We should be very leery of the habitual invocation of “the biblical worldview” or “the pastoral vision” as a proxy or veneer for one’s grapplings with the reality of fluctuating gender norms, especially if it involves a loss of personal power. Theologically speaking, we need to assert our Christian right to know how such innocuous preferences like loving rugged landscapes or being passive while dating confirms Christian obedience or contributes to one’s sanctification.

And, while we’re at it, we should start understanding complementarianism as a men’s issue rather than a women’s issue, since it is mostly men who seem to instigate these gender debates about how women practice ministry. Even assuming complementarians are correct in their interpretation of certain biblical passages regarding what duties women can and cannot perform in the church or in the seminary, or what attributes of Christ each partner in a heterosexual marriage should reflect, rooting these interpretations in identity-based theologies about gender is definitely an extra-biblical project that’s being sold as biblically nonnegotiable. It’s these cultural qualities of complementarianism that are lacking an explicit scriptural basis. There’s no vision about what the modern pastorate should look like in 1 Timothy 2:12, so let’s not make it do more work than it already does.

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Give Us A King: Saul and the Ungodly Commitments of Contemporary Religious Politics

A few days ago, I decided I would read the biblical story about how Saul was chosen to become king of Israel. It seemed fitting to revisit this text because of the way that it dramatizes the tension between the political and the theological, something which has surely been at the forefront of all of our minds these days. In much of our online commentary, we tend not to exert too much mental effort thinking about politics and theology more theoretically. I’m a firm believer that story and narrative can inspire us to think in this manner, even if it does not supply us with the cogent, refined, clear-cut propositions that “standard” theory usually prefers. It may be that popular digital forums are not the ideal space to leisurely meander through the wilderness of theoretical abstractions, or perhaps it’s because abstract reflection is perceived to be at odds with the concrete goals of tangible political progress that we refrain from contemplative thinking on this topic. After all, there are real people implicated by this economic policy or that religious dogma, so how can we talk distant abstractions without risking our humanitarian credentials? But if abstract, disembodied theologizing is a political cop-out whose chief function is to ensure our escape from our messy material reality, then political theology that operates adrift any theoretical foundation is vulnerable to even the most mediocre criticisms conservatism can muster.

The conservative criticism with the most traction, it seems, is that theological progressives have little or no regard for orthodox faith, the meat and bones of theological teaching, or a true sense of Christian piety—a piety that surely leads the pure in heart to conclude that matters related to human flourishing are of secondary importance to “the gospel,” “the kingdom,” or whatever epithet is being used to signal Christian traditionalism. This logic is at least partly fuelled by the dichotomous manner in which we typically approach the political/theological debate in Western culture—it’s habit for us to talk about it using the language of opposition. And you can only really be committed to one or the other. Conservatives benefit nicely from this binary, because once it’s been set up, they need only claim they’ve defended the right side—usually it’s scripture, tradition, God-fearing womanhood, or some other “biblically” sanctioned social norm. In the end, it’s always the side which signals the authentically spiritual. Of course, the denial that one’s theology is devoid of (or perhaps transcends) politics is nothing more than wand-waving sorcery, which evidently beguiles a great number of people.

Conservative theologies often don’t expressly state their underlying political commitments; instead, their politics is covertly incorporated into a larger theological worldview which is then defended as “natural” or “biblical” or true to historic Christian witness. They are rather stealth in that way. Progressives have tended to be more up front about their politics, perhaps as a way of calling out this manoeuvre. It seems to me this latter tactic functions as a kind of corrective: better to be honest about your politics and not peddle them as some God-sanctioned revelation. More importantly, better to defend those wounded by the (theo)politics of silence, apathy, and outright discrimination than engage in endless, impractical theological debate. And so, many “social justice” Christians approach the subject of theology first from a political perspective, and then work out the theological implications from there. Maybe this is the honest and nobler move, but perhaps it is not the shrewder one. And I do believe it’s possible to think more holistically about the relationship between the political and the theological, that Christians can be theologically committed to human well-being, and that the accusatory head game of where does your real allegiance lie is counterproductive and dispensable. There’s no one better at illustrating this principle than Jesus—his religious teachings repeatedly address humanitarian and ethical care issues. Similarly, I find the biblical narrative of how Saul became Israel’s first king to be another useful resource for thinking about the relationship between theology and politics, precisely because the narrative does away with the either/or of politics and religion, presuming at every turn that they are part of mutually informing whole.

