Trump’s blasphemy is better than the blasphemy of supporting him

I’m sure if you’re like me, you are experiencing Trump fatigue. If he’s good at anything, he’s good at generating headlines, and so if you spend any time of US news media you will have had month after month of outrage on the one hand and complaints about the ridiculousness of the outrage is on the other. Nevertheless, I try to keep an eye on how the Christian world responds to him because the more that the church gets consumed by its culture wars, the more collateral damage accrues to the public image of Christ and it is nothing if not interesting to see what certain Christian groups will sacrifice in the fight for cultural dominance.

Pew Research Center just released data showing again how polarized the response to Trump is, with three-quarters of Republicans interviewed saying that he often makes them feel informed, hopeful, excited, happy, proud, and respected. At the same time, Christianity Today released an editorial in which (while calling for today’s “court prophets” to be more Christian and less partisan) the author gave significant leeway to Christian views that regard Trump as a political figure of the order of King David. This comes in a month in which Trump’s public racism led to crowds chanting for non-white American citizens to “Go back home,” asylum seekers were flown and dumped in Tijuana without resources, and the president was linked with the violent rape of a 13-year-old in the wake of Epstein’s arrest, a withdrawn charge from 1994 that isn’t even counted among the two charges of rape and 18 charges of sexual misconduct that stand against the man. The report of this rape was so underplayed that I had to search it to make sure that it wasn’t a weird slur that some troll had made up (a slur like “Ilhan Omar married her brother,” which Trump decided this week to spread from the highest platform in the English-speaking world). And July still has a good few days to run.

A month like this would be a career destroyer for anyone—unless they were being protected by a powerful group. Unfortunately for Christians in the rest of the world, Donald is protected by large sectors of the white American church (some examples here and here).

Dissenting Christians often seem apologetic in their denunciations of the path conservativism has taken in their country or outright unsure of what matters anymore. By way of example, in Trump’s most recent rally in which racist chanting captured the headlines, he also twice used the expletive “Goddamn.” I saw a few comments from Christians like this:

Now I get that this particular person is trying to argue from a position that all conservative Christians should be able to agree upon: “Christian” presidents shouldn’t be blaspheming. However, what sort of indictment is it upon your society that in a month of rape and pedophilia allegations, racism, intentionally cruel xenophobia, slander, and so on, the best hope for agreement that this person could marshal was that semi-blasphemous expletives are bad?

More troubling still is that this is hardly the blasphemy we should be most worried about. “Blasphemy” is a loan-word from the Greek that means “slander”. We can “slander” God’s name by using it as an expletive, thus cheapening it. However, this is surely a mild form slander (if this phrase counts at all). The kind of blasphemy that should really concern us is that which represents the betrayal of God by worshipping false things (e.g. Ezek 20:27-28) and the kind of blasphemy that results from Christian misbehaviour. We can behave in such a way as to cause outsiders to slander God. Consider how Paul in Romans 2:24 uses Isaiah 52:5: he says “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you [the Jewish leaders behaving in hypocrisy].'” Similarly, 2 Peter 2:2 says, “And many will follow their [the false teachers’] sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.”

Has Christian support for Trump exposed idolatries? That the Faith & Freedom Coalition could say, “There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!” implies a few, in my opinion.

Has aligning the church with Trump caused God’s name to be slandered? Of course. Every day. The revelation that Trump doesn’t care about how he speaks about God adds nothing new to the discussion. There has been a relentless stream of attitudes and behaviours that make Christian alliance with him blasphemous.

The American church is said to be shrinking, and this at least in part is motivating the tactics employed in their culture wars. It seems as though Christians are worried that it is secularism that is pulling people out of the pews. Ironically, however, the fact that culture wars have led to an “all’s fair” approach on the part of sectors of the church has radically eroded away any distinctive voice for truth and morality in public Christianity. In prostituting itself to this president, Christians not only fail to be an attractive alternative to the moral brokenness of this world, we’ve become public defenders of some of it’s most grotesque abuses.

The culture wars are lost already because the church is not fighting with the weapons it has been given: truth, love, unity, justice, mercy. Maybe it’s not secularism that is emptying the church; maybe it’s the fact that the church has become such a den of robbers that the secular world has become more attractive than we are.

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Is James Dobson a baby Christian?

I have heard several sermons—and I’m sure many of you have too—in which the speaker looks back with admiration at the early church as it is depicted at the end of Acts 2. In this ideal moment at the beginning of the Christian church, believers self-sacrificially gave up their own comforts in order to ensure that other believers in crisis were looked after. As much as we like to praise this as a picture of the love and generosity of genuine Christianity, putting anything like this sort of attitude into practice is far rarer.

James Dobson was a hero of the church tradition that I grew up in, and he really seemed like someone who was passionate about preserving Christian truth and seeing families brought to Christ. His most recent newsletter, however, did some low-level trending on Twitter this week for all the wrong reasons, and I wanted to make a longer response to it. If I am now calling him out by name, it is not because he is particularly in the wrong, but he is representative of a broader Christian approach to social issues that I am finding more and more disturbing, and the contrast with my opinion of him as a youth is just so stark.

I also don’t want to imply that solutions to social problems are ever easy or that putting Acts 2 into practice is without complication. Nevertheless, if I were to ask you to mine Scripture—the Torah in Deuteronomy; Christ’s teachings; Paul’s letters—for a general perspective on how we should view the poor, the outsider, the refugee, what do you think you’d come up with? Not least, surely you’d include that the Bible commands love for the outsider by reminding believers that we were all slaves given freedom by grace, and that at the heart of true religion is looking after the vulnerable and those who are unable to repay us.

If I asked you to give a biblical perspective on how important culture and race and nationality are to the Christian’s identity, I’m sure we’d conclude that these are not important at all. Culture is neutral unless it imposes idolatries on us, and race and nationality have been dissolved into a gospel that shows love to all and despises favouritism. Indeed, Twitter is awash with white Christians who tell black believers exactly this—they apparently don’t even see race.

