(Un)Fair & (Im)Balanced

I wrote a piece recently about Mark Driscoll, his Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and their practice of disciplining members. A number of bloggers have responded with our concerns about how the situation was handled, and recently Mars Hill issued a brief response to criticism of their handling of the matter (thanks to Ian Ebright for bringing this to my attention):

In recent days, there has been some discussion surrounding Mars Hill Church and our process of church discipline. We do not wish to comment on the specific scenario in question, as this is a private matter between church leadership and members, all of whom have voluntarily agreed to this prior to becoming members. We do want to be as clear and forthright as possible in presenting our theology of repentance, forgiveness, and church discipline and make clear that our convictions on this come from our study of Scripture and our deep love for our members and a desire for them to enjoy the freedom that comes from walking by the Spirit in response to Christ’s work on the Cross on our behalf. At the heart of the process is our deep belief that church discipline is about the grace of God, not penance.

First, I have to question the final statement made in this press release. Though the claim that the basis of their church discipline is “about the grace of God, not penance,” the case itself suggests otherwise. Andrew, the young man in question in the case, was accused of sexual indiscretion. Namely, he cheated on his fiancée (also a Mars Hill member) with an old girlfriend. No sex, but clear lines were crossed that compromised the trust and covenant between him and his girlfriend.

Andrew confessed his transgression both to his fiancée and to church leadership in search of forgiveness. But as you can read in my earlier article, the church hardly kept it a private matter among those involved.

I won’t re-hash the whole series of events that followed again here, but suffice it to say that, in my estimation of what God’s grace is about, there was little (if any) to be found in the process. But my particular concern in writing this follow-up piece has to do with the accountability for the church as a whole. To be blunt, there doesn’t seem to be any.

I’ll readily admit an ambivalent relationship with denominations up front. Many times, I’ve written about the potential hazards of deeply embedded institutionalization in the context of personal faith. In some respects, I consider myself an advocate of Christian anarchism (a flattening of the hierarchic model of leadership, and not to be confused with the broader socio-political definition of anarchism), but the move toward self-contained nondenominational churches presents its own dangers.

Now, I’ve seen first-hand how the institution of denominations can do its own share of damage. I’m currently working on a piece about younger people who have recently left the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because they feel the “Search and Call” process (the way we circulate papers for ministers seeking a church, and churches seeking a minister) has fallen victim to cronyism and systemic paralysis. I’ve also seen my LGBT brothers and sisters marginalized by what effectively has become a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of ordination which encourages opacity about sexual orientation, rather than open, affirming discourse about one’s call to, and skills for, ministry.

So I’m the first to conceded that there’s serious work to be done if denominations hope to survive in the twenty-first century postmodern culture. But there seem to be at least as many risks is going it alone.

I’ll stop short of calling what Mars Hill has cultivated a cult. However, there is a clear cult of personality dynamics surrounding Mark Driscoll. As the architect and voice of the community, what he says, goes. There are no checks and balances beyond the walls of the church, short of the IRS and media folks like myself responding to what we observe. This kind of insularity tends to normalize whatever the leadership deems appropriate, and over time, abuses like those in the case of Andrew are practically inevitable.

So, if the “island church” model of Mars Hill presents one set of dangers, and the traditional institutional model of denominations presents another, is there a third way? I want to explore this question in some greater depth, and I welcome your input. What have you seen that works? What have you seen that doesn’t? Is there a way for us to be in covenant-based community without falling into traditional hierarchic models or simply cutting ourselves off from all other communities?

Ultimately, the church is an inherently flawed organism because of us, its component parts. But to abandon this community because of our apparent inability to get it right doesn’t seem to address the need for belonging we all have, as well as a necessary degree of somewhat objective accountability.

I’m not naive enough to believe that there’s a perfect balance between autonomy and accountability, but unless we ask the questions and seek solutions on an ongoing basis, human nature inevitably takes over, at which point the Gospel takes a back seat to own own agendas.

God help us.

