Rival Bible Projects

There are two projects of biblical interpretation going on under the label of the Christian Faith and under the roofs of many Christian churches and denominations in contemporary Western culture.

Project 1: Listening to Scripture as not merely the words of men but the Word of God. It’s hearing and heeding the Voice of the Sovereign Lord, recognizing and submitting to the presence of his Person and Attributes. It’s a servant obeying his Master.

Project 2: Listening to Scripture as merely the words of men as they grow and evolve from generation to generation, slowly attending to their former ignorance and confusion, in their contemplations of God. It’s a consumer negotiating a deal.

Project 1 is the historic Christian Faith.

Project 2 is disguised heathen infidelity.

Project 1 is knowing that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and not leaning upon one’s own understanding. It’s about recognizing that one cannot trust one’s own impulses and intuitions. It confesses the need for God’s grace to reform one’s thoughts and desires.

Project 2 is treating all of one’s own internal impulses as beautiful expressions of authenticity and a fresh work of the Holy Spirit doing something new in the Church. It’s a failure to recognize the subversive and destructive reality of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Project 1 knows that there is a different Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different Gospel (all deceptive and malicious) than what the Church faithfully received from the Prophets and the Apostles and the Lord himself.

Project 2 is offended by this notion.

Project 1 is walking in paths of righteousness and persevering in faith.

Project 2 is horny faith deconstruction.

Project 1 is faith seeking understanding.

Project 2 is presumption seeking affirmation.

Project 1 is the Spirit and life.

Project 2 is the flesh and death.

So, in addition to saying what goes on under many church roofs, it’s important to say that these two projects go on in many Christian hearts.

Project 1 is seeing the invisible, hearing the inaudible, and touching the intangible.

Project 2 is being blind, deaf, and numb.

Speak Life

I spent time with a friend not long ago who grew up Roman Catholic but has been in the Assemblies of God since college. We were catching up in family anecdotes, and he used a phrase I haven’t heard in a long time and that isn’t typical lingo in my Christian circles: “Speak Life.”

He was telling me about the effects of speaking life over your children (and others) or failing to do so. Shall we call it a self-fulfilling prophecy? There really does seem to be something to it. Setting aside the kookiness of Word-Faith and other such bizarre distortions of Christian spirituality in the Charismatic movement, there’s still a particular sensitivity and emphasis on spiritual matters that I appreciate (even envy a bit) in my Charismatic friends.

I can understand what he’s talking about even within my own particular circles where we talk about the formative power of rituals. One of the things we say is that the ‘magic’ of how a ritual accomplishes the thing that it proclaims is that we all agree to act as though it does. Our habits of speech and the sort of content we speak into the world (even in our non-verbal communication) and over other people repeatedly are indeed social rituals that form or deform people. Words are indeed like food—either nourishing or corrupting. Speak life, not death.

(And trying really hard to keep the TobyMac song out of my head, cuz I can hear those words. Fortunately, I only know those words from a sound clip in a radio station commercial or something.)

Glimpses of the Imago Dei

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.

Resources

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge and advertise a number of resources on this subject. The primary source for much of this is the book Images of the Spirit (1980) by Meredith Kline. Alastair Roberts does an excellent review of Images of the Spirit as well as two follow-up sessions on being created in the image of the angels and women and the image of God.

Imago Dei and the Divine Council

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.

And He Gave Gifts to Men

A Sketch of Offices and Functions in the Church

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.

Downfall of the Household

The present state of affairs in the contemporary Western world is highly unnatural. It has rendered people largely out of touch with what they are as human beings—as creatures of God embedded in his creation and intuitively aware of this simple fact. Industrialization and technology have reshaped our day-to-day lives and our expectations in life. And we’re largely oblivious to the changes. Being out of touch with our nature has left us intuitively confused about many things. We’re adrift as a society and searching for the recovery of things we can’t even name.

In the church, we’ve been equally oblivious to the changes. We’ve looked at industry and technology, and we’ve largely declared them neutral and benign by default. Some among us have been keen enough to know that’s not the case. And some are becoming more and more acutely aware of what has happened and why.

What I want to do here is offer a brief sketch about the collapse of traditional households and how that collapse has hollowed out the agency of men and women. About how it has created confusion where it formerly didn’t exist. And I do so regarding the family and the church, though much more could be said.

The Traditional Household

When we hear the word “household”, we typically have the impression of the family and the home. And while that impression is correct, it’s far from a complete definition. The traditional household does involve a family and a home. It involves many generations of family and a place where they live. It also involves a place where they work and the work that is done there. The traditional household is an estate. It’s a place where domestic and economic life are wedded. It’s the site of a family business. It’s the accumulated heritage of generations. The traditional household was the basic unit of agency and dominion in the ancient and medieval world.

Insofar as the traditional household is the culmination of intersecting marriage, family, domesticity, and economics for generations, it’s the natural household. It’s the ordinary state of affairs that God’s created order produced from the beginning by the creation’s inherent design. The natural household is the basic functional unit for taking dominion according to the creation mandate.

