Policing the Blogosphere? We’ve Been Here Before

Last week, Anglican Priest, Tish Harrison Warren, wrote a much-discussed article for Christianity Today, “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere“. Warren is concerned about the lack of authority and accountability for bloggers and speakers, especially women. The subtitle explains Warren’s concern a little more: “the age of the internet has birthed a crisis of authority, especially for women.” She lays out her concerns regarding the state of the Christian blogosphere, using Jen Hatmaker’s recent statements on LGBTQ as an example:

Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher?

It’s not at all news that there is a lot of false teaching going on in the evangelical world. It’s also not news that a lot of this teaching is promoted and shared via social media. Anyone with computer access can write and share practically anything they want on the internet.  What is newer about Warren’s article is her solution for the problem:

The broader church has a responsibility to provide formal support and accountability to teachers, leaders, and writers—whether male or female. If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally, we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a woman must be ordained in order to blog, publish, or speak. A formal recognition of authority and accountability can be called commissioning, endorsement, partnership, or something else. What this looks like in practice will vary dramatically between traditions and must be creatively hammered out by leaders and pastors in their own denominations or other Christian institutions. But while I cannot provide a specific model for each ecclesial organization, I want to sound a call: All of us—whether complementarians or egalitarians—need to create institutional structures to recognize the authority held by female teachers and writers and then hold them accountable for the claims they make under the name of Jesus and in the name of the church.

Providing ecclesial oversight does not mean that all writers will speak out of one narrow tradition. Nor does ecclesial affiliation itself ensure orthodoxy—there is, of course, no silver bullet against false teaching. Nevertheless, without institutional accountability there is simply no mechanism by which we as a church can preserve doctrinal fidelity. (emphasis added)

Now, anyone who has read my articles knows that I am a strong proponent of orthodox teaching. I think it’s extremely important that all believers be taught sound doctrine. And so I can agree with some of what Warren wrote. I share her concern regarding false teaching being published and spread through social media. I recognize that there is a good deal of disdain expressed online for authority and accountability. I also agree that many popular teachers, both male and female, are heterodox and that they often seem to lack effective authority over them.

However, I do not believe that the answer is adding another layer of authority. In fact, I’m really concerned by the appeal to authority and control as the answer to false teaching for several reasons. First of all, an additional official authority structure will not solve the problem. False teachers are primarily in churches/denominations that agree with them, or they are outside all church authority. Most orthodox bloggers and speakers are already submitting to their local or denominational authority regarding what they write or say.

No new authority structure will stop Joel Osteen from preaching in the church his daddy built. Doug Wilson has a denomination that he created after he self-ordained himself to back him up. Jen Hatmaker, Ann Voskamp, and many others are currently members of churches that approve of what they do. Rachel Held Evans is now Episcopal as was Bishop Spong. I expect the denomination that didn’t stop Spong isn’t particularly interested in addressing Evans either.

Some denominations have means for addressing false teaching. Others really don’t, and they don’t seem all that interested in changing that. Baptist churches are very happy to be loosely affiliated and yet fiercely independent of any oversight by the denomination. Demanding that all churches form institutional authority structures isn’t going to keep false teachers from teaching, but it may well suppress needed challenges to false teaching, which is my next concern.

Warren’s call for authority structures will only hurt orthodox authors and speakers. Having to go through a formal authority process to be allowed to write or teach, even informally, will simply add another hurdle to jump through. It will also allow those who call out error to be silenced by those who don’t want to hear the truth. And that leads me to my next point, we’ve been here before.

In the 1400-1500s, the universal church in Europe was in a bad state. Priests were often barely literate. The common people could not read the Scriptures or understand the Latin Mass and were dependent on the church leaders to tell them what to believe and what to do. The people had been taught to have a blind faith in the church leaders. They were taught that they could not be trusted to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Imagine, they were told, the errors that might happen if the average person read and attempted to interpret for themselves!

Then men like Hus, Wycliffe, Luther and others believed that the people needed to be able to read the Word of God for themselves. The Reformation was born out of a desire to strip away all the errors that had crept into the church and return to the doctrines of Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, to the glory of God alone. Many, many books, pamphlets, and Bible translations were written and published during the early days of the Reformation. And these unauthorized writings and their unauthorized writers were condemned by the official church leaders.

