Editor’s Note: Defending Sound Doctrine Against the Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism
The last task in compiling our quarterly 9Marks Journal is writing the editor’s note. I look over the table of contents and ask myself, how shall I summarize the whole? And are there any holes?
I did notice one significant hole: in a Journal devoted to sound doctrine, we failed to account for the growing deconstruction project presently occurring in and around so many churches against evangelical doctrine. 9Marks equates evangelical doctrine with the “sound doctrine” that Paul tells Timothy and Titus to teach and defend (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1). Therefore, I’ve decided to smuggle one more article here into the editor’s note, both to shed some light on the project and to offer counsel on how pastors might respond, particularly as some members strongly respond one way or another.
WHAT IS THE DECONSTRUCTION PROJECT?
The basic charge of the deconstruction project is that evangelical doctrine or what we might even call “Christian doctrine” is more culturally conditioned and self-interested than we evangelicals realize. One advocate of this project, liberal ethicist David Gushee, observes:
A healthy post-evangelical approach to the Bible will heighten realism about the fact that the Bible is always an interpreted text, and that we flawed, limited, self-interested people are the interpreters.
— David Gushee (@dpgushee) October 13, 2021
The indictment here is universal, as if to say everyone is culturally embedded and self-interested in their exegesis and theologizing. Yet really the project’s indictment focuses on white evangelicals. White evangelicals center their—or, I guess I should say “our” since I’m white and an evangelical—doctrine and treat it as the norm or standard of Christian orthodoxy. Here’s new author Danté Stewart:
Believing that white theology is normative and other theologies are „contextual“ continues to perpetuate the racist lie that white Christianity is the center of the faith and is the standard of other’s religious legitimacy. Decolonizing theology is also decolonizing epistemology.
— Danté Stewart (Stew) (@stewartdantec) October 19, 2021
In other words, white theology, by presenting itself as the norm for “Christian theology,” effectively marginalizes the voices of women and minorities. Worse, our doctrines uphold white male power and participates in the oppression of women and minorities. For instance, the project would say that our views of salvation are overly spiritualized and individualistic, leading us to ignore injustices done to particular groups of people, like African Americans or Asian Americans. Meanwhile, our views of complementarianism lead to the abuse of women and children. Therefore, the deconstruction project seeks to “deconstruct” and “decenter” and “decolonize” white, patriarchal theology, which includes prophetically naming white supremacy and patriarchy wherever it shows up, even among friends.
Gushee’s article “The Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism” points to five recent books that have played a role in this project. You may have read one or two of them or had church members who asked you about them. To let him summarize each:
Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristen Kobes Du Mez, argues that white evangelicalism is characterized by patriarchy, toxic masculinity, authoritarianism, nationalism, anti-gay sentiment, Islamophobia and indifference to Black people’s lives and rights.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood, by Beth Allison Barr, argues that the teaching of female subordination is a historical construct rather than the “clear biblical teaching” her opponents claim that it is.
The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby, traces the long history of how white racism and evangelical Christianity have been fully intertwined in U.S. history, and how every effort to challenge white supremacism has been opposed—theologically, politically, morally—by white evangelicals.
Taking America Back for God, by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, focuses on what the authors call “Christian nationalism” but which they more precisely shorthand as (white) “Christian nation-ism.” They demonstrate through sociological studies that a major factor driving our politics is the hunger on the part of a substantial minority for an America dominated by white Christian native-born men.
Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of Evangelical Faith, by Jacob Alan Cook [Gushee’s former student] . . . shows quite powerfully that what white evangelicals have labeled “the Christian worldview” bears a striking resemblance to “whiteness,” that is, white-centered and white-hegemonic ways of viewing and arranging the world and responding to human difference. In other words, all those worldview conferences and seminars really may have been about teaching us how to think like white people, not like Christian people.
It’s worth noticing that none of these books emerge from biblical studies departments, like the egalitarian critiques of complementarianism did in the 1980s. The deconstruction project doesn’t begin as a conversation about the Bible. Rather, the above books represent the work of three historians, two sociologists, and one theologian, if I understand correctly from online bios. The books may or may not offer a few claims about the biblical text, but the primary burden is historical or sociological—less “here’s what 1 Timothy 2:12 actually means” and more “complementarians have interpreted or even translated passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 to preserve the patriarchy.”
In other words, the name of the game is not my understanding of the Bible versus your understanding of the Bible. It’s my understanding of the Bible versus your Story. And by Story, I mean people’s personal stories, their lived experiences, as well as those stories writ large in the histories of a people and documented by social scientists (historians, sociologists, political scientists looking at the polling numbers, and so on). Deconstruction doesn’t begin with exegesis, but with exegeting the exegete.
In the process, theology is dethroned as the queen of the sciences. Or, at least, that’s the risk when we treat people’s lived experiences and history generally as offering “what’s really happening,” while casting a gaze of suspicion over the work of exegetes and theologians.
Conservative voices, like my friends Andrew Walker and Denny Burk, then respond with some exasperation. Andrew recently tweeted,
If a theological position is wrong, demonstrate the error exegetically, and not why it *must* be wrong because of the critic’s precommitment to their own sociological constraints, or dare I say, „worldview.“ Who knew postmodernism would be this predictable and boring?
