The Future of Protestantism: Online and at Biola April 29th

Future of Protestantism

There aren’t many events that could possibly drag me out of bed at 3 AM in the morning, but a rigorous and lively conversation among four thinkers who I have an incredible amount of respect for is among them.

I’m probably biased because one of the participants is a hero and friend of mine, but I couldn’t be more excited about seeing Fred Sanders, Carl Trueman, Peter Leithart, and Peter Escalante discuss the Future of Protestantism April 29th at Biola or, if you can’t be in the area, livestreamed into your computer or church through the joys of internet wizardry.

The conversation stems from Peter Leithart’s controversial essay on the same theme, and aims to extend that further.  I’ll be getting up at a ridiculous hour to watch live because…why wouldn’t I?

Seriously, look at that list of names again. Think about what fun this is going to be.  Sanders, Trueman, and Leithart are probably best known to readers of Mere-O…and in my opinion they represent about the best and most rigorous of Protestant though.  Peter Escalante is an astonishingly well read fellow whose work at the Calvinist International is newer to me, but I’m awed by his intellect and his knowledge of Reformational sources.

We’re Mere Orthodoxy, and while we skew Protestant (and evangelical) in our attention because of my own natural proclivities and interests, this is just the sort of conversation that I would hope any reader would be interested in.  It’s sponsored by the good people at First Things, who for years have had a reputation for being mainly a Catholic magazine.  That reputation isn’t really fair…as their sponsorship of this event makes abundantly clear.

And then there’s the Davenant Trust, the other co-conspirator, which has been started by (among others) my friend and sometime Mere-O writer Brad Littlejohn. They’re up to the right sort of mischief, what with this event, a convivium that I desperately wish I could attend, and a new center aimed at studying the Reformation.  It’s all so great that I’ll almost forgive them for housing it at New St. Andrews, rather than my alma mater Torrey Honors.  Almost.

I hope you’ll join the event online or in person, if you’re able.  It’s easy to sometimes be discouraged about the state of the Protestant churches, but this is an opportunity to hear directly from theologians at their best in an environment that is aimed not at wowing the crowds but ploddingly, patiently, and cheerfully taking on difficult questions in an irenic and constructive way for the good of the church.

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Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation

common objects of love o'donovanRecently my friend and occasional Mere O contributor Alastair Roberts exchanged a few emails about Lent that then turned toward a broader discussion of Christian piety and individualism. The exchange is shared below. I’ve slightly indented Alastair’s responses in order to make it a bit more clear where my part ends and his begins. (And if you missed Keith’s post from a few weeks back, do go and read that too.)

Alastair – I’ll kick things off.

My best guess as to why we’re seeing more evangelicals embracing Lent is that many of us have a reasonable desire to embrace a type of Christian piety with roots in the historical church. Many of us grew up with a piety which was often disconnected from historical church practices, particularly on matters related to liturgy, the sacraments, the church year, and so on. At the church I grew up in we had the Eucharist once a quarter. The largest church here in Lincoln, meanwhile, has one baptism service a year.

I suspect–or I hope–that more and more younger evangelicals are coming to see the lack of historical roots in our piety as a problem and so they are trying to do something about it–hence, Lent (amongst other things).

But it seems like there’s two main problems with this. The first is that most of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.

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Words for the Anxious Soul

I have been reading (and singing!) through the Psalms a good deal over the past year. One very valuable aspect of the Psalms is the way they give voice to a broad variety of human emotion. This is the inspired song book of God’s people, and it has a song for almost every mood. Here is one that has been very meaningful to me as of late:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation  and my God.

Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me. (Psalm 42:5-7)

These images well describe the turmoil of a soul racked by anxiety and fear. Everyone, it seems, has to experience it to some degree. For most, it is the result of some daunting task, a change of home or job, or some other common challenge. For others, it is all-consuming, wrecking their life with a worry that touches on almost everything. Their nerves are always frayed; stressors that others could shrug off can knock them flat.

Each of these levels of anxiety is a real burden. Worry is wearisome, a weight on body and soul. We can desire to say, “I have calmed and quieted my soul,” (Ps 131:2) but to do so can be difficult. While anxiety is so common, still so much of what we tell ourselves and others only worsens the load. Worse still, even the techniques, behaviors, and mindsets that actually do help break the power of worry can readily be subverted in ways that only strengthen the anxiety.

I will here focus on two flawed responses: commands and maxims. The former are simple, short injunctions like, “don’t be worried”, “quit it”, or “stop fretting over that.” They restate the problem, offering neither mercy nor direction.

Anxiety and an exaggerated sense of guilt go hand-in-hand. A barked order easily fuels both. It doesn’t give the strength of will to climb out of the slough of despond. It only highlights the sense of weakness and inadequacy that comes with anxiety. It is like the terror of Law, except that it drives one further away from mercy and reconciliation.

The maxim hands out insight without wisdom. As I said in my post “A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts”, these simple statements are more of conclusions than starting points. They only make sense in light of practice, reflection, and shared struggle. They need more than only assent, but also to be worked down into the level of habit and inclination. The good words that speak most truly to anxiety and grief are also hard words. Make them soft, and they become ineffectual. It certainly is not a one-stop, quick-fix, one-time-only jump directly to a happy conclusion.

But how do you get yourself, or someone else, on to a better path? By actions and with patient endurance. Often one has to move down the path towards wisdom one weary, half-blind, halting step at a time. If you try to skip straight to the end, you say things that are often true (“You can do this,” “God has a plan,” “It’s always darkest just before the dawn”), but not helpful to the present need.

A good signal of a bad approach to helping an anxious person (whether yourself or another), can be found by an analogy with James 2:15-16:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good  is that?

To say those words in that context is a form of callousedness disguised as compassion. It is an obvious refusal to do anything that is in your power to give practical aid. You might feel better after saying it, but nothing has changed.

There is the first half of our equation: what not to say and how not to say it. The question becomes, what approach should we use?

Paul gives a very direct answer. The first half of Philippians 4:6 says simply, “Do not be anxious about anything.” This seems like the “command” form at first, but context is, as always, key. Let’s back up and see how Paul got there. This is part of the conclusion of the letter, where Paul says words of general advice and encouragement:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything,

He tells us to be joyful, to be agreeable, and then not to be anxious. This is a set of exhortations to wise living. They are also words about how to live in community; recall that these statements come in the wake of Paul’s pleads to Euodia and Syntyche to “to agree in the Lord.”

So Paul means business. “The Lord is at hand;” God will take notice. But is this to be read as a stern word or as a word of fatherly advice, full of love and motivated by mercy?

What Paul says next is crucial:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The word about anxiety is couched not just in exhortations for godly living, but specifically suggests a responsive action to anxiety, and a different way of thinking.

The first part is prayer and supplication. Pray and plead to God over whatever is the source of concern. God is not simply our heavenly shoulder to cry on or some cosmic punching bag. He is the creator of the universe. Yet strangely, he apparently does want to hear our concerns and our requests. God asks us to approach him with confident reverence and reverent boldness. Nothing is too grand for God to comprehend, nor is anything too small.

But Paul suggests more. He counsels “prayer and supplication”, but “with thanksgiving.” This connects well with “rejoice in the Lord always” from two verses back. However large or small the concerns, however little of joy or gratitude our hearts can summon at the moment, it is always a fitting to frame our requests and our bold wailings with a measure of thanksgiving. Even if only for the very breath of life that one still painfully breathes in and out.