Not every husband and wife were fortunate enough to have a household. And not every individual was fortunate enough to be born into the family who had the mastery of their household. Many lived and died as servants of one status or another. Some as the favored domestic servants or laborers for hire. Others as the lowliest of the low, as bondservants. Nonetheless, servants and their families had standing and affiliation with the masters of the households they served.

The Household and the Scriptures

The households we see in the Scriptures are traditional households. They begin with the household of the Patriarch Abraham. This household is the chosen and called out people of God. It comes from the accumulated wealth of the generations prior to Abraham. And even though Abraham and Sarah lack a biological heir for many years, their household is made up of many servants, many families of servants. It’s large enough that Abraham’s household has a small army that is three hundred strong. And God makes his covenant with Abraham and his entire household.

Households continue for two millennia well into the time of the church in the days of the Apostles. Entire households become Christian households on account of the atmosphere of allegiance established by the masters of those households: Cornelius the centurion in Caesaria, Lydia the textile merchant in Thyatira, the prison warden in Philippi, Crispus the synagogue chief in Corinth, Philemon in who’s household the Colossian Christians assembled, and more.

It’s important to bear in mind when the Scriptures exhort how a man should order his household that this isn’t going to apply flatly to every man. Some men have households. Other men are a part of their master’s household. We can’t simply take the exhortations to the heads of households and put them straightforwardly upon every Christian man who’s a husband and father, because a household is more than a family.

Usurpation by the Corporation

I’ve often come to say that we can have households, or we can have corporations. One or the other can be the foundation of our economy and society. Realistically, we can’t have both. They’re both competing for who has agency, headship, and dominion in the world.

With the rise of industrialization, productivity has moved off of the household estate and onto the factory floor. Our economic activities have been outsourced from households to companies. And companies have merged and expanded into corporations. A household is almost entirely a thing of the past with a few vestigial exceptions such as small business owners. And even those businesses have not been free of some measure of influence. The small business owner is the 1.0%. The CEO is the 0.0001%.

Households generally don’t exist in our culture. Again, it’s a mistake to confuse a family with a household. There are lots of families but exceedingly few households. Most of us are employees (i.e. servants) in some corporation’s mega-household. And we enable their agency, headship, and dominion in the world. Admitting this is simply being honest and aware of our situation. This is why most Western working adults don’t feel like we have much agency in our own lives. It’s because we really don’t.

Head of the Household

Man is the head. The man is the head of the woman. And the man of the household is the head of the household. The most common mistake conservative Christians make about male headship is that it’s the direct assertion of the man’s authority. It’s not. It relates to authority. But it’s most directly a statement of the man’s prominence.

The man is the part that sticks out. He naturally has highly visible agency in the world. As the head of the household, he’s the most prominent part of the household protruding into the affairs of public life. He leads the household into the world. He’s outwardly oriented in his agency. He’s the figurehead of the household to the society. He’s the spear tip of the household’s exertions into the world.

But when virtually all men are the servants in the mega-households of corporations, they are not heads. Only in the thinnest remaining sense are they the heads of their families. This is precisely why men feel adrift and stifled in our current culture.

Understanding this reveals the errors and dangers in ultraconservative Christian efforts to reestablish male headship in our culture. It should be obvious from nature that a man simply is the head. He doesn’t have to wrestle the place and power of headship away from the woman. If that kind of struggle is happening, it’s a sign that we’re misperceiving the situation. In truth, most men have almost nothing over which they’re the head. Certainly not over the sort of false expectations being placed upon them in conservative Christian counterculture. It’s overreaching. It’s synthesizing an extreme performative definition of masculinity and unreasonably insisting that every man carry it out to meet the acceptable minimum for godly manhood.

What ends up happening is men trying to operate under this overreach end up turning their “headship” inward upon their families. It ends up turning a man into a tyrant over his own family if he’s not careful and thoughtful.

The alternative distortion is that the man becomes a “servant leader” in such a way that he merely functions as the promoter and enabler of his wife and the expansion of her agency at the expense of his own.

Heart of the Household

When the man is called the head, that does not mean the woman is the tail. That’s foolish. Woman is the heart. The core. The woman is the integrating center of the family and the household. She is the filler and glorifier of what the man has formed and maintained. She is just as intimately involved in the affairs of the household. In the traditional household, she’s a participant in the economic life just as much as the domestic life.

Tearing the traditional household in two by outsourcing productivity to corporations and separating it from domesticity is rending asunder a woman’s place and power. The cruel dilemma of women having to choose between either economic activity or childcare plus housecare is a distinct product of the current world in which we live.

I specifically did not say “housekeeping”. That word is terribly misconstrued in our time. Yes, a woman is to be a housekeeper. But when Titus 2:5 exhorts women to housekeeping (oikourgos), that isn’t simply summed up by cooking the meals, washing the dishes, and cleaning the laundry. It means “household guarding”. That’s estate management.

