Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Sniff Test

A heresy in the popular sense is a belief or theory at odds with established beliefs or customs. This is the way I will use the word throughout this post, and it’s not far off the way the word is employed by the writers of the New Testament.

Heresies vary in magnitude, detectability and potential consequences. Some heresies are obvious, and therefore easily avoided; others come couched in weasel words and obscured by rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Some heresies are outright damnable; others merit commendation or disapproval.

Few heresies pass my sniff test.

The religious world is full of theories. The sniff test is a set of criteria by which I make my own quick-’n’-dirty assessments of whether to buy into the theory behind any sermon, book, video or random expression of theological opinion. Other believers have their own sniff tests. A friend recently emailed me a link to a video with the tag line “Can you smell the brimstone?” Indeed, I could; the video provoked yesterday’s post.

Cue the Alarm Bells

Let’s cut to the chase. Here are seven “tells” that start the sirens wailing for me:

  1. The author has discovered something everybody else in church history has gotten wrong.
  2. The author has discovered something our current popular culture has gotten exactly right. Put into practice in the church, his theory would make her much more palatable to the world.
  3. The author repeatedly paints his opponents in the worst possible terms.
  4. The author relies on irrelevant emotional arguments rather than careful exegesis.
  5. The author relies on dubious historical assertions about the reasons for a contentious teaching of scripture, inevitably eliminating its relevance in the present day.
  6. The author repeatedly makes the writers of scripture say the exact opposite of what they appear to be saying to the average reader.
  7. The author strings together impressive lists of verses unquoted and out of context. A closer look shows most or all have nothing to do with the points they are alleged to support.

Let’s Be Fair

Now, let’s be fair: it’s occasionally possible to discover something everyone else in church history appears to have gotten wrong, or something the world is doing right and most Christians are not. Unlikely, but possible. Or the author of a theory may have been obliged to paint his opponents in terribly unflattering terms because honesty demands it; they are truly horrible people. He may even wish they would “go the whole way”. Or the occasional verse of scripture may be popularly misunderstood and require more careful exegesis. Or a very good book may contain a list of proof texts that don’t prove anything they are alleged to prove, though it will invariably contain some that do.

Any one or two of these criteria on their own may be outliers or false alarms. But four or more together in one place? You’ve got a dumpster fire of an idea. And all seven in one book, video or sermon? You’d have to invert the theory 180 degrees to get it within hailing distance of orthodoxy.

Congratulations, Paul Ellis, author of The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find Their Voice. You’re seven for seven.

A Truly Masterful Performance

The Silent Queen is a truly masterful performance. Not only has Mr. Ellis discovered something the church at large has gotten wrong for the best part of the last 2,000 years, he has discovered a whole range of teachings about the role of women in the home and church that Christians have grossly misunderstood. What are the odds of that? Not only have most of us been wrong, we’ve been wrong about everything! Wrong about women being silent in church meetings? Check. Wrong about wives submitting to their husbands? Check. Wrong about women teaching men? Check. Wrong about women serving as deacons, pastors, elders and leaders of men? Check, check, check and check. Wrong about female apostles? You betcha. Wrong about the headcovering and its meaning? Of course we are. Wrong about the implications of the Genesis account for male/female relationships in Christ? In just about every possible way. Wrong about divorce? That too. It’s actually much more acceptable to God than we ever thought.

On its own, the sheer number of things we Christians are alleged to have gotten wrong for so many centuries would make my nostrils pucker. But this is only the beginning of sorrows.

Setting Us Straight

Thankfully, we have popular culture to set us straight. Mr. Ellis’s thesis doesn’t just faintly echo feminist dogma, it assumes most of progressivism and feminism’s popular tropes without argument. The evil patriarchy. Disenfranchisement. The use of “gender” instead of “sex”. The exclusion of women from traditionally male jobs. The wage gap. The glass ceiling. Different roles in church and marriage as “inequality”. Emotional abuse as a tactic only men employ, and as justification for ending marriage. Ubiquitous gender discrimination. The massive financial cost to society of underemploying women. Fulfillment through financial independence and self-actualization.