And what is the outcome? “The peace peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is not some callow, manufactured peace. This is not forcing a smile and repressing vigorously. It is a strong peace, stronger than what is within us, because it is a peace that can guard and protect. And it comes from a loving Father, by our joining with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This peace of God binds us to the One who became a human being like us.

So as we look to have our hearts and minds guarded in Christ Jesus, let us now look at the guidance that Jesus himself gives. The best go-to place is Jesus’ famous words about worry and toil in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6:25-34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This is calming and beautiful, and it calls us outside of ourselves in key ways.

First, Jesus refers to the beauty of the created world. The flowers are clothed more radiantly than Solomon in his splendor. (Without working a day in their lives!) The birds lack industriousness altogether. Yet they are beautiful and they well provided for. Be comforted, and know that God does not value you below wild plants and sparrows.

Jesus gently offers us a different way of thinking. We are not in control, and we cannot guarantee good results. Can you add an hour to your life? No, God has set that hour. I used to jokingly add (thinking it fit Jesus’ point), “In fact, you could subtract several hours by worrying!” But my former cleverness misses the point entirely. While my behavior and choices may be among the means God uses, He remains in control. I can plan with prudence but die in a freak accident, while some BASE jumper lives to retirement age.

Jesus bids us trust in the Father’s goodness. He loves us and gives us good things.  That is a hard truth and a blessed hope. We may not understand, but we can trust. More than that, we can have confidence that His promises will be fulfilled. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil. Or at least, start to fear less.

Jesus also points us to something greater. Right next to these comforting words, he points out where we should focus our attention: on God’s kingdom, and on God’s righteousness. This is not a prosperity promise. (I’m not asking you to send me a check, for starters.) Neither is this a claim that material poverty is the mark of a particular sin. It is a notice that focusing on God’s ends allows us to trust that our necessities will be provided.  C.S. Lewis gets close to this when he suggests that if we focus on Heaven, we may get Earth “thrown in”.

Jesus proclaimed very high standards. He denounced the falsely righteous with verve and vehemence. Yet Jesus also proclaimed mercy and forgiveness. As Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The same one appointed to bring justice is also the fountain of mercy. If we trust in Jesus, then God’s justice itself can be our relief, His faithfulness our protection, and His mercy our delight.

If you are facing the everyday anxieties and worries of life, I hope you take encouragement from these words of scripture. If you are suffering from a longer term anxiety that is keeping you from everyday functioning, please do seek help from someone who is trained to do so. There is a path through those dark woods, but it can be hard to find unaided.

Further thoughts on World Vision

There is much more that can be said about the recent turn of events with World Vision, who has now reversed course.  I took to Twitter last night at the goading of Sarah Posner to say a few things about it.  Sarah and I don’t agree on much (we learned we have 72% cacao chocolate in common!), but I enjoy disagreeing with her so much that I yielded.

And, let’s face it, I’m just a sucker for long-winded rants about anything.

And all the people said “amen” to that last one, no doubt.

You can see all the other tweets and conversation that went on after that.  I’m grateful for the kind words that many people gave the verbal ramble.

Finally, at the risk of overstaying my own welcome at my own blog, I want to excerpt a bit from a comment I wrote in the previous discussion.  I think it’s important for understanding some of the broader issues at stake in the conservative concerns about World Vision’s original decisions.  It by no means captures every nuance of the decision, but hopefully clarifies my thinking about this a little more.

“It’s not at all obvious to me that the decision to withdraw funding from World Vision entails that there is *more* concern for opposing homosexuality than for helping children. I bet we could find lots of reasons to think that’s just not the case among conservative Christians. For one, if we compared the aggregate donations that go to World Vision and other poverty-based organizations to those set up to deliberate oppose “gay marriage,” I suspect we’d see conservatives give FAR more toward poverty services.

Second, let’s remember that World Vision is as large as it is in part because the very people who now have qualms about continuing to give gave for years. That is, if nothing else, a prima facie sign of a serious commitment to ending poverty. To claim that conscientiously withdrawing support is a sign of no longer caring about children, etc. seems to single out one particular moment in their relationship with the organization and ignore that past history.

But thirdly, and probably most importantly, I think your claim about them caring more about gay marriage rather than children only goes through if they were to give up funding poverty relief COMPLETELY rather than transfer it to a different organization that does equivalent, even if not identical work. There may be reasons why people who started a funding relationship with WV should continue: but if they move to (say) Compassion, that is not a sign that they no longer care about the children they once supported.

In a hypothetical case, suppose that a person decided that Compassion was more effective than World and so transferred their funding. No one could possibly accuse that person of not caring about poverty relief. So the sheer fact that people are ending sponsorships with WV does not entail that they care *more* about stopping gay marriage than they do about poverty at all. I think, to be honest, the claim [that conservatives care more about doctrine than children] only goes through if World Vision is the only sort of organization that does what it does. But it isn’t.  world vision

The better understanding is, I think, the one I gave in the original post. People give to World Vision because they care about ending poverty *and* contributing to evangelistic work. The disagreement with WV is on the latter half of that formula, not the first half. And so switching organizations on grounds that they have reasons to believe that other organizations will meet both aims better than World Vision simply has no bearing on their commitment to the first half.

I would note that all of this means that I think if a person simply stopped giving money altogether rather than changing the recipient that would be a reason to think that [the interpretation that they care more about doctrine than people] is right. But given that these are people who have (in many cases) given freely and willingly for years, I’m highly dubious that people are going to give up their charitable contributions toward children in need altogether, rather than transfer them.

You can see the whole conversation here (including a rejoinder that I haven’t had a chance to respond to yet).  I’d also note that this comment was not meant to contradict my argument that conservatives can and in most cases should keep up support for the individual child they have forged a relationship with.  Rather, it is simply trying to show that the abstract claim that stopping support for a child entailed a prioritization of doctrine over children is faulty.

Again, that is by no means a comprehensive analysis.  I probably won’t put that together…ever.  But it’s a start toward clarity…I hope.

God Become Man: Toward a Richer Theology of the Incarnation

For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. —St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

A Mistake

It has been common these past few years to speak of “incarnational theology” as a way of describing the Christian mission to the world: we ought to “incarnate” Christ to the world as Christ “incarnated” the Godhead to us.[1] There is much to appreciate in this sentiment. It represents an appropriate recognition that humans are God’s image-bearers. It pays heed to the New Testament’s assertion that Christians are the body of and ambassadors for Christ. It takes seriously Paul’s shocking language of “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). It rightly points to the synthesis of missionary activity and social activism that represents the best of evangelicalism.

Yet for all that, I think that applying the language of incarnation to believers is a serious mistake. It is not that this way of speaking is wholly wrong but that it tends to blind us to the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Christ. God becoming man was an astounding event, a greater thing than any of our philosophers or poets had imagined. Thus Lewis wrote, “It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about” (Miracles). When we speak of ourselves “incarnating” Christ, we begin to blur out the sheer shock of the event. When Jesus came, God was here with us, but now we stand in the time between the times, waiting for him because he is not—not as he was, and not as he will be.[2]

Moreover, incarnational language is a hermeneutical failure: it is a misapplication of the New Testament “body” metaphor for the church. Whenever the apostles use bodily language to talk about the church, they do so to point to the unity of the people of God, not to the evangelistic impulse. The authors of the New Testament chose other images instead: fishermen, or servants working in the absence of their master, ambassadors and representatives to name just a few. Indeed, at no point does the Bible use the metaphor of the body describe Christian witness to the world. So we would do well to set aside the idea that we “incarnate” Christ. We do not incarnate him, because we cannot—the Incarnation was unique—but that does not negate the instincts of which the theology of the last few years has been an expression. It simply means that we need to do better in expressing those ideas.

