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Three Harmful Theologies Behind Current Events

When I was young and rather naive, it was very simple: you were either in or you were out. People, institutions, and ideas were either Christian (and thus good), or non-Christian (and thus bad). Part of growing up into (or out of) our religious identity is learning to navigate the vast diversity of beliefs and ideologies that comprise American Christian culture. When we do, we discover that not everything that calls itself “Christian” is inherently healthy or helpful. Peeking behind the curtain at the theological pedigree of nominally Christian figures and movements can be quite illuminating. Here are three examples of potentially divisive theologies embodied by self-proclaimed Christian authorities, straight out of today’s headlines.

1. The end-times dominionism of Ted Cruz’s father

Rafael Cruz is a Cuban-born American preacher and the father of Texas Senator and leading Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. After coming to America, Cruz converted from Roman Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity and became an influential speaker and political activist. Cruz subscribes to a dominionist view which understands God’s instruction to Adam and Eve to “take dominion” over the earth as a standing commandment for all Christians, especially those with wealth and influence. Cruz and his dominionist colleagues see themselves as heralds of a new age – the final age before the second coming of Jesus – in which powerful conservative Christians must assume control of America’s wealth and resources. In his own words, from a now-infamous sermon delivered in 2012:

“There are some of you, as a matter of fact I will dare to say the majority of you, that your anointing is not an anointing as priest. It’s an anointing as king. And God has given you an anointing to go to the battlefield. And what’s the battlefield ? The battlefield is the marketplace. To go to the marketplace and occupy the land. To go to the marketplace and take dominion. If you remember the last time I was in this pulpit, I talked to you about Genesis chapter 1, verse 28, where God says unto Adam and Eve, ‘Go forth, multiply, take dominion over all creation.’ And if you recall, we talked about the fact that that dominion is not just in the church. That dominion is over every area – society, education, government, economics.”

“The pastor referred to Proverbs 13:22, a little while ago, which says that the wealth of the wicked is stored for the righteous. And it is through the kings, anointed to take dominion, that that transfer of wealth is going to occur. God, even though he’s sovereign, even though he’s omnipotent, he doesn’t let it rain out of the sky – he’s going to use people to do it.”

On a surface level, Cruz’s teaching might comes across as little more than a creepy sort of prosperity gospel. However, his intense personal involvement in his son’s presidential campaign indicates that his ambitions might be more grandiose. He recently stated that Ted’s presidential bid is the result of divine will and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

2. The strict complementarianism of The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a collection of Reformed Christian teachers and cultural watchdogs intent on promoting and defending the Christian gospel as they understand it. Their website and network of publications provide a platform for pastors and a resource for like-minded believers. TGC is characterized by a few distinctive doctrinal positions, such as belief in biblical inerrancy, a Calvinistic understanding of sin and salvation, and a pervasive devotion to complementarian gender roles. Complementarianism, against egalitarianism, asserts that men and women are created equal but with different “biblical” roles to fulfill. These involve male “headship” and female “submission.”

Critics of TGC suggest that their commitment to the complementarian hierarchy has fostered an environment in which male abusers are protected and female victims marginalized. A blogger named Nate Sparks recently compiled an overview of scandals and controversies surrounding TGC members and their churches and posted it as an open letter. Issues raised include TGC’s consistent advocacy and support for pastors implicated in abuse scandals and controversial teachings by its famous members like John Piper and Doug Wilson. A particular quote from one of Wilson’s books has sparked some outrage:

“Women inescapably need godly masculine protection against ungodly masculine harassment; women who refuse protection from their fathers and husbands must seek it from the police. But women who genuinely insist on ‘no masculine protection’ are really women who tacitly agree on the propriety of rape.” (Douglas Wilson, Her Hand In Marriage, pg. 13)

Meanwhile, TGC has not directly responded to Sparks’ or anyone else’s request for a comment, though they may have passively acknowledged the controversy by tweeting this quote from Kathy Keller, wife of TGC heavy-hitter Timothy Keller:

“Whether you’re able to see justice in divinely created gender roles depends largely on how much you trust in God’s character.”

Instead of addressing or denying specific allegations, the message from TGC seems to be, if you’re not a complementarian, you simply don’t know God. This is emblematic of TGC’s troubling tendency to draw lines in the sand and to package secondary theological questions (eg. gender roles and inerrancy) into their version of “the gospel.” 