But when James Dobson hits the border camps, why does so much of this basic Christian teaching evaporate? Why is there fear of the outsider and insistence upon the sanctity of comfortable American culture? To be sure, his newsletter regularly affirms how much he grieves with and loves these people (“Tears flooded my eyes as I stood before them… ‘Please tell them that God loves them… tell them that I love them, too.’”), and I am in no doubt that the problems that he describes are very real and very serious. But there are several attitudes evident in this newsletter that I can’t understand.

Demonising foreigners: Criminals and illiterates

There are several studies that deal with problems of racial bias in corrupting the memory of eye-witnesses. For example, Pacific Standard Magazine details how stereotypes play a role in altering how witnesses remember the facial features of a perpetrator, and there are accounts of witnesses incorrectly identifying a white perpetrator as black due to the assumption that a criminal is likely to be black, or black suspects being remembered as particularly large or especially threatening. In short, xenophobia is a dangerous sin, and stereotyping plays a major role in perpetuating injustices against those who are considered other.

Yet without presenting any statistical evidence, whether it be about criminal records of those applying for asylum or the comparative rates of crime committed by immigrants versus American citizens, Dobson is quick to characterise (albeit “some”) migrants and refugees as criminal by virtue of their otherness. He says:

“An unknown number of these men are hardened criminals and drug runners, and they are difficult to identify. Most make their way across the border.”

“The border patrol agents are so busy caring for refugees seeking entry to the United States that they have very little time to police the borders. It is so porous that huge quantities of contraband, including all kinds of narcotics, flow into this country every day. Then it is transported northward to America’s cities to be consumed by adolescents and millennials. Lawless gangs, such as MS-13, are also pouring into the culture, making violence for inner cities a way of life.”

Of course he’s not accusing every migrant of being criminal, but notice how the language is always extreme: it’s huge quantities of drugs flowing in through porous borders; it’s lawless gangs pouring in and making violence a way of life. (He even manages to shoehorn millennials in there, in case there weren’t enough groups for him to vilify in one letter.)

The presentation of these people as vile and parasitic culminates in his conclusion:

“I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation.”

I find it abhorrent that in view of a serious refugee crisis from countries to the south, Dobson’s concern is not with need or gospel, but that “the culture” of his “great country” will be overwhelmed by swarms of dirty illiterates.

Demonising the left: Democrat Plots

In the process of making his dehumanising characterisation of the refugees, he also decides to add to the polarisation of America’s political and social landscape by blaming this problem on Democrats. He says:

“The refugees quickly give themselves up to agents. That is why they have made this journey. They know they will be fed, medicated, and treated humanely, even if they are in holding areas while they are in our custody. Then they will be released on American soil. This is the system set up by a liberal Congress and judges… Democrats want massive numbers of immigrants who will someday become voters. Some Republicans support the policies because they want cheap labor for agricultural purposes. The border could be fixed, but there are very few in authority who seem to care.”

Whatever the socio-political causes of high refugee numbers, and whatever has motivated the laws that insist on humane treatment of refugees and disallow their repatriation, Dobson ensures the agreement of his readers against the needy by portraying the impulse to help them as “liberal” and by sweeping all humanitarian impulses behind these laws into a cynical Democrat plot to bolster their voter numbers by naturalising foreign children. Dobson seems unable to conceive of the possibility that laws might have been made to protect these people from exploitation and mistreatment—the very impulse that his Christian faith should produce in him—rather, good treatment of refugees must surely have been motivated by a sinister Leftist power-grab and should therefore be opposed.

(It gives him no pause—but it should—that he assumes non-whites will vote Democrat.)

Excusing inhumanity and family breakdown

In contrast with the sweeping and emotive language that he uses of these migrants, when it comes to the conditions in which these people are held, Dobson becomes noticeably measured and impassive. The controversial zero-tolerance enforcement of the policy of separating children from their parents—pursued inter alia as a means of punishing migrants and deterring others from coming—is something that has horrified humanitarians, and several reports have revealed shocking cases of neglect and even deaths. But for Dobson:

“they are segregated by sex and age and placed in the fenced-in areas to be held for the next 20 days until they are processed and given a Notice to Appear. If that sounds inhumane, what would you or I do? There is simply no other place to ‘house’ them.”

For someone who has made a name and a fortune as the founder of Focus on the Family, it is alarming that there is absolutely no concern for these families. Not only does he not love them enough to criticise the practice of family separation, it doesn’t even get flagged as an issue. It’s an inevitable result of a housing shortage, that’s all.

Inconsistency that seems xenophobic

Another point at which Dobson’s newsletter is insensitive to its own xenophobia is on the matter of “anchor babies”. Dobson is concerned that allowing one illegal to slip through the cracks and to get established in the country then promotes the migration of the whole family, exacerbating the immigration problem. He says:

“The vast majority [of immigrants released with a court date] are never seen again. Most then become ‘anchor babies’ who are citizens with rights to bring members of their families.”

Well enough. But he then can’t resist adding something that betrays a different concern than for lawlessness and economically unproductive immigrants:

“In addition to this influx of people from places around the world steeped in poverty and despair, Senator Chuck Schumer authored and helped pass a ‘lottery’ system, whereby winners are brought to the United States. They become permanent residents, who then begin bringing their families to our shores. Thank you, Senator.”

My question is this: is the problem that immigrants are poor and uneducated and a drain on resources, or is the problem that they are not your people? Because the only friend I had who entered the US as a lottery winner was university educated when she left here. If she started importing her family, they would be educated and economically productive. Senator Schumer is deserving of the sarcastic “thanks” for what reason? Without looking, Dobson knows that these outsiders to your proud “nation of immigrants” are bad. On what grounds except prejudice?

