Stillness In The Storms

 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”                                                                                                                                 ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

 

I ended my last post thinking I was primed and ready to go on. As is often the case, I was wrong. Days have passed, turning into weeks, yet I still felt a check in my spirit, a feeling of needing to wait. There was something I was missing, something I was waiting for, but I didn’t know what it was. Then yesterday, there it was—an article in The Christian Post, published online the day before.

The sudden storm created by the news of John MacArthur’s “Go Home!” statement about Beth Moore at a mid-October conference took a while to subside. I’ve watched and read carefully as people reacted to what he said. I’ve waited for the social media frenzy to settle, waiting to see if MacArthur would respond and if so, what he would say.

Those of you who have been reading my “story” for the past two years (yes, it’s really been that long…amazing stuff keeps happening and drawing me in, even yanking me up and moving me to another state!) should recognize this as yet another skirmish in the ongoing “Holy War.” The title of one article in Religion News read, “Accusing SBC of ‘caving,’ John MacArthur says of Beth Moore: ‘Go home.’” Since you now know the history, you understand their fear of “caving.” 1

I had planned to go on to answer the question of how I make sense of this issue, of how I got to where I am and why I see as I do, but it’s not quite time yet. There is more groundwork to be laid, more work to be done, more weaving together of what I have said thus far. I strongly encourage you to take some time to do some listening, and reading, and thinking about this. As MacArthur said in his sermon this past Sunday, this is a “very, very important subject.” I have some suggestions for you; I strongly urge you to follow up on these. If you want to understand, you need to know. In the end, it will be up to you to decide if it matters enough to you to make the effort. Yes, it will take some time. But all you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.

In trying to get as clear a picture of the current controversy as possible, I did a lot of looking around. One of the best and most helpful resources I came across was a podcast from Christianity Today. The tone and content of this discussion between pastor and counselor Jonathan Holmes and producer Morgan Lee are a breath of fresh air in this emotion-laden (understandably so) issue. I encourage you to listen to what they have to say, or read the transcript if you’re a reader. Knowing that MacArthur considers being labeled a fundamentalist “a badge of honor” will help you understand why he takes the positions he does. The link to the podcast is below, titled “John MacArthur Is No Stranger to Controversy.” 2

Now, to that new article that proved to be what I was waiting for: “John MacArthur clarifies views on Beth Moore, women preachers.” This was worth the wait, as it helps tremendously to hear MacArthur himself clarify his thinking. I want to spend a little time now looking at a few of his statements and responding briefly, but I’ll do most of my responding at a later time. If you read nothing else I’ve suggested, please read this article.3 I’ll make it easy for you and put the link here as well as at the end: https://www.christianpost.com/news/john-macarthur-clarifies-views-on-beth-moore-women-preachers-empowering-women-makes-weak-men.html

In his initial statements at the conference, MacArthur asserted: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.” In his clarifying sermon this past Sunday, he went further, arguing that Scripture presents “no lack of clarity” about the role of women in the church. There are many biblical scholars who would challenge this statement and would say with me to him, “Not true, John.” Who are some of these scholars, and what do (did) they think?4 Below is a link to a list of eight highly respected evangelicals who would disagree strongly with MacArthur’s position. Notice that one of those who would disagree with MacArthur’s position is John Stott. As you know, this man is highly credible; only someone very foolish would accuse him of having denied biblical authority.

MacArthur also made this assertion in his Sunday sermon: “Let me tell you something, if children are in charge, we’re in trouble. If women are in charge, we’re in trouble. And if you look carefully at our nation, you would have to agree that it’s childish, young, inexperienced, ignorant women who are ascending into power. When you overthrow the divine order, the results are always disastrous. And again, it’s not anti-woman any more than it’s anti-children. But it’s a divine judgment on a nation that its young and its women are in power.”

When I read this I hear echoes of what I wrote about in “We Hold This Trust From God.” In my discussion of slavery and the church then I wrote about preachers who “proclaimed loudly that to refuse to accept slavery was to deny the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. Doing away with slavery would lead to the breakdown of morality, and ultimately, the destruction of society, they shouted. People became afraid.” (https://jancriley.blog/2017/11/17/we-hold-this-trust-from-god/) The argument being posited by MacArthur and others is exactly the same argument used to defend slavery, even using much of the same language, but now it’s women. Think back (or go back and reread that post in light of what you now know) to the quote I used from the Oxford Research Encyclopedias: “By the 1830s, especially after Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831, white evangelicals who previously had questioned slavery were defending it as a divinely sanctioned social order. By the 1850s such a view reigned as a virtually unchallenged orthodoxy among white southern evangelicals…”

The parallel track of the arguments couldn’t be clearer. As for equating women with children: this kind of thinking does not represent biblical teaching nor the practice of the early church. Yes, I can back up that statement, and I will when the time is right. For now, think back to what I wrote in “Course Corrections” (https://jancriley.blog/2018/05/25/course-corrections/). Remember the essay of German philosopher Schopenhauer titled, “On Women”? I used several quotes from that essay on “the Number Two of the human race.” This was one of them: “[women are] short-sighted…hers [women’s] is reason of very narrow limitations. This is why women remain children all their lives…” There you have it. The assertions MacArthur expresses so strongly, the beliefs he clings to so tenaciously have their origin in ancient Greek philosophy. This is no new argument, but it represents a persistent philosophy that is antithetical to the teachings and practice of Jesus.

The only thing that will be new, and that remains to be seen, is what we will do, in our time, in light of what we now know. For now, we must learn to maintain stillness in the storms to come. And do some work: read, think, listen. There is yet much to see.

 
1 “Accusing SBC of ‘caving,’ John MacArthur says of Beth Moore: ‘Go home’”, Religion News Service, October 19, 2019.

Accusing SBC of ‘caving,’ John MacArthur says of Beth Moore: ‘Go home’


2 “John MacArthur Is No Stranger to Controversy,” Christianity Today, October 23, 2019. Podcast.
https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/october-web-only/john-macarthur-beth-moore-controversy.html

3 “John MacArthur clarifies views on Beth Moore, women preachers.” The Christian Post, November 13, 2019.
https://www.christianpost.com/news/john-macarthur-clarifies-views-on-beth-moore-women-preachers-empowering-women-makes-weak-men.html
4 “Prominent Biblical Scholars On Women In Ministry”

Prominent Biblical Scholars on Women in Ministry

“Going for the Jugular”

Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.                                                                                  —Abraham Lincoln

 

Going back to the States after that life-changing summer in Switzerland was difficult for me. On August 8, two weeks after the Lausanne Congress ended and five days after my nineteenth birthday, I stood in the lobby of Hotel Rosat, watching and listening to President Richard Nixon give his resignation speech on television. I was grateful that all the commentary was in French so I didn’t have to hear what was being said. I was so disheartened by what I did hear that I almost delayed my return to the US to travel around Europe for a few months with others in the group. I knew I would be walking back into a nation embroiled in political and social turmoil, and I wanted to stay away. In the end, I made the decision to stick with my original plan and boarded the plane for the US a week later. There have been times in past days when I wondered how my life would have played out had I delayed my return for that one semester. As it was, my life journey took some dramatic turns; that is a story I’ll come back to later.

As is part of any period of change, the climate in the US at that time was charged with anxiety. These were unsettled times, not unlike the times we find ourselves in today. The change and uncertainty gave rise to a pervasive spirit of fear, and those in the Christian world were not immune. Our society was once again ripe for change, and change was in the wind. The story I will tell here is about what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention, but what played out there was to have a lasting impact on all of evangelicalism in America, and on all of America. In reality, the events of those years and the years to come shaped the thinking of more than one generation. At the time I didn’t recognize it; now I have the advantage of being in a position to understand backwards. And I have something else that wasn’t available to me at the time—I have the benefit of written history of those days, and the availability of the Internet to give me the capability to explore resources that give me a more comprehensive view. So stay with me in this; there is a big picture all of us need to see.

The story of how and why the meeting between Houston lawyer Paul Pressler and seminary student Paige Patterson came about has been told and retold, so I’ll not go into details you can easily find for yourselves (see resources below). Instead, I’ll focus on what happened as a result of their meeting, for that is what impacted and continues to impact us. Late one night in March 1967, these two men met at New Orleans’ famed French coffee house, Café du Monde, to discuss their shared dissatisfaction with what they saw as “dangerous trends” in the Southern Baptist Convention. The two left the Café that evening in agreement that something needed to be done, and resolved that they would be the ones who would lead the effort to turn the SBC in a different direction. In years to come, this joint effort of these two men would be referred to as “the Patterson-Pressler coalition,” “the Patterson-Pressler assault,” “the Patterson-Pressler movement,” as well as other terms. I will use that last term, “the Patterson-Pressler Movement” for reasons that will soon become clear.

Pressler took the role of strategist; Patterson was the theologian. For a little over a decade, the two worked to gain support from others who agreed with or could be persuaded to agree with their perspective. Using his skills as a lawyer, Pressler along with others studied the SBC Constitution and its Bylaws, and hit upon his strategy. That strategy would look like this: the SBC president had the power to appoint the members of the Committee on Committees, which had the power to appoint the Committee on Nominations, which had the power to appoint trustees for the various agencies. By electing likeminded Convention presidents for ten years, control of the SBC could be gained.

Twelve years of planning and preparing elapsed before the time was right, in 1979. By then Pressler had been appointed as a justice of the 14th Texas Court of Appeals in Houston. Patterson had become an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, as well as president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies. When the SBC convened in Houston for their annual meeting in June 1979, they were ready to move.

What happened at that meeting and in subsequent years has been reported, dissected, and analyzed by many, including competent historians, so again, I’m not going to go into detail although I have read through the documents of those years. What is important to examine are the methods used by the Patterson-Pressler movement to prepare for battle and to achieve their goals.

