The Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention

“Your an example of why women should stay silent.”

The putdown was posted by some brilliant wit on Twitter. I said it better, and more grammatically, in The Fellowship:

“I don’t think God wants me to stay silent if I see something out of line.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. God hasn’t appointed you to a position of authority. He doesn’t expect you to do anything except obey.”

In both scenarios — one real, one fictional — a young woman was questioning a pastor about his teachings. And in both settings — one real, one fictional — the challenger was shut down.

The Fellowship takes place in a small Southern cult, where the women must wear long dresses and can’t work outside the home. Not very many people have lived in that specific setting.

But I guarantee you’re familiar with the story as it unfolds.

My newsfeed has been full of the scandal of Paige Patterson, misogynist ex-president of Southwestern Theological Seminary. If you aren’t caught up, here’s the statement by the Board of Trustees of Southwestern as to why they fired Patterson. And well they should have. But what about all the years leading up to this? Surely someone thought he was going too far when he counseled wives to return to abusive husbands? Or any number of other questionable teachings?

On a related note, I’m not Catholic, so didn’t follow the fallout of their abuse coverup very closely. I never was part of Sovereign Grace Ministries, so that didn’t register on my radar much either. But I almost could have lifted my novel material from those scandals.

Meanwhile, the #metoo movement, highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexism, proved the downfall of several prominent men in the entertainment and political realm.

It’s all the same story as my little Southern Bible cult. No one could challenge these men. They silenced their accusers and protected their power.

Your details might not be the same as my fictional Bekah and her struggle to be a woman under an oppressive patriarchal system. But the structure is the same. Authority without accountability, used to protect the powerful.

This structure enables abuse, encourages misogyny or misandry, and its ultimate goal is to protect the institution over the victim. Every time.

The insult I quoted at the beginning was part of a long Twitter battle in which women tried to engage a pastor (again, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which is in serious need of repentance and reevaluation — and maybe a good disinfectant). You can read the synopsis here.

That particular aspersion was cast by a supporter of the pastor, but don’t worry, the good Brother gets in quite a few jabs himself. The sexism aside, it’s obvious that the pastor’s goal isn’t to empathize, or even engage opponents in a debate — but to silence the challenges to his power.

When I wrote The Fellowship, I was drawing from my own experience with Bill Gothard (Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute) and Doug Phillips (Vision Forum), and my husband’s experience with an older New England cult. I kept saying, “My little novel is for a niche audience. Not many people will ‘get’ it.”

Three years later, as the voice of the oppressed grows louder and people are less willing to tolerate injustice from those in “authority,” I now realize that my book joins many others in telling and retelling a familiar story. It’s the story of our time.

 

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Fractured for Clarity: “Biblical” Marriage

God’s word clearly lays out, with clear clarity, how he designed marriage to look. Here’s one verse in Proverbs that clearly with clarity illustrates this design:

“My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother.”

What, you don’t see it clearly? Well, it’s a good thing there are teachers like Bill Gothard and others of his ilk. They know how to “unpack” verses like this.

The chart below — oh my gosh, did teachers of an earlier era love charts — explains how a Godly household operates. This whole idea comes from a long history of male power and female subservience, but especially the Victorian ideal  straight from God via the book of Proverbs. See how the chart uses words straight from the verse? And how it illuminates the hierarchy laid out in the verse? I mean, it’s obviously a hierarchy. Definitely not a parallel. Even though Hebrew poetry was all about parallels. Look, if you’d just read the verse, look at the chart, and compare both to the way men like Gothard wanted the world to operate, then you’ll see that it’s all right there in God’s word.

Command Law Chart

Remember how everything must conform to the principle of authority. Obviously, as the authority of a family, the father is to come up with the “big picture” and the results he wants for his family. (This brand of Christianity is all about getting good results.) The mother, who is more “detail oriented,” accomplishes the will of her husband God well, actually, they’re kind of interchangeable.

Do I have to point out the problems with this model of marriage? Here are a few.

