The Reformed vs. Athanasian/Nicene Approach to God

An interesting comparison by Bobby Grow:

Scholastic Reformed theologians claim to be in line with Nicene theology proper. But when you read scholastic Reformed theology, particularly their confessions, what becomes immediately apparent is that scholastic Reformed theology operates out of the apophatic ‘negative’ and/or speculative tradition for thinking a doctrine of God (and Christ); whereas Nicene theology thinks from cataphatic ‘positive’ and/or revealed theology for thinking God. By way of prolegomena or theological methodology this places Niceno-Constantinopolitano theology at loggerheads with something like we see in the scholastically Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).

First, the Reformed theologians aren’t the only ones working in an apophatic tradition. Moses Maimonides did likewise, and his contribution is certainly valued by Aquinas and myself.

Second, I am inclined to think that Grow is right on this point. As frequent visitors to this site will attest, I’m not much on Reformed theology in any form, and as the years pass I get progressively sourer on the subject. Pieces like this only justify my antipathy.

Third, I think it’s fair to say that Scholastic theology, of which I am an enthusiastic student, started to go downhill after Aquinas, which is the opposite of the narrative that, say, Francis Schaffer was so enamoured with. The idea of a “Reformed Scholasticism” is somewhere between an oxymoron and a sign of the decline that began years before Calvin and Luther.

Fourth, I wonder if this apophatic aspect of Reformed scholasticism made it easy for the Sydney Anglicans to come up with their lame idea of functional subordination in the Trinity without essential subordination. That’s just speculation on my part.

The one part I’m not so sure about is this:

But this is to our point: to think God from speculative philosophical notions, as the Arians and Homoiousions did, only leads to unbiblical conclusions, and thus grammar about who God is; indeed, it thinks of God in terms of whatness rather than whoness as a first-step. Athanasius, and the Nicene theology he helped develop, repudiated thinking God from Hellenic frames of reference, and instead allowed God’s Self-revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ, to shape the way he, and the other Nicenes, thought God.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the whole Arian controversy ran in the context of Greek philosophy. Athanasius and his homoousion colleagues simply did a better job aligning it with the Scriptures. It was ultimately beyond the ken of Greek philosophy to explain essential subordination in the triune Godhead, but I think that problem can be solved.

John Wesley and the Liturgy

From William Palmer Ladd’s Prayer Book Interleaves:

The Church of England had its Prayer Book, and thus the liturgical way of life was kept alive. But when in the XVIII century, the heyday of the Whig bishops, the easy-going parsons, and the infrequent Eucharists, a prophet arose in the person of John Wesley, the Church knew not the day of its vindication, and literally stoned him. In 1938 many Anglicans, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, joined with Methodists throughout the world in observing the 200th anniversary of Wesley’s ‘Aldersgate Experience.’ That a priest of the Church of England should have had a religious experience was a strange reason for such an elaborate commemoration. And, unfortunately, it identified Wesley with modern Methodist prayer-meetings, whereas he was essentially a Prayer Book churchman, and the embodiment of Anglicanism at its best.

Reared in the churchly atmosphere of his father’s vicarage and of Oxford University, he came to an understanding of sacramental theology by a study of the Fathers, of Jeremy Taylor and other Caroline divines, and of non-juring churchmen like William Law. In his preaching tours throughout England he always attended the services of the parish church. He received communion weekly, and indeed as many as four times each week on the average throughout his entire ministry, so it has been estimated. He urged the duty of constant communion. And his communion services attracted the common people beyond the capacity of the churches to hold them. Few priests in any period of Church history have ever done more to popularize the Holy Communion.

His one lapse from Anglican order-laying his hands on Coke-is to be explained in part by his acceptance of St.Jerome’s teaching of the equality of bishops and presbyters, but chiefly by his intense conviction of the importance of the Holy Communion. It was a desperate step, but he took it only after he had repeatedly failed to persuade the English bishops to provide bishops and sacraments for his American Methodists. Seabury similarly failed. The two were in London at the same time. If they could have met and agreed on a common plan of action. it might have changed the religious destiny of the new world. (pp. 18-19)

The Baptists, Their Doctrine and Their Nasty Politics

Next week the Southern Baptist Convention meets in Nashville. They’re facing a number of serious issues: declining membership, Critical Race Theory, and sex abuse scandals, both opposite-sex and same-sex. They’ve had some high-profile departures from the Baptist universe such as Russell Moore, an enlightening analysis of which is here. The denomination everyone thought “had it all” is in trouble.

