There’s this tower in Italy. It leans. Maybe you've heard of it. When construction began in 1173, it looked fine, but over the centuries, as floors were added, the lean became more pronounced. This resulted in countless attempts to stabilize it—everything from adding counterweights to shoring up the foundation—and yet today, even though the tower still stands, it continues to lean.
Recently, there's been a growing conversation about something called “New Wave Complementarianism.” Some
have suggested that this conversation isn’t “new” at all but simply a return to original complementarian positions. Still others
have suggested that this new wave is entirely
necessary because the “old wave” reached too far. And others
have said that it is simply a reaction to what’s happened in some churches in the name of complementarianism, but isn’t really a discussion of its core essence.
But no one denies that the tower is leaning.
Still, don’t take my word for it. Remember that time Bob Yarbrough said these exact things
at the 2012 EFCA Theology Conference. (Remember that time D.A. Carson spoke at the same conference.) The truth is that there is a “lean” in complementarianism, and it is evidenced by what is being taught and modeled in our churches. Our practices reveal our core assumptions better than any talking points ever could and because of this, they end up being the best indicator of whether or not we need to check our foundation.
So for me, the pertinent question is: “What’s been missing from the conversation that has allowed the tower to lean?”
My approach is predicated on the belief that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth and that Christian truth is discovered through paradoxes. Specific to this discussion, 1) Men and women are the same and 2) Men and women are different. But the paradoxes of the Christian faith are more than simply a set of checks and balances; the tensions actually force us to think more deeply and articulate more fully what we believe. The tension forces us to better understanding (and sometimes humbly admit that we don't understand at all.)
Because of this, if something starts leaning (oh, like say our understanding of gender), we must go back and figure out what has not been held in tension that should have kept it straight. Like Tim Keller, I consider myself a “complexifier”
and believe that we must bring ALL of Scripture to bear on these issues, not simply the passages that speak specifically to gender. So for my part, the conversation surrounding New Complementarianism (a.k.a., New Wave Complementarianism, New Wave OF Complementarianism, a group of friends talking among themselves who stumbled across the concerns that others already felt)—for my part, the conversation must not be about simply recovering original complementarianism but about asking ourselves what has been missing, or at least underemphasized, that has allowed the tower to lean in the first place.
Today I’m laying my cards on the table. I’m doing this because we must have this conversation together. It’s bigger than any specific set of bloggers—bigger than any “movement.” I’m also doing this because while I am a writer, I am also a wife and mom, and at this point, my children need a mother and my husband needs an ezer
more than complementarianism needs another blogger.
So in no particular order, here’s what I believe this conversation must entail; we must:
- Develop a robust definition of imago dei.
- Define the differences between men and women in relationship to God’s nature, not simply in opposition to each other.
- Consider the limitations of gender-based discipleship. If gender becomes the paradigm for sanctification, we have unintentionally made gender more significant than Christ. The goal is not masculinity or femininity—the question is immaturity vs. maturity.
- Admit that if we’re going to use the categories of male and female, we cannot begin with them—we must base them on the foundational category of humanness. As a female person, I have more in common with a male person than I do with a female cat.
- Understand that Christianity does not have a masculine-feel or a feminine-feel. Christianity should feel Christlike—it should feel fully-human.
- Recognize that equality must be the basis for headship--not simply the ying to its yang. Headship, whether in the church or home, exists precisely because we are equal.
- Clarify that the goal of headship is union—that Christ's headship results in the uniting of all things in heaven and earth and reconciling all things to Himself.
- Differentiate between headship and manhood as well as submission and womanhood.
- Reinforce responsibility/authority paradigm of headship. Any authority is given in order to fulfill a responsibility; it does not simply exist.
- And while we’re at it, clarify a Christian view of authority—especially if this is the going to be the key difference between men and women.
- Understand that headship exists only in specific circumstances—headship is not unilateral and some men will never exercise headship because they will never hold a position that calls them to.
- Differentiate between headship and leadership as gifting.
