Coronavirus has closed the doors of our churches.

Many bad effects arise from this. Of these, the second-worst is that we can’t gather to hear the Word being preached.

The worst is that we can’t gather.

The loss of preaching can be mitigated. We still have the Bible. The message can still be got out. Anyone who wants to can still access written resources (published sermons, books about salvation). Recorded sermons are also available. Many preachers are also making live audio/video addresses.

Although each of these workarounds has its drawbacks, there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They are all ways of making sure that people don’t starve spiritually, and of hopefully helping people to feed spiritually, while they can’t get the real thing. We’re free to embrace these methods and exploit their potential, pandemic or not.

But they’re not the real thing. However closely we manage to approximate the experience of preaching and hearing the Word, there is no real equivalent. We can be thankful for the technology and the fact that the Word itself can still be ministered, while recognising the defects and limitations of these methods relative to the actual preaching of the Word.

Because for preaching, we need to assemble together. No assembly, no preaching, and live streaming is not assembling.

We should already know this from normal times. If you have to sit out the back with kids, you tell yourself it’s ok because there’s a relay and you can still hear. But it’s lonely out there, excluded from the others, and all you’ve got is a disembodied voice.

In the times before the virus, if you couldn’t make it to a service for some reason, and instead looked up a recorded sermon or listened in remotely, you might well have appreciated what you heard, but it was just you. You weren’t part of the service. The body was feeding, but it was missing a member – you.

For now, thanks to coronavirus, there is no body sitting down to feed on the Word preached, or for that matter, on the Word made sense-able in the sacraments. We are all dislocated, amputated, dismembered from each other.

Of course none of this affects the mystical union between believers and Christ, or between one believer and another. No amount of famine, pestilence or sword can break that.

But the best picture we’ve got of this mystical union, outside of heaven, is the physical assembling together of the saints on earth.

The whole visible body on earth, which reflects the church in heaven, is exemplified in the particular mini-bodies which meet as local congregations. Some are smaller than others, some are stronger, some are healthier. But when they meet for worship, each congregation models in its own limited way what the gathering of the saints is like in heaven. When we gather for Lord’s Day worship on earth, we are joining the outer courts of the sabbath worship in heaven.

Our physical assembling here on earth, where we’re bodily present in each other’s company, is important because it showcases and gives a foretaste of how eventually in heaven we will be physically in each other’s company for all eternity. Our resurrection bodies will be glorified, but they will be our selfsame bodies.

What we do in and with our bodies matters. When one member is missing from the assembly, there is a loss both to that member and to the remainder of the body. For now, when no members at all can assemble, the loss is incalculable.

In every normal worship service, the whole flock is supposed to feed together on the Word and in the sacrament. The individualism which only cares as long as I personally get something from the preaching, and which makes no attempt to grow along with and closer to the other members of the congregation under the Word, should not be encouraged.

The risk of that individualism is that now, when none of us can assemble with anyone else, we take no thought for the body – taken to pieces and isolated behind so many closed doors – as long as, by hook or technological crook, I can hear a message that suits me. This just anaesthetises us for now and weakens us for the future.

Because the future is nothing to comfort ourselves with. If we get through this crisis and simply revert to the old normality, that isn’t much to look forward to.

The most perplexing thing about our circumstances is that it’s the Lord’s providence that has silenced our pulpits and distanced us from each other. But it’s his own worship he’s stopped. The Lord is stopping us from worshipping the Lord. Why? During this situation and once things calm down afterwards, we need to do some hard thinking and soul searching. If we won’t hear the Lord’s voice crying in the city now, what will it take in the future to make us?

Of course, when the Lord sends any difficulty into our experience, we should react with faith not with fear. The Lord is working all things for our good.

But while we react with faith, we should conjoin it with repentance. Whatever the difficulty is, it’s less than we deserve, given our sins and shortcomings.