Promotion of Trump

Speaking of immigrants, Trump and his family also get another stunning free pass from Dobson. After Dobson swayed evangelical voters by insisting that Trump prayed the prayer and is a “baby Christian” right before the election, and Grudem likewise ignored every biblical criterion of leadership to declare him a good moral choice for president, Dobson continues uncritically to promote Trump and his policies. If characterising Mexicans as violent, drug-carrying rapists weren’t on-brand enough for a Trump promoter, he adds:

“The situation I have described is the reason… [Trump’s] border wall is so urgently needed.”

“He seems to be the only leader in America who comprehends this tragedy and is willing to address it… I know of no one with political influence besides the President who seems to care about the crisis at the border.”

“He is facing enormous opposition from both political parties, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, the judiciary, portions of agriculture, powerful lobbies, and virtually every dimension of the culture.”

“[Political fat cats], and their friends in the fake media, have told the American people that there is no crisis at the border! Shame on them all.”

Dobson does not acknowledge that the wall is often opposed because it is expensive and fairly ineffective. Dobson turns a blind eye towards the clamour of voices who do care about the crisis at the border, but just not in Trump’s xenophobic way. Dobson parrots the extremely dangerous lie that the media who report inconvenient details are fake news.

I am struggling to find an explanation for how a Christian leader who devoted his life to healing families can be invited by the White House to evaluate internment camps that aim at breaking up families, and his verdict is virtually a point-by-point endorsement of Trump and his keynote issues: violent Mexicans, the plan for a wall, his alleged persecution, and his go-to excuse that the free media is corrupt and bad.

A problem ignored is a problem solved

Finally, let us not miss Dobson’s own heart for the poor and the outsider. He explicitly states his own preferred solution to the refugee crisis, which is that they should go somewhere else:

“Lest I be misunderstood, let me make clear that I am among the majority of Americans who want the border to be closed to those who attempt to enter illegally. There has to be a better solution than this. I have wondered, with you, why the authorities don’t just deny these refugees access to this nation. Can’t we just send them back to their places of origin? The answer I received was ‘No,’ [because US law doesn’t permit repatriation].”

For Dobson, the main problem is not the poverty and hopelessness of people arriving at America’s borders. The problem is not in the destruction of families, or the physical and psychological depravation of children being caged without their parents. The problem is not even illegality, since it is not necessarily illegal to apply for refuge, and there is certainly no question of illegality in the lottery system, which he also grouses about. The problem, for Dobson, is that they’ve brought their problems to America, and that will harm “the culture as we have known it”.

As Dobson says in his conclusion, “America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature.” That Dobson could talk about the virtues that are at the heart of Christian nature and immediately follow it with a “But…” and explain that the poor are too much of a threat to his culture and comfort says far too much about what matters to “conservative” Christianity in Dobson’s America. Whatever Dobson is trying to conserve, it is not the gospel.

Christianity is neutral about our culture unless it imposes idolatries on us. The idolatry of “our America” and “the prosperity that our hands have built” is insidious and nasty. The gospel calls us to love, and to service, and to self-sacrifice. That Dobson has put his culture first makes me wonder if he isn’t also just one of those baby Christians.

4. The Vision of Complementarianism

Piper’s lead article in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) says that the argument for complementarianism can be made either from Scripture or by laying out the vision (i.e. that it is a fulfilling position to live out), which is the approach that he adopts.

While this can be an effective approach, it is problematic because it is hard to avoid fallacious arguments from consequences or problems with cause and effect. Piper needs to show that complementarian theology is actually the cause of the desired consequences and that the social problems he identifies are indeed caused by the alternatives.

the Vision

Most of Piper’s article is given over to explaining his definition of manhood and womanhood; the vision itself is given very briefly. It is largely that men and women, having understood their place in the world, will experience fulfilling and deep relationships in which “there is a harmony and mutuality that is more beautiful and more satisfying than any pattern of marriage created by man” (RBMW, p. 52). This will be true by extension in the church too. “We believe that manhood and womanhood mesh better in ministry when men take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church; and that mature manhood and womanhood are better preserved, better nurtured, more fulfilled and more fruitful in this church order than in any other” (p. 53).

The Problems

If lived out with the self-sacrificial godliness required, I think complementarianism can be a fulfilling and God-honouring system, but there are several problems that I have with his case.

The argument is circular. Piper is attempting to commend his vision to the heart, to show that it is the right way because it is a satisfying way of life (p. 33). However, he hasn’t shown why it produces better marriages and better churches, he just says that it will. The reason is that he thinks it is God’s pattern, whereas all others are human in origin (it is better than “any pattern… created by man”). In effect, he is trying to argue that we know it is true because it is the best way to live, and we know it’s the best way to live because it is true.

In general, he commends his vision of more harmonious relationships without saying how it produces harmony or why the alternatives don’t. Of course, complementarian relationships in which there is no sin would work wonderfully. But why would egalitarian relationships without sin work any worse?

Gender characteristics are not uniform. Piper’s vision is based on definitions of manhood and womanhood that he claims reflect biblical teaching, but which he doesn’t demonstrate:

“At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” (pp. 35-36)

Piper’s definition of manhood makes men leaders, protectors and providers. But what about men who have no leadership gifts, or who are not especially brave and strong? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that such men are not really men, or they have to act against their giftedness to fulfill a role that has the flakiest of biblical foundations.

It’s even worse for the women; I’m not sure that I would feel convinced that my womanhood has been fully grasped and rooted in God if I were to read that I am defined as a recipient of maleness. If we set aside for a minute the insistence that this is God’s word and His will for your life, does that really resonate as true on its own terms? Is one’s identity as a woman—something that Piper argues is “essential… to our personhood” (p. 33)—really just following men?