— Andrew T. Walker (@andrewtwalk) October 12, 2021
Burk quote-tweeted Walker, saying, “If your theology is nothing more than a long rumination on who has power and who doesn’t, you’re not doing theology. You’re doing identity politics.”
Walker and Burk’s reaction bring us to the nub of the issue I’m interested in here. One side wants to have a conversation about the Bible, while the other side effectively disallows it. Walker says he’s merely interested in “honest biblical interpretation” without “some ulterior motive.” But Beth Allison Barr quickly responds in an article to Walker’s tweet and “confidently” asserts there is a motive alright. He’s just furthering his complementarianism, which in her mind translates to maintaining power. He wants exegesis. She wants to exegete the exegete. If he tries to defend his position, the project is programmed like a computer to reply that his defense proves the original indictment: he’s protecting his power. History proves it. Sociological studies prove it. The patterns prove it. Lived experience proves it.
The same scenario played out to a T with my friend Kevin DeYoung and his review of Duke Kwon (also a friend) and Gregory Thompson’s book Reparations. DeYoung said he found the book problematic theologically. Kwon and Thompson replied that his so-called theological disagreements involved him in the political work of white supremacy, even if it was unwitting. This is another example both of the deconstruction project and—not incidentally—of how our broader church friend groups have been pushing in very different directions for several years.
In short, the deconstruction project occurring in and around evangelical churches, as in postmodern philosophy generally, works to expose the will-to-power hiding inside various truth claims. Do you teach what you teach about God, justice, faith and works, or men and women because you have been convinced by good, biblical arguments? Or because those particular beliefs give you and people who look like you a leg up in the hierarchies of the world?
HOW SHOULD PASTORS RESPOND?
My goal in this piece is not to offer specific responses to the books listed above, much less all of their arguments. Further, I’m not going to sort through the theological differences among the members of or sympathizers with the deconstruction project. Some, like Gushee in his book After Evangelicalism, dismiss the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and claim that only parts of the Bible are inspired, namely, the parts that “prove useful” (page 44, Kindle version). Insert wide-eyed emoji here. Others may, for the time being, embrace inerrancy and a more conservative theology, though I believe these folks may soon discover their sitting on the very branch the project is trying to saw through.
My goal is to shed some light on the project, hopefully in ways that help you with members of your church. In so doing, I will do exactly what the project accuses people like me of doing: centering my own views. And to that I can only say, so does the accusation. We cannot help but speak to what we think is true, even the person who denies that truth exists. To be sure, none of us possesses God’s perspective and in one sense we should always hold our evaluations with a loose grip. On the other hand, God devoted an entire book of the Bible (Proverbs) to instructing us to seek wisdom and understanding. And gratefully, God gives them.
1) Exercise Discernment by Asking, Is This Real Hurt or Postmodernism Speaking?
If you’re a pastor, perhaps you’ve had an experience like the following: A group of members in your church ask you for a meeting in which they want to discuss ways in which they feel hurt by the elders or another group in the church. As you sit and listen, two things become clear. First, though speaking collectively, you sense the members come from different places. Some have been genuinely hurt, and you sympathize. Some are overblowing their hurt, and you lightly sympathize, but not like they want you to. Some are wolves, who take a wicked delight in posturing as protectors of the hurt and in attacking you (though keep in mind that wolves never think they are wolves, but often feel a profound sense of righteousness in their cause). And some are just compassionate friends with love for the hurting, but who, like those who have been hurt, are at risk of being led astray by the wolves.
The second thing that’s clear: though coming from different places, they speak collectively and perceive themselves to be on the same page. The wolves have managed to frame the conversation for the group. They’ve succeeded in exploiting real hurt for their church-dividing, power-loving ways. They remind you of the false teachers and scoffers described in places like 2 Peter and Jude, and they’ve managed to exacerbate the mental confusion and the spiritual state of the genuinely aggrieved, coming close to destroying any trust left remaining between these wounded sheep and the rest of the flock.
In view of all this, a third conclusion dawns on you. This whole group meeting isn’t finally about people’s personal stories or about ideas. It’s about spiritual forces. You’re not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:12). So you lean back in your chair and quietly ask the Lord for discernment and for his power.
That, in a nutshell, is my view of the deconstruction project. We need to begin with a pastor’s lens, which means realizing we’re talking about real people who have a variety of good and bad motivations. Best I can tell, the project roots in both real experiences as well as in the work of wolves who exploit these experiences to lead people into false teaching and church division. The false teaching goes by different names, like critical theory and identity politics. To me, though, identity politics and critical theory have always just looked like applied postmodernism, as the word “deconstruction” suggests. Advocates of the project may not consciously intend to operate by the secular, anti-God outlook of postmodernism, but they’ve adopted postmodernism’s basic hermeneutic for interpreting the world. It’s like they’ve taken a hike with the devil and asked him to explain how he interprets all the vistas before them. Pretty soon they’re mimicking his hermeneutic even while maintaining their belief in basic Christian principles. Folks might charge them with adopting another theology, but with a clear conscience they deny it.
Still, pastorally responding to the postmodern deconstruction project requires more than blasting the ideas at play. You and I must pastor real people who, sometimes, have been drawn to false teaching for understandable reasons.