In the months leading up to that pivotal national SBC gathering, meetings were held in at least 15 states to garner support and encourage churches to send as many “messengers” as possible to the Convention. This “get out the vote” effort proved effective, especially since Patterson and Pressler attended many of the meetings and raised their rallying cry, a phrase Patterson freely admitted he chose because of its effectiveness, not its truthfulness. I’ll come back to look at what this phrase was later, since it needs more attention than I can give it now.

Documents from that time (including press releases, news articles, motions, messages, and sermons) give evidence of the contentiousness of that 1979 meeting of the SBC. Judge Pressler’s overt efforts to control the convention caused an outcry from the moderate messengers. There was a rule prohibiting politicking from the floor of any SBC convention. Pressler came up with a plan to circumvent this rule: he used skyboxes (executive suites) high above the convention floor as his political headquarters from which to solicit votes and give orders. When confronted about his actions, Pressler argued that the rule said “from the floor,” and he wasn’t on the floor. Many were appalled and denounced his behavior; others laughed and applauded his skill in using technicalities to gain power.

After their success at the Convention, the movement gained steam. In mid-September 1980, Patterson and Pressler spoke at a conference in Lynchburg, VA, billed as “A Conference on the Conservative Move in Our State and Our Convention.” It was at this conference that Pressler uttered words that would characterize the spirit of the movement. “We are going for the jugular,” he declared when laying out a plan to gain control of all Southern Baptist institutions. That phrase caught the attention of those moderates who were being targeted. “Going for the jugular”—the expression was a familiar one in the worlds of the judiciary and politics, but it was loudly declared by many that this attitude had no place in the Christian world. I agree.

For the next ten years, battles in what has become known as “the SBC Holy War” were fought on many fronts. Historian Walter Shurden has characterized the underlying attitude of this War as one of control versus freedom: “Theologically, the combatants wrangled over the role of women and pastoral authority. Fundamentalists insisted on a hierarchical model of male-female relationships and denied a woman’s right for ordination to the ministry or the diaconate. Moderates, more egalitarian in outlook, advocated equality between women and men and affirmed ordination for women. Fundamentalists embraced pastoral authority in the local church to the point of saying that the pastor was to ‘rule’ the church. Moderates believed any such notion was contrary to the biblical and Baptist heritages and countered with the historic Baptist emphases of the priesthood of all believers and congregational authority.”1

There they are: the two basic points of conflict I was to go head to head with in my attempt to communicate with Glenn Rogers in his office at Tri-Cities Baptist Church that day [“A Defining Moment”]. “Combatants wrangled over the role of women and pastoral authority”—I don’t think “wrangled” is the word I would use to describe our interaction. At the time, I had no awareness of the depth or extent of the conflict; it felt more personal. Now I realize Rogers was following the playbook and using the tactics of the Patterson-Pressler Movement, and I was following the ideals and spirit of the Lausanne Movement. The two collided.

Rogers believed he, as pastor, was the “ruler” or “subhead” of the church. He was convinced that I, because I am a woman, have a God-assigned subordinate role, a “place” I must stay in. He was determined to use his “authority” to put me in that “place” by using whatever means necessary to, using Patterson’s expression, “break her down.” I can imagine how his inability to reduce me to tears or force me to lose control and respond in kind must have confused and shaken him. As I said, I knew how to handle this kind of overt attack. But there is another way to break a person down, a way that is almost impossible to withstand. That is the use of silence. Psychologist Kipling Williams is one of the few who has studied and written about the impact of silence on people. In his book Ostracism: The Power of Silence, Kipling writes: “William James [father of American psychology] suggested that to be ‘cut dead’ and to go ‘unnoticed’ by others would be worse than the ‘most fiendish punishment.’ The silent treatment may well be the most frequently used method of cutting people dead.” 2 This is an important topic I will come back to and develop more fully later, for it is time for this use of silence as a weapon in the name of “godly behavior” to be exposed and confronted.

I mentioned in my last post that I was ignorant and naïve, and had never really considered what the label “evangelical” meant. What I have found most helpful in understanding this is the explanation given by John Stott. In his book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness, Stott wrote:

“In April 1998 the Editor of the Church of England Newspaper suggested that there were ‘57 varieties of evangelicals’ (corresponding to the famous 57 varieties of Heinz grocery products). Rowland Croucher in Australia mentions an unnamed Californian seminary professor who claimed he could identify sixteen kinds of evangelical, while Clive Calver writes about the twelve tribes of evangelicalism. Other observers have reduced this number by half. In 1975, the year following the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Professor Peter Beyerhaus of Tübingen distinguished six different evangelical groupings:

1. The New Evangelicals (including Billy Graham himself), who distance themselves from fundamentalism’s science-phobia and political conservatism, and strive for the greatest possible collaboration.
2. The Strict Fundamentalists, who are uncompromising in their separatist attitude.
3. The Confessing Evangelicals, who attach importance to a confession of faith and a rejection of contemporary doctrinal error.
4. The Pentecostals and the Charismatics.
5. The Radical Evangelicals, who acknowledge a sociopolitical commitment and strive to unite evangelistic witness and social action.
6. The Ecumenical Evangelicals, who are developing a critical participation in the ecumenical movement.” 3

As you see, there is quite a lot of diversity in the beliefs of those who have worn the label “evangelical.” Historically, until the time of the “Holy War,” the same could be said of the SBC. Its undergirding philosophical premise was characterized by the expression “theological diversity and functional unity.” For Strict Fundamentalists, like Patterson and Pressler, theological diversity was unacceptable and posed a “threat.” Their worldview, grounded in the worldview of authoritarianism and not in biblical teaching, required both doctrinal uniformity and functional uniformity. As Stott described, fundamentalists are uncompromisingly separatist. I would add that they are also committed to a belief in hierarchy.

In August 1984, Southern Seminary President Roy Honeycutt gave a Convocation Address that became known as his “Holy War Sermon.” In it he made a strong argument for unity over uniformity: “Unity does not mean uniformity, because you can’t limit God. He established the boundaries of Christian community with such breadth as to embrace our diversity within the larger unity created by the cosmic Christ. Thus, Christian unity does not drive diversity into exile, nor force it to live in the bondage of an ecclesiastical ghetto. Biblical unity absorbs our differences within a larger purpose discovered in Jesus Christ who is the Lord of history…an authentic community of faith does more than merely tolerate differences—it celebrates their creative presence.”

Despite the best efforts of those like Honeycutt who saw themselves as moderates, the Patterson-Pressler Movement continued to gain strength and pushed the denomination toward fundamentalism. At the 1984 convention, a resolution was passed that set forth the “role” of women in the church, the first of its kind in Southern Baptist history. In 1988 another unprecedented resolution was passed, one that in effect elevated the pastor to the position of “ruler” of the church. There were other significant changes in the SBC brought about by the march toward fundamentalism. You can read a brief summary of these in the article “How the SBC Has Changed.” 4

Two Movements—the Lausanne Movement and the Patterson-Pressler Movement—both having their beginnings in the same time frame forty years ago, each begun and led by two men in the world of Christianity. But it is here the similarities end. The Lausanne Movement arose from a desire for unity and was empowered by prayer, infused with hope, characterized by humility. In this “case study in cooperation,” efforts were made to consider the perspectives and voices of every person involved. This exemplified “the spirit of Lausanne.” The Patterson-Pressler Movement had its inception in the fear of difference and the desire for uniformity. This Movement can best be described as a power grab. Methods used to achieve their goals were those of the political and judicial world, and included “going for the jugular” and a “break her down,” win-at-all-costs attitude.

When, on the evening of June 14, 1990, the plan to elect ten consecutive presidents to achieve their “takeover” of the SBC had succeeded, the SBC leadership went back to the Café du Monde, that New Orleans coffee house where it had all begun, to celebrate their victory. Convention parliamentarian Barry McCarty presented Patterson and Pressler with certificates of appreciation for their leadership in the Movement. From all accounts, this was quite a “victory” party. Now think back to the concerns of the leaders of the Lausanne Movement: they “were concerned that the apparent ‘success’ of the Lausanne Congress would lead to it being hailed as a ‘great victory’ and so miss its essential spirit….Stott wrote: ‘Several speakers voiced the hope that the Congress would be marked more by evangelical penitence than by evangelical triumphalism. Triumphalism is an attitude of self-confidence and self-congratulation, which is never appropriate in God’s children. But the spirit of Lausanne was a spirit of humility and a spirit of penitence.’” The contrast between the two Movements is obvious.

What happened with the two leaders of each movement makes their difference even clearer. When John Stott died in 2011, the world turned out to honor what was described as “a life well-lived.” At his funeral an appeal was made to Christians “to honour Stott’s greatest desire—to see the church united and Christians loving each other as Christ loved them.” When Billy Graham died in January of this year, we watched as the world turned out to honor him. Both men lived lives of integrity, consistent with the message they preached, the message that is truly Good News, and finished well.

Patterson and Pressler are still living, and both have been in the news in recent years. Last year, Patterson was removed from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary for his abusive behavior, something I referenced in my post, “A Defining Moment.” Pressler, now 89, has been accused by several men of sexual abuse going back decades. The fact is, Pressler had been fired from his position as a youth pastor at Bethel Church in Houston for “an alleged incident” involving a young man in 1978, a year before taking his leading role in the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC.5 Last spring, Patterson and Pressler again made headlines when windows installed in the chapel at Southwestern Baptist Seminary to honor them were removed.6 Neither of these leaders is ending his life well. Maybe this has something to do with a propelling force of this Movement: an emphasis on authority and control, driven by a desire for power.

Historian and moralist Lord Acton once made a comment that has become one of the most often quoted proverbs: “”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For years this idea was believed to hold true, but recent studies have called it into question. It turns out that it isn’t power itself that corrupts. Power merely “heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies.”7 In other words, power is a revealer of what is already in a person’s heart. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”8 In these instructions Jesus gave to his disciples, four words stand out: Not so with you. When pastors, elders, and other “high officials” in churches set themselves up as the ultimate authorities and insist that the primary duty of church members, especially women, is to “come under authority,” you can be sure that something is seriously off. According to the teaching of Jesus, this is not the way things work in the kingdom of God.