As I argued previously, male and female tend be different from each other in predictable ways, but these are only very general tendencies. To use male and female differences as a basis for a definition of manhood and womanhood is very damaging to those who fall outside of supposedly biblical definitions of their gender.

I came across a recent Twitter comment that made a similar point:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages us to see the value of complementary gifts. However, how do you delineate gifts on gender lines? The Bible doesn’t. And in what way is this the only hope for our churches and communities?

There are several problems with causation. At the heart of Piper’s vision is the claim that complementarianism will cause harmony at home and in church. But identifying the cause of something is fiendishly difficult. Will Piper’s vision come about because of its complementarian structure, or because the people involved are committed to loving and serving one another in a gospel way—a commitment that would lead to harmony anyway?

More pointedly, Piper implies that marriages and ministries don’t “mesh” without a man at the helm. Is this because of how creation is wired or because people have grown up believing in the divine right of men to lead (and so refuse to be led by a woman)? If they were committed to love and serve equally well under the leadership of a man or a woman, would the “mesh” be any different? How do you know?

The second problem with cause and effect is on page 33 of RBMW. Here Piper says that the consequence of “mimimizing the unique significance of our maleness and femaleness… is more divorce, more homosexuality, more sexual abuse, more promiscuity, more social awkwardness, and more emotional distress and suicide that come with the loss of God-given identity.”

More recently, Piper appeared on a desiringgod.org podcast, which introduced the presentation about male and female difference in terms of the sexual abuses brought to light by the #MeToo movement. Piper goes on to say:

“It’s a firm conviction of most of our egalitarian culture that men as men do not owe women a special kind of care and protection and honor that women do not owe men. I believe they do. I believe fifty years of denying it is one of the seeds bearing very bad fruit, including all those sexual abuses you talked about in your question. There are others seeds in our culture, but this is one of the seeds.”

Although Piper at least only cites egalitarianism as one of the causes, is it even true that society is more of a mess now? The #MeToo movement has opened a floodgate because this is perhaps the first time in history that women feel safe enough to report the abuses they suffered without the expectation of further abuse for doing so. It is extremely blinkered to argue as though the movement exists because there has been a recent sharp increase in abuse. These social ills have existed in spades throughout history. This is how men have always been.

Furthermore, society wasn’t complementarian in the middle of the last century; it was patriarchal. Men didn’t love and serve women and value their inherent womanly gifts—only to have the feminists poison our healthy view of social roles. Women were commonly treated as deficient and inferior. Is Piper arguing that the repression of women held all these vices at bay?

Finally, it is deeply insulting to every evangelical egalitarian to imply that giving women equal dignity implies lack of concern for their welfare—as though the responsibility to protect the vulnerable is a complementarian thing. It is a Christian thing. If anything, the #ChurchToo movement is highlighting that complementarian organisations are perfectly capable of covering up abuse and protecting the powerful.

Women follow from the front. In order to insist that women remain followers even when they self-evidently are taking the lead, Piper in RBMW is forced into some linguistic gymnastics that I find absurd.

For example, a woman without a husband can be the head of her household as long as she is “not unduly masculine” in their performance, and “has the sense that this would be properly done by her husband if she had one, and if she performs them with a uniquely feminine demeanor” (p. 37).

Leading and following should even carry through into the bedroom. On page 40, he says, “Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.” Even if a woman initiates sex or has her own ideas during intercourse, her leading “is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense you could say at those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to lead in a way as only a man can, so that she can respond to him.”

You’re free to find the concept of follow-leading not ridiculous if you’re able.

It is hard to be a consistent complementarian. Piper ends his article with a list of ministry opportunities for women under the complementarian system. But there are some inconsistencies between his list and his theology. If 1 Timothy 2 excludes women from teaching and leading, and given that it does not qualify the sphere in which these are exercised, how can Piper allow women to minister as leaders and teachers of college students? College-age males are men, aren’t they?

More to the point, almost everything we do in Christianity is for ‘edification’; there is a teaching component to singing and songwriting, to good public prayer and Bible reading, to translation and writing and evangelism. I am not sure how one practices the rule against female teaching and leadership without either silencing all public female voices or becoming arbitrary in how one defines leadership and teaching.

Conclusion

This post has obviously focused on quibbling with one article from one theologian. As such, it is not likely to represent the only arguments available in favour of the complementarian vision. Nevertheless, it is the lead article in one of the most influential Christian books on gender in living memory. The definitions of manhood and womanhood have been foundational for much Christian thinking on the subject, and the criticisms that it levies against other positions have likewise poisoned the well for many of us (I myself have not considered reading egalitarians in their own words until very recently). I have committed to a frank critique of this article because it is a major piece of the debate and yet it consistently fails to rise above presumption.

I can agree with Piper that there is currently a vacuum when it comes to social identity, especially of boys. Tim Winton, in an excellent piece for the Guardian, bemoans this too, though for different reasons. There is a loss of a vision of strength in humility and virtue these days.

However, I can see nothing that Piper mentions as a good fruit of complementarianism that wouldn’t be true of Christian living in general. Nor does egalitarian theology contribute to the lack of identity that so many people feel. World-class legal and architectural firms operate with partners rather than CEOs—a married couple might similarly operate with mutual respect, communication and recognition of the other’s strengths and without the leader-follower model. Letting go of default deference to the man in favour of equal partnership does not imply chaos in the home.

In summary, being able to describe a beautiful outcome for complementarian theology is worthless if it is an exercise of the imagination. We all want the church to be full of harmonious and effective relationships, but there is no reason given here why complementarianism is uniquely or ideally suited to achieve that.

1. Ephesians 5 and the submission of the wife

There has long been controversy over Ephesians 5:15-33 and the question of the submission of a wife to her husband. With so much media attention (rightly) focused on pay gaps between the sexes and abusive and exploitative behaviour towards women in society, resistance to the idea that women ought to submit to their husbands is only likely to grow.