- Realize that passages that speak to men and women’s differing roles flow out of deeper doctrinal paradigms. We understand roles best when we start with the doctrine and work toward application, not vice versa.
- Remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Roles are given to enable relationships; relationships are not meant to serve roles.
- Discus how denominational and sociological contexts affect our applications and differentiate between application and doctrine.
- Reclaim an understanding of eldership that invests authority in the office, not the person. When we define authority by cultural cues or personality instead of the process of ordination, we can cordon off areas of ministry that the Scripture does not.
- Consider how we assign value. We cannot simply declare that men and women are equal; we must function in a way that displays this.
- Recognize that this will be difficult in a subculture that elevates pastors and teachers to celebrity status--how do you assign value to women when they will never hold those positions?
- Dismantle the false paradigm of gender vs. gifting. Gender is biological gifting and it flourishes alongside other gifting.
- Embrace a view of the whole person that elevates the providence of God to combine gender, talents, and personality into a unique package with unique strengths and unique limitations.
- Actively pursue women’s unique gifting.
- Consider whether focusing the conversation on “roles” has reduced people to functions instead of agents—do we simply become “workers” in a weird Marxist reality?
- Stop overextending Ephesians 5. A wife is not perpetually in a position to be rescued by her husband. Sometimes a wife will be Christ to a husband in need. (I Peter 3)
- Explore the role of husband as “husbandry”– including the responsibility to ensure that those under your care become all that God has made them to be. Explore the same for "wifery."
- Wrestle with whether or not “complementarianism” should be equated with a conservative reading of gender. Is it possible to have a conservative reading of gender and not be “complementarian?” (If nothing else, we need a new word because complementarian doesn’t spell-check.)
There. I’ve laid out my cards. Feel free to pick them up and play them. None of these ideas are “new”—but they are things that I believe have been missing and have led to the lean in our tower. It’s time for us to figure out why, to revisit established paradigms, and courageously press deeper into the mystery and wonder of God’s good design. Semper Reformanda
You don’t have to spend much time in the Christian blogosphere before you encounter the stories of those who have been hurt by the Church. These first-person narratives are often raw and unsettling—they include details that most of us would rather not know, and ones that once we do, we can’t easily erase from our minds. These stories are unusually transparent and reveal a pain that is clearly lingering. Because of this, it’s easy for some to discount them as exercises in self-absorption and unhealthy introspection. After all, shouldn’t we leave the past in the past? Can’t we just move on?
And we could do that, we could let things lie if spiritual abuse weren’t an ever-present reality, if it didn’t regularly make headline news. We could move on if pastors didn’t tell seventeen-year-old girls that they were “God’s gifts”
to fulfill them sexually. If victims of such abuse were not made to feel that they were somehow responsible or that they would hurt “Christ’s cause” to speak about it.
And I guess we could leave well enough alone if spiritual abuse didn’t cut both ways. If ministries didn’t routinely supplement budgets by underpaying staff with the caveat that they’ll be eligible for welfare. If pastors’ wives and children weren’t targeted for the sake of simply existing. If 1,700 pastors didn’t leave ministry every month
—many out of despair and discouragement.
But they do.
And so we must talk about spiritual abuse, because we must remember that the danger isn’t in how dramatic it is but in how common it is. The danger of spiritual abuse isn’t simply in the extremes but in how quickly, how easily any of us can use another person’s love of God to pursue our own goals and our own agendas.
I myself don’t have a salacious story to offer—no tragic account of childhood abuse or breaking away from some cult-like congregation. And yet, my husband and I have wrestled through the pain of working in the Church, of rejection and false accusation, of feeling abandoned by those to whom we looked for advice and care. We’ve also watched as friends have walked darker paths and still bear scars from those who wielded power over them. And we’ve watched as they have wandered from church to church—not because they’re troublesome—but because they’re looking for Jesus and He’s simply not as present in most churches as He should be.
