How are you? Perhaps the more fitting question is who are you? What story are you telling yourself about what kind of person you are, how you’ve become so, what your desires are, who you love, and how it is all holding together?
We are storied people. Recognizing this will help us to learn better, to love better, and to heal better. And the thing about stories is they require more than one character. It is fascinating to learn about the mind—it’s still so mysterious. It gets tricky when we talk about how the mind, soul, and affections of our hearts all interrelate. And how they relate to the minds, souls, and affections of others. This happens in the context of story that we are constantly telling ourselves and each other, both verbally and nonverbally.
Christians are in the soul-business, but we often get caught up in a transactional mode as we talk about our need for salvation and sanctification. We assent to these truths and conform to these behaviors in exchange for eternal life with God and belonging in the faith. We can easily reduce our faith to decisions and performance. But we call it submission, so it sounds more spiritual.
Doctrine is important to me because I want to know God truly. I’m not downplaying its value. But my experiences over the last three years have revealed to me the dangers of thinking of the faith in mere cerebral terms. God is inviting us to commune with him. He’s preparing us for love. Theology without love—and all that holistically encompasses— is a theology of a different god.
And love isn’t something didactically taught. It’s something we need prepared for. We learn of it in our relationships, our stories.
Matt Chandler’s vague confession and suspension from preaching for frequently DM’ing with a woman on Instagram in a non-sexual or romantic way raises a lot of questions. As I wrote, the confession itself sends a message from The Village Church about women, friendship, and the gospel. Both ways to look at this vague public confession is bad news for women: either there’s more to the story or women are viewed as a threat to men and their ministries.
And either way, it reveals the need in the church to learn more about our honor and responsibility as brothers and sisters in the household of God. Like everything else in the Christian life, friendship costs. It costs our perception of freedom, our capacity to be hurt, and our reputations, even. I want to spend time on that last one. So much of the Billy Graham Rule and the perceptions surrounding it are really about protecting the reputation of male leaders. One could argue that it is the reputation of the church that is at stake. I don’t disagree. Let’s see how the early church’s reputation of cross-gender friendship and worship in the church affected them. Here’s an excerpt on that from Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:
Unbelievers were very suspicious of these Christian assemblies. Marcus Minucius Felix, an early Latin Christian apologist, narrates popular accusations against the early Christians in his apologetic work called Octavius. In this dialogue on Christianity between a pagan and a Christian, the pagan Caecilius Natalis says to the Christian Octavius Januarius:
Here we are again, evangelicals, in the New York Times. Many have now seen that Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church and president of the Acts 29 church planting network, confessed to having an “inappropriate online relationship” with a woman and is taking an indefinite leave of absence.
You can watch his confession before the church here:
It is extremely vague and leaves concerned believers and unbelievers with many questions. The way that this is presented is that the problem is that Chandler’s DM’s with this “other” woman were too “frequent” and “familiar,” and there was some “coarse joking.” The concerns from the elders were not that the messages were “romantic or sexual.” Are any of you scratching your head thinking that the way this is framed is descriptive of platonic friendship? It could even be healthy friendship. His wife and her husband reportedly knew about this messaging.
Obviously, we do not have the whole story. And there has to be more to it. There’s warranted reasons to say this. First of all, the NYTimes reports:
It’s been a week. I accepted an invitation to preach on the Song of Songs to a wonderful Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation. I was met with much hospitality, encouragement, and engagement there. And for that, I am also met with much vitriol on the internet. It’s a lot to hold together in your heart and in your head.
I wrote a response to the first wave of accusations after accepting an invitation, and CBMW published a piece about me, hoping that those who disagreed with me would at least see where I am with things and move on with their lives. But that is a pipe dream. On top of the vitriol, there is the subtle shaming. It is surreal to read a backhanded subtweet and then learn from the comments and retweets that it’s about you:
Certain people’s theological or spiritual declension should be less a cause for a sense of vindication than sorrow and shame for any whose unchristian behaviour played a part in pushing them from the truth. We can challenge people without giving orthodoxy a toxic reputation.
While he seems to be addressing toxic behavior, do you see the toxic framing there? Whomever he is speaking of…she which shant be named…is in theological and spiritual declension, pushed from the truth. So I just want to clarify that I am confident that I have been pushed, but God catches his own and I am closer to the truth even as I have much, much more to learn.
The theological and spiritual declension I see going on in the church is not because a woman gave an invitation to beauty based on Song of Songs 3:11.
Despite the accusations, I didn’t have an ambition to preach. I just wanted to have some conversations with the preacher. Because I was so moved by the gospel. And what that meant for reality and life. I wanted in—where it mattered. Into the beautiful. Into the magic of it all. Oh, the questions I had! Who else shared in these inquiries? And this draw into the invitation? I didn’t see myself as a leader, but merely a responder.
Everything was beautiful in the real life that we meditated on last. We ended with the man beckoning the woman’s voice and wanting to gaze face to face. All that goodness may make her response to him curious.
Catch the foxes for us—
the little foxes that ruin
for our vineyards are in bloom.
Here, we experience the tension between the already of this true invitation with the reality of the Bridegroom breaking in, and the not-yet of our consummation. The woman teaches us that reality is complex. Think of what a gift this is: here we are in the holy of holies of Scripture, where we can experience the presence of Christ with us in the most intimate place in his Word. Here we are getting behind the veil, our senses aroused to his love with a taste of what is to come. And yet, it’s all empty sentimental platitudes if we let ourselves pervert it into fantasy.
