Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

Photo by Du01b0u01a1ng Nhu00e2n on

A friend said something about Denny Burk’s “review” of my book that really resonated with me. I’m trying to have a conversation about discipleship in the church. In my book, I ask church officers to lead discussions as I look through Scripture, identify the struggles of men and women in the church, and explore within the bounds of our confessions. Burk dismisses all of this and wants to tell us all what to think: what to think about me, what to think about my book, and what to think about biblical manhood and womanhood.

He turns me into the Repugnant Cultural Other by using scare words from his tribe, poisoning the well by suggesting to his readers that I am a closet egalitarian feminist who is trying to lead a whole generation away from “biblical” manhood and womanhood. He completely misrepresents my writing in this, suggesting that I am part of the problem they are trying to save others from with their blessed Nashville Statement, saying that I commend “’marriage-like’ same sex friendships,” and suggesting I am pro-LGBT.

I still can’t wrap my head around how this can pass as an academic review in Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and be posted on SBTS’s website.

It all reminded me of Alan Jacobs’ helpful book How to Think. I wrote about the book some when it first came out and went back to look at it:

Jacobs spends a lot of time building on C.S. Lewis’ teaching about the Inner Ring, or “‘moral matrix’ that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged,” reasoning that if we are so caught up in our own Inner Rings, we begin to look at outsiders to our Ring as Repugnant Cultural Others (55). Jacobs calls these Inner Ring zealots “true believers.” This kind of tribalism really doesn’t sharpen our thinking or properly love our neighbors. When this happens, we are not truly being loyal to our group or our belief systems that we hold dear because we bind one another to strict orthodoxy of the Inner Ring rather than to the truth and rather than freedom to learn more, love well, and be sharpened. Inner Ring tribalism also produces pretenders who never really grasp the truths we hold dear. Finding common ground with those who hold different convictions than us, even politically or religiously, does not necessarily weaken our own convictions. If they are in truth, they will be strengthened as we are stretched in our thinking.

Christians are a confessing community. We hold to our creeds, explaining what Scripture teaches on first order doctrines. We have this standard for orthodoxy. Our denominations hold to different confessions within this orthodoxy, from which we can worship together, be discipled, and speak from in more detail about what we confess. Christians are also a loving community—it’s our greatest commandment! We are to love our God and love one another. It is how we are to be known!

So how has this all flipped upside down, where Burk can downplay our creeds and CBMW’s teaching an unorthodox position on Eternal Subordination of the Son, all the while making me a Repugnant Cultural Other? How have we moved from leadership in helping others to think within the bounds of our confessions to telling them what to think?

How can we be healthier in our affiliations with one another? How can we have loving hearts and healthy minds? There are many Inner Rings in the Christian evangelical subculture. I know I have participated in Inner Ringmanship to my own regret. We also see polarizing Inner Rings with political affiliations, race, diets, social issues, and education. Social media is a handy Inner Ring facilitator. One of the toughest exercises in self-examination is to “distinguish between ‘genuine solidarity’ and participation in an Inner Ring” (63). It’s the difference between true community and false belonging.

This was all going through my mind when I stumbled upon Jacobs’ use of the term “mental purity”:

You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup. If you quote some unapproved figure, or have the “wrong” website open on your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap”—generally, not a good sign…The true believer is always concerned, both on her behalf and on that of the other members of her ingroup, for mental purity. (138)

Mental purity sounds like a really good thing, doesn’t it? But we have another term for this, which exposes the negative effects: living in a bubble. It’s funny that Jesus didn’t separate the church from the rest of the world after his resurrection so that we wouldn’t be so exposed to corrupting ideas and teaching. It’s funny how he has made many unbelievers smarter and more gifted than his people, so that we will benefit from, learn from, and serve with them. It’s funny how the church has never had mental purity. But we do have Christ, who is both good and omniscient. And we have his word, which is living and active. God calls his people to discernment, which requires critical thinking, not to mental purity.

Even so, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just have to say, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap!” Sometimes crap is just crap. There are many books out there that will not engage us to be good thinkers and may actually make us dumber after having read them. You can’t engage much with fluff. And when it comes to something like 50 Shades of Grey, for example, we really don’t have any business reading it. It’s not only junk, and really bad writing, but it easily leads to sinful thoughts and actions. Also, we are told “not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person” (1 Cor. 5:11). That’s a pretty clear line for us—those living in immorality are breaking the greatest commandment that we confess. They are not loving God or others. That matters.

Discernment knows that there is such a thing as a junk pile. But this isn’t what Jacobs is talking about. He’s addressing this sense of tribalism that puts all outsider views in the junk pile and refuses to read those we even strongly disagree with for critical thinking. (I should also note, because I come across this quite often, absorbing everything you read is not critical thinking.)

