Paul and Silas were on their way to “the place of prayer,” when a demonized slave-girl, exploited by the townsfolk for financial gain, began following them around. The evil spirit that possessed her gave her power to tell people’s future, and a cottage industry had been built up around her dark “gift.” She was a slave not only to this spirit, but to the real-world powers that had turned a daughter into a commodity. As she followed Paul and Silas around, she cried out in a loud voice, “THESE MEN ARE SERVANTS OF THE MOST HIGH GOD, WHO PROCLAIM TO YOU THE WAY OF SALVATION.” The words that she spoke were technically correct: Paul and Silas were in fact servants of the most high God, and they were in fact proclaiming the way of salvation. But this text contains a crucial revelation: the wrong spirit can say the “right” thing. Her words, which surely sounded theologically correct to many who heard her, was actually a demonic distraction, sent to hinder the word of the gospel Paul and Silas proclaimed that was to set the captives free.
When he had finally had enough of all the noise, the Apostle Paul, skilled in the ways of discernment, turned around and promptly ordered the evil spirit to come out of her. He discerned the true intentions beneath her holy sounding rhetoric, and did not engage her in theological discourse—but spoke to the thing beneath the thing, the foul spirit that animated her righteous sounding speech.
The townspeople were incredulous at this. Everybody is fine when folks preach the gospel, so long as it doesn’t touch their money or their wars—our two primary sources of meaning. This exorcism was going to cost them money, which is why these people who were fine with the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, changed their minds: it finally got to close to their pocketbooks and checkbooks. For in Acts, as it is in John’s Revelation—the forces of empire/Babylon, are economic powers. These early apostles had the wisdom to know the difference between elegant theological posturing, and demonic distraction, and thus knew the difference between when the moment calls for theological discourse, and when it calls for an exorcism. Sometimes, as it was when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, the devil comes quoting Scripture, in a guise of theological rightness—even quoting chapter and verse.
If only the so-called apostles of our time were as discerning. This is a historical account of the life and ministry of Paul, but it is also an allegory for our time.
With the 4th largest city in America underwater, in the midst of a daily assault on basic civil rights from the President of the United States, a group of largely white—to be more specific, white male evangelical (to be uncomfortably specific, largely white male Reformed/white male Baptist) leaders tried to change the subject to genitalia. Framers of the Nashville statement have clarified that the date of it’s release was set many months ago, which makes the decision to move forward with it given the timing only more disconcerting. I would contend that it is not newsworthy that conservative evangelicals in the mold of John Piper and John MacArthur still hold a traditional view of marriage, only the disastrous timing of the statement that has given the story traction in the news cycle. That is to say, the calloused timing of the statement generates far more heat than the theological convictions, which are not in themselves new or newsworthy at all. It should be noted that this statement comes from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which historically speaking, has served mostly as the de facto “keeping women in their place” coalition, and has been willing even to tweak the Church’s teaching on the trinity to do so (how to know you are getting into idolatry 101: you have to re-write the Church’s teaching on the trinity in order to underwrite your beliefs). Still, the timing is troubling.
So what do we make of this? Issues of human sexuality are deeply complex, deeply personal, and can be thus deeply polarizing. The debate within the Church about the nature of marriage as sacrament—who the Church should marry—is an internal conversation, a discipleship issue. Any serious-minded Christian would agree that what we do with our bodies must surely matter in the life of faith, so understandably these are weighted conversations. Like the early church at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 debating over gentile inclusion, we must take Scripture/tradition seriously, as well as the testimony of our brothers our sisters, who bear the witness of the Spirit. As it was for them, these conversations must take place in the context of community, as opposed to devolving into a string of individual pronouncements. As it was for the early church, these conversations are often heated, and test the boundaries of Christian community. Questions of sexuality and discipleship are real, robust, and necessitate passionate prayer and conversation. I do not wish to minimize any of this—especially when what is at stake is more than “issues” of doctrinal fidelity, but the fate of real human beings, sons and daughters of the Church that we know and love. There are no shortcuts or easy answers to these weighty matters of discernment.
Many people feel conflicting impulses, wanting to embrace LGBTQ sons and daughters who have been wounded by the church—lives already subject to so much hardship, including the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth, which surely qualifies as a pastoral emergency—and yet struggle with how to work all of this out theologically, in a way that would be faithful to their understanding of Scripture. At the risk of offense to both my affirming and non-affirming friends that I call brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, I want to suggest that public dispute over this internal matter of Christian discipleship—as important and weighty as it is—could keep conservative and progressive Christians from having a unified public witness around that which we ought to be able to agree, right now. I am not minimizing the stakes of this conversation, nor the real lives who are threatened by it.