1.In our own marriage (which looks nothing like this chart), DJ once told me that he didn’t know when I was struggling because I got everything done so well. We saw that as a problem. This chart, though, practically prescribes that mindset.

2.Everything in the “Mother’s Law” column is death to my soul. I do a lot of it because I’m the stay-at-home parent, and it has to be done. But organization, scheduling, and management are not my giftings. (You have to make phone calls for some of this stuff!) I’d never apply for a job as an administrative assistant, and I didn’t get married to be one, either.

3.That second column is my husband’s utopia in chart form. He’s done all of these things with our children, including buying a pack of note cards and sitting them down to write thank-you notes. Does that make me a bad wife? Does it — horrors — make him “feminine” because he’s good at details?

4.This chart lays out in easy-reference form an idea that’s very prevalent in homeschooling circles even now. My husband has bucked the system and is as involved in the homeschooling as I am. It’s very hard for him to find other homeschool dads who have more than a passing knowledge or, indeed, interest in their children’s education. Teachings like the one above feed that disconnect.

4.This chart omits a concept that has done wonders for our marriage: If it’s important to you, you are the one who does it. Obviously if it’s important to DJ, then I help out — I’m the one who addressed, stamped, and mailed those thank-you cards. But if something is important enough to you that you want it done, then you take charge of getting it done.

This model is, of course, too artificial to work in real life. No real couple can conform to these columns, because marriage is all about compromise, communication, and shifting responsibilities. But since it’s based on God’s word, then at least a real couple can feel guilty for not living up to the standard.

And by “based on God’s word,” I mean, how teachers like Gothard violently fracture verses so there’s room fit in their own particular philosophy, and then patch it up in a decomposing zombie version of what it originally was.

That sounds a little strong, but I’m not going to apologize. Charts like this (this one being only one of many iterations of God’s Ideal Marriage) made me dread marriage, and did no favors for my early relationship with my husband. Even worse, though, this consistent abuse of Scripture left me with a distaste for the Bible, and especially Proverbs.

And God speaks to misusing his name for your own ends.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Exodus 20:7

Clearly, with clarity, no fracturing required.

Men Sin Better than Women Do

The recent “Nashville Statement” by the Coalition for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (catchy name!) has a lot of people in my online neighborhood talking. I discuss a little of it below.

What I’m writing about here, though, isn’t the Nashville Statement, but the 1987 Danvers Statement by the same people. It’s just as much fun.

This statement by the then newly-formed CBMW outlines their views of male and female roles according to “God.” By this time in my life, I can shrug off the Danvers Statement. I don’t ascribe to their inflexible view that women are specifically created to be subordinate to men. Nor do I credit their assertion that God built in “masculine” and “feminine” traits as part of the created order. (Male and female refers to biology; masculine and feminine refers to behaviors. One is mostly concrete; the other changes from culture to culture — or, indeed, from person to person.)

But, one part made me laugh. They’re explaining how men and woman are different (but equal! Except when women want to do things that only men should do). They explain that, as far as the church is concerned:

  • Sin “inclines men to abdicate spiritual responsibility and grasp for power.
  • Sin “inclines women to resist limitations on their roles or to neglect the use of their gifts in appropriate ministries.”

In other words:

Sinful man: I SHALL BE AS GOD AND RULE ALL! Bwahahaha!

Sinful woman: THE OFFICE OF ASSISTANT PASTOR WILL BE MINE! Hahaha!

Seriously, of all the horrible things a sinful woman can do in a church body, this is the worst you can come up with? What about spiritually abusing other women? What about spreading dissension and gossip to get rid of a leader she doesn’t like? What about ruling her family and/or her Bible study group with anger and twisted Scripture? What about, I don’t know, abdicating spiritual responsibility and grasping for power?

Nope. Just resisting limitations and not using her gifts in “appropriate ministries.”

This is why I don’t credit much of what the CBMW has to say about my identity as a woman. Their vision for me is so very small. I can’t even sin as good as a man does.

