When Our Covenant Children Experience Same-Sex Attraction
We’re at a cultural moment in the American Church where we have staunchly conservative Christians at loggerheads with a highly adolescent Gay Christian movement. That conflict extends to conservative criticism of the way in which even a subset of self-described celibate gay Christians (who claim they hold to traditional biblical sexual ethics) are advised or allowed to express themselves and have a cultural conversation.
How did we get here?
Our sad history of callousness along with its fearful and presumptive “project management” approach (if not outright disgust and dismissal) on the part of conservative Christians is much of the driving force behind the dynamics and conversation being where they are now on this subject and phenomenon.
Real individuals — sons and daughters of the Faith who’ve been baptized and raised to love Jesus — did and still do enter their adolescence only to discover dark and confusing things about themselves in a Christian climate and context that doesn’t take our own teachings about the sinful corruption of our human nature seriously or consistently. We ended up signaling to these teenagers in no uncertain terms that they’re the embodiment of shame and had better keep silent about their particular patterns of perverse desire.
Conservative Christians have fostered a climate that tells their own children they have more solidarity with those who bear the weight of their particular sexual brokenness and disorientation than they do with those who bear the weight of the same confession of faith and manner of life set apart from this present world.
Conservative Christians have offered a new life hidden in the closet, empty promises of conversion therapy, deliverance ministry, and other quick fixes amounting to a prosperity gospel of dramatic sexual transformation. We’ve failed to develop and promote a vision for a plausible life of slow and steady obedience on a long hard road of uneven, incomplete, yet real sanctification.
Conservative Christians have failed to create an internal platform where this conversation could’ve happened under our own communal roof with our own participation as the whole body of believers with all members contributing. Instead, our children resort to conferences just to know they’re not alone.
All the eyes gather together and think that only eyes can understand and help each other. They say to the rest of the body, “We have no need of you, because you made it clear that you have no need of me.” This is profoundly unhealthy for the severed members of the body and pathetically negligent on the part of the scarred and calloused body that remains.
Conservative Christians have failed to provide a climate that says, “You’re one of ours, and we won’t give up on providing you with all of the encouragement, compassion, nurture, exhortation, and admonition you need.” We’ve failed to create an atmosphere where anyone would actually want to ask us for help.
Or so all of this was in recent prior generations. With our culture being where it is now, these things can no longer easily be ignored. And a new generation of conservative Christians are facing this reality as the culture has forced us to face a whole host of challenging and troubling new issues.
Thankfully, the negligence of the past isn’t the case among all Conservative Christians. But it’s a pervasive reality. And I know from experience. There’s been great help to be had. And there’s been great neglect and injury as well. But by and large, it’s been a lot of them or rather a lot of us — Christians who experience same-sex attraction and submit ourselves obediently to the Faith — on our own, figuring much of this stuff out for ourselves and teaching our helpers how to help us.
Conservative Christian community is absolutely where I call home and where I want to be for a lot of good reasons. But this community has certainly made it difficult at times to feel welcome or even simply understood well.
A Primer and Critique of the Side B Movement of Celibate Gay Christians
The Side B Movement, which is (now) largely synonymous with Celibate Gay Christianity, isn’t something particularly recognizable or familiar to most folks, even most Christians.
I want to make a sketch of it as I’ve observed the colony living and evolving over the past several years. I hope to be essentially informative in my sketch of the movements of the beehive. But I know I can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t avoid expressing my concerns and criticisms.
I playfully use bee and hive imagery because it’s common playful imagery used by many folks in the Side B Movement to identify themselves.
So, is Side B actually a movement? There’s been some debate about that. In my opinion, when it’s got a recognized hashtag (#LGBTinChrist as distinct from #FaithfullyLGBT for Side A) and emoji combo (🏳️🌈🐝), a large Facebook Group (ASBC: A Side B Community), Bee merchandise, and regional and nation conferences, gatherings, and retreats, then I consider it a movement.
The prior map of the terrain from about a decade ago was Side A vs Side B. The imagery of a classic cassette tape meant as neutral terminology that came out of conversation at the Gay Christian Network by those willing to engage with one another as fellow professing Christians. It’s neutral terminology in the sense that it was meant to provide a common deflationary verbiage and avoid inciting continual disputes about “homophobic” vs “loving” or “faithful” vs “revisionist” language. It wasn’t and isn’t meant to imply the equal validity of the two views.
The divide between Side A and Side B was a question of the sanctifiability of gay marriage as a viable context to express gay romantic and sexual passions and find fulfillment, i.e. the ethics of sexual conduct. In that discourse, Side A was the affirming side; Side B was the non-affirming side that held to traditional biblical sexual ethics. In its (now) more traditional usage — if you can actually call ten-years-ago “traditional” — Side B refers to anyone affirming the traditional biblical sexual ethic. The old and new usages have to be borne in mind, because equivocation happens, which can and does lead to bait-and-switch maneuvers and motte-and-bailey fallacies.
Rapidly over a handful of years, this landscape has changed significantly; it’s developed more features, contours, and ecosystems as the locus for Side B thought has further distinguished itself from other groups occupying the shared land of traditional biblical sexual ethics.
The terminology has shifted from Side A and Side B of a cassette tape to the buttons on a video game console. I’m pretty sure it’s an Xbox controller even though I see “GayStation” mentioned. What would I know? I’m a classic Nintendo nerd.
So, here’s a current map of the terrain as I’ve straightforwardly received it from Side B folks who are in the know. I’ve simply visually adapted it to a honeycomb motif.
Affirming a gay identity through a fully expressed sexuality
Transition zone of uncertainty between Side A and Side B
Affirming a gay identity while rejecting all gay sexual conduct
Transition zone of uncertainty between Side B and Side Y
Rejecting a gay identity while admitting to homosexual inclinations
Transition zone of uncertainty between Side Y and Side X
Refraining from discussing enduring homosexual desire or “ex-gay”
This is a statement about the cartographer as much as (or more so than) it’s a statement about the landscape. This is the framework by which Side B sees itself and its neighbors.
This is a map of the same terrain previously mapped as Side A vs Side B only a few years ago. Old Side B has become a spectrum of gradations delineated by the priorities and the interests of those in the new Side B group. Side Y and Side X aren’t the self-conceptions of the people categorized in those groups; they’re the conceptions which Side B projects upon those they classify as Side Y and Side X.
Note that Side A hasn’t been broken down into any sort of spectrum. Perhaps it could be. Perhaps to the folks on that side, there’s some meaningful difference between sanctified gay marriage and sanctified polyamory, etc. But that’s their cross to bear, and those are their mind-games to play among themselves.
This expansion of detail in the cartography of the same sexual landscape tells me that the basis of surveying and landmarking has changed. It’s becoming far more subjective, and it’s being driven by those for whom a subjective sexual sense of themselves is critical and fairly central to their overall self-conception and identity curation and presentation.
The fact that this framework recognizes its transition zones as identified positions speaks to its inherent subjectivity as a product of personal self-perception and self-understanding more than a representation of one’s public professions and practices, even if the former doesn’t rule out some engagement with the latter.
This layout also aligns with the theologico-sociopolitical landscape; it’s openly affirmed as such. It’s a spectrum from progressive to conservative. The sheer fact that religious and sociopolitical convictions map neatly onto this spectrum of sexual identification in itself merits any number of questions and concerns about its implications. One fairly obvious implication is that conservatives have no comfortable or functional place in Side B. And Nick Roen said as much when he distanced himself from the Side B label in June 2019. I can readily identify with Nick’s thoughts and concerns.
I’m not trying to be the language police about what particular words Christians with this particular lived experience can or should use in expressing ourselves to other Christians or to outsiders. But I do believe words are not benign. Neither is the way in which we use and inhabit those words. I’m not concerned about incidental words. I’m concerned about the sort of ethos and micro-culture that the Side B Movement is continually constructing and inhabiting. My concern is that the evolution of Side B is in the hands of folks who are truly Side A Lite.
This reminds me of the modern Reformed proverb: There’s a reason it’s called semi-Pelagianism instead of semi-Augustinianism. We know what the underlying driving motivation is.