I merely want to place this conversation in a larger context: For anyone who has missed out on the prior season of the series life on planet earth, Americans elected a petulant man-child to the highest office in the land on a near consensus vote from white evangelical Christians. This same season has seen a demonstrative, measurable rise in hate crimes against minorities and a spike in activity among white supremacist groups, culminating in a racially-charged showdown in Charlottesville where a peaceful protester was murdered in cold blood. The monumental insensitivity of the man-child, who rode into power on a lily white (resentment) horse, has fragmented our national discourse even more deeply, creating an environment of fear and suspicion so ominous, you could almost believe we were on the heels of some new Civil War. Which is ironic, since the powers that be are shockingly empathetic to those who fought on the wrong side of the actual Civil War. Televangelist Jim Bakker actually went so far last week to say that if Trump were to be impeached, Christians “would rise up” to fight one.
I make no claims to be a prophet, but you need not be one to discern the ominous signs of these times. America is in need of nothing less than an exorcism from a 400-year old demon of white supremacy, and the principalities and powers that have lurked in the darkness are being repeatedly exposed to the light. Howling, irrational, self-destructive, they act out as the demons did in the man possessed by a legion, just before they were cast out, and the land itself quakes beneath this cosmic conflict. We have stirred up ancient principalities that seek to divide, and to devour. Fear of anyone/anything that we deem “other” is not a peripheral feature around the Trump phenomenon, but is rather it’s central, galvanizing energy—the very character of this demonic force is blame and accusation. The very reason that old racially charged markers of “history and heritage” are suddenly in the limelight—that signs of our oldest conflicts are smack dab in the middle of a contemporary conflict—is precisely because we are in the midst of a decisively spiritual battle.
In light of all this, we might reasonably ask why evangelical leaders are not leading the way in opposing hateful, demonizing rhetoric, and leading their communities in demonstrative repentance for underwriting the campaign of a dangerous megalomaniac in such a wholesale manner? What would explain the tone-deafness? The consensus support of Trump in white evangelical churches has already decimated the church’s standing among it’s own sons and daughters, and will haunt it for generations. Even if the statement was finished months ago, how it is possible that “leaders” did not grasp something of the gravity of the moment we have been entering, even then? These are apocalyptic, cataclysmic times, where the true hearts of men and women are being revealed. For all the battles we are fighting, why is this moment in history that was chosen to make a strong stand around traditional marriage—when the whole tone and tenor of this administration poses such a clear and present threat to to our neighbors, and to ourselves?
I would propose a few reasons for this. Beyond convictions about marriage as a sacrament of the Church, there is a strong thread among prominent signers of the Nashville statement that is not only anti-women in ministry and functionally anti-ethnic diversity, but anti-charismatic. There are a handful of exceptions to this, of course: signers, for example, include Stephen Strang, the founder of Charisma, who sold out the radical peace church roots of his native tradition to peddle the ecclesiastical porn that is Charisma News, a Breitbart clone in Pentecostal drag. There are a few token charismatics on the list, that mirrors it’s ethnic and gender tokenism. (Beyond the list—there are of course some prominent, albeit fringe, charismatic leaders who have been carried away by the Trump train, i.e. Paula White and Rick Joyner)
But many of the most conspicuous and intentionally advertised signers, like John MacArthur, have a long history of RESISTANCE. It’s just not a history of resistance to the principalities and powers, but resistance to the Spirit of God, over the course of an entire ministry career. It is resistance to the liberating force of Pentecost, which empowers slaves and daughters to prophesy, and sets the captives free. Perhaps his mockery of the gifts and work of the Spirit, alongside his bearing false witness against Charismatic Christians over a lifetime, could explain the tragic spiritual blindness on display in a clip I saw from him just a few weeks ago, in which MacArthur, remarkably told a black student from his college that what happened in Charlottesville had “nothing to do with racism.” A far step down even from Trump’s “good people on both sides” equivocation, MacArthur is so given over to his depraved thinking—even to a blinding principality of “whiteness”— that he cannot even acknowledge white supremacy as one of two sides! Whiteness is considered neutral, normative, and “culture-free,” independent of any particular history or story. It is is comprised of two convictions: 1) We chose our own reality and 2) it ain’t my fault. Whiteness cannot accept the narrative of an oppressed person, because whiteness, above all, is supreme confidence in one’s own discernment. And MacArthur, who considers himself an expert in discerning everyone else’s issues, has no resources by which to discern his own.
