Owen Strachan and Cultural Pharisaism

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post which recently appeared on Owen Strachan’s blog Thought Life.  The post is entitled “Cultural Capitulation on Homosexuality Is Not Courageous“.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”.  Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy.  This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories.  These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to quote the RHE post I linked last week, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

Many of these post-evangelicals have found new homes outside of evangelicalism, usually in the mainlines, Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy.  Many remain in evangelicalism and try to make the best of things.  And many remain in the wilderness–somewhere between evangelicalism and wherever their future spiritual home will be, if they ever find a new spiritual home.

Yet there is a small but very prominent and very significant stream of post-evangelicalism which is disaffected with the shallowness of the entertainment-driven megachurch spirituality so prevalent in contemporary evangelicalism, and believes that the way forward is a renewed emphasis on doctrinal clarity, theological rigor, and decorum in worship–all with a distinctly Calvinistic understanding of these things.  This is the Neo-Calvinist movement, also known as Neo-Reformed and other things.  John Piper, Tim Keller, Al Mohler, and Mark Driscoll are among the leading spokespeople for this movement.

While this Neo-Calvinist / Neo-Reformed stream has much to commend it–after all, it offers doctrinal clarity, theological rigor, and decorum in worship in the midst of an evangelicalism which is for the most part seriously lacking in these qualities, and for this reason has a certain appeal to those of an intellectual bent–it also has many undesirable qualities.  These include a very low tolerance for diverging or dissenting opinions, a tendency to believe, or at least sound as if they believe, that they alone are right and everyone else is wrong and perhaps not even Christian, and a tendency to key in on minor points of doctrine, theology, or practice and make them suddenly the linchpin on which all of Christianity stands or falls.

Owen Strachan lies squarely in this Neo-Calvinist / Neo-Reformed stream.

Strachan’s credentials:  Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. President of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement at SBTS.  This should give you at least a clue as to where Strachan is coming from in this post and where he intends to go.

Sure enough, Strachan does not disappoint.  Strachan is responding to an article by Elizabeth Dias in Time Magazine (he links it but the link requires subscription) charting shifts in evangelicalism with respect to attitudes on homosexuality and gay marriage.  After citing a few key points from Dias’ article, Strachan then launches into a withering diatribe against those evangelicals who deviate from his perspective on the issue.  (Heads up: He’s not too keen on gay marriage.  But you probably figured that out already.)

Strachan’s key points:

1. Capitulating to the culture is not courageous.
2. Confessional churches are best-positioned to weather this storm.
3. The debate over “gay Christianity” is most assuredly theological.
4. Complementarianism really is the last dam holding back the waters that would sweep over evangelical churches.

Now for some choice quotes:

…[Capitulation to the culture] may seem kind-hearted, and it may be motivated by intentions perceived as gracious, but in reality, it is anything but. Homosexual desire and practice are alike prohibited by the moral witness of Scripture. To call good what God labels an abomination is to place oneself in mortal jeopardy, as I have previously argued.

There is nothing heroic about silencing or twisting Scripture to force it to endorse LGBT views. There is nothing good. There is nothing worth celebrating. To leave behind Scripture is the essence of folly, and the stuff of cowardice. We are all tempted to do so; we all carry the spirit of Peter, who denied Christ, in our heart. But his action was not courageous. It was treasonous.

This is pure culture war rhetoric at its finest.  It’s all or nothing baby.  You’re in or you’re out.  You’re with us or you’re against us.  And if you’re against us, then you’re against God, “[placing] oneself in mortal jeopardy”, “queue[ing] up entire congregation[s] for judgment and destruction”.  Strachan speaks in heightened tones, by his own admission.  But the stakes are high enough to warrant it.  All is fair in love and war, as they say–and this is war.  As Strachan puts it, “the church–and all evangelicalism–finds itself in a battle for its very soul. Courage is conditioned by faithfulness to God’s Word, not by capitulation to the culture.”

With respect to Strachan’s second point:  Though he uses the term “confessional churches”, what he means by it is something different from what you might expect, seeing that many of these churches are independent and Baptist (believe it or not, the SBC does have confessions–who knew?).  Here Strachan proceeds to blast the hell out of his fellow evangelicals and their mushy, lax-hearted congregations for their culturally capitulating ways:

…Too many of our congregations have no confessional foundation. We have a vague commitment to Scripture and a desire to reach people. But even this desire, which is laudable, is conditioned by our world. We do gymnastics to give no offense. We bend over backwards to avoid proclaiming those doctrines which turn unbelievers off.

…I fear that, in the end, this weakened brand of Christianity–half-Christianity–ends up deceiving many people. It asks for a faith commitment, but no life-change. It offers a neutered gospel, with no call to transformation. It presents a straitjacketed Jesus, who is so nice that he wouldn’t ask anyone to give up their sin. This Christianity seems sound, and it sounds appealing, but it has been robbed of its otherworldliness.