Important as these semantic issues are, though, there is a much more significant problem: namely, how much we miss when our incarnational theology is about us instead of about Jesus.

On the Incarnation

I have come to tears in a class only once in my life—a few weeks ago, listening to my theology professor exult in what Christ did for us in the Incarnation. In evangelical churches, we often discuss Jesus’ death on the cross, and sometimes his perfect life or his resurrection.[3] Rarely, however, do we speak of the Incarnation. It usually only gets a mention at Christmas—usually when we talk about how the Virgin Birth was necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy, one of many confirmations that Jesus was indeed the foretold Messiah.

But the Incarnation means more than this. It always has. That God became a man is bigger than paying for our sins—marvelous though that alone would be. The language is there throughout the whole New Testament:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

—Luke 1:76–79

Zechariah’s prophecy includes salvation from sin, yes, but it points to something more: light coming into the world, death’s power ending, and peace reigning. How does Christ’s work accomplish those? It seems to be at least partly in his coming into the world.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

—John 1:11–18

John couples the Incarnation of Christ—not his death or resurrection, but his becoming flesh—to our becoming children of God once again. His description of the Incarnation points to our adoption.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

—Colossians 2:9–10

Paul goes on in Colossians to talk of the penal substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work in very definite terms—but he starts here by showing how we are filled in Christ even as the “whole fullness”[4] of deity dwells in him.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

—Hebrews 2:14–18

Hebrews shows us Jesus as propitiation for our sins—hallelujah!—and it also shows us his help for us because he has suffered under temptation just as we have. More: his death delivers us not only from the penalty from sin, but also from death and the power of the devil.

We could go on, and on, and on. The Incarnation matters, and it matters as more than a means of getting Jesus to the cross so that he could die for our sins. We evangelicals too often reduce everything to penal substitutionary atonement. Yes, the atonement is incredible and amazing. It is one of the central affirmations and joys of the Christian faith: our sins are paid for! Glory to God! But Jesus did more than that, and he is worthy of yet more praise. He did not stop at paying the price for our sins while leaving our bodies subject to corruption. He did not content himself with performing a judicial act while leaving our wills broken, certain to turn again to the same sin that led to our death in the first place.

Redemption is not less than substitutionary atonement, to be sure—but it is more, much more. Redemption is the forgiveness of sins. Redemption is the cleansing from unrighteousness—not only from its guilt, but from its corrupting stain on our souls. Redemption is our wills being unchained from the power of sin. Redemption is partaking in the divine nature. Redemption is resurrection from the dead—not a rescuscitation from which we will only die again, but being raised to immortality. Redemption is the mending of our communion one with another. Above all, redemption is the restoration of fellowship with God: Jesus took up our flesh that he might unite humanity once again with the Triune Godhead.

As we were in the beginning, so shall we be again—but better.

Saint Athanasius said it best long ago:

For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father….

He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery— lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for naught— He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours….

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father— doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

—Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation

If Christ did not unite every corner of what it is to be human with his divinity—without the Incarnation—we remain guilty, foolish, wicked, common, enslaved, indebted, dead. But with the Incarnation, we have everything. We have been transformed from guilt to innocence, folly to wisdom, wickedness to righteousness, commonness to holiness, slavery to freedom, debt to heirdom, death to life. All of that in the Incarnation, where the God-man remade us as humans-with-God. Hallelujah.


If you have not read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, you should. It is one of the most important books in the history of the church, and therefore in the history of the world. It is also short. Do yourself the great favor of getting a copy and reading it well. For my part, I have made a commitment to read it on March 25—the day on which the church has traditionally celebrated the Annunciation of Christ to Mary—every year for the rest of my life. I think it is that important.


  1. The use of the adjective as a verb is annoying, but perhaps tolerable in light of the lack of a suitable alternative.  ↩

  2. Yes, the Spirit indwells us, and yes, God is everywhere. But the picture we have in the consummation of all things is God with us in a deeper way—and we do not have that yet.  ↩

  3. Though we spend far too little time on either Jesus’ life or resurrection.  ↩

  4. What a phrase!  ↩

On whether Christians should keep supporting World Vision

World Vision USA has altered their employee handbook to allow them to hire members of committed same-sex unions.  As I noted on Twitter, I find their rationale incoherent, but not terribly surprising.

Of the various threads I could take up, though, I want to focus on the decision which many conscientious Christians who deeply disagree with World Vision USA’s decision now face:  should they continue on supporting the child that they had been, or should they send their donations elsewhere?  world vision

It’s important to note that the question is not strictly financial.  As with many organizations, the funds an individual contributes in support of a child do not go to that child directly.  They are “pooled” and sent to support the community which the child lives in.  Similarly, the contributions are used to justify additional grant money from governments that are thrown into the various pools as well, all of which provides help for the community and from which the child benefits indirectly.  This is not uncommon:  it allows World Vision to maximize the impact of the money by focusing on the structural issues within a community that contribute to everyone’s flourishing.

Obviously, the careful structure would make the “child support” rhetoric less punchy and useful for raising donors. But it also means that when an individual withdraws support, the community which had been the recipient incurs some financial loss, but that loss is spread across the whole of the community (rather than, say, a particular child no longer receiving a $35 check every month).  Of course, if individuals withdrew their support en masse a significant impact would be felt. But the effect of pooling funds means that responsibility is pooled as well.

I mention all that only so we are clear on what the decision is at stake.  There are other factors that matter, too, though. Most importantly, supporting a child frequently means establishing some kind of relationship with them through letters, gifts, and other communications that are meant to support a child’s well-being directly.  Sometimes these are quite robust, and can provide important emotional and spiritual levels of support to the child who is the recipient of them.  It is also here where many people will feel the dilemma the strongest:  regardless of whether the child might suffer any serious material loss (because of the pooling effect), there may be a serious loss and confusion that withdrawing support would introduce. And there may be a genuine loss of relationship and of instruction within the donor’s own home with one’s own children, and so on.  There may, in some cases, be a real loss of possibilities of evangelism:  the harvest may have been ripened due to years of sowing and watering, and walking away may remove one significant factor which may contribute to the eventual reaping.

It’s important to underscore how important this is for the decision:  to ignore it would be to reduce every bit of giving that had gone on to a strictly financial transaction.  But charity ought not be purely monetary.  To view it as such is to corrode the practice of giving for the giver, not just the organization who receives it.  It would undermine the entire logic, and would do harm to whatever organization the donations were transferred to, as the new relationship between the donor and the organization would be established on strictly monetary and utilitarian grounds.  Prioritizing the relationship with the child in the decision about whether to withdraw support or not locates the financial considerations in their appropriate position:  as important, but by no means all-important.

All this could be mitigated, of course, if World Vision USA opened up pathways for people to continue to correspond and send packages to children without sending money to World Vision USA itself.  Such a possibility would allow for many people to keep up the kind of support they prefer to give directly, without necessarily entangling them in supporting a ministry that they (rightly) think has made a decision that is deeply inconsistent with the Gospel it has taken upon itself to proclaim.  If made available, I would commend such a possibility without hesitation or reservation.  The loss of funding for particular communities might still leave them with fewer resources than otherwise–but directly supporting the child might offset some of the lack they experience.

But presuming that option is not available, there are other complicating factors for the decision.  Jonathan Chan pointed out to me on Twitter that WorldVision’s local support teams are dependent upon the country for their leadership, which means they have no structural relationship with the decision that WorldVision USA has made.  So World Vision USA’s decision may not have any material or substantive impact on the work they do elsewhere, or World Vision’s other branches faithfulness to the Gospel.