In America, the evangelical world has been off course for decades. The message of the Gospel has not changed, but it has been misrepresented to the point of becoming unrecognizable. It is no wonder that people have walked away from the message being proclaimed: what they have heard, what they have experienced is not “good news.”

But change is coming. Even now we are in the midst of a sea change. What this change will look like is unknown at this point. The turbulence has already begun and we can expect more, but going into this with knowledge and understanding of where we have been can help us get our bearings and stabilize as we, hopefully, reorient ourselves to the Way of Love.

Now, the time has come for me to answer “The Question” I’ve been asked by so many for so long. I think you’re ready now to go there. And I do have some things to say to John MacArthur.

 

 
1 Excerpt from “An Overview of the SBC Controversy,” Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the SBC Holy War, compiled and edited by Walter B. Shurden and Randy Shepley (Mercer University Press, 1996).

2 Kipling D. Williams, PhD. Ostracism: The Power of Silence (Emotions and Social Behavior). The Guilford Press, 2001.

3 John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (Langham Global Library, 2013)

4 “How the SBC Has Changed” by Dr. Rick McClutchy and Dr. Bruce Prescott, The Center for Baptist Studies, Baptist Freedom and Conscience Series. http://www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/pamphlets/freedom/sbc.htm

5 “More men accuse former Texas judge, Baptist leader of sexual misconduct”
https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/More-men-accuse-former-Texas-judge-Baptist-12831892.php

6 “Shadows in the Stained Glass: Patterson and Pressler Chapel Windows Come Down”

Shadows in the stained glass: Patterson and Pressler chapel windows come down

7 “Why Power Corrupts” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-power-corrupts-37165345/

8 Matthew‬ ‭20:25-28,‬ ‭NIV‬‬

“the spirit of Lausanne”

 

Chateau d'Oex
Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland

Nestled in an alpine valley in southwestern Switzerland lies the picturesque French village of Chateau d”Oex. It was here, in this land of chalets and rushing streams and gentle herds of milk cows, that I spent the summer of my 18th year. The above photo can give you an idea of what the village looked like; I’ll try to give you just a little sense of what it felt like—it was magical.

In the lower left-hand corner of the photo you can see a white multi-level building, with balconies around each level, set on a hill above an expansive lawn. This is Hotel Alpina Rosat, my home for that summer of 1974. If you zoom in you can read the name of the hotel painted on the upper level. And if you don’t know or don’t recall how I came to be there, you can always go back to that story (https://jancriley.blog/2017/10/21/no-souls/ ) and read or reread.

My arrival in Chateau d”Oex in late May put me there in time to witness a farm task that is traditionally a festive event for the people of Switzerland. As the weather warms and spring grass again begins to grow, herds of dairy cows brought down into the valleys for the winter are taken back up to their summer pastures in the mountains. The cows, sometimes adorned with flowers and always wearing bells around their necks, move calmly through villages guided by farmers and children, sometimes even a few goats. You can hear them coming long before you see them. The bells around the necks of the cows have a special meaning: the bigger the bell, the better the milk producer. I came across a short video clip posted on youtube showing the reverse process, the “arrival of the cows” in fall when the cows are brought back down for the winter, if you’d like to see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKSTCociPV4

If you look again at the photo of Chateau d’Oex, you will see a road looping around behind the hotel. One cold morning (I had come from Mississippi, so the weather felt wonderfully cold) not long after we arrived, our group of student workers was alerted by the sound of bells and ran outside to watch the cattle moving calmly along this road. In this photo of part of our group, you can see me sitting on that same road. Those of you who know me are not at all surprised to see everyone sitting on the retaining wall except me. That’s telling, I know.

group outside
Part of the group of student workers at Hotel Alpina Rosat, Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland. Summer 1974.

Not far away from Chateau d’Oex, about 24 miles as the crow flies but closer to 50 miles when navigating mountains by train or car, is the city of Lausanne. Situated on the shore of Lake Geneva and surrounded by vineyards, this strikingly beautiful city was once a draw for intellectuals and artists, attracting such thinkers as Rousseau and Voltaire as well as the great English poet Lord Byron. By the time I was there Lausanne had become much more commercial and was known as a university and conference town. It was here that for ten days in the summer of 1974 a conference would be held that is considered by many to be “the most important world-wide evangelical gathering of the twentieth century.” While the official title of the conference was the International Congress on World Evangelization, it would come to be known as The Lausanne Congress, or simply Lausanne ‘74.

The idea for the conference began in the heart and mind of evangelist Billy Graham in August, 1972. Graham believed there was a need “to reframe Christian mission in a world of political, economic, intellectual, and religious upheaval.” He believed that the only way to accomplish this would be for Christian leaders from around the world to gather together and “unite in the common task of the total evangelization of the world.” The idea became a reality when some 2,700 evangelical Christian leaders from 150 nations, half of which belonged to the developing world, came together that summer in Lausanne, Switzerland. The recognized leaders of the Congress were Graham, of course, and a highly respected English Anglican priest and theologian named John R. W. Stott.

Those attending the Congress were expected to be and were deeply involved in the process of drawing up an agreement that would be called the Lausanne Covenant. This Covenant would not be a creed, but a statement of shared perspectives that would foster cooperation and hopefully spark collaborative efforts for years to come. The process by which this agreement was reached by such a diverse group of leaders representing many denominations from 150 countries has been called a “case study in cooperation.”

Several months before the Congress began, papers to be presented were sent to all who would be participating. Response papers were required from each one as a condition of attending. These responses were then analyzed and summarized. From this summary the first draft of the Covenant was developed near the beginning of the Congress. This draft was distributed, attendees were asked for their comments, and a new draft was produced. This procedure was repeated once more before the final document was completed and presented to the group. Guiding all of this activity was the chief architect of the Covenant, John Stott.

Thinking about how labor intensive this process must have been boggles my mind. All of this took place before the days of computers, so everything had to be done by hand. The papers had to be translated into many languages, the responses translated, then summarized, then compiled…unbelievable. Yet Stott felt strongly about the necessity of hearing the voices of everyone, of letting them know their thoughts were valued, that they as people were valued. The result was that at the end there were no surprises. Trust was built, connections were forged, unity was achieved. And that unity was essential to the ideals of the Lausanne Movement.

While the Congress meetings were limited to those registered for the conference, open sessions where the papers were presented were open to the public. This meant those of us working at the hotel in Chateau d’Oex could attend sessions on our days off. I remember making the hour-long trip to Lausanne twice during those days, once by train and once by car—whose car, I don’t know now and didn’t know then. As we commonly did that summer, we hitchhiked. Depending on who happened to be driving the car that stopped to pick us up, hitching could get us where we wanted to go a lot faster than the train and at no cost. Needless to say, this was our preferred method of travel. Always an adventure!

Walking into the Palais de Beaulieu, the venue where the Congress was held, was both overwhelming and thrilling to me. The huge conference room was packed with people from all over the world, conversing with each other in languages I’d never heard. I had become accustomed to hearing French, German, and Italian since I was in Switzerland after all, but this was something else. I rarely use the word since it has become overused to the point of becoming meaningless, but the experience was truly awesome, in the highest sense of the word. Emblazoned across the wall high above the enormous stage, displayed in six languages, were the words “Let The Earth Hear His Voice,” the theme of the Congress. Translators were positioned in a cluster of booths. Above the speaker’s podium hung a large projection screen, a necessary feature if we actually wanted to see the speaker. If you’d like to see what it was like, you can access a blog (link below) that posted pictures and messages in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Congress in 2014.

Both Graham and Stott spoke, but I wasn’t able to attend when either of them was speaking. I remember hearing two speakers. One was Michael Green, an English Anglican priest and Christian apologist. The other was Ecuadorian theologian René Padilla. I listened intently to his explanation of integral mission (also called holistic mission), a term he had coined to express Christianity’s dual priority of both evangelism and social activism. Padilla’s message resonated in me and was to have a lasting impact on my thinking.

Even though I didn’t hear much of what was presented at the Congress, I still had the benefit of hearing from several of the leaders who attended since it had been arranged for them to come and speak to our group at the hotel. We heard different voices, different perspectives. The discussions this sparked among us students were varied and deep, and we didn’t always come to a place of agreement. But we talked, and we listened, always maintaining a respect for each other’s views. As you can imagine, this had quite an impact on this teenage girl from Mississippi.

At times during the Congress some of its leadership made their way to Hotel Rosat. I was never sure why they decided to have some of their discussions there instead of in Lausanne. Maybe they felt the need to get away from all the noise and activity of the city and the conference. Maybe the quiet serenity of the village made talking and listening to each other easier. For whatever reason, they came. In this photo, taken by one of the other students, you can see Billy Graham and two others sitting on the hotel lawn, relaxed and engaged in serious discussion.

billy on lawn
Billy Graham in discussion with international evangelical leaders on lawn at Hotel Alpina Rosat, Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland. Summer 1974.

One day, the news came to us that a group of the leadership would be coming to the hotel and would be staying for lunch. As you know if you read my story about confronting the WMU woman from Mississippi (and I hope you did; otherwise, you’re missing an important part of the story), my work assignment for the summer was in the dining room. As it turned out, the group of about eight people arrived and were seated at one of the tables assigned to me. After they were seated, I headed back to the kitchen to begin serving them. I found everyone there buzzing with excitement and heard the words, “John Stott is at your table!” At this point all I knew about him was that he and Graham were the leaders of the Congress, and that made him a big deal. I asked which one he was. A slim man with thinning hair was pointed out. My first thought was that he was really old; he would have been in his early 50s then. Let me just say, my perspective on age has changed.