So when I speak about spiritual abuse within the Church, I do so from a place of trying to grapple with the brokenness of Christ’s body. It is not about adding fuel to the fire or airing grievances. It’s not about “getting back.” (Although this will be a legitimate temptation for people who have been deeply hurt.) When I write about spiritual abuse, I do so with the express purpose of finding healing, of learning to be whole again.
Because while my husband and I have chosen to stay
in the organized church—even to make it central to our lives--the choice didn’t come easily. It came through tears and brokenness and times of angry questioning. It came through feeling abandoned by God and wondering why He thought it was such a good idea to gather a bunch of dysfunctional people together in the first place.
Yet, for all that I don’t understand, I do know this: Jesus is the only answer to the brokenness.
Rejecting the Church will not heal the pain.
Harboring bitterness will not heal the pain.
Denying these stories will not heal the pain.
Only Jesus can.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Ezekiel 34
in which God speaks against those who have abused and scattered His flock. He speaks against their greed and self-service and warns that He is coming against them in judgment and vengeance. But to the broken, hurting lambs, He says this: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out... I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered... I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
This is where you find healing. This is where you find wholeness. This is where you learn to love again. You find it in the tears that flood your pillow as you cry out to Him. You find it in the questions that you bring to Him. You find it in His love and you find it in His justice--in arms ready to hold you at the same time that they are ready to fight to protect you. You find it in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
And when you do, when you find His healing, you may also discover that you can return to His broken, messy flock. Because in returning to His Church, you’re not so much expressing confidence in His people as you are expressing confidence in Him. And in returning to His Church, you may also find that you can point the way for other hurting, broken, dirty sheep as well. You can point the way to the true Shepherd of their souls.
This is what has happened for my husband and me. By committing ourselves to Jesus, we’re learning to open ourselves again to the love and beauty of His people. We’re learning to trust Him enough to walk into the arms of a congregation who loves well. We’re learning to trust Him enough to receive the healing and restoration that only His body can offer. And we’re learning that even though we may walk through dark valleys, He will always come find us, and He will always lead us home.
Last Friday night found me and my family (along with several dozen other folks) sitting in Miss Kay’s proper parlor singing at the top of our lungs.
We almost missed it. Like the classic “big picture” person that I am, I had mixed up my dates, double-booked house guests, and created the very distinct possibility that we would be absent from a mainstay of the church’s yearly calendar. File this one under “How NOT to Be a Good Pastor’s Wife.”
Fortunately we didn't miss it. A little rearranging and a couple blushing conversations later, we ended up at Miss Kay’s front door promptly at 7:00. (Okay, not promptly… but we did get there.) The evening began like any other social gathering—food and small talk—but then about forty minutes in, something happened. A whisper spread through the house and with the enthusiasm of children, this eclectic group aged 17 months to 77 years assembled themselves in the front parlor (yes, I do mean parlor). Out came the guitars; next a mandolin; and before you knew it, someone was seated at the piano, running gospel scales up and down.
Then it began.
And with the initial chord, with the first blend, I knew that I was witnessing something special. I was witnessing what is fast becoming one of the rarest (and soon to be extinct) forms of social interaction in our culture—communal singing. Now this wasn’t the embarrassed-national-anthem-mumbling type of singing that happens at ballgames and graduations. No, this was classic “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor”
and everyone instinctively did seem to know how to “join right in there.” Song after song, voices called out favorites and all of us--from the boy soprano to the bass who in a another life had traveled with a gospel group—sang with abandon. At times, a soloist would take over and the rest of us would simply drop back without a word. We repeated choruses and elongated final lines all via a silent understanding that only exists between people who have lived a lifetime together.
For my part, I joined in when I could although I was raised more Watts
. Mostly though, I just sat in awe—in awe of the secret that I had been entrusted. A secret best kept in mountain hollers, family reunions, and small country churches—the secret of singing as community.