I see that trajectory when I see a notable attrition rate from Side B to Side A but little or no attrition from Side B to Side Y or Side X. Or maybe the attrition’s form speaks for itself. Attrition from Side B to Side A is a(nother) coming-out ritual while attrition from Side B to Side Y/X is a quiet withdrawal. That contrast is informative.
The Side B Movement isn’t about affirming a particular sexual ethic; it’s about embracing a particular micro-culture. Insofar as predilections for certain music and hobbies and the possession of culinary skills constitute prominent subcultural features, Side B is a part of the broad and vague Gay Culture that is juxtaposed to a Straight Culture. Personally, I’d say what Sue Sylvester said about it to Kurt Hummel on Glee:
See, that’s the problem with your generation. You’re obsessed with labels. So you like show tunes. Big deal. That doesn’t make you gay. It just makes you awful [or awesome if you prefer].
I get concerned when I encounter fanciful queer theorizing about present, prelapsarian, and post-resurrection anthropologies and an attendant assortment of polysyllabic sexual neologisms among Side B folks in dialogue with Side A Lite folks and Side A converts. It leads me to my ongoing concern that the Side B subculture has a pervasive problem with malakia or moral softness as understood in ancient and medieval Christian ethics. It’s not exaggerated performative hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity focusing every effort on picking the low-hanging fruit of personality traits and quirks as easy targets.
The chief forms of moral softness among Side A Lite that alarm me are manifestations such as:
Queer theorizing about human sexuality before the Fall which seeks to subvert any reasonable and responsible construction of it as functionally heteronormative, and doing so apparently so as to avoid reckoning with the profoundly disordered nature of homosexual and transgender impulses and inclinations according to traditional Christian sexual ethics
Tabling vital discussions of cross-dressing, drag behavior, pride marching, celibate partnerships, bro-cuddling, and the like as though it’s sexual adiaphora when it’s all very plausibly sexual immorality deserving of ecclesiastical rebuke and discipline as understood by those who are theologico-sociopolitically conservative
Transgenderism and Queer Culture generally receiving a free pass from scrutiny or special privileges of victimhood empathy and never being addressed with regard to Christian sexual ethics concerning appropriate gendered behavior
Recurrent public displays of acedia and bitterness that chip away slowly at biblical convictions, the fear of the Lord, and the attendant holiness he expects from those who bear and are called by his Name
These manifestations of malakia make it hard for me to trust the worth and substance of any claim about holding to a traditional biblical sexual ethic that amounts to anything more than crass notions of who can or cannot rub genitals with whom and under what circumstances. That’s simply nowhere near a comprehensive Christian sexual ethic. To me, this is looking less like a docile beehive and more like a hornet’s nest of trouble.
Some Follow-Up Comments on Terminology …
The Side B Movement … is largely synonymous with Celibate Gay Christianity
Yes and no. It’s complicated. Generally and increasingly, yes. But not exhaustively. I don’t regard the Side B Movement to be the same thing as a group like Spiritual Friendship for instance.
In the short and rapidly paced history of things, the Side B Movement has some relationship with Spiritual Friendship. But Side B is going placed that SF hasn’t gone and isn’t going. I have the sense that Side B has presently purchased or co-opted the “Celibate Gay Christian” brand name from SF. And I think it’s a matter of deserved recognition and respect to distinguish men and women at Spiritual Friendship and their efforts.
In the marketplace of movements, the majority shares in the “Gay Christianity” brand are held by the affirming theologically revisionist camp. In the older Side A vs Side B dialogue and framework, Side A had and still holds the larger numbers. ‘Celibate’ was the modifier that folks like those at Spiritual Friendship chose in their efforts at careful articulation of language and a presentation of their concept and framework. The newer Side B wave isn’t as careful and conservative in its language and self-conception.
There’s a reason it’s called semi-Pelagianism instead of semi-Augustinianism.
– Reformed Proverb
The underlying driving motivation of the evolution of Side B is Side A Lite in my opinion. Would Side B like the label or wish to own the idea that they’re Side A Lite? I highly doubt they would. The folks on the leading edge of Side B probably don’t want to think of themselves as Side A Lite. But Side B has an excessively minimalist definition of traditional sex ethics, and it doesn’t have the same perspective as I have on how far gone from a robust traditional Christian sexual ethic it is.
In some ways, Side A Lite seems to like the fact that it’s a murky place but doesn’t think of it as a mess. I get the impression that it’s regarded as a place of freedom, creativity, and dignified diversity. And I see that made possible by a low view of scriptural inspiration and the accompanying theological revisionism and progressivism that come into play. They do so by thinning or emptying out a traditional biblical anthropology with its emphasis on corrupting sinfulness.
Many Side B folks seem to be comfortable being experienced as affirming by Side A folks or expressing how they’re comfortable having fellowship with Side A and Side B equally. This goes hand-in-hand with the perception and the confessions of Side B folks that they don’t regard the Side A position as spiritually perilous and devastating. This adds all the more to Side A Lite being an apropos characterization.
Side Y and Side X aren’t the self-conceptions of the people categorized in those groups; they’re the conceptions which Side B projects upon those they classify as Side Y and Side X.
If you ask me, the way Side B often makes distinctions between itself and Side Y or Side X and between Side Y and Side X, it’s sometimes just a metric for how annoyed Side B folks get or how hurt they feel with what you tell them they can or can’t do or how they should or shouldn’t express themselves. When it’s not that, it’s merely a charitable disagreement about those same do’s and don’ts.
Side Y means Christians who are willing to acknowledge and speak (usually publicly or in a less guarded or closed off fashion) about the fact they experience same-sex attraction or homoerotic and homosexual desires. But they don’t adopt a gay identity, whether a public presentation or a private self-conception. Again, “traditionally” for Side B, Side Y is about an unwillingness to describe oneself as gay.
But more and more, it’s not a matter of one’s willingness to use stipulated language in conversation; it’s an insistence or urgency about whether or not to adopt a “gay” brand identity as a prominent feature of your public self-presentation. Side B does that. Side Y does not. Because Side Y doesn’t operate according to the extent it desires to embrace a gay self-conception, a Side Y individual doesn’t think about himself or herself in the way a Side B individual thinks about a Side Y individual.
Frequently, Side X functionally means those Christians experiencing same-sex attraction who annoy and upset Side B people. Side X means Rosaria Butterfield, Christopher Yuan, and so forth. And Side X means any number of ultraconservative Christians who oppose the Side B construction and trajectory.
To Side B folks, Side X means people unwilling to candidly vulnerably talk about the fact that they still experience same-sex attraction. It tends to amount to Side B folks disliking the fact that Side X folks won’t talk in the way Side B folks desire to hear.
To Side B folks, Side X also means folks who insist everyone says “same-sex attraction” because any talk about being “gay” or more so the self-conception of identifying as “gay” is sinful.
Or it’s X for Side X folks, because it’s the new ex-gay meaning advocacy for conversion therapy or promotion of efforts at orientation change. It’s supposedly also a category for those who claim or give the impression they are no longer same-sex attracted.
I personally suspect that’s a misunderstanding or self-deceit on the part of Side B folks in some cases.
So Side X is a catch-all for a lot of things. A lot of things that Side B folks don’t like. And a lot of things that have genuinely hurt Side B folks in the past. There’s no denying that.
I don’t see many of those who are categorized as Side X as being Ex-Gay 2.0, a rebirth of the debacle that was Exodus International. Can you find plenty of Christians who talk as though homosexuals should or will become functioning heterosexuals as a part of their genuine repentance and conversion to the Faith? Yes, you can find those. And they’re a sect that’s quite out of touch with what we know about the anthropology of this matter along with the anthropology the Scriptures give us about this matter. And they always have been out of touch in these ways.
More and more for younger people who are Side B, “gay” language is about how you see yourself. But for the wider culture, and especially for an older generation, being gay has much more to do with how you live.
So for folks like Rosaria Butterfield and Christopher Yuan who lived for a time in their lives in active rebellion against God and carried it out in sexual immorality, it’s a very different experience from how they were living then to how they’re living now. It’s not confused and angst-ridden Christian teenagers who are regularly lamenting an urge for gay intimacy that they’ve never experienced and aren’t allowed to experience. There’s no sense of what they’ve escaped and renounced, only a sense of what they’re experiencing.