Suppose, for instance, you’re counseling a married couple in which you conclude the man has been emotionally abusive with his wife. Meanwhile, she has been reading feminist literature which has convinced her that her marital problems root in her husband’s and your position on complementarianism. Therefore, she doesn’t trust you. In response, you want to scold him and comfort her. But you also want to warn her that her new-found feminism won’t afford the protection and justice and love she’s looking for. It’s a medicine that will provide short-term relief and long-term sickness. Your task, somehow, is to both confront him and point her to a different medicine. Doing the latter especially isn’t easy, since the abuse she’s experienced and the literature she’s reading conspire perfectly to burn down any bridge of trust between you and her. The slightest word of correction will be interpreted as “taking his side,” even if you stand with her 100 percent against his greater sin.
In short, you as a pastor don’t have the luxury to treat the divisions and fault lines and tumult within evangelical churches merely as a theological or ideological problem. It’s also a pastoral problem. You’re tasked with both acknowledging hurt and disentangling it from the lies that hurt people find refuge in. You’re tasked with discerning between real hurt and the over-blown sense of hurt whipped up by false teaching. And you’re tasked with calling out that false teaching which gives hurt people that sense of refuge, tempting them to believe you don’t care about their hurt. None of this is easy, and we all get it wrong at times. I certainly have.
I recognize that Christians today have a wide range of opinions on how prevalent the forces of racism and sexism are in American churches. Some think it’s made up entirely. I don’t think the devil’s that stupid. I think he waits for real hurt to occur inside churches, and then he’s one of the first in line to offer the appearance of compassion, while also accusing the brethren and claiming that guilt travels farther than it actually does. The reason why critical theory and identity politics have proven so successful in drawing adherents is that they’re built entirely around an evangelistic program for people who have been hurt. Yet even as they offer a 1-800 call center for victims of injustice on one hand, its other hand divides churches by labelling everything done by certain groups an “injustice.” Conservatives like me watch this fabrication of grievances and church division. We get defensive and respond as if the whole conversation is just about ideas. Yet then we fail to devote ourselves to searching out the real injustices. I don’t mean to indict the tens or even hundreds of thousands of faithful complementarian churches that have, inside their own congregations, opposed injustice and abuse with vigor, yet never had an academic or journalist show up to ask about it. But in the publishing and blogging space, it’s long felt to me like egalitarians write most of the literature which opposes abuse, when in fact complementarians should be the fieriest and first responders on abuse—according to our own principles. And where we leave a vacuum, others step in. So as we fight about ideas, the deconstruction project’s grief counselors steal in and mop up the next generation. A similar dynamic can play out in racial matters, too.
The bottom line here is simple: pastors should engage the deconstruction project exercising both charity and clarity (see Eph. 4:15-16). Charity makes room for exercising wisdom, peeling back the layers of complexity, and speaking in careful and nuanced ways in order to address real hurt and injustice. Clarity involves not being misled or controlled by the hurt but speaking decisively to biblical issues. Charity requires the pastor, clarity requires the theologian. Most of us error in one direction, so know your own leans, and then work for both.
But to the theologizing . . .
2) Affirm the Connection Between Doctrine and Power
Postmodernism gets one or two things right. For instance, it’s right to suspect how driven, fallen humans have the need to attain power, and that includes suspecting the “old man” within all of us—even Bible exegetes and theologians! Gushee and the deconstruction project are right about everyone’s self-interest.
In fact, Reformed theologians have long embraced our own hermeneutics of suspicion, as postmodern theorists call it. We call it the doctrine of total depravity, which holds that sin pervades every area of our lives, including our attempts to write doctrine.
The doctrine of total depravity, furthermore, is quite practical for pastoral ministry. It teaches us to never immediately discount charges of sin. It helps our faith not be thrown for a loop when leaders we trust disqualify themselves in sin. Most crucially for this conversation, it helps us lower our defenses and listen earnestly to charges of sin made against us and our group. It helps us hear the 10 percent of truth from the angry member.
If the Bible does indeed “address unjust scales and power dynamics,” as my friend Joash Thomas of the International Justice Mission observes, we want to shepherd our hearts to be able to hear indictments against us. Judgment begins with the household of God.
3) Affirm Our Universal Susceptibility to the Temptations of Power
If postmodernism, critical theory, and the deconstruction project rightly point to the connection between doctrine and power, they wrongly limit its scope. Or as Kevin DeYoung puts it, “Critical race theory doesn’t go far enough.” The temptation to use whatever power we have to our own selfish advantage is universal, as insinuated in the prayer of Proverbs: Lord, feed me with the food that is needful, lest I be full and deny you or lest I be poor and steal (Prov. 30:8–9).
The fundamental problem of CRT, DeYoung writes, “is limiting ‘power’ to the one axis of race, class, and sex.” Listing a few more examples: “Power can be conferred by education, by money, by skin color, by victim status, by intellect, by beauty, by fame, by having the right opinions, by signaling the right virtue, and by a thousand other things.” DeYoung concludes: “Reformed theology tells us to be on the lookout for the sinful use of power, and it tells us to find it—even as we look for redemption—far as the curse is found.”
Really, limiting the scope of one’s indictment becomes its own kind of power assertion: “I may be a little bad, but you’re terrible. Therefore, I should rule, not you.”
