Excerpt from “Turn Neither Right Nor Left”

The following is a short section from the end of Turn Neither Right Nor Left. It was released recently and is now available on Amazon.com.

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The war that Christians fight is, paradoxically, a war of love and peace. We fight spiritual warfare, and yet the fruit of the Spirit are all humble, other-centered qualities that we praise much and practice little:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22–23)

In other words, if war produces unflinching commitment to the cause, it is important to recognize that the war that we’re meant to be fighting is one of good character and Christian perseverance. At all costs we pursue a no-compromise attitude to love even our enemies, and to do those things that guard our discipleship of Christ. While we tend to want to be right and to divide from those who differ from us, the New Testament is consistent in imploring us to be the kind of people who are humble, who listen to reason, who are kind, and eager to serve (e.g., Jas 3:17–18). It is consistent in calling us to peace and unity (e.g., 1 Pet 3:8–11).

Engaging in this warfare of peace and love has the ability to change our enemies to disciples. Look at what Peter says:

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Pet 2:11–12)

As exiles in this world, Peter says, Christians ought to wage war not on our host nations, but on our own passions. By keeping our way of life pure, any accusations that our opponents might bring against us would be refuted by our good conduct. While it is not clear here that these enemies are glorifying God willingly, in 1 Pet 3:1, he says that our honorable behavior is a tool by which we win opponents over. But if our behavior is dishonorable, there’s no doubt that we’re losing the war.

The cold fact is that if the whole world rejected evolution, they would most likely be looking for the next scientific explanation and be no closer to Christ. If the whole Western world rejected feminism, it would be no more Christian than the patriarchal societies that feminism has not reached. If the whole church became premillennialist, it would not guarantee our unity in any other respect, we would not know Jesus better or love him more, and not a single soul would have joined us in our walk. If we managed to pressure the outside world into giving us our way on gay marriage, abortion, and so on, we might be happier with the morality of our laws, but it will have done little to restrain the morality of people and nothing to introduce them to Christ. On the contrary, if we insist on fighting with the weapons that we have been using, rather than the humble, self-sacrificial attitude of love and service that the Spirit gives us to use, we might have done more to put them off of the gospel than to commend it to them.

The polarized culture war that evangelicals have chosen to fight is a dirty, bloodied campaign to prevent the world from encroaching on us. Yet Christ has commissioned us to change the world—he has commissioned us to make disciples and to wash one another’s feet. It is this and this alone that has the power to succeed.

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Mohler, Moore, and Generous Orthodoxy

American Evangelical Twitter is in a flutter about the issue of women preaching in the Southern Baptist Convention—an alliance of Baptist churches in which complementarianism is, according to Al Mohler, an article of faith. (You can watch his video on the subject here.)

Al Mohler this week was bemoaning the reopening of an issue that he thought closed. He said:

This seems at least partly to be a response to Beth Moore who had been invited to preach at a church on Mother’s Day, and then had tweeted about having belonged to several SBC churches all of which exhibited “generous orthodoxy” towards the idea of women using their teaching gifts in a Christian gathering.

Having written a fair bit about complementarianism last year, I will not reiterate too many of the arguments again. I’ll limit myself to a couple of observations about this particular flare-up.

1. The false dichotomy is damaging

The way Al Mohler and hundreds of Twitter commenters speak, you’d swear there is a glossary at the back of the Bible that gives clear definitions of words like “complementarianism”. So many arguments take the line that if it isn’t complementarianism (definition apparently obvious) then it must be egalitarianism (definition also apparently obvious), and therefore evil. Any number of people accused Beth Moore of being a liberal or a heretic because “generous orthodoxy,” if it’s not my orthodoxy, must be heterodoxy.

Mohler and other Christian leaders should take responsibility for this kind of behavior among their followers, because to so frequently present complex issues as though there are two clearly defined camps creates an “us” and a “them,” and this, in turn, prompts those with a poor grasp of nuance to slander everyone who occupies the grey areas in between. False dichotomies like “complementarian/egalitarian” pretend that these issues are simple, they negate the need for fair, open-minded debate, and they make the church inhospitable for anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. You either say “I’m with Al Mohler,” or you’re one of the liberals of 30 years ago who were destroying the SBC.

But of course there is not only one kind of complementarian and neither is there one kind of egalitarian (and this is why I prefer to be neither). There is a spectrum of beliefs and a lot of moving parts associated with each broad view and both have good biblical support. We have to allow people the freedom to study Scripture and make up their own minds.

2. Certainty is a helluva drug

In Al Mohler’s video linked above, he claims that the Bible makes “very very clear statements” about the role of men and women in the church and that the biblical teaching is “excruciatingly clear”. He explains that the Bible teaches that “women do not preach to the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day, specifically,” and that the issue is ultimately one of authority. When it comes to teaching men in other ways and on other days, then he allows that Paul isn’t talking about that.

But the trouble is, the Bible doesn’t really limit the prohibitions in this way; Paul just says “I am not allowing a woman to teach and have authority over a man.” Perhaps more to the point, this is not how Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood contributor Douglas Moo interprets the same text (he wrote that “to teach” is a technical term that refers to exposition or teaching theology, not that it refers to the main gathering on the Lord’s Day), and the same text prompts several Christians in my circles to disallow women to serve on a church council, for example, or to lead a church service or a mixed fellowship group. In other words, the “excruciatingly clear” Scriptures do not produce a consistent perspective on women in ministry, even among complementarian interpreters.