We are people who are quickly losing the capacity to live together in peace. We are consumed by our private issues and personal angst; so much so that we can’t even elect a president in civility. At the same time, we are losing the ability to sing together; and as this piece
notes, even when we want to, we don’t know what to sing. And as we lose the music, I’m afraid we’re losing something more. We’re losing a metaphor for life, for how to live and engage in community, how to be silent when the soloist is singing, how to support the melody with our harmonies, how to not need the spotlight. Because as we lose the ability to sing together, we also are losing an opportunity to learn how to work together to reach larger goals.
What’s saddest to me is that we’re losing this in our churches as well. After decades of projecting lyrics onto overhead screens, the gradual disappearance of hymnals, and the repetition of simple melodies, we may have just raised an entire generation that never once encountered the beauty and wonder of singing in parts. (To quote Church Curmudgeon
: “Worship team practice is canceled. Use the four chords from last week.") This is not a rant against contemporary music—our family has been part of communities that have been exclusively contemporary and those that have been strictly traditional. And in every case, there’s been good... and otherwise. This is simply a call to not forget that corporate singing must be corporate.
It must be more than simply singing in unison because our congregations are not uniform. They represent people of different backgrounds, giftings, personalities, and ages; and what better way to embody that than through music that lets you find your place and sing at the top of your lungs.
Because honestly, corporate worship was never intended to be--nor can it ever truly be—simply a collection of individuals expressing their private worship to the Lord. No, we must sing in parts. We must embrace the unique callings that we each represent and then combine our voices in harmony to praise a God who can orchestrate the motliest crew into a beautiful chorus. And we must teach our children this—it is as necessary as any other educational experience or process of socialization. We must teach them the magic of harmonizing and the joy of not having to be the soloist; we must teach them the wonder of singing as a group.
And along the way, we might just learn a little something about life in community as well.
I have a confession to make. This week, I watched Mad Men
for the first time.
For some this may sound like a confession of moral laxity; for others it’s a confession of being horribly out of touch and having lived the last five years in a cave. Still, apart from the rampant licentiousness, unchecked greed, and ubiquitous alcoholism, I have to admit that it’s a pretty engaging show, especially as it captures the glamour of mid-20th century Manhattan--the perfect pencil skirts, the tailored three-piece suits, the sleek cars, and the poolside lunches at the Astoria. In its attempt to be historically accurate, Mad Men
is also quick to make (and overstate) the point that this was a world dominated men, a world where housewives were vacuous ninnies, and the only women with any sense of power were the “hens” at the office who knew how to get a man to do what they wanted.
Of course Mad Men
is interesting in itself, but it’s been particularly interesting as my exposure to it coincides with the ramped up conversation surrounding traditional gender roles. With this week’s release of Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womahood,
everybody and her cousin seems to be parsing conservative interpretations of gender via the late 1950s and early 60s. Evans explains how she understands conservative mores here
"The term 'Biblical womanhood' is basically a reaction to feminism. It means a woman who stays home and submits to her husband. It's a remembrance of June Cleaver—not what we see when we actually read scripture."
Now I can’t speak to Evans’ experience, but this correlation is funny to me. It’s funny because, despite being a woman who identifies as a conservative, I’ve never once thought of myself as June Cleaver. And the main reason isn’t because there’s anything wrong with June or even with women who care for their families fulltime. (I’m a SAHM myself.) The main reason my conservative understanding of gender has never led me to recreate the 1950s is because of what was happening below the surface. In a word, June was June, not because of conservative gender roles or because she stayed at home; June was June because of what broader society was pursuing at the time—stability and comfort. June Cleaver vs. Kingdom Values
During the 1950s, the United States experienced relative peace and prosperity for the first time in over two decades. In this context, Ward and June became icons of stability, comfort, and ease; they represented a generation who had known deprivation their entire lives, who as children had endured the Great Depression, and who came of age through the atrocities of WWII. By the time the 1950s rolled along, they were also a generation desperate for “the good life.” In this context, a woman’s role was naturally reduced to being a comforter, a nurturer, a source of emotional stability the same way that a man’s role was reduced to being a source of financial stability. (Think how important it was for a man who had grown up in the leanness of the Depression and watched his mother and sisters work in the factories during WWII to be able to make enough money to enable
his wife to stay at home. And think too how important it would have been for women--who only a decade before had welcomed broken men home from war--to provide them with some sense of domestic normalcy and peace.) In this sense, gender roles weren’t simply about men oppressing women as so many Millennials think—although as Mad Men
is quick to point out it was very easy for selfish men to do so--no, gender roles of the 1950s were a way to work toward the societal values of rest and stability.