More and more, it seems that a ritual of the Side B Movement is wearing one’s weighty homosexual burden as an odd badge of honor or special privilege due to victimhood or grievance status. It’s not intended that way, but it comes across that way. It’s a felt need to signal about the unique burden. But someone who won’t do that and insists that it’s inappropriate for Christians to make such public displays of acedia about it will get categorized as Side X.
So, a trajectory from the old Side B to the new Side B is a growing matter of the Side B folks finding and expressing solidarity in the shared sexual self-perception with those who are Side A. It’s the solidarity of shared sexuality that Side X and Side Y Christians don’t want and find distantly secondary and rather fleeting compared to the solidarity they have with fellow Christians as fellow members of one Body and one Faith.
A Sketch of the Biblical Meaning of Divine Image-Bearing
My developed impression is that most Christians think being made in the image of God, aka Imago Dei, is a broad, flat, and generic affirmation of the universal intrinsic dignity and worth of humans as the special creatures God made us to be. I don’t think that’s the meaning of the Imago Dei in Scripture. I do think that the teaching of universal human dignity and worth is something that can be derived from the doctrine of the Imago Dei, but that’s not the heart of the matter.
Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.
Who is the “us” and the “our” in God’s utterance here in the creation account? I am of the opinion it’s the Divine Council that we see pictured in several places in Scripture. It’s God and the gods. The one true and eternal God and his heavenly angelic host. It’s the tribunal that renders judgment and instructs in the discernment of good and evil.
Let them have dominion … Fill the earth and subdue it …
Genesis opens with God who makes the light shine in darkness and has all authority. He speaks, and creation obeys. He establishes lights in the firmament of the heavens to rule over the day and the night and demarcate time. Luminaries are symbols for the angelic host and for the kings of men. This connects the Imago Dei to kingship and judgment.
Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.
For the longest time, I read this passage as though the emphasis was on the image of God conveying a certain worth upon mankind and therefore demanding the blood of the one who sheds the blood of man. I don’t dispute the truth of that. It’s there. But now I wonder if the emphasis here is on man as the avenger of the blood-guilt of his fellow man. That a man exercising kingship and judgment must avenge the bloodshed of the innocent. The Imago Dei is being evoked here to explain why man is being made the avenger.
The word of my lord the king will now be comforting; for as the Angel of God, so is my lord the king in discerning good and evil.
The angels of God in the old order were intermediaries and teachers of judicial wisdom. The Angel of Yahweh (who is most likely a theophany and specifically a christophany) in particular is connected with being an agent of judgment. So much so that King David is repeatedly compared to the Angel of Yahweh in his power to execute wise judgment. The king by definition is the man required to discern good and evil, i.e. judicial wisdom.
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
The prophet also has a connection to the Divine Council. The prophet by definition is the man who is brought into the Divine Council and is sent to represent the Divine Council.
Imago Dei and the Glorious Spirit
In various places in Scripture, we see the Spirit as the visible Glory and Presence of God. The Prophet Ezekiel recounts this shrouded Glory in vivid detail as wheels and cherubs, beastly faces and multitudinous eyes, an altar and a throne, and a man of fire and metal beneath a rainbow. It’s blanketed in clouds and thunders as it moves here and there.
This is the same Glory shrouded in darkness, full of fire, and resounding in thunder that descended upon Mount Sinai. This is the Presence that was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that would go before the Israelites. It brooded over Israel like an eagle over her chicks and bore them on its wings, just as it brooded over the waters in the creation.
The words used to describe the way the ominous cloud moved and sounded upon Mount Sinai are the same words that describe Yahweh moving and speaking in the Garden to the man and his wife. In fact, Yahweh comes in the “Spirit of the Day” in the Garden.
By threading all of this biblical information together about the Spirit as the Glory and the Presence of God, there are a few things to draw from it about the image of God.
Firstly, the Spirit as the Glory and the Presence is the pattern on the mountain that Moses saw and used to build the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is made in the image of the Spirit. Likewise the Aaronic high priest is an inside-out version of the Tabernacle. He belongs to the Tabernacle and is a part of the furnishings and a member of the court. He is made in the image of the Tabernacle and is thus made in the image of the Spirit who is the Glory and Presence of God. The Spirit is the pattern for the image.
Secondly, the phrase “Spirit of the Day” connects the Spirit with the Day of visitation and judgment. And rendering judgment has already been shown to be a defining aspect of the Imago Dei. The Spirit as the Glory and the Presence is the pattern for the Day of the Lord.
Imago Dei and the Threefold Office
It’s been shown that the Imago Dei is tied to aspects of functioning as king (through the exercise of judicial wisdom), as prophet (through the invitation into the Divine Council and the dispatching from the Divine Council), and as priest (through mediation of the Glory and the Presence). So, the Imago Dei is filled with connotations of functioning as prophet, priest, and king. All three of which are anointed offices, and together are the threefold office of Christ the Anointed One. The First Adam is called the image of God. And unsurprisingly, the Last Adam is wrapped up in being the Image of God.
Imago Dei and Sonship
And Adam … begot a son in his own likeness, after his image …
God makes Man in his own image and likeness. And Man begets a son in his own image and likeness. The function of imaging is caught up in the idea of sonship. The title Son of God is routinely synonymous with being the Davidic King.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
So here we have Christ named according to two references to a Son: image and firstborn. This is Christ as the Last Adam, the New Man, the New Creation.
For whom God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that Jesus might be the firstborn among many brethren.
Being the Image of God is tied up in being the Son of God. And those who are in Christ are the sons of God who are being made into the image of the Son of God. We are made sons in the Son. We are made images of the Image.
And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.
All those who are in Adam bear the image of Adam who was in the image of God. But he transgressed and marred the image with sin, the image which all those in Adam likewise bear. But all those who are in Christ bear the image of Christ who is the image of God. He has succeeded as fully faithfully functioning as the image of God. And all those who are in him are being conformed by God to that image of the Son.
Imago Dei, the Man, and the Woman
So God created Man [Adam] in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
In the day that God created Man [Adam], he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Man [Adam] in the day they were created.
Along with the flat claim of universal human worth and dignity, I also commonly hear the claim that the Imago Dei is a broad, flat, generic claim of the equality of men and women. I also don’t believe that to be the heart of the idea, though equality of worthy and dignity can also be derived from that.
Upon close inspection, it’s clear that the man is in the image of God and can stand for the whole of mankind as a male and female population in a way that the woman cannot. The man is the image of God in a more direct fashion than the woman, but the woman is also involved in being the image of God.
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. … For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. … Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.
The Apostle Paul makes this asymmetry and directionality of representation explicit. The man is the image and the glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. The man is not made for the woman, but the woman is made for the man.
And the purpose of this asymmetry and directionality of representation finds its ultimate fulfillment in the Whole Christ that is Head and Body, Husband and Bride. We can look to the Book of the Revelation to see this motion pictorially.
In the opening chapter, we learn that this vision happens in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. This sets the context as one of God’s visitation and judgment, which is in the image of the Spirit. Christ is present as the Son of Man, a new Adam and priestly figure moving in the midst of the seven lamp stands that are the seven churches. He is arrayed as a priest and is a man of fire and light and metal in the same manner as the likeness of a man in the heart of the Glory Spirit that Ezekiel saw. This evokes the symbology of the high priest as being a walking inverted tabernacle in the image of the Spirit. So at the opening, Christ is the man in the image of the Spirit.
In the closing chapters, we hear of the Lamb’s Bride who is prepared for him. The City of God comes down to earth. The Bride is from the Lamb and for the Lamb (the Husband). He has given his Spirit to the Church. The Church as his Bride in him has the Spirit. The Spirit and the Bride together say, “Come!” The Bride has become conformed to the image of her Husband and is his glory. She too is depicted in images of precious refined metal, a rainbow of gemstones, and light. She is full of the life and light of God and the Lamb.
Imago Dei and Corporate Worship
In the Reformed and other traditions, the first two of the Ten Commandments are:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image …
By distinguishing the first two commandments in this manner, the Reformed tradition is making a distinction that some have called covenantal apostasy vs liturgical apostasy. In the First Commandment, the service and prostration to all false gods is forbidden. To do so is to break covenant with the one true God by covenanting with another false god. But in the Second Commandment, any representation of the one true God using false images is forbidden. To do so is to profane the worship of the true God and to mislead the people in their understanding of God.