3. The reckless reconstructionism of Franklin Graham and James Dobson (and friends)

No doubt Graham, Dobson, and their colleagues on the religious right would reject the label of “Christian Reconstructionist.” Like their dominionist counterparts, these leaders deny any ideological motivation, claiming instead to simply and boldly speak obvious truths on God’s behalf. However, both Graham and Dobson understand America’s national vocation and destiny in terms of a covenantal relationship with God modeled on the stories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. If bad things happen to America, it is because we have angered God by disobeying His laws and violating the covenant. If we turn “back to God” and obey His laws, the nation will surely prosper. In this universe, cultural trends and Supreme Court decisions have the power to incite God’s wrath, bring on natural disasters, and possibly even set the end of the world into motion. Conversely, electing Christian leaders and passing Christian legislation will usher in an era of blessing.

Full-blown reconstructionism asserts that the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament constitute God’s everlasting blueprint for human behavior and must form the basis of all modern laws and governance. Being a savvy evangelical, Franklin Graham would surely equivocate and give lip service to the “new covenant” established by Jesus which supplants the ancient law, and yet he consistently gives voice to the reconstructionist view when he says things like this:

“When you look at Scripture, when Israel turned their backs on God – and that’s what we as a nation have done and are doing – there was usually some type of calamity. There was a famine, there was a persecution from their neighbors, nations would come in and overrun them and destroy them.”

Elsewhere, especially in his frequent Facebook missives, Graham directly links Christian morality and American prosperity with obedience to the laws of ancient Israel. Meanwhile, Dobson laments that “God’s judgment will fall on this great nation” because of political and social developments he finds displeasing. Whereas Dobson has frequently endorsed specific ultra-conservative candidates, Graham has remained unaffiliated, instead urging Christians to vote for any candidate who demonstrates “biblical values.”

What they all have in common

In this post I’m taking aim at self-appointed Christian authorities and gatekeepers, not friends or lay people who happen to hold this or that theological position. I’m not personally acquainted with any dominionists, and I’ve known a few Christians who thoughtlessly perpetuated reconstructionist ideas now and then. Understandable. I do know quite a few complementarians, good people who choose to apply complementarian principles to their marriage or family. I respect their choices even as I disagree. My real concern with any theology is what happens when it is enforced by those who claim authority over the lives of others. Here is what all three of these stories have in common:

First I note that all of the theological views described here are based on a flat and literal reading of an “inerrant” Bible. They have privileged and adapted portions of scripture for their own purposes, to be sure, but each appeals to the Bible as its basis. Second, each has some view to “God’s design” for how certain people or groups of people must live. They see morality in general as a response to hierarchies and divisions implemented by God from the beginning of time. And third, each becomes most harmful when combined with the authoritarian ambitions of influential Christian leaders. That is, abstract ideas about what God expects from humankind are solidified into doctrines, rules, and even legislation, and real human lives are affected. We note also how the “divinely appointed” divisions enforced in each case favor those in authority.

If God has a favored class, gender, or nation, surely God can see to it that they prosper without the help of a booster club or task force. As a rule, I am wary of anyone who speaks of “God’s design” as the heart of morality rather than selfless, redemptive love. That’s one more thing authoritarian Christian watchdogs have in common: in all of their posturing and for all of their “biblical” formulations, Jesus is readily invoked but his teaching is consistently ignored. Jesus did not underwrite the human tendency to establish and exploit authority, in fact he exposed and deconstructed it. Jesus advocated for radical inclusion and egalitarian love, not hierarchy, class, or exclusion. Followers of Jesus do not seek dominion or authority. They do not lord over others, they die for them.


Does the Bible “endorse” or “condemn” cultural institutions?

Critics of the Bible contend that it tacitly endorses harmful institutions like slavery, polygamy, leviration, the subjugation of women, ritualistic violence, and war. Few would deny that, on the surface at least, Bible texts provide a great deal of ammunition for such critiques. A popular Christian apologetic response, however, claims that the Bible cannot technically endorse anything sinful, and that, interpreted in the proper context, it actually condemns these institutions with divine authority. A rather empty expression of this assertion has been popping up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds in the form of this cartoon, but it has been argued with more dilligence and plausibility by apologist pastors like Tim Keller and D.A. Carson. For most evangelicals, this has become “common wisdom,” something everyone should know about how to read the Bible correctly. But does this truly and effectively answer the criticism? Is it clear from a plain and honest reading that the Bible denounces institutions like slavery and polygamy? The answer, like the Bible itself, is rather complex.