Personal difficulties should elicit personal faith and personal repentance. But we are all more than isolated individuals. We belong to families, communities, churches, and we share in their celebrations and crises. When the difficulties are family-wide, community-wide, church-wide, our faith and repentance need to be coextensive with the reach of the difficulty. No single individual, congregation, or denomination is affected by coronavirus – it affects us all.

Even as it pushes us apart, it forces us to reckon with the fact that we’re all in it together.

power and mercy

Why are these two joined together – power and mercy – by Moses, as well as by Daniel, Nehemiah and Jeremiah? Why does he join strength, and greatness, and dreadfulness with mercy?

I say, to exalt mercy the more.

It sets forth and aggrandises mercy the more, that a God so great, so dreadful, should yet be merciful. The lion in Christ commends the lamb that is in him (Revelation 5:5-6) – that he that is so great, and strong, and terrible, should be a lamb.

Look – as the unworthiness and sinfulness of us, whom God loves and shows mercy to, commends his love (as you have it in Romans 5:8), so the greatness and terribleness of the person that loves, advances and magnifies his goodness and mercy, that he who is so great and terrible, and has such power, should yet be so merciful.

Mercy in the 1st verse of Psalm 89 meets in this God who, in the 7th and 8th verses, is so great a God, so fearful to all that are round about him. They who are nearest to him know him best: they say this of him – that this God is a God of mercy.

This begets a stupor, an amazement, that he who is able to rebuke all, and destroy all with a nod, should yet have so much love and mercy. This exalts and sets out his mercy, and makes it a wonder.

[This is my summary of Thomas Goodwin’s argument in Justifying Faith (Works, Vol 8, p48)]

infinite wisdom and power

Psalm 147 says, ‘Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.’

Plumer says, ‘There must be something exceedingly drivelling in the tendency of the human mind respecting divine things to have made it necessary for inspired writers so often to teach us that God is great, supreme, infinite.’ (p1200)

‘There is none above him, none with him, none like him, in power, or in any of his perfections. To the mind of God no subject is knotty, no truth mysterious. His mind embraces with infinite ease all the propositions which constitute universal truth.’ (p1198)

WS Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks. First published 1867. Reprinted Banner of Truth 2016.

Glory in the Shorter Catechism

This is Robert Reymond’s analysis of the answer to, ‘What is God?’

The Shorter Catechism begins by employing the phrase ‘a spirit’ to describe God – he is ‘a spirit.’ This phrase is then qualified by three adjectives – ‘infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.’ A prepositional phrase introduced by ‘in’ then modifies the three adjectives; its seven nouns are in turn each qualified by the three adjectives. What this representation intends to show is this: that God is a personal (see the ‘his’) noncorporeal Being who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his wisdom; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his power; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his holiness; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his justice; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his goodness; and infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his truth. This may be depicted as:

Three observations are necessary: First, it is important to note that it is not the first noun per se that distinguishes God absolutely from the creature; angels too are noncorporeal personal beings (Heb 1:14). Nor is it the last seven nouns that distinguish God from the angels or from the human creature; again, they have, or can have, these same characteristics to a certain degree. It is the three adjectives ‘infinite, eternal, and unchangeable’ that distinguish God in the absolute sense from the angels and from the human creature who bears his image; only God possesses these several characteristics in the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable sense.

Second, it is important to underscore the truth that when we speak of God’s ‘infinite, eternal, unchangeable’ being, etc., we are speaking of those attributes that comprise what the Scriptures intend when thy speak of God’s glory. That is to say, God’s glory is the sum total of all his attributes as well as any one of his attributes. For the creature to deny him any one of his attributes is to attack the very glory of God and to deny him that without which he would no longer be God. Or to ascribe to him any attribute which he himself does not expressly claim to have, which ascription can only cancel out some attribute which he does claim to have, is again to represent him as something less than he is and thus is to attack his glory. For this reason it is imperative to listen carefully to God’s description of himself in Scripture.

