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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A Fistful of Jell-O

Too many times, trying to get a handle on complex disagreements within the Body of Christ is like trying to grab a fistful of Jell-O. And not the cubed, wobbly, gelatinous sort either. More like the runny, near-liquid stuff that races away across the tabletop or squirts between your fingers when you finally catch up with it.

Good luck nailing that down.

A long-time reader pointed me to this blog post by Barbara Roberts at A Cry for Justice, which might well represent the quintessential runny Jell-O story.

A quick summary of the parties involved: Barbara, whose blog exists to advise and support Christians experiencing spousal and familial abuse, quotes extensively from the sermons of a Bible teacher named John Fonville in order to trash “Reformed” theologians John Piper and John MacArthur for promoting what is sometimes called “Lordship Salvation”. Barbara claims these “Reformers” are not actually “Reformed” at all. At the same time, she repudiates the “Easy Believism” of Zane Hodges and others. In brief: Piper and MacArthur disagree with Hodges, Fonville disagrees with the first two at least, and Barbara disagrees with all three. Other Christian parties with opinions get called to weigh in as well, complicating matters.

Folly and Shame

There’s a basic principle found in the book of Proverbs that we ought to observe when taking sides in a disagreement, which is that if one gives an answer before he hears, it is his “folly and shame”. So let’s avoid being foolish and shameful.

But that’s tough. In order to understand Barbara’s argument and even form an opinion (and good luck forming an intelligent one in this case), the reader needs to be conversant with multiple theological positions and agendas and sufficiently well-read to distinguish “real Reformed” from “fake Reformed”. He or she must have slogged through enough Piperian “Lordship Salvation” (LS) theology to understand whether Barb (and especially Fonville) are fairly representing what Piper teaches (which may or may not be precisely equivalent to the way MacArthur frames the same subjects). He or she must have explored Hodges sufficiently to understand the Easy Believism/LS divide. That’s probably a year’s worth of reading right there, otherwise you will just be talking out your ear when you start taking sides.

Agendas in Collision

Then, assuming we want to “hear” what this disagreement is really about, there’s Barbara Roberts’s own agenda, which cries out for exploration and clarification before we might dare to offer our thoughts. See, Barb seems to have devoted a big chunk of her life to “victims of abuse”, as she defines the term. For Barbara, the main reason to trash Piper and MacArthur is that the view of scripture they offer is challenging and painful for the people she cares about. It makes leaving their husbands a whole lot more difficult (the vast majority are women, though Roberts concedes some men are also abused).

So Barbara’s problem here, I think, is not really Lordship Salvation (which, she concedes, until hearing Fonville’s sermon she didn’t even understand, let alone had explored in detail). A hint: that is usually not the best position from which to opine dogmatically about a subject, hence the need for Fonville, whose understanding of Piper and MacArthur’s positions is better developed.

The Real Issue?

If I may venture an opinion myself, Barbara’s real issue does not seem to be a scripture-based disagreement with the details of Piper’s theology or MacArthur’s: it’s that they are two well-respected pastors with huge followings in Reformed circles. If they declare, “Stay With Your Husband, It’s Christ’s Law”, they influence other believers to think that’s the way it should be and make it tougher for the “abused” to leave their spouses in good conscience.

As Barbara Roberts puts it:
“For a Christian victim of domestic abuse, Lordship Salvation induces false guilt and terror that they are going to hell if they don’t comply with the church’s counsel and the abuser’s demands.”
That’s as far as I care to go with discussing the blog post. It’s Jell-O. Lots and lots of runny Jell-O. A veritable Jell-O quagmire waiting to swallow the unwary.

Back in the Real World

But theoretical arguments often have real-world consequences. So imagine yourself an elder in your local Reformed church. You are confronted by some poor woman who, after immersing herself in Barbara’s blog daily for six months, considers herself egregiously ill-treated by her Christian husband and believes she has justification for leaving him. Oh, he’s never actually hit her. Not once. But in her mind he has established “a pattern of coercive control”, manipulating her into “subordination” out of what she calls “a profound mentality of entitlement”. He’s “abusive” by Barbara Roberts’ definition of abuse. [All these terms, by the way, come directly from Barbara Roberts’ home page.]

Such a story can be very compelling, especially to the naturally compassionate. But again the writer of Proverbs has some sound advice about disagreements, which is that “the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I have certainly found that to be the case when Christians disagree.

It is not impossible that your inquirer is looking for your permission to declare herself a victim and exit her marriage. To make such a move without the elders on board is scary, because your congregation is full of regular Piper and MacArthur readers and listeners. She would be unlikely to find sympathy and support from her fellow believers without first gaining yours.

Sometimes I’m absolutely delighted not to be an elder.

The Jell-O Quagmire

I will wisely avoid offering a lot of complicated advice to elders in similar situations other than this one-liner: Stay out of the Jell-O quagmire.

One thing you can be quite sure of is that unless this woman is unusually well-read (something a shepherd would probably know already), her understanding of the complex theological issues considered in Barbara Roberts’ post is a great deal foggier than yours. These issues are simply being raised to disqualify the opinions of MacArthur and Piper, who would not favor a speedy and well-supported exit from an uncomfortable home situation. What she has discovered is someone who appears sympathetic to her complaints about her relationship and is encouraging her to do what in her heart she already wants to.

So ignore Barbara. Ignore John, John and John. Ignore the “theologies” and the “isms”. Ignore Zane Hodges too, at least on this subject. Ignore all generalizations. Especially, ignore the word “abuse”, which you will not find used in the “Cry for Justice” sense or in the context of marriage even once in your New Testament. Not one single time, and not in versions modern or ancient. You will not help this woman by touching any of these ‘tar babies’ or by encouraging her to use someone else’s language to describe her dissatisfaction with her own marriage.

Specifics, Specifics, Specifics

It’s not for me to say whether such a woman should leave her husband. I’m not naive enough to believe that no Christian husband is ever violent toward his wife. It happens, sadly. And I’ve certainly seen Christian husbands with attitudes toward their marriages that needed major work. But discontentment in marriage can arise from numerous other sources than abuse, and I’ve seen definitions of abuse that trivialize the word. Many of the reasons cited for leaving Christian marriages today do not even pass within hailing distance of the biblical standard.

Every home situation is different, and divorce is hugely damaging to everyone involved. There are good reasons to be exceedingly careful. Most elders know this well.

If there is no evidence of physical danger to your complainant, at least you have time. Time to talk about the specifics of her marriage rather than about vague generalities. Time to look at actual verses of scripture together rather than encouraging her to adopt or reject the positions of Christian theological movements she barely understands. Time to see if there’s another side to her story. Time to come to an understanding of what is actually happening in this woman’s home rather than what is happening in some blogger’s head.

Time to avoid grasping at Jell-O.

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