The Counter Reformation, starting with the Council of Trent, was an attempt by the Catholic church to put an end to the “false teachings” of the Reformers, and to protect the “orthodoxy” of the Catholic faith:

The spirit of the Catholic Reformation was a spirit of zeal and ardor for the faith, a recognition of abuses in the church and a dedication to the work of reform, and an attitude of intolerance toward heresy.

A list was produced with approved and prohibited books:

The books of those heresiarchs, who after the aforesaid year originated or revived heresies, as well as of those who are or have been the heads or leaders of heretics, as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Balthasar Friedberg, Schwenkfeld, and others like these, whatever may be their name, title or nature of their heresy, are absolutely forbidden. The books of other heretics, however, which deal professedly with religion are absolutely condemned.

The list of prohibited books was enforced by the Inquisition.

As early as 1543, Caraffa., as Inquisitor-General of the Roman Inquisition, had insisted that no book should be published without approval of the Holy Office. He also wanted the Inquisition to hunt out and destroy already published books. Caraffa became Pope Paul IV.

Eventually, the approval of books included a special notation to indicate that the books were without error and approved by the Catholic church:

During this period, probably out of necessity, the church began supervising all printed matter. They issued their first list of approved and prohibited books in the middle of the 1500s. Today Catholic books generally carry the notations, nihil obstat (nothing conflicts), or, imprimatur (it may be printed), to let faithful Catholics know whether the book is prohibited. For many years, the church placed the vernacular New Testament on the prohibited list. (emphasis original)

What’s interesting to me is that this current push for authorization of women writers and speakers seems like an odd weaving together of two very different strands of thought. On the one hand is the idea that women need some official legitimization. Often this is expressed as a call for the ordination of women. On the other hand, the current discussion reminds me of the patriarchal teaching that women need to be under an umbrella of protective authority to keep them safe from danger and error. That umbrella typically shows Christ over the husband, who then is over the wife and children.

It seems very odd to me to see these two threads combined, but that is exactly what’s happening in the current discussions that began with Warren’s article. Imagine having to provide some kind of stamp of approval in order to blog on theology.

The combination here of the two thoughts, women needing legitimizing and also needing protective authority led me to create an official stamp of approval in the vein of the Counter Reformation.

My final concern about Warren’s call for authority structures is that it undermines another aspect of the Reformation: the priesthood of believers. The Reformers believed strongly that all believers were theologians who were responsible for reading and applying the Word of God. This does not mean they encouraged everyone to go about interpreting Scripture without regard to the teaching of pastors and elders, but they believed that theology was not solely the domain of professional theologians. To demand that all writers and speakers must be authorized by the church is to return to a pre-Reformation standard.

Because I do agree about the sheer amount of false teaching, especially the popular teachings peddled to women, I think there are some steps that we could take towards a solution without the authoritarianism. These steps are both simple and yet arguably harder than creating new rules or authority structures. But in the long run, I believe they will be much more effective at preserving orthodoxy.

Instead of creating new authority structures, I think we need to return to the authority already in place. First, we need to return to the authority of God by means of recognizing the authority of Scripture. This was key to the Reformation, and I believe it is key for us today. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Question/Answer 2:

The Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

If Scripture is the “only rule” then we need to return to the authority of the Scripture in our churches, our lives, and in our writing and speaking. Ultimately, what we write and speak must be consistent with what Scripture teaches.

Second, we need to recognize the authority of the local churches and denominations. I know that many people are hesitant to submit to church authority because of the examples of abusive authority that some pastors and churches have practiced. It is a valid concern, and I’m not calling for ultimate authority or authoritarianism in the church/denominations either. Some churches, mainly those without Presbyterian polity, have created massively intrusive membership covenants that have no place in the church.

But that doesn’t invalidate membership vows and a proper submission to church leaders in a limited sense. As a Presbyterian, the membership vows I took do not give the church leaders the right to dictate or control my life.

  • Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?

  • Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?

  • Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?

  • Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

  • Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

That last vow is important. In matters regarding the peace and purity of the church, I have promised to submit to the authority of my church leaders. Of course, this too can be abused, but that is why no church is independent in our denomination. There are layers of checks and balances to protect church members from being abused. These same layers are designed to promote orthodoxy by holding the ordained leaders to a standard of faith and practice. Is it a perfect system? No, but there’s a reason being Reformed is more than the 5 points of Calvinism. Church polity matters.

Connected to that last point, we need to hold teachers, writers, and speakers accountable for what they write and say. And this is actually where social media and blogging can be a help. Public teaching is open to public critique.