So here’s my question: Is June Cleaver really synonymous with a conservative Christian understanding of gender?
I grew up in a very traditional home. I was taught to respect my father as head of the family and my mother spent years at home caring for us. But despite being traditional in their understanding of gender, my parents were very non-traditional in their view of the world. Instead of teaching their children to pursue stability and comfort, they taught us to love God, to sacrifice for his kingdom, to seek heaven’s riches over those of this earth, and to never forget where we were heading. The effect was that these kingdom dynamics created a different paradigm in which I applied conservative gender norms. Instead of thinking that the greatest good for me was to marry, have children, and rear them in a comfortable suburban environment, I grew up believing that the greatest good for me was to follow Christ, to devote myself to His service. That might very well mean marriage and children, but it could have as easily meant working overseas, pursuing post-grad degrees, or relieving the sick and oppressed. June Cleaver never once entered the conversation.
So I don’t think the problem is as simple as conservative gender roles. The problem comes when we use conservative gender roles to further our own comfort, our own sense of stability, or our own sense of ease.
And my guess is that this
is what many of my peers are confusing when they associate a conservative reading of gender with the 1950s. Ironically, conservatives fall prey to the same mistake when they insist on shaping applications of gender after a Cleaver-esque domesticity. No Stepford Wives
Because let’s be clear on one thing: the kingdom dynamics of love and sacrifice call us to apply gender roles very differently than we would if we were pursuing lives of ease and stability.
When you believe that you’re pioneering a new country, when you believe that you’re pushing back the boundaries of brokenness, when you believe that you are fighting to see the kingdom of God reign in the hearts of men, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be content as June Cleaver.
Instead your role models for womanhood will be women like Katharina von Bora
, who singlehandedly managed her family estates thus enabling her husband (Martin Luther) to do nothing less than turn the known church on its ear. Your role model for womanhood will be Abigail Adams,
great-granddaughter of Puritans, whose minister father insisted on her education and who by her intelligence and grace helped her husband (and son) establish the very foundations of our fledgling government. You’re more likely to look to a woman like Caroline Ingalls
who sweated alongside her husband, built her home with her bare hands, plowed fields, and tamed the frontier all for the sake of a dream. And you’re more likely to model your understanding of Christian womanhood after someone like Elisabeth Elliot
who rejected the opportunity to be June Cleaver and went instead with her husband to live and die in the jungles of Ecuador--all to tell those who had never heard that Jesus lives.
These were no Stepford wives
And yet, neither were they feminists in a political sense. (As a former nun, Katharina von Bora’s most revolutionary act was marrying and having children.) No, they were simply strong women who embodied all that it means to be human—they embraced their femininity, their capacity to bear and nurture life, their minds, their husbands, and their individual callings all in pursuit of goals and glories greater than their own private issues. Deeper Issues
Today, the easiest way to undermine a conservative understanding of gender is to align it with 1950s domesticity—something that that both liberals and conservatives are prone to do. But we must acknowledge that applications of gender are simply an expression of deeper values; poor June Cleaver was really only ever a presenting issue. The deeper question is what is driving us: Are we being motivated by our own needs or our own fears? Are we looking for lives of ease and comfort? Are we willing to use others to achieve that for ourselves?