 


A thought or two on the Nashville Statement.

If you managed to get me into a conversation about this issue, you’d find me a lot more flexible about it than my evangelical pedigree and faithful-to-the-historical-faith husband would indicate. The conflict between overarching theology and the impact it has on individual human lives is a tension I continually wrestle with.

I understand the theological underpinnings of this statement. But I found a few phrases that I disagree with, and knowing the culture in which these words are drafted and disseminated, I find the small differences alarming.

For instance, I can see the justification for Article 10 if it said:

Article 10

We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes a departure from historically-accepted Christian faithfulness and witness.

We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is an issue about which otherwise faithful Christians may agree to disagree.

What it actually says is:

Article 10

We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christrians should agree to disagree.

What this article says is that if I even approve of a homosexual or transgender relationship, it’s the same as denying essential doctrines such as the deity of Christ or his resurrection. It invalidates my “true Christian” qualifications.

(Also, for the record, I don’t consider it “a matter of moral indifference” so stop assigning motives, okey-dokey?)

This statement was signed by some “big names” in Christian circles. They evidently agree that the church must make its people choose between “gays” and “God,” but last year many of them scrambled down from their moral high ground and endorsed Donald Trump as president. They were willing to approve of a man who doesn’t even pretend to adhere to traditional Christian sexual mores, just to preserve their political power. I find that blatantly immoral.

Back to the point — isn’t it seriously overstating the case to place one’s view of sexuality as an “essential” element of Christian faithfulness and witness?

Not to the CBMW. These people do consider a view of sexuality as central to Christianity. They have a driving need to know who is male and who is female, because their entire theological hierarchy depends upon knowing who is in authority and who cannot, according to God, be in authority.

Otherwise, everything gets all muddled up. You don’t know who is grasping for power and abdicating spiritual responsibility, and who is just sinfully discontent with the imposed limitations of their role. And the world just can’t take chaos like that.

Picking Over the Bones

Tasty meat bone

Discussing a First 5 devotional by Wendy Pope.

I wouldn’t be so bad at Bible studies if they weren’t so irritating.

Granted, I am irritating too. That’s why I’ve steadfastly declined any invitations to Bible studies for the last several years.

But someone shared this “devotional” in a group I’m part of, and in a moment of weakness, I clicked through.

And what do you know — it’s from Irritating Bible Studies for Women, vol. 3!

It’s actually one of a series of devotions called “First 5,” which feature the writings of Lysa Terkeurst and (according to this one) Wendy Pope. I really know nothing about them except reading short posts like this one.

You can click on the link above to see the entire post. I’ll discuss excerpts. Irritably.

Today’s Bible Reading: Job 15
“The “friendly” dialogue between Job and his companions enters round two. Eliphaz is quick to continue his criticism and his retort is quite intense. … Job is suffering; therefore, he must be wicked.

If this is the warm and fuzzy encouragement that comes from a friend, I would hate to meet an enemy of Job’s. But, there is some wisdom sprinkled in.  If we read closely, we can find some ways to help us stay right with God. [emphasis mine]

Okay! Let’s come to a screeching halt right here!

This method of “Bible study” teaches us that we must pull out some kind of personal application from every passage. It ignores the narrative arc of the story, ignores the themes, and even the soaring poetry. It’s a mechanical process that separates ideas from their context, leaving a spiritual nutritional value about equivalent to a pile of picked-over chicken wings.

“Eat the meat and spit out the bones” is glib advice given to those of us who call out bad teachings. It means to reject the bad but keep the good. And you know what? That’s a good way to starve.

Quick recap: The book of Job tells the story of a very righteous man who was devoted to God. “Oh, sure,” says Satan, “that’s because he’s rich, he has children, he’s in good health. Take all that away and see how devoted he is!” So, the story goes, God allows Satan to rip away everything from Job except his life — and even that was miserable because of the boils that broke out all over his body.