I really want to give people like John Piper the benefit of the doubt. Given that he’s a minister in the Baptist tradition, it doesn’t surprise me when he only refers to God as “he” or when he talks about the man’s role as spiritual head of the household. I grew up Baptist, so I’ve heard it all before.

But he goes too far with it. Way too far. And given the breadth of his influence, his message serves to normalize the marginalization of half (slightly more than, in fact) the world’s population. While I expect he believes he is fulfilling a divine call in sharing his message, I believe I’m serving a similar call in holding him to account.

Piper, recently keynoted a conference called “God, Manhood and Ministry: Building Men for the Body of Christ.” On first blush, this sound both exciting and very necessary. Men are leaving organized religion in droves, and in many cases, they are walking away from their families as well. I agree wholeheartedly that today’s man needs some clarity, support and guidance in how to exhibit Christ-like traits of strength, conviction, love and dedication both in the home and in communities of faith.

None of this, however, requires the relegation of women to a second-tier role, which is precisely what Piper seems to be doing.

“When I say masculine Christianity or masculine ministry or Christianity with a masculine feel,” says Piper, “here’s what I mean: Theology and church and mission are marked by an overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading and protecting and providing for the community. All of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

First, a few points of agreement. If Piper and his ilk simply focused on values such as “tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice,” we would have plenty of fertile common ground. But why this requires “an overarching godly male leadership” for these traits to be realized still is a mystery.

Also, a point of clarification. It was pointed out to me by a female pastor and friend of mine, Sandhya Jha, that Piper mistakenly uses maleness and masculinity as if they are synonyms. But as convenient as it may seem to craft a binary reality in which all men are entirely masculine and all women are wholly feminine, that’s just not realistic.

Even Jesus himself hearkens his feminine attributes in Luke 13:34, when he says, ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

Does this mean Jesus secretly was a woman? No. But it means that he exhibits at times some characteristics that are considered more feminine. The mistake of many on the right is to draw a false conclusion from this that, because a man demonstrates some typically feminine qualities (and I’m not just talking about the effete stereotypes of gay men in the media), they’re somehow less of a man.

This is no more true that it is to say a woman can exhibit no masculine qualities and still be a woman.

Along this same line of thinking, it’s worth pointing out a scripture in Isaiah 66:13 in which the prophet likens God’s comfort for the Israelites to that of a mother: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

Now, on to some claims Piper makes, followed by some clarification on a few things. This is taken from the annual pastors conference hosted by the Desiring God ministry.

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male. God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head.”

I want to take these claims point-by-point, as they are the foundation of his argument for “overarching godly male leadership” in church, at home, and in culture as a whole.

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother…”

This assumes that humanity had no hand in writing the Bible, no cultural bias, no agenda, and that we simply transcribed what was given to us verbatim. If this is the case why, then, was Jesus compelled to challenge the ancient laws throughout his ministry? And why is it that we feel we must obey some of the laws laid out in Leviticus, but not others? The answer is because we place some of the texts in cultural context before applying them to contemporary life. Why, then, do we conveniently neglect to do so when it serves our own agenda, like in this case? Scripture was written by men (at least the books that were canonized from what we can tell), and the culture at the time was pervasively male-dominated. This has to be taken into consideration when reading scripture. And incidentally, when Piper says God is pervasively male throughout scripture, he seems to be leaving out the Isaiah and Luke passages I noted above. Isn’t this proof-texting?

“Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter…”

Jesus had no easy road in sharing his gospel message. How do we think it would have been received if it had been delivered by a woman in that place and time? That Jesus was male was a cultural necessity, but this does not support the case that God favors testicles over ovaries.

“The Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male.”

First, I have to give props to Piper for alluding to the first creation story here, in which God says “let us create mankind in our own image,” and not just skipping to Genesis 2, which many tend to do. However, he makes a leap to construe that the “us” in this text is the male God and Jesus, the son. Keep in mind that, when this was written, no one had any idea who Jesus was or would be. Also, the story is consistent with other creation stories from polytheistic religions, which suggests (like many other Christian narratives adapted from other religious and cultural traditions) that the authors were consciously alluding to other traditions, while re-purposing the story for their own message.