Meals at the hotel were served family style, meaning there was one menu for each meal of the day so there was no ordering involved. My responsibility was to get the plates, bowls of food, and beverages on the table, and make sure everyone had what they needed. With this group, I started out a little nervous and being very careful not to spill anything on anybody. I certainly didn’t want to become “renowned” for being the one who had dumped a bowl of food or pitcher of water on John Stott that summer! Serving the meals this way gave me time to interact with guests during their meals. Some of the men in the group began to ask me questions. I responded, then asked them questions. Stott was especially engaged in our conversation and in my answers. I was delighted by his witty remarks, and thoroughly enjoyed the lively banter that soon developed between us. I loved to hear him talk.

Had I known he was affectionally known as “Uncle John” by thousands of students, or that in his younger years he had once dressed as a homeless man, left all his money behind, and lived on the streets of London for three days in order to better understand and develop a deeper level of empathy for those who found themselves in those circumstances—had I known this and so much more about this incredible man, I would have expected him to be as he was: authentic. As it was, this was something I sensed about him as we interacted during that meal. I knew I liked this man; he was real.

When the meal was over, the group stood and began to leave. Stott rose from his seat, and for the first time I noticed how tall he was. Then he did something totally unexpected, something that has stayed with me for all these years. He walked over to me, took my hand in his, looked directly in my eyes, and said something. Then he bowed deeply and kissed my hand. He straightened back up, said goodbye, turned and left the room, leaving me standing there, speechless, with my hand still out in the air. I wish I remembered what he said to me but I don’t, and didn’t know even then. I think I was too stunned by his taking my hand for his words to register. What I do remember is how what he did made me feel: I felt as if I had just been blessed by a great man of God. Later I realized, I had been.

How the expression “the spirit of Lausanne” first came into being is unknown. Some have attributed it to Graham, but he admitted he didn’t remember. An appendix to the 2013 republication of Stott’s book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness explains it like this: “The phrase ‘the spirit of Lausanne’ arose out of the 1974 Congress. It captures the Movement’s ideals: dedication to prayer, and to the study of God’s Word; a desire to work in unity and partnership; a clear reflection of the hope of the gospel; and humility in service.” Whatever its origin, Stott adopted the phrase, and others identified him with the phrase. It has been said by many that “John Stott is the spirit of Lausanne,” for those ideals represent who he was. His interactions with all people, even leaders of other Christian traditions or those of other faiths or “nones” with whom he disagreed, were marked by his willingness to listen and gracious spirit.

Make no mistake: there were disagreements and conflicts even within the leadership of the Lausanne Movement. Graham and Stott had become lifelong friends since they first met at a conference at Cambridge in 1955, but there was a critical issue on which they did not see eye to eye. Graham saw the Christian mission as one of evangelism only, and believed that preaching the gospel was all that really mattered. Stott firmly believed that evangelism was only part of the mission. Equally important was a concern for people’s bodies, for their physical needs and well-being. He insisted that a call to social action must be included in the Lausanne Covenant. Neither of them ever convinced the other to change their position, but the two friends were able to respectfully maintain a unity of purpose while retaining their distinctiveness. As the movement progressed, this issue led to a confrontation between the two that could have derailed its future. If you’re interested in what happened and how it was resolved, I’ve put a a link to an article below. As it was, the ideals of “the spirit of Lausanne” held firm and the Movement continued, leading to a second Congress in Manilla in 1989 and third Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010. As was hoped, collaborative efforts begun from connections made at the first Congress have continued to grow and expand.

Stott and others were concerned that the apparent “success” of the Lausanne Congress would lead to its being hailed as a “great victory” and so miss its essential spirit. In his commentary on the Lausanne Covenant, Stott wrote: “Several speakers voiced the hope that the Congress would be marked more by evangelical penitence than by evangelical triumphalism. ‘Triumphalism’ is an attitude of self-confidence and self-congratulation, which is never appropriate in God’s children. But the spirit of Lausanne was a spirit of humility and a spirit of penitence.”

Before that summer I had never given much thought to the term “evangelical” or its “—ism”; I don’t know that I was even aware of its existence. In Mississippi, what was talked about in those days was being Baptist. The events of this summer were my first introduction to an expanded worldview, and I was thrilled by what I had experienced and learned. That summer I was touched by, blessed by, the spirit of Lausanne. To me, what was exemplified at the Congress was evangelicalism. What I didn’t know, what it took me many years to learn, was that there are different kinds of evangelicals, and different brands of evangelicalism.

There was something else I didn’t know. Back in the USA, a few years earlier, two men had met. Now plans were being made, born of a shared desire to change the face of a denomination. Eventually, their plan would succeed in changing the look of evangelicalism in American. And the resulting look would bear little, if any, resemblance to “the spirit of Lausanne.”

 

 

Stott, John R. W. Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (Langham Global Library, 2013))

The Story of the Lausanne Covenant: Case Study in Cooperation

Billy Graham and John Stott

John Stott and the Lausanne Movement: A Formative Influence

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the First International Congress on World Evangelization

When John Stott Confronted Billy Graham

 

 

A Defining Moment

“I have learned now that while those who speak about one’s miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.”                                                             —C S Lewis

 

In her story my friend Gale mentioned a class I started so she would “have a place to go on Sunday mornings.” I think this is a good place to pick up my story, since the events surrounding this class would lead to one of the defining moments in my life.

I mentioned we had joined a new church in the area, one that had formed as the result of a church split. We had not been part of the church that split and had not experienced that turmoil and pain, so for us this new church was a new beginning. When a group of several hundred people met at a local high school for the first time, everyone felt like something special was happening. We were in the first blush of a new beginning, and as with most new beginnings, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation that something good and right was happening. That feeling lasted for quite a while in those first years; then began the rumblings. Some called them “growing pains”; I hoped they were right.

Those difficult months of Gary’s physical decline were taking a toll on Gale in all ways—physically, emotionally, spiritually. She told me how isolated she felt, how disconnected to people, how exhausted, how alone. She wanted and needed to be with people at church but felt she had nowhere to go on Sunday mornings; there was no class where those who were in pain and grieving could find strength and encouragement. I wanted to help her through this time, so I told her I had an idea: if she would come Sunday mornings and bring the children to their classes, we would find an empty room, and I would spend that time with her. Initially I didn’t see it becoming a class, but that quickly changed. Other women heard I was meeting with Gale and asked if they could come too. In just a few weeks we had a “class,” and it kept growing. Each week I would plan a lesson centered around spiritual gifts, but whether we covered that lesson depended upon the needs of the women who were there that day, especially Gale. We were connecting, building relationships, learning to be honest with each other, to know each other, to encourage and support each other, to love each other. The presence of the Spirit of Christ was palpable. Something special was happening. Then a message was sent to us from the “leadership,” meaning the pastor: the class would no longer be allowed to meet since it had not been initiated or authorized by him.

The news was crushing to those of us who been part of something we all knew was a work of the Spirit. I was shocked by this edict, but honestly felt there must be some mistake. Surely the pastor wanted people in the church to listen to the Spirit and use their gifts to build up this new body that had formed. There had to be some misunderstanding, I thought.

I knew there had already been conflicts in the church. A few men had gone to the pastor and tried to talk to him about how his controlling leadership style was affecting the church; from all accounts, those meetings hadn’t gone well. Some of those families had left the church. As I thought about Gale and the other women, I had the growing conviction that I needed to go and talk to him. Maybe I could express myself in a way that he would hear and understand. It was January, 1992, and Gary had recently died. Gale needed our support now more than ever. Besides, there were other things that were happening in my life that I wanted to talk to him about. I decided I had to go. I called a close, trusted friend and told her what I was going to do. I had expected her to be concerned, but I could hear the alarm in her voice when she responded, “Noooo! You can’t do that! You don’t know how he can be!”

We talked for a long time about why I felt I needed to go, and what I wanted to talk to him about. Nothing I said seemed to lessen her concern and she continued to try to talk me out of it. Finally I asked her if she thought I would be in danger of a physical attack. She responded, “No…but he can be so cruel. If you do go, you can’t go alone.” Her husband had been one who had gone to talk to him, and it had gone badly. Knowing her husband’s experience helped me understand why she didn’t want me to go. But if the danger she feared was an angry abusive barrage of words, that was something I felt prepared to handle. Like many people who grow up in a home with a parent (in my case, my mother) who was unpredictable and likely to explode with rage, sometimes even violence, at any moment, for any reason, I had developed some special skills, known as coping mechanisms, that I could call on if needed. Because of my experience with my mother, I had spent a lot of time studying and learning how to handle, or sometimes just to endure or avoid, these situations. But I couldn’t imagine that a discussion with a pastor could be that bad. So I asked my friend to pray, and I prepared myself to meet with him.

The church office was located in a mobile home set up on property purchased by the church for future building. I greeted the secretaries and was shown to his office. I sat down, noting my position, his position, and the locations of the doors. I wasn’t expecting this to become confrontational, but I took note of my surroundings just in case. I know not to get trapped in a room with someone who might lose control; having an exit strategy is essential.

I began by talking about what I was studying, focusing on what I had learned in the study on spiritual gifts I had gone through several months earlier. I talked about what was going on in my life, about the opportunities to speak and teach I was being given. I opened up to him about what a struggle that was for me because I had a deeply-rooted fear of public speaking and had always gone to great lengths to avoid it. I asked him, as my pastor, for his support and prayers. Then I moved to the subject of the class, telling him how it began, how it had grown on its own, how the women who came were feeling the presence of the Spirit. I asked him to reconsider and let us meet, especially since Gary had recently died and Gale needed the support. I had begun a class in my home on Monday nights after we were told we couldn’t meet on Sundays, but Gale couldn’t come then because she needed to be home with her children.