Saul enters Israel’s politically turbulent tale in 1 Samuel 8, while Samuel and the Israelite armies are fending off the Philistines. Chapter 7 very deliberately ends on a triumphant note, making clear that it is God who delivered Israel from the Philistines encroaching on their border. This makes Israel’s request for a human king in chapter 8 read that much more like a betrayal of the God who repeatedly rescues them from foreign domination. The takeaway message is thus: the request for an earthly, human king is also a rejection of Yahweh’s divine kingship. Ideally, there should be no (earthly) king in Israel at all:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (1 Sam 8:4–9, NRSV)

It’s these verses I think of when anyone argues that God has divinely appointed so-and-so to this or that political office because that’s what God wanted. The biblical record (at least in this case) makes it very clear that human political traditions run contrary to the kind of divine rulership that God desires for his people. God agrees to select a king for Israel begrudgingly, because it’s what they want. There’s a radical distinction here between the Lord’s kingship and the kingship of “other nations.” In this text, there is not that annoying conflation between divine will and the reigning political order du jour that has so plagued Western regimes, from pre-revolution France to Trump’s America. To want any kind of political figure who is not Yahweh, and who does not rule in the manner that Yahweh would, is in fact comparable to idolatry (v. 8) and reminiscent of pagan culture. Their political systems lead only to forced labor, endless war, slavery and death (vv. 10–17), experiences so endemic to every godless empire that has ever ruled this earth. Again, all these things characterizes the goyim—they have no place among a community that considers itself God’s spiritually elect.

Apparently, white evangelical Christians are so thoroughly invested in worldly political ways that they can talk about God working enthusiastically within them, endorsing this person, orchestrating that event, and so on. I know there are other places in the Bible that could be interpreted as supporting divine action in earthly politics (Romans 12 comes to mind), but perhaps we should always be mindful 1 Samuel 8, remembering God’s fundamental disdain for propping up earthly political powers. After all, God’s disappointment in Israel asking for a king did not stop him from commanding Samuel to listen to them and anoint a king. Likewise, if Trump has indeed been chosen by God, it’s because God has indulged our sinful need for human politicians that provide the illusion of strength that only God can provide; it’s our fallenness, not our fidelity, that makes us eager for political leaders who align with our socio-political values. The joke’s on Jerry Falwell Jr. and his cronies who succumbed to Trump the way the Israelites succumbed to Saul. There is no biblical theology of God’s work in human politics that does not ultimately lead back to himself.

The Lord’s objection isn’t to governance and political office as such. It’s not that Israel should have no king, but that Yahweh is the only acceptable option. It’s a simultaneous embrace of both the theological and the political—in 8:4–9, it’s the theological that should enter and transform the political, but there is no denial or diminishment of either. That God could be king of an earthly political entity (rather than an otherworldly heavenly kingdom à la Christianity) is an ancient Israelite idea that makes more sense in a pre-rational culture; it can only be fully apprehended by a Mesopotamian mentality that does not sharply divide the sacred and the mundane. But it’s an idea from which we modern believers can learn something important: it is indeed very theological to reject the corrupt business of human politics, not through political retreat, but through the spiritual transformation and renewal of the political arena. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of milk and honey, and it’s political agenda is not the voracious pursuit of power, or the preservation of a nationalist-religious ideology. It is the real and material freedom from famine, war, suffering, and captivity of every kind.

The Evangelical Vote: Myth of the 81%?

Since the U.S. presidential election, various news outlets have reported that evangelical Christians—in particular white evangelical Christians—voted for Donald Trump. During the course of the campaign, it became standard wisdom that the evangelical vote was Trump’s—a fact symbolically reinforced by the endorsements given to Trump by some of evangelicalism’s most prominent leaders, such as Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem. The main exit polls show that about 81% of white evangelicals voted Trump (see here, here and here). This is old news, but some are now contesting this percentage, offering up alternative facts and figures with attendant explanations.