Or are we pioneers, pilgrims on a journey from this world to the next? Are we men and women working together in pursuit of the kingdom of God? Are we captured by a greater vision and a greater dream of what God is doing in the world? When our churches are motivated by finding comfort in this life, it’s very possible that we would end up recreating a 1950s context; but as we concern ourselves with service and love, as we valiantly pursue the kingdom, June Cleaver with all her niceties and comfortable stability will have little place in the conversation. Until then, let’s put a moratorium on associating her with a conservative understanding of gender; and as a first step to that end, maybe we should all watch a little less Mad Men
from now on.
(As promised, this is the first in a series about singleness and the Church by guest blogger Christa Bohannon.)
In my circle of friends and acquaintances, this was the year for weddings and engagements. I know four different couples who got married this spring and summer and then two more good friends got engaged just a few weeks ago. I’m honestly very happy for all of them, but at the same time, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to struggling with the temptation of a “when’s-it-my-turn” pity party. The plain truth is I am single at 33, and marriage, let alone a date, seems highly unlikely right now.
Still when Hannah and I reconnected this summer, I was initially very excited that she wanted to hear my thoughts and humbled when she offered me the opportunity to share about singleness on her blog. However, as my excitement dwindled, I found myself running for cover. Writing about singleness meant facing the reality of my circumstances yet again.
And since we are being really honest here, I’ll admit that sometimes it’s easier to hide. In fact, if it’s fight or flight, I often choose escape--usually running to the nearest story, whether it’s in a favorite TV show or novel. I think another other story is better than mine so I just hide out there for a while. And all the while I deceive myself into thinking that I’m waiting patiently in my singleness; but functionally, I’m living the opposite. I’m quietly rebelling against God’s sovereignty and providential leading in my life by thinking that anything other than Jesus will satisfy the longings of my heart.
Now, before you feel sorry for me (or perhaps even chide), let me say that God is graciously at work. The Spirit opens my eyes again and again to see that my greatest satisfaction will not be found in a husband but in knowing and pursuing Christ with my whole heart. And in spite of my running away, the Father still lavishes me with gifts, reminding me over and over that he doesn’t withhold anything good from those who walk uprightly
. His gift to me right now is singleness because in his mercy and wisdom, marriage for me would not be good. Remember, the Father gives good gifts.
So if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that singleness and marriage are both gifts. For the longest time I thought marriage was a given--deserved even. I expected that I would finish college and get married like everyone else. But of course, the longer you are single, the more you hear talk of a different gift, the “gift of singleness.”
Maybe like me, you’ve thought this gift of singleness was a super spiritual gift for people who chose
to remain single and celibate their entire life. And this gift gave those who possessed it supernatural ability to be constantly joyful and content in singleness and celibacy that seems entirely impossible to everyone else. The trouble is that this view of the “gift of singleness” is not only unrealistic; it is also far too individualistic. I would say the same for our view of marriage too. We like to think about what joys we may get from
marriage, but what would happen if we better understood both of these gifts in a broader corporate context? Marriage and singleness are gifts to the Church
to use in serving Christ and the Body, not simply gifts for our personal happiness. So when I say the Father gives good gifts, it is two-fold. His gift of singleness is given as much to me for my joy
as it is to the Church for the edification of the entire Body, just as the gift of marriage is given ultimately to display God’s glory and covenant-keeping love to the Church and the world.
With their gift, a married couple uniquely pictures God’s covenant love in a way that I can’t. In my singleness, I can display something about God’s sufficiency that those who have a spouse as a constant companion may be tempted to forget. In fact, singleness points us uniquely to the reality of the new creation in which one day no one will be given in marriage because the shadow that pictured The
Marriage will no longer be needed. We will all dwell in union with Christ our Bridegroom, finding our greatest delight and satisfaction in the presence of Jesus himself. When you look at it that way, the Church needs both
gifts--neither marriage nor singleness is a better gift than the other.
Recognizing the broader purposes of these gifts will determine how we use them to love and serve the Body. Over the next couple of posts, I hope to share some specific observations and recommendations on how married and single Christians can interact in ways that use these gifts—both singleness and marriage--to the fullest. Until then, let’s start by encouraging one another to keep fighting for contentment in Jesus in whatever trying circumstance we are facing. This Truth is what we must all cling to as we fight for true joy--whether we are single, married, waiting on children, a better job, or children to outgrow a certain stage. Fill in the blank; we are all in a fight for contentment to believe that Jesus is our greatest joy.