All this makes for a relatively thorny problem.  But one possibility that Christians should avoid, it seems to me, is simply ignoring the difficulties altogether on the pure grounds that World Vision USA saves lives.  Many organizations save lives, and the Christian who gives money to World Vision USA is unquestionably committed to doing so.  But they are committed to more than that, which is why they have chosen to give to World Vision rather than some other organization.  Indeed, it may be those additional motivations that prompts in some cases the giving to be genuinely sacrificial:  removing them alters the entire character of the giving for many Christians.  World Vision USA is good at what they do:  but they are not the only organization that is good at what they do.

Even if a Christian decides that it is right to continue giving, they ought do so cognizant of the changes that have gone on and the potentially altered character of the organization which they are supporting.  And if they decide it wrong to continue giving (even for a temporary season), then their decision should not be construed as one that is necessarily unsupportive of children.  Publicizing the end of that giving seems to me both noxious and wrong:  but so then does publicizing the beginning of such a relationship as well.  We cannot take too seriously the danger that by broadcasting the goodness of our deeds we have our reward in full.  There is no harm in pursuing a good with sobriety, modesty, and quietness.

None of that, of course, answers the question of what a Christian should do given the competing claims and goods at stake.  There is a sense in which a pure claim to fidelity to the Gospel might impel them to quit giving immediately:  I think that response is understandable, but given the substantive conditions I’ve outlined above, not entirely warranted in every case.  If a person has only two months ago started sending money and corresponding, ending it would not nearly be as significant as someone who has corresponded with a child for six or seven years.

What, then, should a Christian who thinks World Vision USA has made a grave organizational error do?

The first thing to do is, of course, inform World Vision USA of your conclusion and the difficulty they have subsequently thrown you into.  Angry, belligerent emails and phone calls are not a Christian mode of response. But level-headed, patient, and clear reasoning can be.  It would be prudent to ask for World Vision to set up pathways for people who have decided they can no longer give to continue corresponding and supporting their child directly, as a sign of their willingness to help those who disagree with their new vision carry on those modes of communication that first and foremost make World Vision a Christian organization, even if it costs the organization a great deal of money and time to ensure that it can happen.  Opening up such pathways would convey World Vision’s commitment to unity of the right sort, namely that which respects and seeks to maintain lines of communication within and across real and substantive disagreements that it recognizes must be maintained.

Second, it seems to me that continuing to give in a situation where there has been a substantive relationship established with a child would be appropriate, at least for a season.  Given that education and formation happens at the local level, and that the other branches of World Vision are not beholden to World Vision USA’s decision, there is nothing substantive lost by maintaining support temporarily. The boundaries of a “substantive relationship” are, of course, somewhat fuzzy.  In the abstract, what sort of relationship qualifies is impossible to discern.  But some sort of differences are obvious, as I noted above, and those differences introduce genuine and substantive reasons for acting that must be accounted for in this case.

But I would add a qualification to this, if support continues:  I would notify World Vision USA that the continuing of support is for the purposes of the child alone, and that when the financial-support relationship comes to an end (as it does automatically at age 21, and at other ages for a variety of reasons) it will not be renewed or transferred to another child, but will be taken to another organization.  There would be two ways to look at this sort of communication:  either it could be seen as ‘holding World Vision hostage’ by threatening to remove financial contributions, or it could be a form of ‘informing World Vision USA of a decision so they can make alternate arrangements’.  Which description belongs may depend entirely on how the communication is given:  non-profits need to know how to project their finances, and giving them some advance warning that support would be withdrawn at least allows them to seek alternative means of funding in the interim.

But the effects of these sorts of organizational decisions are often slower moving than internet responses or commentary.  The  logic of the traditional marriage case depends upon a commitment to something like a “moral ecology”, but that means that the effects of certain decisions are not often known until several generations later.  Analogically, this sort of symbolic move will have a substantive effect on the moral ethos of World Vision USA, but the fruit in its own organizational life and in its relationship to the broader World Vision organization (the structure of which is not entirely clear to me) may not grow for a while. For those who are committed to supporting particular children, that delay is a benefit, as it allows support to continue while still expressing a fundamental disagreement and communicating to World Vision USA the reasons for such a disagreement and the end-point of any future support or help.  It’s a slow withdrawal, to be sure, but we are to be patient in doing good, even when doing good demands changing the recipients of our support.

Third, I would begin any new contributions with another organization and encourage those who ask to do the same.  Food for the Hungry, Compassion International, and others do similarly good work to World Vision.  Best of all may be your own denominational support structures, which presumably are accountable to the body where you worship.

There are doubtlessly other paths through, and unquestionably many people will object to various elements of what I have written above.  Some may claim I am either making too much of a trivial issue or compromising my fidelity to the Gospel.  But what we ought not do is ignore the various and complex issues at stake for many Christians.  Seeking the right here means remaining attentive not only to our sense of moral integrity, but to the good of World Vision USA, the child that we may have folded in some way into our lives, and the communities where they live.  Any counsel that does not attempt to bring coherence and unity toward those aspects is too stunted to be useful.

The Dangers of Appealing to Personality Types

Morgan Guyton recently posted a piece entitled ‘Why English Majors Make Lousy Fundamentalists,’ which was also crossposted on Jesus Creed. Within it, he begins by arguing that different readings of Scripture ‘may end up boiling down to different personality types.’ As an INFP—‘the personality type of a poet, or an English major, or perhaps a romantic’—Guyton believes that he brings certain instincts to the reading of the Bible that rub ‘fundamentalists’ up the wrong way.

INFPs, Guyton grants, are not unfairly characterized as those who ‘do not like to deal with hard facts and logic’ and ‘don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment.’ The first representation certainly makes it easier to account for some of the unannounced yet crucial shifts in his post. The first of these is his conflation of the INFP type with the ‘English major’, a character that frames the rest of Guyton’s analysis in the post. The English major can pull academic privilege over others who lack his training in the reading of literature. Also, as he has associated his personality and sensibilities with that of the English major, the INFP can assume he possesses a sort of natural and peculiar affinity for the reading of Scripture. As God reveals himself in a literary form, and INFPs/English majors have a particular affinity for literature and sensitivity for its quality, they are the ones who should provide the ‘taste test’ of the character of God’s revelation and, by extension, of the sort of God that we find revealed within it:

As an English major, I need for God to be an infinitely better poet than I am, which means that I’m going to be averse to any approach to interpreting the Bible that camps out at a sixth grade level of reading comprehension and assumes God to be straightforward and perfectly clear when he seems to do a far better job of inspiring people with a little subtlety.

A swift swipe of logic to the connections that Guyton draws between English majors, literary reading, and personality type would untangle a significant portion of the knotty mass of his argument. Not all INFPs are English majors and not all INFPs who are English majors are gifted at it. Nor do INFPs have a monopoly on the study of literature: many students of literature have quite different personality types.

We should not accept the fact that INFPs are currently more attracted to the study of English literature as sufficient proof of their greater aptitude in it. The field of literary criticism has undergone a number of significant changes over the last century. INFPs’ supposedly greater likelihood to be English majors may be little more than a result of the fact that they resonate more with the currently prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism and the wider culture of the discipline. A different array of personality types might pursue the subject if these prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism were dislodged and replaced by others. Guyton’s assumptions would then crumble.

