[Long post, written ages ago.]
Traditionally speaking, the religion of highly conservative Calvinists is something that they carry with them into the everyday activities of general life. I mean, as you work with colleagues and interact with your clients and do your shopping and meet your neighbours, you deal with people as such. Even if they’re atheists, or non-Christians, or a different kind of Christian from you, you deal with them in a professional way, or in a neighbourly way. They are not a serious threat to your spirituality (there is a doctrine of the perseverance of the saints). Being a particular type of Christian hasn’t traditionally meant being afraid of the wider society which doesn’t quite share your views, or disapproving of it, or despising it, or being shocked by it, but just playing your part in it.
Whatever this means in terms of salt-and-light-type effects for non-Christians, it’s interesting to think of the advantages this way of life has for the church. I don’t mean any specific denomination, but believers generally. One thing in particular is that it keeps the church sensitive to the reality of scandal. When a Christian does something wrong, and the whole community knows it, all the other Christians in the community feel the repercussions straight away. Years of hard work come undone, and accusations of hypocrisy fly round the more readily, and the memories last a long time. You never thought anyone took any notice that ordinary Christians lived ‘soberly, righteously, and godly,’ until one of them slipped up, and then everybody decided that none of them did. Christians behaving badly is not only an offence within the church but a scandal in the wider community.
But this is only the case when Christians are part of the community. If it was the case that Christians herded themselves into inward facing ghettos, and feared secular contamination to the extent of avoiding contacts outside their particular congregation or even their particular family, then frankly, doctrine and morals would have scope to run riot and neither would the wider community barely care what they got up to beyond keeping well clear, nor would the paranoid folks in the ghetto have to face the reality check that the reactions of the wider community would communicate to them if they only had the kind of relationship that would make that possible.
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Now what has prompted this rumination is a strange series of coincidences. The first was a friend sending me a link on facebook to a video called Divided. Divided is the American story of two teenagers who, we are asked to believe, went out on a personal voyage to investigate the failings of youth ministries in the (American) church. Making some perfectly valid points along the way, the movie turns out to be a vendetta against what the producers call “age-segregated” churches and a big plug on the other hand for “family-integrated” churches – all youth pastors might as well be fired, and their energies devoted instead to pastoring fathers into taking responsibility for how their sons (especially) are being brought up in the faith. “Mothers matter too,” I scrawled in a hasty reply to my friend on the then-latest new and annoying facebook messaging system, and thought little more of it.
Until I clicked on the hundred-odd comments on a Green Baggins post on feminism and the church. Now I should just mention that feminism and the church is an issue that holds very little interest for me. I’ll talk about it if I have to, but a certain over-familiarity with the lazy equation of feminism with lesbian socialism/ socialist lesbianism makes the discussion just too boring, and non-Pauline, to deserve an awful lot of attention (I’m also far from the only person to feel that the bitterly politicised gender debates of American evangelicalism are more than welcome to just stay over there). But this comment thread started to join up some dots for me, faintly. Someone mentioned the patriarchy movement, just as had popped up in conversation on facebook, and (naturally) I did some googling.
And discovered a third thing. Quite a while ago, someone showed me a highly dubious book of parenting advice for (American, again) Christians based mainly on the premise that child-rearing is some sort of all-out war between parents and their perpetually rebelling children. In this ongoing conflict the primary aim of the parent, as obligated by scripture, is to ‘break the will’ of the child by hitting them with implements if they cry, until they stop crying (sic). Here let me note the glaring fallacy of attempting to use physical means to change anybody’s will, and leave the other blatant problems to speak for themselves. Obviously we met this book with not a little incredulity and took it for granted that it was sufficiently nutty on virtually each page that nobody would be able to take it very seriously. Imagine my consternation, then, to see this book being recommended in the context of this patriarchy malarkey from whence also springs the family-integrated church idea.