So if you see me running away from the fight, feel free to drag me back again.
A native of southeastern VA, Christa Bohannon studied Christian Missions as an undergraduate and ultimately received her MA in English in 2004. After a stint as a Jr High English teacher, she now works as an Instructional Systems Developer and is active at Redemption Church. She's always eager for a good story, especially if it is accompanied by coffee and good friends. She also loves to travel and sometimes pretends to be a runner.
The last few months have highlighted a supposedly growing trend among young Christians who are fed up with Christianity as they know it— apparently they don’t want cultural battles
; they want peace. They don’t want religion
; they want Jesus. They don’t want Church
, they want community. And while there is still the reasonable debate
as to whether this new-found angst actually signals something distinct or is simply the result of ours being the first generation wired for sound without having to work within the confines of the establishment, this much is obvious: young people don’t want the Christianity of their parents.
So when I ran across the following in the preface of John Stott’s Basic Christianity
, it sounded eerily familiar. “‘Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ.’ These words describe large numbers of people, especially young people, today. They are opposed to anything which savors of institutionalism. They detest the establishment and its entrenched privileges. And they reject the church—not without some justification—because they regard it as impossibly corrupted by such evils. Yet what they have rejected is the contemporary church, not Jesus Christ himself. It is precisely because they see a contradiction between the founder of Christianity and the current state of the church he founded that they are so critical and aloof. The person and teaching of Jesus have not lost their appeal, however. For one thing, he was himself an anti-establishment figure, and some of his words had revolutionary overtones. His ideals appear to have been incorruptible. He breathed love and peace wherever he went. And for another thing, he invariably practiced what he preached. But was he true? An appreciable number of people throughout the world are still brought up in Christian homes in which the truth of Christ and of Christianity is assumed. But when their critical faculties develop and they begin to think for themselves, they find it easier to discard the religion of their childhood than make the effort to investigate its credentials. [emphasis added]
As true (and timeless) as Stott’s observations are about the relationship between young people and the church, what struck me more was the fact that he wrote them first in 1958
--the generation of our grandparents
—and then reissued them in 1971
--the generation of our parents.
Trust me, I’m not dismissing the concerns of millennials, just trying to offer
a bit of historical perspective and the caution that maybe we’re not as special as we think we are. Maybe we’re not the first generation to have metaphysical angst and maybe, just maybe, the very people we are fighting against have a bit more perspective than we think they do.
So today, after nine months of polite blogging, I’m finally going to get controversial.
And it’s all because I read this post
yesterday from Rachel Held Evans. Now, I’m no stranger to Rachel’s blog. And while I can’t claim to be a “fan,” I do find Rachel’s writing witty, engaging, and in a way, courageous. She says things that a lot of people are thinking but won’t say out loud--and I’d venture that’s exactly why so many people follow her faithfully.
And although we’ve never met, I feel a bit of kinship with Rachel. Her story and mine seem to have run parallel courses. We were both raised in conservative Christianity; we both excelled in that context (i.e. we were “good” girls, unafraid to eviscerate anything opposed to the expression of Christianity we knew); we both attended Christian colleges that originated out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s; and we both studied the liberal arts.
But after college, Rachel says that she began questioning her upbringing, and her faith took a decidedly liberal turn. The funny thing is that after college, I started evaluating my faith too. But I ended up nowhere near where she is today. Yesterday Rachel revealed a bit more of her journey in her post Fifteen Reasons Why I Left the Church
, and after reading it, I had to stop and reflect, “Why did I end up staying in the church as I knew it?”
Because if anybody had a reason to leave, I did.
Imagine the worst case scenario of church politics; add to that having to live on government support because the church won’t pay your husband (the pastor) enough to support you and your three children ("Nobody asked you to have another kid.") Throw in some deputation experience and seeing first-hand how we’re often simply franchising American Christianity via missions. Stir until you reach mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion, and you’ve pretty much got our story covered.