Consider the parallel passage in 1 Timothy 5:14 about women managing the house. That’s oikodespoteō. The verb form of “master of the household”. Women are admonished to be good and effective “despots” of the estate. They are exercising mastery and authority.

Female agency is divided in two. I don’t get the impression many people realize this. And it’s evident in the misguided attempts by ultraconservative Christians to assert that the woman’s place is in the home in the mistaken sense that her natural sphere of activity is strictly domestic life.

Hands of the Household

We live in a high-mobility industrial capitalist economy where large corporations have supplanted natural households as the agents of dominion in the world. It’s shackling the average husband and wife with a terrible dilemma when it comes to limited choices and ability for income and childcare. It can’t be answered by appeals to the natural dynamics of traditional households. Here, the traditional household is torn asunder. The economic and domestic aspects that once occurred under the same roof and on the same land are now displaced geographically and administratively. Every apparent possible outcome in this scenario still results in the agency of the husband and wife (i.e. their joint ability to exercise dominion in the world in a more ancient and biblical sense) being maimed and crippled in some way.

If most of us thought about ourselves as being analogous to and roughly positioned as the various classes of favored and not-so-favored servants under the dominion of a master of the house in the ancient world, I think we’d understand ourselves better.

I have sympathy for my fellow members of the working-servant class. We aren’t going to get out of this any easier than ancient servants could escape from their servitude.

The Household of God

In each new dust-up over authority, agency, and office in the church (women serving as pastors and teachers, etc.), it strikes me that the root cause of the controversy, confusion, and mutual frustration is analogous to the problems of the contemporary household.

The church is the household of God. And just as the natural household in our culture has been hollowed out, and the agency of men and women has been stifled and maimed, the ecclesial household in our culture has been thinned and drained of agency. We generally don’t realize it. And ultraconservative Christians have made all the same parallel errors in the church as they have in the home in attempted to recover what was lost.

The household of God gains the earthly means of its power by taking up and subsuming natural households for Kingdom purposes. If natural households are a thing of the past, the church as a household is equally so. The church has no real agency in the world. It’s not a public reality to be reckoned with by the culture. The church has been reshaped by market forces for the ends of corporations just as the family has been.

Because the church isn’t a household over households, it has little or no real headship to speak of. There’s almost nothing about the average church that is obviously a prominent male headship function. This is why liturgical sexuality and gendered agency are not readily apparent to a lot of Christians. This is the root cause that needs to be addressed. The restoration of churches as local households of God would essentially automatically correct and clarify matters.

Conservative Christians zealously defending male-only church leadership are promoting something in the church that’s very much like what they defend regarding the husband’s headship in the home. It’s not natural headship. It’s redefined to accommodate cultural estrangement from nature. Male leaders are expressing their agency too much inwardly in the church. They need to lead out. What conservative Christians are trying to reserve as male-only leadership is at least partially the function and the essence of a traditional matriarchy to fill what’s inside the church. Shepherding is outwardly oriented. But that function is stifled in our present situation. We’re tempted to turn inward like arbitrary tyrants, because it’s the easy thing to do, just like with the natural household stripped of agency. Male leadership will be most obvious where its most naturally evident, i.e. a high-stakes defense of the local church against outsiders. The most obvious case of male-only pastoring is to be the most abused and battered bondservant of the whole flock.

Corporations and Revisionist Marriage

The weakening of the traditional household and the outsourcing of much of its power has paved the way for a redefinition of marriage. Life in the natural household reinforces the natural view of marriage. With the establishment of corporations as usurper-households, marriages have adjusted to optimize themselves for the service of the new masters of the households. Read more about Revisionist Marriage here.

Corporations and Revisionist Pastorate

Just as our adjustments to optimal living as wage-slaves in corporatistic consumerism has redefined marriage, we’ve redefined the pastorate and the ministry to the point that it’s gender-neutral upon sight. If we don’t operate with the original vision of the pastor/ minister as the most burdensome, loathsome, dishonorable of callings in some respects as the true slave of the people, it won’t be obvious that this is only something we ought to inflict upon a certain sort of man. Read more about a Revisionist Pastorate here.

Afterthought in the Aftermath

There’s no going backward. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. But there’s a great deal of mystery and uncertainty about what it will mean to go forward in a way that restores our natural humanity and recovers our agency.

Undershepherds and Male Agency

Church elders display a Christ-signifying instrumentality. They do this as they exercise the agency of undershepherds over their congregations as they were and are exhorted by the Apostles Peter and Paul in 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20 respectively.

I exhort the elders who are in you—I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One and a partaker of the glory to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God in you—exercising oversight—not reluctantly but resolutely, not for shameful profit but ferociously, not as those lording over their portion of the inheritance but being exemplary specimens to the flock. And at the appearing of the Chief Shepherd, you will receive the imperishable victor’s laurels of glory.

– 1 Peter 5:1-4 (my translation)

The Apostle Peter is writing to the elders who are in the congregations. The Apostle asserts that he is a fellow elder with them, a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah), and a partaker in the glory to be revealed at the Second Coming of our Lord to consummate his kingdom in its fullness.