I will forgive anyone who feels confused after trying to parse the logic of Guyton’s argument. The rest of his post is a bewildering muddle: he entangles the interpretative supremacy and prerogative of a certain personality type with the eminently sensible notion that we should bring honed literary instincts and tools to the study of the scriptures. Furthermore, he treats the mere invocation of methods of literary analysis as if it validated the inept manner in which they were deployed. ‘He must be a gifted exegete: look at all of the fancy tools in his toolbox!’

Guyton’s post exemplifies the growing popularity of personality typing in many Christian circles (I’ve been surprised to see how widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] is in the Church of England, for instance). Rather than presenting a comprehensive response to Guyton’s post, which will soon be forgotten, I want to highlight this particular feature of it. While many of us have written extensively about orientation and identity in the context of sexuality and gender, personality typing has quietly established a new form of identity and orientation discourse. It is high time that we paid closer attention to it.

We should recognize certain analogies between personality typing and many of the other forms of orientation and identity discourse with which we are more familiar. Many Christians have started to treat personality type as a sort of ‘orientation’ within the world whose equality—or contextual superiority—must be recognized and for which various accommodations must be made. The personality type is fixed and integral to who we are as persons. The fundamental impulses, sensibilities, and instincts of the personality type cannot be called into question: they have the status of an untouchable sensitivity. We are tempted to treat our personality type as justification and explanation for our behaviour, rather than discerning appropriate forms of behaviour and desire from their relation to fitting objective ends. We should observe the measure of circularity that can be present here: in using our personality types as justification for our patterns of behaviour we can forget that our personality typing was derived in large measure from those same patterns.

The problem here is not so much with personality typing per se as it is the entitlement, privilege, and weight of identification that is increasingly coming with it. Personality typing such as the MBTI can be amusing and harmless and can even occasionally serve a heuristic purpose, provided that we do not take it too seriously. Although it is a fairly inexact tool—it arbitrarily splits spectrums of behaviour into binary categories and doesn’t adequately account for such things as the inextricable relation between thinking and ‘feeling’—it can occasionally help to illumine significant patterns and tendencies.

Everyone wants to believe that the mere possession of a particular personality type gives them some sort of privileged access to or claim upon reality, society, or set of skills. Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, closely associated with the MBTI, will assign you an identity on the basis of the result of your personality test. Here everyone’s a winner. It will designate you as an ‘inventor’, a ‘mastermind’, a ‘fieldmarshal’, a ‘champion’, a ‘healer’, or an ‘architect’ on no more sure of a basis than the fact that your personality skews in a particular direction. This is all entirely independent of anything that you have ever achieved or skill you have developed. ‘English major’ may not yet be one of Keirsey’s temperaments, but Guyton employs it as if it were. When I discover that I am an ESFP or an INTJ, I can enjoy a sense of an innate superiority, entirely independent of actual work and achievement, which the world must acknowledge and validate. I am here reminded of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s remark concerning the piano in Pride and Prejudice: ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’

Psychometric tests such as the MBTI promise to reveal deep truths about our personalities. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, through some mysterious alchemy, they will discern our true nature and assign us a named identity accordingly. The scientific basis of the claims of many psychometric tests such as the MBTI is highly dubious and their effectiveness probably has more than a little to do with such things as the Forer effect.

Nevertheless, personality typing can easily become powerfully constitutive of people’s sense of identity, as they start to think of themselves as their personality type in a fairly uncritical manner. The appeal of such tests is quite explicable: they offer a measure of resolution to the existential discomfort of the question ‘who am I?’, a question which is probably pressed upon us with greater urgency than ever before. While such a test may be an improvement on diverting online quizzes promising to reveal which characters I might be in various fictional universes, at least I do not go through life believing that Gandalf-likeness is a crucial key to my identity.

The cult of personality testing threatens to throw our understanding of the person dangerously off balance. I would suggest that it is here that we find its greatest dangers. Personality testing can foster and encourage the myth of the ‘rich internal self’ and the moral obfuscation that can so often accompany it. On the basis of a rudimentary quiz, a test such as the MBTI offers us a flattering image of who we truly are. It assures us that our personalities are healthy and natural. We are heroic figures—‘crafters’, ‘composers’, ‘protectors’, and ‘counselors’—and the world should learn to value us more. We don’t really encounter sin and fallenness in the world of such personality testing; even pathology does not make an appearance.

With its overemphasis upon healthy natural personality, this new pop psychology that is entering our vocabularies can subtly squeeze out Christian language of fallenness, sin, flesh, and separation from God, slowly dulling us to the extent of our brokenness. In addition to this, I fear that our new focus upon ‘personality’ will lead to a neglect of the category of ‘character’. ‘Personality’ is typically understood to be an innate given and a matter of self-expression, operating largely outside of the realm of morality, chiefly measured by its individuality, and possessing its own prerogative. ‘Character’, by contrast, must be formed and is a decidedly moral mode of regarding the individual subject. Rather than telling us that we are naturally and fairly indelibly what is revealed in the patterns of our behaviour, ‘character’ is something that is gradually formed in us as we faithfully devote ourselves to modes of behaviour that do not spring naturally from our personalities.

Guyton’s argument is a good example of the chaos that can result when personality usurps character in the area of scriptural interpretation. Contrary to Guyton’s emphasis upon personality, we become skilful readers of Scripture as the Spirit conforms us to the word he inspired through the dedicated and faithful practice of scriptural study. No one enjoys this skill merely by virtue of an innate aptitude of personality, nor does our possession of a particular personality type entitle us to approach God’s revelation on our own terms. God’s truth transforms its readers, it identifies expressions of our personality types as ‘sin’, and it makes demands of us that call us to act outside of type. It breaks us down and it builds us up again. I will not discover my true self through taking a personality test, but as I am conformed by God’s Spirit to the image of his Son: not as an act of analysis, but through a historical process of transformation. This is the truth in terms of which all other self-understanding must proceed. When viewed in this light, the personality test has a decidedly diminished capacity for determining my identity.

Alastair Roberts writes.  You can follow him on Twitter

Young, Restless, and Reformed Homeboys on Lenten Fasting

Last spring, I wrote about my skepticism about the newfound trendiness of lenten fasting among Evangelicals of my generation. The trend continues apace. Here’s Glenn Packiam, pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs (it’s a “parish” of the more famous New Life) explaining why his charismatic and low-church congregation is holding an Ash Wednesday service today:

So, no, you don’t have to observe Ash Wednesday. You don’t have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church—for the past 1200 years—and with the people of God—for thousands of years before that!—and humbly repent and seek God’s face. It is the beginning of a fast season, Lent. Lent—like every other season of the Church Calendar—is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there’s nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.

Packiam is endemic of how most Lent-adopters talk about church history: They denigrate (explicitly or implicitly) their low-church Evangelicalism as unmoored from tradition and underscore how adopting the liturgical practice connects them to the historic church. But what if the best way to express trans-generational solidarity with the millions of believers who have walked before you is by eschewing Lent? That’s the argument I want to support below.

Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy

Here’s the thing. Evangelicalism has been around for centuries and its practice is strongly rooted in the past. In the churches I’ve attended over the past decade (sometimes called Young, Restless, and Reformed), most worship songs are rearrangements of lyrics penned by eighteenth-century figures Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley. And what’s true of the songs is true of the theology, long-dead folks like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon are revered, a phenomenon summed-up by the famous Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy t-shirt on the cover for Colin Hansen’s article describing this movement. In their sermons and theological treatises, these YRR Homeboys said quite a lot about keeping the season of Lent. Here’s a sampling of takes from the sixteenth (John Calvin), seventeenth (John Owen), eighteenth (Jonathan Edwards), nineteenth (Charles Spurgeon), and twentieth centuries (Martyn Lloyd-Jones).