Maybe it is due to a visceral aversion to conventional wisdom that some have decided to problematize the 81% statistic. Maybe it is due to a desire to defend evangelicalism from the charge coming mostly from secular media and the progressive evangelical left (my goodness, does such a thing even exist?) that white conservative evangelicalism sold its born-again soul to a proto-fascist bigot. Maybe there are valid reasons to distrust (or at least question) the methods and conclusions of election polls. Whatever their reasons, both Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition recently ran articles suggesting that when we consider the voting commitments of so-called minority groups within evangelicalism (Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans), the support for Trump among evangelicals on the whole greatly declines, and the total picture of evangelical politics is not nearly so unholy as mainstream opinion supposes. Regardless of one’s intentions in challenging conventional wisdom, doing so is guaranteed to generate curiosity and promote debate. And certainly alternative angles on this issue of the evangelical vote are beneficial for the larger conversation that we should have about race and evangelical identification. I’m sure we’ll forever be talking about why a large number of American evangelicals (whatever statistic one decides to settle upon) wanted the Donald to be their commander-in-chief.

I am particularly interested in this idea that racial/ethnic minorities must be accounted for when trying to determine what percentage of the evangelical vote we may say gave their support to Trump. I am interested because this is not so simple a thing to do: non-whites, on average, are less likely to explicitly identify as ‘evangelical’ when asked about their religious affiliation, even if they answer affirmatively to questions about doctrine and views of scripture that many would consider distinctive to the evangelical faith tradition. 1 On this basis, commentators at both CT and TGC have argued that the 81% figure is not accurate and/or representative of the evangelical vote at large. This is because it considers only white evangelicals, and not minority evangelicals who, although they do not identify as evangelicals, nevertheless should be counted among the evangelical group on the basis of their theological conformity to its core principles.

The overlap between denominational traditions is certainly something to consider when asking people to state their theological positions for the purposes of labelling and categorization. This is an especially important point when it comes to evangelicalism, because evangelical ideology often reaches across denominational divides. I am certainly not here to contest recent research that looks at evangelical identification from a theological, belief-based perspective. I do think this angle has value. But I think decisively incorporating ethnic minority respondents under the evangelical umbrella on the basis of belief alone, in order to promote a narrative that evangelicals did not support Trump wholesale when minority groups are considered, is very suspicious.

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From http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/

At this point I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that minority groups cannot be evangelical, or that they do not count or do not matter to evangelicalism: indeed they very much do, and it is because they matter that I write this piece at all. The ostensible purpose of subsuming “ethnic minority Christians” into the “evangelical vote” is to challenge the idea that Trump won handily among evangelicals. When these ethnic minority voters are counted as evangelicals, the 81% statistic is brought down to about 35–45%. This newly constructed 35–45% percentage—which works out to be less than half of the total evangelical vote—suggests that evangelicals were far from unanimous with respect to their support for Trump. Ironically, this very act of including minority voters in the evangelical vote—whether inclusivity is the underlying intent or not—arguably works to salvage the damaged reputation of the evangelical Religious Right.

Essentially, then, certain authors are relying on a (presumed) minority evangelical demographic to alter the percentage of Trump-supporting evangelicals; in the end, this only obscures the racism that fuelled the white evangelical vote. As Evan Derkacz of Religion Dispatches wrote, white evangelical commentators are so eager to “protect the evangelical brand” that they will claim that “real” church-attending evangelicals didn’t actually vote for Trump, and tend to conflate the white evangelical vote with the “evangelical of color” vote. I cannot help but think that this appeal to “ethnic minority evangelicals” is meant to soften the glaringly obvious racism that has become so entrenched in white evangelical politics. Even if the belief-based approach is taken, and more minorities are given the evangelical label, the new 35–45% could still be broken down according to race—and it would still be the case that white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted Trump. There is no statistical manoeuvre to whitewash that.