I finally stopped talking and waited for him to respond. When his first words were a loud angry, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE…!”, I knew this was not going to go as I had hoped. I sat listening as he berated me for doing anything without his permission. I listened carefully, trying to figure out what exactly he thought about the church and how it functions. I asked some questions, wanting to be sure I was understanding him correctly. He told me he was the head of the church and any decisions made, no matter how small, had to have his approval. This didn’t fit at all with the picture of the church I saw in scripture. I said, “Let’s see if we can find a point of agreement. It is my understanding that Christ is the head of the church. Would you agree with that?”

“Yes,” he replied emphatically. “And I’m the subhead!”

My response was immediate: “Then what we have is a two-headed monster! A body with two heads can never be healthy.” There was silence for a few moments as I tried to wrap my head around the fact that those words had just come out of me. I wasn’t surprised when he exploded and the torrent began again, this time more vicious. I found myself pulling away in my mind, watching him attack me from somewhere else. I went numb, and it felt like I was watching someone else. This was one of those “special skills” I mentioned. At that point in my life, I knew I could do this but didn’t know what I was doing or that it was a real thing and had a name. But that’s something I’ll talk about more later when I talk about toxic stress, and childhood trauma, and being made whole.

He made it clear that he was the ruler of the church, and my only responsibility was to “come under his authority.” No one would do anything in this church without his knowledge and permission. He told me I would not be teaching or doing anything else in the church until I accepted him as my authority and had his permission. I was to go to the couples’ class on Sunday mornings, to “sit there and keep your mouth shut” because I am a woman. Furthermore, teaching a class in my home, as well as speaking or teaching anywhere else, required his permission. That’s where I drew the line and had to respond, saying that while he could prevent me from doing anything in this church, he could not and would not control what I did in my life. I would follow the leading of the Spirit, not him. That response elevated his level of anger again and he continued to hammer me. I stopped responding and just listened, making mental notes of what he was demanding so I could analyze it later.

As I watched him and listened, I became overwhelmed by an awareness of what would be coming for the church because of him. The sense of the pain he would cause was intense. I became aware that tears were rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t want him to think he was breaking me down, so I told him what was going on in me: “I know you see my tears, but I want you to know they’re not for myself because of the way you’re treating me, even though you are being brutal. My tears are for what I see coming for the people in this church. If you will not humble yourself, God will humble you. And when he does, there will be so much pain, so many people will be hurt. That breaks my heart. These tears are for them, for the pain you will cause.” His anger flared again, and the volley of accusations and insults resumed. I could tell my words had shaken him, but he would not stop and let this end, and it was time for it to end. There was nothing to be gained by continuing.

I looked down, began to shake my head slowly as he continued his verbal barrage. I said quietly but firmly: “I will not leave until you stop attacking me.” I repeated that phrase once more, maybe twice, and he began to calm. With a confused look he said, “Jan, I don’t understand. You’ve stayed in this room and haven’t walked out. No one has ever done that before. I know you are sincere and you love me. You wouldn’t have done this if you didn’t. I wish you could understand that it’s God’s plan for you to come under my authority.” He began to talk about God’s “chain of command” and “umbrella of authority.” I recognized these as coming from Bill Gothard and wasn’t surprised since I knew he was a big fan of Gothard. He told me if I would come under his “umbrella of protection,” I would be “covered” and would be free. As long as I did exactly what he told me, even if it turned out to be sin, he would be responsible, not me. I shook my head slowly and told him I understood what he was saying and knew where it was coming from, but I didn’t believe it and would not accept it. “So,” I said quietly, “I guess that leaves us in different places. I wish it weren’t that way, but that’s the way it is.” We said goodbye, and I left. I had been in that room with him for two hours. I was exhausted.

I was grateful for the side door leading directly outside so I didn’t have to walk back through the office and face the concerned, questioning gazes of the secretaries. By the time I got to my car, my hands were shaking. As I drove home, my body began to shake as well. The physical effects of those grueling two hours were beginning show themselves. When I got home I headed straight for my bedroom. I dropped on the floor beside my bed and, still shaking, took some deep breaths. Then I picked up the phone and called my friend. She answered, I said her name…then the floodgates opened, and the sobs came from deep in my soul. She said, “Oh, Jan, it was bad, wasn’t it? I was so afraid of this.” I managed to say, “Yes. He was vicious.” She asked me if I would let her come be with me. I told her no, I just wanted her to stay with me on the phone, to sit with me in my tears so I wouldn’t feel so alone. And we sat.

Not long after my friend and I finally reached a point where I felt ready to end the call, I heard the garage door open and knew my husband was home from work. I was still sitting on the floor beside the bed when he came in to change into his workout clothes. He looked at me but said nothing. I tried unsuccessfully to keep my voice steady as I said, “I went to talk to Glenn today. He tore into me; he was vicious.” My husband looked at me for a moment then, without a word, turned and walked out of the room. C S Lewis once wrote, “Spiteful words can hurt your feelings but silence breaks your heart.” Lewis was right.

I was so hurt, and afraid that I was going to descend into a pit of despair so deep that I would not be able to get out. I wept continuously for that entire night and the next morning. I pled with God, “Don’t let me fall. Why did You allow me to be so hurt when I was only seeking to be obedient to You?” The Spirit’s answer broke through my pain into my mind with the words: “I will never let you fall below the point that I won’t pick you back up. You must let go of your fear of being hurt. I am in control of your life. It will be through your crushing that the fragrance of Jesus will be released in your life.” At that moment, through my tears, I was able to respond, “Lord, I believe You. If you told me to go back and experience this again tomorrow, I would go. I might be hurt, but You will pick me up. I don’t have to be afraid anymore.” I thought, I hoped I had made it through, that this would be the end of the pain and the fear, the end of the crushing. Time would reveal that it wasn’t.

For the first week or so after that day I tried many times to talk to my husband about what had happened and how I felt, to make him understand that I didn’t want to stay at that church. His only response was silence, except for saying he saw no reason to leave since he didn’t have a problem. Sunday morning following that awful day saw our family back again at the church, with my husband acting as though nothing had happened and me avoiding the pastor. Hearing his voice again evoked a mixture of reactions in me; I alternated between feeling sick, wanting to run, and wanting to stand up and roar, “Enough!” Instead, I sat quietly and tried to focus on something else. That didn’t prove too difficult since three of my four children were sitting with us.

A few weeks passed, then my husband told me the pastor had asked to meet with him. I felt hopeful: maybe my husband would say something to him about the way he had treated me. The day of the meeting came, and I anxiously waited for my husband to come home afterward. When he came in, he said nothing, so I asked the question that was foremost in my mind: “Did you say anything to him about the way he treated me?” His answer cut like a knife: “No.” Confused and angry, I said, “Then what exactly did you talk about?” He responded with, “Pastor said you need to come under authority,” then walked out of the room. That was it; there would be no more talking about it. And at that moment, something in me shifted. I realized later that this had been a defining moment in my life.

For the next year I went to church on Sunday mornings and sat. This is what was needed because I deeply loved my children, and I did what was necessary to keep life calm and stable for them. I would have endured anything to give them a sense of something I had never had as a child: safety and security. Only my friend knew what had happened. I told no one else there because there would have been no point. There was nothing I could say or do that would have been beneficial or led to resolution. I did tell a local counselor about what happened when my husband and I went to him for marriage counseling. That’s when the counselor opened up to me about his own painful personal experience as Gothard’s righthand man; this is a story I told earlier. Needless to say, his marriage counseling was not helpful. I had the feeling I had become his counselor.

At church I sat, but I continued to teach classes in my home and began to respond to more and more opportunities to teach in the community. I felt I was handling the situation well; later I would realize that my body was keeping the score. When the plan for building on the church property took shape a year after my exchange with Glenn (I could never refer to him as pastor after that day), my husband became disgruntled about the way the program was being handled and began to talk about leaving the church. I confess I did what I could to feed his discontent; understandably so, since I had been ready to leave for a year. When the move finally came, I felt as if I could breathe again. That was when unexpected things began to happen, and I found myself drawn into that whirlwind. The year was 1993.

Maybe you’re wondering if what I sensed was going to happen to Glenn Rogers and Tri-Cities Baptist Church actually happened. Several years elapsed before it happened but it did, and the pain was as deep as I had felt it would be, maybe even deeper. The details of that story are not mine to tell; they must be told by those who were there and experienced the damage of his betrayal. I have heard directly from some of those he hurt: the women who were stalked by him as well as those who were involved in exposing him. His duplicity had a devastating effect that still negatively impacts the lives of some today. Maybe through hearing this story and the story still to come, those who have been hurt by his behavior or by the behavior of others like him can begin to make sense of what happened and see that this story is not just about our conflict. It is much bigger than we knew.

At the time these events took place, a war had been raging in the SBC for over a decade, having begun in earnest in 1979. One of the issues at the center of the war was this idea of authority. What I didn’t know then was that victory had been declared two years earlier, in 1990. What I was experiencing and would be experiencing in the following years was the victors claiming the spoils and routing the “enemy.” In the end, the Gospel would be the loser.

It is my hope that knowing this story will help you understand at least one reason why people have been described as “leaving the Evangelical church in droves,” and why the ranks of the “nones” have been steadily rising. Hopefully, we can act and speak out in ways that not only expose the abuses but bring much-needed correction. It’s one thing to lift up your voice to expose and denounce that which is wrong; it’s another thing to do it in a way that brings change and healing. This second way begins with knowledge and understanding. And there is much we need to know.

You might remember the news of the firing of Paige Patterson from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWTBS) a little over a year ago in May, 2018. Patterson lost his job because of something that happened in 2003 when he was president of a different seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. Now Patterson is once again in the hot seat. Both he and SWTBS have been named as co-defendants in a lawsuit filed in federal court. A female student has accused both Patterson and the seminary of failing to protect her when she was raped at gunpoint by a fellow student at least three times during the 2014-2015 school term. An article published last month in Christianity Today gives a clear picture of what is happening. I strongly urge you to read that article (“Southwestern Distances Itself from Paige Patterson in Sex Abuse Lawsuit”) and the other one referenced below (“Lawsuit reveals details about Paige Patterson’s ‘break her down’ meeting with woman alleging campus rape”) The name Paige Patterson will be significant in the story yet to unfold. A “break her down” meeting…now that’s something relevant to the story I just told, and something we need to think about.