As an apostle (a “sent one” or authorized ambassador) of Christ the King, Peter issues this kingdom directive or summons (exhortation) to the elders of the churches. The office of the apostle is another case of representing or signifying the person and office of Christ. In this function, it is the authoritative capacity of speaking for Christ to the nations. This office draws on the image of political ambassadors of state sent to embassies in foreign nations. This is essentially the same concept and office applied to the Kingdom of Christ.

This passage is thick with the language of sheepherding. For instance, there are several occurrences of terms in the Greek word family [poim–]. The precise noun for shepherd [poimēn] is not used in this passage, but it clearly implies elders are synonymous with pastors or shepherds, which is literally the same office. Pastor (herdsman) and pasture (grassy field) are related words from the Latin verb for grazing [pascere]. Elders are to feed and tend or shepherd [poimainō] the congregation or flock [poimnion] of God. The word for flock is a variation of the word for a flock of sheep [poimnē] and appears to have been coined to refer to a group of people with purposefully sheep-like connotations. At the close of the exhortation, Jesus is alluded to as the Chief Shepherd or Arch-Shepherd [archipoimēn] using a compound term with the root for a shepherd [poimēn]. Yet again, this implicates the elders in these churches as assistant shepherds or undershepherds.

Peter knows this role of shepherding well. After his resurrection from the dead, the Lord told his apostle, “If you love me, shepherd my sheep.” The Apostle John translated and recorded the words of our Lord using the same Greek verb [poimainō] used by Peter. The Lord’s Ambassador, as a church elder, extends the calling to shepherding out of a love for Christ on these men who are his fellow elders over the congregation of God.

The work of shepherding God’s people has deep roots in the time of the Old Covenant. It was an easily accessible metaphor for the Israelites as an agrarian nation settled in the Promised Land and as the descendants of the Patriarchs who were sojourning shepherds. After forty years as a prince in Pharaoh’s court and another forty years as a shepherd in Jethro’s camp, Moses was prepared to lead the congregation of liberated Hebrew slaves—so prone to wander! The young shepherd boy was anointed king over God’s people, and the nation of Israel confessed David to be the one of whom Yahweh had declared: “You will shepherd my people Israel and will be ruler over Israel.” And shepherding language was a standard metaphor in the writings of the prophets for the priests and the judges in Israel, often regarding their unfaithfulness to tend God’s people and their selfish devouring of the flock for their own gain. This shepherding legacy serves as the background to Peter’s exhortation to the elders. Conversely, elders as leaders of the people also has an extensive background under the Old Covenant reaching back just as far and wide. The key element in the analogy of the shepherd is rulership.

The passage from 1 Peter also uses the verb for watching like watchmen. This notion also has strong connotations with shepherding in ancient Israel due to its associations with the responsibilities of the priests and the judges as the rulers and guides of God’s people. Prophets are likewise called watchmen in Israel—perhaps the most famous being Ezekiel—on account of their responsibility to be attentive, discern impending trouble, and sound the alarm. According to the Apostle Peter, church elders are to exercise oversight or watch over [episkopeō] their congregations. This verb belongs to the same Greek word family as the noun for the office of the overseer or bishop [episkopos]. Elders are the watchmen of the church under their care. Such watching or oversight involves diligent and competent contemplation and thorough inspection to mark out the kinds or qualities of persons, things, or actions under observation.

In 1 Peter 5, elders (old men), pastors (shepherds), and bishops (overseers) all appear to occupy the same functional office within the churches, at least with respect to their rule over congregations and care of congregants. Earlier in 1 Peter 2:25, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Shepherd and Overseer. If there is any firm distinction or difference between the three named offices, it is not apparent in the biblical text.

The Apostle Paul exhorted the church elders at Ephesus to the labor of shepherding in a similar manner to the Apostle Peter. That exhortation is a second witness to establish the truth of this matter:

Take heed for yourselves and all the congregation [poimnion] of God in which the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers [episkopos] to shepherd [poimainō] the assembly [ekklesia, i.e. church] of God which he obtained (1) through his own blood (2).

(1) or preserved
(2) or through the blood of his Own, i.e. Christ

– Acts 20:28 (my translation)

Without belaboring the point, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian church elders to labor as shepherds and watchmen over the congregation, mirroring the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to the church elders elsewhere in Asia Minor. These two Ambassadors of Christ demonstrate consistent policy directives for all churches as embassies of the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of this imagery should evoke the thought of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which preceded the exhortations of the Apostles and which culminated the shepherding legacy of the people of God under the Old Covenant. Elders are being distinguished as undershepherds over the flock of God. When the sheep (congregants) in the flock look at the elders, they see undershepherds rather than oversheep. Elders typify or represent the Chief Shepherd. They serve the Chief Shepherd, and they are authorized and appointed to do their shepherding under the authority of the Arch-Shepherd. Elders are distinguished from the flock and associated with the Shepherd by their function (office) in the eyes of the flock. This establishes elders as functioning representations of Christ as they labor with him shepherding and overseeing congregations. Even if elders are sheep in their own right in Christ’s eyes and likewise in need of Christ’s shepherding, our Lord has set up these men in such a way so the flock does not look on their office as that of a fellow sheep but as an undershepherd who authoritatively models the Chief Shepherd.