As he lay suffering, three of his friends come to sit with him. They all indulge in long-winded monologues that always come to the conclusion that Job must have done something wicked to deserve these calamities, because God rewards good people. Job maintains his innocence, although he does rail against God for the unfairness of everything. In the end, God rebukes the three “comforters” for their faulty understanding of the God of the Universe, and commends Job. Doing “righteous things” doesn’t always mean you actually know who God is.

What this devotional author, Wendy Pope, does is take a bone-filled speech from one of the “comforters” and pick out the little bits of meat. Now, I’m not really arguing with a lot of her points here. Yes it’s good to be wise, to seek God, to listen to the older generations. But to take this story and turn it into a lesson on how to do the right things so we don’t lose God… 

Seeking wisdom from God builds our relationship with Him.

Fearing God keeps our relationship with Him spiritually healthy.

Prayer and a daily commitment to the study of God’s Word are key components to maintaining a right relationship with God.

In the end, our desire is to become more like God, and wisdom from those older than us can be of great benefit.

Hang on, choking on some bones right now.

Starting from a faulty foundation lends itself to bad advice. After all, this “wisdom” comes from someone who doesn’t, in fact, understand Job or God. So Pope has to conclude,

Lord, I want to be a friend who speaks truth in love but I also want to be a friend who receives truth whether it is spoken brashly, rudely or with refinement. My desire is to become more like You no matter what the cost. I long to be completely devoted and always revere You. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

No.

I reserve the right to reject “wisdom” from someone who lacks compassion, or whose intent is to hurt or control. “He’s says good things, even if his way of saying it is abrasive.” That’s not to say that I dismiss everything a person says; but when it comes to seeking out wisdom for my own life, I will find it from people who are safe and who care about lifting burdens, not adding to the ones already on my heart.

My recommendation is to skip the devotional and read Job. Find a pastor or seminarian… or heck, even a poet… who understands structure and story. If all you get is mechanically-processed Bible verses with no sense of their context, you’re left with the idea that you have to do a lot of things — including allowing people to hurt you — because you want to keep God on your side.

Job’s comforters would be thrilled with this a pile of mostly-meatless bones.

And I find that irritating.

Realistic, Funny, Not Quite Perfect: A Review of “The Fellowship”

Rebecca Davis of Here’s The Joy reviewed The Fellowship. She thought it was engaging from the first page, funny, and realistic. And she found the ending satisfying… “in a way.”

But not entirely.

She definitely has a point. My novel does not explore a renewed relationship with Jesus. I made that a deliberate decision, mostly because I wanted to emphasize the fact that Bekah’s issues with God the Father were not because she wasn’t a “real Christian” who “didn’t know Jesus.” Also, her journey from the end of the last chapter to the beginning of the Epilogue could fill up another novel. I know this — my original Epilogues were longer than some of my chapters.

Still, after reading most of Davis’ blog, I see that missing element more clearly now. If I were writing the book now, I’d still make the same decision; but I’d bring out Bekah’s existing relationship with Jesus much more clearly.

I especially like how, in her review, Davis pairs my novel with a book that Bekah definitely could benefit from. It appeals to my sense of story arc, I guess.

Jump on over and read the whole review. Then stick around and read more of Davis’ excellent blog. She addresses twisted Scripture and how the church tends to protect abusers instead of their victims. My favorite category is “challenging the status quo,” where she takes apart not-actually-Biblical statements like “anger is sinful” and “Christians should yield their rights.”

And she actually wrote exactly the kind of book that Bekah (and the Bekah inside myself) needed when coming out of spiritual bondage: Untwisting Scripture. I’ll be posting my own review soon.

Have you read The Fellowship yet? You really should. It gets you absolutely no extra holiness points with God, but it will help you understand either your own past of spiritual abuse, or why someone you love is struggling. Click the link to get to Amazon, or contact me directly.

 

Red Flag Corp

red-flag-2-1444642-1280x960Sometimes a cult-like group is subtle and hard to pinpoint. But other times a group is obliging enough wave blazing red flags in choreographed formation. I found one such group recently.