People who come out of Apostolic churches always find the Baptist–and Evangelical–idea rather strange. They attribute this to “lack of discipleship” and “lack of community.” Neither of these is true; in some ways, the Baptists can make a more effective case against Anglicans and Roman Catholics than can be done the other way. The reason why Baptist and Evangelical churches are the way they are stem from one simple thing: their idea of unconditional perseverance, or “once saved always saved.” When coupled with a generally Arminian view of election, the results look good on the surface but eventually kick back, and that’s what we’re seeing now.

For me this is personal: I had to get the Baptist thing “out of my system” before moving forward. I always tell people that 2.5 years at FBC was the longest 2.5 years I’ve spent anywhere. I hope this will be enlightening for people who don’t understand how this style of mind plays out.

To do this I’ll take a leaf from the Landmark world, in the form of a debate. I feature the The McPherson-Bogard Debate elsewhere, but this is the Garner-Smith Debate. It took place in Gainesville, FL in May 1974 between Albert Garner, a well-known Missionary Baptist preacher, and James Tilden (J.T.) Smith, one from the Church of Christ. The two topics under consideration are as follows:

  1. Baptismal Regeneration; and
  2. Unconditional Eternal Security

It may surprise Apostolic types that the Church of Christ, so far away in many ways from their idea, supports baptismal regeneration, but in a way they do. The Baptists of course are very strong supporters of eternal security, irrespective of which form of election they pick.

By the time of the Garner-Smith debate projected visuals were reasonably common, in the form of the infamous “view graphs.” Some (like these) look primitive now, although they’re not much better than some of the ones I saw at Texas Instruments. The first one I want to put up is from Smith, showing his idea of what the Baptists believe about salvation (and their idea that baptism isn’t necessary for that.)

Smith doesn’t miss a chance to take a pot shot at groups neither one of them likes (Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc.) But basically he’s spot on, especially with the “straight shot” part of the diagram. Although it’s part of the baptismal regeneration part of the debate, his characterization of salvation as “cannot be lost–unconditionally secure–idolatry and murder not make soul in danger” is basically either what the Baptists believe or the logical conclusion of that belief.

That concept is a game changer for the life of the church. The people I normally associated with being free from moral constraint were the Communists, who deny the existence of a non-material reality. But here we are. And Garner never responded to this. This basically turns the life of the church into a numbers game; once you’ve got them saved, that’s it.

It’s true that the Baptists have a thorough program for follow-up, especially in their Sunday School system and other types of training. But these are not for salvation: these are for giving believers a credible witness in the world. It’s the key counterweight to their idea of perseverance, and I’ve known many Baptists who are faithful to that. (The only thing I never quite grasped was why Baptists, when they prayed, frequently asked God to forgive their sins: my impulse was to ask them “Why?”)

But as anyone who has done church work knows, the higher up you go in the system the fewer contacts with people outside the church–and by extension the lost–you have. That decreases the need to maintain a witness, especially outside of the realm of publicity. In turn this leads to the viciousness of Baptist politics, as was on display in Paige Patterson’s ouster. It’s little wonder under these circumstances that Russell Moore chose the carefully planned exit he did: he knew that an ecclesiastical piranha tank awaited him if he didn’t, and then he would be ruined for sure.

This leads to the next observation for those institutions that welcome Moore and other refugees from the Baptist world: you need to force them to do “pew time” until they free themselves from their Baptistic idea of eternal security. That’s easier said than done. My Baptistic mother, who put me through the Episcopal system of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Comfortable Words, and being characterised as a miserable offender every Morning Prayer, was shocked years later to discover that I didn’t believe in Baptistic eternal security. She said she “hoped” I would come around to it! Raise up a child in the way he should go…

Which leads to another of J.T. Smith’s graphics, at the right.