Any Christian who sets himself up as a teacher in the church of Christ and publicly teaches anything thereby opens himself up for criticism by others (cf. James 3:1). If they think what he is teaching is harmful to the church, they have an obligation to point it out just as widely as it was taught. Such public warning or debate on the topic should not be considered a personal attack at all. The teacher’s plea that a critic should first have come to him about his disagreement on the basis of Matthew 18:15 does not hold. This passage has to do with personal wrongs known only between the two, who should privately discuss the matter that separates them. What a critic of a public teaching does in pointing out his disagreement with that teaching has nothing to do with personal affronts or lack of reconciliation; he is simply disagreeing at the same public level as that on which the teaching was given in the first place. — Dr. Jay E. Adams, Grist from Adam’s Mill, 69

This should not be abused, and it should be done with care and gentleness whenever possible. I know that some may be distressed that I’ve critiqued Warren’s article in this way. But my critique has been kept at the level of ideas and not at a personal level. I have nothing personal against Warren. I simply disagree with her on this matter. Her public article invites public critique. And mine does too. I’m certain those who disagree with what I’ve written here will say so.

The next step that I think we need to attempt is to stop buying books from false teachers and to stop attending conferences with false teaching. It sounds easy, but the reason these false teachers have a platform is because people pay for and support them. We need to be more discerning and willing to take a stand publicly.

Related to that, I believe that big name leaders and organizations need to be more discerning and careful to stand for orthodoxy over popularity. That means they need to not promote false teachers. They need to not be silent when others are addressing error. There are big name organizations that were studiously silent on the Trinity debate. I’m not saying everyone needs to address every controversy. There wouldn’t be time. But some errors are so fundamental that we cannot be silent.

Standing up for orthodoxy will also mean not speaking at conferences or sharing stages with heterodox teachers. This also includes not publishing false teaching. I don’t care how winsome those teachers are. The presence of big name leaders side by side with heterodox ones lends respectability. Which leads to another Reformation era danger: certain groups, organizations, or people are seen as infallible no matter what. The average person is conditioned to blindly trust and not question what they are taught by the “right” people. (HT: Persis Lorenti)

Big name leaders and organizations also need to take concerns over the teaching of “one of their own” seriously and not simply circle the wagons or invoke the Good Old Boy network for protection. As Aimee Byrd has written extensively in her book, No Little Women, pastors and elders need to know what’s being taught to the women in their churches, and they need to be willing to address any false teaching.

Lastly, women writers and speakers (and men too) need to be well-grounded in solid doctrine. They need to submit to the local authority of their church. They need to be willing to hear correction and to speak the truth in love in all they write and say.

Warren raised some legitimate concerns regarding the prevalence of false teaching and the lack of appropriate authority and accountability in the blogosphere. However, the answer isn’t authoritarianism, ordination/commissioning, or more control over bloggers. Rather, the answer is a return to the authority of Scripture and the accountability of the local church through existing means. We must teach ourselves and others to be Berean, always searching the Scriptures to see if we or others are staying true to the faith.

As I said, this is much harder to accomplish than introducing more controls or regulations, but it is the only way to truly reform the Christian blogosphere. We need a grassroots effort to reform from the bottom up, not new authority structures to enforce a top-down hierarchy of approved bloggers. Let’s not forget the lessons of the Reformation. The privilege to study and discuss theology as an average woman was too dearly won.

Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere? Ultimately, we all are.

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.

Does it matter what women are taught?

Since I first began writing, one of my main concerns has been the effect false teaching has on the church, and particularly on women. It is a topic dear to my heart. Because of this, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review Aimee Byrd’s latest book, No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God. Aimee also has a heart for the women in the church and what they’re being taught.

In No Little Women, Aimee addresses the need for women to be taught both solid doctrine and how to be discerning. The book is geared towards two audiences: pastors/elders and Christian women, although anyone would benefit from reading it.  Aimee wants pastors/elders to take an active role in teaching, equipping, and protecting women in the church. She asks, “[W]hat is your expectation for the women in your church? (271)” She also wants women to be competent allies and not “little women.”

The title comes from Paul’s warnings in 2 Timothy 3:6-7,

For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (NASB)

Aimee notes that “weak” women could be translated “little” or “small” women (23). This description does not mean that women are by nature “weak” and gullible, but it is a useful warning that godly women should heed. If we’re not going to be weak and easily led astray, we will need to be well grounded in the Scripture. We need to know what we believe.