There are several reasons to not make images of God for use in worship. But one reason is that there is no need. There is a lawful image of God already present in worship: Man. If man is present in the worship of God, then God’s appointed Imago Dei is present. And this is true at several levels.
Firstly, all worship in the New Covenant happens in heaven. On earth, it need only be in Spirit and truth and doesn’t depend on geography. By faith through the Spirit, we ascend into the Presence on the true Mount Zion and in the true Jerusalem where we find Jesus the High Priest—Mediator, Minister, Intercessor. He who is the ultimate Image of God is already front and center in our worship by faith.
Secondly, when we gather for earthly worship which is patterned after heavenly worship, there’s a Man, a liturgist or minister, who functions as the local representation of Christ at the head of local worship. In his ordained office, the minister on earth visibly images the one who is the visible Image of God ministering in heaven.
Thirdly, the Holy Congregation (all those who are in Christ) are being transformed from glory to glory and are being conformed to the image of the Son who is the Image of God. The Totus Christus (the Whole Christ) is the Head and the Body and is the Great Mystery of the Ages. All those in Christ are being transformed and conformed to the image of the one who is the Image of God. Christ is the Head and Husband of the Church who is the Body and Bride. He is the Image and the Glory of God, and she is the image and the glory of the Man.
The false images of our own devising in worship (or elsewhere) are a distraction from the ministry at work in all the functioning and faithful true images of God who are present in worship and life.
What follows is a sketch of the various offices in the church. I gathered these details from looking at Scripture and pondering how the institutional church in her various locations and forms has implemented and developed her offices through history.
The most basic idea behind offices in the church is a recognition of qualified individuals being specially invested with authority and responsibility to carry out a function as their calling. Just how “official” that process becomes leaves some room for interpretation and implementation.
I offer one caveat about studying the offices of the church in Scripture. It’s true that God has given us all that we need for life and faith. Scripture is sufficient for us. But that’s a far cry from Scripture being an exhaustive “How To” manual about anything. What we know about church offices in Scripture comes to us as situational details in the context of stories and occasional letters. The raw data is messy. Christians can wrestle in good faith about how to more formally develop and apply the teachings and can come to differing conclusions.
The Threefold Work:
The scope of the work of church offices comes from the threefold office of Christ and the threefold marks of the Church. Christ, i.e. the Anointed One, occupies the three anointed offices seen in the Old Testament: the priest, the king, and the prophet. The three offices are all representatives and representations of God to the people and of the people to God. Each does so with respect to its core functions.
A priest is one who leads the worship and service of God. He tends to the Lord’s Table by bringing food from the people to God and from God to the people. He comforts the people and leads them through their alienation in weaknesses and failures to restoration.
A king is one who exercises judicial wisdom over the people and is accountable to God on behalf of the people. He is the agent of God’s justice among the people. He must lay down his life for the sake of the people. He is enthroned upon his suffering for the people.
A prophet is one who is called into the divine council and speaks for the divine council as a covenant lawyer on behalf of God. He calls the people of God to covenant faithfulness and reminds them of their covenant with God. He also advocates for the people to God.
The classic threefold marks of the church are the right teaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the right tending of the Flock. These display the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices respectively. The establishment of these functions by Christ as marks of his Body the Church necessarily implies a fourth mark: the right appointment of the Officers.
The various church officers are oriented to these various functions and identity markers.
The Gifting Principle:
In Ephesians 4, Paul describes the unity of the people of God (vss. 1-6). There is one Body. It is filled with one Spirit. It is ruled by one Lord. It is expressed as one Faith. It is marked by one Baptism. It is birthed by one Father. But there is a great diversity of individuals in this unity of the people. And it sometimes leads to striving which calls for peace.
One cause of diversity is the grace of God given in different measures (vss. 7-10). Christ has given gifts to his people, and they are not all the same gifts distributed to all the same individuals. And some of the gifts he’s given to his people are the officers of the church for the purpose of edifying the Body (vss. 11-13).
Therefore, officers are those given their offices by Christ based on the different measures of grace given by God. Not all are qualified because not all have been given the same gifts.
The Servitude Principle:
In Philippians 2, Paul describes the humiliation of Christ and his subsequent exaltation by the Father (vss. 5-11). Although he was in the form of God, he did not cling to equality with God. He effaced himself. He took the form of a bondservant. The bondservant or slave is the lowliest of the various kinds of servants.
Christ taught that rising to greatness (i.e. status, agency, authority, and influence) in his kingdom is measured by sinking to servitude. Those individuals given greater positions and influence over his people must adopt a mindset and lifestyle of faithful servitude to the people. This is why the traditional clerical collar is a stylized shackle.
Therefore, officers should understand their offices as a calling to a heightened form of suffering, self-effacement, and burdened obligation to those whom they are bound.
Office of the Elder:
The elder is an old man. He ought to be elderly. The rationale behind that qualification is that wisdom rarely comes without age and experience (even if it sometimes doesn’t come with it). And there are general behavioral expectations for godly elderly men and women in Scripture (Titus 2:2-3).
The title of elder is functionally interchangeable with the titles of pastor/shepherd and of bishop/overseer. Those titles and the related functional terms are used interchangeably in Scripture (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). They are spoken of as ruling and as those who have the rulership of congregations. They keep a guarding watch over the Flock of God.
As such, they are representatives and representations of Christ in his kingly rule. They are his undershepherds. He is their Arch Shepherd. When the sheep look at the elders, they are not to see oversheep (fellow congregants) but rather undershepherds. They are to be recognized as office-holders set apart from the flock.
Elders in the New Testament aren’t all that different from elders in the Old Testament (Exodus 18). They are men of qualifying character who can be trusted with exercising and enforcing judicial wisdom in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-16).
Office of the Teacher:
The teacher is listed closely alongside the pastor in Ephesians 4. And in 1 Timothy 5:17, the elders are to be commended if they rule well and especially if they labor in the word and teaching. So, there is some measure of association and yet distinction between pastoring and teaching. Some elders focus their activities and giftings as ruling elders. But others labor in the word and doctrine in a way that ruling elders don’t. These are teaching elders or teachers. Traditionally, this has sometimes been recognized as a distinct office called the doctor of the church.
In James 3:1, teachers of the church are said to be subject to stricter judgment. Therefore, their skill and substance demand the highest quality as those whose teaching bears more weight in the church. As office-holders with authority and responsibility, they’re subject to the character qualifications just like their fellow officers of the church.
Office of the Minister:
A minister or liturgist is one who does the work of the people, i.e. a public servant. In the civil realm, the governor is called a minister of God who enforces justice (Romans 13:1-5). In the ecclesial realm, the minister is the governor of our gathered public service.
The work of the ministry or liturgy is mentioned a few times in Scripture. As an office, it’s never directly addressed. The office is deduced by necessity from various principles which govern and inform earthly gathered worship on the Lord’s Day. The Letter to the Hebrews has repeated warnings that we must learn the lessons of the Exodus Generation, because we are subject to something superior to what they had. Their worship was patterned after the things in heaven (8:5). How much more so should ours be? They came to a mountain to serve God and hold a feast to him. We come to the heavenly mountain by faith (12:18-24). The worship of the Israelites had a high priest called a minister just like our worship does with Christ in heaven (8:1-3).
Therefore, it’s fitting that our gathered public worship should be led by one who serves as a representative and representation of Christ in his priestly ministry.
Office of the Evangelist:
An evangelist is one who proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom. He is a herald. The office of the evangelist is listed among those in Ephesians 4 and is distinguished from apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers. Philip the deacon is also called an evangelist (Acts 21:8), and certainly, he did that work when he went to Samaria and when he met the Ethiopian Eunuch. Timothy is also called to do the work of an evangelist (1 Timothy 4:5). Evangelists appear to be or can be missionaries in practice. The work also seems to involve a degree of apologetics with outsiders as evidenced by the work of Stephen and Philip.
Office of the Deacon:
A deacon is an attendant or one who runs errands. The office first appears in Acts 6 as the size and needs of the church become unmanageable for the apostles alone. The apostles recognize they are to focus upon the ministry of the word and prayer. Seven deacons are appointed to attend to matters of mercy ministry in the church. But some of the deacons like Stephen and Philip go on to do evangelism and apologetics.