Third, it should be continually borne in mind that what we affirm here about God we are affirming not only about God the Father but also and equally about God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Shorter Catechism definition of God should be viewed as a description of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not just a description of God the Father.

when MaHlabangana saw the sea

MaHlabangana2MaHlabangana had to travel from her home inland to the coast, some years before her death in 1943.

“I went to see her after her return. ‘What was the most wonderful thing you saw, MaHlabangana, when you were so far away?’ She did not speak of street cars or tall buildings as many did. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘the sea, the wonderful sea, which I never saw before. It stretched so far away, so far, and yet it was always running towards me. It was like the mercy of God, always without measure, and always running towards me. I felt how little of it I could carry away in these little arms.'”

Here is her obituary.


The photo is from Jean Nicolson, John Boyana Radasi: Missionary to Zimbabwe, Free Presbyterian Publications, 1996 (p24)


the value of tradition

“Tradition, viewed as the past teaching of the church in its confessions, creeds, and representative theologians, effectively represents the sum total of the accumulated biblical exegesis of the Christian church. It is not on a par with Scripture – some of it may even mislead us – but we neglect it at our peril and use it to our great advantage. …

This is where the common misunderstanding of the post-Reformation slogan sola Scriptura can be confusing. When the slogan was devised, it was never intended to exclude the tradition of the church. Instead, it asserted that the Bible is the supreme authority. Adherence to the idea that the Bible is the only source to be followed was the mistake of the anti-Nicenes in the fourth century, the Socinians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth century, and many other sects and heretics. Effectively, it says that my understanding of the Bible is superior to the accumulated wisdom of every generation of Christians that has ever lived. Enough said.”

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (2019), p33-34

How shall they hear?

McGraw HowShallTheyHear

Here is a book on preaching which non-preachers are invited to read. Ryan McGraw’s recent book, How Shall They Hear? is subtitled, ‘Why non-preachers need to know what preaching is.’

This is an important topic, and yet I’ve come away faintly dissatisfied.

Overview of the book

The explanation of preaching itself is not unsatisfying. McGraw opens by showing from 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 what the task of preaching is: “Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ…” (p3). Then using Romans 10:14-17 he shows why preaching is necessary: “preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice” (p13). From 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he shows that preachers must preach Christ crucified, in the power of the Spirit. Then from Colossians 1:28-29 he shows that preaching is hard work, because its aim is nothing lower than the salvation (justification and sanctification) of the hearers (p31). And from John 16:8-11, 14-15 he shows that the preacher’s aims in preaching must reflect what Christ has sent the Spirit to do through preaching – bringing people to Christ by convicting them (of sin, righteousness, and judgment) in relation to Christ (p42).

These five points take up the first five chapters, and so far these basic principles are clearly and persuasively laid out. This is a straightforward, comprehensive view of preaching and the preacher’s task and the preacher’s hope of success. If more preachers were more familiar with these principles and more consistently putting them into practice, without doubt we would all be happier and spiritually healthier hearers.

There is also certainly great value for hearers in having this clear a statement of what preaching is meant to be like, and what it’s meant to achieve. As McGraw says, although preaching is the primary means of grace, hearers often sit under preaching every week with only very little understanding of why it is the primary means of grace and what we can expect from it (p ix). But when this is left unspoken, and as it becomes forgotten, preachers lose heart (and confidence and authority) and hearers come and go mystified and unimpressed (and wither and weaken in their spiritual liveliness).

But for the next several chapters, the book seems to lose its focus slightly. Not so much its focus on preaching, but on what preaching means for the non-preacher. Chapters 6 to 12 are on topics like ‘proper methods for preaching Christ’ and ‘what should sermon application look like.’ It’s good material, there is plenty to think about, but it is geared for the preacher, with the applications for non-preachers having the distinct flavour of the afterthought.