But before I get to that, I need to take you back again to that summer of 1974 in Switzerland. There’s a story there you need to know, and someone important I want you to meet.

 

“Lawsuit reveals details about Paige Patterson’s ‘break her down’ meeting with woman alleging campus rape.” Bob Allen, Baptist News Global, June 24, 2019. https://baptistnews.com/article/lawsuit-reveals-details-about-paige-pattersons-break-her-down-meeting-with-woman-alleging-campus-rape/

“Southwestern Distances Itself from Paige Patterson in Sex Abuse Lawsuit.” David Roach, Christianity Today, August 16, 2019.   https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/august/southwestern-swbts-reckoning-over-paige-patterson-abuse-law.html

 

 

 

 

 

The Question

“That sense of inferiority which by nature and by law we are compelled to feel, and to which we must submit, is worn by us with as much satisfaction as the badge of slavery generally.”                                                                                                                                                                            Louisa Adams, in a letter to John Quincy Adams, early 1800s

 

Her name was Claire; that much I remember. I’m surprised I still remember her name since names don’t easily stick in my mind. But I’m not surprised that I remember her question. Even now, twenty years later, I can still recall the sinking feeling I had when she asked it.

We had met a few months earlier, in June 1999, when I had presented a workshop at the CMDA National Student Conference in Bristol, TN. Claire was assigned to be my facilitator for that conference. An intelligent, articulate, capable young woman, she proved to be an excellent assistant, and everything had gone like clockwork. After my sessions, she asked if I would be willing to do a retreat for the women of her church. I agreed, and a few months later I headed to Banner Elk, NC, to speak.

It wasn’t until the retreat was over and I was packing up to leave that she raised the question. She began by talking about her education and the job she now held. Her position was one of authority and responsibility, her work was respected. In the past she had been active in her church, holding positions of leadership and responsibility. But after her marriage to a young medical student, things had changed. As expected, she had joined his church, one that was in a different denomination, a PCA church. In trying to find her way in this new setting, she felt as if she had suddenly ceased to exist as a person, felt her value had been diminished. At the new church it seemed as if her only identity was as her husband’s wife. Her ability to use her knowledge and gifts was limited to caring for or teaching children. Any position that involved responsibility or leadership was off-limits to her. Confused and hurt, she said, “I don’t know how to function in this environment. I don’t know who I am anymore. Is this the way it’s supposed to be? It wasn’t the way things were in my church, and it’s not the way they are in my job. I can’t make sense of this.” I inwardly cringed, dreading the question I knew would be coming. “Jan, how do you make sense of all this? I need your help.” I looked at her and answered honestly: “I don’t know, Claire. I can’t make sense of it either. It didn’t used to be this way. To be honest, the tension it creates in me is becoming unbearable.”

If you have been reading what I’ve written so far, you will know that the questions Claire was asking weren’t new to me. Earlier that same year I had listened as woman after woman at the conference in Cyprus expressed their pain and confusion, and had ultimately asked me the same questions. I had personally felt those same constraints, seen that same theme running through the courses I had taken in biblical counseling training: women have a God-ordained place, and they must stay in that place. I had sat poring over the catalogue at Covenant Seminary, taking notice of courses I found interesting but would not be allowed to take because they were designed for those in church leadership or preachers and not open to women. And I wondered, why? Something was off; the inequity—the inconsistency—was glaringly obvious, oppressive, yet I couldn’t see how to resolve it.

As I think about the tension of these questions, my mind goes back to a time in the early 90s, to a church experience, and a young woman who became a friend. Her name is Gale. I first met Gale when she was a young 20-something, and I was her Sunday School teacher. My family left her church in 1990 to join a new church, formed as the result of a church split. Gale, her husband Gary, and their three young children came to that new church several months, maybe a year, after we did. Not long after they joined, Gary began experiencing serious health problems and was soon diagnosed with cancer. The next months were brutal for their entire family. A little over a year after first having symptoms, Gary died at the age of 37. At age 30, Gale found herself a widow with three children. When we were talking a little over a year ago, I asked her to write to me about what happened after his death. This is taken from her story:

It’s interesting that God has taken me on my journey as a woman in the Church, married, widowed, and divorced, to glean a greater understanding of the plight of women in the mainstream Church. I have seen and experienced much over these past 30 years. I have asked the Lord many times, “As a Christian woman, if I can’t go to the ‘Church,’ where do I go?” The answer I received was, “You come to me directly. I will lead and teach you by my Holy Spirit. What you think is the true Church, is not. Much will be revealed to you over time. Follow me.”

The first reveal— Tri Cities Baptist Church. The Lord took me back and reminded me of the women’s Sunday School class you started so that I would have a place to go on Sunday Mornings. After Gary died my options as a young widow were to attend the singles class, which I was not ready for, or to continue in the couples class, and I was no longer a couple. Your class became a lifeline for me at that time until the leadership decided to shut the class down because it was NOT approved and we were not under the authority of the Church, or at least that is what I was told. God showed me that there was no place to actually minister to a woman my age who suddenly became a widow. Older women were widows, they were the norm, I was not. They didn’t know what to do with me except marry me off.

I felt uncovered, unprotected, vulnerable, and very displaced. The powers that be ushered me into the singles department, even with my many objections, where I became prey for single men on the hunt. Many voices raised up in favor of me marrying right away, as if that were the only option for me. I knew I needed to grieve and get my bearings. Not so, said the voices in leadership. I was a sitting duck for the enemy and totally blindsided by John McCurry.

It’s amazing to me, that after those dark years and the abuse my children and I suffered at the hands of John McCurry, how many of my ‘sisters and brothers’ came forth to tell me they knew of John’s issues but never said anything, never a warning about his past. I went to the leadership and reported him multiple times. I asked for help repeatedly but nobody responded. [The associate pastor] told me that he had personally dealt with John’s issues through prayer and counsel and felt sure that John had resolved his past. I even went to an attorney to have the marriage annulled in the first two months so that I wouldn’t have to carry the shame of a divorce. The response was that it would be much cheaper to divorce. An annulment would cost me thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. A Christian attorney from Tri Cities Baptist told me that it was my fault for marrying a divorced man with a past.

The dark years—greater revelation. John took us in and out of many denominations, while placing us under Bill Gothard’s hierarchy of male dominance. I homeschooled with Gothard’s wisdom books for 6 years, along with … many other deluded families we encountered along the way. I’m positive that this was a way for John McCurry to continue his reign of terror with the approval of the Church. This false teaching on submission gave him total control and he used it to his advantage.

As I continued to seek an ally, John would tell the Church leadership we were under that I was a rebellious wife who would not come under his submission. Each time I sought counsel from Church leadership I was told that I must stay under submission/abuse. I was told several times that certain pastors would not even speak to me unless I was under submission. When I asked what that meant to them, they had no response.

When I read what Gale had written with such honesty and transparency, I could feel her pain, her confusion, her sense of betrayal. I hadn’t known the nightmare she had lived for years after we lost touch. Reading her words, I would have understood if she had lost hope, sunk into despair, or walked away from Church and become one of the “nones.” But she didn’t. Her faith in the reality of Jesus and his message, not in the “Church,” carried her through. She finished up her story by saying, “… The beauty of our Father is that He takes all the broken pieces and makes something so amazing out of them.” I see the beautiful, strong woman she is today, and I am amazed at the steadfastness of her faith. She was able to separate her faith in the person of Jesus from damaging teaching and actions of those in the “Church”—something she should never have had to do.

A couple of years ago my pastor told me about something that had happened in 2015 in Texas. A former missionary, Jordan Root, admitted to pedophilia and the use of child pornography. Rocked and betrayed by this revelation, his wife Karen made the difficult decision to file for an annulment of their marriage. 1 The two were members of Village Church, the flagship megachurch of the Acts 29 church planting movement, with over 10,000 members. When Karen notified the church that the marriage was over, she received a letter from the leadership notifying her that because she had not first fulfilled her “obligations to submit to the care and direction of your elders” and asked their permission, she was being placed under discipline. Her husband was not placed under discipline since he had confessed and appeared repentant. Shocked, Karen responded that in view of this, she was withdrawing her membership from Village Church. The answer she received was that she was not allowed to withdraw her membership without the permission of the leadership. It was at this point that Karen went public with her story. 2

Once the news of what they had done was out, the leadership of Village Church apologized for their actions. What was not addressed, and still isn’t being address, is the underlying belief that allows this kind of behavior to be sanctioned as upholding “God’s ordained order.” I listened with mounting outrage as my pastor enlightened me about the growing influence of the Acts 29 church movement, and the fact that the role of women in their church structure in greatly limited, if indeed it exists at all. We ended that conversation with him saying, “Jan, you have to speak out about this. You have to tell your story.” Still I held back, waiting, watching.

Then a few months ago, someone sent me an article along with a note informing me that a mainline Evangelical pastor had given this article to a woman to read when she had gone to him for help and counsel because of her husband’s abuse. Just reading the title of the article immediately raised my blood pressure to the danger zone: “Why God Wants You to Stay in an Abusive Relationship.” I was outraged! I had come across this kind of “counsel” before, even among some in my biblical counseling training, and it had always disturbed me. As I read the article (as much as I could stand, anyway), my blood began to boil. My immediate response was, Who wrote this drivel??? Of course, the author had withheld his name, lacking the courage to stand behind what he said. Yet some “pastor,” because he apparently agreed with his thinking, had given his words credibility and “authority,” and had used them to further batter this woman who had come to him for help! That was it.