All of this should show that the Baptist’s ways are certainly unequal, in this regard at least. They’ve produced a successful system which has transformed a region, but they took a slick shortcut to do it. That slick shortcut has affected the American Evangelical world in ways that it does not understand, even in those groups that don’t formally share its eternally secure theology. It’s the real source of a great deal of “easy believism” that gets attacked by people like Robin Jordan.

The Baptists need to wake up to the dilemma they’ve created. If they don’t, their love of evangelism won’t come to much: the eternities they profess to care about won’t be changed, and then they won’t be the only ones in trouble.

Giving Paige Patterson the Boot Was Messier Than You Thought

The Baptists are at it again:

Southwestern’s dispatch in the annual Book of Reports, which presents information for messengers attending the denomination’s upcoming annual meeting, alleges Patterson misappropriated “confidential donor information” and took seminary property after his 2018 termination over allegations of mishandling sexual abuse.

The report comes three months after the seminary settled a lawsuit against a foundation that shifted millions in funding following Patterson’s departure.

I find this amazing; given the way Patterson was booted (he was out of the country when it happened) if he somehow stole or misappropriated seminary property, it was the seminary who wasn’t paying attention.  At the time I noted the following:

But the way the Board reversed its previous decision and unceremoniously dumped him is unfortunately typical of the way Southern Baptists handle situations like this. In their system you’re either highly favoured or cast into outer darkness, there’s no middle ground…I think much of that has to do with their defective combination of Arminian election and Calvinistic perseverance.  Once you’ve made your decision for Christ and then mess up, the only explanation left is that you weren’t saved to start with.  So how can anything subsequent to that be trusted?  Out with you.

In addition to this, the way the seminary booted Patterson is consistent with current corporate practice.  “Back in the day” you had some time to wrap up your business, clean out your office and leave.  Now it’s standard to change the locks on your office (and your computer) and force you to fight the institution for your own stuff.  The fact that Patterson was in Germany was all the better in the eyes of the seminary.

Had the seminary simply appointed a representative to go through the whole thing with Patterson, it would have been better.  But that’s not the corporate way these days, and it’s not the Baptist way either.

You’re an Anglican Now, Scot McKnight, Leave the Baptistic Stuff Behind

I never thought I’d ever see a debate on the subject of the inerrancy of Scriptures in an Anglican context.  But one Dr. Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and (I think) in the C4SO (the usual source of trouble in the ACNA these days) has put himself front and centre with a piece on the inerrancy of the Scriptures.  This is an important topic, but the way he sets things forth shows me that Evangelicals are too deep into their own stuff, even when they try to escape into places like the ACNA.

My first exposure to the term was an article in the original Jerome Biblical Commentary, and needless to say they weren’t too hot on the idea.  They also got into the hermeneutical issues surrounding this, which I’ll come back to.  Later on I read Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible, which really was the call to arms (not WO) for the Southern Baptist Resurgence in the 1970’s.

I think that the Scriptures are God’s authoritative revelation, period.  I used the term “unBiblical” regularly on this site to characterise positions which are either sub-Christian or completely non-Christian; the fact that we have this revelation makes this job possible.  The whole push for the inerrancy of the Scriptures a half century ago was the result of conditions which have changed.

The undermining of the basic concept of the truth content of the Scriptures came from the advent of German Higher Criticism.  A good case can be made that the whole shipwreck of the Episcopal Church had its genesis in the acceptance of this in the seminaries.  Once this is done the Scriptures lose both their claim to truth and their relevance to Christians now.  This underpinned the modernist attack on traditional Christianity.

Higher Criticism represented an attempt to beat the Biblical narrative, and how it came into being, into the form of German philosophy.  That may have made it possible to think that our seminaries had assumed the mantle of science, but it was pseudo-science, for many reasons.  One place where the deconstruction of that narrative has taken place is Biblical archeology.  McKnight speaks disparagingly of that, but the process has been going on since at least the days of Roland de Vaux and continues to the present.