It is only in the final two chapters that the non-preacher comes back into the picture again. In Chapter 13 McGraw argues that all Christians have a role in participating in sermons. He advises non-preachers to pray for preachers as they study and prepare. ‘Do we pray that the Spirit would increase love for Christ in our ministers so that they would preach him devotionally? … Do we pray that Christ would give them the ability to apply their sermons wisely…?’ (p104). He also reminds us to take diligent heed during the service to what we hear and how we hear. After the sermon is over, we can discuss it in conversation, ‘ready to highlight what is good in the sermon and to overlook any faults in the preacher’ (p105), and put it into practice in our lives. Overall, he comments that ‘the purposes of preaching should set the tone for our prayers for the preached Word,’ and for our aim in listening to sermons (p107). This is all good advice, because often you get out of a sermon (by way of spiritual profit) only as much as you put in (by way of self-preparation and believing expectation during and after).

Finally, in Chapter 14, McGraw tackles the question, ‘What if I sit under preaching that does not match the biblical model?’ This is perhaps the trickiest question in the book. The advice in response is necessarily given in broad outlines. If the preaching denies or neglects cardinal doctrines, it is time to find a new church (p110). But when preaching is doctrinally adequate but feels like watching a train wreck (p110) then hearers should have a charitable attitude which looks for what is good in the sermon, and they should be patient with the preacher, ‘looking to the Lord to develop them as preachers’ (p112). In general, we should pray always (p113): ‘first pray for the preacher, then talk to him about his preaching if necessary, and then talk to the elders of the church’ (p113).

The stated aim of this book is to be helpful to all believers, preachers or not. “It is only indirectly a homiletical manual for pastors; directly, it is a guide to believers” (p xi). In my view this should have been phrased the other way round. It is more directly addressed to preachers, and although it does perhaps have listeners more prominently in view than other homiletical manuals do, it is not geared towards them (us) directly. The book is not necessarily unsatisfying for its content but because it does not match its own sales pitch.


My disappointment with this book arises from the fact that for some time now I have been on the lookout for a book that would be helpful for non-preachers. In denominations which have a high regard for the Word and its truths and the preaching of it, there is a noticeable famine of the Word. For every person who says they love their pastor’s preaching and continually get spiritual benefit from it, there is at least one other person who loves their pastor and wouldn’t countenance leaving their church, but whose soul is not being fed by the preaching they hear.

I used to assume that if you didn’t get benefit from a sermon preached by a faithful minister, the problem was on your side. This is more or less the implication arising from McGraw’s book and others like it. Ministers quite rightly don’t want to blame the Holy Spirit for lack of appreciation of and/or fruit from their ministry, but this means that the next obvious place to put the blame is on the hearers. And there are after all plenty reasons why the problem could genuinely be on the hearer’s side. No doubt if we aren’t acting on the advice McGraw gives in Chapter 13 on praying and preparing to hear and receive the preached word, some portion of the blame does belong to us as poor hearers. We’re not spiritually hungry enough, we’re not expectant enough, we’re too distracted by other problems (in everyday life, or our wriggly children in the pew), we’re too critical of the preacher, we’re too easily tricked by the devil’s temptations.

But there are also poor sermons, and poor preachers. There are worship services where, however well prepared and expectantly you come, the likelihood of spiritual nourishment is small because the content of the sermon is the equivalent of spiritual cardboard rather than the feast of fat things the hearer longs for. You wonder whether these preachers themselves get anything out of their sermons – whether they would really be satisfied if they were in the pew listening to someone else saying these same things from the pulpit.

When a hearer is disappointed over a period of time by the sermons of their faithful pastor, what can they do?

McGraw is offering basically the same advice as Christopher Ash gives in his booklet, ‘Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons’ – pray, be patient, be charitable. Of course this advice is sound. It is however very difficult to put into practice, especially when someone’s problem with the preaching they hear has been ongoing for a long time. Little recognition is given to how demoralising and spiritually debilitating it is to sit under inadequate preaching long term.

Simply because preaching is the primary means of grace, it’s those who sit under disappointing preaching who are least well placed to pray and be patient and charitable. Easy enough for writers of homiletics manuals, who presumably preach fairly decent sermons to fairly appreciative congregations, to urge those less favoured to sit tight and exercise more of the graces of patience and charity. Much harder when the feeding you should be getting from the preaching is starvation rations and you’re resorting to dietary supplements in the form of your own reading and your own listening (with all the associated limitations and risks) in order to sustain spiritual life in your soul.