Like the elders or bishops, deacons have character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). And those qualification resemble the expectations for younger men and women (Titus 2:4-8).
In light of the diversity of what they do, the office of the deacon appear to be that of the assistant to the offices of the elder, the teacher, and the minister. Deacons are prospective elders, teachers, evangelists, and ministers in training. And some deacons simply remain as such. They assist and have a proven character to be appointed to a place of assistance.
Office of the Widow:
A widow is a woman who’s dependent upon the church for her life and who has devoted herself to the service of the church and the ministry of prayer. The office of the widow has character qualifications similar to those of elders and deacons and even involves official registration (1 Timothy 5:3-16). This is a distinctly female office whereas many of the other offices are prominently male offices. The widow is a counterpart of sorts to the elder.
One Last Thought:
As I said earlier, the raw biblical data is messy. It shows offices as less objectively formal than we often see now. Or a bit more fluid. There is a high degree of recognition of God’s giftings connected with functioning and office. Offices in Scripture have a certain degree of fluidity in their informality.
One outcome of that fluidity and the variability in God’s giving of different gifts is that some individuals can and do function in more than one office. Peter is an apostle, but he calls himself a fellow elder. Timothy is an elder, and Paul tells him to do the work of an evangelist. Paul says he’s been appointed as a preacher, apostle, and teacher.
And to a certain extent, simply exercising the function of God’s gift is a statement about the place and purpose of a member in the Body. And the Body has a vested interest and responsibility in encouraging and regulating that function for the sake of all.
A Note of Apostles and Prophets:
I do acknowledge the offices of the apostle and the prophet that are present in the New Testament. They’re named among the offices given by Christ in Ephesians 4. But for the purposes of this sketch, I omitting them from discussion. There’s much controversy as to whether they’re relevant in the present time or are essentially historical and presently defunct. Personally, when I read about “the household of God, having been built on a foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-22), I get the sense there’s a significantly historical progressive aspect to the spiritual construction project.
A Note on Ecclesial Gender Roles:
A brief word on sexual distinctions in church offices. I didn’t focus on addressing it in my post, because it’s a fairly complex conversation to have. It’s one I certainly want to be having and think we need to be having. And Lord willing, I’ll manage to capture some of my thoughts on liturgical and ecclesial sexuality in writing one of these days.
My short(ish) answer is that if we were to operate in a far more natural cultural context (one in which our creationistic embodied teleologies were more immediately obvious to us), then we’d see a distinctly male ruling eldership emerge. At present, we live in an anti-creationistic cultural context that has thoroughly infected the church. The perceptions of church office have changed as significantly as the perceptions of man, woman, and marriage have. It’s an odd game to play, arguing about male-only leadership when the game is being played by incapacitated players on a misshapen field where the structure and function of ecclesiology and the pastorate have been revised and hollowed out.
I do think woman are naturally oriented to some sort of eldering and deaconal duty. It’s not a statement of office as much as it is one of natural function. If the elders are the spiritual fathers of the church (as they should be), then the church needs spiritual mothers as well. Fathers are not mothers, and mothers are not fathers. There needs to be an effective natural patriarchy forming the structure of the church. And there needs to be an effective natural matriarchy filling the substance of the church. Again, sexual distinctions would be obvious if we lived in a natural context that made sexually differentiation readily apparent.
One social media circle of Christians that’s familiar to me is the tribe of ultraconservative Reformed Roarriors. For better or worse, they’re a part of my people and my social circles through various former and ongoing social engagements over the years. And I have some sympathies for what they’re attempting to do through their cultural engagements, even if they often do it bluntly and poorly.
I’ve spoken about them as Culture Warlords and their horde of zealous Culture Warriors who bellow the war-cries, blow the Warhorns, and charge into Worldview™ Warfare. It’s an image of armed Christianity and weaponized faithfulness that’s more meaningful and central to their self-conception and brand identity than that of being a Church and Faith that’s first and foremost a culture of worship. (Read more here.) Not that they do away with the latter. It’s just a matter of their apparent functional priorities. And it’s intensified in recent years.
I’ve talked about my brethren affectionately as cantankerous Calvinists leading the way in the defense of a gender-differentiated sex spectrum from mere complementarianism, through severe complementarianism, to roaring patriarchalism—going hand-in-hand with ever-increasing degrees of distortional performative hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity. All the while uncomfortable with potent feminine agency, uncertain what to do with it. Even how they lead the way in LARPing a particular vision of traditional life, supposedly to recapture a concept of the downfallen traditional household that favors strict domestic agency for women that tends to become juxtaposed to economic agency. It can even spawn and propagate a peculiar retrolapsarian prosperity gospel. These too have intensified in recent years.
All of this is deeply dependent upon clear conceptions and structures of robust authority and submission. And that’s something for which we can genuinely be grateful. But there’s a reactionary intensification in recent years that seems to be challenging even that.
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh, He also has rejected you from the kingship.
– 1 Samuel 15:23
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
– Romans 13:1-2
The current cultural climate in the United States is more tense and polarized than ever as one issue after the next piles on more pressure and opportunity for conflict and outrage. American Christians have not been immune from this. The Reformed Roarriors have not been immune from this.
The Reformed Culture Warlords have long asserted God’s good design for authority and submission among superiors and inferiors for every station in every sphere of existence. But now, the Culture Warlords are revealing themselves to be all too eager to assert their (very Enlightenment American) rights and liberties against exertions of state authority, too eager to want to subvert and rebel. To loudly challenge state encroachments or state ineptitude. And to even embolden other Christians not under the ecclesiastical authority of these men to defy their pastors and other authorities. The ecclesiastical warlording of these men is starting to look like an attitude of ecclesiastical witchcraft, i.e. rebellion.
Our Lord taught his followers that if a man strikes us on our right cheek, then we should turn our heads and offer him the left cheek to hit as well. There’s a thick thread running through the fabric of scriptural instruction that we are to learn patience and submission, even to a measure of mistreatment and persecution for doing right. To not be so quick to resist and fight back. But to endure and then resist once those in authority have actually commanded us to defy God. I’m not convinced that I’m seeing that sort of patience in the present circumstances.
Maybe it turns out that it’s all less principled than it first appeared and that this is more about personalities at play. Maybe several of the Cultural Warlords are actually men who have grown accustomed to and enjoy telling everyone what to do and despise all rivals to their tribal leadership. Will there come a point when God takes away authority here?
What if God was already working to take away the worship of the American church in his displeasure at our ongoing unfaithfulness to his commandments, and we find ourselves resisting his will and doing so in his Name? Have we considered God might’ve begun the judgment in his own house?
I can’t help but connect this with the charge of eschatological ecclesiastical feminism that runs through the strain of theonomic postmillennialism at work in Reformed Roarriors. This is a movement that holds and promotes a robust patriarchalism in the liturgical life and ordering of the church. And yet there’s an impulse for the church to defy the kings of the nations like a rebellious woman. Not for the sake of some holy subversion of tyranny, but for the sake of some haughty subversion of authority. What if the underlying church-state relations turn out to be the Bride of Christ as a corporate radical feminist?
What will be the most prominent cultural identifiers of the Faith?
This is a repost of a three-part series I did a few years ago. It had a particular context that had a lot to do with certain Presbyterians and Baptists forming a new denomination together and making constitutional provision to negotiate baptism, because the pressing need of the hour was abandoning corrupted denominations and standing strong against culture.
Part 1. What will be the primary markers of collective Christian identity in our witness to the culture and the world?
A minister-friend shared a brilliant observation with me. I see the insightfulness of that observation prove itself over and over again. I see it when two schools of thought collide among Reformed Christian brethren. To paraphrase and refine what he said to me:
Ministers who have a high view of the sacraments see the life of the church at worship as ordinary and effectual means of grace. Such a manner of life is the central indicator of our Christian identity and society. Preachers who have a low view of the sacraments resort to combative rhetoric and cultural warfare. These become their chief indicators of Christian identity.
We must seek and find our common citizenship in the Kingdom at the Lord’s Font and the Lord’s Table. If we don’t, we’ll seek it from ideological loyalty tests to a personality cult.