In this post, I aim simply to emphasise what seem to be clear guiding principles regarding headship and submission from this text—an issue that is not just important for marriage, but also because it influences how we understand the roles of men and women in the church “family” and Christian leadership more generally.

The HEadship of the Husband

Paul spends considerably more time defining the husband’s responsibilities than those of the wife, probably because his role is much more likely to be misunderstood.

Ephesians 5 begins with a general call for all of us to imitate God and to model our behaviour on the self-sacrificial love of Christ (5:1-2). The instructions that follow are all expressions of a relational principle encapsulated in Christ’s example: that of self-giving love for the other, rather than our natural impulse to serve ourselves.

While this is the general principle governing all of the household relationships, it is also one of the two illustrations that Paul applies specifically to the husband’s role in marriage. In particular, the husband should:

  • Love his wife with the kind of self-sacrifice with which Christ loved the church (5:25; cf. 5:2b)
  • Love his wife with the same measure of self-interest with which he would naturally love his own body (5:28-29)

“I’d die for you”

It is easy to talk about altruism. It is absurdly common to hear a man promise to die for his beloved (there are songs of this title by at least Air Supply, Bon Jovi, and The Weeknd), but it is just as common to hear of relationships dissolving because the man preferring to watch TV than to talk to his wife, or because he would never pick up his underwear off the floor. But we are almost never called upon to show love by dying. Love is tested by self-sacrifice in the decisions and annoyances of daily life. Paul’s second illustration is perhaps more challenging because it is a more common and realistic test: do you care for your wife like you feed your own body?

If these are the standards that Christ gives us for headship, it is obvious that this offers no licence for the husband to operate in a self-serving way. Paul is not arguing that the man is in God’s position in the sense that he is deserving of her unquestioning obedience. No, he says that the man is in Christ’s position in the sense that he is to empty himself for her sake. Those are very different analogies. Headship doesn’t compel obedience; it offers care and service.

“That he might sanctify her”

Between the analogies of Christ’s crucifixion (5:25) and our natural self-care (5:28), Paul discusses Christ’s purpose for sacrificing himself—namely, that his “bride” would be sanctified and purified of her blemishes. This is also instructive.

Note again that this is not to imply that the husband is responsible for his wife’s sanctification.  That, I take it, remains Christ’s work. It is not suggesting that the husband should decide what is best for his wife. No, Paul explicitly draws the parallel: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” It is a more general statement of care for the other in place of care for oneself.

I think that what verses 26-27 should do is deepen our perception of what it means to give oneself up for another. These verses remind us that when Christ gave himself up for his bride, she was not a bride who was already pure and beautiful. He gave himself up for a church in rebellion—the same church that crucified him—so that she would learn love.

So, if we would follow Christ’s example in our marriages, the argument from Ephesians seems to me not to support the idea that husbands can compel respect or submission or obedience, nor that the responsibility to love is in any way contingent on her “doing her end” and submitting (see the converse in 1 Peter 3:1-2, in which wives are encouraged to submit to unworthy husbands so that they might be won over). Husbands love their wives as Christ did: unconditionally, sacrificially and labouring to see them flourish.

The submission of the wife

In the same way as a husband loves his wife in imitation of Christ, the submission of the wife is equally an expression of this principle of imitation.

It is possible that Paul commands the submission of wife for husband because it was an expected social convention, and not necessarily because it is eternally the will of God for husbands to be heads and women to be in subjection. Either way the basic principle is the same: Christian submission is something that all of us must practice (Ephesians 5:21), because it acknowledges that order is a gift of God, and that it is an expression of love to behave respectfully within those orders that exist. (This is why we can still approve of Paul’s relational advice to slaves and masters in chapter 6 as wise, even though we would all disavow that social order.)

Paul commands submission because it is a means by which a wife can also give up her own self-serving desires and live out Christ’s love in her marriage. In this way there is a kind of equality, even in the midst of a social hierarchy: both headship and submission are expressions of love and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other.

Christian Headship

Even if we accept the interpretation that male headship is God’s eternal pattern for human relationships, it seems to me that some Christian applications of this principle go beyond what this text teaches. The idea that a husband should be the family decision-maker does not follow from the fact of his headship. The idea that the husband rules the home and that the wife may offer no dissent is incoherent in the face of the example of Christ’s self-sacrifice that we are given.

This passage also does not dictate the terms of submission in marriage nor the roles that each sex should fulfil. There is no specific content to submission in this text—it does not seem to mean having no opinion, tending the home, having children, or earning less than the husband. Submission is merely made synonymous with respect (v33). A subservient, stay-at-home mum can live without ever respecting her husband, and a woman can be a CEO and respect her stay-at-home husband perfectly well. The point, in this text at least, is not to define social roles, but to encourage Christlike other-person-centredness in whatever roles we occupy.

The great difference between the headship of the husband and that of Christ is that Jesus is in nature God. The husband, on the other hand, is in nature a fool (hopefully undergoing some degree of transition towards wisdom). As wisdom literature keeps reminding us, none of us always knows what the best thing to do is, and we ignore advice and instruction at our peril. The wise man is humble and aware of his short-comings. As 1Corinthians reminds us, this is also why we have all been equipped with various gifts—we are inadequately equipped on our own. Christian headship, whether of the home or the church, ought to be continually aware of its need for instruction, correction, help, guidance etc. from the rest of the body. In marriage, that is primarily the service that wives provide. Similarly, the heads of Christian organisations ought to benefit from gifted individuals in the body—whether they are male or female.

Christian headship should avoid altruistic claims of servant-leadership (such as the promise to die for your loved ones or public foot-washing ceremonies) while at the same time ignoring the annoying day-to-day concerns of those under one’s care. Servant leadership sets aside the needs and wants and egos of the leader and focuses on the needs of the family.