I can’t help but wonder if the number of “Holy Ghost deniers” in this crew (you’ve heard of “holocaust deniers or climate-change deniers? Well I just made this one up) doesn’t play into the perpetual lack of discernment—both because the wisdom of the Spirit is lacking, as well as the kind of sensitivity to the margins that Pentecost brings by its proximity to those on the margins. People who have minimized and in some cases even mocked the Spirit, are understandably not in sync with the One who sighs with groans too deep for words, for the restoration of all things. They are out of touch with what God is doing in the broader body of Christ.
I use the word “Pentecostal” in a broad, inclusive way—not to define a sect over/against the larger body of Christ, for indeed the entire Church is Pentecostal, though she does not always fully realize her potential in this way. People can be Baptist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, or Anglican, and be deeply Pentecostal in their practice—when they embrace walking in the Spirit! And indeed the future belongs to such people. Already, the average Christian in the world is not male but female, not white but brown or black, more likely third world than first world—and by an overwhelming margin globally now, yes, Pentecostal. All around the world, throughout all Christian traditions, people are awakening to the liberation of Pentecost—in which sons and daughters prophesy, principalities and powers are opposed and resisted, and captives are being cut loose.
The “average” Christian in the world today is a 22-year old black or brown female. She has not been to a Passion conference; she has not read Desiring God or Christianity Today, she has not read your blog, nor mine. People like me are merrily moving chairs around the Titanic, while the entire hijacked project of American evangelicalism comes to a merciful end. We debate each other on Facebook with competing C.S. Lewis quotes, listen to Coldplay, drink lattes, and some of us feel liberated enough to have a drink and smoke a cigar while raising a toast to “the good old days.” Whether you think it is providence or natural selection, the world has moved on. The Holy Spirit, I would contend, has moved on.
I truly don’t intend this as a judgment—or at least, not as a judgment that does not fully include myself—but this is precisely the kind of fading evangelical establishment, an establishment that is rapidly passing away, that has shaped this declaration. How else might we explain the consistent tone-deafness of principal figures behind this statement (people like Trump apologist Jack Graham, R.C. Sproul, James Dobson)—but a complete obliviousness to the Holy Spirit? I don't mean to demonize all who signed it. Some of them are more nuanced than others—people like Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, and James MacDonald have made great contributions to the body of Christ, even where we would have disagreements. But there is no getting around, again, the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly Baptist/fundamentalist-Reformed character of the list. (I will not even take time here to address the many ways in which John Piper, in particular, has repeatedly gone to dizzying heights of pastoral insensitivity in making increasingly reckless public statements, perhaps only rivaled in our time by Pat Robertson. The hubris long ago crossed the line into pathology.)
Several of these leaders have publicly criticized Trump, to be sure—though many powers that be in the SBC have attempted to marginalize Russell Moore’s voice, in particular. But there is no getting around the ways in which the religion of these signers has shaped people in such a way as to make the Trump phenomenon possible. The fact that some individuals on this list have criticized Trump in some capacity does not counter the reality that on the whole, this is precisely the sort of crowd that empowered the Trump phenomenon—white evangelicals who have been so conditioned by their preachers to blame all of their problems on someone who is “other” than them, that Trump’s message of white resentment sounded consciously like the “gospel” that had been preached to them. Because so many of these signers live in a world in which Pentecost has not happened and the world has not changed, they forever perpetuate the same old framework—their dualistic world of liberals and conservatives, white hats and black hats, in which the most consistent feature is that they themselves, more so than the Lord of the Church, always play the role of the persecuted martyr.
So we find ourselves in this curious place, where the would-be prophets of the church, endlessly preoccupied with sin and genitals, cannot muster a strong, demonstrative stand against our most conspicuous sin. The people who are best known for articulating a doctrine of original sin, are not rallying against America’s most original, founding sin. The threat against black and brown bodies from white supremacists—even the state-sanctioned violence of Joe Arpaio, does not warrant nearly the level of outrage as a statistically tiny percentage of people entering gay marriage—who pose no existential threat to their heterosexual peers.