Some Christians treat fellowship of the Spirit embodied in worship and daily community life as trivial. Such is a peripheral concern in light of the supposed great need of this dark hour. And that great need is confronting false worldviews. Making sociopolitical alliances becomes the most vital need.
This is not about setting aside the importance of good doctrine. This idea is a doctrine in its own right. This is about recognizing two different trajectories in making manifest the Kingdom in this world. One looks to the public ministry of the Word and the Sacraments. To prayers and psalms and thanksgiving as salvation in the midst of sacred sociology. The other promotes an attitude of perpetual polemical posturing. It defends a curated official worldview as the tribal mark of Christian faithfulness. And it’s often accompanied by the implicit norms of a niche microculture.
The former promotes the Peace of the Christian Faith. The latter promotes the War of the Christian Worldview. The one trusts in the rituals and rhythms of rightly ordered public worship. These call to the nations and reveal the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The other trusts in the rant and rhetoric of rigorously asserted performative standards. These shame and goad men and women into compliance and call down vengeful holy fire from heaven upon the earth.
The one says,
The Gospel, the one Faith, and the one holy catholic and apostolic Church are as broad as our common participation in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christ’s shed blood is thicker than the claims of amniotic water. Indeed, baptismal water is thicker than the claims of familial blood. The bread we eat and the wine we drink make us one Body in Christ, because we consume the same spiritual food and imbibe the same spiritual drink.
The other says,
Agreement about whose baptism we affirm and who can commune at the Table with us isn’t that important to the Christian public life. What matters is rallying around public policies to make our stance known. Our unity is found in our opposition to sociopolitical evils.
Sacramental saints have a meaningful ecclesiology. They have corporate worship practices that retrain and reform desires. They build habits around a common love and vision of the Good Life of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Worldview warriors have ethics and norms that modify behavior. They impart acceptable patterns of speech and action. These signal membership in the worldview tribe.
As for me, I’ll stick with the classical marks of the church:
Word rightly proclaimed
Sacraments rightly administered
Body rightly nurtured and disciplined
That is how the Church is to be known and recognized by the nations in the world.
Part 2. Does Christianity-as-Worldview have a ‘Gnostic’ conception of the corporate Body of Christ?
I was thinking more about the way the presence and the politics of the Kingdom of God and its citizenry are to be known. Or ought to be known. Known by its Sacraments more so than its Worldview Warfare.
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
– 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 (NKJV)
It strikes me that sacramental saints see and speak of things in terms of the Faith and the Body. By contrast, worldview warriors see and speak of things in terms of Christianity. So I suspect this is a part of what Peter Leithart was getting at in Against Christianity. At least, it’s certainly what I’m taking away from it!
The Sacramental Faith is premised on a theology and a ritual practice of the Church as the corporate mystical Body of Christ. She knows rites and routines order our everyday lives. She knows the physical body of the individual matters. She’s very attuned to the language of her need to be washed and clothed as a corporate entity. She has ears to hear the sound of corporeal language applied to her life in the world and for the world. She understands herself as a she. She’s premodern.
Worldview warriors have little or no awareness of or need for a practiced reality of a Body. In my experience, corporeal symbology isn’t at home in the mind of a worldview warrior. It’s a hand-me-down from the One Ancient Faith. Such a warrior sees “Christianity” first and foremost as an abstract assembly of teachings and truth claims. His “Christianity” is mental, abstract, ghostly, phantasmic, ethereal, incorporeal. It’s a product of the Secular Humanist Modernism he claims to be opposing. His “Christianity” is a formal systematic theology textbook and a comparative worldview table.
And this means Christianity-as-Worldview is Gnostic in character. It’s not Gnostic about the bodies of individual persons in the way ancient Gnosticism was. Christian worldview warriors (rightly) care about what we do with our bodies on moral grounds. Or at the very least, they have a short and clear list of do’s and don’ts. But Christianity-as-Worldview is Gnostic about the corporate Body that is the Church and the Bride.
The worldview warrior understands Christians to be united and identified by the cultural positions we take. And by the battles we fight. More so than by the bread we break and the cup we bless. These are different notions of the nature of our communion with Christ and with one another.
Part 3. What is the true nature of our warfare?
I previously pondered how the presence and the politics of the Kingdom of Heaven and its citizenry are to be known. They’re known by their Sacraments more than their Worldview Warfare. And I considered how Christianity-as-Worldview has a Gnostic attitude toward the corporate body of the Church.
So, am I saying this is an either/or situation? That there is only peace and no war? That the Faith is to have a sort of spiritual pacifism toward the world? No. I’m not denying the need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Nor the need to fight principalities and powers who have the world in their clutches. I make a distinction between the weapons of our spiritual warfare and the carnal weapons of this world (cf. 2 Cor. 10:4–6). But the irony is Worldview™ Warfare, which praises that passage as a mission statement, wields carnal and worldly weaponry.
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Some talking points on cultural, spiritual, and liturgical warfare:
1. If I’m in a culture war, then who’s my enemy? Is my neighbor with a face and a name my enemy? Well, I remember a little something King Jesus said about that. Love of neighbors is the disposition of the Kingdom that saints are to have.
2. For the saints in Christ, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood”, and “the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly”. The sooner we get our minds back on that simple fact, the better off we’ll be. Demons and the deceit in which they traffic are the real enemy. And our neighbors are their captives.
3. Israel of old waged war on fearsome giants inhabiting the Promised Land. That was a typological precursor to the church going to war in the heavenly realm. Against demonic world-graspers in the darkness of this age and spiritual wickedness. Know your enemy; name him and his center of gravity.
4. The church has been seduced by this culture. She’s embarrassed in this culture to name Satan and his minions. Embarrassed to denounce them as the enemy. This is why she has joined in with the culture of demonizing human rivals in the absence of real demons.
5. Yes, it’s true; the church in the contemporary West is plagued by niceness. It lives under the structures and values of the surrounding corporatistic-consumeristic culture. And the church could generally use a good shot in the arm of the Stalwart vaccine.
6. Yet some of the most vociferous internal critics of this epidemic (with syringe in hand) are a wee bit too eager and enthusiastic. In their disagreeable polemical apologetics, they need to take a Chill Pill for their fervor fever.
7. The warfare of the church militant is liturgical in its character and practice. It’s done in public worship. We ascend by faith into heaven, and we call on God to bring his kingdom upon the earth. We worship in the heavens, and God acts in judgment upon the earth. He vindicates and glorifies his Name and his saints who bear that Name.
8. The church brings heavenly kingdom politics into the earthly political realm. This is the “heavenization” of the world. Assembled worship of the body and nurture of its individual members is the starting point of that transformation. But if Christians circumvent those means, it doesn’t work. It’ll be a futile and worldly undertaking.
9. God’s people are to assemble to praise his Name, seek his Face, hear his Word, and feed at his Table in the Day of the Lord (i.e. the Lord’s Day) every week. That is the greatest, the most central, the most countercultural public display of the Kingdom of Heaven there is.
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The faithful ministry of the Word and the Sacraments is (among many other things) the church engaged in effectual warfare in the world. Liturgical warfare waged from heaven. The classical marks of the church are the marks of a church engaged in spiritual warfare:
Word rightly proclaimed
Sacraments rightly administered
Body rightly nurtured and disciplined
It’s not that we don’t know, defend, and teach what the Faith believes. And it’s not that we don’t pursue wisdom and engage in polemicism. To be sure, much theological precision is owed to polemical apologetics. It’s the furnace in which it was forged as a tool and refined as precious treasure. It’s only that we must resist the urge to supplant the classical marks of the church with this alternative scheme.
Worldview™ rigorously weaponized
Culture rigorously combated and countered
Partnerships rigorously promoted and policed
This alternative scheme is a fiery furnace that consumes but does little else.
To paraphrase a classical Protestant pastor-friend who was raised Roman Catholic …
Why are cantankerous Calvinists the particular Christians leading the way in the defense of a gender-differentiated sex spectrum from mere complementarianism, through severe complementarianism, to roaring patriarchalism? And why does it go hand-in-hand with ever-increasing levels of distortional performative hyper-masculinity?