It has taken time and struggle and reading and arguing and listening and praying and thinking and rethinking, but I have an answer to the question, How do I make sense of this? Those of you who know me or have been reading what I’ve written so far know I don’t come to conclusions easily. I have to go deep, and the answer has to satisfy me on many levels. The question now playing in my mind centers around how best to express my answer. I could simply lay out what I think, and what I say could be one more small voice joining the din of voices arguing about the “place” of women. That would be the easiest thing to do. But then, the easy path has never been the one laid out for me. Besides, I think it’s important to know why I see things as I do and how I got here, not just what I think. And that will mean telling a story, a rather involved story. I’ve been dancing around this story for months now—okay, maybe years would be more accurate. I think it’s time I begin in earnest. Maybe opening up about what I have learned and what I see can help relieve the confusion and pain.

 

1 “A Dallas megachurch has apologized to a wife subjected to church discipline for leaving her husband without permission after learning he is a pedophile.”     https://baptistnews.com/article/man-confesses-to-child-porn-church-disciplines-his-wife/#.XXpYdG5FxPY

2 Karen Hinckley’s Response To Village Church   https://watchkeep.blogspot.com/2015/05/karen-hinkleys-response-to-village.html

 

 

“Rethinkings”

“The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.”                                                                                                                         Augustine of Hippo

 

Maybe you heard about something significant that happened a little over a month ago, something that shocked and rocked the Evangelical world and caused reverberations that went much farther: it even made the national news. Joshua Harris posted in an Instagram message that he had “undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus.” He went on to say, “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.” Harris didn’t say exactly where he is now in his thinking, only where he isn’t. It would appear that, at least at this point in his life, Joshua has moved into the ranks of the nones.

In the days and weeks following this highly publicized announcement, I have read and watched and listened for the responses of a broad spectrum of people, from bloggers to Evangelical leaders to people who for whatever reason just felt the urge to weigh in. Those responses have covered a wide range, from downright hateful to sensitively compassionate to ridiculously absurd, and they keep coming. Now if you’re thinking I’m going be foolish enough to jump in with my own personal dissection and analysis of Joshua and what he said, you’re wrong. But I do have something to say, because hopefully you recognize this relates directly to what I wrote about in my last post.

By this point those of you who have never heard of Joshua Harris are probably wondering who he is and why such a big deal has been and is being made of what he said. I have to admit that before all of this hit the news, his name hadn’t crossed my mind in a couple of decades.

My memory of Joshua goes back to the early 1990s, probably 1991. Joshua would have been 16 at the time. My family attended a conference in South Carolina where his father, author Gregg Harris, was one of the featured speakers. Gregg proudly introduced Joshua, the oldest of his seven children. At that young age Joshua had already begun a popular magazine for homeschooled teens titled “New Attitude.” By age 17, he was traveling and speaking at teen conferences all over the nation. A few years later, having reached his early twenties, he wrote a book outlining his views on relationships titled I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Relationships and Romance. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but that book was destined for stardom, and he would enter the whirlwind.

For whatever reason, the book Joshua wrote as a young 20-something exploded, reaching far beyond the homeschooling community. It quickly became the Number 1 Bestselling Book in America, eventually selling an impressive 1.2 million copies and being translated into dozens of languages. As expected, that book was followed by other books and, like it or not, Joshua was on his way. By 2004, approaching age 30, he became the lead pastor of a megachurch in Maryland. There he stayed until 2015, when he resigned from the church after some difficult times. If you want to know more about that story, you can do some research for yourselves.

During the first two years after leaving church ministry, Joshua did some serious thinking and listening and reevaluating. He came to believe that what he had written years earlier in his bestselling book was wrong.1 He released a statement that said, “I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner. To those who read my book and were misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by it, I am sincerely sorry…” About his bestselling book he wrote, “In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, instead it often instilled fear—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken.” What he did next was astounding: he directed his publisher, Multnomah, to discontinue publication of all of his books.

Whatever people think about his recent statements and actions, that action showed integrity, a level of integrity that is absent in the words and deeds of many prominent evangelical leaders who continue to proclaim loudly their belief in Christianity while continuing to spout damaging teaching that is inconsistent with the life and teaching of Jesus. One of those I have already told you about is Bill Gothard; this is where rereading my “Open Letter To Beth Moore” will help. There is also a powerful interview accessible on YouTube that I strongly urge you to take the needed time to watch. (https://youtu.be/9WQy4LGUQRg ) The young woman being interviewed clearly lays out the teachings of Gothard as one who has lived through them. She is but one of tens of thousands of young adults in America who are dealing with the damage done by this movement.

Despite being exposed and ousted from his leadership position, Gothard’s teachings continue, his writings are still being published and promoted. Given the scope of his influence over past decades, it’s not unlikely that some of his teachings have found their way into your thinking about what it means to live as a Christian. All of us need to do some rethinking about this; actually, rethinking is something we need to be doing continually.

By the time Joshua’s book was published, my life and thinking had moved quite a distance from those early days when I attended that conference in South Carolina and first heard his father Gregg speak. At that time I hadn’t yet begun to teach local parenting classes, or use Gregg Harris’ widely popular “House Rules” kit, or travel and present parenting conferences. This did not begin until 1993, the same year that I began my studies in biblical counseling through the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. In 1994 I completed their Diploma Program in Counseling, taught in conjunction with Reformed Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. That was also the year I found myself thrust into the world of Christian publishing as a result of my trip to England. Maybe you remember I also told that story in my “Open Letter To Beth Moore.”

If you’re having trouble keeping up with these many dates I’m throwing at you all at once, don’t worry. My plan is to come back and unpack them for you at some future point. Right now I just want you to see that I know what it’s like to get caught up in a whirlwind. And eventually I want you to understand that for some, getting caught up in the whirlwind is an appointed part of their journey. For some the journey may include the wilderness, for some the pit of despair. For some, like me, it may be all of these. I want to tell you not to fear what may be strange and confusing and often excruciatingly painful in the journey. That’s easier said than done, I know. Fear is natural, but it is not profitable. It is true that there is a power in fear, but that kind of power runs counter to the way of love.

By 1997 my interests had taken yet another turn. I enrolled in the Distance Education program at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and took as many courses as I could in the area of apologetics and worldviews. The knowledge I gained combined with my biblical knowledge, counseling, and parenting to provide a “unique perspective,” so I was told, and the activity level in my life intensified once again. I made a few trips to Russia as a “visiting professor” to teach on worldviews at Logos Academy in Moscow, and did some speaking and teaching internationally for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. By 1999, all of this activity brought me to the attention of the Christian Medical and Dental Association (CMDA). The result was that I became a somewhat regular speaker for them, leading workshops at their local and national conferences.

In November, 2000, I presented workshops at the combined Christian Medical & Dental Association and Focus On The Family “Heart of the Physician Conference” in San Diego, CA. After that conference I was contacted by the leadership of CMDA and was asked if I would be willing to meet with an editor from Zondervan Publishers about becoming one of their writers. It seems the response to my workshops had been “tremendous,” and now an effort was going to be made to “promote” me. I was hesitant, having been down this road several years earlier with Lifeway, but I agreed to meet and hear what they had to say.

We met at CMDA national headquarters in Bristol, TN. I don’t remember the editor’s name, but I do remember she was very professional and friendly. I listened carefully as she talked enthusiastically about the possibility of publishing my writings and studies and whatever else. Finally she summed it up by saying, “Jan, we are looking for our next big Christian woman author, and we want that to be you. It will be our responsibility to groom you and promote you. We will have readers waiting for your next book. Of course, there will be book signings, and…” My mind had checked out by that point. When she finished, I thanked her and said no, that wouldn’t be for me. Her expression registered her shock. When I told the CMDA leadership the same thing, they had the same expression. What they didn’t know was that I had seen enough in my involvement in Christian publishing to know that I didn’t want any message that was in me to be driven by book sales and marketing. I had no intention of becoming that all-too-revered oxymoron—the “Christian celebrity.” And there was something else, something much deeper, something I found myself unable to understand and incapable of giving expression to at that point in my life. Something was off. I didn’t know it then, but it would take years for me travel far enough in time for my backward look to bring understanding of exactly what it was that was off.

In an interview that appeared in Premier Christianity, the UK’s leading Christian magazine, just after he stopped publication of his books, Joshua Harris is quoted as saying: “A lot of our movements in the evangelical world are driven by fads. They’re driven by book sales, they’re driven by conferences, they’re driven by different things that roll through. Nobody stops to evaluate whether it is good or bad, it’s just on to the next thing…” He was right. And when the thing of the moment is replaced by the next thing, very few stop to reconsider and make the necessary corrections to the thing that came before.

You are probably familiar with the name of Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine), but maybe you don’t know much about this man who influenced, and still influences, both Christianity and the world. Born in the North African city of Tagaste in 354 to a pagan father and a devoutly Christian mother, Augustine was raised to follow Christianity. In his late teens, however, his love of wisdom and hunger for truth kindled a love for philosophy. Seeing little of wisdom or truth among the Christians he had known, he converted to Manichaeism. After ten years as a Manichaean, he became disillusioned and turned away toward skepticism.

His high level of education, intellectual curiosity, and skill as a rhetorician equipped Augustine to become a much-respected teacher. At the age of thirty he won a prized position as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. Once there he deliberately sought out and met Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. That relationship with Ambrose was to influence Augustine more than any other. Of Ambrose he would write, “And I began to love him, of course, not at the first as a teacher of the truth, for I had entirely despaired of finding that in thy Church—but as a friendly man.” What most impacted Augustine about Ambrose was not his skill as a speaker or rhetorician; it was the kindness he showed, his friendliness. In Ambrose he found one who would live love before him, who would walk with him in honesty and transparency. That made all the difference.

A year later, at the age of thirty-one, Augustine was converted to the Christian faith. Only five years later he was ordained a priest, and went on to become a famous preacher as well as a prolific writer. His extensive writings cover diverse fields, including philosophy and sociology as well as theology.