All of this created the shipwreck that hit the rocks after World War II.  The Episcopal Church bled members during the late 1960’s and 1970’s in the aftermath of this.  Evangelical churches picked up some of these pieces, fuelled not only by their affirmation of the truth content of the Scriptures but, in the case of the Pentecostals and Charismatics, the manifested belief that God did the same things to day that he did in the Scriptures.  It’s a lot easier to believe the former when you hold to the latter.

Liberals, when surveying the wreckage they wrought, realised (if not admitted) the error of their technique.  So they came up with a new approach: postmodernism, where the idea shifts from “the Scriptures say it, but they’re not reliable,” to “the Scriptures say one thing, but really mean another.”  They’ve shifted the debate from an textual reliability issue to a hermeneutical one.  That, I think, is where the real conflict is, but McKnight and others are still deep into the stuff they started with.

So what is to be done? In one place McKnight gives a clue by saying that “we can talk about “inerrancies”: Origenist, Augustinian, Protestant, Princetonian, and even postmodern!”  I give an example of this in my piece Why Evangelicals Don’t Read Philo Judaeus. Philo very much believed in the inerrancy of the Scriptures but had no problem denying, for example, New Earth Creationism.  I have discussed Origen himself in my piece The Significance of the Literal Meaning of Scripture: An Example from Origen.  Getting rid of the term “inerrancy” really doesn’t accomplish anything except perhaps making him and other refugees from Evangelicalism feel better about themselves.

We need more than that.  What we need is some kind of agreement on a hermeneutic.  I left out the term “authority” from the discussion because I don’t think that any Protestant church has or can claim authority to interpret the scriptures and make same interpretation stick.  Given Anglicanism’s rootedness in the Apostolic tradition, a Patristic-based hermeneutic would make sense, but getting most seminaries and seminary academics to go along with that will be an uphill battle.

So in the meanwhile: McKnight and others like him would do well to leave their qualms about things like inerrancy in their Baptistic past and move forward with what they really believe the Bible says and means.

Those Hard Drinking Americans

When The Atlantic notes it, it’s a problem:

Right now we are lurching into another of our periodic crises over drinking, and both tendencies are on display at once. Since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Before the pandemic, some aspects of this shift seemed sort of fun, as long as you didn’t think about them too hard. In the 20th century, you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to “shop ’n’ sip,” and carts with cup holders.

Some of the points made were ones I did in my 2011 piece Should Christians Drink?, albeit in a different context.  And I got blowback from that.

My own family’s history of alcohol isn’t a happy one.  I think that a lot of that was fuelled by the pain of being in my family, which is one reason why I don’t attach Scots-Irish sentimentality to the whole concept.  That led to premature death and more abuse.

“To be clear, people who don’t want to drink should not drink. There are many wonderful, alcohol-free means of bonding.” That’s part of the problem: the drinkers don’t like abstainers in their midst and will apply the necessary social pressure to dislodge their non-imbibing friends.  It was certainly that way in the hard drinking construction and oil industries I came into forty years ago and I doubt it’s changed with our effete, credentialed elite.

This country has a drinking problem, and frankly short of abstinence I don’t know of a good way to fix it.  It’s a sad situation, but this country seems to have more than its share of sad situations these days, not the least of which is that a lot that hits social media is enough to drive anyone to drink.

The Baptists and WO: It Isn’t About Authority, Albert Mohler

Mohler opines in a lengthy piece on the subject:

In truth, the issue of women serving as pastors fuelled the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. The question was instantly clarifying. The divide over women serving in the pastorate served as a signal of the deeper divide over the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. There is more to the picture, but not less. Furthermore, the Christian church in virtually every tradition through nearly two millennia in almost every place on earth has understood these texts clearly. In most churches around the world, there is no question about these texts even now. Furthermore, there is the testimony of God-given differences in the roles of men and women in the church and in the home throughout the Bible. The pattern of revealed truth is not hard to follow.

I was in the SBC when the Resurgence got rolling.  Maybe it’s because I was an Episcopalian at one time, but I gave little thought to this issue.  I always thought this was about the inerrancy of Scriptures regarding such things as eternal life, the Resurrection, and things like that.  One very powerful memory from the era came in a facing pair of articles in the Baptist and Reflector.  The conservative article came from Adrian Rodgers, who appealed to the authority of Scripture.  The opposing one simply exhorted us to get with the program that existed at the time.