Now, I have absolutely no connection with Weigh Down, Gwen Shamblin, or Remnant Fellowship. I never participated in any of it; I hardly even had heard of it. (Gwen is not pleased with me, I can tell.) A friend pointed me to the site, and I’m just reporting on what I see here. Which appears to be a group that’s practically screaming “Cult!” Or maybe it’s just “Raging narcissist who would like to be a cult leader.” Either way, it’s very instructive.

Let’s take a tour of these red flags, how about?

One person in the spotlight. If you read the site, it sure does have a lot to say about Gwen Shamblin. She seems to really like posting quotes that other men have said about her. Some of the prose is so glowing that you can just imagine Gwen brushing away a tear and saying, “That is so touching. It’s so good of me to say that about me.” Seriously, I bet she’s very nice in person. No, I mean it. People don’t become cult leaders without having very strong personal magnetism.

The Bible like you’ve never heard it before! “It is noteworthy that although the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Weigh Down participants had been church-goers for years, not one reported having ever heard these Biblically-based teachings from their home church.” Yeah, it’s noteworthy, all right. The Bible is centuries old and has been studied threadbare. If somebody finds something in it that nobody else has, then you can safely assume you’re hearing more imagination than Godly inspiration.

Promises of Paradise. The site is packed with sweeping claims of how Remnant Fellowship has dramatically broken addictions, saved marriages, and brought families together, all by the “power of God.” In real life, all these areas are an ongoing struggle and don’t always turn out the way we want them to. But a cult promises one-time-and-done miracles to broken and hurting people.

Obedience. The wording can vary, but within the culture of a cult-like group, two pillars support the entire community: authority and obedience. Members must recognize who is in authority, and then obey without question.

“Obedience—obedience—it’s beautiful. Do you want to remain in this love? It’s just like a child who stays by your side and communes with you by obedience and by following what you’re saying.  You have a beautiful relationship, but the one who turns and disobeys does not.  To have a relationship and to have answered prayers is to remain in the vine.  God gives His will to those who are going to obey it.  Why give it to those who are not going to obey it?  It tires you out to tell people or employees or children to do something and you know that they’re just going to stare at you while you speak, but they never do what you say.  Likewise, God gives His will, His beautiful and perfect will and desires, to those who will put it into practice.”

Note that this is cast in terms of obeying God’s will. But where do you learn God’s actual, real will? That would be the person who teaches what “the majority of hundreds of thousands” never heard before.

Blame shifting. Cults never can live up to their promises, but don’t worry, they’ve got that taken care of. When you’ve given them your money and your soul, and “God” doesn’t come through with that miraculous change, they tell you it’s your fault:

“Can you not figure out how to lose weight yet? Then it’s because you’ve not purposed in your heart to do it.  So purpose in your heart to obey what He tells you to do, and then He will show you the way out of your desires that have ensnared you.  Do you really want out of the trap of your own desires? Then obey what He tells you to do. Put it into practice…”

As an entirely subjective red flag, these pictures of doll-like beautiful children with perfectly curled hair put me on edge — particularly as they’re the grandchildren of the great exalted founder. Don’t you want children this sweet and well-behaved? Then get yourself to Remnant Fellowship and prepare to obey.

I consider Remnant Fellowship to be a pretty blatant example of what to avoid. However, anytime you run across a church, a study, or even a pyramid-shaped “business” that promises great results “if you just…”, look for the red flags and consider them seriously. Life is hard, and despite their grand promises to the contrary, cults make it even harder.

Abigail and the Fool

Minolta DSCI think I’ve complained about some “Christian” marriage advice on this blog before (that’s four links). So the question is, do I ever come across a perspective of marriage that I like?

Funny you should ask that! Because I found a post recently that was an antidote both to the “stay silent and happy” brand of marital life, and redeems the twisted version of Abigail that I was subjected to as a teen and young adult.