Consider again Gushee’s assertion that everyone’s exegesis is both culturally embedded and self-interested. It’s true. But. Does anyone, on the left or the right, ever disqualify—meaning, actively renounce—his or her own exegesis based on the principle that we’re all self-interested? No, never. Even when someone does abandon an exegetical judgment and adopts a new one, and then confesses that their old position was self-interested, do they immediately turn around and disqualify the new position based on the principle of self-interest? Again, no. Gushee’s point amounts to a toothless truism, like a good-natured Baptist and Presbyterian agreeing the Lord will sort out their differences in heaven, though without renouncing those differences now. Which is fine. But where the truism becomes disingenuous is when it’s turned into a weapon that always and only aims in one direction: to disqualify the other guy’s view. And this is all postmodern philosophy and its children: not the renunciation of power, but the undermining of everyone else’s.
Pastor, your job is to teach against such one-way judgments of the self-righteousness. Remind people who are quick to make charges against others of Jesus’s command to seek out the plank in our own eye before seeking out the speck in others. Remind them that all have fallen short of the glory of God.
4) Distinguish Between Power-in-Service-of-Truth and Truth-in-Service-of-Power
Yet the connection between doctrine and power, or I’d even say, between theology and politics, isn’t all bad. It just is. What’s crucial is how we relate truth and power. What’s needed is a posture of power-in-service-of-truth, not truth-in-service-of-power.
If I were to pretend this article were actually an editor’s note, I’d say this entire 9Marks Journal is an exercise in demonstrating how power exists in submission to truth. Sound doctrine changes people and changes groups of people (as does unsound doctrine), we argue. I mention at the beginning of one of my articles, for instance, that sola fide may be the most politically powerful doctrine in the universe. Headline after headline in the Journal also tries to connect doctrine and its practical outworking—its power.
Indeed, our gospel is a gospel of power, which is why Paul could talk about his desire “to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10). Gospel-preaching pastors are purveyors of power, though the only power we trade in should be supernatural power—the “divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). And the only access that we have to such supernatural power is through speaking the Word of God and relying upon his Spirit (2 Cor. 4:1-6), the very thing the postmodern exegesis of the exegetes wants to call into question.
Yet for the creature, the relationship of truth and power is utterly straightforward: God is the source and standard of truth, and our first response to his truth must be to submit to it. There is a divine order that we cannot recreate. Therefore, human beings—Christians especially—must always and exclusively adopt a posture of power-in-service-of-truth, not truth-in-service-of-power.
The secularist adopts the opposite posture. Denying the existence of God, truth becomes something humans create or construct. Therefore, postmodernism and applied postmodernism, critical theory, view the world and all of history in terms of truth-in-service-of power, like the serpent in the Garden. My concern with the deconstruction project as exemplified by the books mentioned above is that well-meaning Christians can adopt methodological commitments and strategies that are fundamentally postmodern, which in turn yield the postmodern conclusion: everything is about power.
Notice, I’m not talking about the motives of the heart. I’m not claiming that “the deconstructionists actually want the power, so they accuse evangelicals of wanting power.” If we’re going to have a conversation about the motives of the heart, I’ll indict all of us. I feel that from every side, including when I look inside my own sinful heart.
Rather, I’m talking about the methodological commitment in (Christian) social science departments and among the readers of those books to placing a top priority on exposing the will-to-power in others, particularly among certain types of people. That commitment necessarily discovers what it’s looking for. If you put on red-colored lenses, you’ll see the world in red. After all, fallen humans in any group will always provide the deconstructionist with plenty of evidence to prove the hypothesis that everything is about power. Pick any group or individual you want, even the holiest of saints. Offer the hypothesis that that group or individual is motivated by self-interest. And ten times out of ten, with enough patience and study, you’ll be able to prove the hypothesis.
Then take that methodology or strategy into conversations about the Bible or theology and you can blow up everything. That stick of dynamite will destroy every theologian and every theology. That’s how the carnal mind can look at gospel love itself and count it as oppression and slavery, while Christ himself says, “It’s freedom.”
Contrary to what members of the deconstruction project would tell you, in fact, recent research indicates that theologically progressive Christians are more prone to politicizing their faith than theologically conservative Christians.
5) Learn History, But Don’t Place Too Much Trust in the Historian
The deconstruction project reminds us that pastors and Christians generally should seek to learn history. When the project points to specific concrete historical sins of Christians, it serves us all. We should not be afraid of learning history but be honest about it. Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise, for instance, exposes a shameful history of complicity among white Christians with racism. I don’t know why a Christian wouldn’t want to learn about this.
That said, I would discourage Christians from giving historians or sociologists the same kind of trust they give to their pastors and their pastors’ teaching of the Bible. This is true for any historian, but perhaps particularly for historians and sociologists who work within the broadly postmodern deconstruction project. Remember, academics will not give an account for how they’ve shepherded a congregation’s souls like pastors will (see Heb. 13:17). And they don’t typically bring pastoral considerations to bear in their work.
Furthermore, I fear that our generation, which loves the journalistically-written social histories of the deconstruction project, has become somewhat naïve about history writing. Too easily the writing of history “becomes a pack of tricks we play on the dead,” says intellectual historian Quentin Skinner quoting Voltaire. It becomes “a means to fix one’s own prejudices on the most charismatic names,” Skinner observes. He then helpfully outlines a number of mythologies to which social historians and historians of ideas commonly succumb, such as the “mythology of coherence” in which they arrange the details of their narration to present a unified interpretation of an individual’s views or a period of history, when really no such coherence existed; or the “mythology of doctrines” which takes scattered or incidental remarks in order to attribute a doctrine to a person that he could not have possessed.