So, as Lenin would ask, what is to be done?  The answer to that question is different in a Baptist context because their ecclesiology is different from just about everyone else.

To start with, the SBC cannot claim any magisterium because the whole concept is denied by their idea.  Mohler’s recitation of the Baptist Faith and Message Statement is a little misleading because it does not reflect an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures; it’s simply the statement of a consensus of a group of churches in a voluntary association.  Baptist churches have traditionally denied that there is or should be an overchurch of any kind.  That, however, precludes truly authoritative statements by the SBC, something I discuss in my 2007 piece Authority and Evangelical Churches, which also discusses the dicey concept of preachers in Baptist churches having real “authority” as well.  (The creeping in of human authority in Baptist debate hasn’t done anything to move things forward.)

Because the local church is the supreme body in a Baptist association, it’s their job to set people forth in the ministry, and for other local churches to accept or reject their judgment.  If one church sets a woman forth in the ministry, others are not bound to accept her or that ordination.  In principle that’s the way that Baptist churches are supposed to work.

The problem is that, having eschewed real ecclesiastical authority, SBC churches at least have substituted rigid uniformity and conformity to keep everything and everyone in line.  When that breaks things get really ugly, because, when combined with their defective view of justification and perseverance, Baptist church politics are the nastiest out there.  But that insistence on uniformity has hampered their outreach outside the Scots-Irish realm, which is the main driver behind the Baptist decline in numbers.

Mohler mentions Saddleback Church’s ordination of women, and tries to issue a “call to arms” as follows:

Southern Baptists are now, yet again, at a moment of decision. This is no longer a point of tension and debate. These moves represent an attempt to redefine and reformulate the convictional foundation of Southern Baptist faith and cooperative ministry. The theological issues have not changed since the year 2000 when Southern Baptists spoke clearly and precisely in the Baptist Faith & Message. More importantly, the Holy Scriptures have not changed and cannot change.

What Mohler and others will not come out and say is that, if they’re really serious about this, there is only one recourse: to kick Saddleback Church and others who practice WO out of the SBC, the state convention and the local association.  That’s what Texas Baptists started to do with Beverly Hills Baptist Church in the 1970’s over its acceptance of modern Pentecost; it never got beyond the local association, but the idea was there.

But that brings us to another point: past the local churches, the SBC is a complex of organisations including Lifeway (once called the Sunday School Board,) the International Mission Board (once called the Foreign Mission Board,) the North American Mission Board (once called the Home Mission Board) and of course the seminaries.  Kicking out Saddleback Church would potentially create the publicity problems that the Episcopal Church tried to avoid by not disciplining James Pike in the 1960’s.  But it would also deprive these institutions of the money and people flow that they currently enjoy, and given the times we live in that’s a scary proposition.

I am sure, however, that J.R. Graves, Ben Bogard, and my mother’s parents are laughing from eternity at the mess that the SBC has gotten itself into.  The Landmark Baptists’ most significant issue–the one that inspired them to bolt from the SBC at the turn of the last century–wasn’t doctrinally or lifestyle based but on the SBC’s aforementioned overchurch institutions, which they considered to be contrary to Scripture.  Without these institutions Baptists would have much more room to manoevre, but with them they are forced to “thread the needle” by continuing to support these institutions and maintain their desired doctrinal position.

And we all know what happens when we try that:

At this, Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you that a rich man will find it hard to enter the Kingdom of Heaven! I say again, it is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” On hearing this, the disciples exclaimed in great astonishment: “Who then can possibly be saved?” But Jesus looked at them, and said: “With men this is impossible, but with God everything is possible.” Then Peter turned and said to Jesus: “But we–we left everything, and followed you; what, then, shall we have?” “I tell you,” answered Jesus, “that at the New Creation, ‘when the Son of Man takes his seat on his throne of glory,’ you who followed me shall be seated upon twelve thrones, as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every one who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or land, on account of my Name, will receive many times as much, and will ‘gain Immortal Life.’ But many who are first now will then be last, and those who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:23-30 TCNT)

Renewing Your Faith: The Aftermath

In the last post, I gave a book review of Donald Connolly’s In a Holy Year, Renewing Your Faith: An Anthology of Spiritual Readings.  I promised I’d give some life reflections on this, and this is the fulfilment of that promise.  This book is more than just a book: the anthology compiler was my first parish priest as a Roman Catholic, and had an immense influence on my life going forward from my last year in prep school when I swam the Tiber.