In such an environment, lax-hearted faith will flourish, and false conversions will pile up. These false conversions will be, as Mark Dever boldly and rightly said at T4G 2012, the “suicide of the church.”

…Churches that tie themselves to the mast of Scripture will be best able to see these truths. They are grounded not in vague doctrine or the desire to be liked, but in the rich, world-defying, soul-transforming Word of God. This is the place to plant your flag. This is the foundation that will hold up. Any other will, like a building reinforced by sand, crumble.

With Strachan’s third point, we see what is truly the heart of the matter as far as he is concerned:  biblical inerrancy.

It’s cool in certain circles to distance oneself from inerrancy. I could say a great deal here, but I’ll say just this: it’s fascinating how those who subscribe to the allegedly backwater doctrine of inerrancy are also those who end up promoting biblical ethics. There is something dangerously close to a connection there.

Like Strachan, I too could say a great deal here.  My issues with inerrancy are well-documented here on this blog, but I will just say this:  Inerrancy is just like taking a thermonuclear device into a fight where a switchblade would have been perfectly adequate.  It sounds so good to have our faith rooted in a sure and certain foundation, yet all inerrancy does is give us yet another proposition to defend.  And after seeing all the intellectual and theological gymnastics which advocates of inerrancy go through in the attempt to defend their position, I have to ask:  Is it really worth it, people?????

This brings us to Strachan’s final point, which I shall quote in its entirety:

Complementarianism really is the last dam holding back the waters that would sweep over evangelical churches. Dias gets it. If complementarianism falls, then the last bastion of resistance to full-fledged endorsement of both homosexual and transgender identity falls with it. This is it. We’re down to the last refuge.

If the church gives up its overwhelmingly-held historic position–being complementarianism–then it will no doubt, with tremendous speed, endorse both homosexuality and transgenderism as not only viable for believers, but good.

I am quite certain that young evangelicals have very little sense of how high the stakes are, and how important complementarian churches and organizations truly are. You look around in the culture, and aside from fellow religious groups that are fighting tooth-and-nail over these same issues, we’re the last group standing. There’s no one else coming who will stand for biblical truth. Outside of a miracle from God, there is no great doctrinal deliverance to expect. Until Jesus returns, we–empowered in full by the Holy Spirit–are the last refuge.

Complementarianism, taught in hundreds of thousands of churches and represented organizationally by the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, is very well positioned to survive and even thrive in days ahead. It is grounded in the Bible. The exegetical and theological infrastructure already exists. Our calling now is to winsomely and convictionally promote complementarianism, to show that it brings joy, and to make clear that it is not simply a seven-point position, but a worldview.

Our enemy, to be sure, is no man or woman. It is a force who would destroy the church and eviscerate alongside it all traces of goodness, truth, and beauty in the world. We are sobered by this, but not one percent scared by it. Believers have faced these prospects before (see Hebrews 11). The way is given to us. We simply have to walk it.

The future seems ominous but is in truth bright, impossibly bright. This culture is not our home. We are traveling, after all, to the new heavens and the new earth, to a city where the lamb is the light of the city of God.

This is simply laughable, people.  It’s taking a small theological point–one upon which there has not been complete agreement over the course of church history–and making it suddenly the linchpin of faithfulness to Christ.  It’s just like saying that Georgia will finally win a national championship–if they can get their footballs inflated to just the right pressure!!!!!

Look, people:  If anyone out there says that something other than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the last refuge of faithfulness in this world or the last dam holding back the waters that would sweep away the church–run.  Run faster than you would from a zombie infestation.

It is a very long way to go–and requires some incredibly creative thinking to get there–from “Gay Christianity is OK” to “Christ did not die and rise from the dead, and you are still in your sins”.  One does not follow of necessity from the other.  It takes an awful lot of imagination to make a case that it does.

Now:  Pharisaism.  What’s that all about?

Strachan and others of the Neo-Reformed / Neo-Calvinist persuasion have a way of responding to cultural issues that I think can best be termed “cultural Pharisaism”.  But why?  Many of us have this conception of the Pharisees as something akin to the Church Lady of SNL fame: petty legalists who went around teaching that we have to earn God’s acceptance through religious ritual, going around with their noses stuck in the Torah or else wrinkled up in disgust at the perceived sins of other people, making common people jump through ridiculous hoops to prove their righteousness and worthiness to be part of the kingdom of heaven, all the while carrying around God-only-knows-what in the way of juicy, dirty secrets under their sanctimonious robes.

Most of which was true, to a certain extent–yet it completely misses the point.  You see, all those rules, regulations, purity codes, and petty legalisms served a higher purpose.  What was that purpose?  None other than the national survival of Israel, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Abraham and to the nation.