Aimee warns that today the greatest danger for women 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)

For this reason, pastors/elders need to know what’s being taught in women’s books and studies, and women need to learn discernment. Aimee’s book seeks to encourage both. First, Aimee explains why it matters.

All Christians, both men and women, are theologians. We all have beliefs about God. In order to be good theologians, we must be taught good doctrine. Here Aimee emphasizes the importance of the ministry of Word and sacraments done by our ordained leaders. This cannot be replaced by study on our own or in small groups or by parachurch organizations. We need to hear the Word preached and have the sacraments administered in the church by our pastors and elders.

Because men and women together make up the body of Christ, the church, Aimee explains that we must work together. Aimee uses the imagery of the church as the household of God. “In a household that is set up properly, women should thrive alongside the men as they serve according to their giftedness and the needs of the church (87).” Only qualified men should be ordained leaders in the church, but we all have gifts that should be used in the work of the church:

While we do have male leadership in the ministerial office, we don’t want to promote a male culture in the church. Women are not only necessary allies to their husbands within their personal households but are also necessary allies to the men in carrying out the mission of the household of God. And in this way, women have distinct and diverse contributions to make alongside their brothers in Christ. Christ’s own ministry involved women as necessary allies. (106)

In order for women to be competent and to fulfill their roles as necessary allies, women must be taught sound doctrine.

Next Aimee explains why women’s ministry is so often a “back door for bad doctrine.” Many times the pastors/elders are unaware of what’s being taught:

Far too many motivated women are dealing with shallow women’s studies – or, worse, just plain false teaching – in their church. One of the biggest laments is that the elders are unaware of the harm that these studies are inflicting on the women in their congregation. And the message from silence is that the women don’t really matter. (31)

Even when pastors/elders are made aware of the dangerous teachings, many times nothing much is done:

It is often difficult to have an edifying, civil conversation with those who insist on teaching material that is being questioned by a discerning and concerned church member or pastor. The pastor often looks like the bad guy if he comes in, after a study has already been established, to gently correct the teaching and offer something to replace it. Families begin to take sides, and some even leave the church. Women have approached their pastors or elders because their group is studying a book with false teaching, only to be ignored as if it doesn’t matter because it’s just the women’s group. (51)

Two of the main reasons bad teaching in women’s ministry gets a pass is that the teachers are so friendly and likable:

Many Christians do not distinguish between a likable personality and the content of that person’s teaching. … [M]any of the women who teach troubling doctrines are very likable. Their books are well packaged, their talks are endearing, and they are exceptionally good at honing in on the common struggles that women are dealing with. They approach these topic with humor, self-disclosure, and warmth. And their lingo sounds pretty Christian. … [W]e think we can let our guard down. (48)

And many people are hesitant to critique women teachers:

So often, the theology of women such as these is not critiqued because we don’t want to hurt feelings. Somehow it comes off as not nice to critique a woman’s teaching. Well, that isn’t taking women seriously, either. It is not insulting to point out error. What is unloving is giving a teacher license to teach falsely because you like her personality, because you want to believe that it’s true, or worse, because you don’t want to engage critically with a woman. (149)

As Aimee says, it should not be this way. Because women matter, because women are necessary allies, because women need to be competent, we must hold all of the teaching, no matter who it’s geared to, to the same high standard. To do this, we need practical skills to learn how to discern whether a book or study is theologically healthy or not.

In the last third of the book, Aimee sets out to teach us how to do be discerning. She gives a great illustration of the nature of the problem, equating false teaching in women’s books to an autoimmune disease in the church:

While there is a lot of heresy being sold by the Christian book industry, books marketed for and popular with Christian women could often be diagnosed as having autoimmune diseases. Without a thorough inspection, they seem to have some good points and experiences that women can relate to. But the authors tend not to have a sound theological immune system. … Inevitably what happens is that they being attacking healthy teaching in a subversive kind of way, causing all kinds of inflammation and various chronic conditions that weaken the church. For some reason, they do not react well to attempts to correct them, and they want to continue overactively spreading their messages. (234)

It’s crucial that we learn to assess the theological health of a book. To this end, Aimee lists four essential questions to ask about the theology of a book.

  1. What does the author say about God’s Word? (223)
  2. What does the author say about who man is? (224)
  3. What does the author say about God? (226)
  4. What does the author say about what God has done and is doing? (228)

Aimee also explains that not all theological “illnesses” in a book are equally dangerous. She describes the process of determining how dangerous it is as theological triage. She divides the theological differences into three categories: first-order, second-order, and third-order:

[T]he essentials, such as the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, and justification by faith, are what Mohler calls “first-order” doctrines that are necessary for a Christian to believe. Any teaching that contradict first-order doctrines are heretical. (231)

Examples of second-order doctrines would be mode of baptism and church government. These are important, but not essential for faith. Third-order doctrines would be something like eschatology. On these we can often agree to disagree.