Let’s start with the question I left hanging the last time: why did it take nearly forty years for me to read the book?  By the time I first sat down with Fr. Connolly and discussed the possibility of me becoming Roman Catholic, I had already read Augustine’s City of God, which is ahead of where most prospective converts are.  I had heard of The Imitation of Christ, so I read his other anthology A Voice for the Heart: The Imitation of Christ and An introduction to the Devout Life for all Christians.  But a great deal of devotional literature in general and Catholic literature in particular struck me as what I mother would call “pap.”  I guess I was afraid that I would encounter this here, and I was delving into the source material already.  (I started with Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on Truth my freshman year in college, went on to the Summa the following.)  Had I overcome my prejudices, Connolly’s book would have been nice prep for what I was delving into.

That, in turn, leads to the next question: why did I become Roman Catholic in the first place?  Put in a Thomistic context, the answer is simple.  What I really wanted was a comprehensive worldview which made the objective existence of God credible, and only Thomistic Catholicism provided that.  My years as an Episcopalian demonstrated that “man does not live by Anglican Fudge alone.”  Evangelicals were and are focused on the individual and his or her salvation, but if there’s one thing that was drilled into me from the start, it’s that it’s not all about you.  Moreover both of the latter emphasise the subjective at the expense of the objective, which wasn’t what I was looking for.

I became Catholic in what were, for me, ideal circumstances: a parish backed (literally) by a major seminary, with a seminary academic as a pastor.  Once I got through college–where the more subjective issues were dealt with–parish life was a dead end, Aquinas (or just about any other substantive Catholic thinker) were hard to find, and some kind of exit was inevitable.

Today I’m in the “mother church” of my Pentecostal denomination, and right across the street once again is the major seminary.  But it’s different now.  To start with, Pentecostals look at the reality of God differently.  Their idea is simple: the God who did the great things in the Bible is the same God and does the same great things now.  This is an improvement over the liberal (God never did any of this stuff) or the cessationist (God did it in the past, but he’s not doing it today.)  But it still is more of an individually focused approach as opposed to a universally focused one.

Even with that, for all of the great things there are two factors that have blocked any kind of replication of my first experience as a Roman Catholic.

The first is that Pentecostal academics spend too much time trying to recreate on an academic level the experience they had on a decidedly non-academic one.  Like the liberals, three sheets to the wind, who regaled Elaine Pagels with old Gospel songs, they try to recreate the experience in an alien environment.  They also frequently conflate the spiritual experience with the cultural one.  In the context of the Church of God this means Scots-Irish cultural hegemony, and right at the moment that’s the last thing we need.

The second is that (with exceptions) our ministers and academics alike have a “trade union” mentality, that thinking and speaking/preaching of the deeper things of God is “bargaining unit” work and that the laity (“scabs” in union terminology) don’t have any business delving into this kind of thing on any level.  Sometimes it’s framed as a replication of Roman Catholicism’s view of the priesthood, but that’s too high of a view of what’s going on.

The lesson from all this is simple: when you start out in life, pack well for the journey, you never know when you’re going to end up in the wilderness.  God provisioned me better than I knew, and for that I am thankful.

What We Were Really Trying to Accomplish in Men’s Ministries

As sort of a follow-up to my last post, I’d like to defend something else that’s under attack these days: men’s ministries.  I actually worked in this field during my time with Church of God Lay Ministries, from when I started in 1996 until the department was abolished in 2010.  So I can speak with some authority on the subject.  When the department ended, I created a legacy web site from the site we had, so you and everyone else can see what was going on.