Even more to the point, for Mohler to claim such levels of clarity for his own interpretation means what about everyone else? What about interpreters like Gordon Fee or John Stott or Craig Keener or RT France or countless other voices from the middle? The implication is surely that they are explicitly and intentionally operating in disobedience of the clear Scriptures (and writing commentaries etc. to justify their disobedience). As genuine as he might be and as pure and earnest as his motives clearly are, Mohler’s position implies a fairly horrifying judgment upon fellow Christian scholars and pastors.

There are core matters about which we can have a high degree of certainty, but there are several compounding factors that make the majority of biblical issues less certain than we’d like. The fact is that orthodoxy ought to be generous (virtually by definition) because certainty is elusive, no matter how much you wish it weren’t so. To claim certainty for your own position and error for everyone who takes another line is first-class hubris.

3. Theology and tradition should be open for review

JI Packer said long ago that all doctrine “terminates in mystery.” There is so much that we do not know or that we perceive only dimly, and so while we hold humbly and gratefully to the revelation that we have been given, we ought to acknowledge that it is very, very partial. Furthermore, our minds are very, very small, and God is very far beyond us. What He has given us has been accommodated to our very small minds and our elusive grasp of transcendent things.

Theology is never finished.

Mohler bemoans the reopening of an issue that 30 years ago was a threat. However, was egalitarianism the threat or did it merely accompany the threat? Is complementarianism the final answer, or was it merely an answer that conveniently repelled a presenting danger at the time? You’ll never know if your answer cannot be questioned. Theology needs to be reexamined because as a human endeavor, it is subject to our blind spots and weak-mindedness. Since Paul himself teaches us that we now only perceive “as in a mirror darkly”, theology has a strong component of mystery, it should be approached with humility, and it should not be undertaken from the assumption that whoever disagrees with the status quo is an enemy.

4. Stop confusing separable issues

Finally, Mohler’s video mentions in passing that he considers the attempt to move away from complementarianism ultimately as an attack on the authority of Scripture. I don’t know if this is a genuine underlying concern or just one of those things that we say to ramp up the level of seriousness with which we would like an issue to be considered, but this might explain why there is so much wagon-circling concerning this issue.

Yet this need not be an attack on the Bible; it is often a genuine attempt to discuss the Bible, which is something we really ought to be able to do as evangelicals. We really must reserve “attack on the Bible” language for those occasions in which that is really happening, otherwise we end up communicating to our followers that any opinion that differs from that of a leader on an issue that said leader considers important is actually a contest for the heart of the faith. It ramps up the stakes, drives people into factions, and prevents us from even hearing Scripture on the matter. The Bible actually forbids us from doing this with disputable matters, but we seem less keen to obey this clear biblical command than the one verse that may or may not be a universal prohibition of women pastors.

Inasmuch as Brian McLaren and the emergent movement might have hijacked the phrase “generous orthodoxy,” it remains a brilliantly concise summary of what it is that we’re actually called to. The Bible calls us to be faithful to the gospel (orthodoxy) while being defined by love, humility, and unity in mind and purpose (generosity). Tell me how it is possible to be all those things when we claim orthodoxy as our own and confuse unity for uniformity?

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For more on these issues, look out for Turn Neither Right Nor Left due to be released later this year.

Update: New Ministry, New Book

This post is of a more personal nature than is usually the case for me. It has been an eventful few months. As of the start of 2019, I am no longer teaching at George Whitefield College in Cape Town. It was decided that we mutually agree that I should no longer teach at the college and that I pursue the completion of my studies and other opportunities. The college imposed a non-disclosure agreement and so I am unfortunately prevented from explaining anything directly related to my departure.

When my studies draw to a close later this year, I hope to publish some articles about the danger that a growing fundamentalist ethos presents to genuine evangelicalism. Fear and hostility toward any opinions that differ from the  views of an institution’s in-group threaten to factionalize evangelicalism even further, and it risks giving us a reputation for intolerance and arrogance, rather than the marks of genuineness that the New Testament envisaged for Christ’s body: love (John 13:35) and unity (John 17:22-23). That this is a problem is evident, for example, in the #exvangelical movement that is largely motivated by disillusionment with the toxicity evident in too much of the modern evangelical church.

I will be writing on such topics in promotion of a book that I wrote last year and which has been picked up by a publisher in the US called Wipf & Stock. The book aims at addressing evangelical fear that the world is changing the church, and rather in its place encourages us to recapture that which gives the church the power to change the world.

I am excited to share more about it towards the end of the year when it is due for release. Please pray that if it contains more good than bad, and if is the Lord’s will, that it may find an audience.

In the meantime, the next chapter in my ministry life is beginning to unfold too. Over ten years ago, when I started writing here on Longwind, I was working at a student ministry called the Student YMCA, based just off of the campus of the University of Cape Town. It had been a ministry goal in my seminary days to work with them, though I had not expected to join them right out of college. I only quit the Student Y to take up a teaching post at college because my family circumstances (having two young children) and the ministry needs at the Student Y at that time (involving evenings on campus) were not well aligned.

I am thrilled to be able to say that I have been invited to take up a post there again. Ministry at the Student Y is evolving, and it is moving towards the mould of a Christian study centre. This is not to say that it is leaving behind the core focus on evangelism and “teaching students to follow Jesus for life” (as the motto was when I first worked there). Rather, the plan is to add to the ministry a component that engages the university as a university and that contributes a Christian worldview to the issues and challenges of an academic environment. It will involve research projects and collaborations for which the academic training that I have undergone over the last decade will be an asset.

More will follow over the coming months, but as this is functionally a missions post, an important part of my future will be to fund-raise for the institution and for my own salary. Please be in prayer for that too.