Conclusion

If you are agitated by a picture of a headship in which the husband is so dominated by the concerns of his wife and in which the leader puts his employees and members first, then you’ve probably understood Paul correctly.

By nature we seek power and independence. Submission and headship are both ways in which we lose our claim to either.

#ChurchToo and a culture of everyday sexism?

The Harvey Weinstein case has launched the #MeToo campaign that has given much-needed space for victims of abuse and harassment to be heard. That there is a #ChurchToo tag that is gaining impetus should highlight the degree to which a low view of women and the impulse to protect men is also found in leading Christian institutions. For example, serious allegations have recently been made against:

  • The Master’s University: At a seminary associated with John MacArthur, a past student claims that she had been drugged and sexually abused by a friend of male students. As part of the ‘handling’ of the assault, the university is alleged to have put her in the same room as her attacker and insisted on mutual repentance and forgiveness. She struggled with the idea of repenting for being raped, and allegedly she was eventually forced out of the school.
  • Sovereign Grace Ministries: At the group of churches overseen by the Mahaneys, several cases of abuse, including child rape and molestation, have allegedly been covered up over the course of decades.
  • Andy Savage: Prominent pastor Andy Savage recently apologised publicly for a sexual sin committed when he was a younger youth pastor, which involved driving a 17-year-old youth member to a secluded place, instead of to her home as he had said, exposing himself and requesting oral sex. This was covered up by his minister at the time.

I don’t know to what degree the details as reported are correct, and in the case of MacArthur and Mahaney, they have denied knowledge of the specifics, but there appears to be sexual impropriety that is either criminal or, in Andy Savage’s case, spared from being so only by inhabiting the blurry areas of laws of consent. In each case, ministry leaders seem to have responded to complaints against perpetrators with cover-up and even victim blaming.

Perhaps more details will emerge to partially or fully exonerate some of these leaders, but either way, there is clearly something seriously wrong with the way in which our culture views women, and in the way in which usually male leadership deals with the victims. Even in #ChurchToo.

Why protect attackers?

Sometimes the ‘wisdom’ that church leaders apply to extreme cases reveals more about their personal value system than biblical justice. Motivations for suppressing sexual abuse scandals include that the Bible says we shouldn’t drag one another to court, or that it would embarrass the church, or that prosecuting the man would “destroy his life”.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to deal with disputes internally and without dragging one another to court. However, the issues in question tend to be matters of honour and shame or private debt rather than criminal behaviour.

On the contrary, Romans 13 insists that earthly authorities have been given the sword by God to execute justice and that it is the wrongdoer who rightly ought to be afraid of God’s secular servants of justice. Matters of criminality belong to the state. Church members, more so than other citizens not less, are accountable to the good laws of the society in which they live.

Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul criticises the church for protecting someone whose offence would have been seen as taboo throughout the ancient world. For the sake of the body, the reputation of the church, and indeed for the one found in sin, Paul commands that the person be expelled (even though the consequences might be severe [v.5]):

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1Co 5:1-2)

Paul criticises the Corinthians for being less wise and less morally upright than their non-Christian neighbours and he implies that the protection of such people does not insulate the church from shame, it is a source of shame.

The protection of sexual predators and other criminals in the church is evidently foolish and evil to the watching world, and these crimes clearly fall under the God-given authority of state justice (not merely internal church dispute). More than this, it seems to me to be a violation of what James 1 calls “undefiled religion”: we ought to be protecting the vulnerable, the weak, the disenfranchised, not those who exploit them. As Amos says, with crimes such as sexual abuse of the vulnerable very much in mind: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Who do we value?

Finally, it seems to me that the treatment of aggressor and victim in cases such as the ones listed above might be an outworking of a skewed valuation of men and women in our churches. In spite of the fact that rape and sexual assault often damages or destroys the lives of victims, the concern is often for the “destroyed life” of the attacker should he be prosecuted. The idea that mutual repentance and forgiveness is appropriate in the case of a sex crime (and even the forced reconciliation of victim and attacker) is a shocking example of victim blaming that assumes women are complicit in their own assaults. It should worry us deeply that we feel the loss of a male leader more keenly than the damage done to his victim.

Furthermore, although the damage done by rape and assault can be immeasurable for the individual, a skewed valuation of women and the everyday sexism in which it is expressed is a steady, erosive drip that does widespread, ongoing damage. We should be appalled at the shocking stories of criminal abuses of women in church, but if we mourn the extreme injustices, should we not be working harder to expose the smaller, more covert prejudice against women in our church culture?

Conclusion

Our leaders are fallible and life is messy, and so it should not be too surprising that they have often invoked “biblical wisdom” in their judgments while making a mess of their ethics.

The point I’m hoping to make is that this is an extreme presentation of a problem that might be deeper and more subtle in our churches. For all our claims of love for others and equal value assigned to all, evidence keeps emerging that conservatives have inherited a culture that assigns different value to the sexes—and has made a virtue of discrimination. It is a culture that seems to me at least in part to be based more on mid-century values than the Scriptures it invokes.

For the next little while, I want to devote some posts to an investigation of this issue. I can’t hope to do all of its facets the remotest justice, but I hope to provoke some honest examination of ourselves and the Bible so that we can be clear where our church culture is driven by Scripture and where everyday sexism takes over.

EDIT: I just came across this article about a Modesto woman abused several years ago (over a period of years) by a now-prominent pastor (http://www.modbee.com/news/article202019094.html). It underlines several things, including that motivations for covering up abuse include that it will cause embarrassment for the church.

Friendly Racism

I was asked to speak about racism again, this time for an audience of South African Christian teenagers. I decided to base it on some excellent resources that I came across recently on the subject of covert prejudices. The following is the text of my speech, plus some of the key slides. I think it is a particularly important topic, given South Africa’s growing racial tensions, white supremacists in the USA, anti-immigration movements, the All Lives Matter movement, and Donald Trump in his totality. Most of us agree that racism is wrong, but most of us are also unaware of the degree to which small, seemingly-benign biases colour our vision.