So what were we trying to accomplish?  The best way to start is to reproduce our own introduction to the topic and ourselves, from this page:

Sunday after Sunday, pastors and ministers in the Church of God go up to their pulpits and frequently preach to a congregation of mostly…women and children (assuming there’s no children’s church.) This is so common that we take it for granted. It is not something that is restricted to our denomination; it is the rule in many evangelical churches. Beyond the doors of the church—on the golf course, at the football game or bowling alley, or in the backyard—men absent themselves from the house of God. Today in the U.S. men represent the fastest growing portion of the population to abandon meaningful belief in God. They frequently embrace secularism, a “religion” in its own right whose growth threatens both the eternities of those who embrace it and the ability of everyone else to freely live for Christ. Why is this? One reason is that there is no organization in many local churches for men to find fellowship, to learn who God is and how they might live for Him, and how they might then serve Him in a meaningful way. By “organization” we don’t mean a quasi-governmental structure as has been common in churches. Our goal is to facilitate ministry teams, men bonded together in love for Jesus and each other, discipled in the essentials of Christianity, instructed to interact with people around them in a Christian way, and sent forth in service to the lost and hurting world around them. LifeBuilders Men’s Ministries—and the Church of God Men’s Fellowship that preceded it—have been ministering to men before such organizations as Promise Keepers and the National Coalition of Men’s Ministries. We have a long-standing alliance with both. But our world is changing, and we must change with it even as we serve “the Maker of the Lights in the heavens, who is himself never subject to change or to eclipse.” (James 1:17b) Men’s ministries must become more relational if it is to be meaningful both to men newly saved or for those who have walked with the Lord for many years.

To that I’d like to make some comments and explanation:

  1. Our Executive Director, Leonard Albert, is first and foremost a trainer of lay people for soul winning.  The LifeBuilders Men’s Ministries was deeply affected by that.  Our desire was for men to share the good news both in what they said and the way they lived.
  2. The Church of God, unlike some other churches, does not have a socio-economically privileged demographic.  Our men’s interests ran along those lines and we tailored our activity recommendations to that reality.  We had to promote the idea that men should read books.  We are also a multi-ethnic church; our men come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, something that made working for the Department a real joy.
  3. On the other hand, neither Leonard Albert nor I were into the “he-man” ethic that some find so off-putting with men’s ministries.  When Wild at Heart was released, he was unenthusiastic about it, it took some time before we included it in our book store.  As I mentioned in the last post, the society we live in was militarised by World War II and the Cold War, but we never really pushed that nor pushed for men’s ministries to be organised in that fashion.
  4. In our last years we shifted our emphasis to a more discipleship/relational model for men’s ministries.  This was not only a more Biblical way to do it; it was also driven by the realisation that the “pre-discipleship” the culture may have given in the past was fading away.  To be honest a discipleship model was a hard sell in some places, but we partnered with Patrick Morley and Man in the Mirror Ministries in order to promote it.
  5. We never got pushback from the women of our church about men’s ministries.  To encourage men to be saved and responsible husbands and fathers resonated positively with many women.  The big pushback–and this included our entire agenda–came from some of our pastors, who were content with the model described at the start of the piece above.  They felt the presence of strong men in their congregation was a power challenge to them, so they resisted it.

More about how our idea of men’s ministries worked is here.  The Department came to an end in the wake of the church’s budgetary crisis caused by the cutback in remissions from local churches.  Today the legacy website is most frequently visited by Hispanics from all parts of the hemisphere, so men’s ministries is anything but a “white supremacy” project, at least in a Pentecostal context.

I was blessed to be able to be a part of such a ministry and also to explain and defend what we did.

The Episcopal Snobs and the John Wayne Evangelicals

There’s never a dull moment these days, and to shut off the possibility of one occurring we now have the food fight around Kristin Kobes du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne.  The most recent volley has been around the illustrious Anglican Anne Carlson Kennedy’s review of same, with the usual suspects saying the usual things.  For du Mez and those of her idea Kennedy poses a special threat since she is a) a woman and b) an Anglican.  The first is obvious; the second will take some explanation.