Aimee then uses several examples from popular Christian books to demonstrate how to go about implementing these discernment skills. The examples are very helpful. I thought for my purposes here, I would use a quote from a new book as a practical demonstration of the essential questions and triage that Aimee recommends.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is a popular author and speaker. She and Mary Kassian have written many books as part of the True Woman movement. I’ve written before about my concerns with the doctrine in True Woman 101. One of my main concerns was that Kassian and DeMoss taught the Eternal Subordination of the Son. After this summer’s Trinity debate, I wondered if the new books coming out would continue to teach ESS.

Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel was released this week and is the first book written since Nancy DeMoss married and became Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. What follows is a quote from Adorned:

But Paul himself, writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, specifically sets forth the divine order of headship and submission as being timeless and transcultural – the husband-wife relationship patterned after the God-Son relationship and the Christ-man relationship.

I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor. 11:3)

For a wife, submission means accepting God’s good order for her life, just as a husband submits himself to God in accepting God’s order for his life. And it gives her the privilege of representing the mystery and the beauty of the Son’s submission to the Father. For even within the Trinity, we see this paradoxical arrangement — seamless unity with separate roles and different identities, perfect equality with pure submission.

The Father and the Son, we know, are both equally God. And yet the Son chooses to submit Himself to the will of the Father:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will by the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38)

The submission of Christian wives to their husbands is a powerful and beautiful picture of the Son’s submission to His Father and of the church’s submission to Christ. These wives, together with husbands who love them selflessly and sacrificially, put the gospel story on vivid and compelling display. (264-265)

Using Aimee’s criteria, we can assess the theological health of Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth’s book, Adorned. What I first noticed in reading the quote is that it teaches the Eternal Subordination of the Son. This answers question 3 above, “what does the author say about God?”

Teaching ESS, in turn, indicates a misuse of Scripture for both the passages quotes, which answers question 1, “what does the author say about God’s Word?” Both 1 Corinthians 11:3 and John 6:38 are speaking about Christ as the God-man. When Christ submits to God, it is His humanity that is submitting, not His divinity. The submission is not within the Trinity.

By applying this wrong view of the Trinity to the relationship of husband and wife, the quote illustrates a faulty anthropology. That answers question 2, “what does the author say about  who man is?”

In answer to question 4, “what does the author say about what God has done and is doing?”,  the quote equates the gospel with the relationship of a husband and wife which presents a severely truncated version of the gospel. Husbands and wives do reflect one aspect of the gospel in illustrating part of the relationship between Christ and the church.

However, there is no way for husbands and wives to tell the full story of the gospel, that Christ was incarnate and made man, that He lived a sinless life fulfilling the law for us, that He died a sacrificial death on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, that He was raised on the third day overcoming death and hell, that His righteousness has been applied to us, and that He will come again in glory and we will be with Him forever. That is the full gospel and no marriage, as godly as is might be, could possibly demonstrate all of it. And we shouldn’t settle for less than the full story.

As far as triage goes, the Trinity is a first-order doctrine. By teaching Eternal Subordination of the Son, Adorned is teaching a false view of the Trinity. That is a serious problem. As Aimee says in No Little Women,

If an author is not in line with what God says about himself, then you should have serious doubts about what she is teaching you. (227)

Because of this, I would not recommend Adorned to others without seriously cautioning them.

I am very thankful for Aimee’s work in No Little Women. I hope everyone will read it. With Aimee, I hope that pastors and elders are encouraged to get involved with the women of their church in order to teach, equip, protect, and utilize them in the work of the church. I also hope women especially will be spurred to greater faithfulness and discernment. Our churches need us to be competent women in our roles as necessary allies. May we be “little women” no longer.

 

 

Theological Fitness: A Review

Ah, fitness. Such a hot topic these days. It’s everywhere: from exercise routines to the latest diet trends to electronic gadgets and apps to keep track and stay focused on your goals. Everyone wants to be fit, or at least, laments that they aren’t as fit as they’d like to be. Fitness can be a controversial topic because everyone has a different opinion as to how to go about it.