(Note that for ease of reference, I refer only to black and white race groups. It is admittedly clumsy, and I mean no offence either by those terms or by the exclusion of any groups that don’t identify as either.)

* * * * * * * *

There are any number of illustrations that I could give from the last 400 years of our nation’s history that would illustrate how heavy a role racism plays in our pasts. I was going to choose the example of a British guidebook that described the inhabitants of this country as:

Unwilling to work and unable to think, stupid, with no mental resources whatsoever. They were cowardly, devious and cruel to animals. They are active only in mischief; and crimes against morality meet with applause if in the end they are successful. (Barrow’s travels, Paraphrase)

Because in this case their racism was directed against the Afrikaner, which goes to show that hatred moves around in circles, looking for a new target, and that our problems as a country in this regard are likely to be far from over.

But I returned to a more recent example, the famous case of Matthew Theunissen who was very upset about the sports’ minister’s ban on international sporting events in 2016 and he said this:

(For non-South-African readers, the ‘K’ word is the most violently racist word we have.) I’m sorry if this is a bit shocking, but this is a good example, because Matt T is a born-free—he was born after the end of Apartheid—he lived in wealthy Noordhoek, and he has a Master’s degree. He was not alive in the Apartheid system, he’s not disadvantaged under the new system, and he is not stupid. How can he still have this much of the Old South Africa in him?

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Grudem’s Strange Support for Trump

I frequently urge our theology students here in Cape Town to be willing to disagree with the celebrated commentators and theologians whom they read, because our natural state is to revere those scholars who have major published works and who have become household names, and defer to them as authorities instead of testing what they say.

It was surprising (on one level) to see one such celebrated scholar coming out in support of Donald Trump this week. Wayne Grudem is well known here for his accessible Systematic Theology, and for partnering with John Piper on the less-good Biblical Manhood and Womanhood stuff. But he has ably demonstrated his human fallibility by radically over-correcting the anti-Trump sentiment that he detects among some of his peers. His article featured on Town Hall is an attempt at an ethical argument in favour of Trump, but it is deeply disappointing on several levels.

I must say up front that I am not American, not particularly knowledgeable about politics or economics, and I do not have much expertise when it comes to speaking about Trump or Clinton. And disdain for Trump is in no way to be read as support for Hillary. Right at the start of the primaries I joked at how ridiculous it would be if the Americans had to choose between these two arch-demons, and now a year later or so (and one Brexit under the belt), here we are. Democracy this year keeps delivering the theatre of the absurd.

Christian or Republican? Pick one

As an outsider to American culture, I feel I am at least well placed to see what is harder to recognise from the inside, and one seemingly regular problem in the States, and a pervasive one in Grudem’s article, is the unfortunate confusion of Republicanism and Christianity.

For example, Grudem speaks as though it is Christian duty to support big business over big government, to affirm that government spending on healthcare is bad and that government spending on America’s big military is good. These are big Republican issues, but they seem to me to be preferences and not Christian issues.

It seems to me that Christians can support (well enough) several of the positions of either party as being compatible with their Christian faith. The Republicans can’t, it seems to me, keep claiming that all their preferences are the Christian ones, just because they are policies that are broadly thought of as conservative. And it is certainly true that Christians need to be Christians first and party-members second—it is not an article of the faith to be on the right wing.

Freedom

The second issue concerns freedom. His slippery-slope argument that Hillary would install ‘liberal activist judges’, who would then curtail freedom of speech and religion, promote more odious abortions laws etc.—if true—was the most persuasive reason for voting Trump (though Hillarophobia is still not an argument that Trump is a good candidate). He provided several anecdotes of tendencies in American society to vilify anyone for holding to religious or moral convictions that have recently become unpopular. If that is a fair assessment, it is worrying.

But his column is also angling for ‘Christian’ government (headed by Trump! Can you imagine that?) so that there can be prayer in schools, or on the football field before games, Grudem specifically adds, and other explicit government-backed promotions of Christianity in public.

I am confused as to why it is the government’s job to promote one religion to a people that clearly are not of homogeneous views on the matter. It’s all very well for Grudem when it is a ‘Christian’ party that stands to inherit the throne, but how would he feel if it were a Muslim party? Would he be advocating the government’s role in promoting respect for the name of God then, or would he be talking up the importance of pluralism and government sticking to secular policy and not meddling with religious freedom?

By all means advocate that Christians should be allowed to be Christian in public, but making non-Christians observe prayer times etc. seems like a wrong turn to me. That’s not religious freedom. It’s religious constraint of which you happen to approve.

Trump’s Promises

Perhaps the worst thing about Grudem’s article is its disingenuity. He is happy, it seems, to parrot Trump’s ludicrous campaign promises as though they were fait accompli, and to paint Clinton’s campaign as though she were Jezebel herself.

Trump is full of big promises and talks eagerly about the wonderful end product (America will be great again!), but has no political experience and rarely will be drawn on how he intends to reach these idyllic goals. And when he is, lest we forget, the solutions tend to be one part racism and one part nonsense. Ban all Muslims from the US. Build a wall on the Mexican border.

For an ethicist, Grudem is remarkably uncritical about this. In fact, he specifically approves of the idea that acts of terror and immigration policies are connected (“Trump has repeatedly promised that he will finally secure our borders, an urgent need to protect the nation from ever more terrorists and drug smugglers.”), and says things like this:

“Trump will not let China and Russia and Iran push us around anymore, as Obama has done, with Hillary Clinton’s support when she was secretary of state. If Trump is anything, he is tough as nails, and he won’t be bullied.”