Hard too when you love your pastor and it feels like a betrayal to acknowledge that his sermons are not bringing any benefit. Or it’s a series of supply preachers because you don’t have a pastor, and none of them could preach their way out of a paper bag, but you feel guilty even thinking that because all of them are lovely Christians and gracious saints and they pray so beautifully. Or the sermons are always preached from such lovely texts, so surely it must be your fault for not getting something out of it.

What can you do? How can you keep turning up? What coping strategies are there? How can you turn a poor sermon to some benefit?

I suppose we could pray again. It’s the Lord’s day, it’s the Lord’s truth, it’s the Lord’s ambassador – it makes sense to ask for the Lord’s blessing.

And there are tough-love truths we could try to take in – the possibility that some people may be benefiting from the preaching even if we’re personally not, and the fact that there is more to being a believer and a member of the congregation/church than consciously benefiting from all of the services all of the time.

Sometimes it might help during a sermon to think your own thoughts on the text and whatever aspects of its meaning and implications the sermon would ideally be bringing out (although when does this become a disrespectful refusal to engage with the sermon the Lord has arguably given this preacher to preach to this congregation including you at this time?).

Or there are sanity-check measures we could take, like educating ourselves on what it is and isn’t realistic to expect from preaching, so that we can evaluate sermons on objective criteria rather than simply failing to profit from personal failings or prejudice, or continually doubting our own judgment. (For this, I would recommend How Sermons Work by David Murray, as exceptionally helpful – it equips you with concepts and a vocabulary to understand what’s going on in a sermon, so that when things go wrong, you can at least identify it to yourself.)

At institution level, those who are responsible for arranging supply preachers should perhaps do a more careful cost-benefit analysis of having poor preaching supply versus no preaching supply, in the light of what kind of preaching the congregation appreciates and needs more than simply who might be available to fill gaps in the rota. Churches perhaps need to be more rigorous in assessing who they accept as preachers, not just in terms of the clearness of the call they feel but also in terms of whether they have any gifts for preaching. Perhaps a case could be made of reviving the old practice of ministers meeting to preach to other ministers specifically for the purpose of getting brotherly feedback on their preaching.

But these are only partial answers (and at institution level virtually impossible for the average hearer to do anything at all to implement). Why does the Lord provide preaching as the main means of growth for his people and then let the preaching be dull, ineffective and wearisome even when you really want to benefit from it? To me this is still a conundrum, and I’m still waiting to find someone to explain.

Review: Beyond Authority and Submission

Miller Beyond AuthorityRachel Green Miller has written an exceptionally helpful book: Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and men in marriage, church, and society (P&R, 2019).

In it, she articulates a balanced and scriptural view of the nature and roles of men and women, identifying the good bits of feminism and rejecting the bad bits of ‘complementarianism’ to express a sane and satisfying position on what is often an unpleasantly contentious set of topics.

1. The focus on authority/submission is too narrow

For one thing, Miller zones in on a most troubling aspect of how male-female relationships are treated in contemporary conservative discussions – namely the reductionistic insistence on authority (men’s, obviously) and submission (women’s, obviously).

Complementarianism, for anyone who hasn’t come across it, is a response from within conservative Christian circles to various (sometimes unbiblical) cultural shifts blamed on feminism. (Although it presents itself as simply biblical, transcending history and culture, it is a response from within basically North American conservative Christian circles.)

It is perhaps because complementarianism was birthed as a response, or reaction, to perceived threats to men’s roles in marriage and church office bearing that it often fails to get beyond some version of ‘he says jump, she says how high (and that’s the biblical way)’ – varying only in the degree to which the accompanying rhetoric modulates its harshness towards women and its glorification of testosterone.