And so is the fact that our preparation to get there can be filled with conflict and agony. In speaking of a Jewish Hasidic Master, Elie Wiesel, says something similar. “The beauty of Rebbe Barukh [of Medzebozh] is that he could speak of faith not as opposed to anguish but as being part of it. ‘Faith and the abyss are next to one another,’ he told his disciple. ‘I would even say: one within the other. True faith lies beyond questions; true faith comes after it has been challenged.’” Can you resonate with this? So many have testified, feeling a bit of shame for it, that when things are going well, they often don’t feel as close to God. What have been the greatest trials in your life? This is when our faith is exposed. And trained. The writer to the Hebrews says it like this: “No discipline seems joyful at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Our faith goes through training in the hard times. Real life training. Disappointments and losses in life can disorient us. They cause us to ask what is real. Things are often not as they seem.
Sometimes Christianity doesn’t seem real. We can say something profound about it like, God is preparing our souls for love. But it doesn’t feel like it most of the time. It feels like I am a mediocre friend, at best, and that I am not doing enough for the church. Or for my family. I look at my young adult daughters and son and think I haven’t taught them or shown them enough about the wonder of who God is and his love for us and focused too much on how Christians behave. I catch myself being critical of my husband. I miss him when he’s not with me, and then I pick at him when he is. That’s not loving. And it feels like I’m always failing in my prayer life.
Not good enough. That seems like real life sometimes. A lot of the time.
I know all the right things to speak into this. Because I really am a Christian. But we each have the winters of our souls to deal with. What I just shared is both embarrassing and dismal. But it is not the worst of my winters. This is the polished confession version.
At this point in the Song of Songs, the woman just adjured us not to stir up or awaken love until the proper time. Sometimes we try too hard to force things, and others we are just dreary and languishing in winter. Our senses are dulled. There’s no grass or blooms to smell. We don’t hear the birds singing or the voice of children playing outside. We don’t feel the sun on our skin. Everything we taste is canned or imported. Likewise, the promises of God can seem so far off or disconnected from real life. They sound great, but right now you are trying to finish your education and start your career before your car breaks down again. Or maybe you are too overwhelmed by the loss of a relationship to sense anything hopeful. Whether we are caring for loved ones, aching in loneliness, coping and fighting an illness, just slogging through the mundanity of everyday stresses, or striving to make a record of all our accomplishments and “living” on social media, real life can rob us of our curiosity and imaginations.
But what if it is exactly our curiosity and imaginations that need to be awakened to see and sense real life? Here is something curious: the woman gives this adjuration not to stir up love or awaken it until the proper time three times in the Song, and each occasion it is immediately followed with a change of scenery, awakening, and rising up! What if we need reminding to listen and look because spring is rolling in? Here comes the sun!
In the summer of 2020, a website pulled the veil back on what many church officers in Reformed denominations were saying about women (and also other minorities, but I’m focusing on women in this post). Its administrators were officers in the OPC. They were particularly consumed with the release of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and how dangerous it is for the church.
One of their favorite Puritans to recommend was William Gouge. So naturally, they look to him for a possible argument against women going to college, as the image captured above shows.
Two years later, we can still wonder how the views of these church officers have been challenged. Yesterday, a soon to be released book was brought to my attention that an OPC church officer who is also a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary cowrote with his wife. It’s titled Gospel-Shaped Marriage. This is part of the description on Amazon:
Drawing from Scripture and the writings of Puritan minister William Gouge, their advice also prepares churches, friends, and others to support married couples in their lives.
The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling, and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform. It includes written conversations among top Executive Committee staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama. It documents callous cover-ups by some SBC leaders and credible allegations of sexually predatory behavior by some leaders themselves, including former SBC president Johnny Hunt (who was one of the only figures in SBC life who seemed to be respected across all of the typical divides).
How did we get here? How do this many people let this happen? Is it just the SBC?
After I spoke with a group of church leaders once on the topic of discipling men and women in the church, one pastor took me aside. He didn’t want to make this comment during the Q&A session we just finished. He told me that my message had merit, but he was concerned about the feminization of the church and he wanted my thoughts on that. Wasn’t I worried that investing in more women would lead to this? Anecdotally, he said that he’s noticed that women were eager to learn; and the more churches invest in them, the more they will rise in leadership over the men. Or in influencing the men. Which feminizes the church.
Have you heard something like this before? I’m guessing so, because I hear it often. When someone starts talking about the feminization of the church, it is an instant red flag for me. I talk about this some in The Sexual Reformation. Here is an excerpt:
It’s been two years since Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood published. I know because it popped up in my “memories.” It made me pause and think about how long and impactful these last two years have been. A lot has changed in my life. I’ve changed. Peeling yellow wallpaper is painful stuff. When writing my book, I didn’t realize how much of it was all over myself.
For those of you who haven’t read Recovering, I am referring to the infamous 19th century novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a brilliant and disturbing exploration of the effects patriarchal attitudes and constrictions have on female psychosynthesis. Being forced into “rest therapy” for a bogus diagnosis of neurasthenia, the narrator of the book becomes completely fixated on the disturbing yellow wallpaper of the run-down estate she is made to stay in and becomes convinced that there is a woman trapped inside of its smothering pattern. She must peel it back to set her free. You see, the yellow wallpaper in this confined room of which she is made to stay is a symbol of the traditional patriarchal structures of family, medicine, and society. Following the stream-of-consciousness writing of the narrator’s journal-like entries, the reader joins her downward spiral from sanity. At the end, her voice changes to that of the woman in the wallpaper whom she’s set out to free.
In the Introduction of my book, I ask the question:
Is the woman in this story crazy for what she saw in the yellow wallpaper, or is everyone else crazy for not seeing it?