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Love Isn't a Liberal Word
It's a Christian one.
This post was written in May 2018 at Letter & Liturgy. I’m sharing it again today because it provides another half of what I want to say right now about the SBC.
As I awoke this morning to news that Southwestern Seminary had reversed course and fired president Paige Patterson (canceling the benefits of his original transition to Emeritus), I felt no outrage, or schadenfreude, or even joy. I was glad for the future of that seminary and the future of the SBC that the right decision was finally made. But I thought a lot about Dr. Patterson, his family, and what I’m sure is his utter bewilderment at the past three weeks. Perhaps there are some who believe that Paige Patterson hates women or wants to protect predatory men. I do not, partially because I identify with Patterson’s failure to love his sisters in Christ the way he ought. His failure is my failure, too. And that’s what it is: A failure of love.
Growing up in conservative, Baptist evangelicalism, I frequently saw two ways to live the Christian life contrasted against each other. In the churches and denominational culture, I saw an emphasis on love and acceptance that often precluded believing or saying hard things. Church members who were living in open sexual sin were encouraged to participate in all aspects of church life because to confront them would be unkind and judgmental and possibly drive them from the church. On the other hand, there was the Baptist seminary and institutional culture. The dynamics of this culture were diametrically opposite of the attitudes I saw in local church life: Truth was what mattered more than people. To be serious about Scripture was more important than to be serious about sinners.
Propositionally, I never heard anyone in the seminary or institutional culture say that love was for liberals, just like I never heard anyone in the local church culture say that the Bible was for cold-hearted fundamentalists. But the emphases, the formative practices, the meta-intellectual liturgies that emanated from both worlds was crystal clear. My experience of seeing such a stark contrast drawn between mercy and morality left a deep imprint. My instincts were shaped to hear words like “compassion” and immediately call to mind Scriptures on truth. Again, none of this was articulated. It was beyond articulation. It was formation.
One thing I’ve learned in the past few months: You can’t live like this and escape your own #MeToo movement.
In our evangelical #MeToo moment, I see contours of a stark divide we’ve drawn between truth and love. Because we complementarians are not afraid to define ourselves by a theology of gender that clashes with the outside culture, our inner life is geared (in my experience) toward seeing women as issues that need to be addressed rather than people who need to be heard. Our eagerness to love the women in our churches and institutions is constantly outpaced by our eagerness to not be egalitarians, not least because our formative liturgies continually feed the latter desire but not the former. For much of our subculture, taking seriously the concerns of those who are more sexually and socially vulnerable than men is not quite as important as maintaining a battle line opposite Democrats and social progressives. This dynamic exists not because we tell ourselves that it should exist, but because we tell ourselves other stories—stories sometimes beyond words—that make its existence inevitable.
Why does fear of turning into our theological opposites control our hearts and shape our spaces like this? Why is it so hard to find joyfully complementarian advocates of sexual abuse victims streaming out of our churches and seminaries? Why does the idea of a “listening to women” immediately awaken defensive strictures about PC culture and the hypocrisy of liberals? We could go further. #MeToo is about women, but for the evangelicalism I know and love it could just as well be about black people, or immigrants, or Democrats. The evangelicalism I know and love has so, so often walked around love because it was afraid of its germs.
I’m sure that Paige Patterson thought he was doing the right thing by encouraging the rape victim in his office to not tell the police. I’m sure he thought that by protecting the seminary from the attention of civil authorities, he was doing a service to the advance of the gospel and the formation of pastors and church leaders. I’m sure he thought that by counseling an abused woman to stay in the home with her husband he was striking a godly blow for marriage against the divorce culture. I’m sure he was out to win the war.
Evangelicalism doesn’t need a new Bible, edited by the spirit of the age. It doesn’t need a new Savior, proclaiming the good news of moralistic therapeutic deism. What evangelicalism needs is a new metaphor. It needs a way to feel toward the people of this earth that isn’t instinctively sword-drawn and battle-ready. It needs willingness to err on the side of gospel love rather than gospel swagger.
We are deathly afraid of being put in a corner next to those who are wrong, and so dutifully stay as far away from them as possible. In the meantime, we punt on abuse, we punt on racism, we punt on compassion for the poor. Let the Left handle that. Don’t contaminate our institutions with cultural Marxism. If you want to talk about those things, go to the Christ-less mainline, or go to politics. If you want to know about Christ, come to our churches.
Our seminaries and institutions are imperiled right now precisely because this does not work. Our arrangement of spirituality along American political lines has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The change that has to come must come in the form of a willingness not to pit love and truth against each other. We’re not rethinking our biblical faith. We have to rethink our identity.
And that’s much, much harder.