The domain or union language employed by the Apostle Peter is also provocative. Elders are verbally distinguished and said to be “in” their flocks, and the flocks are said to be “in” their elders. That echoes the language of all the believing ones being in Christ and Christ being in all those who believe. It’s also like Jesus saying his disciples are in him, and he is in them, as he is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and so forth. To speak of elders and their flocks in this way puts them in a juxtaposed relationship, which once again distinguishes them in their office from the congregation and lends itself to Christ-like functional representation.

There are a number of descriptions used by Peter to illustrate the agency of elders in their shepherding. The elders must not shepherd reluctantly [anagkastōs]. The word indicates constraint or compulsion by external agents pressing hard upon the will of the elders. It connotes characteristic hesitation or passive submission. It is not the elders who should seemingly be ruled by congregants who lead them around like sheep nor be goaded into compliance. By contrast, elders should conduct their shepherding resolutely [hekousiōs]. The word indicates firm assertiveness and strength of will, even presumptuousness or defiance.

The elders must not shepherd for shameful profit [aischrokerdōs]. The word indicates any sort of dishonorable or disreputable advantage or gain from the position. Occupying the office of an elder should not elevate or empower a man into a lifestyle of comfortable ease and lavish privilege. By contrast, elders must shepherd the flock ferociously [prothymōs]. The word indicates an eager readiness arising from a focused indignation or harnessed fury. There is a masterfully honed spiritedness or fieriness in the elder serving as a well-regulated furnace at the heart of his work to withstand and carry him through the rigors of the calling.

Elders must not shepherd by lording over [katakyrieuō] their portion of the inheritance [klēros], which appears to refer to the local congregations they oversee. Elders are not to exercise the sort of lordship used by earthly lords who oppress their subjects for the sake of their own privilege or advancement. Instead, elders are to shepherd as exemplary specimens [typos]. The undershepherds stand out as types, examples, patterns, models, or representations. They are to exemplify and represent the dutiful and humble servant-lordship of Christ rather than the lordship of earthly rulers. Elders exhort the flock in word and deed like the Apostle Paul did: “Become imitators of me according to the way I imitate Christ.” Elders are to exercise true lordship over the flock in suffering and self-effacing servitude in their rule which fosters security and loyalty in the congregants who submits to them.

At the glorious appearing, Christ will come again on the Last Day to judge the world in righteousness. At that time, an elder who has shepherded his flock faithfully will receive his champion’s crown or his victor’s laurels [stephanos] of glory. A crown of glory which will be imperishable or indefectible. Peter uses the imagery of a champion runner who outperforms his competition, wins the contest, and receives the garland (wreath crown). But the glorious crown of the faithful elder is made of branches and flowers which do not wither but proclaim his faithful efforts forever. Peter also draws on the imagery of the glorious laurels crowning the victorious commanders of armies as they parade through the city streets, returning triumphant from battle. Elders will receive glorious everlasting recognition from Christ for labors well done.

The elders of the church must contend in their work in the service of Christ, because it is contentious work to shepherd the flock of God, to keep the wolves of the world at bay, and to oppose the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. As undershepherds, they cannot act as mere hired hands with questionable commitment to the integrity of the flock, who withdraw and distance themselves at the first sign of trouble. Elders must lay down their lives for the life of the church. Such is the way of good shepherds as representations of the Good Shepherd.

In my translation and examination of 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28, I employed appropriate word choices to accentuate the prominently and distinctly male character of the agency of church elders who shepherd a whole community. This isn’t mere generically male agency but the highly conspicuous agency of virtuous alpha-males who have the most competence-dominance in the whole community.

No single English word exists to encapsulate this idea of competence-dominance (as I’ve borrowed the term from Jordan Peterson). It’s conceived as the skill to ascend the social hierarchy to the place of greatest influential prominence and to maintain that position through well-functioning relationships with those in the group. It’s the path to being the man which all women desire and all men desire to be and to befriend. He who plays fair and enables others to play. He who takes up the cause of the widow and the fatherless. He who seeks true justice for all. He who embraces responsibility for himself and those with whom he stands by bearing up and carrying his cross and the cross of his whole world. In truth, he is the man who, however imperfectly, most approximates Christlikeness.

Our present circumstances under the cultural sway have brought a radically egalitarian influence to bear upon all sectors of society including the church. Much of the efficacy to this comes not so much from any conscious effort on the part of ideologically possessed individuals or interest groups—though there is that—but from systemically deforming tendencies inherent in our culture for a variety of reasons. These have a propensity to neutralize or obscure the significance of constitutive differences between males and females as demographic groups.