But rather than rejecting, or seeking to remove, authority and submission from the discussion altogether, one of Miller’s important contributions is to recognise and emphasise three further biblical principles for how men and women should interact – unity, interdependence, and service.

  • Unity. Men and women are united in that we were all originally created in the image of God, and we are all fallen in Adam. In Christ, men and women are also equally re-made in the image of God, and joint-heirs of eternal life. (p37-39)
  • Interdependence. Men and women need each other. That is how we were originally created, that is how things work post-fall, and that is how all the members of Christ’s body are meant to function. (p39-41)
  • Service. Men and women have the same chief end, to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. We are equally obliged to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to use our gifts for each other’s benefit more than for our own. (p42-43)

Miller states in the Introduction that husbands should lead their wives and wives should submit to their husbands (p16). This understanding comes from Ephesians 5:22-33. She is evidently and explicitly neither a feminist nor an egalitarian (egalitarians, for the uninitiated, are complementarians’ next-biggest bogeypersons after actual feminists). Rather, as Miller says repeatedly, it is the ‘hyper focus’ on authority/submission that is problematic for our understanding of sex and gender.

When you reduce human relationships to this one principle, it can only be unhealthy. But by presenting these three additional biblical principles of unity, interdependence, and service, Miller identifies the context in which authority/submission can be safely affirmed. It is safe, in the sense of not demeaning to women and not an ego trip for men, to affirm authority/submission when authority/submission is just one component of a well-rounded view of how we should relate to one another.

(This is also incidentally helpful for providing a framework that you can use when evaluating whatever latest teaching or resources you may encounter on marriage, or ‘a woman’s place’ – if it falls into the trap of reducing marriage (or whatever relationship it may be) to authority/submission to the neglect of these other principles, equipped with Miller’s three topics you can identify that reductionistic approach and specify the areas where it is defective.)

2. The theological problems of complementarianism

Secondly, Miller lays bare the theological problems of complementarianism, or at least of the brand of complementarianism that maintains this excessive, reductionist focus on authority/submission.

Problem 1: Extra-scriptural requirements for how men should behave and how women should behave.

Complementarianism is at heart an American cultural response to an American manifestation of a cultural problem. And so it not only presents a one-size-fits-all approach to being a ‘good Christian man’ or a ‘good Christian woman,’ but that one size is American-shaped.

The straitjacket itself cannot but stunt and entangle. If you like sports, science, maths, and holding opinions, you must be… not such a good example of a woman. If you like baking, art, and nurturing, you must be… not such a good example of a man. But these markers of ‘good’ masculinity and femininity are cultural, not scriptural.

Miller walks us through a series of examples from the Bible of women who did allegedly masculine things – Deborah, Miriam, Abigail, Jochebed, Zipporah, Esther, Ruth, Rachel, Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, the Shunammite woman, Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Mephibosheth’s nurse, Jehosheba, Jael, Manoah’s wife, Lois and Eunice, Anna. (Chapter 8) ‘The Bible gives us positive examples of women who led, initiated, provided, protected, demonstrated strength, and had theological discernment. Making decisions, earning money, running businesses, being physically strong, and being interested in theology don’t make women less feminine.’ (p136)

And of course, if you want good biblical examples of meekness, gentleness, or tender-heartedness, the best are men – Moses, David, or Paul for starters (Miller gives more examples and discussion in Chapter 9). Her point is, ‘What we need to be careful about is conforming to narrow or wooden definitions of masculinity and femininity … the Bible gives us a much broader picture of what it means to be masculine and feminine than many conservative Christians do. Jacob and Esau were extreme opposites, but both were masculine. Deborah and Esther were very different, but both were feminine.’ (p148)

This point needs emphasising because what Scripture holds out as non-gender-specific graces are, after all, graces – supernatural gifts of the Spirit, as distinct from natural temperaments. Being culturally conditioned or personally temperamentally inclined to be ‘meek,’ or ‘bold,’ for example, is not the same thing as having the grace of meekness or the grace of boldness. These are the fruit of the Spirit, not the culturally defined ‘right’ way of expressing masculinity or femininity.