I started out life as an Episcopalian.  In the Episcopal world we had the classic Episcopal Snob, which I have commented on before.  Such people believed and were convinced that the religion they had was superior to that which those around them practiced, especially those dreadful, hollering, money-grubbing fundamentalists.  A corollary to that belief was that those who gave up their antecedent religion and adopted the colonies’ best substitute for the religion our former dread sovereigns fashioned for us were likewise invested with the same superiority.  It’s not a very Biblical appeal for a church but it worked, and worked very well for the years immediately after World War II.

Such transitions were rougher than they looked.  Shortly after I was inducted in the Acolyte Order of St. Peter, my mother and I were in the narthex after a proper 1928 BCP service. I was wearing the cross keys of St. Peter, similar to those on the Vatican flag.  Our rector, Hunsdon Cary, pointed at each of the keys in succession and said, “This key is for Episcopalian and this one is for Baptist.”  I’m sure that my mother–only confirmed a couple of years earlier–was thrilled at being outed in this way.

On the other side of the lake (and later the tracks) were those impecunious fundies, with their lack of either liturgy or trust funds, believers’ baptism and Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology.  They’re the target of du Mez’s book.  Militarized by World War II (weren’t we all really?) and facing the onslaught of the sexual revolution, they adopted a response that angers people like her.  The old fashioned Episcopal snobs could have predicted this.  But they were unprepared for the onslaught of modern and post-modern theology that took over their church.

I’ve lived long enough and been in enough places and churches to have been on both sides of this divide.  I’ll also mention that I actually worked in men’s ministries for a long time.  Frankly our society was better off when such divides didn’t have much to do with each other; we see the results of when they spend all their time in a state of virtual war.  But I think I can make a reasoned estimate of which of these sides has the better merit.

There’s no doubt that, especially when conflict comes, one would wish that Evangelicals wouldn’t have considered the Sermon on the Mount a practical dead letter.  And it would be nice if they didn’t consider centuries of church history as a void waiting for them to show up.  But on balance the Evangelicals have the better case for being Biblical and having a viable path to eternal life than their counterparts to the left, including current-day Episcopal snobs.  A comparison of core beliefs will show this, but I’m going to concentrate on my favourite topic relating to this: the economic disparity between those of du Mez’ idea and her Evangelical opponents.

Evangelicals (and especially Pentecostals) are in the greater scheme of things an underclass.  That may shock some people but it’s true, not only in comparison to, say, the Episcopalians but also our very secular elites.  Donald Trump’s years didn’t change that, but you’d never know it from the endless howling you hear about him and his supporters.  And no one is more loathe to admit it than the Evangelicals themselves.  But when it comes to to helping others in need, Evangelicals are more sacrificial in their willingness to give of themselves and their substance than their liberal counterparts.  When I was a kid at Bethesda we had “mite boxes” but I’ve seen more “widow’s mite” moments as a Pentecostal than I ever saw as an Episcopalian.

Evangelicals’ biggest problem is their endless attempt to get out of the economic basement and move into the seat of power they think they’re entitled to.  That, I think, motivated them in part to support Donald Trump (his opponents’ obsession with adopting non-Christian and anti-Christian policies also fuelled that.)  It drives a great deal of what they do, even when they’re on shaky Biblical ground, such as the recent conflict I’ve gotten involved with about working in heavenIt hasn’t always been this way, but it is now.

But that leads us to the Anglican part: getting blowback from an Anglican woman is a real slap in the face for left-leaning evangelicals who aspire to move up into the Anglican world.  Even Rachel Held Evans figured that out: she became an Episcopalian.  The ACNA, stupidly I think, facilitated this movement with things like the Diocese of the Churches for the Sake of Others. (If that’s not pretentious, I’m not sure what is.)   To move up and then face opposition from people like Anne Kennedy is hard to take.

But that’s the difference between lay people and clergy.  Clergy–especially left-leaning clergy–expect the church they’re in to change to their idea.  Lay people only get to leave and go somewhere else, and that’s not always easy. People like du Mez would be better off if they spent as much time building the church they want people to be a part of rather than nitpicking the one that’s there, but these days that’s too much to ask.