The fact that these feminist talking points have in many cases been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked, explained or appropriately qualified is never mentioned or even considered. Thankfully, we have Western society over the last hundred years to finally set us straight about what the Bible was really teaching all this time.

Ellis cites a litany of the worst possible historical male abuses; quotes the most misogynistic of the church fathers, Athenian philosophers, Jewish rabbis and Reformers; illustrates his complaints against men with the worst possible anecdotes of misbehavior and ignorance; and almost invariably paints women as blameless victims and paragons of virtue. His relentless white-knighting on behalf of the fairer sex is truly in a class of its own. There is no subtlety, no moderation and no balance sought. Ellis takes aim at arguments nobody would ever make. His chapter on eight ways Jesus empowered women is a classic rhetorical nothing-burger: he repeatedly assumes facts not in evidence in order to conclude that Jesus loved and affirmed women, a truth I’ve yet to hear disputed by anyone, and one that establishes nothing whatsoever with respect to the issue of the relative roles and responsibilities of the sexes at home or in the church.

History, Scripture and Just Plain Making It Up

Time and time again, Ellis uses extra-biblical historical information to interpret scripture. Paul’s teaching about the role of women is a reaction to domineering Ephesian priestesses. Churches had female leadership until the mid-fourth century. The evidentiary support for these and many other of Ellis’s assertions is flimsy at best. My personal favorite: the writers of scripture failed to mention a sufficient number of women in their genealogies and only identify them in terms of their relationships to the men in their lives. (This and a few other comments cast a shadow over Ellis’s view of inspiration, which would be an even bigger heresy, but he dances up to the line without quite removing all possibility of reasonable doubt.)

Most often, however, Ellis simply assumes scripture says what he would like it to say without the slightest evidence it actually does. In his view, Philip’s four daughters prophesied in church meetings, Priscilla was a pastor, and Phoebe was a recognized church leader as opposed to (just!) a godly woman who devoted herself to the practical care of her fellow believers. She also read the letter to the Romans in a church meeting in Rome. (Of course she did.) Moreover, the fact that women opened their homes for church meetings means these women were the de facto “leaders” of the churches in their homes.

None of these assumptions is anywhere to be found in the actual text, and other scriptures render them questionable at best.

“Fixing” Paul

Then there’s this truly daring moment in chapter 10 when Ellis presumes to rewrite Paul (1 Corinthians 14) to his own satisfaction, ignoring centuries of Bible translation by teams of scholars who knew more about language than he ever will:

“The cockamamie suggestion that half the church should stay silent riled Paul. You can almost hear him shouting his reply. Or you would if English Bibles quoted him properly … He can’t believe what he’s hearing. The Corinthians have fallen off their collective rocker if they think women should stay silent.”

Candid moment: a few things in our English Bible have indeed been sub-optimally translated. That’s the wonderful thing about having multiple English versions of the Bible: we can look at them all and choose the wording that makes the most sense in the immediate and greater context, safe in the knowledge that there is at least some scholarship to back it. The Ellis reading of verses 33-38 is at variance with not just every English translation in existence, but also with the understanding most of the church fathers had of this passage long before the English language even existed.

Ellis also strings together impressive lists of verses unquoted and out of context to make points they don’t actually make, but that’s something I look forward to demonstrating in greater detail in a second (and I promise, final) post.

In Summary

Half way through The Silent Queen I told the friend who loaned me the book that I could probably write 100 posts about the author’s misrepresentations, misunderstandings and outright errors. Don’t worry, I promise not to. There’s so much wrong here that a few pages is enough for the average Christian to just put it down and move on.

My sniff test is admittedly only a rough-and-ready heresy sensor, but seven for seven is the sort of accomplishment few of today’s Christian writers can achieve within the limitations of a single volume, 175‑page paperback.

But I’m sure you don’t need my sniff test to figure that out. Other believers may analyze things a little differently than I do, but thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, most mature Christians have their own mental checklist of “tells” that set them off.

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