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.20 (1536)
Calvin is clearly hostile to describing lenten fasting as an imitation of Christ.

Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven. And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him. . . . It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ . . .

John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656)
Owen is a very interesting case because he wrote extensively on the Christian practice for mortification of the flesh. However, he was very clear to differentiate the gospel practice of mortification from practices of “popish devotionists.”

That the ways and means to be used for the mortification of sin invented by them are still insisted on and prescribed, for the same end, by some who should have more light and knowledge of the gospel, is known. Such directions to this purpose have of late been given by some, and are greedily catched at by others professing themselves Protestants, as might have become popish devotionists three or four hundred years ago. Such outside endeavors, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel.

Later, in the same piece, he specifically condemns the practice of abstaining from “sin for a season.”

And herein is the Roman mortification grievously peccant; they drive all sorts of persons to it, without the least consideration whether they have a principle for it or no. Yea, they are so far from calling on men to believe, that they may be able to mortify their lusts, that they call men to mortification instead of believing. The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor what mortification itself intends. Faith with them is but a general assent to the doctrine taught in their church; and mortification the betaking of a man by a vow to some certain course of life, wherein he denies himself something of the use of the things of this world, not without a considerable compensation. Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Their boasting of their mortification is but their glorying in their shame. Some casuists among ourselves, who, overlooking the necessity of regeneration, do avowedly give this for a direction to all sorts of persons that complain of any sin or lust, that they should vow against it, at least for a season, a month or so, seem to have a scantling of light in the mystery of the gospel, much like that of Nicodemus when he came first to Christ. They bid men vow to abstain from their sin for a season. This commonly makes their lust more impetuous. Perhaps with great perplexity they keep their word; perhaps not, which increases their guilt and torment. Is their sin at all mortified hereby? Do they find a conquest over it? Is their condition changed, though they attain a relinquishment of it? Are they not still in the gall of bitterness? Is not this to put men to make brick, if not without straw, yet, which is worse, without strength? What promise hath any unregenerate man to countenance him in this work? what assistance for the performance of it? Can sin be killed without an interest in the death of Christ, or mortified without the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, yet they never reach to the change of their hearts or conditions. They may make men self-justiciaries or hypocrites, not Christians.

Jonathan Edwards, An Attempt to Promote Agreement in Extraordinary Prayer (1745)
Edwards ridicules the no-flesh-but-fish rule while discussing how the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg (on an island named Cape-Breton by the English) during King George’s War heralded the ascendance of the gospel and the downfall of superstitious Roman Catholic countries.

And one thing with relation to the taking of Cape-Breton, though it may seem trivial, yet I do not think to be altogether inconsiderable in the present case; and that is, that thereby the antiChristian dominions are deprived of a very great part of their fish, which makes no small part of the food and support of popish countries; their superstition forbidding them to eat any flesh for near a third part of the year. This they were supplied with much more from Cape-Breton than from any place in the world in the possession of papists. And the contention of France with the Dutch, deprives them of most of their supplies of this sort, which they had elsewhere. When the prophet Isaiah foretells the depriving Egypt of its wealth and temporal supplies, under the figure of drying up their rivers, this is particularly mentioned, that they should be deprived of their fish.

“And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord. And the waters shall fall from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up; and they shall turn the rivers far away, and the brooks of defense shall be emptied and dried up. The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish.” Isaiah 19:4-8.

This is expressed in the prophecies of drying up the waters, i.e. the supplies of Egypt; and this probably is implied in the prophecies of drying up the waters of that city which is spiritually called Egypt. And it may be noted, that this is not only a supply that the church of antichrist has literally out of the waters, but is that part which is eminently the supply and food of their antiChristian superstition, or which their popish religion makes necessary for them.

 Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David (1885) and sermon on Song of Solomon 1 (1886)
Spurgeon expresses general reservations about all traditions of men.

When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, “Is this a law of the God of Jacob?” and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.

He is especially critical of Lent’s call to mourn as if our Lord was taken away.

Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him!

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, sermon from John 1 (1962)
Lloyd-Jones is blunt in his appraisal.

Lent, of course, is a relic of Roman Catholicism. One can easily understand it in such an organization – it gives power to the priest, and so on – but there is, I repeat, no evidence whatsoever in favour of it in the New Testament, and it simply leads to this show of wisdom and human will power. It is people adding their works to the grace of God, and this is essentially Roman Catholic teaching. Well, my friends, let us get rid of this, let us not waste our time with it. We are to be led by the Spirit always.

Evangelicalism is a tradition too

I’m sure that an Evangelical Lent-adopter would protest that he isn’t going to do Lent in a “popish” way and thus evade the censure of the YRR Homeboys. If that were the case, why did none of these figures advocate for a reformed lenten fast instead of condemning the practice entirely? Furthermore, if the point for the adopters is to participate in an ancient tradition along with saints of previous centuries, it doesn’t make sense to radically alter the practice as traditionally performed.

My point is simple. Evangelicalism is a tradition with attendant folkways and liturgical practices. One of the practices low-church Evangelicalism has long embraced is not participating in lenten abstention. As a traditionalist, I walk in the steps of these historical homeboys and am the richer for it.

On the meaning of “Heterosexuality”

Over at First Things, Michael Hannon has a long essay arguing that we ought to move beyond our dependency on ‘sexual orientation’. He writes:

“These [conservative] Christian compatriots of mine are wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation, confusing our unprecedented and unsuccessful apologia for chastity with its eternal foundation. We do not need “heteronormativity” to defend against debauchery. On the contrary, it is just getting in our way.”

I’m on board with the general useleness of ‘orientation’ as a category for self or moral reflection.  In fact, I would go a step beyond Hannon and raise questions about the entire “identity” regime, as it tends to be less useful for getting about in the world than people sometimes think. The language of character, virtue, vice, desires, acts, intentions, obligations, goods, and the rest of the forgotten language of moral analysis is still abundantly fruitful for self-knowledge and for understanding society.

Hannon commends the old way of analyzing sex in relation to its created ends, but also seems to want to hold on to all the language of identities: “I will have all sorts of identities, to be sure, especially in our crazily over-psychoanalytic age. But at the very least, none of these identities should be essentially defined by my attraction to that which separates me from God.” One way of ensuring that doesn’t happen might be to not fragment ourselves into a bundle of mini-”identities” to begin with.

I have other worries, though, about Hannon’s essay. For instance, while he notes as an aside that heterosexuality and homosexuality are mutually interdependent as categories, he deploys his strongest rhetoric against ‘heterosexuality’ and ‘heteronormativity.’  (Or so it seems to me, anyway.  Your reading may vary.)

There’s a way in which Hannon’s understanding is almost right: I have argued that in evangelical circles the rampant and often unnoticed sexual idolatry starting in the 1960s undermined our ability to negotiate and respond to the challenges of homosexuality that arose within our community the past two decade. So I have a lot of sympathy for the notion that an overwhelming focus on other people’s sinful desires blinds us to the troubles in our own lives.

But it was not a peculiar attachment to ‘heterosexuality’ that stood beneath this idolatry, so much as a pursuit and defense of sexual pleasure within marriage as an apologetic against the sexual liberation movement. The vice is no more laudable, of course, and has produced its own harvest of rotten fruit. But if we are to find the solution to conservative Christianity’s troubles, it is important to appropriately identify the disease. Hannon’s suggestion that the problem is an attachment to ‘heteronormativity’ both fails as a diagnosis and misconstrues how identity formation happens in each respective ‘orientation.’

Consider Hannon’s opening claim: “Nevertheless, many conservative-minded Christians today feel that we should continue to enshrine the gay–straight divide and the heterosexual ideal in our popular catechesis, since that still seems to them the best way to make our moral maxims appear reasonable and attractive.” Hannon expands this with the bit I led off with above: that these conservative-minded Christians are “wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation…”

If by ‘heterosexual ideal’ Hannon means the proposition that marriage is between a man and a woman, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are clinging tightly to that. If it means that the *norm* for human sexual desires is that they are brought into conformity with the notion that marriage is between *one* man and one woman, and habituate themselves (as much as possible) so that those desires are *stably directed* toward one’s spouse or future spouse, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are invested in that too.

But ironically, it is many of those ‘conservative-minded Christians’ who have been the loudest objecting to the very ‘orientation’ conception that Hannon wants to toss overboard. The notion of a “gay Christian” is controversial among many evangelical circles, for instance, not because they are willfully ignorant that some people have stable desires toward members of the same-sex–as the laughable misreading at Slate managed to suggest today–but because they worry about how those desires are further integrated person’s character and self-understanding by incorporating the ‘gay’ nomenclature into their self-description. That’s Hannon’s reason for being worried about it, too.  But the irony is that the same people that Hannon would accuse of being wrapped up in being “heteronormative” who are most likely to be on board with his concerns.

Or maybe not.  To be honest, I have no idea which heterosexuals Hannon has in mind in his critique of them or how exactly their heterosexuality breeds the vices that he attributes to it. For instance, Hannon writes, “The most pernicious aspect of the orientation-identity system is that it tends to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation.” I have to confess that sentence made me laugh. Anyone who has spent a day on an evangelical college campus talking with students would realize that there is no temptation to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation. The disputes and arguments that the Christian community has seen over the past year about “modesty” are only one small part of the incredibly stringent moral code that exists within the evangelical world about any form of sex. Guys spend hours in their “accountability groups” rehearsing the litany of struggles around pornography and those who venture into sexual activity often have to keep it under wraps from peers and friends. All this has troubles of its own, to be sure. But the notion that conservative Christians who embrace the orientation paradigm are laissez-faire about their own sexual morality simply does not fit the facts.

Hannon goes further, though, and suggests that “the self-declared heterosexual” who makes themselves a member of the “normal group” displaces Jesus as the norm for moral reflection and so is the “height of folly.” He goes on: “But heterosexuality, in its pretensions to act as the norm for assessing our sexual customs, is marked by something even worse: pride, which St. Thomas Aquinas classifies as the queen of all vices.”

Now, it may be the case that a self-identified heterosexual allows their heterosexuality to displace Jesus as the norm for moral reflection. The question, though, is whether that displacement is necessarily tied to the conceptual framework of heterosexuality. That is a much harder argument to make, and I don’t think Hannon has succeeded at it, precisely because he overlooks the differences between how “heterosexual” and “homosexual” function as identifiers in their respective communities.

Hannon’s claim emphasizes those who take ownership of the “heterosexual” label: his polemic is against those who are “self-proclaimed” as or people who are “identifying as” heterosexuals. But few heterosexuals think of their own sexual identity the way those with same-sex attraction tend to think of themselves *as* gay or lesbian. Their majority sexuality is simply the tacit backdrop on which people live out their lives rather than that-by-which they are differentiated.

My friend John Corvino will sometimes talk about heterosexual folks who take a line akin to “it’s fine if gay folks do their think, so long as they don’t flaunt it in public.” Only “flaunt it” happens to mean holding hands, or kissing, or doing what opposite-sex couples do in public all the time. Many heterosexual folks don’t feel the asymmetry, as we are unaware of the extent to which sexuality structures our lives outside the bedroom. But that also means the emergence of heterosexual desires in a person lacks the same kind of formative power that the emergence of opposite-sex desires often has. I doubt most “heterosexuals” would ever recognize themselves in the term, at least not without someone who makes it a question for them: they don’t need to, precisely because being a part of the “normal group” frees them from the burden of self-ascription.

Which means that if such a pride does exist within heterosexuals, it must either be so tacit and structural that it is invisible to them and so outside the boundaries of conscious repentance or it is not structurally tied to their “heterosexuality.” The latter is more likely. The notion that pride necessarily accompanies “heterosexuality” is a difficult argument to make. If orientation as a category *does* exist for ethics, then on the traditional Christian view there is nothing *per se* wrong with being ‘a heterosexual,’ if by that we mean ‘a person whose sexual desires are generally stable in being directed toward the opposite sex under certain conditions.’ There are other questions to ply toward those desires, as I noted above conservative Christians so frequently do. But as the Catholic catechism would put it, the sexual inclination toward the same-sex–whether stable and recurrent or not–is itself “objectively disordered.” Heterosexuals may be prideful, and may be proud that they do not have same-sex attraction, but the pride has little to nothing to do with the substance of their “orientation” or its role in identity or social formation.

In fact, “heterosexuality” only seems to dethrone Jesus as the norm if we think that Jesus’s life and ministry somehow subverts the normative (creation) order of opposite-sex sexual desires, even if we don’t then describe those desires as an “orientation.” The singleness of Jesus does not put same-sex desires and opposite-sex desires on the same moral plane. It is, after all, not simply sexual acts that Christ suggests he is interested in, but the whole stable of thoughts, intentions, and dispositions that make up our inner life. These also need reformation, to be brought to conformity to the witness of the Gospel not only in the manner that we have them but also in their objects.

Recurring sexual desires of any sort are not themselves a sign of holiness: but recurring sexual desires toward a member of the same-sex raise questions that such desires toward a member of the opposite sex do not. Eliminating the aspect of “recurring stability” from those desires–or what has come to be known in shorthand as our ‘orientation’–doesn’t eliminate the deeper “heteronormativity” implied in the logic of Scripture. If nothing else, Jesus has a bride, and there is no understanding his life as the pattern for our lives without grasping the deep, mutually fulfilling stable and recurring desires at the heart of their union.

“Heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” need to be done away with. Hannon and I agree on this. But the reasons we provide for tossing them overboard still matter, and we ought be careful what we send over with them.

Radical Rhetoric, Siege Warfare, and Christian Population Density

I had almost forgotten about the provocative articles written by Anthony Bradley and Matthew Lee Anderson about legalism, “radical” rhetoric, and the pitfalls of telling Christians that our Kingdom work just isn’t “edgy” enough. Matt and I tussled over what he wrote then, after many comments I just let it be. At the end of the year, though, they got re-upped as some of the most read and linked posts for their respective sites in 2013. So my “totally committed” friends and I revisited them and found them just as frustratingly incomplete as before. After all (we said to ourselves), aren’t David Platt and Francis Chan simply exegeting Scripture and calling people to obedience? Clearly, however, these posts struck a nerve with many Christians. I now think that Matt and Anthony are more right than I thought at the time—but also more wrong.

I don’t want to lump Matt and Anthony together too quickly; Anthony’s article looks more personally at the “burdensome” aspect of calling Christians to an inordinately sacrificial lifestyle while Matt’s tries to take on the institutional and cultural consequences of using words as facile emotional amplifiers. These concerns are valid, for any overemphasis on obedience runs the risk of crushing others with a legalistic burden, and any over-reliance on the emphatic discourse of modern advertising is likely to crush a movement beneath its own hubris. Christians have wrestled with these questions over the centuries, reflecting the balance of faith, grace, and obedience into the contours of thought elided by Augustine, Wesley, Bonhoeffer, and others. Paul captures this tension when he urges us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.“ What’s more, these kinds of appeals to self-sacrifice for God’s glory have been around for decades; one of the most potent examples I have encountered is Dr. Helen Roseveare’s discussion of “The Cost of Declaring His Glory”, set in her own context of being raped while serving as a missionary in the Congo.

