Some Pushback for the Reformed Tribe and the Side B Tribe
Circumstances being what they are, I’m often forced to think about the collision between the most outspoken elements of the Reformed tribe and the Side B tribe. I’m forced to do so, because I have an awkward foot and vested interest in each one’s territory. And I have my pushback for both tribes.
On one hand, I have the impression that ultraconservative Reformed culture warriors push too hard on the vocation of marriage and family as the universal expectation. Any concession to a vocation of celibacy has so many strange qualifications it becomes non-existent in practice.
Many in the Reformed tribe have a poor conception of the complexity of sexuality and the inner workings of men and women when it comes to affections, attractions, aesthetics, disabilities, deficiencies, dysphorias, disorientations, sufferings, self-denial, chastity, and social structures and needs.
On the other hand, I have the impression that activist Side B posterboys and girls push too hard against the vocation of marriage. If not against the “cult of the family” found in suburban Pop Evangelical churches, then against the natural institution in their own lives in a few forms.
Many in the Side B tribe have a poor conception of the complexity of sexuality and the inner workings of men and women when it comes to edification and transformation (i.e. vivification and mortification), self-discovery, self-conceptions, social presentation, and the resulting feedback on oneself.
As someone who’s a fairly conservative Reformed man who experiences and navigates persistent same-sex attraction, I sympathize with both camps, and I push back on both camps. I push against some of my ultraconservative Reformed brethren for being naive and thickheaded toward fellow Christians who don’t neatly fit the former’s personality enclave. I push against some of my sexual minority traditional Christian brethren for conflating a difficult native state of unweddedness with Pauline vocational celibacy.
In many ways, I’ve come to view both excesses as complementary counterparts mutually shaped by the same distorting influence of our culture. Our culture is one of corporatistic consumerism. Highly untethered from nature writ large (creationistic teleology) and our own human natures as embodied males and females who have roots and bonds.
Identity self-construction and curation, i.e. personal brand development, as consumers is a force at work in every decision we make. So, the ultraconservative Reformed Christians who are being countercultural by emphasizing rigorous federal headship, single-income households, and quiver-fulls of homeschooled children are developing and promoting brand loyalty. And the activist Side B Christians who are hashtagging, rainbow-flagging, and bumblebee-stamping mini-bios and daily social media activities are developing and promoting brand loyalty.
There’s an insecurity on both sides where the constructed and curated identity must be affirmed publicly in a free market of self-identification. No one can just live a vocation where the social context of doing so is its own reinforcement and reassurance. There’s more concern about tribal signalling for market share than their is with contentment in the meaningfulness of daily practice.
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.
… 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.
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.
Everyone operating in this corporatist-consumerist market culture is about the business of identity curation or personal brand development. The only market choice not available is opting out. So, this culture full of options is an imposed obligation on us—as much so as the way of life in any other time and place. This is the present warp and woof of reality.
I’ve grown increasingly convinced that everyone is ultimately live-action role-playing or “LARPing” to one degree or another. Yet given the obligatory nature of this culture, our LARPing is ironically authentic living under the broader environment’s impositions.
I’m even convinced that some American Christians doing their “Trad” thing aren’t really doing what premodern Christians where doing when they did the same things. Lenten practices come easily to mind. Choosing to do Lent and choosing what we give up isn’t really traditional Lent. It’s ecclesiastical “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore.
And I’ve pondered the same thing about a conservative Christian movement embracing traditional marriage with single-income households and large homeschooled families as a countercultural strategy. Is it the development of a particular brand? If it’s consciously countercultural, then it’s hardly the native obligatory culture of the premodern world.
In a premodern pre-industrial world, human society consisted of traditional households integrating domestic and economic activities of families as the way of life. If for no other reason, marriages and large families were for economic and physical survival. This is the way things were. There was no other option.
Now, we don’t actually have households. We essentially have residential shelters for the evening. Economic life has been exported to industrial corporations. Marriage and large families are economically de-incentivized and frowned upon in many ways.
We’re a highly mobile population. We’re rootless nomads lacking permanence and multi-generational community as we roam the interstate career landscape with our chosen and permitted Significant Other as our only emotional anchor.
Choosing and attempting to get out of all that—opting to wed, grow a large family, settle somewhere, encourage others to do likewise, build community and various other vaguely reminiscent bits of a traditional past—is a different experience and practice than having it be the natural order of things.
I’m not saying don’t do it. Or that it’s illegitimate. It’s just a different lived reality than it was for those who actually lived centuries ago, because it was arrived at differently.
A fair few of my fellow conservative Reformed brethren have a strange viscerally reactive way of coping with Jesus’ sexuality.
On the one hand, Christ is the ultimate Stoic. Sexually dispassionate. So lacking in fallen sexuality (which is true) that he lacks creaturely sexuality altogether (which is false). I’m tempted to think my brethren have a functional Christology in this area that is less than Chalcedon-compliant. That’s just part of full humanity Christ awkwardly lacks in their queasy imaginations, but they won’t admit that’s what they cling to deep down inside.
Don’t get me wrong; I support a rigorous and robust Reformed Christology. But when it becomes a systematic theological abstraction that loses contact with the flesh and blood historical reality, it’s a problem.
On the other hand, if you point to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 19 about the eunuch for the sake of the kingdom, my brethren avert their eyes and mutter passing explanations. And if you then point out how Christ is the ultimate illustration of the Kingdom Eunuch, my brethren have a knee-jerk need to swerve around that and shout out: “Yeah, but he’s the Husband of the Bride, the Church!”
Um, yeah. But that’s because he’s the Kingdom Eunuch, and the way in which he “sees his offspring” (Isaiah 53:10) and is not “a dried up tree” (Isaiah 56:3) is because he has another way of being fruitful according to the order of the Eschaton.
In his Father’s house, Christ has received a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; he has been given an everlasting name that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 56:5).