Man looking out at NYC from inside

COVID, courage and temperance

public health v. economy

The U.S. is dealing with two distinct but related crises. The first is a public health crisis: the spread of a pandemic virus. The second is an economic crisis precipitated by our efforts to mitigate the public health crisis. The public debate around these crises purports to be a debate about competing values: economics versus public health.

Some argue that the economic crisis has become so grave, with unemployment surpassing 20%, that governors should lift restrictions on businesses and accept the public health fallout as an unfortunate consequence of salvaging our economy. After all, they argue, we regularly sacrifice human life on the altar of economic gain. We don’t shut down the entire economy during flu season even though tens of thousands die from flu-related complications every year. We could reduce traffic fatalities to roughly zero if we lowered all speed limits to 15mph; but we don’t do that, either.

On the other hand, public health experts insist that resuming our economic activity now would be an unmitigated disaster. Without rigorous testing and contact tracing, the exponential spread of the virus would overwhelm our healthcare system. Hospitals would be flooded with COVID–19 patients, many of whom require intubation. Without adequate protective equipment, doctors and nurses would get sick (as many already have). Routine medical procedures like appendectomies and bypass surgeries would become increasingly difficult to manage. As local healthcare systems reach the limits of their capacity, doctors would be forced to deny treatment to those who are least likely to benefit from precious resources—gradually reducing the age at which patients are given access to ventilators and ICU beds, from 70 to 65, then 60, and so on.

dire warnings and bad science fiction

Public health experts are issuing dire warnings about the consequences of lifting social restrictions without a rigorous plan for testing and tracing. Meanwhile, some politicians and other non-experts regale the public with stories about a parallel dimension in which we all agree to put on our big-boy pants and go to work. As a cost of doing business, Grandma might be stricken with an exotic plague. These stories are pure science fiction—more precisely, bad science fiction, insofar as they are premised not on surpassing scientific consensus but completely rejecting it.

For the sake of discussion, suppose the experts are correct. (This supposition shouldn’t be too difficult to entertain—they are, after all, experts.) Within months of returning to work, there would be thousands more COVID-19 patients over the age of 60 slowly suffocating to death, without medical intervention, every single day. The death toll would grow exponentially, until either the virus runs its course—claiming somewhere between 1 and 2 million lives—or we relent and agree to start the process of social distancing all over again, at which point the number of COVID–19 deaths would continue to rise for at least a couple of weeks before receding.

Does anyone genuinely believe, even for a moment, that we would have a functioning economy in such a scenario? Of course not. It’s inconceivable. So the narrative about bravely risking our health for the sake of the economy is mere fantasy: there is no possible state of affairs in which our economy flourishes amidst the kind of devastation forecasted by experts.

the folly of “economics first”

The Chinese government learned this the hard way. They tried the “economics first” approach in Wuhan and it failed so spectacularly that COVID–19 is now a pandemic. Strangely, the most severe critics of China’s approach in Wuhan are among the loudest voices promoting the very same “economics first” strategy in the U.S. The economic lesson to be drawn from Wuhan is that the path to economic recovery runs inexorably through public health.

We will not be saved by showmanship or marketing gimmicks. The pandemic is indifferent to public opinion. And a miracle cure is not forthcoming. So, as we await the results of clinical drug trials, we need exactly what we needed a month ago and the month before that: testing and tracing. We must embrace the hard work of doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way—in a word, we need virtue.

wisdom, courage and temperance

Plato’s Republic addresses this matter at length. He divides the members of a political community into three estates: political leadership, soldiers, and everyone else. In a good republic, each of these classes exemplifies a cardinal virtue. For obvious reasons, the political class must have wisdom and warriors require courage. To the rest of us he assigns the virtue of temperance. For if the general public becomes addicted to the trappings of wealth, the wisdom of our leaders will be overtaken by the tyranny of collective appetite; and insatiable consumption will waste the courage of our soldiers on wars of conquest.

For present purposes, our political community can be usefully divided into three groups: political leadership, essential workers, and everyone else. Our lives depend on the courage of our essential workers—from doctors and nurses to deliverymen and grocery store clerks. And if we proceed with an intemperate “economics first” strategy, the courage of our medical professionals and other essential workers will be wasted on preventable waves of illness.


hiatus

There are a couple of reasons for my recent hiatus from the blog.

The reason for my absence over the past few months is the birth of my first child.

Additionally, a university press has expressed interest in publishing my book on evangelicalism, politics and institutional justice. So, as I emerge from the fog of new-parenthood, most of my writing energies will be devoted to the book project.

Although I don’t plan to post with any regularity until the book manuscript is complete (around the end of 2020), it seems likely that I’ll have occasion to comment on current events (especially in the SBC context); and I may post some early drafts of ideas that I’m working out for the book.

As always, dear reader, I appreciate your interest.

Woman calculator invoice business

SBC women who work and the ultra-complementarians they support

According to a small but vocal minority of ultra-complementarian faculty at Southern Baptist seminaries, our society’s most pressing infirmities would be cured if only Christian women would fully embrace their God-given role as homemakers. These men are less vocal about the fact that they accept salaries from institutions that depend upon the financial contributions of women who are employed outside of the home. You might say that they want to have their complementarian cake and get paid, too.

The inconsistency between what these men say and how they are paid cannot go perpetually unnoticed. Southern Baptists are increasingly hostile toward institutional hypocrisy—particularly as it concerns the church’s treatment of women and other historically disenfranchised groups.

So, when public scrutiny descends upon the uncomfortable fact that working Southern Baptist women are contributing to the salaries of men who earn their pay by declaring that women should really stay at home, I fear that the financial consequences for Southern Baptist institutions may be catastrophic.

In the hope that such a catastrophe might be averted, I have a modest proposal for reconciling doctrine and practice among seminary faculty on matters of gender and authority. I’ll begin by stating the ultra-complementarian position in the language of its most enthusiastic proponents.

ultra-complementarianism

In describing his own commitment to ultra-complementarianism, Owen Strachan, an associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Seminary, notes that: “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism.”[1] He goes on to observe the distinct roles assigned to men and women:

Husbands will have long days and experience physical problems from work; when given children by God, wives will face some stress and tiredness from caring for active little ones all day. … Men can image Christ the savior-king by folding laundry on occasion, by getting down on the floor to play with their kids, and by doing dishes when they can. But they must commit themselves primarily to the work of provision, whether of spiritual leadership in the home or financial breadwinning to sustain it.[2]

Strachan, