Can’t We PLEASE Talk About Something Else?!

I’m sure you’re probably familiar with the sermon illustration of the Sunday School teacher who wanted to talk about squirrels. I have no idea who wrote it originally, but here’s the version of it I found on several sites. If you know the original author, leave a comment, and I’ll update the reference.

A Sunday School teacher wanted to use squirrels as an example of prepared workers. She started the lesson by saying, ”I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.”  The children were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward eagerly. “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts …” No hands went up. “It can be gray or brown and  it has a long bushy tail …” The children looked around the room at each other, but still no one raised a hand. “It chatters and sometimes it flips its tail when it’s excited …”   Finally one little boy shyly raised his hand. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay, Michael. What do you think it is?”  “Well,” said the boy, “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Jesus.”

It’s a funny story, and it could very well be true. All too often we teach our kids that the right answers in studying the Bible are either Moses or Jesus (Moses for OT, Jesus for NT). There are a couple of pitfalls in teaching kids that we can fall into, “All Answers Must Be Jesus” or we’re tempted to reduce all lessons to “Dare to be  a Daniel.” Of course, all of our study of the Word should ultimately point to Jesus, but you get my point.

Moving away from children’s ministry and on to women’s Bible study, I’m concerned that we’re in danger of falling into a new trap where the punchline would be “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Biblical Womanhood.” Yes, I know that our modern culture is woefully deficient on a Biblical understanding of sexuality, gender, marriage, submission, etc. But surely this is not the only topic we need to discuss in women’s Bible studies. I’m not even sure that it’s the most pressing topic we should be discussing.

Like a person who enjoys lifting weights, but keeps skipping “leg day,” I’m afraid we’re so hyper focused on the topic of Biblical womanhood that we’re creating a generation of Biblically lopsided women. Hannah Anderson, in her book Made for More, talks about limiting women to the “pink” passages of the Bible:

Too often as women, we have restricted ourselves to the “pink” parts of the Bible. … And we forget that these “pink passages” were never intended to be sufficient by themselves. (105)

Women need to know ALL of the Bible and to know that ALL of the Bible is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB). All of the passages addressed to believers are meant for both men AND women. Specific passages to husbands, fathers, pastors, etc. may not apply particularly to women, but the majority of the biblical guidelines for living as believers applies both to men and women.

There is a great need in our churches today for women with a strong foundation in Biblical orthodoxy. If we’ve learned anything from the Trinity debate last year, it’s that so much of what is marketed to women is at best weak and at worst heretical. And it’s everywhere. As Aimee Byrd warns in her book, No Little Women, the greatest danger for women today is likely coming from books and materials marketed for women by Christian publishers and authors.

In many cases, women’s ministry becomes a back door for bad doctrine to seep into the church. Why are there still so many gullible women? … Why is it that so many women sit under good preaching and have all the best intentions, yet fall prey to the latest book marketed to them that is full of poor theology? And why do so many women in the church fail to see that theology has any practical impact on their everyday lives? (22)

We should not be afraid to delve into the Scriptures and even to teach women doctrine. I’m sure that some churches and leaders may be hesitant to take this approach with women’s Bible studies. But according to recent articles and studies, the people in the pews are hungry for the Word. And, yes, it may be a stretch for some women who are used to the popular book studies with floral artwork and script fonts and pastel colors that let women know they’re “safe” to read. Women are regularly challenged by popular culture to try new things that might seem difficult or different to begin with. We all know the hardest days of diet and exercise are the early days before we develop new good habits.

In the same way, switching from a diet of fluffy books to more challenging material will be an adjustment but so worth it. And in studying the Word, going through books of the Bible, there will be opportunities to address topics of gender, sexuality, morality. But the opportunities will be organic and not forced. Although we should be careful not to focus our studies of the Word so that all roads still lead to Biblical womanhood.

Which leads to my other concern: What exactly is being taught under the heading of “Biblical womanhood?” From my reading of numerous books and articles on the subject, I’m becoming more and more convinced that much of what is being taught as Biblical womanhood is actually middle/upper-class Victorian ideals that owe more to the ancient Greeks and Romans than to Scripture.

For example, the discussion of the domestic and public spheres of dominion comes not from Scripture, but from secular culture. The concept of men and women occupying separate spheres goes back to the ancient Greeks and Aristotle, but it gained popularity during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era.

The idea is that men inhabit the public sphere which includes government, business, etc. and that women inhabit the domestic sphere of child-rearing, housekeeping, and education. A popular Victorian Era poem called “The Angel in the House” exemplified the ideal Victorian woman, and the image of the wife and mother who was pious and submissive came to be referred to as “the angel in the house.”

Unfortunately, this has next to nothing to do with the Bible. Aristotle’s idea, which carried over into the Victorian Era, and into modern Biblical Patriarchy, was that women are by nature inferior to men. However, even these Victorian/Greek ideals only ever applied to the rich and powerful. Women slaves and servants were necessary to keep the system running, and these women were not afforded the same protections or respect. They were not held up as examples of womanhood.

The same is true today. Women who work outside the home to help provide for their families are shamed for not living up to the impossible standards set by those who have the time and money to write books about what Biblical womanhood looks like.

Our study of the Bible and our application of it should be timeless and cross-cultural. A young Christian woman in the US should realize that she has more in common with an elderly Christian man in Asia than she does with the non-Christian women in her neighborhood. And the only way she’s going to recognize that is if she is steeped in the Word.

What if what we’re teaching women under the heading of “Biblical womanhood” isn’t substantially different from what they could get from other religions? For example, here are some quotes from Helen Andelin’s book, Fascinating Womanhood. It is extremely popular in certain circles. It attempts to teach women how to be good wives. The catch is that Andelin is Mormon. Do any of these quotes sound familiar?

The masculine and feminine roles, clearly defined above, are not merely a result of custom or tradition, but are of divine origin. It was God who placed the man at the head of the family when he told Eve, “Thy desire shall be unto thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The man was also designed to be the protector, since he was given stronger muscles, greater physical endurance, and manly courage. In addition, God commanded him to earn the living when he said, “In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return to the ground.” This instruction was given to the man, not to the woman.  (p. 124).

The woman was given a different assignment, that of helpmeet, mother, homemaker. (p. 124).

Her homemaking role is assumed: She must nurture her young and run the household, to free her husband to function as the provider. (Gen. 2: 18) (pp. 124-125).

The masculine and feminine roles are different in function but equal in importance. … They are complementary. (p. 125).

Contrary to much of what is taught as “Biblical womanhood” the greatest problem for women is not that they don’t submit. According to the Bible, the greatest problem for women is that we are sinners and that apart from Christ we are separated from God and have earned eternal punishment for our sins. That is our fundamental problem.

And the solution isn’t that if women submit then there will be peace on Earth. The solution is found in salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone. This is of first importance. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians:

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4, NASB).

I’m concerned that our focus on Biblical womanhood in women’s Bible studies has put us in danger of forgetting the gospel. We are saved by the blood of Christ, not by adherence to a standard of womanhood that may or may not be Biblical. If we are not teaching Christ, crucified and resurrected, we are not helping the women in our churches. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach on topics related to sexuality, gender, morality, marriage, but maybe we should watch what percentage of our time is devoted to these versus the rest of Scripture.

I am very concerned for the women in our churches. They need to be taught the full counsel of God. They need to know the Word of God fully. They need more than a truncated version of the gospel that focuses mainly on “Biblical womanhood.” Let’s teach women to study the Word, to love the Word, and to apply the Word. All of the Word. 

I’m thankful to be in a church where the women study the Word faithfully and the leaders of the church encourage it. I wish that all churches were this way.

Anxiety: My Thorn in My Flesh

I woke up last week with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Nothing, in particular, was wrong, but that didn’t stop my mind from racing through every possible thing that I could worry about. And then it latched on to something. And I began to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. And then “but, what if?” And then it latched on again. And I continued to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. Again, and again, and again. For days. Every night I’d go to sleep praying about it. Every morning I’d wake up early with the same dread, and the cycle would begin again. It was exhausting.

It’s not the first time I’ve gone through episodes of heavy anxiety. Sometimes I know when to expect them, other times they seem to come out of the blue. During the worst of the anxiety last week, I read an article that explained anxiety better than anything I’ve read before: “Anxiety: Post Traumatic Stress for Something That Never Happened… But Might.”

Concerns that any “ordinary person” would have about normal things – children, finances, career, relationships, health – skyrocket. Your mind immediately imagines the worst possible outcomes of reasonable concerns. A loop of anxiety that begins with an initial surge of panic and ends in the replay of catastrophic outcomes runs in your mind. This cycle is repeated dozens of times in a given day and you cannot make it stop. As much as you try, you’re unable to let go of things “like normal people do.” Once your mind locks on to something its nearly impossible to get it loose. Someone captured the sensation of acute anxiety as a relentless “embracing of dread.” It comes complete with physiological effects; shortness of breathe, increased heart rate, disorientation, exhaustion.

Can I tell you the encouragement in knowing I’m not alone, that I’m not the only one who feels this way? After sharing the article with friends, I realized that the struggle with anxiety is something that many, many people have in common. I decided to write about my experience with anxiety and some of the coping techniques I have found helpful.

First, I want to address some myths about anxiety.

  • Anxiety is just a lack of trust in God. I’d be the first to agree that I don’t trust God as I should, none of us do. But anxiety is much more than a lack of faith or trust. I want nothing more than to lay every anxious thought at the foot of the cross and allow God to handle it all. But that doesn’t make the anxiety go away.
  • Anxiety is all in your head. Anxiety involves your whole body. It’s not simply thinking worrying thoughts. And many times addressing anxiety means addressing your whole body.
  • Anxiety is just “spiritual”. Again anxiety involves your whole being. There is a spiritual aspect that must be addressed, but it’s not as simple as praying and reading your Bible more and you’ll be anxiety free.
  • Anxiety is sin. Because our whole beings are affected by sin, sin will always be a part of what we do and what we struggle with. Sin can make us anxious. The effects of sin can make us anxious. And our fallen bodies can struggle with anxiety regardless of how strong our faith is. We can sin in our anxiety, but anxiety itself may or may not be the result of particular sin.
  • Christians shouldn’t use anxiety medications. This one is a touchy issue. There are many people who are strongly against the use of medications to treat depression and anxiety. However, there is good research that suggests that medications are necessary and helpful for addressing the physical/biological aspect of depression/anxiety. We don’t stigmatize diabetics for needing insulin. We should be as kind to those suffering from anxiety and depression.

Second, I would like to give a little advice to anyone currently struggling with anxiety. There are many, many physical and hormonal imbalances that can cause us to be anxious. Low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B-12, and magnesium can lead to high levels of anxiety. For women particularly, low progesterone levels can cause all kinds of problems and especially bad anxiety. For men, low testosterone can cause both anxiety and depression. Thyroid is another big contributor to anxiety levels.

My advice is to get your doctor to test your levels. If your anxiety levels make going to the doctor extremely hard, I feel your pain. Regarding avoiding doctors, my approach is often like Jane Eyre: “I must keep in good health and not die.” But these vitamin and hormone problems can be fairly easy to treat and are worth pursuing. It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether anxiety medications might be helpful for you. I realize the hypocrisy of me saying this since I haven’t gotten up the nerve to do so. Yet.

Even with treating the underlying causes of your anxiety, you may continue to struggle with anxiety. What I want to talk about next are some of the practical things that I’ve found helpful in fighting the good fight against anxiety. These are not meant as replacements for medication or medical treatment. They are simply ways of coping.

  • Destress your life. I know that we can’t always control our level of stress. Kids/parents get sick and need help. Crises arise. Life is tough. But where we can reduce unnecessary stress, it is helpful to do so. Sometimes it means saying no and not overextending yourself. Knowing and acknowledging our limits is a good thing.
  • Rest. Our society does not like to rest. We push and push and push until we drop. Our bodies and minds and souls need rest. We were created to rest. It reminds us that we do have limits and that’s a good thing.
  • Exercise. Our bodies were also created to work and work physically. I’m not suggesting we all need to run a marathon, but regular exercise is a good way to combat anxiety. Several friends recommended gardening as a type of exercise which goes well with my next point.
  • Get outside. Living in the land of eternal summer, it’s often too hot to be out much here. But getting outside even for short periods of time can be very helpful in dealing with anxiety. It does us good to get away from all the electronics in our lives. Granted, with wifi, we can take them with us, but maybe leave those at home and go for a walk.
  • Limit your time on social media. Many new studies show the negative effects on our mental health in spending so much time online. We fear missing out. We get depressed by how much better others’ lives seem to be going. We worry over every piece of news, real or “alternative”. We spread ourselves too thin.
  • Eat well. This is not a plug for any particular diet or fad. Eat regular meals of real food. Our bodies need fuel and running on caffeine, chocolate, fries, and alcohol will take a toll. Not to say anything is inherently wrong with those things, just that all things should be done in moderation. We need balance.
  • Talk to a trusted friend. Everyone who struggles with anxiety and the cycle of intrusive worries needs a safe person to talk to, someone who can listen and encourage. It’s so important to have someone you can tell about the “crazy” and know they aren’t actually thinking you’re crazy.
  • Hug someone. We were created for community, and we need physical affection. Hugs from friends or from our kids or from our spouses can be calming and encouraging. It’s a reminder that we’re loved.
  • Pray. I know it seems obvious, right? Of course, we should pray. But in the grip of anxiety, it’s often extremely hard to remember to pray. We have a God who hears us and who cares. He’s called us to cast every anxiety on him (1 Peter 5:7). He’s told us not to worry about tomorrow because He is sovereign (Matthew 6:25ff). He’s told us to be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6). He’s promised us His peace (John 14:27).
  • Read the Scriptures. There is a great comfort to be found in the words of the Bible. The passages above are all great places to start when addressing anxiety. My go-to place is Psalms. As Christina Fox wrote in A Heart Set Free:

In fact, the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament, give us a structure for how to express our feelings. They remind us what is true. They point us to God’s love and faithfulness. They help us journey through the dark valleys until we can emerge on the other side and bow in grateful worship. (17)

  • Sing or listen to hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. Music speaks to my heart and soul. In my times of deepest struggles, there are many hymns and songs that have ministered to me. These words come back to me again and again. I’m convinced that many of the hymn and song writers have struggled with anxiety and depression. Some of my favorites are hymns such as Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, Jesus I am Resting, Resting, I Need Thee Every Hour, Blessed Assurance. There are many songs by Indelible Grace that have helped me. Some of them are Give to the Wind Thy Fears, Dear Refuge of My Weary SoulPoor Sinner Dejected With FearPensive Doubting Fearful Heart. Sandra McCracken is one of my favorites. Her Psalms album is excellent: My Help, My God (Psalm 42). JJ Heller is another favorite. So many of her songs have encouraged me: Have Mercy On Me. To lift my spirits, I really enjoy Rend Collective Experiment: Joy Of The Lord.
  • Do something for someone else. In my experience, anxiety tends to be very introspective. It can help to shift your focus from your fears to doing something productive for someone else.
  • Remember your own history. If anxiety isn’t a new struggle for you, it can help to remember that you’ve been through these struggles before. It helps me to remember that I’ve felt this way before, that the intensity of the struggle did pass, and that I did feel better again. It also helps me to reflect on my track record of being anxious over things that turned out to be nothing. My anxious feelings aren’t the best indicator of actual problems.
  • Remember your God. For all that is changeable and uncertain in the world and in my life, one thing is secure. God is my refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1). No one can pluck me from His hand (John 10:28-30). Nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8:31-39), not even my “what ifs”. He will never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). And these promises are true for every one of His children.

There is much more that could be said about fighting anxiety, and many good books have been written on the subject. This is not an exhaustive list, just some encouragement from one anxious Christian to another. Feel free to comment and add any encouragement you might have that I didn’t discuss.

A few things I’d like to encourage you to remember.

  • You are not a bad Christian because you struggle with anxiety and/or depression. Many strong believers have struggled before: Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, to name a few.
  • While we shouldn’t ignore our feelings and intuition, we need to remember that our anxious feelings lie to us.
  • You are not a weak person because you struggle with anxiety. Everyone struggles with something.
  • You aren’t going crazy, although anxiety can make you feel that way.
  • God isn’t punishing you.
  • God hasn’t forgotten you.
  • God will not abandon you.

One day, this struggle will end. Maybe on this side of glory, but maybe not. By God’s grace, a day is coming when everything will be made new and there will be no more tears or sadness (Revelation 21). Until that day, God will give you the grace and strength and mercy to fight each day. Like manna, that grace comes with enough for today and a promise for more for tomorrow. Don’t give up hope.

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NASB

#clarityforthegospel

During a recent discussion, Valerie Hobbs and I realized that we share a concern about the pitfalls of social media, especially for church leaders. What follows is an article we wrote together addressing this concern.


Some people love twitter. Some people hate it. It seems everyone at least has an opinion about it. Writes Joe Nocera,

So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things.

Beyond stupid, Twitter users can be mean, hateful even. It is a place where bullies can build a platform and quickly assemble a mob.

Still, we’ve seen some amazing one-liners on Twitter, mostly from people who intuitively understand how to operate within Twitter’s limitations to craft something clever, funny, or sharp. Who can forget this gem, for instance?

And of course, it isn’t just the funny one-liner that is successful on Twitter. This tweet, like all good tweets, effectively packs volumes into a short space.

But how effective is Twitter at expressing complex concepts? Many of us Christians, including our own esteemed theologians, tweet complex ideas, but the results are often poor. Perhaps you too have seen exchanges that go something like this:

  • Pastor/theologian/Christian author/blogger tweets a complex theological concept in an ambiguous way, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
  • Readers/followers ask questions, challenge, push back on the ambiguity. “What on earth are you talking about?”, “This could be dangerous!”, “Did you mean it in this (heretical) way?”
  • Tweeter: “I shouldn’t have to respond to these challenges.”, “Obviously, I didn’t mean it like that!”, “Get a life. It’s Twitter.”, [tweets 10 clarifying responses]

Admittedly, Twitter would be a much friendlier place if we all read with charity to a greater extent. But then again, when it comes to the Gospel, clarity and precision are pretty important. The devil is in the details, as they say. If you don’t believe that, here’s a helpful use of Twitter which makes the same point:

The most obvious sources of the mismatch between Twitter and theology are points already mentioned: lack of skill in using a limited space to express complex ideas and, of course, our own sinful natures. That is, some people enjoy stirring up trouble. They like the attention, and they think they can get away with it online. But there’s another factor in the mix that scholars researching and writing about social media have identified: context collapse.

Context collapse “refers to the audiences possible online as opposed to limited groups we normally interact with in face-to-face interactions” (source). Put simply, it refers to the lack of boundaries in many social media contexts, particularly Twitter, as all posts are public. In most of our off-line interactions, social boundaries allow us to assume shared knowledge. When we are with our friends, for instance, we can use a shared vocabulary. We can assume, to some extent, that people we talk to know us in that context, what we are like, the meanings of our words, what we believe and don’t believe.

On Facebook, some users attempt to recreate these social boundaries by setting up sub-groups or private groups. Even still, for those Facebook users who keep their account public or who have hundreds of acquaintances they don’t know personally, context collapse is a significant issue to contend with.

Context collapse means that tweets and posts for a public audience cannot require much assumed knowledge. When we tweet, we cannot assume that readers have much knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, and whether or not we hold dangerous theological views.

No doubt close friends and those who’ve read all of our work and who interact with us frequently can see our tweets in light of that shared context. But most people reading our tweets cannot do that. And it is dangerous to assume otherwise as we run the risk of leading people astray. This is particularly true when it comes to theology. Mascall writes,

To avoid vagueness and ambiguity is even more of a duty in popular work than in learned treatise. The very fact that the Christian mysteries in their profundity outstrip our finite powers of comprehension makes it all the more important for us to express the limited grasp which we have of them with all the clarity and accuracy at our command, while fully recognising how very imperfect and partial our grasp of them is.

So how can we tweet about theology in a responsible way?

Get off Twitter.

No, really. How can we tweet responsibly, especially about theology, in light of collapsed context? We should aim for clarity, edification, and self-control.

1. Seek clarity in your tweeting.

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37, NASB)

Remembering that anyone might read and misunderstand what we’ve written, we need to be as clear as possible. Our speech should be open and honest. We should not give anyone cause to doubt our words or cause to question our orthodoxy. While it’s true that anything has the potential to be misunderstood and that no one can prevent that from happening all the time, our goal should be clarity.

How does this apply to Twitter? Retweeting quotes or snippets from sermons or conference talks without the context may lead to confusion. You understood what was meant, but is the tweeted quote clear to someone who wasn’t there?

The same question should be asked when attempting to tweet about a complex theological concept. Is your tweet clear or is it likely to be misunderstood? We’re aiming for sharing the light of the gospel, not muddying the waters. If the concept is particularly complex, maybe it would be better to write more on it elsewhere and link to it through Twitter.

2. Seek to edify with your tweets.

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear … But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” (Eph. 4:29; Eph. 5:3-4, NASB)

It can be tempting to think that Twitter is fairly anonymous and that no one much will notice what you tweet, comment on, or “like” online. In truth, our words and actions are there for the world to see, and people are watching. People will not always agree with us, and the gospel itself will sometimes be offensive to others. But our words should be edifying, should give grace, and should glorify God. We’re not saying we can’t joke or tease. What we are instead saying is that our teasing shouldn’t be crude, and our jokes shouldn’t be double entendres.

Thom Rainer has a recent article “Five Reasons Why Pastors Are Getting Fired Because of Their Social Media Posts.” (source) In it he notes:

Unsavory comments. A pastor or church staff member making lewd or suggestive comments on social media gains nothing, even if it’s a quote from a movie or someone else. The consequences are always negative.

How does this apply to Twitter use? Be careful what you “like” and retweet. Consider how your jokes and things you respond to online might be viewed by others. We used to say, “Never write anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.” Now that the whole world can see what we write, consider this: If someone only or mainly knew you from your tweets, etc, what would their overall impression of you be?

It may seem harsh or unfair to have to police yourself so strongly. But when we are known to be Christians and especially known to be pastors or elders, we will be held to a higher standard. James tells us that this is the way life is.

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB)

3. Finally, exercise self-control in your tweeting.

“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:2-10, NASB)

Self-control is included in the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Most often we hear it discussed in conversations about gluttony or sexuality. But it also applies to our behavior online. In fact, it’s the key to this whole discussion.

When we are self-controlled, we are likely to be clearer because we won’t be quick to speak and slow to think. When we’re in control of ourselves, we aren’t likely to be crude or inappropriate. And when we’re self-controlled, we are less likely to stir up trouble.

How does this apply to Twitter? As noted earlier, some pastors/elders/theologians appear to tweet intentionally ambiguous or provocative statements. They seem to enjoy the ensuing firestorm. This is a lack of self-control.

There are many temptations on Twitter to act and react without thought. As James points out, our tongues are hard to tame. It helps if we remember that those people on Twitter who provoke us and tempt us to respond in anger or in ugliness are people made in the likeness of God.

And if the struggle to control yourself is too much? Then maybe it is time to get off Twitter.

The Desire of the Woman: A Response to Susan Foh’s Interpretation

In 1974, Susan Foh wrote an article for the Westminster Theological Journal on the meaning of Genesis 3:16, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” From the beginning, Foh’s article was intended as a response to the 2nd wave feminist movement. The article begins, “The current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman” (376). Her focus in the article was how to interpret the second half of Genesis 3:16: “Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” (NASB)

For such a short article, it has had a profound influence on conservative Christian teaching. 40 years later, numerous books, articles, sermons, and even Bible translations have adopted Foh’s unique interpretation of Genesis 3:16. Even those who swear they’ve never heard of Susan Foh teach her interpretation as if it is the best or only understanding of the passage.

My concern is that Foh’s interpretation is an example of eisegesis with dangerous implications. I’m always wary of “novel” or “unique” interpretations of Scripture especially when they arise in response to some contemporary situation. What I’d like to do here is summarize Foh’s main points and then lay out my objections to her article.

Foh begins her article with 3 common interpretations of the woman’s desire. They are:

  1. Sexual desire: “. . . thy desire shall be to thy husband– thou shalt not be able to shun great pain and peril for childbearing, for thy desire, thy appetite, shall be to thy husband. . .” (Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Kansas City, Mo., Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1967, p. 22. )
  2. Pathological craving:  “the desire that makes her the willing slave of man.” (John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (International Critical Commentary), Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1930, p.82.) or  “immense, clinging, psychological dependence on man.” ( Gini Andrews, Your Half of the Apple; God and the Single Girl, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1972, p. 51.) or “a desire bordering upon disease”  (C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, V. 1: The Pentateuch, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., n.d., p. 103. Cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, Columbus, The Wartburg Press, 1942, p. 172.)
  3. Desires made subject to her husband: “The woman’s desires are wholly subservient to her husband’s, as a result of God’s judgment.” (377)

Foh summarizes all three common interpretations: “In other words, because the woman desires the husband in some way, he is able to rule over her” (377.)  She objects to all three of these interpretations.

  1. She states that the word teshuqah (desire) has a similar root to an Arabic word that doesn’t mean sexual desire but “to urge, drive on, impel” (378).
  2. Because the husband’s rule over the wife is “part of the created order”, it can’t be part of the curse (378).
  3. Foh does not object to the interpretation that wives are to be completely subject to their husbands. “[T]he tyrannous rule of the husband seems an appropriate punishment for the woman’s sin” (379). Her objection is that there is no “hardship of punishment” in these interpretations because”a willing submission contradicts the context of judgment” and doesn’t fit “the New Testament commands to submit.” (379)

Foh then points out that teshuqah only shows up 3 times in Scripture: Genesis 3:16, Genesis 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10. She dismisses the Song of Songs occurrence by saying the context is “ambiguous” and that “it is not possible to determine the precise meaning” of teshuqah there (379). But she believes her interpretation of desire “is credible in Song of Solomon 7:10,” noting “that the immediate context is that of possession: ‘I am my beloved’s'” (379).

Having dismissed Song of Songs, Foh compares the similarities between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7. She notes, “[i]n  Genesis 4:7 sin’s desire is to enslave Cain — to possess or control him, but the Lord commands, urges Cain to overpower” (380). Foh points out that other commentaries have addressed the similarity, but that they neglect the context and don’t arrive at her conclusions on interpreting the meaning of desire.

Foh’s interpretation is that the desire in Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 is the same, “a desire to possess or control” (381) and that Adam’s command is the same as Cain’s, “to rule over” (382). Thus, Foh interprets the woman’s desire to be a desire to usurp or control her husband:

These words mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes. As a result of the fall, man no longer rules easily; he must fight for his headship. Sin has corrupted both the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the husband. The woman’s desire is to control her husband (to usurp his divinely appointed headship, and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination. (382)

Foh believes this interpretation is borne out by experience. She believes that if “he shall rule over you” was meant as an indicative, then it’s false because Cain didn’t rule sin and not all husbands rule their wives. She also points out that not all wives desire their husbands contrary to other common interpretations of the text. In contrast to those interpretations, she states:

The two clauses, “and your desire to control shall be to your husband” and “but he should master you,” are antithetical. (382)

Therefore, the proper way to interpret the passage is:

Her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife. (383)

Foh gives four reasons to support her interpretation over others:

  1. “It is consistent with the context” (383). The husband’s rule is made harsh because of the wife’s attempts to usurp control.
  2. It’s a consistent interpretation for the uses of teshuqah in the Old Testament
  3. The parallel between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 is highlighted.
  4. “It explains the fact that husbands do not rule their wives as a result of God’s proclamation in Genesis 3:16b” (383).

Ultimately, Foh believes that Genesis 3:16b can’t be an indicative statement that husbands will rule their wives because not all husbands rule their wives, and “if God states that something will come to pass it will.”

That ends the summary of Foh’s argument for her interpretation of the woman’s desire. As I said at the beginning, I’m wary of new and novel interpretations. The fact that Foh’s interpretation was motivated by a desire to combat feminism in the church is concerning, especially since it is still used for that purpose today. Our doctrine should not be reactive. We might need to seek the Scriptures to determine how to address new challenges and issues, but we don’t need to change our understanding of passages in reaction to those challenges.

Foh’s article demonstrates sloppy research, weak and inconsistent reasoning, and poor exegesis. She misrepresents the three common interpretations of the woman’s desire by reducing them to a cause and effect (the wife’s desire makes the husband’s rule possible) that she then argues against.

Foh dismisses a sexual component to the woman’s desire by using an Arabic word with a similar root to determine the proper meaning of teshuqah. This is poor exegesis as it relies primarily on extrabiblical sources instead of using Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Foh states that “[t]he rule of the husband, per se, is not a result of or punishment for sin” (378). I agree, however, I would argue that neither is the wife’s desire. Like childbirth and work, the wife’s desire and the husband’s headship are pre-Fall realities. All are affected by the Fall. Childbirth would be painful, work would be hard, wives would desire their husbands, and their husbands would rule over them. It’s inconsistent to argue that of all four only the wife’s desire is new and the result of sin.

Foh clearly likes the idea of “tyrannous rule” as a punishment for woman’s sin, but only if a wife is forced to submit. It is disturbing that she believes a husband’s tyranny would be an appropriate punishment for his wife’s sin. Nowhere in her article is there any mention of God’s grace or mercy in forgiving sin. There is also no mention of Christ or salvation or the gospel, which is striking given that God promises a Savior in Genesis 3:15 directly preceding the passage in question.

Since the word teshuqah only appears 3 times in Scripture, it seems inappropriate to dismiss one of the occurrences when attempting to determine the meaning of the word. Following after this passage in Song of Songs, it’s hard to agree with Foh that the meaning of desire is ambiguous. It is clearly a desire that includes sexual longing:

“Your head crowns you like Carmel,
And the flowing locks of your head are like purple threads;
The king is captivated by your tresses.
“How beautiful and how delightful you are,
My love, with all your charms!
Your stature is like a palm tree,
And your breasts are like its clusters.
“I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree,
I will take hold of its fruit stalks.’
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
And the fragrance of your breath like apples,
And your mouth like the best wine!”
“It goes down smoothly for my beloved,
Flowing gently through the lips of those who fall asleep.
“I am my beloved’s,
And his desire is for me.”(Song of Songs 7:5-9, NASB)

Despite Foh’s assurances, her interpretation of desire is not “credible” in this passage. Controlling, contending with, and usurping are not possible meanings of desire in Song of Songs. There is no context in which desire in Song of Songs can be so negatively interpreted without doing violence to the passage.

Having limited the possible occurrences to Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7, Foh discusses the similarities in the Hebrew between the two passages. It’s true, of course, that there are similarities in the words used. However, I believe that Foh forces a parallel between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 beyond what is clear from the text.

For example, the woman does not equal sin. Pastor and Hebrew professor, Sam Powell, explains in his article on Genesis 3:16:

The fact is “sin” and women are not the same thing, and their desires are not the same thing. I wonder why we make the assumption that women’s desires are always for domination and manipulation even when the text doesn’t say so. Simply saying “Sin desires to manipulate and dominate and since the same preposition is used this applies to the woman as well” simply will not cut it. That’s not how language works.

Another striking difference between the two passages is that Genesis 3:16 is not addressed to Adam, it’s addressed to Eve. Adam is not being told to master sin/Eve. Eve is being told how the curse will change life for her. If the woman’s desire means she will try to control the man and that the man must master her, then all of the curses, except for pain in childbearing, are addressed to Adam. If that is true, we lose the parallel between the curse for the man and the curse for the woman.

As far as Foh’s explanation that sin’s desire is to enslave Cain, Cain, as a son of Adam, was already a slave to sin. Cain was certainly being tempted to sin in a way he had not yet sinned. But the only way he could have mastered it would have been to turn to God. In himself, Cain could not have mastered sin. Foh’s interpretation of desire reads into the text.

Interestingly, Foh quotes from E.J. Young who also discusses the similarities between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7, but comes to a completely different conclusion:

As we examine the language of the Lord, we note that it is capable of two interpretations. First of all, however, it is well to compare it with the similar language in Genesis 4:7. In that verse we read, ‘and his desire is unto thee.’ The mean- ing in this context of the fourth chapter is that what sin desires is what Cain will carry out. His desire is unto Cain in the sense that Cain is a slave thereto, and must perform whatever sin’s desire may be. In the present verse Gen. 3:16 we may render, ‘and unto thy husband is thy desire.’ It is obvious that the meaning here is the reverse of what it was in the fourth chapter. Is it not clear that in this third chapter the meaning cannot be that the desire of the woman is unto the husband so that he must do what she wishes? Is it not clear that the woman is not here pictured as a despot who compels the man to do the thing she desires? Plainly this is not the meaning of the text. (Edward J. Young, Genesis 3: A Devotional and Expository Study, London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1966, p. 126-127, emphasis added)

Foh complains that Young “relies on certain presuppositions about the nature of the husband/wife relationship” (381). However, Foh has based her own interpretation on a different set of presuppositions. She presumes that all wives want to control and usurp their husbands’ leadership. That is the foundation of her interpretation. But this misses the context of the curse: the frustration of and breaking of existing conditions.

As I said before, Foh’s interpretation of desire is novel. She doesn’t cite a single commentary to support her new interpretation. What’s striking to me is that not even the early or medieval church scholars, who weren’t exactly known for being kind to women, attempted this interpretation of the woman’s desire.

Foh states that the husband must master his wife and that therefore “the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination” (382). However, if the husband’s mastery of his wife is commanded by God in the same way as Cain’s mastery of sin was, then why would the husband’s headship be tyranny and domination? Wouldn’t it be right and proper? If not, what does she think is being commanded?

In addition to the sloppy research and poor exegesis, Foh’s biggest weakness is the internal inconsistencies. She states that experience confirms her interpretation, that all women want to control their husbands. She says that “he shall rule over you” can’t be an indicative because not all husbands rule their wives.

While I’m not suggesting that wives don’t struggle with the application of appropriate submission, but in the history of the world, across centuries and countries and cultures, have men ruled over women or women over men? Foh sees no universality to husbands ruling wives, but she does think wives universally desire to usurp authority. This is contrary to the experience of most women.

Foh has fundamentally misunderstood the woman’s desire. As Barbara Roberts wrote:

Woman would desire to be cherished by her husband.

Eve would want Adam’s forgiveness and abiding love, to comfort her in her shame for having made that grievous mistake about the forbidden fruit. And more broadly, women in general would yearn for loving husbands, for cherishing and protection from their men.

Woman would long for closeness and companionship with that one special man, a closeness which would have a sexual component but it wouldn’t be limited to just sexual desire.

Eve had just been told that childbearing would now be painful. Despite that and despite the now broken relationship between her and Adam, who had moments before blamed her for his own sin, she would continue to desire her husband. And he would rule over her. This is a descriptive statement of the future of Eve and her daughters, not a prescriptive one. And that is very consistent with the experience of women across the centuries. It also fits the passage better.

Contrary to Foh’s claims, her interpretation is not more consistent with the context. It ignores Song of Songs 7:10. And it forces a parallel with between the two Genesis passages even when there are strong dissimilarities. As Foh points out, Cain didn’t win against sin. Does she mean to imply that neither will husbands?

Foh also misses out on the mercy and hope in the passage. As Matthew Henry points out in his commentary on Genesis 3:

Observe here how mercy is mixed with wrath in this sentence. The woman shall have sorrow, but it shall be in bringing forth children, and the sorrow shall be forgotten for joy that a child is born,Jn. 16:21 . She shall be subject, but it shall be to her own husband that loves her, not to a stranger, or an enemy: the sentence was not a curse, to bring her to ruin, but a chastisement, to bring her to repentance. It was well that enmity was not put between the man and the woman, as there was between the serpent and the woman. (emphasis added)

Foh’s interpretation of Genesis does exactly what Henry rejoices wasn’t done in the passage. She puts enmity between the man and the woman. And that is the great danger inherent in her interpretation and in those who have adopted it. Foh’s interpretation of desire creates, maintains, establishes an inherently antagonistic relationship between husbands and wives and between men and women in general. And all in a desire to bolster support for male headship in the home and the church.

The problem is we don’t need to change the meaning of Genesis 3:16 in order to teach a husband’s headship and a wife’s submission. There are plenty of New Testament passages that do so clearly. There are also several passages that teach the ordination of qualified male pastors and elders. Foh’s interpretation is completely unnecessary and extremely harmful.

I can’t count the number of modern resources that promote the teaching that a woman’s desire is to control her husband. It’s everywhere, whether or not they acknowledge Foh. It’s even been made an official translation of the passage.

So many women (and men) have been hurt by this kind of teaching. When women are inherently desirous of controlling their husbands and husbands are commanded to master such rebellion, it creates a system ripe for abuse to flourish. How is a Christian husband going to show love sacrificially to his wife if he believes his wife is trying to usurp control and that it’s his responsibility to rule her? How is a Christian wife going to submit to her husband as the church to Christ if she knows he views her with such suspicion?

Foh’s interpretation is unnecessary and dangerous. And the irony is not lost on me that so many men who believe that women desire to control men would continue to promote this unique translation which was written by a woman.

May we put aside such harmful teaching and seek to love each other and build each other up in light of the gospel. Men and women were cursed in the Fall. Our relationships with God and with each other were broken and damaged. But that’s not the end of the story! God in His great mercy and love has sent us His own Son to save us from our sins, to restore us to fellowship with Him, and to redeem even our broken relationships with each other.

For this reason, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially putting her needs before his own. And wives are to submit to their husbands as the church to Christ. In all things, we are to show each other love and tenderness and respect, because we are joint heirs, brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is my prayer that more people would reject Foh’s novel interpretation and seek to repair the damage that it has done on men, women, families, the church, and society.

A Bible Reading Plan and Bible Study for the New Year

For the last several years, I have been reading the Bible through each year. I’ve used several different plans, and there are elements of each that I’ve really enjoyed. But last year I wanted to do something different. I like the idea of reading each book through so that you get a good feel for the flow of the book. But I really don’t like to wait until the last third of the year to read the New Testament. I love reading the Wisdom Literature, but I think I appreciate them more in smaller portions.

So, after looking through the various Bible reading plans available, I decided to create my own. There’s a decent chance that someone has made one just like this already. If so, please let me know. I’d be glad to share it.

My plan alternates between Old Testament and New Testament books, but completes one book at a time. On the weekends, my plan has readings from the Psalms on Saturdays and a chapter from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Song of Songs on Sundays.

I attempted to portion out the readings so that it wouldn’t be too much for any one day, but I may need to adjust the readings as I go through it this year. Below you’ll find a link to the pdf document with the full reading plan.

A Daughter of the Reformation Bible Reading Plan

I’m also planning to use Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible to supplement my reading. I’m hoping that the combination of Bible reading and Bible study will be helpful this year. I’d love to hear what your plans are for the year.

Grudem and Ware Double Down on the Eternal Subordination of the Son

Last month at the annual ETS meeting, the topic of the conference was the Trinity. Given the debate this summer over ESS/EFS/ERAS, it was an excellent topic and very timely. One of the highlights of the meeting was a panel discussion, “Submission and Subordination in the Trinity” featuring Dr. Kevin Giles, Dr. Bruce Ware, Dr. Millard Erickson, and Dr. Wayne Grudem. You can purchase the audio for these sessions here.

After listening to the sessions, I wanted to give a short summary for those who might be interested and also a few of my own reflections. There was not a lot of new material covered, but some points are worth highlighting. Of particular note is that Drs. Ware and Grudem stated that they now hold to the Nicene language of Eternal Generation of the Son.  After the summaries, I’ll explain why I’m still concerned about their commitment to Nicene orthodoxy.

Dr. Kevin Giles spoke first. His topic was “What is the Trinity Debate All About? A Reformed Confessional Perspective.” The full paper is available here. Dr. Giles is an ordained Anglican minister and has written many books on the Trinity. In his talk, Dr. Giles focused on the Nicene and Reformed doctrine of the Trinity.

He noted that the division that was made clear in this summer’s debate is between creedal/confessional evangelicals and non-creedal/confessional evangelicals. It was not between egalitarians and complementarians. He stated his belief that the doctrine of the Trinity is not about the relationship between the sexes. He went on to say that Drs. Ware and Grudem are not historically orthodox as defined by the Nicene creed.

Dr. Giles gave seven ways in which Drs. Ware and Grudem are outside the Nicene formulations in their teachings on the Trinity:

1. In the Nicene creed, the Son is called “Lord.” This is equating Him with YHWH. If the Son is Lord, then He is supreme and co-ruler. There is no difference in authority between the Son and the Father. Drs. Grudem and Ware contradict the Nicene creed in stating that the Father and Son are eternally different in authority.

2. The Nicene creed uses the term “begotten” to describe the Son. This is from the word monogenes. The creed uses the term in order to combat the Arian heresy that taught that the Son was subordinate to the Father because human sons are subordinate to their fathers. Jesus’ sonship is not like human sonship. The Father and Son are not defined by human experience. In Scriptures, the title Son of God is speaking about His kingly status, not subordination. Drs. Ware and Grudem contradict the Nicene creed by arguing that Jesus is a son like human sons therefore subordinate to the Father. Dr. Giles quotes Dr. Robert Letham:

“The Arian argument that human sons are subordinate to their fathers led to their contention that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The church rejected the conclusion as heretical and opposed the premise as mistaken. Rather, [it taught], the Son is equal with the Father in status, power and glory”. (“Eternal Generation”, in, One God, 122.)

3. In the Nicene creed, eternal generation is essential. The only difference between the Father and the Son is begetting. Drs. Ware and Grudem contradicted the Nicene creed in their denial of eternal generation. [Note: Dr. Giles spoke first in the panel discussion and so was not aware that Drs. Ware and Grudem would go on to affirm eternal generation in their talks.]

4. The Nicene formulation for the Son, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God,” explain that the Son is everything that the Father is, but He’s not the Father. Being “from the Father” does not make the Son inferior or subordinate to the Father in any way. Drs. Ware and Grudem use the doctrine of eternal begetting to teach the Eternal Subordination of the Son. However, Dr. Giles explained that eternal generation, instead of supporting ESS, “Son teaches the eternal co-equality of God the Father and God the Son.”

5. In the Nicene creed, the word “homoousius” is used to signify that the Son is one in being with the Father. There is only one divine will, not three wills. God is undivided, and all three persons share the same authority and glory. Drs. Grudem and Ware affirm homoousius, but divide God into the Father who rules and the Son who obeys which leads to multiple wills.

6. The Nicene creed explains that the Son is through whom all was created. The fundamental division is between the Creator and the created. The Son is co-creator with the Father. Drs. Grudem and Ware teach that the Son creates under the authority of the Father or at the direction of the Father. This is contrary to the Nicene formulation which teaches an order or taxis that differentiates but does not subordinate. There is order but not hierarchy in the Trinity.

7. The Nicene creed speaks of the incarnation of the Son. Dr. Giles referenced Phil. 2:4-11 to explain that the incarnation of the Son is “the willing and self-chosen subordination and subjection of the Son for our salvation.” The subordination and obedience of Jesus, the God-man, should not be read back into the eternal life of God. This is precisely what the writers of the Nicene creed were protecting against.

Dr. Giles concluded that ESS is not the historic teaching of the church. All of the Reformed and Post-Reformation confessions of faith exclude ESS. God is three persons equal in being and power. Dr. Giles mentioned a quote from the Second Heveltic Confession from 1566 which specifically denies any subordination:

We also condemn all heresies and heretics who teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are God in name only, and also that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or a less, something corporeal or corporeally conceived, something different with respect to character or will, something mixed or solitary, as if the Son and Holy Spirit were the affections and properties of one God the Father, as the Monarchians, Novatians, Praxeas, Patripassians, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, Aetius, Macedonius, Anthropomorphites, Arius, and such like, have thought.

Dr. Giles also noted that the divine terms “power” and “authority” are synonyms in New Testament usage. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in power and glory. This is contrary to Dr. Ware who states that the Father has the ultimate supremacy and highest glory.

Dr. Bruce Ware spoke next. His talk was on “The Nature of the Priority of the Father within the Trinity: Biblical Basis and Importance.” Dr. Ware is Professor of Christian Theology at SBTS. He has also authored a number of books including ones on the Trinity. In his talk, he focused on the Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission (ERAS).

Dr. Ware began his talk by explaining that he now affirms the eternal generation of the Son and begottenness. He said that he gave it much thought after the debate this summer and now understands that the only way the Father is eternally Father and the Son is eternally Son is if the Father begets the Son. He said that the affirms the Nicene creed, “as I believe it was intended by the authors.” He then gave a fully Nicene definition of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in terms of begottenness and procession.

Dr. Ware went on to explain that these eternal relations of origin are what ground the functional relations within the Godhead. The names Father and Son are not true just of the economic Trinity. They are eternally functional relationships that necessarily follow from the ontological reality.

Because the Father is eternally Father he acts in a manner fitting the Father: always paternal- planning, designing, commanding, sending, purposing, willing, etc. The Son acts in was fitting as the Son: obeying, going, doing, accomplishing, working all that the Father gives Him to do. The Spirit as an agent of the Son fulfills work assigned by the Father: assisting, empowering, enlivening, acting all that the Father and Son have directed Him to do. He quoted Calvin on the distinctions of the Trinity:

“It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity….The observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:13.18, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:142-43.)

Dr. Ware said that what we see in the economy activity of the Trinity is rooted in their ontological identities. This is carried out in the framework of authority and submission. The Father as Father expresses authority in planning, initiating, sending. The Son as Son expresses submission in embracing, responding, going. The Spirit as Spirit expresses further submissive support in empowering, assisting, completing.

Dr. Ware explained that when the early church spoke of taxis or order some saw a structure of authority and submission. Is this relationship of authority and submission merely economic and not eternal? Dr. Ware answered that it is either eternal or it is not at all. The evidence is of the Father planning, designing, sending, etc. in eternity past. What we know of the economic Trinity must reflect the ontological Trinity.

According to Dr. Ware, the Father possesses the personal property of paternal authority as expressed in the economy because in the order of subsistence He’s the Father. The Son possesses the personal property of filial submission as expressed in the economy because in the order of subsistence He’s the Son. The relationship of authority and submission is eternal because if what we see in the economy isn’t true of the immanent Trinity, then it questions the self-revelation of God.

Dr. Ware is concerned that God not be strikingly different than revealed. What God has shown us in the economy is Himself. Therefore the economy is truly immanent. Dr. Ware appealed to the divine names, Father and Son, as supporting the eternality of authority and submission. He said that the relationship of Father and Son in the Trinity is more than authority and submission, but that “at the heart of what it means for the Father to be Father and the Son to be Son is a full and joyous obedience of the Son to the Father.”

Dr. Ware concluded with an affirmation of the Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission (ERAS). He repeated that the economic is rooted in and expressive of the eternal relationship of origin.

Dr. Millard Erickson was the third to speak. His talk was on ” Language, Logic, and Trinity: An Analysis of Recent Subordination Arguments.” Dr. Erickson is Professor of Theology at Western Seminary. He has written numerous books, several on the Trinity. His talk focused on the logical errors of the ESS arguments.

Dr. Erickson began with metaphysical issues. He asked the question: is EFS/ESS functional or ontological? He answered that if the Son is eternally and necessarily subordinate, then that is an ontological statement. Drs. Ware and Grudem have made a division between God’s attributes and the personal properties of the three persons. They would say the Son is functionally subordinate but has the full divine essence.

Dr. Erickson observed that if an attribute is necessary, it is essential and therefore inseparable from nature. Drs. Ware and Grudem teach that authority and submission are inherent in the Father and Son. According to proponents of ESS, the Father has an essential attribute (authority) that the Son doesn’t have, and the Son has an essential attribute (submission) that the Father doesn’t have.

Even the use of the term “fundamental” instead of “essence” or “essential” doesn’t change the ontological nature of the argument. If authority and submission are fundamental, then the Father and the Son are fundamentally different. Calling the differences of authority and submission “relational” confuses relationship with properties. Dr. Erickson explained that if logically ESS/EFS/ERAS implies subordination of essence and one rejects subordination of essence, then one has either to reject ESS/EFS/ERAS or prove that it isn’t bad logic. And that hasn’t been proven yet.

Next, Dr. Erickson pointed out that Drs. Grudem and Ware have made statements that EFS is essential to the differences between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that without authority and submission there is no Father, Son, and Spirit. To say that the different roles of authority and submission are essential has a hidden premise. If different roles mean there must be differences of authority and submission, then that must be argued for or the conclusion doesn’t follow logically. It may be true, but it hasn’t been established.

After describing various logical fallacies that Drs. Ware and Grudem have used in the arguments for ESS/EFS/ERAS, Dr. Erickson moved on to exegetical examples. Drs. Ware and Grudem explain that Phil. 2:6-8 describes a new kind of obedience that the Son learned in the incarnation. But this is an insertion of meaning into the text.

Dr. Grudem explains that the word “intercede” in Heb. 7:25 and Rom. 8:24 always means to bring requests “to a higher authority.” However, other Greek lexicons don’t add the meaning of “to a higher authority.” Drs. Ware and Grudem also use passages that describe Jesus’ earthly ministry as proof of an eternal relationship of authority and submission between the Father and the Son. This assumes rather than argues the point.

Dr. Erickson explained that there is great danger in conflating the economic and immanent Trinity. There have to be differences between Jesus as incarnate God-man and the Son prior to the incarnation. For example, was Jesus capable of being tempted before the incarnation?

Dr. Erickson concluded with discussing the nature of the interpretive principle. If our interpretation is valid, it must be applicable to similar cases. For example, Dr. Grudem in arguing for ERAS says that Jesus uses the term “Father” for God, therefore, authority and submission is intended. In a parallel passage in John 20:17, Jesus states “my Father and your Father” and “my God and your God.” If calling God His Father here means an eternal relationship of authority and submission, what about “my God and your God?” Is the 1st person of the Trinity eternally the 2nd person’s God?

The last speaker for the panel was Dr. Wayne Grudem. His talk was on “Why a Denial of the Son’s Eternal Submission Threatens both the Trinity and the Bible.” The notes from his talk are available here. If you listen to the audio, there is a question and answer time with all four speakers included after Dr. Grudem’s talk. Dr. Grudem is Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona and co-founder of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He has written many books including a best-selling systematic theology. His talk focused on why denying ESS/EFS/ERAS does damage both to our understanding of the Trinity and of the Bible.

The bulk of Dr. Grudem’s talk was a restating of his article, “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father.” I have dealt more fully with that article in my post, “Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father?” But I will summarize the main points here.

Dr. Grudem believes that the Son is eternally in submission to the Father. He gave the following evidence. The Son submitted to the Father before the incarnation because the names Father and Son mean that there is a relationship of authority and submission. In the ancient world, fathers had authority, even over their grown sons, for all their lives. Since the original audience for Scriptures would have understood the names Father and Son to mean a relationship of authority and submission, then there must be an eternal relationship of authority and submission between God the Father and God the Son.

Dr. Grudem explained that contrary to his previous writings he now affirms the Nicene creed formulation of eternal generation or eternal begottenness. This is because, according to Dr. Grudem, eternal generation “provides the ontological basis for the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.”

Dr. Grudem also sees authority and submission prior to the incarnation in the planning, directing, initiating, choosing, and leading of the Father prior to and in the work of creation. The Father created through the Son, chose us in the Son, and sent the Son.

Dr. Grudem said that the Son continues to be in submission to the Father after the ascension. The Son intercedes for us, and as noted earlier, the extrabiblical evidence indicates that this is always from an inferior to a superior. The Son received authority from the Father to send the Spirit at Pentecost and to give the revelation to John in Revelation 1:1. The Son is seated at the right hand of the Father which is “never a position of equal authority, always secondary authority” in the ancient world. The Father delegates authority for the Son to judge the world after which, the Son will deliver the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The Father is the ultimate authority.

Dr. Grudem summarized his points, “The Son is always subject to the authority of the Father.” That is never reversed. “Does this consistent pattern of Scripture mean nothing for our theology?” Dr. Grudem said that those who object to ESS threaten to obliterate the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Next, Dr. Grudem quoted J.I. Packer, John Frame, Louis Berkhof, Carl F. Henry, and Jonathan Edwards as examples of theologians who taught the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. All of these quotes are available in Dr. Grudem’s article, “Another Thirteen Evangelical Theologians Who Affirm the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father” published at Reformation 21 this summer. In the talk at ETS, Dr. Grudem went on to say, “No theologian prior to modern evangelical feminism ever said eternal subordiation of the Son to the Father is unorthodox. No creed says that the Son is not eternally subject to the Father (to my knowledge.)”

Dr. Grudem then gave three clarifications. First, he explained that divine authority is not an attribute, but a property of relationship: “authority (as we understand it here) is a property of relationship, not an attribute of one’s being (an ontological attribute) (omnipotence is an attribute).” Second, there is only one divine will, but three distinct expressions of that will. Third, it’s not enough to say that the submission is eternal but not necessary. “Shall we say that God in himself is different from everything that Scripture tells us about how he acts in the world? Better to say that the economic Trinity reveals the ontological Trinity. And I think we must insist that Father and Son have eternally been Father and Son — and that those names consistently in Scripture assume a relationship in which authority belongs to the Father with respect to the Son.”

Dr. Grudem explained that opponents of ESS “undermine the doctrine of the Trinity by ‘confounding the persons’ in the Trinity.” This, he said, is contrary to the Athanasian creed. He specifically rejected the claim that every act of one person is an act of all three.

Dr. Grudem then concluded by saying that opponents of ESS undermine the authority of Scripture. They do this by failing to offer explanations for verses that seem to contradict their position and by making untruthful claims about the Scripture.

As I said at the beginning, there was not much new information covered in these talks. It was helpful and instructive to listen to them all. I will be writing more soon on some of what I learned and on the rest of my thoughts regarding what was said. But for today, I want simply to conclude with the following points that I think are most important.

First, I am glad to hear that Drs. Ware and Grudem now affirm eternal generation and eternal procession. However, by affirming it on one hand and then affirming ESS/EFS/ERAS on the other, they call into question their commitment to Nicene orthodoxy. As Dr. Giles’ talk addressed, there is more to the Nicene formulations than eternal generation. Eternal generation is not simply another way to say that God is eternally Father and Son and therefore eternally in a relationship of authority and submission.

Second, despite claims made after this summer, the terms ESS, EFS, and ERAS were used interchangeably. It does not seem that Drs. Ware and Grudem have changed fundamentally in their argument for an eternal submission of the Son to the Father.

Third, although Drs. Ware and Grudem insist that they believe that the Father and Son are equal in being, they continue to make ontological statements about the authority and submission of Father and Son. The Father “as Father” and the Son “as Son” are ontological statements. When Father means authority and Son means submission, that is making the Father and Son unequal in being.

Lastly, it is very troubling to hear Drs. Grudem and Ware attempt to separate God’s authority from His being. To make a distinction between God’s power and His authority is to separate something that no orthodox church father would have separated. God’s power, His omnipotence, includes His sovereignty, His almighty power, and His rule. 

This is expressed in Scripture in the name Almighty, which is used for both Father and Son. In the New Testament, the use of Lord as a title for Jesus expresses the same sovereignty. To deny equal authority for all three persons is to deny God’s sovereignty and omnipotence. To deny equal authority is to make the Son and the Spirit less than God or to deny that all of God is sovereign. And that is a very, very dangerous thing to deny.

So while there was some new information and it’s encouraging that Drs. Ware and Grudem have changed their minds on eternal generation, the talks indicated no fundamental change on ESS/EFS/ERAS. In fact, Drs. Ware and Grudem doubled down in their insistence on ESS/EFS/ERAS and continued to accuse those who deny ESS/EFS/ERAS of being wrong on both the Trinity and the Bible.

Answering Four Common Laymen Responses to the ESS/EFS/ERAS Debate

Brad Mason, author of guest post “Surprised by Orthodoxy: Responding to the Eternal Subordination of the Son Using the Pro-Nicene Fathers,” has written a new article and graciously allowed me to post it here. Brad is a lay member of the RCUS and a cabinet maker by trade. He’s married and has four children. In this article, Brad answers four common responses he’s heard to the ESS/EFS/ERAS debate. I’m grateful for his continued interaction with this important discussion. (All Scripture references from the ESV translation.)

 

Four Common Laymen Responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS Critics Answered
By Brad Mason

As the layman class, of which I am a member, begins to come to terms with the possibility that their Sunday School teacher may have led them astray by teaching that the Son of God has been subordinate to the Father for all eternity, recurring questions and rejoinders are nevertheless heard in small groups and church foyers across the reformed-ish world. They may have already come to terms with, for example, the multiple wills objection[1] and have become thoroughly convinced of the historical novelty of ESS/EFS/ERAS[2], even rightly concluding that the Council of Nicea and Athanasian Creed roundly contradict the teaching. But, being students of the Scripture, submitting admirably to its authority, and seeking peace within the Church of God and charity towards those who may err, I have in my experience heard the following responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS critics over and over, and have read very little direct response to these rejoinders at the popular, accessible level:

  1. “But the Father sent the Son.  This is a clear indication that the Father has greater authority than the Son.”
  2. “But the Son is not said to be ontologically subordinate, but only in a functional relation of subordination in role.”
  3. “But is this really a Gospel issue, worthy of causing division within the Church?”
  4. “But can’t we all just get back to loving each other and fostering unity?”

(Probably the other most common response would be, “But there must be some reason the Son came and submitted to the Father, and not the Father to the Son”, etc., but this has, in my opinion at least, been succinctly dealt with elsewhere at the popular level by Mark Jones.[3])

I have attempted below to deal with each of these four objections/questions in hopes that my fellow laymen in the Church might find certitude as well as a clear conscience in taking a stand against ESS/EFS/ERAS.  Of course, these answers are not exhaustive and are possibly not as persuasive as I would hope, but I pray that they may nevertheless be to the glory and honor of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, giving Him the honor He rightly deserves.

  • “But the Father sent the Son.  This is a clear indication that the Father has greater authority than the Son.”

This argument does indeed seem plausible on its face, for did not Christ say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16)? We see from the context of this passage that Christ is making the point that He is greater than His disciples, they being the sent ones and He the sender.  And this is perfectly in line with John 14:28, when Christ, having been sent, speaks of His coming return to the Father, “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I”.  We ought to thus conclude that the Father is greater than the Son in all eternity, which clearly includes having greater authority than the Son, by virtue of being the sender and not the sent; and He even looked forward to returning to the greater, the Father.  It would seem this is unassailable Biblical reasoning.

But right away it needs to be noted that this argument proves too much.  Not even the most ardent ESS/EFS/ERAS defenders are willing to say that being sent proves the Son in eternity to be less than the Father and the Father greater than the Son.  They, fortunately, do intend to stay within the language of the Athanasian Creed, “And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.”  ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents are rather arguing for an eternal functional relation of roles among the Godhead (we will discuss this claim below).  

Nevertheless, if the Bible is true, and it teaches us the sender is greater than the sent and therefore has greater authority, then why was this line to the contrary included in the great Creed of the Fathers?  How can both be true, that the Father sends the Son yet is not greater than the Son?

The answer universally[4] given by the Pro-Nicene Fathers themselves was that all passages that speak of the Father as greater than the Son are to be understood as a relation between the Father and the Son in His flesh—Christ, the God-Man.  For as the Athanasian Creed also says of the Son, He is “Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.”  This includes even His having been sent.  Gregory Nanzianzus, for example, after proving from the Scripture the full equality of the Father and the Son, says the following to the subordinationists of his day:

But in opposition to all these, do you reckon up for me the expressions which make for your ignorant arrogance, such as My God and your God, or greater, or created, or made, or sanctified; Add, if you like, Servant (Philippians 2:7) and Obedient (Philippians 2:8) and Gave (John 1:12) and Learnt, (Hebrews 5:8) and was commanded, was sent, can do nothing of Himself, either say, or judge, or give, or will. […]To give you the explanation in one sentence. What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate— yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and groveling doctrines, and learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with His Godhead, and you will not remain permanently among the things of sight, but will rise up with Him into the world of thought, and come to know which passages refer to His Nature, and which to His assumption of Human Nature.[5]

This is the principle expressed in the Athanasian Creed.  The Fathers saw clearly in their struggle with the Arians that all passages implying a greater and a lesser in the Godhead, including sending and sent, are to be accorded to Christ in His flesh, His human nature, not to that in which He is one with the Father, viz., His eternal Nature.

I think Augustine explains the relation of sender and sent among the Godhead best in his On the Trinity.  In Book 2 Ch. 5, after discussing the notion that sending proves superiority to the sent, he writes the following:

[…]perhaps our meaning will be more plainly unfolded, if we ask in what manner God sent His Son. He commanded that He should come, and He, complying with the commandment, came. Did He then request, or did He only suggest? But whichever of these it was, certainly it was done by a word, and the Word of God is the Son of God Himself. Wherefore, since the Father sent Him by a word, His being sent was the work of both the Father and His Word; therefore the same Son was sent by the Father and the Son, because the Son Himself is the Word of the Father. For who would embrace so impious an opinion as to think the Father to have uttered a word in time, in order that the eternal Son might thereby be sent and might appear in the flesh in the fullness of time? But assuredly it was in that Word of God itself which was in the beginning with God and was God, namely, in the wisdom itself of God, apart from time, at what time that wisdom must needs appear in the flesh. Therefore, since without any commencement of time, the Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, it was in the Word itself without any time, at what time the Word was to be made flesh and dwell among us. And when this fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, that is, made in time, that the Incarnate Word might appear to men; while it was in that Word Himself, apart from time, at what time this was to be done; for the order of times is in the eternal wisdom of God without time. Since, then, that the Son should appear in the flesh was wrought by both the Father and the Son, it is fitly said that He who appeared in that flesh was sent, and that He who did not appear in it, sent Him; because those things which are transacted outwardly before the bodily eyes have their existence from the inward structure (apparatu) of the spiritual nature, and on that account are fitly said to be sent. Further, that form of man which He took is the person of the Son, not also of the Father; on which account the invisible Father, together with the Son, who with the Father is invisible, is said to have sent the same Son by making Him visible. But if He became visible in such way as to cease to be invisible with the Father, that is, if the substance of the invisible Word were turned by a change and transition into a visible creature, then the Son would be so understood to be sent by the Father, that He would be found to be only sent; not also, with the Father, sending. But since He so took the form of a servant, as that the unchangeable form of God remained, it is clear that that which became apparent in the Son was done by the Father and the Son not being apparent; that is, that by the invisible Father, with the invisible Son, the same Son Himself was sent so as to be visible. Why, therefore, does He say, Neither came I of myself? This, we may now say, is said according to the form of a servant, in the same way as it is said, I judge no man.[6]

Christ, as He Himself said, was indeed less than the Father, had less authority than the Father, was even servant of the Father. But not in eternity; not as the Son of God in all eternity, not as He is one in nature with the Father, but rather according to His human nature.  It is the Sent-One that says in His flesh, “the Father is greater than I” and says, “the Father who sent me…”.  The Son was always in the world, was the Creator, was always the giver of life and light of all men (John 1), long before He came unto His own, and was and is in fact the upholder of the entire universe (Heb. 1:3).  He is the very Word, Wisdom, and Power of God (1 Cor. 1:24) in all eternity.  His coming was His appearing to men in His flesh in time; His prior “sending”, not in time, was by the one will of the one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Only in His kenosis is He the Sent-One of the Father, appearing among men as man, the great Servant of the Father and Redeemer of His enfleshed brethren.

  • “But the Son is not said to be ontologically subordinate, but only in a functional relation of subordination in role.”

Proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS are indeed aware of and openly opposed to the Arian teaching of an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, that is, a subordination and hierarchy within the very nature, essence, or being of God, for such a position clearly contradicts the Nicene Creed, dividing the one Nature and Will of God, calling into question the co-equality of the Persons. Rather, they locate this subordination and hierarchy of authority within relations of function or role amongst the persons of the Godhead.  This, they claim, distinguishes their position from the Arian heresy and shields them from their critics.  As Bruce Ware puts it,

[…]the Father’s authority over the Son does not indicate he is superior to the Son because 1) the Father and the Son each possesses the identically same nature and hence they are absolutely co-eternal and co-equal in nature, and 2) authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser. Ontologically, the Father and Son are fully equal, but as persons, they function in an eternal Father-Son relationship, in which the Father always acts in a way that befits who he is as Father, and Son always acts in a way that befits who he is as Son. Their Father-Son manner of relating (functioning) is seen (in part) in the authority of the Father and submission of the Son, as is evidenced by the vast array of the biblical self-revelation of the Trinitarian persons.[7]

Or as Wayne Grudem states it,

The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function[…].[8]

But it seems clear to me (and others) that the words “function” and “role” are being used illicitly and beyond their normal meanings, to grant a veneer of plausibility to their unorthodox claims.  To begin with, “function” already implies ontology, or properties of being, nature, or essence.  Bruce Ware is absolutely correct when he states that, “function always and only follows essence. Put differently, what something can do is an expression of what it is”[9].  That is part of the very definition of “function”!  And the use of “role” fares no better when squared with the body of ESS/EFS/ERAS teaching, for a role is by definition not a necessary relation, nor an eternally fixed relation; a role could have been otherwise and can always become otherwise.  If one is in an eternal, necessary, counterfactual-excluding relation, then one is simply not in a relation of role.

But in the end, regardless of the terms used, ESS/EFS/ERAS is indeed about ontology and ontological subordination.  “Ontology” is the study of fundamental being, nature, essence; it has to do with what makes something what it is, including what it must be to be what it is and what it cannot be and still be what it is.  This is not the whole of the discipline of ontology, but it is essential to the meaning of “ontological.”  When we speak ontologically of God, we are speaking of His very being, nature, and essence—those things which are fundamental to who He is and without which He is not who He is.  Despite the reliance on “function” and “role” throughout the ESS/EFS/ERAS literature, a simple ordering of the logic of their arguments quickly peels away the veneer of plausibility:

(1)  God is ontologically Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or He is not who He is:

“[…]if all three members of the Trinity are equally and fully divine, then they have all three existed for all eternity, and God has eternally existed as a Trinity (cf. also John 17:5, 24). Moreover, God cannot be other than he is, for he is unchanging (see chapter 11 above). Therefore it seems right to conclude that God necessarily exists as a Trinity—he cannot be other than he is.” (Grudem[10])

(2) There are no distinctions amongst the persons of the Godhead except in relations:

“[…]it may be said that there are no differences in deity, attributes, or essential nature between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to the creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person.” (Grudem[11])

“There is no difference in attributes at all. The only difference between them is the way they relate to each other and to the creation.” (Grudem[12])

(3) In eternity, the fundamental relational distinction between the Persons of the Trinity is their internal relations of subordination.

“The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function: without this truth, we would lose the doctrine of the Trinity, for we would not have any eternal personal distinctions between the Father and the Son, and they would not eternally be Father and Son.” (Grudem[13])

“Authority and submission between the Father and the Son, and between both Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity.” (Grudem[14])

“[…]support will be offered for the church’s long-standing commitment to the Trinitarian persons’ full equality of essence and differentiation of persons, the latter of which includes and entails the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to both Father and Son.” (Ware[15])

(4) Or, that the Father is “Father” and the Son “Son” entails that, and is entailed by, the submission of the latter to the former and the authority of the former over the latter:

“[…]what does it mean that the Father is the eternal Father of the Son, and that the Son is the eternal Son of the Father? Is not the Father-Son relationship within the immanent Trinity indicative of some eternal relationship of authority within the Trinity itself?” (Ware[16])

“Clearly, a central part of the notion of “Father” is that of fatherly authority.” (Ware[17])

“Authority belongs to the Father not because he is wiser or because He is a more skillful leader, but just because he is the Father.” (Grudem[18])

“The names “Father” and “Son” represent an eternal difference in the roles of the Father and the Son. The Father has a leadership and authority role that the Son does not have, and the Son submits to the Father’s leadership in a way that the Father does not submit to the Son.” (Grudem[19])

(5) Therefore God is not Father, Son, and Holy Ghost unless there is an order of subordination within the Godhead:

“If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination[…]then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.” (Grudem[20])

And by (1) we must conclude that God is not who He is without an eternal order of subordination!  That, my friends, is an ontological statement—an ontological subordination—and it absolutely contradicts the Nicene formula.  If the claims of, and arguments for ESS/EFS/ERAS are to be accepted, we must admit that the subordination of the Son to the Father is no more a functional role than is His eternity, omnipotence, or immutability, for it would be ontologically definitive of His being, nature, and essence.

  • “But is this really a Gospel issue, worthy of causing division within the Church?”

The doctrine of the Trinity is rightly understood by laymen to be a profound mystery; certainly, we cannot comprehend the doctrine fully within our human minds any more than we can comprehend God Himself in His fullness.  So, many conclude, we cannot get bogged down in such minutiae as this, mostly lying beyond our ken anyhow, but must rather stick to core and understandable Gospel truths, such as the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But what, I ask in response, is the import and profundity revealed in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ?  Is it not that the GOD, Jehovah Himself, became man and thus in His full Godhead and full humanity, has reconciled fallen and corrupt man to the true, perfect, and eternal God; that full and complete God with all majesty and authority has met together with true humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ? Is not the Gospel itself sapped of its inaccessible majesty and glory if the death and resurrection of our Lord were really the death and resurrection of humanity united with an eternally subordinate God, an eternally submissive God, a lower ranking person within the Godhead; in short, a sort of Jehovah Jr.?

If we carefully attend to how the truth of God as Triune has been revealed in the pages of Scripture, we can plainly see that the Gospel is itself the revelation of the Trinity and that Trinity contains the truth of the Gospel.  As T.F. Torrance opens his THE Christian Doctrine of God,

THE Christian doctrine of God is to be understood from within the unique, definitive and final self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, that is, from within the self-revelation of God as God become man for us and our salvation, in accordance with its proclamation in the Gospel and its actualisation through the Holy Spirit in the apostolic foundation of the Church. It is in the Lord Jesus, the very Word and Mind of God incarnate in our humanity, that the eternal God ‘defines’ and identifies himself for us as he really is.[21]

It is in the redemptive history, recorded in the narratives of the Scripture, especially the Gospel records and the Book of Acts, that we see the Triunity of the One God displayed.  B.B. Warfield fleshes this notion out well in the article, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”[22].  He first discusses how God in the Old Testament is carefully and relentlessly revealed as the One and only God—true unity.  Though God is eternally three in one, He nevertheless taught His people to take up the confession, “the Lord our God is one Lord” as the inviolable representation of His being. There were indeed indications of His personal distinctions throughout the Old Testament revelation, but more as furniture in a dark room, dimly seen, and not fully comprehended or revealed until the lights are turned on.

The New Testament letters, on the other hand, seem to assume throughout not only the oneness of God but that the Father is God, the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God, though we find no discourse or chapters and verse where this Trinity in Unity is spelled out discursively or philosophically.  It rather easily flows from the lips and pens of the New Testament authors with no apologies nor sense that the reader should be surprised by the truths; it is a revelation presupposed at the basis of their discourse.

So where and when was this great doctrine of the Triunity of God revealed?  In the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, God made flesh, and in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, promised by the Son and given at Pentecost.

We cannot speak of the doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, if we study exactness of speech, as revealed in the New Testament, any more than we can speak of it as revealed in the Old Testament. The Old Testament was written before its revelation; the New Testament after it. The revelation itself was made not in word but in deed. It was made in the incarnation of God the Son, and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit. The relation of the two Testaments to this revelation is in the one case that of preparation for it, and in the other that of product of it. The revelation itself is embodied just in Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is as much as to say that the revelation of the Trinity was incidental to, and the inevitable effect of, the accomplishment of redemption. It was in the coming of the Son of God in the likeness of sinful flesh to offer Himself a sacrifice for sin; and in the coming of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment, that the Trinity of Persons in the Unity of the Godhead was once for all revealed to men. Those who knew God the Father, who loved them and gave His own Son to die for them; and the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved them and delivered Himself up an offering and sacrifice for them; and the Spirit of Grace, who loved them and dwelt within them a power not themselves, making for righteousness, knew the Triune God and could not think or speak of God otherwise than as triune. The doctrine of the Trinity, in other words, is simply the modification wrought in the conception of the one only God by His complete revelation of Himself in the redemptive process. It necessarily waited, therefore, upon the completion of the redemptive process for its revelation, and its revelation, as necessarily, lay complete in the redemptive process.[23]

God has revealed Himself as Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity in His great redemptive work in time and in space!  It was the actualization of the Love of God in History, the Gospel itself, that God reveals Himself as He truly is and always was, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Gospel is the revelation of the one true God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the revelation of this Triunity is coextensive with the Gospel.

This fact having been admitted, who is this God we meet with in Jesus Christ?  The eternally subordinate and submissive One?  Blasphemous! No, He is the true God indeed, that the saints of old had always known and worshipped, though the full revelation awaited His coming in the flesh.  That is, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ it is Jehovah Himself that is united in perfect personal union with the Human Nature of His fleshy creatures. This is the grandeur of the Gospel message.  When we read of Christ’s full divinity in the New Testament, we are not confronted with a subordinate person of the Godhead or one of lower rank. On the contrary, we read, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM’” (John 8:58). He is, in fact, the I Am that I Am who called Abraham and He who came to and saved the people of Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh.  He is the God characterized uniquely by His aseity, dependent on nothing and no one, having the source and continuance of His Being in His own Being.  Throughout the New Testament, ascriptions given to God alone in the Old Testament are quoted over and over and applied to Christ.

And thus we see the grandeur of the Gospel Message in the nearly impossible-to-comprehend condescension of the true God taking up the Servant role, taking upon Himself flesh and humbling Himself in obedience.  The Apostle Paul, calling Christians to likewise give up their rights and natural estates, writes the following:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:3-8)

This is the profound greatness and revealed mystery of the Gospel, that one equal with God, one with God, and Himself the true God, voluntarily condescended, taking on the form of a servant through corruptible flesh, and became obedient, though it was not and is not His natural estate.  The Gospel message is not and cannot be that an eternally subordinate and submissive being became subordinate and submissive.  When God and man meet together in the Lord Jesus Christ, by union through the Holy Ghost, man meets with Him of Whom it was said in Psalm 45:6 (Heb. 1:8), “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Thy kingdom”, and He of Whom it was said,

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chron. 29:11-13)

We must, to uphold the truth and majesty of the Gospel itself, confess with clarity that the mission of Christ was to become submissive—a role contrary to and not a simple corollary of His eternal Nature.  In a word, submission was the mission, not the cause of the mission.

  • “But can’t we all just get back to loving each other and fostering unity?”

Indeed, we can and we must. But surely it is agreed that our Doctrine of God is the very heart of our Christian ethics, and therefore the truth or falsity of the ESS/EFS/ERAS position, impinging as it does on the ontological Nature of God and the very Gospel message itself, must have a bearing on our calling to love each other and foster unity.  And it most certainly does, for the example of Christ looms large in the Biblical authors’ framing of Christian ethics throughout the New Testament.  I will briefly explore just two of the many ramifications of this below.

First, take for example the Philippians passage noted above (in its wider context):

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:1-8)

The clear point of this passage is that just as Christ, who was true God, with all the glory and majesty of God rightfully His, nevertheless gave it all up on behalf of His people, even to the point of obedience to a cursed and shameful death, so in like manner must we not regard our own supposed natural estates, looking to our own interests, but have the same mind of Christ, condescending to each other and treating others as more important than ourselves.  But what becomes of this call to Christ-likeness in unified love and lowliness of mind when we collapse the intended vast disparity between Christ in His eternal Majesty and Christ in His voluntary Servant form by claiming that Christ was always subordinate, submissive, and obedient?  Is the intended reading of the passage really, “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus, who having always and eternally been a subordinate Person of God by nature, nevertheless set aside this natural estate of obedience and submission in order to become obedient and submissive”? Would we not, with ESS/EFS/ERAS assumptions, empty Paul’s argument of its intended power? This passage and others like it are at the heart of Christian ethics and are the principle and exemplar upon which we as Christians build our unity in love.  We see a similar argument in Romans:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Rom. 15:1-3)

Again, the strong have to take up the burden of the weak, just as Christ, the infinitely strong, sought nevertheless not to please Himself but serve others.  Also, we see, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

To be clear, the principle of Christ-likeness in fostering love and unity among the people of God is powerfully enjoined upon us by the example of the One who is eternal God with all Power and Authority, submitting to no one, subject of no one, nevertheless breaching time and eternity to become submissive and obedient, contrary to His eternal Nature and rightful claim, all out of His infinite, condescending, love for His Creation.  We must do likewise.  ESS/EFS/ERAS renders this teaching impotent.

Next, and with the most notable ramifications, ESS/EFS/ERAS turns the principle of Christian rule and authority on its head.  1 Corinthians 11:3 has become one of the supposed foundational proof texts for the subordination of the Son to the Father, and from it is born, in their theology, an analogy of human authority and submission, specifically between husband and wife.  We have, e.g., from Grudem,

[…]in the relationship between man and woman in marriage we see also a picture of the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. Paul says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). Here, just as the Father has authority over the Son in the Trinity, so the husband has authority over the wife in marriage. The husband’s role is parallel to that of God the Father and the wife’s role is parallel to that of God the Son. Moreover, just as Father and Son are equal in deity and importance and personhood, so the husband and wife are equal in humanity and importance and personhood. And, although it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the gift of children within marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of both father and mother, is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son in the Trinity.[24]

Leaving aside the tortured interpretation and utter ahistorical nature of this reading of 1 Corinthians 11[25], we see that Grudem and nearly all ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents see in the passage an analogy: just as the Father and the Son are co-equal, yet the Son is eternally subordinate, so husband and wife are co-equal, yet the latter is subordinate to the former. Rather than unravel the whole of Grudem’s misreading here, for our present purposes I wish only to point out that there is, in fact, no analogy present in this passage! Paul does not say “as,” “just as,” “so as,” “in like manner,” or anything similar, even though Grudem attempts to supply them.  Further, if the ESS/EFS/ERAS analogical reading were accepted, it would prove much more than they intend, for the passage runs that God is the Head of Christ, Christ is the Head of man, and man the head of woman. If man being the head of woman is analogous to God being the Head of Christ, then the middle term, Christ is the head of man, is also part of the analogy. Thus, if the purpose of the passage were to teach that just as Father/Son are co-equal, then man/woman are co-equal, then we must also conclude that the middle term shows that God and man are co-equal—an absurd and unacceptable conclusion.

But Paul does give an analogy of the husband and wife relationship elsewhere in his writings,

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph. 5:22-33)

Here, when Paul does actually give an analogy of the husband-wife relationship, he is explicit with “as to,” “even as,” “so also,” “as,” and the like.  But most important to our point here, we must note that when an analogy is given it is between husband and wife and Christ and His Church.  And how is this headship of Christ characterized in Ephesians 5?  In self-sacrificial love and service, as to the care of one’s very own body.  This is tremendously important, for in ESS/EFS/ERAS readings of 1 Corinthians 11, we have the exact opposite!  If we allow an analogy in 1 Corinthians 11:3, we see that the suffering Servant role of Christ toward God is the role of the wife to her husband.  That is, on their fallacious reading, the wife’s coequality is realized in her self-sacrificial servant role under the headship of her husband.  On the contrary, in Ephesians 5 we see the husband bearing the self-sacrificial role of loving service on behalf of his wife.  In the ESS/EFS/ERAS analogical reading of 1 Corinthians 11, headship implies rule over the self-sacrificing servant wife; in Ephesians 5, where an actual and explicit analogy is present, headship implies self-sacrificing service on behalf of the wife.

The principle of rule and authority that ought to govern all relationships within the Church is found in the following:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

In seeking to put 1 Corinthians 11 in service of ESS/EFS/ERAS claims, contrary to the near entire history of interpretation of the passage, proponents have turned Biblical headship on its head.  This should not simply be seen as collateral damage, but itself an impediment “to getting back to loving each other and fostering unity.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] E.g., Glenn Butner, “Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will” (http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/58/58-1/JETS_58-1_131-49_Butner.pdf); Mark Jones, “Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein!” (https://newcitytimes.com/news/story/eternal-subordination-of-wills-nein)

[2] See Brad Mason, “Surprised by Orthodoxy: Responding to the Eternal Subordination of the Son Using the Pro-Nicene Fathers” (https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/surprised-by-orthodoxy-responding-to-the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-using-the-pro-nicene-fathers/)

[3] “Why did the Son become incarnate? Because he submitted?” (http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/1517/why-did-the-son-become-incarnate-because-he-submitted#.WA6bH-grKhc)

[4] See “Surprised by Orthodoxy”, the entirety of section 5.

[5] Oration 29.18 (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310229.htm)

[6] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130102.htm

[7] “Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/07/04/knowing-the-self-revealed-god-who-is-father-son-and-holy-spirit/)

[8] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.C.2.b (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/trinity-wayne-grudem)

[9] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 76 (http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Biblical-Foundations-for-Manhood-and-Womanhood.pdf)

[10] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.B.6

[11] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[12] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[13] ibid., Ch. 14.C.2.b

[14] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 51

[15] ibid., pp. 234-235

[16] ibid., p. 242

[17] ibid., p. 245

[18] ibid., p. 51

[19] “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father” (http://www.waynegrudem.com/biblical-evidence-for-the-eternal-submission-of-the-son-to-the-father-2012/)

[20] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.D.3

[21] Introduction

[22] https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_trinity.html

[23] ibid.

[24] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.E

[25] see for example Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Calvin on 1 Cor. 11:3 in, “Surprised by Orthodoxy”, 5.a., 5.e., 5.g., and 5.n (linked above), as well as John Gill here: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/gill/1_corinthians/11.htm

A Reflection and Some Lingering Concerns after the RTS Trinity Conference

After writing up my summary yesterday of the four talks at the recent Trinity conference at RTS Houston, I wanted to take some time to share my thoughts on the conference. On the whole, I found the talks extremely helpful. They were scholarly but still accessible for the average person in the pew. I was pleased to see many women and children in attendance. It makes me glad to see others interested in theology.

I came away from the conference with a stronger appreciation for those who have gone before us and fought for orthodoxy. I gained a greater understanding of the history and Trinitarian language used this summer in the debate. That was a great help. I also came away with a better understanding of why it matters. The Trinity is not a minor issue. This debate isn’t quibbling over silly things. What we believe about God will have an impact on all of our theology and life. I appreciated the speakers addressing the practical and pastoral aspects of the debate.

As far as the history goes, the talks at the conference gave me some insight on how to apply the lessons of the past to today’s debate. Here are some of my insights.

The tone police who have complained about the recent discussions would be horrified by how rough the 4th Century debates were. Having read letters from other church conflicts, I can add that this is true throughout history. We have very little sense of history when it comes to debate. Some issues are very serious, and sometimes it takes pointed words.

It’s not enough to claim that we’re following Scripture. It was pointed out a couple of times this weekend that Arius and the other heretics were claiming Scriptural support for their arguments. Scott Swain said that the short path to heresy isn’t denying Scripture, it’s affirming only part of what the Bible teaches. I believe that this is true of the debates today as well.

Dr. Haykin spoke of the Arian heresy as an overcorrection in response to modalism. Just as the Arians were so concerned about modalism that they went into heresy in a different way, I believe the current ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents have overreacted to concerns over feminism and egalitarianism. While there may be valid concerns, the answer is not in undermining the doctrine of the Trinity.

It was interesting to note that Athanasius, the Westminster Standards, and even the CBMW Statement of Faith affirm that each of persons of the Godhead possess all of the divine attributes. The question that came to mind when I realized this was whether or not the ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents would agree that God’s authority is a divine attribute.

In the 4th Century, there was much debate over the role and deity of the Holy Spirit. I think this is key today too. In much of today’s evangelical culture the Holy Spirit is treated as an “also ran” or afterthought. In the ESS/EFS/ERAS debate, the Holy Spirit has been described as the child of the union of the Father and the Son. Some evangelicals treat the Spirit as an impersonal force. Many seem to think His work is unnecessary in this “everything is grace, there are no rules for behavior”culture. We need to recover an understanding of the full deity and work of the Spirit.

I was amused by some of the historical accounts of orthodox church fathers who were deemed suspicious because of their allies. Modalists were also against Arianism, and some orthodox fathers were called modalists because of their friendships and their work against Arianism. Today, many of those on the Pro-Nicene side of the Trinity debate have been accused of being egalitarians or feminists. It’s true that there are egalitarians and feminists who have opposed ESS/EFS/ERAS. I am appreciative of their work in this regard. But, the fact that we agree on our opposition to ESS/EFS/ERAS doesn’t mean we agree about everything.

In the recent debate, proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS balked at being equated with Arians. As many of us pointed out, Arianism was just one of many forms of subordinationism. But, it is worth noting that many of the same passages of Scripture are being used now as then to support their ideas. For example, Grudem uses John 14:28, “the Father is greater than I” as one of many verses in support of ESS/EFS/ERAS. The Arians used it too. The orthodox answer then, and now, is the same. Dr. Haykin pointed out that the orthodox understanding of the verses that speak this way is that they are speaking of Christ’s humanity. This is one of many examples of how a good understanding and appreciation of church history can be of great help.

It was noted a couple of times at the conference that scholarly debate and face to face meetings are to be preferred over online articles and discussions. While it’s certainly true that the church fathers got together to discuss at councils and other meetings. They also wrote many letters, tracts, papers, and books addressing specific heresies and those who promoted them by name. The names of these works are often “Against  so-and-so.” I’m thankful that these were written and that the discussions were recorded for posterity sake. It is a very good thing that these are available to us today.

Several times at the conference, the speakers emphasized the importance and Scriptural veracity of the Nicene formulations. For a very long time, the Nicene Creed has been considered a baseline for orthodox faith. However, affirming it means more than just agreeing to the words. We must also agree with the Pro-Nicene fathers as to what the words mean.

The annual ETS meeting is going on right now in San Antonio. Drs. Ware and Grudem spoke yesterday. Both now say that they affirm the language of the Nicene Creed regarding eternal generation. They also continue to affirm the necessity of believing ESS/EFS/ERAS. I was wondering how they could hold to both the Nicene and ESS/EFS/ERAS, but I found an answer in something Grudem wrote in the debates this summer:

I am happy to affirm both the full deity of the Son and that the Son is eternally “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” provided that “begotten of the Father” is understood to refer to an eternal Father-Son relationship in the Trinity that includes no superiority or inferiority of being or essence. Up to that point, I think all sides agree. But what kind of eternal Father-Son relationship is this? That is the point of difference. Bruce Ware and Owen Strachan and I have understood it in terms of the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son within their relationship.

So, they agree with eternal generation as long as it fits their definition of the Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission in the Trinity. We’re clearly not saying the same things then. There are two fundamental differences.

First, we differ in our understanding of what is meant by the divine naming. Historically, the orthodox explanation has been that the names Father and Son mean that God the Father and God the Son have the same nature. Everything the Father has, the Son has, except being the Father. The distinction between the persons of the Trinity is limited to begetting, proceeding, and being begotten, not authority and submission.

In contrast, Grudem and Ware insist that the names Father and Son mean that there exists an inherent authority in being the Father and inherent submission in being the Son. This makes passages like, John 14:9, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” make little sense.

Second, as noted earlier all persons of the Godhead have all the attributes of God and this list usually includes power and glory. But this seems to be another difference between orthodoxy and ESS/EFS/ERAS. Is God’s authority (power) an attribute or not? Orthodox teaching says yes. Grudem and Ware say no. At ETS yesterday, Grudem said that authority is not a divine attribute, it’s a relationship. In Ware’s book, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he claims that the Father has supreme glory as well as authority:

God the Father receives the ultimate and supreme glory, for the Father sent the Son to accomplish redemption in his humiliation, and the Father exalted the Son over all creation; in all these things, the Father stands supreme over all – including supreme over his very Son. … It is the Father, then, who is supreme in the Godhead – in the triune relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and supreme over all the very creation over which the Son rules as its Lord. (quoted in Who’s Tampering with the Trinity, Millard Erickson, pg. 233)

These are serious differences indeed. Until Ware and Grudem affirm the substance of the Nicene formulations, including full equality of power and glory, then they will continue to be outside the Nicene orthodoxy.

This continued insistence on ESS/EFS/ERAS by Grudem and Ware worries me for both complementarianism in general and CBMW in particular. And for these reasons I was not as reassured by Ligon Duncan’s talk as I would have liked to have been. I am extremely glad to hear that both Dr. Duncan and RTS are Pro-Nicene, but that really wasn’t in doubt, was it?

Grudem and Ware made clear yesterday at ETS that they are not backing down and they are continuing to say that to deny ESS/EFS/ERAS is to threaten the Trinity. These are strong words. I believe that equally strong words are needed in response. Clarity is also needed, which brings me to my concerns about Ligon Duncan’s talk.

Despite what Dr. Duncan said in his first point, the proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS are indeed teaching ontological submission. If the Father is in authority by nature of being the Father, and the Son is in submission by nature of being the Son, that is an ontological argument. The Son submits because He’s the Son. There’s no way around this.

In his first point, Dr. Duncan gave several questions that were raised by the summer’s debate, but he did not answer the questions. They are important ones, and I would have liked to hear what he believes to be the answer to them. He did give a partial answer regarding whether or not ESS/EFS/ERAS is heresy. He quoted Liam Goligher as having called for proponents to quit or be deposed. While many accused Liam of having said this, it’s not what he said. Here’s what he actually said:

To speculate, suggest, or say, as some do, that there are three minds, three wills, and three powers with the Godhead is to move beyond orthodoxy (into neo-tritheism) and to verge on idolatry (since it posits a different God). It should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God

Dr. Duncan said that the Trinity debate began with Liam’s two posts on Mortification of Spin in June and that the debate has been within the complementarian camp. While it’s true that Liam’s posts kicked off a particularly intense debate, many people have been challenging ESS/EFS/ERAS for years. There are both Pro-Nicene and ESS/EFS/ERAS complementarians in the current debate, but there were also many egalitarians involved as well. The Trinity is not just a complementarian issue.

Dr. Duncan also said that CBMW was mostly unaware of ESS/EFS/ERAS at least at an official level. It may well be true that he was personally unaware, but from what I’ve demonstrated before, ESS/EFS/ERAS has been taught from the beginning of CBMW. In fact, it seems to be foundational to CBMW’s version of complementarianism. And while I appreciate the theological diversity within CBMW, the Trinity is not something we can agree to disagree over. It’s much more than mode of baptism or even the 5 points of Calvinism. Should a statement of faith be more inclusive than the Nicene Creed? In the Nicene formulation too narrow? These are important questions that have not really been answered.

I was surprised by Dr. Duncan’s assertion that the Westminster Confession of Faith is minimalist regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s true that the Confession doesn’t say everything that could be said, but it is a theologically rich statement. Here are some excerpts:

On God:

There is but one only,[1] living, and true God,[2] who is infinite in being and perfection,[3] a most pure spirit,[4] invisible,[5] without body, parts,[6] or passions;[7] immutable,[8] immense,[9] eternal,[10] incomprehensible,[11] almighty,[12] most wise,[13] most holy,[14] most free,[15] most absolute;[16] working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will,[17] for His own glory;[18] most loving,[19] gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin;[20] the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;[21] and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments,[22] hating all sin,[23] and who will by no means clear the guilty.[24] (WCF 2.1)

On creation:

It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,[1] for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness,[2] in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good.[3] (WCF, 4.1)

On Christ:

The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature,[10] with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin;[11] being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance.[12] So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion.[13] Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.[14] (WCF 8.2)

Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself;[37] yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.[38] (WCF 8.7)

That last paragraph would help to answer the question of how Christ is said to submit to the Father. This is just a small portion of the Confession. There is a wealth of information there.

Dr. Duncan said that discussions like this one on the Trinity are best addressed in serious venues such as conferences and journals. I appreciate so much that RTS Houston held the Trinity conference this weekend and that I was able to attend. There certainly needs to be much work done at the academic level to combat the very widespread teaching of ESS/EFS/ERAS. I am thankful for those scholars and theologians who are doing this work.

But because ESS/EFS/ERAS is so widespread and particularly because it is so prevalent in popular level books and Bible studies, it must be addressed more broadly. The orthodox response needs to have the same reach as the heterodox teaching. This teaching is not merely academic or esoteric. This teaching has very real and very practical implications on the men, women, and children in our churches.

Even the PCA’s women’s leadership training material has contained ESS/EFS/ERAS teaching. I am very grateful to hear that  this is being addressed. For many people, conferences and journal articles are not accessible. If the average person hasn’t been taught about why ESS/EFS/ERAS is wrong, they will continue to be influenced by it. As long as the proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS continue to teach it, we must continue to respond to it.

Again I am very thankful for Dr. Duncan’s reassurance regarding RTS and himself. I never doubted that they are Pro-Nicene. I have no doubts as to their orthodoxy or to their commitment to orthodoxy. I simply think there are questions that need to be answered regarding the connection between CBMW, complementarianism, and ESS/EFS/ERAS. I had hoped those questions would be answered, but I was disappointed.

A reader left a comment on my last article. He/she took issue with saying that complementarianism is not compromised by being Pro-Nicene. He/she said:

Wrong question. Has the complementarian movement been thoroughly compromised by ESS/EFS?

I think that is a very valid question, and one worth addressing. After the conference, I was left with one main question:

What’s more essential, being complementarian or being inside Nicene orthodoxy?

Restricting Women to the “Pink Passages”

Recently there have been several articles about Jen Hatmaker’s new support for same-sex marriage, but there was one article in particular that caught my eye. Timothy Hammons, an ordained teaching elder in the PCA (currently without call), wrote a piece, using Hatmaker as an example, on why no women should be teaching the Bible:

Here is the bigger problem: women like Hatmaker, Sarah Young, Ann Voskamp, and Beth Moore have have no business teaching the Bible. I include Sarah Young, who wrote Jesus Calling, and Ann Voskamp, who wrote One Thousand Gifts, in this category of heretical women of the faith as well. I wrote about the error of those two here. These women are having a huge impact with the women of the church, yet they are not trained theologically, they are certainly not called by God, and they answer to no one except themselves, doing what is right in their own eyes, when it comes to leading the women of the church. They are not in submission to the elders of the church, and in their success, have silenced many who might object.

Many would agree with him regarding these particular women who are noted for teaching false doctrine. However, Timothy expands his prohibition to include all women:

What I mean by this is that if the men of the church, especially elders, were serious about our calling as elders and husbands, we would address these issues and provide good solid teaching for our wives. Instead we leave it up to the women to teach the women. No, I don’t believe that the passage in Titus 2:3-5 is instructing the older women to teach the younger women the word of God. … We see no mention of older women teaching the younger women the word of God. …

The role of women in the church is quite clear to those who will actually look at what Scripture says. There is no call for women to be leading large masses of women in Bible studies, or at conferences, or any other such notion. According to the passage in Titus, and the way God created women, they are to be at home serving their husbands.

Let me briefly summarize the rest of his article. After that, I’ll go through point by point and respond.

  • Jen Hatmaker is a false teacher.
  • No woman should teach, not even other women
  • Women should learn from men, particularly elders and husbands
  • Women should be at home serving their husbands
  • Women are delicate, frail, and prone to deception
  • Having a husband read the Bible daily to his wife should be sufficient biblical instruction for women

First, I absolutely agree that Jen Hatmaker and the other women listed above are false teachers. No question about it. Believers should avoid their teaching. Pastors and elders should address their errors and warn their congregations. There is not nearly enough concern over what is taught to women. Aimee Byrd has addressed this in several posts, including this one on Hatmaker and Lifeway.

Interestingly, Timothy’s arguments against Hatmaker, et al, that “they are not trained theologically, they are certainly not called by God, and they answer to no one except themselves, doing what is right in their own eyes” fit many male false teachers too. A notable example is Doug Wilson. who Timothy shows respect for in other posts. So, if the argument was simply that we should avoid false teachers, I would be in complete agreement.

But that’s not where Timothy stops. Timothy believes that women should not teach at all. Now, to be clear, I believe that the ordained offices of the church (pastor, elder, etc) should be restricted to qualified men. I also believe that husbands are called to be spiritual leaders of their homes and that wives are called to submit to their own husbands. But that is not the point that Timothy is making. He says that women should not teach, not even other women.

Timothy does not address whether or not women should be allowed to teach children. From a comment he answers on his blog, it’s not clear. He seems to suggest that the biblical Timothy, who learned from his mother and grandmother, is not a general guideline about women teaching children, but an exception which is allowed because Timothy didn’t have a godly father.

Timothy says that Titus 2 does not mention women teaching other women the Bible. He believes that the teaching mentioned in Titus 2 is limited to loving husbands and children. This is not a common interpretation of the passage. Both John Calvin and Matthew Henry, who lived well before the modern complementarian/egalitarian debates, define the teaching in Titus 2 in a much broader sense. But even if we conceded that Titus 2 was particularly addressing home and family relationships, is this the only passage of Scripture to consider?

Hannah Anderson, in her book Made for More, talks about limiting women to the “pink” passages of the Bible:

Too often as women, we have restricted ourselves to the “pink” parts of the Bible. … And we forget that these “pink passages” were never intended to be sufficient by themselves. (105)

All of the passages addressed to believers are meant for both men AND women. Specific passages to husbands, fathers, pastors, etc. may not apply particularly to women, but the majority of the biblical guidelines for living as believers applies both to men and women. So let’s consider some of them.

The great commission in Matthew 28 is a command for all believers to spread the gospel. Women are not exempt from this:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19-20 NASB)

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul tells the believers (brethren) to encourage and admonish each other:

We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1Thess 5:14 NASB)

In Colossians, Paul says believers should teach and admonish one another. This would also include women:

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16 NASB)

To proclaim the gospel, to make disciples, to teach them all things, to encourage and admonish one another, all of these are what believers, men and women, are called to do.  And the Scriptures give us examples of women doing these things.

In Acts, we read of husband and wife, Aquila and Priscilla, taking Apollo aside to teach him correct doctrine:

and he [Apollo] began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:26 NASB)

Also in Acts, we read of Phillip’s daughters who were prophetesses:

On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. (Acts 21:9 NASB)

In Luke, we’re told of Anna, the prophetess who recognized Jesus as the Savior. She “continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Isn’t she an example of how we are to proclaim the good news and share it with others?

And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 NASB)

Next, Timothy writes that women should only learn from men, specifically elders and husbands. He uses 1 Cor. 14: 35 to support his argument. “If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (NASB). However, this passage is more about order and decency in public worship than it is about women learning only from their husbands. If Timothy’s point was that women shouldn’t be pastors or elders preaching in church, this passage would be a reasonable one to use. To make this passage into a prescription for women to learn only from men is a stretch.

What about women without husbands or women whose husbands are not believers? How are they to learn? Timothy answers this question posed by a reader on his blog. He says that deacons and elders should take single women and widows into their families so they can be taught by men.

As Christians from the Reformed tradition, we should be very resistant to any attempts to put mediators between believers and Christ. All believers, even women, have direct access to God through Christ and need no other mediator. We are a priesthood of believers, both men and women. We are all called to take person responsibility for our faith and for the exercise of it. We are all called to read the Scriptures and to pray on our own. Yes, women should discuss Scriptures with their husbands, but that doesn’t mean they should ONLY discuss it with their husbands. In a community of believers, where the passages on encouraging and admonishing fellow believers are followed, women are going to discuss their faith with other women. And that’s a good thing.

Yes, women should discuss Scriptures with their husbands, but that doesn’t mean they should ONLY discuss it with their husbands. In a community of believers, where the passages on encouraging and admonishing fellow believers are followed, women are going to discuss their faith with other women. And that’s a good thing.

In our society, with the use of social media and interactions beyond our local church families, it may well be that women will have these discussions through blogs, books, and even conferences.

Timothy also writes that the role of women in the church is “to be at home serving their husbands.” This is a seriously limited view of women. Setting aside the obvious problem of applying that role to single women and widows, Timothy’s prescription for women in the church does not fit with the examples of biblical women we’re given in Scripture. Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, Anna, Huldah, and Deborah are described as doing much more than serving their husbands at home. The Proverbs 31 woman is busy both inside and out of her home.

Now, I’m not saying that wives should NOT serve their husbands at home. Taking care of our families is an important part of who we are as wives and mothers. We should honor that. But just as men are more than their careers, women are more than their familial responsibilities. We are believers and fellow heirs. We may well be called to serve God in additional ways. Taking care of our families can include discipling others as part of the family of God.

Timothy goes on to appeal to the frail and delicate nature of women as the reason why men should step in and teach their wives. He quotes from 1 Peter 3:

You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 NASB)

It’s certainly true that women are often physically weaker than men, in general. Our bodies are often smaller and due to the nature of childbearing, vulnerable. Men are told to treat women with honor as fellow heirs. It’s a reminder that men aren’t to use their greater strength and power to harm or mistreat women. But that’s not the kind of weakness Timothy is talking about.

Timothy writes that women are more prone to deception than men. Quoting from 1 Timothy:

And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1Tim 2:14 NASB)

Yes, Eve was deceived. And Paul uses both that and the creation order to explain his prohibition on women teaching with authority over men. But Paul does not say that women, in general, are more prone to deception. The passage also doesn’t say that therefore women should not teach other women. That is Timothy’s interpretation of the passage.

There are weak women who are easily deceived. Paul talks about them in 2 Timothy 3:6. But notice that Paul describes them as “weak” women. If all women were more prone to deception, there would be no need for the modifier. Given the many passages warning believers, both men and women, to be careful of being deceived, it seems clear that deception is something we all need to guard against.

Lastly, Timothy believes that women don’t need much in the way of biblical instruction:

As for the women in the church, you need to quit looking for star-studded satisfaction in your biblical instruction. If your husband reads the Bible to you daily, that is enough. The word of God is sufficient for you in that category.

Yes, the Word of God is sufficient for all believers. But like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, at times we all will need someone to guide us through the Word. We should look to our pastors and elders to teach us in the local church setting. No celebrity, male or female, should take the place of our local church, the preaching of the Word, or the private reading of the Word. But would we tell men that reading the Bible every day is sufficient biblical instruction for them?

Many men and women have a desire to think about and discuss theology. That’s a good thing, and we should encourage it. As I mentioned before in our modern society, that may include writing articles, books, speaking at and attending conferences. Many believers may write publicly to encourage and admonish others, just as Timothy is doing on his own blog.

To conclude, I think it’s absolutely imperative that we guard against false teachers. For too long, many pastors and elders have turned a blind eye especially to what is being taught to the women in the church. This needs to change. It’s vitally important that men AND women be taught sound doctrine. Pastors should be encouraged to preach sound doctrine. Husbands should be encouraged to study the Word with their wives.

But, we should be careful not to set up extrabiblical hedges. In our defense of qualified men as ordained leaders and husbands as spiritual leaders in the home, we should not restrict women to the “pink passages” in Scripture. Nor should we set up men as mediators between women and God. Christ is sufficient, for men and women.

 

The Idol of City Ministry

“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I:XI.8

One of the things that struck me when I was writing the articles on the new city church planting campaign by Redeemer City to City and Tim Keller was the prioritization of urban ministry. This is hardly new. Keller and others have been writing for more than a decade to encourage city church planting and ministry efforts. As a native of one of the largest cities in the U.S. and a pastor’s daughter, I’m very glad for reminders that cities are important mission fields.

However, several recent articles, like this one, highlight the ministry needs of the rural and suburban mission fields. In the press to remember cities, we are in danger of forgetting the small towns. It’s one thing to encourage urban ministry. It’s another thing to prioritize cities over rural areas. This is the danger I see in the focus on city church planting.

Dr. Keller says in his article “Understanding the City” that it would be “disobedient” for the church not to focus the majority of its resources on cities:

Thesis: As much as possible, Christians should live, serve, and be deeply involved in the lives of our largest cities. They need to be involved in the life of the whole city, not just their own particular enclave. If you can live and serve in the city, you should.

The Christian church must concentrate the great portion of its resources on ministry to the city. It is our “reasonable service”. To fail to render it is as foolish as it is disobedient. (emphasis added)

This is more than simply encouraging urban ministry efforts. This is saying that ministry in cities is more important than other ministries. Keller explained his prioritization of cities in a talk he gave at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization:

Psalm 19 tells us that nature does reflect God’s glory. But human beings, according to Genesis 1, made in the image of God, reflect God’s glory more than anything else in creation. In cities, you have more “image of God” per square inch than anywhere else in the world. A missionary friend of mine once quipped, “The country is where there are more plants than people, and the city is where there are more people than plants. Therefore, because God loves people more than plants, he’s got to love the city more than the country.” … If you love what God loves … you’ll love the city.

I absolutely believe that urban ministry is important. There are lost people who need to hear the gospel preached in every city around the world. But there are also lost people in every town and village and farming community around the world. And they need the gospel just as much. My fear is that for many, city ministry has become an idol, the thing that will give them value, significance, and security.

Dr. Keller is well-known and often quoted regarding idolatry. In his book, Counterfeit Gods, he summarizes what happens when “good things” take a place in our hearts they shouldn’t:

The human heart is an idol factory that takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them. pg xiv, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters)

When “our hearts deify” those “good things” like city ministry, we turn them into idols:

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship. (pgs xvii -xviii, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters)

Why do I think city ministry has become an idol for many? Consider the language used in the recent Rise campaign:

We’re doing this for our city. Our longing is to see New York—and everyone in it—flourish. We believe the best way to serve the city is to embody the gospel in every neighborhood. The gospel doesn’t just change individual lives; it advances the common good. The increase in philanthropy, mercy, justice, racial reconciliation, integrity, and hope that occurs when more and more people live out the gospel is good for all of society, not just the body of Christ.

Nowhere in the material is it mentioned that they are doing this to glorify God. “The gospel” is mentioned many times, but the salvation of people from their sins and restoring relationship between God and man are missing. The “gospel” being proclaimed is very much a social justice version.

That isn’t to say that individual pastors and even churches involved in these urban ministries are not preaching the gospel and focused on saving sinners. I’m sure there are good examples. In fact, I’m fairly certain that all of the pastors and churches involved in the Rise campaign would agree that they want to glorify God in what they do.

But here is how the churches describe their purpose and mission:

The values of our church community are drawn out of the life Jesus embodied and our desire to emulate Him, so that Christ’s prayer of renewal “on earth as it is in heaven” may be a reality. Forefront

In fulfilling the great commission, Paul’s strategy was to plant churches in areas of influence to reach as many people as possible. Restoration Community Church

Join us in tearing away the layers of religion that have kept people from church for so many years and discover the joys of TRUE COMMUNITY with the family of God. Sanctuary Fellowship

Through a shared meal, authentic community, and the narrative of Jesus, we are transformed. We live lives of imperfect love and reckless generosity, engaging our neighborhoods in Brooklyn and beyond according to the gospel of grace. Because God invited us freely to his table, all are invited to ours. Hope Brooklyn

We hold a belief that God is at work to heal and renew the world that He created to be good. Our own lives are part of God’s renewal process, and God invites us into the work of making all things new. We do this by pursuing justice, engaging in social and cultural renewal, and being committed to prayer for the flourishing of New York City. Hope Midtown

As a church of Jesus Christ, Redeemer exists to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world. Redeemer NYC

Our mission … to create space where New Yorkers of all backgrounds can connect with God through Jesus Christ and move towards him as the center of their lives. We believe this is how we can experience Jesus’ promise of “life in all its fullness.” In John 10:10 Jesus described his own mission this way: “My purpose is to give people a rich and satisfying life.”  He made it clear that we can know God in a real and powerful way, and that this relationship with God is the source of “more and better life than you have ever dreamed of.” River

We believe that God’s unchanging message is so life changing, satisfying, and fulfilling that it must be communicated to each generation in contemporary, culturally relevant language, forms, and styles. Redeemer Montclair

Over and over again the message is that their goal, their passion is to make the city better. I think there are good reasons to be concerned that city ministry is becoming an idol. I think this is the result of misunderstanding cities both theologically and realistically.

The key verse for city ministry that is most often cited is Jeremiah 29:7:

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare. (Jer. 29:7, NASB)

From “Understanding the City:”

The Jews on the one hand did not expect to turn Babylon into a Jewish city- -they had not utopian or literally revolutionary schemes. On the other hand, the Lord’s directive forbid them from having a “ghetto” mentality or having a hostile attitude toward the city. They were to pray for the city, to live in it and grow in it and serve it and work for the common good (Jer.29:5-7).

Now if the Jews are given this mandate to Babylon, who surely had a great deal of warrant to hate this city as being cruel and oppressive, then surely any believer today must look at the great cities of their country in the same way. We are also exiles from Jerusalem here to spread the Lord’s shalom in the earthly cities. We must also see that we have been “sent” (Jer.29: 4) to our cities.

Certainly, the Jews in exile in Babylon were told by God to settle in and to pray for the welfare of the city. However, there was a very specific reason. Jeremiah was told to warn the people that they should not believe the other prophets who were saying the exile would be short. The message from God was that the exile would last 70 years. The people should not live as if they were going back to Jerusalem soon. They were told to live in Babylon and continue with their lives while they waited for the completion of the 70 years.

The point was not “be a blessing” to the city. The point was it’s going to be 70 years, be patient. And what did God promise would happen next? They would be brought home to Jerusalem. They wouldn’t be left forever in Babylon. And what would happen to Babylon? God promised to destroy it utterly for its part in the fall of Jerusalem, and the people are told to flee the city when that time comes:

Go out of the midst of her, my people!
Let every one save his life
from the fierce anger of the Lord!
Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful
at the report heard in the land,
when a report comes in one year
and afterward a report in another year,
and violence is in the land,
and ruler is against ruler.
Therefore, behold, the days are coming
when I will punish the images of Babylon;
her whole land shall be put to shame,
and all her slain shall fall in the midst of her.
Then the heavens and the earth,
and all that is in them,
shall sing for joy over Babylon,
for the destroyers shall come against them out of the north,
declares the Lord.
Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel,
just as for Babylon have fallen the slain of all the earth. (Jer. 51: 45-49, NASB)

The point was that Babylon was a temporary home, albeit for many years. This has a very good application to us today as believers. We are strangers and aliens (1 Peter 2:11) living in a city that is not our home. While we are here, we should seek to serve God wherever he has placed us. But we should remember that eventually, we’ll leave these things behind for something greater.  This is not a theology of city ministry, but a truth applicable to all believers everywhere.

Does God prioritize cities? It is true that Jerusalem was a special city with great significance. The heavenly city in Revelation is called the New Jerusalem. But throughout the Scriptures are cities more blessed or more important by virtue of being cities? Not especially.

The people at the tower of Babel were punished and dispersed when they tried to build a city and tower to reach heaven and make a name for themselves. Part of their disobedience was failing to “fill the earth” as God commanded. Making a city for themselves and staying put wasn’t an effort that God blessed then.

Sodom and Gomorrah were part of five cities utterly destroyed by God for their wickedness. After Lot’s family were safe, God wiped those cities from the face of the earth. The city of Jericho was also destroyed. Jerusalem was destroyed more than once. Revelation tells of the coming destruction of the great city Babylon (Rev. 17).

Cities, in and of themselves, are not inherently good or evil. They also aren’t the crowning glory of humanity either. Some cities are full of wickedness. Other cities are filled with those who worship the Living God. Jerusalem was special because of what represented: God’s dwelling place with man. It was a picture of the future spoken of in Revelation 21. There will come a time when sin and death will no longer separate us from God. And that is a glorious thought. But no matter how great our cities are here, they will never be as glorious as the new heavens and the new earth.

On the whole, there is nothing that indicates God’s preference or special blessing for cities. While we shouldn’t be afraid of cities or denigrate them, we should remember what Hebrews has to say regarding earthly cities:

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. (Heb. 13:14, NASB)

As believers, our priority should be on the city that is coming, and that work can be done anywhere.

My second concern about the prioritization of city ministry is a misunderstanding of the reality of living in cities. A good example of this can be found in Kathy Keller’s article, “Why You Should Raise Your Kids in the City.” In this article, she presents an idealized and romanticized view of the city.

Kathy Keller writes that cities (particularly New York) are better for children all around. She believes they are spiritually better because kids will actually see evil and sin for what they are and that Christianity becomes more plausible. She believes that cities are financially better for families. Because of public transportation, you don’t need a car. There are free events to go to. Renting is cheaper, and city living means no yard or lawn to care for. You have less space, so you have fewer things. All of these make cities financially better.

Kathy Keller also writes that cities are culturally better. Cities have the best of human culture to offer. Restaurants are better, and cities are just more exciting that the boring suburbs. She also believes that cities are better for kids because they have hip, urban Christians as role models. She believes because of the great diversity in cities, there is less peer pressure. And since no one has cars, you don’t have to worry about teens and drunk driving. Thanks to mass transit, you can send your kids off to appointments on their own.

In addition to the ways she lists that cities are better for raising kids, Kathy Keller mentions several perks for urban ministry families. Airfare is cheaper flying from larger cities. You can take great vacations, and wealthy families may loan you their vacation homes when it’s convenient to them. Cities give families access to the best of the best.

While it may reflect her situation as a pastor’s wife in Manhattan, her description of life in the city and the perks of city ministry are foreign to my own experiences as a pastor’s kid in an inner city church. I grew up in the 4th largest city in the U.S. My dad’s church was in a low-income area on the east side of town. Our church was poor and without my mother’s work we would have been too. My mother worked so that there was food on the table and clothes on our backs. We were better off than many, but by no means well-to-do.

Our city doesn’t have a lot of mass transit options, and due to the sprawl, you really need a car. You also are likely to have a house with a yard. Drunk driving is an issue, although the one time we were hit by a drunk driver we were driving through a rural area.

There are lots of great restaurants here, but you have to be able to afford to eat out. The cultural offerings are wonderful, if you can afford to buy tickets and access. There are some great free concerts and events, though.

The schools I went to had great diversity, but there was still considerable peer pressure. Even in Christian schools, there was pressure to do drugs, to drink, to be sexually active, and to reject the faith. Yes, we got to see sin and wickedness. There were a lot of homeless guys who came to the church regularly for help. Sometimes they were drunk. Sometimes they were violent. It was often risky.

One time my dad pulled over, with us all in the car, to stop a guy getting beat up. That certainly wasn’t boring, but it was pretty scary. The city isn’t all bright and shiny. There is a lot of beauty here, but it can be a dark and dangerous place.

As for wealthy families loaning you their vacation homes, I guess that can happen, if you have wealthy folks in your congregation. We did have a sweet older couple with a little beach house that they let us use occasionally. Those were great times.

Don’t get me wrong; I love living in the city. But I don’t idolize it. There are many great and wonderful things here and lovely people too. I have very sweet memories of growing up in the city. I enjoy the opportunities and access we have to events. And yes, airfare is cheaper than when we lived in smaller towns. But very often, the city can be a harsh and violent place.

As Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote in Evita:

The city can be paradise for those who have the cash
The class and the connections, what you need to make a splash
The likes of you get swept up in the morning with the trash
If you were rich or middle class …

I’m not saying people should avoid moving to cities, but I am saying that they should have a realistic picture of what city life can be.

To summarize, I believe that prioritizing urban ministry can lead to making it into an idol. What is good turns into what is necessary to feel complete and secure. This hurts people, both inside and outside of cities, and it diminishes the very real ministry work being done in rural and suburban areas. It also has the potential to draw our attention away from seeking the glory of God to seeking the glory of the city.

When the family that has struggled for generations living inner city finally decides to move where there are better opportunities and less expense, we shouldn’t discourage them because in our minds city ministry is of primary importance.

When rural families are falling apart and communities are in desperate need of the Savior, we shouldn’t turn our backs on them because the towns are small and not influential. When the Shepherd looked for the lost sheep, He didn’t decide that the ninety-nine were more important because there were more of them. Thank the Lord that He cares for even the one lost lamb. Shouldn’t we also, no matter where they are?

When a pastor is called to a small town church, we shouldn’t pity him or look down on him. His work is vital. It’s not merely a stepping stone to a larger, urban church. We need all types: small town, suburban, and urban churches. People are dying every day without knowing Christ. There is so much work to be done.

City ministry is important. It is a good thing. But it is not an ultimate thing.

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Gal. 6:9-10, NASB)