For example, I hate to run. If you ever see me running, please stop and help me, someone is chasing me. I do, however, enjoy working out in water. This is for three reasons. You don’t get all sweaty. If you make a mistake, no one can see it. And most importantly, if anything jiggles that shouldn’t, they can’t see that either.

Kidding aside, fitness is an important concept in our society. But what about theological fitness? Are our bodies strong, but our “theological muscles” wasting away? Does it matter if they are? What can we do about it? This is the focus of Aimee Byrd’s new book, Theological Fitness: Why We Need a Fighting Faith. Aimee Byrd, also known as the Housewife Theologian, is part of the team of contributors for the Mortification of Spin podcast. She and her co-hosts, Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt, regularly discuss topics of interest in the Reformed world.

One of Byrd’s recent concerns has been the lack of discernment and doctrinal precision in many of the popular Christian books. I share her concern and am thankful for her solid and helpful contribution in her most recent book. Theological Fitness is an excellent study, and not just for women.

At the heart of Theological Fitness is a discussion of Hebrews 10:23 and what it means for believers. Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Byrd writes about how, why, and what we’re to “hold fast” to:

Are you tempted to backslide? Hold fast! Are you being persecuted? Hold fast! Through suffering, fear, and chastisement, and in the ordinary, everyday life of faith and obedience, we are encouraged to hold fast. It may sound like an easy adage, but my goal in this book is to show you that it is a workout. And this kind of workout, this exhortation, in fact, promotes a theological fitness. (14)

What is “theological fitness”? Byrd says, “Theological fitness, then, refers to that persistent fight to exercise our faith by actively engaging in the gospel truth revealed in God’s Word. (16)” Fighting, exercise, actively engaging … these words emphasize the effort we are called to make in our daily walk. It’s about the process of sanctification.

There are some today who prefer not to talk about our efforts as part of sanctification. They point to Christ’s work and our inability. But the idea that we are called to strive towards holiness is not unbiblical. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 35) defines sanctification this way:

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Sanctification is God’s work of making us holy, but part of that work is making us able to “die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” And Paul uses frequent examples from sports and warfare to illustrate that this means effort on our part.

Byrd makes this point in Theological Fitness:

We persevere not because of our own faithfulness, but because he who promised is faithful. … Only Jesus had the fitness for the work of our salvation. But he has now qualified us for the race of the Christian life. (17)

I love the image of Jesus having qualified us for the race. It’s God’s work, and He will finish it. But we are called to work, and work hard, in this life. And that is what Byrd focuses on in her book. Using many fitness metaphors and examples, thankfully well-explained for those of us less fitness savvy, Byrd encourages us all to struggle and to fight the good fight.

Because we have been justified by God’s grace and Christ’s death and resurrection, we are now free. Free to struggle against our indwelling sin and free to struggle for growth in holiness:

We are new creations under the reign of grace! Sin no longer reigns in us, and knowing this new status changes everything. We are not fighting to improve our old selves, but we are striving to live as new creations in Christ. (46)

And the struggle is a good thing! It’s a gift:

The great gift of faith doesn’t stop at our justification, but it causes us to continue to trust in God to sanctify us as we press on. That same faith that looked to Christ for a declaration of holiness now looks to him for the strength and ability to live in holiness. Surely, sanctification is not passive process; it is a daily struggle. But the struggle is part of the blessing. (50)

What I loved about this book is that it’s an encouragement, even an exhortation, to be serious about our sanctification, but it’s not a burdensome checklist kind of book. It strikes the right balance between struggling against our sin and resting in the finished work of Christ. Our efforts cannot save us, but we are called to “hold fast” because “He is faithful.”

If you are looking for a good study for yourself or a group, I highly recommend Theological Fitness. There are even study questions that can be used in a small group setting. It may not popular these days to be serious about holiness and piety (not to be confused with pietism), but we are in a very real struggle and need to be encouraged in our own fight and to encourage others. This book helps us do that. I am very thankful for Aimee Byrd and her work.

 

Note: I was given a copy of this book to review. I was not asked or expected to review the book in a positive light. Other than the book, I received nothing in exchange for this review.

Mortification of Spin: My interview on the dangers of patriarchy

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to discuss the dangers of patriarchy with the hosts of the Mortification of Spin podcast. I had a great time. Carl Trueman, Aimee Byrd, and Todd Pruitt are an interesting bunch. I really appreciate them taking the time to discuss such an important and controversial topic. You can visit the link below to hear the whole thing.

Mortification of Spin: Bully Pulpit XL: Patriarchy