The deconstruction project may want to exegete the exegete, but it’s worth turning the tables. Theologians and exegetes at least have a fixed (biblical) text which constrains to some measure what they can say. They might do hermeneutical gymnastics. Who would deny it! Yet the closed and fixed biblical canon means anyone can check their work, as the Bereans did with Paul (Acts 17:11). Yet when, for instance, du Mez argues that post-war white evangelicalism was characterized by patriarchy and toxic masculinity, there’s no text or fixed data set to check her work against. She might offer 14 or even 140 examples to prove her point. Yet how do we know that 140,000 counter examples remain unmentioned? We can learn from those 14 examples— „Don’t do what those guys did!” Yet her overall thesis about what “evangelicals as a whole were like” might simply restate her ideological and theological viewpoint. You can’t check those larger claims against anything, even if you have a Ph.D. in her particular area of expertise.
Likewise, I appreciate Tisby’s presentation of concrete historical events that demonstrated white complicity with racism, and I would encourage Christians to learn this history. I grieve each example and hope churches fight to not repeat such errors. Yet should we assume Tisby’s choice of stories offers a perfect God’s-eye view of white Christians in the past or present? I assume he would not say so. Neither should you. Further, as the last few chapters of his book move from distant history to recent history and present times, Tisby’s own ideological bent becomes more apparent. There is, to be sure, an agenda, which I assume he would admit. But readers shouldn’t naively think he’s offering something objective.
In short, Christians should read history and learn it. But they must not trust any historian like they trust the Bible. Teach your members that we can learn from the works of history and sociology, but it’s only the Bible which gives us a God’s-eye view of life in the universe. God himself speaking, which is what the Bible is, is our only perfectly objective truth.
It’s no surprise, then, that Scripture calls congregations to listen to their pastors who teach them God’s Word, not the scholars who, to be sure, sometimes offer useful supplementary work. Giving priority to Scripture is the only thing that will protect the church from false teaching, which means exegeting the exegete must always remain in a secondary role. We finally have to turn to the Bible, even as we learn from stories.
How then do the sources of knowledge relate?
6) Explain the Asymmetry Between the Bible and Story
Walker argues we should resolve our disputes in exegesis. The deconstruction project calls this a bluff and wants to change the terms of the conversation, making it about the exegete.
The danger here is that we pit Bible against Story, recalling the competition between the commandments of God and the traditions of men, Jesus taking one side, the Pharisees the other (see Mark 7:8–9). Or the competition between the Bible and the Magisterium, Protestants taking one side, Roman Catholics the other. Or between the Bible and science, evangelicals taking one side, Protestant liberals the other. In all of this, no one questions whether science and tradition have something to teach Bible-believers. Rather, the question is how do these two sources of knowledge relate to one another, particularly when tensions or disagreements occur? Who has the deciding vote? The Bible or tradition? The Bible or science? (And to be clear, I’m saying “Bible” for shorthand. The real competitor is what we understand the Bible to say or teach, that is, biblical doctrine.) The trouble begins the moment the traditions of men or science are given authority over Scripture.
In this postmodern moment, people’s personal stories and group histories are leveraged to question traditional doctrines. Liberation theologies challenge traditional views of the atonement, eschatology, and even God. People’s experiences of abuse challenge the traditional view of male headship in the home and church. And so on.
Even among Christians who formally affirm the sufficiency, inerrancy, and authority of God’s Word, there is the risk of reading the Bible extra-textually (from without) rather than intra-textually (from within). This means letting something like Tradition or Science or Sociology or History or Lived Experience or Personal Trauma become the authoritative framework for shaping and determining our interpretation of the Bible. Yet reading the Bible intra-textually means letting the Bible’s own storyline and framework become our grid for viewing the world. The Bible gives us a created order, which in turn should form our worldview and interpretation of everything.
Does this mean we don’t listen to lived experience or tradition or anything else? Certainly we should. Christians should simultaneously (i) acknowledge that a kind of hermeneutical spiral exists between both Bible and Story, each side helping us to understand the other, (ii) but firmly and decisively asserting that the relationship between the two sides is asymmetrical, because the Bible alone is the norming norm. It alone possesses the authority to bind the conscience and the church, because it alone is God’s revealed, inerrant Word. The relationship between Biblical Doctrine and Story, furthermore, is like the relationship between law and wisdom. The former establishes the rules and boundaries, while the latter helps us to navigate this beautiful, crazy, and treacherous world inside those rules and boundaries.
For instance, the Bible offers me an authoritative Word for the structures of my marriage. Yet the lived experience of married life and church life help me to understand more fully what it means to be a husband. This is why I look more forward to hearing from a man who has been married for 30 years teach at the church marriage retreat than I do the brother who’s been married for one year. Married life helps us understand the Bible’s teaching (aka, doctrine) on marriage, which in turn helps us understand our marriages, and so forth.