It would be grievous negligence, a failure to faithfully shepherd and oversee the flock, if elders were to refrain from declaring the whole counsel of God. Special attention should be given to this point. The watchmen ought to possess the competence to see the threat unambiguously and the courage to blow the trumpet resoundingly.

The combative connotations of rulership language emphasize the spiritually militaristic character of the office. The heavenly culture of the church collides at her peripheries (the frontlines) with diverse hostile cultures that rise and fall in the present world. The elders must lead the charge on these spiritual battlefronts, and elders must hold the walls and defend the gates from worldly and demonic onslaughts.

It is the tribal imagery of the warrior men encircling the camp with their spears aimed outward at the prowling menace. Women holding the center with children huddled and reassured. The work of shepherding the community by guarding its borders requires a form of militaristic agency for which men are designed and are morally responsible to exert. Our Maker has made it so.

“A woman shall not take up a man’s gear.” In Deuteronomy 22:5, the Hebrew word refers to the tools, implements, or combat gear of a man. The text is not so much a prohibition on cross-dressing as a denunciation of cross-functioning in naturally (creationistically) sex-segregated duties. We do not thrust women into combat in this manner, because it would be an “abomination” to our Lord to do so.

This isn’t to say pious women have no place in warfare, especially the spiritual-liturgical warfare of the church. It is to say women function in a different mode of warfare and have different weapons of war. A substantial argument can be made for a biblical motif where pious women are equipped by God with righteous deception as a powerful tool in the war against tyranny and oppression and receive honor and glory for it.

If the imagery of a tribal encampment facing a predator seems too crude, primitive, or distant from contemporary life, the cold reality of the present teaches the same lesson. The safety, security, comfort, and convenience of modern society was established and is maintained through the harrowing exertions of an overwhelmingly male workforce. In our world, the overwhelming majority of active military combatants, field personnel in law enforcement, firefighters and first-responders, coal miners, oilfield and pipeline workers, electric linesmen, construction and demolition workers, fisherman, farmers, and so on are men. One could dare say it would be an even more exclusively male labor force if not for the technological developments of this civilization that was sheltered by the prior exertions of men. Technologies that grant artificially flattened terrain and increased ability to women in these fields.

These men preserve the metaphorical fortifications that surround and protect us from every threat lurking beyond. They sustain our world by the sweat of their brows, the gashes on their hands, the fractures of their bones, the blood pouring from their open wounds, and the tempered steel of their nerves. And then they return to the dust from whence they came in a tragically swift fashion.

The work of shepherding the whole church community is no different. It demands the harsh labors of men to maintain the walls. This is not a matter of muscular physicality, even if that may come to bear on certain occasions. There is an accompanying psychology that is most characteristically prominent in the alpha-male which enables this work. The physicality and the psychology are not flatly and evenly present in all men. And they are not uniformly absent in all women. This is a partially overlapping bimodal distribution, and the extreme male end of the spectrum is in view.

Note carefully how none of these observations reveal men striving to get ahead of women and be the first to lay claim to these brutal forms of servitude. None of these observations argue for men having to strive to attain this role. These observations reveal men to simply possess this sort of agency. To take up the outwardmost positions in the male frontlines of defense is not something that men have to outperform women to achieve. It is simply the way in which men are designed and what they do.

And none of this is a denial of the place and need for women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. In his pastoral Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul calls older women (female elders) who possess a pious reputation to lead younger women into similar piety. There is much feeding, tending, and guiding involved in this calling. And it is a duty that men—elders or otherwise—are far less equipped to do for a variety of reasons.

To probe the metaphor of a shepherdess-elder by looking to literal shepherdesses, the Old Testament contains several insightful narratives about women tending to sheep and other livestock. Two highly illustrative cases are Rachel in Genesis 29:1-12 and the daughters of Jethro in Exodus 2:16-20. In both cases, these women led the sheep of their father’s flock to wells and gave them water. To even cite these women and their shepherding is to cite their dependence on men to enable them. In Rachel’s case, she waited each day for a man to remove the heavy cover stone from the mouth of the well. And one fateful day, it was Jacob who removed the cover stone for her. In the case of Jethro’s daughters, they were harassed and driven away from the well by cruel shepherds. But it was Moses who “arose and saved them” and who “delivered [them] out of the hand” of the shepherds. It signified the very same thing in the very same language which Yahweh would accomplish through Moses in delivering his people Israel from Egypt. These women labored faithfully in their particular capacities as those who tended flocks. But their labors depended on men first digging wells, men routinely rolling away heavy cover stones, and men rising up to save and deliver the women from other tyrannical men.

Once more, the point is not to deny the place and the need for godly women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. Nor is it an assertion of comprehensive inferiority in the agency of women. It is a refutation of the place, the propriety, and the plausibility of women as elders over the whole community. They cannot encompass the community as a whole society in a function that is readily interchangeable with men and fundamentally indifferent to gendered agency. Women cannot effectively accomplish the totality of the work of shepherding every segment of the community, because women lack the capacity to shepherd the one critical segment of a comprehensive community that possesses the capacity to shepherd its own: men atop the competence-dominance hierarchy.