Miller also mentions in passing that there is often variation from culture to culture in what is deemed appropriate behaviour for women and men. She doesn’t particularly expand on this point, but it is instructive. In Scotland, for example, we have a tradition in conservative Christian circles of ‘the godly old woman in the north.’ This is a woman who could cut and thrust in doctrinal discussions with women and men, she didn’t spare to dish out rebukes to wrong-doers in the community, and she was renowned for witty one-liners putting down the pretentious and the sanctimonious. She does not fit the complementarian ideal of what a biblical woman should be, but that really only proves that complementarianism is a localised phenomenon that simply cannot accommodate cultural manifestations of Christianity other than its own.

Problem 2: Making gender a ‘gospel issue’

There is also the astonishing presumption of elevating complementarianism – this ideology, these pieces of advice about how to be a suitably submissive wife and an adequately authoritarian husband – to a ‘gospel issue’. As Miller summarises it, ‘We’re told that these beliefs about gender and gender roles are inseparable from the gospel. “The two are one.”’ (p165, quoting Strachan and Peacock, 2016) It is hardly believable, but she has to spell this out: ‘Complementarianism is not the actual gospel. We’re not saved by faith in or faithfulness to a particular understanding of gender, men, and women.’ (p165)

Gospel issues, you’d imagine, might be things like justification by faith, the extent of the atonement, or perhaps the doctrine of the trinity, the divinity of Christ, or his mediatorial work. Things which, if you get them wrong, would either prevent you being saved at all, or else deprive you of much spiritual comfort and maturity. Gender roles really do not belong in this category.

Yet many proponents of complementarianism rely on a wrong understanding of the trinity in order to bolster their teachings on authority/submission. They claim that the Son has eternally been submissive to the Father, and that there is a hierarchy in the Godhead in which the Father has the supreme authority. This teaching is false. It goes right to the heart of our most basic understanding of who God is. It contradicts the fact that the three persons in the Godhead are ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory’ (Shorter Catechism Q6). Miller (who deserves credit anyway for her previous work resisting this false teaching) here succinctly summarises the false teaching, its bad consequences, and the orthodox position (p114-117).

Additionally, some proponents of complementarianism distort and undermine Christ’s threefold mediatorial roles of prophet, priest, and king. They teach that a husband has the authority to act as prophet, priest, and king for his wife, somehow assisting Christ in sanctifying her (p156-197). Again I find it hard to understand how these teachings could ever find a foothold in even vaguely Reformed circles. When you think of the work that is actually involved for our Redeemer in his prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices (Shorter Catechism Q23-26), it is practically blasphemy to attribute that work, or any participation in it, to any human. Either it trivialises and secularises the work of Christ in accomplishing our redemption, or it puffs up (men’s side of) earthly, everyday human interactions beyond all proportion and propriety. The disparagement of Christ’s offices, in either case, can only result in loss of spiritual comforts and entanglement in spiritual bondage. Whereas the Reformation repudiated the role of priests, defined ecclesiastically, complementarians seem happy to reintroduce it, along with a couple of additional roles, defined on the basis of gender. But no man is competent to take on the role of applying redemption to any other person, and no woman has the right to look to a man instead of Christ, or between her and Christ, for the benefits of redemption. Gender is irrelevant to soteriology.

So there is a double problem associated with calling gender a gospel issue. On the one hand, it distracts from the actual gospel, the good news of salvation for sinners on the basis of what Christ has done, to focus on something of vastly less significance. On the other hand, it distorts the actual gospel, chipping away at its foundations by teaching a wrong understanding of who God is and a wrong understanding of Christ’s mediatorial functions. Miller is right to say, ‘Equating gender roles with the gospel, equating marriage with the gospel, and putting men in the role of Christ as priest and mediator for their wives and families creates a type of works righteousness: “Do this and live.” … When marriage is emphasised as living out a picture of the gospel and as the highest calling for women, along with bearing children, it tends towards making marriage and family into idols. This is especially harmful for singles and widows and for those who don’t fit the neat box of a nuclear family unit.’ (p165)

There is more, but I’ll be briefer.