Trump doesn’t seem tough to me, he seems insecure, but even granting this, how does one ‘get tough’ with China or Putin in constructive ways? Getting ‘tough’ with Al Qaida led to expensive and unpopular wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, and rather than resolving the tense anti-American atmosphere in the Middle East, we now have yet another anti-West group in Isis. But Grudem remains convinced that Trump knows the answer; the answer is to defeat them:

“Trump has pledged to aggressively attack and utterly defeat ISIS”.

That’s it. No plan (but for another implied ‘big push’); just a declaration of the nearly impossible end result.

Bravo

The fact that Trump’s policies often represent a convenient about-turn on what he has claimed in the past, and the idea that he was motivated to run because of his concern for America’s poor, and not because he was mercilessly humiliated at more than one White House correspondents’ dinner, these are things for which Grudem also gives Trump a free pass.

Trump’s character

Grudem is aware that Trump is a man of weak character. He concedes:

“He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages.”

What I find odd is that, as a Christian, Grudem can see these as matters of little consequence. Leaving aside that marital unfaithfulness was enough evidence for Republicans that Mr Clinton was unfit for office, the Bible is witheringly critical of people who are proud and lovers of money. Pride and avarice are not uncommon in politicians, but Trump is the eager epitome of each of these things. This is a man who refuses to forget that the editor of Vanity Fair called him a “Short-fingered vulgarian” in 1988. Pride is not a small problem; it is a crippling danger in leadership, which is why it is telling that the greatest biblical leaders, especially Moses and Jesus (cf. Num. 12:3), were characterised as humble, and the wicked kings and Pharaohs are proud. The Bible repeatedly says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Grudem fails to mention how often Trump has been caught out as a liar, and he fails to mention dishonest and exploitative business ventures such as Trump University in which he made clear promises about the quality of the programmes on offer that were never kept.

To call him a “good candidate with flaws” is a galling whitewash. Speaking of whitewashing…

“On the other hand, I think some of the accusations hurled against him are unjustified. His many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-(legal) immigrant or anti-Semitic or misogynistic – I think these are unjust magnifications by a hostile press exaggerating some careless statements he has made.”

Mr Grudem, if he says bigoted things in unguarded moments, it pretty much means he’s a bigot.

Clear argument fallacies

And finally, the reasons given why Trump is good in spite of all appearances to the contrary are often remarkably devoid of critical thinking. Grudem says:

“Many who have known him personally speak highly of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity.”

Dave Barry answered this one several years ago:

Dave-Barry

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person. Or as Jesus put it: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). Someone who is able to be pleasant to those to whom he has an interest in being pleasant is not a remarkable person. It is the person who is able to be kind and generous to those who are opposed to them who is genuinely praiseworthy. Trump is clearly and publicly not that guy.

Grudem also says,

“These American citizens recognize that Trump has built a business career on listening to experts, solving problems, and getting things done. They realize that Trump didn’t earn $4 billion by being stupid, and their instinct says that he might be exactly the right person to solve some of the biggest problems in a nation that has for too long been headed in the wrong direction and stuck in political gridlock.”

I am again surprised that Grudem confuses being rich with having virtue and competence. Apart from anything else, Trump  earned $4b by inheriting it from his dad, if I am not mistaken. But even if he is good at making money, there is no reason to expect that it is a transferable skill, or that Trump is reliable in other areas. Convincing a fellow capitalist that you can make them lots of money and convincing Iran not to build nukes have very little in common. (Also, if riches and problem solving make Trump a good candidate, why not Pablo Escobar?)

As for the comment about political gridlock, that problem seems to me to be the result of the long-standing refusal of Republicans and Democrats to work together, largely, it seems, because the rhetoric that one side uses of the other (as this column typifies) is routinely full of prejudiced, fallacious views of the other’s position. I expected that Grudem would show his opponents the charity of representing them fairly, but he uses the same polarising, us-and-them tactics that he thinks Donald Trump will fix.

The only way that Trump will fix political gridlock, and this really is a reason to vote for him, is that surely this time Republicans and Democrats together will be united in undermining their president. Already some Republican leaders have admitted that they will vote Democrat, because sometimes the party has to come second.

Grudem argues in his column that some Republican Christians “may feel it is easier just to stay away from this messy Trump-Clinton election, and perhaps not even vote. But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing.” He is incorrect that not voting is the same as doing nothing. Not voting can also be a statement that the system that produced Donald Trump as a viable candidate is terminally ill. It is a statement of protest against the prejudicial propaganda that delights more in spoiling the opponent than listening to them and that has led to the political gridlock that he mentions.

It is disappointing that Grudem has encouraged Christian support for Trump, not because Christians should rather support Hillary, but because Christians should represent integrity and love for their enemies, and they can’t do that by supporting a ‘Christian’ candidate of patently anti-Christian character, and they can’t do that by perpetuating the divisive rhetoric that has led to the sorry state of affairs that America seems to be in. In my opinion, an article about the Christian vote in the upcoming election should rather be characterised by mourning and much searching of heart.

 

*****

I have subsequently been linked to an article that fittingly does just that. It is well worth reading: http://samuelwhitefield.com/1811/four-issues-to-consider-before-you-vote-trump-what-is-really-at-stake

*****

EDIT2: Grudem withdrew his whole-hearted support of Trump shortly after the Billy Bush tape emerged: https://townhall.com/columnists/waynegrudem/2016/10/09/trumps-moral-character-and-the-election-n2229846. While some took this to be a point in Grudem’s favour, it is shocking to me that someone who acknowledged Trump’s divorces and marital infidelity could be surprised by a recording that merely reiterates that he is a user of women. Why is it a bigger issue now?

And again, the emphasis on sexual immorality is well and good, but in what world does an issue of private immorality and poor role modelling outweigh issues of arrogance, lies, propaganda and attacks on media, and racism and sexism—any of which really should mean the disqualification of a leader from a Christian-ethical perspective?