The Bible is fundamentally polyvocal, meaning that it is comprised of many diverse perspectives collected together. Interpretive communities (like churches and denominations) may emphasize certain thematic threads and choose to recognize these as a unifying divine “voice,” but the uninterpreted texts remain undeniably diverse and no two Christian interpreters have read every passage in the library in the same way. The problem with claims that the Bible “endorses” or “condemns” an idea or institution is that they typically sidestep the admittedly difficult work of interacting honestly with the various voices represented therein. While I personally believe it is possible to discover within the Bible an inspired trajectory away from harmful human systems and institutions, it is simply less than honest to say that the whole Bible explicitly and uniformly condemns them.

“Biblical” Marriage?

Marriage provides an interesting test case. In the Hebrew Bible polygamy is the norm and the ancient Israelites practice a form of levirate marriage in which a man’s brother is expected to marry and reproduce with his widow. Tim Keller has famously argued that the Genesis stories represent an implicit condemnation of these practices, since they yield chaotic results in every generation. There was a time when I found this response compelling and even echoed it in my own writing and teaching, but now I’m not so sure.

For one thing, it is a distinctly modern maneuver which projects our type of sensibility onto an ancient text. These institutions are absurd from our vantage point, but in the world which produced the Bible they were mundane. That’s not to say that the authors of scripture would refrain from decrying something just because it was familiar (prophets often passionately denounce the status quo). However, the Bible stories in question never explicitly censure the marriage practices of the patriarchs and, moreover, other texts that do address and regulate marriage for the Israelite community neither criticize nor prohibit polygamy or levirate marriage. In fact, by regulating these institutions the Torah laws (said to come directly from the mouth of God) might be said to affirm them. Later, in the New Testament, there are strong hints that a form of monogamous marriage has become culturally normative, though there is no formal repudiation of polygamy from any figure or author. Both Paul and Jesus seem to favor celibacy but acknowledge marriage as a fitting compromise for those with sexual inclinations.

Looking at this brief survey, can we say with confidence that the Bible either “condemns” or “endorses” polygamy, leviration, or any form of monogamous marriage? I don’t think we can. Different texts presuppose different forms of marriage. Different writers/speakers present different opinions about the nature and value of marriage. No specific form of marriage is ever denounced or recommended. It depends on what passage you’re reading.

Principles, Not a Blueprint

What the Bible does provide with remarkable consistency is spiritual and moral guidance regarding fidelity to relationships within one’s cultural context, whatever it might be. “Do not commit adultery” is a majority report, to coin a phrase. God’s people do not violate their covenants with one another or abuse their neighbors’ covenants. How this plays out in regard to marriage will look very different from culture to culture, from era to era. Attempts to reconstruct the cultural norms of an ancient world to solve the moral dilemmas of today are misguided and do real damage to the people caught up in the reconstruction.

It would be very convenient (for some, at least) if the Bible pronounced with more clarity which cultural institutions were acceptable and which were dangerous, but this is not what its contents were designed to do. Instead, they appealed to personal integrity and moral faithfulness within the cultural structures of their own time. It may not be easy to extrapolate and adapt those principles within a very different world, but that is the way forward for Christians who cherish the Bible and desire that it should inform the way they live. We seek principles that bear good fruit in the arena of real life, not a blueprint for conformity to an ancient ideal.

Of course, this question gets even more colorful when discussing topics like slavery and so-called “holy” war. Unlike marriage, these institutions are (almost, God help us) universally repudiated in the modern Western world. Exploring the Bible’s presentation of these realities is no less complicated and, frankly, often more disturbing. For my part, I would point to the divine voice, most loudly audible in the teaching and legacy of Jesus, that forges a radical trajectory away from exploitation and violence and toward empathy and egalitarian love. In that sense, I believe that the Bible represents a powerful, even heavenly condemnation of institutions that enslave and victimize. But this strand has to be discovered and embraced, and to find it we must be prepared to interact honestly and boldly with an ancient and disarmingly foreign library of books.

At the heart of this question is a bigger question, one that opens a larger can of worms. At the core of the evangelical response outlined above is the presupposition that God in some sense authored the Bible, and that criticism of the text thus amounts to criticism of God, which is unacceptable. This relates to the very volatile “inerrancydebate, and illustrates one of my major criticisms of inerrancy as a belief. If the evangelical’s first sworn duty is to defend God and His reputation, and if the Bible is somehow God’s “autobiography,” then it too must be defended at all cost. The result is that scripture cannot be read with open eyes, mind and heart, and difficult questions cannot be addressed honestly. And ultimately, ironically, the very potent truth at the heart of Bible will go untapped by those most eager to get their hands on it.