And yet we stayed. Even more, we subject our children to the weekly routine of church life (despite the fact that my five-year-old pouts every Sunday morning about having to go.) To top it all off, my husband just accepted a position as a senior pastor of a conservative church only a little more than an hour away from an evangelical Mecca
So why have we stayed unlike so many of our peers? I hope it’s not because we’re co-dependent or that we’re blind to the problems. And I hope it’s not because we haven’t evaluated our position or because we lack critical thinking skills. Actually, to be honest, it’s probably those very things that have kept
us in the church. So here’s my list in no particular order: Fifteen Reasons Why I Stayed in the Church
- I believe that there is no such thing as Church (with a capital “C”) without church (with a lower case “c”)--as messy and as difficult as that may be.
- I want to be the change in the world that I seek. And that means engaging the problems closest to me. Like in the next pew. Like in this pew. Like in my own seat.
- I believe that reconciling nations and people starts at home. If I can’t work toward reconciliation in my own church, there is no way I will be able to accomplish it on a broader level anywhere else.
- I’m not a militant separatist. I don’t believe that everybody has to think EXACTLY the way I do before I will worship with them. Even if they are more conservative than I am.
- I don’t expect the church to be anything other than it is—a group of difficult, broken people plodding their way to glory. The kingdom of God is coming; it isn’t here yet.
- I believe the church is bigger than political parties even if the people attending it don’t understand that. Even if the people who leave it don’t seem to understand that either.
- I believe Jesus can and wants to redeem Pharisees as much as publicans.
- I believe by staying in the church I earn the right to speak about the problems I see. It’s the old adage that you can criticize your family but no one else can. By staying with “my family,” I can speak about our failures and the doubts I wrestle with.
- I believe that 2000 years of church history holds a bit more weight than my personal experience.
- I have brothers and sisters in Christ who have been imprisoned and lost their lives for doing the very thing that I would be giving up.
- I do not want to lose people I love and who love me and my family. And while there are times that conviction must trump relationships, these relationships act as a grid to help me determine whether my convictions are sufficient enough to risk losing these people from my life.
- I need the church to regularly remind me about the things that I don’t like in the Scripture. Things like God’s anger and my sinfulness--things that if left to myself, I would conveniently ignore or rationalize.
- I am not an island. My choice to leave church affects everyone else in the congregation. Remove one part from the whole and it is no longer the same entity.
- I have children. And while I’ll be the first to admit that it’s dangerous to raise your children in a church that distorts the gospel, it’s equally as dangerous to raise them apart from church altogether. One way the gospel is expressed is in the loving covenant relationship that happens in the church – I want that to be part of the warp and weave of their experience. I want them to know that real commitment means taking the good with the bad.
- Jesus hasn’t left the church. No, of course, I don’t mean this in a sanctimonious way. (If I had, I would have put the word sanctimonious in asterisks.) I mean simply that after he threw out the money changers, Jesus continued to worship and sacrifice in the temple. His work is to purify and redeem, not to alienate or destroy.
Don't get me wrong--I understand that many young people are leaving church because they honestly don't think it represents Jesus well. But I wonder if the reality is that they are leaving because the church doesn't represents THEIR view of Jesus well. Like Rachel said, she and her husband "are struggling to find a faith community in which we
feel we belong."
But I’m not entirely sure that’s the right goal.
Isn’t that the whole point to realize that the brokenness invades everything – even our churches? Isn’t the whole point to model faithful, loving service to people we don’t like—even in our churches? Isn’t the whole point that Jesus came, not only to establish justice, but to save people from their self-righteousness—even in our churches? Like I said, I get this generation’s frustration and I understand why many of them are leaving the church. I’m just not convinced that frustration equals maturity or that leaving equals courage.
In fact--in this day and age—leaving may be the easy way out. (Edited: 3/21/12 10:09EST)