At the same time, we must assert that the Bible remains the more crucial and foundational source of knowledge and what binds the conscience and the church. Whether an exegete is self-interested or not, human beings, by God’s grace, can grab hold of “sound doctrine.” They can say objectively true things about what the Bible teaches. If they couldn’t, it would be impossible for Paul to command, “Teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1; see also 1 Tim. 6:3–4). Students at Pomona College might declare that “objective truth is a ‘myth’ espoused by white supremacists,” but such claims have no place among Bible-affirming Christians.
Postmodernism’s heavy emphasis on the role of interpretation is, quite simply, too heavy. It tempts Christians to believe that the Bible cannot be objectively understood, or that we cannot articulate objectively true doctrines, or that everything we might say about the Bible warrants suspicions because it only reveals our cultural context and sinful self-interest. Yet Adam and Eve’s fallen sons and daughters aren’t as different as the universities of today would have us think. Some cultures might worship the stock market, and some might worship their dead ancestors, but we’re all born worshipping something other than God. Some might emphasize shame, others guilt, some the individual, others the family, but one way or another, we all seek to to justify ourselves. The Bible gives us a world of sinfully self-interested people, but still asserts we can know true things. It shows us cultural division, but still asserts that Christians can go into all nations, make disciples, and truly understand one another. If you’ve ever travelled overseas and spent time with brothers and sisters in Christ there, you know this is true. Postmodernism, which, again, includes the whole world of critical theory, has a vested interest, an ulterior motive, in denying all of this.
We need both Biblical Doctrine and Story, but we need them asymmetrically. One possesses conscience-binding and church-binding authority. The other tries to help us grow in wisdom, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, sinful self-interest may indeed ubiquitously afflict our exegesis, but the answer to this is not merely to accuse others of self-interest while exculpating ourselves. The answer is to do better exegesis. Our doctrine can fail us, but the answer is not to give final authority to our stories and experiences. It’s to improve our doctrine. And so we aspire imperfectly, haltingly, little by little, and with constant need of correction, to read the Bible as the authoritative framework which gives us the worldview, the lens, the grid for interpreting the world and correcting our lives. In the competition between biblical doctrine and story, there is no middle way. Biblical doctrine must finally win.
7) Distinguish Between Race Consciousness and Race Essentialism
In the previous six points, I’ve been speaking broadly about the deconstruction project, because whether the project turns to race, gender, sexuality, or any other axis of potential power struggle, the project operates by the same set of postmodern assumptions and methodologies; and it verges continually on creating a whole new Gushee-esque “post-evangelical”—a.k.a. liberal—theology, some project participants deliberately joining his camp, some not.
Since I have recently addressed the topic of gender in a number of places, perhaps a few comments here on the topic of race will illustrate how I am at least attempting to apply the six lessons above. The big idea here is, pastors should strive to teach and disciple members on the topic of race and racism, yet we should do it in a way that makes the Bible primary, not the Story primary; and in a way that puts power into the service of truth, not truth into the service of power. The biblical way, I propose, is the way of race consciousness. The postmodern way, I believe, is the way of race essentialism. I’m not an expert on race. Yet I am a pastor like you, my intended reader, and we’re sometimes called to address matters on which we’re not experts. I have, however, written a number of books on church discipline, and therefore have a few thoughts on correcting sin, which is what so much of this conversation is about.
Maybe it will help to tell my own story of involvement in this conversation—my own lived experience. For years, I frequently addressed race in sermons and Sunday School classes and a few times in articles. One or two friends in the church remarked that I might want to ease up because I was beginning to sound like a broken record. Nonetheless, I felt—and feel—the tragedy of the church’s complicity with America’s besetting sin, as mentioned above.
I believe majority and minority alike are “one new man” in Christ, and our churches embassies of heaven (Eph. 2:11-22; Ps. 133:1). Yet I also believe judgment begins with the household of God, which means we should keep our eyes continually open for places of necessary repentance (1 Peter 4:17), sins intentional and unintentional (Lev. 4), including racial sin, and that only fools refuse to listen (Prov. 12:15; 13:1). “Search me, O God, and know my heart…And see if there is any grievous way in me” (Ps. 139:23-24).
I believe Scripture pronounces woe against individual and structural sins (e.g. Is. 10:2; Esther 3:7–14, Mark 7:1-13, Acts 6:1; etc.), and racial injustice can come in both forms.
Insofar as Paul names the ethnic and political categories of “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” as comprising different parts of “the body” (1 Cor. 12:13), and then, a few verses later, calls us to “suffer” with those parts of the body that suffer (v. 26), I believe he calls us to be conscious of ways that that suffering might show up across different ethnic and political boundaries. And I believe as a matter of pastoral judgment, not biblical principle, that we should be especially watchful in our American churches. Several centuries of racism doesn’t quickly fix itself.
Finally, I believe, based on John’s vision of many tribes, tongues, and nations gathered around God’s throne in Revelation 7:9, that diversity is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be enjoyed.