The Pharisaic movement in Israel had its roots in the time of Ezra, when the Jews were returning to their homeland under King Cyrus of Persia after the Babylonian exile.  It did not take the Jews long to realize that, though they were back in their homeland, they might as well still be in exile.  The Jews concluded that it was because of their national sin in failing to keep the Torah that they were exiled to Babylon and that they remained in this state of in-their-homeland-but-might-as-well-still-be-in-exile exile.  So as a nation they buckled down and said “By God we’re going to finally get this Torah thing right even if it kills us!!!!!”  Somewhere along the line the Pharisees emerged as the vanguard of this effort.  The hope was that if Israel finally purified itself and got the Torah thing right, then the Messiah would come and deliver Israel from all her enemies so that God’s promises would be fulfilled.

The defining characteristic of the Pharisees was zeal.  Not the kind of zeal we think of today–a strong inner, deeply personal passion.  No, this kind of zeal meant action–forceful action, sometimes–to uphold the righteous standards of God’s law in the face of pagan oppressors from without and disloyal Jews from within.  Sometimes this zeal translated to violence–against renegade Jewish sects, as in the case of Paul prior to his conversion, or against Rome itself.  It was a straight–and very short–path from zeal to the “Zealots” and on to military insurgency.  Many of the Pharisees went on to become Zealots, and it was an uprising led by those same Zealots which resulted in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

One of the defining heroes of the Pharisaic movement was Phinehas, whose story can be found in Numbers 25.  The Israelites were on the doorstep of the Promised Land when they were seduced into idolatry by the Moabites.  As they were recovering from this sordid affair, an Israelite brought a Midianite woman into the camp.  A priest named Phinehas was so outraged that he dropped what he was doing, fetched a spear and ran it through the both of them.  It was Phinehas’s decisive action that turned back God’s wrath and saved the people of Israel that day.

A more recent Pharisaic hero was a priest named Mattathias whose story is found in the book of 1 Maccabees.  Mattathias lived in the time when the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes invaded Jerusalem and offered a desolating sacrifice in the temple–the so-called “Abomination of Desolation”.  Later, Antiochus’s soldiers came to Mattathias’s town and urged him to follow Antiochus’s commands so that his town might be spared.  In a stirring speech Mattathias made it clear that he and his people would do no such thing.  But then one of the townspeople stepped forward and said that he would obey the king.  Mattathias burned with righteous rage and killed this compromising Israelite and one of the king’s officers.  This touched off the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BC.

What does all this have to do with anything?  You see, the Pharisees were the culture warriors of their day.  They saw themselves as the guardians of Israel’s national purity.  They believed that observing the Torah according to their understanding was essential to the national survival of Israel–that Israel was under God’s judgment, as evidenced by the fact that they were ruled over by pagans, in a state of in-their-homeland-but-might-as-well-still-be-in-exile exile, and that they would remain so until they purified themselves, thereby fending off God’s judgment and restoring His blessing.  They saw themselves as the vanguard of this effort.

The Neo-Reformed / Neo-Calvinist operate on the basis of a similar narrative.  In their way of looking at things, the Church is under God’s judgment or at least the threat thereof, and will remain so until she purifies herself.  (Not that they are the only Christians who operate based on this narrative.  There are countless evangelical culture warriors running around out there who see America as under God’s judgment until she purifies herself by outlawing abortion and gay marriage, restoring prayer in public schools, or whatever.  But that’s beside the point today.)

But whether in the purpose of saving America or saving the church, the narrative is the same:  God’s people purifying themselves, thereby fending off His judgment and restoring His blessing.  The Neo-Calvinists talk an excellent game with respect to “sovereign grace”, but spend enough time in Neo-Calvinist circles and it becomes clear that what really moves the needle is the faithful obedience of God’s people–by believing all the right things doctrinally, and by living it out under the direction of authoritative church leadership.  Truth is always precisely defined and the path of obedience explicitly delineated, with chapter and verse to back it up.  Believers are continually urged to examine themselves to ensure that they are on the straight and narrow, and continually warned of the unspeakable dangers of straying.  Pastors and teachers take up positions of power, ostensibly exercising the authority given them by the Word, and doing so out of loving concern for the souls of those under their influence.  But it is the Word as they understand it, with no room whatsoever for difference of opinion.  Also note that said “loving concern” is a thin veneer for the intense desire to be right and to conform others to their rightness.

At the end of the day, the Church is under God’s judgment.  It is by purifying herself through believing proper doctrine and living it out under the guidance and supervision of authoritative leadership that the Church will turn back God’s judgment and restore His blessing.  The Neo-Calvinists see themselves as the vanguard of this effort, leading the charge with zeal by forcefully denouncing those godless liberals on the outside who seek to break the Church’s spirit by imposing their godless ways upon her, and by forcefully denouncing disloyal, compromised and compromising believers who have–in their way of looking at things–capitulated to the culture in an effort to be better liked by the culture.  Such is the Neo-Calvinist narrative, and it lines up exactly with the narrative driving Pharisaism in first-century Israel.