Patriarchy gets blamed for a lot by feminists. But this is patriarchy like you’ve never seen it before. We’re talking wives forbidden to question any decision their husband makes, daughters trained up to be “helpmeets” to (bizarrely) their fathers, women discouraged from voting, women forbidden from working outside the home, any problems in a marriage blamed on the wife for being insufficiently submissive to the husband, education dismissed as pointless for daughters since they only need to know how to look after babies and how to be submissive to the man of the house. Women are served the Lord’s Supper not by elders but by their own husbands or even their own sons. This is plain weird.
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The thing is, you could probably just do an eyeroll at persistent cult-like craziness on the part of jumped up little demagogues across the pond who go to any lengths in twisting scripture to flatter their own egos, and in a kinder moment spare a thought for the poor hoodwinked women who are the primary victims of their loopiness – add it to the list of outrages in the world you lament but can’t change, and move on. This is the civilised UK, after all. But what prompted the facebook conversation in the first place was that this movement is calling itself Reformed. That, or it’s the principles and ideals of some independent patriarchy movement being insinuated into the Reformed scene. This puts it somewhere at least in the general region of our backyard, and calls for evaluation. Just to spell that out: it is ludicrous to find any connection between this “patriarchy movement”, this brand of “family-integrated” churches, and the principles and practice of the Reformation.
For Reformation principles, consider:
1) Conscience. The church has no right to go beyond what Scripture mandates in terms of the requirements it imposes on believers. The list of things which Scripture mandates, either explicitly or by good and necessary inference, is a lot more limited than some would have us believe. Voting (whether, and for whom) is not on that list. Education (how, and for how long) isn’t either. Organisations popping up to lay down the law on issues like these are acting contrary to the principles of the Reformation to the precise extent to which they load these requirements onto the conscience of church members.
2) Sin. Quite right to say that children are born with rebellious wills, but the principal rebellion is not against their parents, but against God. It’s not the parent’s job to break the child’s will, or somehow beat them into a converted state – they haven’t the power and they haven’t the right. It’s not a broken will that salvation involves anyway, but a renewed will.
3) Personal responsibility. The insistence on (women’s) submissiveness to (men’s) authority is misdirected – the supreme authority is not a man but God. People are directly responsible to God, not to any human intermediary, no matter if the church leadership is very authoritarian and a husband very domineering. If a husband starts expecting his wife to subsume her will into his – too late! her will is God’s already. Abdicating all your decision-making responsibilities and your critical thinking faculty to some man (any one) is devolving onto that person the power that God alone has, and for this to be made a requirement in the name of God and bolstered by alleged scriptural support borders on the profane.
And for Reformation practice, I meant it when I said this brand of patriarchy has never been seen before. There is no historical precedent for its practices within the churches of the Reformation. In fact, Christianity has brought emancipation and respect to women tangled in the very kinds of oppressive situations which this patriarchy movement now seems quite happy to emulate and extend. Rather than pushing some distorted notion of downtrodden “helpmeet,” the Bible expects Christian women to be intelligent, capable, doctrinally informed, and worthy of respect, in order to be “meet” or appropriately matched with intelligent, capable, doctrinally informed, and respect-worthy Christian men. Men who need to surround themselves with cowed, cringing drudges with all the gumption squeezed out of them in order to be satisfied that they’re fulfilling some God-given responsibility are in a very bad place.
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If people were less fearful of the community outside their family and congregation and more engaged with it, there would be less likelihood of fads like this patriarchy movement gaining traction. Increased exposure to Reformation principles and the social history of the church would no doubt help as well, but in the meantime, a handy strategy would be to get to know your neighbours better. The fearsome spectres conjured up from contemporary social ills to persuade well-meaning parents to beat their babies and convince husbands to tyrannise their wives really don’t deserve the attention they’re getting. Society at large would react with outrage if a care home treated its children the way that some people are advising Christian parents to treat theirs, or if one colleague treated another the way some people are advising Christian husbands to treat their wives. For these things to be baptised as biblical, Christian, even Reformed is subversive of the bible, Christianity, and the Reformation – it should cause offence within the church as well as scandal in the wider world. Being part of a shrinking Christian minority entails enough differences between you and the non-Christian majority as it is. Importing unbiblical (and, frankly, abusive) theories and practices to magnify the boundary markers is just wrong.