Help, I’m Married to a Fool! really isn’t “advice” so much as a reflection on the author’s own married life. She is writing on her twenty-first wedding anniversary, so she and her husband have weathered a lot of years together. She writes that she became a Christian a few years after getting married, and found herself praying often for her marriage.

My husband and I seemed to be at odds on a regular basis, and although I would like to say it was his fault, in truth, we were young, selfish, and trying to adjust to life with many children in a short time frame.

But there was more than just kids and immaturity causing the divide. Something was wrong and she wasn’t sure what; she needed God to fix it! Pray, pray, pray.

Then she noticed the story of Abigail, and a light dawned.

I’ll pause here to remind you about the “complementarian” view of marriage, which is what most evangelicals claim. It’s different from patriarchy in that it considers men and women spiritually equal before God. The term comes from the idea that men and women are “equal but different” — their roles in life “complete” each other. But in marriage, the husband still has the final say in all decisions. The wife is expected to say her piece, then submit to whatever her husband decides. If it’s a bad decision — just like in patriarchy — the wife leaves the result up to God.

In both patriarchy and complementarianism, the story of Abigail is a problem. Her husband, Nabal, scorns and insults the warrior king-to-be, David, thereby inviting very real destruction on his entire household. A servant alerts Abigail, who goes behind Nabal’s back and approaches David with apologies, explaining that her husband is “a fool.” Her offers of peace saved the lives of everyone in the household — except Nabal, who died of a rage-induced stroke when he heard what she did.

The version of Abigail that I learned in patriarchy circles (see my link above) was that Abigail should have gone to her husband first, should have left everything up to God, and was responsible for Nabal’s death. Complementarianism doesn’t go that far, but it’s still uncomfortable with the way Abigail undermined her own husband’s wishes.

But the author of this blog post came to a different conclusion after really paying attention to the story.

In Scripture, fool is often used for a wicked or depraved person; one who acts contrary to sound wisdom in his moral deportment; one who follows his own inclinations, who prefers trifling and temporary pleasures to the service of God and eternal happiness.

That morning I realized that the deepening divide in our marriage was not something I could fix, but that it had to be wisely navigated. My relationship with my husband would not be better until he made the decision to acknowledge God above his own inclinations.

She goes on to explain how Abigail “navigated around” her foolish, dangerous husband. She didn’t passively pray and react and pretend everything was all right; she actively responded, was known as a safe and trustworthy person, and told the truth about her situation.

The post leaves some questions, like — What is a wife supposed to do if her husband is making a fool of himself? Not in a foot-in-mouth sort of way, but in an agonizing “Hey, let me launch into an insulting tirade without regard to my listeners, banking on the fact that they’re polite so I can say whatever I want to.” My first loyalty is to my husband, so I’d be loath to call him out right there in front of everybody. But if it’s a pattern, if he’s ignored my private conversations about it… well, then what? The post doesn’t really offer much guidance.

On the other hand, it gives a freedom that most marriage reflections don’t: it allows the wife to actually think about this situation and decide what her response will be. She can act, and be justified in doing so, without having to worry that she will “dishonor” her husband incur God’s wrath. If she’s reluctant to speak up because of how her husband will treat her at home, in private — well, I would think that’s definitely a signal that it’s time to take serious action, possibly behind his back, to save herself and her household.

But what if she uses this “freedom” to humiliate her husband? What if she cuts him down in public and undermines everything he tries to do for their family? Then guess what? She’s the fool, not him. He can look to the brave, trustworthy, truthful Abigail for guidance in navigating around her destructive habits until God changes her, or until he needs to act without her knowledge to “save the household.”

Marriage relationships are complicated. Sometimes it’s very hard for outsiders to know exactly who is the fool, and who is the Abigail. But trying to solve the problem by telling a wife that she must stay in her “God-given role” and honor her husband at all costs is ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst.

Instead, be smart, decisive, and ready to act on your own and others’ behalf. Don’t be a fool — be like Abigail.