This has something to do with having the most anemic Mariology of all major Protestant traditions and the most anemic general view of female agency in Scripture. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, but it’s an intriguingly provocative thought. By overreacting against the hideous excesses of Roman Catholicism’s elevation of the Virgin Mary, the Reformed (far beyond the reforms of the Lutherans and the Anglicans) have become so skittish to even commend the Mother of Jesus that we’ve deprived ourselves of the central model of a godly woman in submission who nonetheless exercises powerful feminine agency in the service of God and the community of the faithful.
It doesn’t help matters when we think of a figure like John Knox and his contentions with the Scottish and the English queens. It’s almost as if the very DNA of Scottish and English Presbyterianism is coded for contentiousness against women in authority or exercising agency in the world. An Apollos that can’t abide a Priscilla.
The Reformed tradition has long been the most vocally resistant Protestant tradition to the vocation of celibacy in theory and practice. It’s come at the expense of a vital church office—that of the nun or the widow, like the maiden dedicated to service in the temple. There’s simply no room for any version of such things in a Reformed vision of fecundity where every man has his quiver full. Concrete ecclesial roles like those of godfather and godmother also depart as a patriarchal vision of a church of natural families grows. See retrolapsarian prosperity gospel once again.
Ultimately, the anemic Reformed outlook on female agency in Scripture with respect to various godly women in the biblical narratives leads to an anemic view of the corporate female agency of the Church as the Bride of Christ—the reality of which all those godly women were types and shadows.
It’s a conspicuous non-coincidence that the most aggressively patriarchal Reformed men are also the most aggressively postmillennial and theonomic in their sociopolitical views. And their own more sociopolitically modest Reformed brethren criticize postmillennial theonomic Calvinism as being ecclesiastical feminism. Such irony. It’s an expectation that the Bride of Christ will achieve here and now in this age that which is more properly and purely the thing which Christ the Husband will achieve in the age to come. It’s a transfer of Christ’s agency to the Church, not the Church’s work as the Helper to her Husband.
Call this all a provocative thought-experiment. Let it simmer a while in your mind.
I don’t want to come across as a crypto-egalitarian. Nor do I see myself as advocating for the perspective that the new wave in “soft complementarians” are advocating. However, I’ve said elsewhere that I believe in a very strong natural complementarian, and I’d say I believe in a very strong natural patriarchalism. I stress the modifier natural, because we don’t live in a particularly natural culture. We live in a substantially de-natured culture. In this de-natured culture, egalitarianism is the new natural of the de-natured order.
I believe in a robust natural patriarchy that would form our world and its various social spheres. Furthermore, I believe in a robust natural matriarchy that would fill our world and its various social spheres. But we have to have a natural world in order to have such natural patriarchalism and matriarchalism. If we had such a natural world, the present egalitarianism would largely just go away of its own accord, because it’s unnatural.
By-and-large, robustly Reformed patriarchalists haven’t learned how to mentally grasp and navigate the cultural circumstances. They still rely too heavily upon performative hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity to substitute wherever our gendered natures have been culturally eviscerated. I even think a lot of such folks don’t desire to come to terms with it, because it means conceding to a significant lack in our agency and living within the limitations.
I don’t think the crypto-egalitarians or the hyper-performative patriarchalists know how to integrate the particular feminine agencies of a Rebekah, a Miriam, a Deborah, a Rahab, a Jael, a Huldah, an Abigail, an Esther, a Priscilla, a Phoebe, or a Mary.
I’m into paradoximillennialism, which means paradoxical postmillennialism. That’s my particular variation on optimillennialism, which means optimistic postmillennialism. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were accused of pessimillennialism, which means pessimistic amillennialism, by another strain of optimillennialists.
So what do I mean?
The Alexander the Great mentality is one of the worst thing about postmillennialists in my opinion. This is where I come back to wondering about misguided desire preceding good doctrine, wondering if there’s a competitive hunger to be a winner that comes first and seeks out an eschatology to adopt, to even distort, and to validate itself. I’m suspicious about men who are inclined and tempted that way. Who don’t really want to suffer all that much, nothing more than a sweaty game on the field or the court to the roar of the crowd that ends with them being celebrated and getting the head cheerleader on their arm. A lot of public praise and recognition. Men who aren’t keen on dying to accomplish something, very possibly not even being recognized. Efforts where the right hand never knows what the left hand is doing and go unknown to all but God.
I’m not against postmillennialism per se. Nor am I against generalized optimism about the course of the Future and the victoriousness of the Kingdom that’s theologically valid and commendable. I’m personally more inclined to a form of postmillennialism that I’ve picked up from men like Peter Leithart. A form that stresses victory through defeat, life through death. One that the aforementioned Alexanders probably loathe and dismiss in their hearts. It’s a paradox of winning by losing. Life at every scale of measurement from the evenings and mornings of men to the dawnings and twilights of empires as rhythms of deaths and resurrections.
The Alexander strain of optimillennialism is stuck in a Conquest mindset. Well, for one thing, that just ain’t me in particular. In fact, it runs against my particular vocation. I’ve long suspected it was my lot in life to suffer and be a scapegoat for lots of crap within the church over and over again. It’s something I kept to myself. And then my pastor told me one Sunday that was exactly what he believed was true of me. That’s something I didn’t even tell him I believed about myself. It made me cry tears of relief at being understood so well by him. He told me I had a ministry of suffering for the life of the church. And he knew I’d understand that, because I knew his teaching (that he also picked up from men like Leithart) about the church having a ministry of suffering for the life of the world. So, I believe in the reality of the church’s suffering as the engine of her victory.
I’m someone who deeply understands my life through a template of sojourning and exile, weeping by Babylonian waters, abiding outside the camp and the city gate with the lepers and the other outcasts where Christ is. And I sense it much more some days than others. That’s the sort of calling I have. And it hitches up to an optimistic postmillennialism that understands the paradox of dying in order to live.
For me, nothing short of the Second Coming and the Resurrection will give me hope and refreshment. Fighting for some future Golden Age that won’t last doesn’t motivate me or mean much of anything. The Eschaton is where the Beatific Vision originates. So, I don’t get how some postmillennialists get so excited about what’s yet to come in this age while having so little to say about the eternal age to come that endures.
I’m a fan of the explanatory power of preterism regarding the relevance of A.D. 70 to a number of teachings in the New Testament. But I’m not a fan of the dismissive use of preterism to hollow out the ongoing relevance of teachings in the New Testament.
One potential example: The Sea Beast and the Land Beast of Rev. 13 were respectively fulfilled by blasphemous Rome and apostate Jerusalem, therefore I don’t have to make continuing applications about blasphemous governments aided by apostate religions.
Anecdotally, two examples come readily and repeatedly to my mind over the years …
No. 1: The “present distress” in 1 Cor. 7:26 gets handled this way so that it’s used to empty the weight of Paul’s teaching about the practical value of celibacy. “That was just for then; we don’t have to think about it now. Let’s specialize in prescribing marriage and families as our strategy.”
I’m not particularly sure what the impending downfall of rebellious Jerusalem had to do with the everyday affairs of Corinthian Christians. But even if that passage is about what was coming in A.D. 70, how does the application fail to carry over to any other situation where Christians in a cultural context of present distress ought to consider prioritizing their callings accordingly?
No. 2: Passages such as Titus 2:11-15 and 2 Peter 3:10-13 regarding the impending Day of the Lord and a particular attitude and way of life attached to the reality of that looming event. “The time to worry about doomsday events is past; time to plan on a long future.”
If these passages become exhausted by the day of the Lord’s visitation and vengeance upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and that’s the reference to the end of the age, then I’m not certain what the apostolic teachings in the New Testament have to say to our present situation after A.D. 70. Seems like a convenient way to import any ethos you prefer.
… Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Aftermath
When Darkness Descends
A sudden troubling disappointment seemed to wash over me one Sunday morning not too long ago as I sat alone in church. It was my first time returning for worship since the COVID-19 crisis stirred up all the shutdowns. I was struggling with how much my ideals for Lord’s Day worship culture (and a church culture and Christian community at large) were feeling like a dream that died long ago—years before SARS-CoV-2 was a thing.
I caught a hope and a vision years ago about being part of a church where we all shared a common zeal for a common liturgy, a common confession, a common mission, a common discipline—a life flourishing as one high-functioning model family among many in thick and rich Christian community. A repristinated and glamorized micro-Christendom.