If, in fact, given the fact that most polytheistic traditions include both male and female God figures, and given that male and female were the beings created in “their” image, it stands to reason that the “us” in question, if not multiple Gods, would at least be a reference to both masculine and feminine expressions of the divine.

“…the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male…”

Though the word “ADAM” in Hebrew can be construed to refer specifically to a male, the etymology of the word is more gender-inclusive. It can be more accurately translated as “human,” and even more literally as “red”, “fair” or “handsome.”

“God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men…(Jesus) chose 12 men to be His apostles…”

Yes, the only priests in the Old Testament were men, and yes, the priests (all men) said God told them to do it that way. But when we consider Jesus’ ministry, there really is no question that there were women involved actively in his ministry, whether the authors of the gospels chose to recognize them as apostles or not. Erin Smallwood Wathen notes, “Mary and Martha, Talitha, Lydia, the women at Joppa, Euodia and Syntiche” all were among the ones who followed Jesus faithfully and carried out his ministry.

In fact, in Mark, Chapter 1, Simon’s mother-in-law is healed of her fever by Jesus and immediately begins to serve. The Hebrew word used to describe her is Komehr (כומר). Scholars often recognize her as the first deacon of the Christian church, but it’s interesting to note that the word Komehr can be translated as: priest, deacon, minister, pastor, preacher, parson, vicar, or can be applied to ANY positions of authority within Christianity. In Hebrew, there was no distinction between deacons, priests, apostles, etc. It’s only later that we’ve drawn such lines.

Yes, later on Paul and other church leaders determined that men should be in charge, which is consistent with the culture of the time, but Jesus makes no distinction. And if we lean on the original understanding of church leadership, you were either a leader or not. Jesus empowered women as leaders – not lesser leaders but simply as leaders – and there was no hierarchy to place one at the head of the others. It seems that human nature crept back in following Jesus’ death, which is understandable. We still see it happening today. But there is no credible example I can find in Christ’s own ministry to support to placement of men over women in the Christian faith.

Yes, God is referred to in many English translations predominately as a “He,” however as Joan Ball notes, divine wisdom as described in Proverbs 1:20-33 is feminine. Jenni Martin Fairbanks observed, “…the Hebrew word for Spirit is Ruah, and she is feminine. So, Ruah = Spirit in the Old Testament, and the Greek word for Spirit in the New Testament is gender neutral.”

I could go on, and I may elaborate more in future posts if other questions arise. But This is already a much longer than normal post. I do want to offer my thanks to the many women who offered their input for this piece, and particularly to Rachel Held Evans for her thorough discussion of this from a woman’s perspective.

Generally, we have to be very careful in confusing cultural norms with God’s will. Yes, we can use Paul’s writing to justify women keeping silent in church, but we can also cite Paul to suggest that, in Christ, there is no gender distinction to be made. Ultimately for me, it comes down to looking to Christ as an example. Time and again, Jesus broke through gender barriers to reach out to, speak with, heal and serve alongside women. He even served women himself in ways thought shocking by his peers. He engaged the woman at the well in deep theological matters. He depended on women to subsidize his ministry. Women were the only ones of his faithful to stand by him at the cross. They were the first to witness his resurrection at the tomb. The first to know of Jesus’ pending birth was Mary, a single teenage girl.

As the husband of an ordained female minister, I have seen first-hand some of the benefits of feminine wisdom, compassion, communication and pastoral care offered by a female pastor. And though it may seem trite, I tend to agree with the command to claim the faith of a child. When I ask my daughter, Zoe, if she knows what God looks like, her face always lights up and a broad smile creeps across her face.

“I sure do,” she says, “and she has a really, really big, beautiful face.”

The news of the Susan G. Komen Foundation pulling their funding for Planned Parenthood facilities is no breaking news. Neither is it that Karen Handel, Vice President for Public Affairs, stepped down after the firestorm of publicity and subsequent reversal of position by her organization. Usually I like to respond to issues sooner than this, but I had to sit with my feelings for a while before commenting.