To be clear, I care deeply for my LGBTQ friends, and am sorry for any pain this statement has caused them: sons and daughters of God, in whom the Father is well-pleased. I do still care too for my conservative evangelical friends—and I know many of them who maintain a belief in a traditional view of marriage, in a more humble, gentle manner. I would prefer to be a bridge builder, where bridges can be built. All human sexuality is complex; there are endless conversations to be had about sexuality in the Church, and I’m here to participate in them. But I’m telling you—right now, the Nashville Statement is an elaborate distraction: so that instead of conservative and progressive Christians uniting against that which we ought to be able to agree is conspicuously evil, we step back onto the endless merry-go-round of internet conversation on how to interpret 6 or 7 texts. I am not opposed to those important conversations, I am just not willing to spend all my time in theological debate, when there are more conspicuous spirits that need to be named, and cast out!
Whatever one believes about the sacrament of marriage as a matter of Christian discipleship, should not keep them from being opposed to flagrant white supremacy, scapegoating the poor, demonizing the immigrant, and state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people—for that matter, violence in general. Nor should convictions about marriage keep us from publicly repenting for the tangible harm the Church has caused to her LGBTQ sons and daughters historically, NOR SHOULD IT KEEP ALL OF US FROM TAKING UP FOR THE MOST BASIC RIGHTS OF LGBTQ PEOPLE. Trump has cynically rode on the backs of conservative Christians he cares nothing about for crass political ends—what does the inflammatory edict/stunt to ban transgender people from the military have to do with Christians’ differing convictions on marriage as a sacrament? There was no mandate from military personnel for such a thing—in fact, it appears to be precisely the opposite. It is divisive, cynical, and vile, like this entire Presidency.
I’m quite certain I do not have the power to get some of my readers to not look at certain folks who are “other” than them as an enemy. I can only appeal to this: Christians have no other reason in the world to identify their enemies, than to figure out who Jesus is calling them to bless. The most basic terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves does not require theological degree—but a restoration of the sacrament of footwashing. If you deem Muslims as your enemy, your call as a disciple is to wash their feet. If you have thought LGBTQ folks are your enemy, your call is to wash their feet. If you think fundamentalist Christians are your enemy—and I am especially sympathetic to this view in the moment—your call is to wash their feet.
The other antidote I would suggest to what ails the Nashville statement, is a higher view of the Eucharist. The much-talked about, most bombastic article of the declaration is article 10, which explicitly states, “we deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.” This statement appears to de-legitimize any and all those who differ on this issue as being part of the household of faith. They say they they have a strong biblical view of sexuality—I say they have a low view of the Eucharist. It is at the table of the Lord that the way of Christ is made possible, where there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. The practice of the table is more constitutive of our faith than beliefs on any particular social issue. It is possible and necessary to go to the table with brothers and sisters, even who we might think are in deep error, without disfellowshipping them. This is possible because it is ultimately not just the table of the Church, but the table of the Lord; and it is his guest list, not ours.
Trumpism is a dark, demonic, near mythic embodiment of our collective ego that has infected the church. With the public witness of the Church already shattered, now is not the time to distance ourselves from others even with whom we have serious disagreement with. Instead it is time to feast with them, listen to them, learn from them, pray and cry with them. We have not rightly discerned the body of Christ. The trend toward further schism is not from the Prince of peace, but from principalities and powers who oppose his peaceful rule. I reject the conservative-liberal continuum, as those are not gospel words nor theological categories. The only war I acknowledge is between the advocate and the accuser. The dangers of the Trump phenomenon transcend partisan politics. But thankfully, so does the rightful Lord of the Church.
I will have prayerful, earnest, hard conversations with my brothers and sisters about all the hard things—I will stay at the table, late into the night. But I will not have the terms of those conversations dictated to me by whatever was drafted in the smoky backroom by people who are mostly just mourning the loss of a civil religion I believe Christ came to overthrow, or from people who don’t know the devil when he’s kissing them hard on the mouth. I am not for disfellowshipping or un-Christianizing anybody, only in favor of us having more Pauls who are willing stand up against Peter, in the midst of brazen hypocrisy.
It was also Peter who was on the wrong side of Jesus, when he told him he would not have to go to the cross. Jesus’ response to this sincere, well-intentioned disciple was the same as I believe it may be to us in this moment—“Get behind me, Satan.” For truly, we have not discerned the purposes of God, but instead colluded with the accuser of the brethren. Our resistance now, is not merely with theological rhetoric.
Our resistance, must be repentance.