The only sort of person that every sort of person in the community of a local church will follow is competent-dominant men. If any other sort of individual is appointed to the most prominent eldership, the compositional breadth of a congregation will assuredly shrink from the slow attrition of such men. They become disinterested and disillusioned. And it’s readily apparent this has, in fact, already occurred in the contemporary Western Church. We can scarcely recognize a virtuous alpha-male as possessing characteristically masculine godliness rather than faulting him for nonconformity to a standard of gender-neutralized or distinctly feminine piety. The lack of strong male leadership is a frequent and growing problem not only in the Western home but in the Western church.

The simple fact that the elders of whole congregations (functioning at the highest levels of prominence in the community) are, must, and will be males is no more coincidental than the simple fact that the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as a man. He is the unique Son of God. He is the Head and Savior of the Body. He is the Husband who seeks, saves, and weds the Bride. Jesus Christ is a man. And he is not a man inconsequentially, neither are his representative undershepherds.

Perhaps what this essay has really demonstrated is that the office and function of elder as it is commonly conceived in many local churches and the contemporary Western Church at large is something quite different than what has been envisioned and explained here. And if so, take heed! That is a significant lesson to learn.

Traditional Pastorate vs Revisionist Pastorate

My view of the pastorate is a parallel to Traditional Marriage vs Revisionist Marriage. The church is the household of God. And like any household, the church has a marriage in its structure. The Whole Christ consists of our Lord Jesus as the Husband and Head and the Church as his Bride and Body. In a local church, the shepherd and his flock represent this relationship and live out relational dynamics akin to a husband and a wife (among other things). A shift from traditional marriage to revisionist marriage goes hand in hand with a shift from traditional pastorate to revisionist pastorate.

The traditional pastor rules and disciplines.

The revisionist pastor coaches and contains.

The traditional pastor is someone people fear. He’s a reverend.

The revisionist pastor is someone people idolize. He’s a celebrity.

The traditional pastor faces outward in confrontation with the wilderness. He guards the frontline between the church and world. He builds the walls and sets a watch to maintain a haven for his congregation to flourish.

The revisionist pastor turns inward on the congregation. He’s not a fan of confrontation. He’s the president of a country club that’s not especially intimidating to the surrounding community. He’ll manage a lot of programs.

The traditional pastor is a passionate yet self-disciplined warrior-poet.

The revisionist pastor is a professional therapist, motivational speaker, and marketing consultant. And the skills of a schmoozer will carry him a long way.

The traditional pastor builds and maintains the house.

The revisionist pastor moves in later and redecorates.

The traditional pastor takes the risks and puts himself in harm’s way first.

The revisionist pastor just works to make the clubhouse a docile safe space.

The traditional pastor takes responsibility on behalf of his congregants. He’s like Jesus bearing the guilt and affliction of his people.

The revisionist pastor distances himself and does image management. He’s like Adam letting Eve go first and scapegoating her later.

The traditional pastor is a father.

The revisionist pastor is a nanny.

The traditional pastor is a man. It’s blatantly obvious why. And not just a man but a man among men. The kind of man women want and men want to be.

The revisionist pastor could just as well be a woman. In fact, women can probably do the job better. Everything distinctively male about the calling has been castrated off. And the good and lawful substance of the revisionist form plays to the strengths of female agency.

P.S. Please, do not misinterpret any of the deformations or shortcomings in the couplets as parallel or analogous to female agency in the last couplet. I did not say that and do not mean that. These are two separate and overlapping issues. If you have an understandable instinct to look for that error, please note that I am not doing that.

Traditional Marriage vs Revisionist Marriage

The traditional view of marriage is natural marriage, i.e. creationistic marriage. Natural marriage is an institution. It’s a public asset. Church and State both have vested interests in it and put their hands to it. It’s a firm linkage of covenant, sexual activity, procreation, domesticity, and economics. It’s intrinsically potent and fruitful by its design. It begets children as icons of the mutual sacrificial love and affection of the husband and the wife. It’s externally oriented for dominion and hospitality in the world. It’s deeply embedded in broader social networks which it supports and supplies and which support and supply it. It’s marked by fulfillment of social obligations to the past and the future.

The revisionist view of marriage is hyper-romanticized. It’s internally oriented, focused on serving as the exclusive source of emotional support and intimacy to the couple. It’s a private affair. It’s contractual. It’s volunteeristic. It’s consumeristic. It’s sterile by default. It produces children as a voluntary and autonomous act of manufacturing. Children are a self-expression to develop and curate the couple’s personal brand identity. It’s focused on making oneself feel fulfilled. It’s self-contained and therefore detachable and mobile in the broader society. It’s optimized to meet the needs of corporations, i.e. expanding their dominion in the world. It’s optimal form is same-sex marriage.

And most married couples (even most self-styled conservative Christian couples) live out the revisionist sort of marriage more than they would care to admit.