It’s often fleeting where and when such a thing exists. And for many modern Christians, they thirst for some version of it, but they can’t have it and can’t make it work. For those who find that it conveniently does work, it becomes its own self-reinforcing and filtering mechanism. It’s a brand and a product. But its promises pave the way for disappointment and disillusionment for some as reality inevitably has its way.
This is the particular seductive prosperity gospel to which my heart has succumbed more than once. And when it’s not seducing my hopes, it’s a dark spell’s accusation on my mind that tells me I’m the accursed failure behind this hope not coming to pass in my life.
Gospel and Kingdom, Present and Future
The true Gospel in its fullness is about the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God in its fullness is about the world to come in the future. All false prosperity gospels are some distorted version of an over-realized eschatology—false or misguided expectations for a restoration and transformation that isn’t realistic and isn’t promised for us in our life in the present world.
The particular prosperity gospel I have in mind is one which I found in Reformed circles, specifically among theonomic or reconstructionist postmillennialists. It’s ironic that this over-realized eschatology is marked by something of a functional reversal of our forward motion in history and a backtracking to the world before the Fall followed by an alternate world where the Fall didn’t happen. I describe it as retrolapsarian. It’s a hope and a vision where faithfulness in all things leads to a golden age in the present world that recaptures the edenic life. It’s marked by dominion, fecundity, and succession, and insofar as it’s still reckoning with a postlapsarian world, it’s marked by triumph over the enemies of God. It takes the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1 and maintains it with little or no accounting for the christological and christotelic fullness and fulfillment of it.
It some ways, it’s a lot like dispensational premillennialism’s expectations of a millennial kingdom that isn’t the final eschatological eternal state and world to come. Old Testament passages (describing the future world in restored edenic imagery) that dispensationalists interpret as descriptions of a millennial kingdom are the passages that postmillennialists interpret as descriptions of a golden age before the Second Coming. The dispensationalist expects Christ to return to earth and establish his halfway eschatological kingdom, while the postmillennialist expects Christ to remain enthroned in heaven and establish his rule over the nations through the agency of his church on the earth.
I’m not entirely dismissive of the scriptural weight and a sizable measure of truth behind postmillennialism as it shares a number of features in common with amillennialism. And I’m not fully persuaded that formal eschatological views force these sort of outcomes. I’m at least as inclined to think that prior commitments to mindsets and attitudes seek out an eschatology that fulfills them.
Less theoretically and more practically, the retrolapsarian prosperity gospel has its effect when its adherents establish local attempts at a microcosm of the hopeful vision. When a community is founded and grown on this vision, it starts to unfold itself. And the subtlety of this prosperity gospel is that it doesn’t actively promise the perfection of these things; it merely tempts the mind to adopt this false hope through omission and negligence.
Sketch: Seeing Thoughts out of Sight and out of Mind
So what does this particular Reformed retrolapsarian prosperity gospel look like?
It’s the expectation that the institution of the nuclear family is so expansively central that everyone is reckoned solely according to his or her assured place on the path through the institution of the biological nuclear family—young men and women on their way into the system and old men and women on their way out of and over the system as new resident experts. No other mode of valid agency is meaningfully addressed. The family goes from merely appropriate sociopolitical centrality to an all-consuming meticulous universality.
It’s the expectation that every man will be a physician, lawyer, professor—something that will provide a single income that will ensure a suitable house in suburbia, a homemaker’s lifestyle for his wife, a humidor stocked with cigars and a cabinet stocked with fine liquor, a classical homeschool education followed by private liberal arts college for his children, and a seat of respect and honor in the gates with the elders of the church and community.
It’s the expectation that if a wife and mother ever has to get a part-time job, then the man of the house requires an intervention. There can never be a valid reason for this. He’s just not being sufficiently diligent. The same applies to enrolling children in the public school system. There can never be a valid reason or circumstance in which to do that.
It’s the expectation that no marriage will end in divorce. And it’s the expectation that you don’t have to burden your mind with thinking about what will happen when there is one.
It’s the expectation that no one will enter the community as a divorcee and single parent. Maybe a young widow(er). And finding him or her a new spouse will be the only strategy. Not that it’s a bad strategy, but it will be the only strategy.
It’s the expectation that no couple will have infertility problems. At least not permanently. Eventually, there will be a conception (and more to come). The long string of miscarriages will eventually end. None of this is worth fretting about beforehand (which is true), since heaven and earth will be moved to make it happen (which is troublesome). A therapeutic solution will be found. A surgery will be performed. Just as long as there are no abortive side-effects, the “pro-life” brand can be retained. Fecundity is the imperative. There shall be dominion even over stubborn barren wombs. But little or no thought will be given to the notion that such an attitude over one’s body betrays a theology of the body in which fertility treatments and technologies exist on a continuum with practices like surrogacy, birth control and sterilization, designer infants, elective abortion, and sex reassignment surgery. A host of contradictory positions from the “pro-life” perspective. But partners in crime from the perspective of manipulating one’s self-perception as a biologically sexed creature of God by asserting power over one’s embodied existence.
It’s the expectation that no child will ever have a learning disability or a neurodiversity challenge. At best, there will be feeble attempts to awkwardly tip a hat to the situation. But in the final analysis, it boils down to silent glares that say, “bad parenting”.
It’s the expectation that any sort of childhood congenital or development problem (which will be rare, of course, far too rare to be worth discussing in advance) will conform to an approved list of acceptable conditions that can be pitied or paraded effectively. Physical handicaps will be accommodated. There will be no discussion or expectation of intersex deformities or emergent aberrant sexual desires. This would blemish the universality of the biological nuclear family expectation. But if the situation arises, it’ll be appropriately managed and mitigated by a pastor who is an expert in everything under the sun.
It’s the expectation that a mother’s heart will be devastated and a father’s legacy will be sullied if a child has been dealt a future where he or she isn’t going to marry and provide grandchildren no matter the reason. The young man or woman had better die a martyr’s death to even have a halfway plausible excuse.
It’s the expectation that none of these sorts of exceptions will be addressed in advance or accounted for in the regular standing teaching of the community. It’s a plan to not plan to account for the fullness of reality. Thus it’s a plan to fail everyone who is a deviation from the grand communal vision of the Good Life.
I think you catch the general drift by now and can apply the template.
It’s the expectation of strength, triumph, and victory without the paradoxical expectation that such things happen through weakness, failure, and defeat. It’s the expectation of the Church’s ministry of blessing to the world without the Church’s ministry of suffering on behalf of the world. But that sort of paradox is a hallmark of the Christian Faith and Life.
The mojo that makes this particular Reformed retrolapsarian prosperity gospel work isn’t so-called “faith” (i.e. sheer force of will), as is the case with the vile Word Faith prosperity gospel, but so-called “faithfulness” (i.e. performance and subsequent success).
This is Deuteronomy 28 (which might possibly somehow be appropriated in some way) without any accounting for generalities and exceptions or especially for the Fall (which can’t possibly be realistic or wise). This is Proverbs without Ecclesiastes. This is taking sides with Job’s lousy friends who accused him just as Satan did.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Remember, this is a prosperity gospel when your heart is tempted to believe it by what you’re tempted to overlook and exclude from all consideration. This is not a prosperity gospel that’s taught and caught through what’s actively communicated but is taught and caught through what goes unsaid, then what goes unconsidered, and then what becomes desired. It’s a prosperity gospel when you hold yourself to false expectations of success that God hasn’t given you (and has certainly made quite evident in due time) but which a community or movement may well be unconsciously reinforcing upon itself.
Did I devise these descriptions from my own experience? Some of it comes from my own experience. Some of it comes from my own observations and ruminations. And some of it comes from the experiences, observations, and ruminations of my friends who move in these Reformed circles with me. They’re the result of unrealistically naive and polished dreams that were sown in myself and others which didn’t materialize into reality. Our Good Lord in his wisdom granted something else that came to pass.
I have to open my eyes and see where the grace of God is at work in my life. And it’s often in places where the church is more invisible or more diffuse in the here and now. It’s with brothers in Christ who have the same weight on their minds and share the same struggle.
Let’s be realistic about the Here and Now between the Already and the Not Yet.