This all makes me want to think more about true community and false belonging. Adding extra burdens onto our confessions and making them weightier than our own creeds does not make a true community. Telling people what to think instead of helping them learn how to think does not foster a true community. And calling it biblical does not make it so.

23 thoughts on “When We Tell Others What to Think: Another Reflection on Denny Burk’s “Review”

  1. Reblogged this on exceptionnoted and commented:
    Something to think about …


  2. The kind of behavior you describe creates religious cliques (with all the attendant “Mean Girl” dynamics), not healthy growing disciples.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So much food for thought here Aimee, thank you for this. Thank you for making me think and pray on these things and for being willing to write about them. I am praying for you today, that the Lord will give you His peace that goes beyond our understanding.


  4. Marianna says:

    I have 5 college degrees, one in Legal Assistance graduated Phi Theta Kappa. Once I was called in by OPC session to be rebuked because I didn’t get direction from them on buying a cheap, used car. I had bothered the deacon over and over because of submission requirement, but he was too busy. But I’m the one who allegedly didn’t submit, therefore I sinned. Thats only one incident Aimee. 3 long, tortuous years later, I was accused, tried, found
    guilty and censored out. Oh, and the deacon who was too busy to help me? His son declared his being openly gay. Same OPC pastor didn’t take long to remove the deacon, then the whole family left. The visible ekklesia, the new pharisees are destroying the gospel and testimony of Lord Jesus.


    1. Bev Sterk says:

      Bless your heart Marianna… so sorry, so wrong… the institutional church (ie denoms) is self destructing… the organic Ekklesia is expanding and will flourish and thrive, just not in the way we have traditionally measured it based on a human scale of members and money!


    2. Graham Veale says:

      I’m sorry…is it normal practice for deacons to advise church members on car purchases? Have I misunderstood?


      1. Marianna Basile says:

        It Most certainly was in my ex OPC. Elders came to my home to rebuke me for not waiting months on the deacon to oversee buying a used car.


  5. Michelle says:

    This is so good. As I was reading, I thought about the fact that what you are suggesting requires a lot of work and commitment, which is what community entails. I wonder if the sheer volume of information and competing voices, along with our instant everything culture, lends to this propensity to prop up leaders that tell us what to think and feel – to do the “heavy lifting” and heavy thinking if you will – to ease that stress in our own hearts.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I appreciate your work because you make me think beyond what I think I already know. You don’t tell me what to think; instead you do something all great teachers and writers do: you inform, then ask thoughtful questions which cause me to wonder which causes me to research and study it for myself. This is what willing and eager students/disciples do. How has American Christian Culture reduced following Jesus Christ to a list of dos and don’ts; think this, but not that; read him, but not her; say this, but never say that.

    I am passionate about helping us, the Church, turn back to Jesus. He is the one we follow. Not a denomination, a celebrity pastor, a mega church, or belief system. It’s Jesus. We follow Jesus. Thank you for pointing us to Him.


    1. Henry says:

      Yes agreed. We can be persuaded to adopt a world view, a moral code or doctrine and use it to guide our lives but we need to accept responsibility for determining application in our lives. If we accept being told how to think we risk drinking the Koolaid of a cult.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. annaandbrent says:

    What I am reading today in Luke 12 reminded me of your post, Aimee. Jesus turns from the Pharisees whom He has being denouncing in Luke 11 directly to His own disciples. He warns them that they themselves are susceptible to same pitfalls as the Pharisees. Allan Thompson’s exegetical guide to Luke denominates that Phariseeism in ways that remind me of the hypocrisy we all battle and that you are addressing today:
    “(1) A concern for external appearances at the expense of internal realities (11:37–41); (2) A concern for peripheral minutia at the expense of essential matters (11:42); (3) A concern for personal prominence while conveying a deadly influence (11:43–44); (4) A concern to increase strict requirements for others and provide no help to maintain those requirements (11:45–46); (5) A consistent rejection of God’s word that ultimately rejects Jesus (11:47–51); (5) A catastrophic distortion of the truth that hinders response to Jesus’ word (11:52–54).”


  8. Bev Sterk says:

    Bless your heart Aimee…

    yeah, that “inner ring”… all the makings of a cult like following, instead of following Jesus!… this concept helped me understand the not so “‘good old boys club” and that the discussions behind closed doors were manipulating the “process”, which we were told to “trust the process” which looks good on paper, but gets corrupted by the powers that be in the implementation of the process… instead of being encouraged to test and discern and if there are any questions or concerns to ask… that’s a cult that encouraged blind, passive, unquestioning loyalty to the leaders…

    May the entire priesthood of ALL believers be Bereans, going back to the Word and digging into it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to wrestle out the distorted doctrines and traditions of the elders that have influenced our translations and implementation of various theology, sometimes twisting it into the very opposite of God’s principles.