I’ll admit up front a bit of jealousy toward the Komen Foundation for their incredible ability to raise money and awareness for their cause. As a professional fundraiser for nonprofits, it’s hard to knock their track record, though it is frustrating when trying to present other worthy causes to folks, only to find out they’ve already hitched onto the Komen star.

That said, the move to pull funding from such a polarizing group as Planned Parenthood, which is known for performing abortions in many of their clinics, was surprising, especially given Komen’s stellar public relations track record. Someone should have seen this backlash coming, and I suppose that’s why Ms. Handel stepped down.

I want to set the abortion issue aside for a moment and address a few other things that are worth naming out loud. First, Planned Parenthood does a lot of important work for women’s health and reproductive rights. In many cases, were it not for their centers, there would be no alternative for low-income women or those fearing retribution from their families. Their work to offer free and affordable contraception, health screenings, education and counseling are valuable, regardless of how you feel about their stance on abortion.

Second, the Komen funds had nothing to do with abortion either. The funds were specifically restricted for use in performing breast cancer screenings. Anyone would be hard pressed to argue that this is not a necessary and life-saving service. Despite any ideological differences, I would hope folks on any side of the abortion issue could affirm this work for women’s health.

And as for the guilt-by-association argument, it seems to me that religious groups should heed Jesus’ own words: let those who are without sin cast the first stone. Would the Catholic Church agree that people should stop tithing because some priests have been caught molesting innocent children? Should all protestants walk away from religion entirely because some religious leaders were on the wrong side of the civil rights debate? Is it possible that we can see the good that Planned Parenthood does, even if we feel strongly about abortion?

Put another way: where are the abortion opponents when those women seeking help look for assistance and all they can find is Planned Parenthood, aside form the ones outside the clinics holding pictures of dead babies? Where are your clinics?

And as for the abortion debate itself, is it just me, or are there others who have grown weary of the us-versus-them, black-and-white approach to the whole issue? Do pro-life advocates honestly think that people who advocate for choice are “pro-abortion?” Please. And isn’t it fair to say that we could have a more productive discussion if we started with the emotional, spiritual and physical health and rights of the woman in question? In distilling this down to an issue, both sides risk de-humanizing the woman involved. And no matter how you feel about choice or life, that’s an un-Christian attitude.

Let me be clear: NO ONE LIKES ABORTION. If they do, they’re insane. So let’s stop pretending that this is the issue. The dichotomous line drawn by painting anyone not aligned with the pro-life agenda as anti-life or pro-abortion is offensive. But let’s be honest: pro-choice advocates can be just as fundamentalist in their tendency to dehumanize those who disagree with them. Most people don’t fall so clearly into either camp, so let’s stop pretending it’s a clear-cut two sided issue.

The real discussion points have to do with the government’s role in mandating a woman’s rights with respect to her body and the power to create and sustain life she carries within her. For me, this indeed is a God-given gift and should be treated as such. But in trying to stem what many see as violence against the unborn, they are inadvertently (I hope it’s inadvertent) inflicting violence on the woman carrying the baby.

Where we the abortion opponents when the young woman needed counseling? Or advice on other options? Or rape crisis support? Or advocacy for dealing with an abusive male partner? Or if they were born into poverty and perhaps never had the education or financial wherewithal to secure birth control? Or to help her even understand her own reproductive power? Or her strength, integrity and value as a fully embodied (sexuality included) woman?

How many abortions would be avoided, without government intervention, if pro-life advocates were as committed to honoring the lives of girls and women as they are advocating for the unborn?

Abortion is often the end-result of greater social systemic failure. And to focus narrowly on the final result of that failure is to show a lack of regard for the pervasive sin of a culture that continues to disregard the integrity, power and autonomy of its women. It’s like, say, condemning people with AIDS to hell rather than doing the hard work of changing the culture in which such a disease is allowed to flourish.

We have to do better. We Christians are compelled by our faith to do better. God, forgive us for obsessing about the symptoms of our greater sickness, while remaining blind to the desperate need for a cure.