Image from Christianity today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/march/here-come-radicals.html

Image from Christianity today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/march/here-come-radicals.html

Thus, I hesitate to affirm that there’s much new about the new legalism and their radical ilk besides the fact that this movement ties a broader spectrum of concerns to the “fear and trembling” that radical rhetoric seeks to induce. There are clearly times and places for these messages; this is part of why there are powerful institutions (most of which have strong ties to various mission agencies) that have not burned out despite decades of using them. However, a message that’s good only for one particular part of the church will divide the church if we expect it to drive everyone else in the same way. The emotional bombardment is only one facet of the movement, but it is the facet gaining the most attention and driving some of its most persistent critics.

However, where Matt and Anthony land is still unsatisfactory. Anthony asks, “What if youth and young adults were simply encouraged to live in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, education, wonder, beauty, glory, creativity, and worship [...] ?” Plenty of young Christians would probably still struggle with legalistically judging one another or themselves for their failure to pursue wonder and wisdom. Matt’s final point is similar, emphasizing the importance of slowly building institutions that “form belief in deeper and more permanent ways.” I would point out that multigenerational, multidisciplinary institutions such as the Christian Community Development AssociationSummer Institute of LinguisticsNairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, and many more like them are already forming belief in very deep ways.

The purveyors of “radical” rhetoric should consider these criticisms carefully and emphasize the slow, boring, and quiet work that is required when we lay siege against the gates of hell. We should work to create contexts where the horrors of poverty, spiritual darkness, or violence can be processed appropriately in community with other believers, as Christians ought to learn about these things— but not exclusively in conference messages or YouTube videos. We must also be careful, even as we critique the default worldly mindset that uses the comfort of the suburbs to magnify our idolatry, to continually affirm the goodness of loving God and loving our neighbors in boring places. From my own experience, various “radical” institutions do focus on the process of discipleship beyond the flashy plenary messages. This primarily happens when veteran “radicals” talk about the journeys they have been on in the inner city, the Third World, or their own homes full of adopted children. They also cherish the work and support of many who are living rather unexciting lives, calling them their closest friends, supporters, and co-laborers. Lastly, they are desperately dependent on the continual, supernatural presence of God’s grace to enable what they do.

Scripture can be difficult to discern here, for the most prominent personalities in the Old and New Testaments are the leaders and apostles who are frequently portrayed in their more exciting adventures. There are very few nuclear families described in the Scripture in any detail, and the only one with generally positive outcomes is Joseph and Mary’s. We are simultaneously called to live quietly and boldly proclaim—all the while taking up our crosses. Yet we can assume from the stories of Scripture that for every Paul or Silas in prison for casting out a demon, there were hundreds of Christians patiently waiting and praying in their homes as they ate their meatloaf before rushing the kids off to soccer practice.

One of the more troubling aspects of the radical narrative is the sense in which the average “truly committed disciple” risking death in the Himalayas to proclaim the Gospel as he gives vaccines is presented as more faithful and obedient to God’s revealed will than the dad in the suburbs driving his sporty minivan to the lake for the weekend while his children amuse themselves to death with their electronic devices. Part of this is that we do not celebrate the faithfulness of our old and boring saints nearly enough, nor do we emphasize their value to the church.

The recent excitement over the word “missional” suggests that some formation has been lacking in many churches, and in this sense churches in the suburbs do have a lot to learn from brothers and sisters elsewhere. The institutions that are sending Christians to the Himalayas spend a lot of time on finding hidden sins in these folks, forcing them to learn as much as possible about being faithful servants and equipping them to engage in spiritual siege warfare for years. The best way of erasing the false dichotomy between full-time missionaries and Christian laypeople is to broadly apply the vigorous sense of accountability, study, and spiritual discipline that are utilized to keep these ministers spiritually alive in their demanding work.

However, once we have affirmed that one does not need to do anything “radical” in order to live obediently to God’s call, nor do the “radicals” have a spiritual vocation much different than anyone else, we are left with a persistent problem: population density. The number of Christians living their boring lives of patient discipleship is not distributed in a manner that is conducive to creating institutions forming faithful obedience in places like Afghanistan or Mauritania. There are plenty of stable, nuclear families discipling their children as they schlep from soccer practice to VBS in the suburbs and not enough in the inner city or rural Appalachia. There are too many foster children whose special needs are addressed by people who don’t have a deep appreciation for their Imago Dei. How we spend our money or our political will is another question; the callings and budgets of every Christian will look different but hopefully carry the tension Jesus leaves us with in the Sermon on the Mount. That said, we could still go on vacation every now and then (like every missionary family I know) while giving more to God-honoring causes. We could raise a few more hackles about Saeed Abedini than Phil Robertson.

Indeed, both Anthony and Matt’s concerns about the conference-and-bestseller-driven messaging expose the fact that we have been quietly seduced by our individualistic culture, which places an unusually high premium on narcissistic self-actualization (especially in regards to helping other people.) If people are getting lost, going solo, feeling discouraged, or tuning out somewhere between the sensational message and the formational institution, that probably indicates that we don’t value the power of these institutions. The world of TED leaves the discipleship and application up to the listener of the message; within the church we have to draw clear lines to connect the compelling hook and the long obedience. All of us—no matter where we are called to minister—are part of the larger body of Christ and it is spiritually toxic for us to look down upon another’s calling as unimportant when every believer will have to take up our crosses to follow Jesus and count the cost carefully. Stay-at-home moms and missionary doctors alike must find their place in the universal reign of God being proclaimed throughout His world; bringing the Gospel to the nations can only be proclaimed through the slow, steady work of many people spreading out where it is not already.

It is important for those of us who have grown up in cultures with strong churches & Christian institutions to recognize the concept of church-planting movements in foreign missions, particularly in regard to three self and unreached people groups principles when discussing foreign missions. For not only is there a larger percentage of faithful, boring Christians in Missouri than in Somalia, but the Christians in Missouri have developed the cultural, theological, and ecclesiological resources necessary to create new churches in their culture and language. This is not true for thousands of people groups that do not know Jesus and have no human means to learn about Him. People in North America certainly need evangelism, discipleship, and theological formation just as much as people in Central Asia. The difference is that the institutions and churches carrying out those works in North America are not merely present, but have the ability to self-sustain, self-fund, and self-reproduce in their own cultural milieu. Such institutions aren’t just virtually absent elsewhere, but often lack the resources and personnel to propagate and persist. If we are serious about the value of these institutions, we should work slowly yet tenaciously to establish them everywhere and send enough Christians to places without them so they might be strengthened.

There are needs everywhere, of course. Not only are the suburbs of America full of lost people, they are full of Christians who need one another to stay and build one another up through fellowship, prayer, service, and worship. Raising families in an increasingly hostile and materialistic culture is hard work requiring great spiritual resources, and we ought not minimize its importance. However, if we look at the needs of the world and the concentration of wealth, power, education, health, and Biblical knowledge that we’ve been blessed with, it looks a little disproportionate—especially when it comes to the institutions that drive the growth of the church and help to keep her witness faithful. We need to be quiet and patient in a few more places. We need to use the dividends of our thrift a little more intentionally. And we need to eat our unexciting meatloaf in our boring, single-family homes with a few more outcasts around our table.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.