In all these ways I have taught my own church and I would encourage pastors to pursue the race conversation inside your churches. I believe, and thanks to minority friends have long believed, we should be race conscious. A race consciousness listens and learns. It studies history and asks people from different ethnic backgrounds about their lived experience. It certainly seeks out hurt, suffering, and injustice. It requires us, quite simply, to be conscious of race or ethnicity (whichever term you prefer for now) as an existential factor in this world that shapes people’s lives. So it was articulated in the 2006 in article 17 of the Together for the Gospel affirmations and denials. Race consciousness offers a hard-to-categorize blend of both color blindness and color consciousness in our friendships and pastoral analyses. Loving a minority friend means being conscious of his experience as a minority, but it doesn’t mean always and only seeing him as a minority. Our common humanity and union in Christ must also be color blind. “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Three books I’d recommend to serve you in this conversation:
- Start with Shai Linne’s The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethic Unity (Moody, 2021). It offers a way of talking about race and racism by trying to build on biblical categories, not ideological ones. He talks about “ethnic hatred” from Jonah, “ethnic pride” by pointing to Goliath, “ethnic favoritism” as an implication of James 2:9, “ethnic oppression” by pointing to the Egyptians’ oppression of the Israelites, and so on.
- Read Mark Vroegop’s Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Crossway, 2020).
- And then for thinking about how to love and pastor church members coming from different perspectives on this topic, read Isaac Adams‘ remarkable Talking about Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations (Zondervan, 2022).
Yet somewhere after 2014, the conversations about race began to change, though it took some time for those changes to crystalize in my mind. And, no doubt, I’m not giving you Bible now, but one man’s dim reflections. Little by little I found that, in personal conversations, books, and online I was asked to adopt an interpretation and perspective that appealed less to immediately discernable facts and more to an overall pattern or narrative. And that interpretation was a racialized one. On one occasion, when facts pointed in the opposite direction, I was essentially told the facts didn’t matter because the narrative did.
Now, I’m personally persuaded by the histories which argue that the creation of race and the racialization of the world several centuries ago did in fact begin with white supremacy as a justification for racism and slavery. The trouble is, when you begin to look at the world through racialized lenses, how and when do you take the lenses off? In fact, the conversation began to insist that we should not try to de-racialize the world. You don’t ever get to take the lenses off. Instead, today’s orthodoxy counts “color-blindness” as just another form of white supremacy and forced assimilation. We’re forever stuck inside of racism’s original race-essentialism. I am my color. You are your color. And there’s no off ramp.
Furthermore, the orthodoxy began to stress the importance of systems, but it also indicts heart motivations and viewpoints, even as it claims not to. Furthermore, the emphasis on “systems” or “structures” isn’t merely about laws and practices and values that we have concretely identified, as when one talks about Jim Crow or redlining or even more subtle practices and traditions that can be drawn into the light and named. I don’t know anyone on the left or right who objects to indicting something demonstrable, individual or systemic. What’s harder is that the systemic indictment lingers even when nothing can be concretely identified. Instead, the indictment becomes a presupposition, a foregone conclusion, an All-Seeing Eye. The indictment engulfs us like a cloud—a kind of false consciousness labelled “whiteness” that envelops everything—a very way of being involving heart, mind, and soul, as in, “Of course, you’d say that. You’re speaking out of white privilege.” The proof of the indictment is sometimes concrete, but often not, appealing either way to the patterns of history: “350 years of history must mean guilt continues. That’s the pattern. Ongoing inequalities prove it.” And sometimes the indictment is right.
I’m not sure what the best label is to call this thing—CRT? Anti-racism? I tend to think identity politics is best, but I don’t want to get hung up on that. The bigger picture I watched on social media and that I experienced in my own relationships is that a conversation about race consciousness morphed into a conversation that increasingly felt like race essentialism. People moved from emphasizing history to a kind of historicism which reads all of history through an ideological lens; from celebrating diversity to demanding particular policies as a sign of repentance. In short, in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, many of us were having the civil rights conversation. Then something changed. The civil rights tradition was swallowed up by something I’d call more thoroughly postmodern.
Speaking of CRT, defenders are quick to say it’s merely a legal theory. Indeed, that’s precisely what it is. It’s a theory that legalizes all of life in racial terms. Rules and traditions, work and play, health and sex, cities and nations and empires, your heart and mine, even older ways opposing racism—all this it judges through the law of racialization and oppression. Where the deconstruction project’s gender conversation critiques authority, the postmodern race conversation, in a way, does the opposite. It legalizes everything. It creates law. CRT is Moses on racialized hyperdrive. It is one of the premier Phariseeisms of today, offering a God’s-eye view on our society and culture that places them under permanent indictment. We’re guilty until proven innocent.
What’s difficult is, so long as racial sin exists, evidence will forever remain available to validate the theory. Real, ongoing, nameable sin supplies oxygen to the diffuse, non-named, universal indictment. As I mentioned under point 1 so many pages ago, Satan loves to be first in line to show compassion to real hurt, but then leverage it to declare everyone guilty.
As the larger race conversation changed, the personal conversations grew more tense, harder. At least once I said, “My heart is with you and this cause, but my conscience cannot follow you there.” And the reaction would be sharp. “You should be listening, not talking.” Relationships strained and, in some cases, broke.
Compounding the strain, I watched Christian voices on the right—by my lights—insult, malign, slander, and misrepresent Christians on the left. These are real injustices and warrant their own conversations. Yet within a few years two sides hardened against one another. Trust had vanished. Again, what do you say to the hurting wife who finds refuge in feminist literature? You hammer the husband, yes. That, too. But what do you say to her if you think her medicine is poisonous?
I guess someone who writes about church discipline will say, let’s talk about Matthew 18. It offers one doorway for helping pastors teach and disciple their churches to be race conscious, not to give way to race essentialism.