Late in life, at the age of seventy-two, Augustine undertook the painstaking task of chronologically going back through all of his writings. This wasn’t an afterthought for him; it was something he had planned to do and had written about wanting to do fourteen years earlier. He realized that the way he saw and understood in his early years was not the way he would see and understand with the passage of time. As he carefully and methodically reread his works, he corrected errors, made revisions, and wrote comments about places where he had changed his mind and why. This work, titled The Retractationes (Latin), gives the world a picture of how his thoughts developed and changed throughout his life as he gained knowledge and experience. It has been called “the history of the mind of Augustine.” Although the English translation was given title The Retractions, this word can also be translated as “reconsiderations.” I like to think of this work as a record of Augustine’s “rethinkings.”

There is a lot of rethinking that needs to be done by leaders and teachers and authors in the Evangelical church today. Right now we have an entire generation that has been disillusioned and damaged by teaching that was off, and continues to be off, in one way or another. What made the difference in Augustine’s life when he had “despaired” of finding truth in the Church was not being engaged in debate, not being shamed, not being accused or condemned. It was not branding him as “apostate” and warning others to beware lest they follow the same path, eliciting fear that would cause them to pull away and shun. What made the difference was friendship—the presence of a friend who loved enough to walk with him, to give him the freedom and time to come to the knowledge of truth. That kind of friend can make all the difference in a person’s life; I know this from my own experience. But to become that kind of friend, we have to let go of fear.

And that’s not an easy thing to do.

 

1 Ted Talk. “Strong Enough To Be Wrong”, Joshua Harris. November 17, 2017. https://binged.it/2ZNy21C

2 “Growing Up Quiverful”, an interview with Kristiana Miner. In “The Critical Thinker At Large: Offering Reason In An Unreasonable World.”          https://youtu.be/9WQy4LGUQRg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever Happened to Hope?

 

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.                                                                —Albert Einstein

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves….Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.                                                                                                                                                   —Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

Some of you are waiting for me to finally launch into the promised story and have been gently spurring me on. Thank you for your messages; I hear you. Some of you are struggling with difficult family relationships and want to hear more about what I referred to as necessary distance. Some want to hear more about childhood trauma and abuse and its ongoing impact, and what brings healing. Others want to go more deeply into issues I raised in my letter to Beth Moore. If you missed it, that post and all of my previous posts can still be accessed in the Menu. I assure you I’m not just dragging my feet. I’m watching and processing so much that is happening right now that relates to what I have been writing about and what I will be writing about. It takes time to gather all the pieces and see how they fit together.

Let’s go back for a moment to my post, “An Open Letter to Beth Moore.” Three weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, and topics I touched on in that letter were once again front and center.1 I’m listening and thinking carefully about what Beth and others are saying and paying special attention to what is not being said. There are much deeper assumptions that need to be examined, questions that need to be raised and explored. This is something I plan to do.

Another significant occurrence that same week was the release of a new report on life expectancy in the United States. For the third consecutive year, overall life expectancy has decreased. That the US is the only industrialized nation where this occurred is especially significant. While the leading causes of death in America are still heart disease and cancer, recent years have seen a huge increase in deaths from drug addiction, suicide, and alcohol-related liver disease. When Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case first wrote about this trend in 2015, they called these three “Diseases of Despair.” Recent public health debates have focused on the opioid epidemic and suicides and the toll they take on American lives. The connection between childhood trauma (ACEs) and these “diseases of despair” has been made, and a great deal of attention is being paid to developing solutions. But, as Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo pointed out, the problem goes much deeper. In a 2017 article titled “The disease killing white Americans goes way deeper than opioids” he wrote:

“So the theory comes back to despair. Case and Deaton believe that white Americans may be suffering from a lack of hope. The pain in their bodies might reflect a ‘spiritual’ pain caused by ‘cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.’ If they’re right, then the problem will be much harder to solve. Politicians can pass laws to keep opioids out of people’s hands or require insurers to cover mental health costs, but they can’t turn back the clock to 1955.”2

As I read this article my mind was bombarded with questions. Americans suffering, dying from lack of hope… reflection of a spiritual pain–could this be right? Of course, the length of one’s life isn’t everything. A week before his death on November 22, 1963, author and theologian C S Lewis wrote, “I care more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing the goodness and happiness of individual lives.” I agree with Lewis’s thinking. But if “diseases of despair” are the cause of shortened lives, then something must be missing in the “goodness and happiness” of those lives.

I thought about hope. Hope is without question central to the life and message of Jesus Christ. Churches are called to be “beacons of hope,” to proclaim a message of hope. So where are Christians in this “lack of hope”? What is happening in the churches of America? I started looking again, and what I found was deeply disturbing. From what I have seen, it appears the lack of hope, as well as the loss of hope, extends to those whose essential message is one of hope.

Across the board, in both Catholic and Protestant churches, in all denominations, Christianity is in decline in America and has been for decades. “United Methodist Church Membership Decline Continues”—“Presbyterian Church Membership Drops”—“Membership Crash at Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—“Southern Baptists Down to Lowest in 30 Years”—the headlines tell the story. “By now, Southern Baptists recognize that their movement is in a decline that shows no signs of changing course,” began a May 24, 2019 article in Christianity Today.3 The article goes on to provide research showing that less than half of young people raised in Southern Baptist churches today remain Southern Baptist when they reach adulthood.4

A question that has appeared on social surveys across the years is, “what is your religious tradition?’ People whose answer to that question is “no religion” have come to be known as nones. The percentage of nones in America has been on an upward trajectory since the early 1990s. This year the inevitable happened. A new survey released in March revealed that nones are for the first time statistically even with evangelicals and Catholics.5 Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, analyzed the data from the General Social Survey. Commenting on the fact that the rise of nones closely tracks the decline of Protestantism, he said, “The biggest story is that ‘no religion’ is coming from the mainline. Mainliners are jumping ship.” I read all this, deeply concerned not with the numbers but with the people, and I wondered, why? What reasons are people giving for moving from the realm of faith to nones?

In a book by Robert Putnam (I mentioned him in my last post, “Changed and Changing”), I found an answer, a partial one at least. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked a large national sample of nones why they now identify as having no religion. Their answers had nothing to do with science or theology. They responded that they “think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere,” focusing “too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.” These answers came as no surprise. They were reasons I had heard before, and no doubt that has been the experience of many. But there was more. Putnam went on to report that these new nones expressed “increasing opposition to religious influence in politics and government.” He explained that “during the 1990s Americans of all ages became increasingly uneasy about mixing religion and politics.” As a result, many have begun to see Christianity as “representing a noxious mixture of religion and political ideology.”6 Only 22% of the nones surveyed pointed to a lack of belief in God as the most important reason for not affiliating with a church.

Maybe these answers sting a bit, but I believe they do represent honest answers to the serious question, why have you walked away from religion? I believe this is something we need to think carefully about. The tendency of many is to immediately begin to offer answers as to why this is true, to begin to strategize about how to “fix” this problem. Some will immediately begin to call for more evangelism and begin to develop new programs. Some will say the answer lies in revival and redouble their efforts in that area. But in reality, the problem goes much, much deeper, and is tied to the loss of hope.

So don’t be too quick to offer a “fix.” I’ve provided a lot of links to articles so you can do some reading. It’s important to sit for a while with the questions raised, and with those questions that are raised within you. Listen to what people are saying without offering answers; think. Strive to go deeper. Why make the effort? Because this matters.

C S Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”7 I understand and accept this statement as a sincere expression of faith from Lewis. While a large part of it resonates in me, my expression would have some distinct differences. I can’t say I believe in “Christianity”; this word has so many different usages, many negative even to me, that I’m not sure what it means. What I can say is this: I believe in Jesus Christ as surely as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see him, but because through him I see everything else.

What do I see when I look at Jesus? That’s a huge question, not one I can answer in a few words. What I can point you to is the description of Jesus that is most meaningful to me:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12: 18-21, NIV)

I find this a beautiful picture of who Jesus is, packed full of the reality of him. This is a picture that needs sitting with for quite a while to unpack its riches. I know there are a lot of bruised reeds who feel as if they are completely broken, wicks whose spark of life is so low they can do no more than smolder. Their hope is gone. I know; I’ve been there. But through his name, meaning the character of who he is, hope can be restored. I know that too. Accurately recovering the message of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of hope and love with more than words, will be essential. Many people are starving for honest, meaningful talk. Let’s go there. I for one am tired of simplistic answers and platitudes, and I know I’m not alone.

 

1 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june-web-only/beth-moore-southern-baptist-convention-abuse.html https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2019/06/09/southern-baptist-convention-beth-moore-sparks-debate/1332128001/

2 “The disease killing white Americans goes way deeper than opioids”—Washington Post, March 24, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/24/the-disease-killing-white-americans-goes-way-deeper-than-opioids/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d2918b592f24
“American is losing ground to death and despair”—Washington Post, November 30, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/america-is-losing-ground-to-death-and-despair/2018/11/30/77c6b38e-f45a-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html?utm_term=.0b8f77ccf8c2
“’Diseases of Despair’ Contribute To Declining US Life Expectancy”—Forbes, July 19, 2018.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshuacohen/2018/07/19/diseases-of-despair-contribute-to-declining-u-s-life-expectancy/

3 “Southern Baptists Down to Lowest in 30 Years”—Christianity Today, May 23, 2019.
https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/may/southern-baptists-acp-membership-baptism-decline-2018.html

4 “Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist” –Christianity Today, May 24, 2019. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/may/southern-baptist-sbc-decline-conversion-retention-gss.html

5“‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US”—Jack Jenkins, Religion News Service, March 21, 2019. https://religionnews.com/2019/03/21/nones-now-as-big-as-evangelicals-catholics-in-the-us/

6 Putnam, Robert D. & Campbell, David E. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010, Simon & Schuster)

7 Lewis, C. S. “Is Theology Poetry?”, The Weight of Glory. (1949, C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.)