Problem 3: Mere authority isn’t loveable

God’s grace makes God’s law loveable and a pleasure for God’s people to submit to. This is basically the whole point of the gospel, of finally finding the law in the hand of Christ instead of in the hand of Moses. But men have nothing comparable to grace to offer to make their rule with rod of iron something for women to joyously embrace. They are only fallen sinners like the rest of us. In fact, reducing our relationships to questions of authority (whether that is everyday relationships in society, ecclesiastical relationships in church, or what should be the loving relationship of marriage) only breeds antagonism and resentment. (p203) Pitting men and women against each other, in an endless battle for who gets to be in charge, is foreign to the spirit of the gospel. And the suspicion and hostility it fosters between one and another is increasingly pernicious the more close and loving the relationship is meant to be.

Problem 4: Presenting complementarianism as a sure way of getting your behaviour right

If only wives were more submissive! If only husbands would man up and be proper leaders! Sign up to complementarianism and save Western civilisation and your marriage!

But Miller is right to flag that abusers can take cover under complementarian teaching. (p237) Complementarians say things like, ‘Of course a wife shouldn’t be downtrodden by her husband!’ as if it’s the last thing that’s ever going to happen. Yet this is such naivety. Partly for the obvious reason that if you grant all this power to a sinner, it is inevitable that some will misuse it.

But partly also, and of more concern to the Reformed, it is so quaintly blind to the realities of our original and actual sinfulness and the human impossibility of sanctification. No ideology is capable of dealing with the corruption of our hearts, the transgressions of our lives, or the problems in relationships between sinful individuals. Complementarianism, for all its deployment of Scripture texts and its overlap with Christian concepts, is only another ideology. At its best, it offers some good advice which might help some people in some contexts. But it is not a means of grace, or something we can pin our hopes of temporal or spiritual salvation on, or something that can really enable or motivate us to be better people or have better relationships.

3. Moving on from complementarianism

Hopefully, in a decade or so people will only be talking about complementarianism the way we talk about woodchip wallpaper now – it played such a huge part in so many people’s lives, yet the question now on everyone’s lips is, ‘What on earth were we thinking?’

Miller is right to want to move the discussion beyond authority and submission. She has proposed those three further principles – unity, interdependence, and service – and fleshed them out across several chapters. This is a major piece of progress which deserves to be built on by others going forward.

Miller concludes with an invitation to “evaluate our beliefs and attitudes about women and men and test everything against Scripture.” (p258) Perhaps the most important of her diagnostic questions is, ‘Do your relationships with others tend toward co-labouring or toward antagonism?’ The tendency within complementarianism is towards antagonism, stoking conflicts and mistrust between men and women.

By contrast the co-labouring Miller recommends is Scriptural. It is solidly grounded in familiar truths: (1) men and women have the same chief end (WSC 1) and both bear the image of God (WSC 10), (2) we have all sinned in and fallen with Adam (WSC 16), (3) the same way of salvation is open to both men and women (WSC 20-37), and (4) the faith and obedience required of a saved sinner is almost entirely non-gender-specific (WSC 39-107).

Going back to Scripture and back to Scriptural expressions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy will grant us a perspective and an approach which restores friendship and mutual helpfulness to broken and inadequate relationships, and will adorn the gospel much more successfully.

now available in the UK

HughMartin-selected-cover2-416x622I’m delighted to say that the collection of Hugh Martin’s writings edited by Matthew and myself is now available in the UK.

It’s worth reading (we only wrote the preface) – Hugh Martin was a genius, and the pieces in this volume are superb. He excels at diving deep, and then deeper, into the truth of a passage of Scripture and pressing home inescapably how much comfort the believer can have from this or that truth, showing from all sorts of angles how much glory it gives to our triumphant, victorious Saviour.