When teaching from Matthew 18 about church discipline, particularly verse 16, we at 9Marks remind pastors, “Don’t bring a case of discipline before the church merely based on your interpretations or guesses about someone’s heart.” You as a pastor don’t want to bring Tom before the church because you think he “looks greedy” or you “sense he’s proud.” Talk about a way to divide the church! No. Tom’s greed or pride need to show themelves so that the facts are incontrovertible and plain. Jesus is not interested in mob justice, and so he emphasizes the role of due process: “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” And of course Jesus’s emphasis on due process is consistent with the entirety of Scripture (e.g. Gen. 9:5-6; Exod. 18:19-23; Lev. 5:1; Num. 35:30; Deut. 19:15-20; Prov. 6:16-19; 18:17; Matt. 18:16; 1 Tim. 5:19).
To be sure, Matthew 18 has a local church process in mind. Yet I think the value Jesus places on due processes for correcting sin can be extended broadly: we should generally treat people as innocent until concrete evidence exists that requires us to do otherwise. Even the secular courts do. A crucial change in the race conversation, best I can tell, is the demotion of due process, a phrase that, these days, incites sighs of exasperation and anger on Twitter. We have moved from “innocent until proven guilty” to a “guilty until proven innocent” based on the narrative. Yet abandoning due process isn’t just a technicality. It’s putting ourselves in the position of God. It assumes we possess sovereign Knowledge.
To be sure, I understand why people who have experienced abuse or injustice become impatient with due process. Part of life’s futility, says Solomon, is that, even in the places where we’re supposed to receive justice, we receive more wickedness (Eccl. 3:16). Yet we cannot throw out due process. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Somehow the Bible manages to concede that we’ll receive wickedness from the house of justice and to emphasize due process over and over and over.
Imagine living with a certain demographic in your church as if they were guilty of lust until proven innocent. You don’t wait until something concrete rises to the surface, requiring a Matthew 18 rescue-intervention. Instead, you say to this group, “Well, you’ve been guilty of lust for the last twenty years of your life. I assume you’re still guilty, at least until you prove to me otherwise.” This, to me, does not sound like a charitable, gospel-centered church I would want to join, but one given to Phariseeism. And I say this believing that lust and sexual sin are ongoing individual and systemic problems, probably still hiding in the hearts of many folk in the church. We must teach about lust in all its forms. Still, we live with one another charitably assuming the best and treating one another as innocent until proven guilty.
My sense is, the excesses and Phariseeism of race essentialism has hindered many pastors from teaching about race and racism, which brings us to the last part of my own story. Over the last few years, I admit I’ve taught on race considerably less, because I cannot go where the conversation has gone. I’ve dipped in a toe, but confusion resulted.
Still, we need to be able to talk about race and racism. Just this week, an African American pastor friend shared how his daughter, a student at a predominately white and well-known conservative Christian university, had friends “joke” with her about not being “a good slave” because she wouldn’t carry one of their backpacks. These same folks playfully use the word “wigger” around her. Meanwhile, the white friends of a second daughter of his, at her largely white Christian high school, “joke” with her by repeatedly using the word “vinegar.”
Ethnic partiality in all its forms remain, and it will until Christ comes again. And so pastors must teach and disciple.
Yet how can we do it without propagating race essentialism? First, we must build our language and categories around Scripture, as Shai Linne demonstrates in the book mentioned above. We can use other resources and stories, as mentioned in point 6, but only to assist us in understanding Scripture and applying Scripture.
Second, I’ve tried to carve out a pathway in this article for helping people talk about race without yielding to race essentialism by calling it race consciousness. I trust that can be improved on. Yet it involves both law and gospel. The law helps us to be aware of racial transgression and to repent when necessary. The gospel helps us to experience forgiveness and extend that same forgiveness so that we might be one new man. To put this another way, race consciousness combines color blindness and color consciousness.
Third, we should learn from history, but refrain from an implicit historicism of oppression.
That means, fourth, we treat one another as innocent until proven guilty, insisting on due process before handing out indictments. Folks used to call this giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Apart from due process, we will necessarily remain divided and tribalized. There is no way around that.
Too often I read on social media, “I don’t have time to listen to people who belong to group ‘x.’” Intentionally or not, I fear that such claims make Story authoritative over the Bible. It communicates, “My Story disqualifies whatever you might say from the Bible.” And to me, this sounds like truth-in-service-of-power.
The only way to defeat self-interested exegesis is to do better exegesis. And finally, it doesn’t matter if good exegesis is self-interested or not, at least not to anyone but the exegete given the commendation he or she may lose before the Lord (see Phil. 1:15–18). A person can be right for the wrong reasons, and so we leave those reasons to God.
Therefore, you as a pastor should encourage members to share and encounter with one another the tough stories, the lived experience, the discernible patterns that are demonstrated in the polling data and the histories of groups. All this will help them grow in wisdom as they approach the Bible. But before and after and always, open the Bible and make sure that it alone determines the doctrines your church believes.
 Trevin Wax, “3 Surprises from New Research on ‘Progressive’ and ‘Conservative’ Christians” at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/research-progressive-conservative-christians/. Wax is summarizing the findings of George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk, One Faith No Longer: the Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America (NYU: 2021).