  9. Isaas says:

    Aimee, thanks for your coherent thoughts. Your very argument plays right into their inner circle, cloistered, ghetto mentality. You’ve painted yourself outside their circle. And good for you for doing so! It’s an example of the age old problem in many evangelical/fundamental churches – don’t think for yourself, let us do it for you. Or, only those of us who are educated, ordained, and sit in the seats of authority can decide what’s acceptable or not. They foster deep suspicion of anything that is different than their traditions. Kinda sounds familiar like some stories from the new testament. Maybe it’s time for another reformation.


    1. Cathy says:

      I could not love this post anymore!! I have been thinking similar things, but framed more in how the American Church views herself to be in a culture war- and how this has become THE abiding principle, displacing the Law of Christ or the Law of love as our guiding and abiding principle. IMO this is the most prevalent inner ring. And it causes Christians to be zealous- but without truth, and bold- but unloving and mean, able to fight- but against the wrong things, able to write and persuade and argue- but completely unable to truly listen to anyone outside their bubble. They see themselves as the smartest, most theologically informed- but as we keep seeing, they can’t even seem to differentiate between primary and secondary issues. Nor can they address even the smallest difference of opinion, interpretation, or perspective honestly— but instead with willful ignorance, name-calling, dismissiveness, and ad hominems.
      The reason they do this is to try to gain position or influence in the culture—- as if!!! It’s about winning the war not dying to self for the sake of others.
      And so the culture warriors train themselves for a war we are not called to fight- inside their echo chamber to make themselves stronger and to conquer the bad guys. So much for loving your enemy. And like your article references, the list of enemies only grows and grows- and eventually even includes brothers and sisters who will not kiss the ring. I shake my head constantly and wonder how we got here.
      I think you are exactly right- it’s because we are “discipled” what to think- not discipled how to think.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Isaac says:

        Yes Cathy. And the sad indictment is that society is watching this play out and want no part of a church that is mean spirited, unloving, racist, misogynistic, and quibbles over minor theological issues. It bears repeating, we are in need of a reformation of American churches. We’ve gotten trapped in a bubble of mediocrity and contractions while the global church around the rest of the world is booming and flourishing.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. ChristianMisfit says:

    Good response. I believe these complementarian “leaders” hate women and fear losing their power over them. Why do I say that? They worry about you and Beth Moore and don’t concern themselves with pedophiles and wife beaters. They don’t welcome conversation from conservative women like me who love Jesus and believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but believe the message of Ephesians 5 is not about the wife’s subordination, but to instruct her to put her husband first in everything, while the husband loves her as Christ loves the church. (Sounds like mutuality and love to me, not power and subordination.).

    I have been churchless for a while and I wonder how many women out there feel the same way I do.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aimee Byrd says:

      I do hope that you persevere to find a good church. While they are all full of sinners, Christ loves his church and we can hold fast to that. And in a healthy church, the ministers of the word and leadership are to be a gift to us, giving us Christ and all his blessings.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Catherine G says:

      I’m right there with you, Cathy. The endless war against women in the conservative Church is senseless and destructive to both sexes. If a man loves his wife as Christ loves the Church, he will never demand that she submit to him nor will he demand to have his own way at her expense. And your take on the role of the wife is spot on too – I think of it as being considerate of my husband in all things, and that’s a healthy dynamic.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Suzanne says:

    Reblogged this on The View From the Sidelines and commented:
    Some good thoughts about the reason to avoid an echo chamber.


  12. captkep says:

    I just read it again, Denny Burk’s “review” of Aimee’s book is insulting. His condemnation actually supports her arguments.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Paul K says:

    I commented on a more recent post and referenced Jacobs’ “How to Think” – and then I read your reference here! I’m glad you read it – it definitely helps explain a lot of what’s going on.


  14. just ... K says:

    I’ve read this post through about 4 times now and can’t tell you how much it speaks to me and how grateful I am for it. Aimee, I am truly sorry for how painful this challenging time must be for you, but so appreciate your grace and clarity, while staying focused on the issues that prompted you to write in the first place. I’ve thought often about Luther over the past while, and how venerated he is. So many men of my acquaintance in Reformed circles seem to think that if they lived at another time in history, they would also loudly proclaim “Here I stand!” Ironically, these same men have participated in actions that are far more reminiscent of the Diet of Worms … oh so blind.

    Thank you for fighting the good fight. We need you.


  15. Chris Hutchinson says:

    The Inner Ring is literally the first essay I have ministerial candidates (and others) in our church’s small “Fellows” program read. Critical insights for any calling, but particularly so within the Church. Thank you for this.


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