Family Systems Theory

I’m an advocate of a systems theory approach to understanding the family. And by a “family” system, I mean any meaningfully significant relational system from natural families to religious congregations to close-knit coworkers within which a person is embedded.

The idea behind any systems theory is that a thing is what it is and does what it does within the context of a system of other things. Trying to understand the individual unit in isolation from the system is pointless. The system is greater than the sum of its parts. When the parts are in proximity, a system is formed and takes on a life of its own.

Family systems theory was pioneered by Murray Bowen. My inroad to understanding it came through the writings of one of his disciples, Edwin Friedman who was a rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant. Friedman’s major works are Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue and A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Friedman spoke in evolutionary terms and concepts when explaining his view of family systems theory. However, I find his evolutionary milieu to be incidental, non-essential, and merely reflective of the pervasive paradigm outside of his primary field of research. I’m confident there’s a properly Christian (creationistic) perspective on family systems and the reactivity and interactivity of the people embedded in those systems. I’m also confident this perspective is deeply premodernist rather than modernist, simply because it’s a systems theory and because it’s not mechanistic or materialistic.

Family systems theory is not a methodology. If anything, it’s an anti-methodology, since it views techniques, overwhelming libraries of specialized data, personality types, and other such things to be extraneous distractions to the truly meaningful issues at work in family systems. In short, all family systems operate in the same basic fashion and are relatively simple. However, it’s more of an art than a science to grasp.

The first thing to know about a family system (especially for a pastor or any other world-be counselor) is that anyone who wants to influence a family system has to accept the necessity of being an involved participant in the system. This is a system; people have to participate to interact and produce change. Prepare to get your hands dirty to one extent or another; there’s no avoiding it.

Many of the basic concepts have been expressed by way of analogy from cellular biology, and several key terms require tweaked definitions in this context.

Start by thinking of protoplasm, just living stuff. The first rule of protoplasm is that all protoplasm is attracted to all other protoplasm, whether we’re talking about microbes or human beings. Here, attraction means being drawn to some form of interaction (the formation of a system) when in each other’s presence. It can be casual or constructive interaction. Even being fearful and standoffish is a type of systemic interaction.

The second rule of protoplasm is that it’s an emotive existence. Here, emotive doesn’t mean feelings or affections. Rather it means a rejection of the false dichotomy between physical and spiritual reality. Protoplasm reacts or responds with its whole being; it’s particularly inclusive of what we generally mean by emotion.

The third rule of protoplasm is that it needs a good immunity to survive in a system. The essence of immunity is the ability to distinguish between self and non-self, where one ends and another begins — membranes (boundaries), functions (responsibilities), etc. Healthy self-differentiation exists in between fusion and deterioration. Microbes without an immune response either fuse together or wither and die in the mere presence of larger microbes. Humans aren’t all that different when they lack a good sense of self.

Now, relational systems are not all healthy and perfectly functioning. In fact, given the Christian belief in the radical corruption of human beings due to Adam’s transgression, no family system is pristinely healthy. Family systems are infected with chronic anxiety. Here, anxiety is something broader than what is normally meant by bouts of anxiety in individuals. This anxiety is stress throughout the family system.

Systemic anxiety manifests in countless ways throughout family systems, e.g. squabbling between husband and wife or parent and child, acting out in any number of destructive ways, feuds between congregants, backstabbing and undermining between colleagues. One important note is that any given symptom-bearer in a family system is not the source of everyone else’s grief; the whole system has a problem that’s manifesting most visibly in one member. Engaging with anyone and everyone in the family system has an impact on the whole system and brings influence upon symptom-bearers.

Because no one ever achieves perfect self-differentiation, we form relational triangles between ourselves and others to stabilize the system. A family system looks like a huge interlocking network of triangles between people, other people, and issues. Two people form a relational triangle either toward or against another person or an issue to help stabilize their own interrelationship.

The only useful thing a person can do for himself and anyone else in a family system is regulating personal reactivity to the systemic anxiety. Generally, this means learning to be less reactive to all of the manifestation of the systemic anxiety. The art of masterfully influencing a family system is pretty much entirely bound up in this endeavor. (And I’m certainly no master of the craft. I’m just thankful someone pointed me to this systems theory approach!)

This is where presence and process matter. How a person is being present, how he or she is regulating himself or herself through the course of a relational process is what results in real change for everyone. Process generally matters more than content. An apparent issue usually isn’t the real issue.

We can’t save other people by trying to save them. (And I could tell you horror stories about trying to do so!) We can only learn to have a good presence in a system with other people in order to bring life and health to the system, which resonates with everyone in the system.

On a personal note, my limited experience with exercising a good presence has been most noteworthy in the areas of ongoing depression and spiritual doubt in the lives of friends. I’m very confident that trying to fix depressed and doubting people by trying to fix them head on is deeply counterproductive and anxiety-inducing. It requires being the sort of presence who people want around them in their doubt and despair, the sort of person that brings no additional anxiety upon them.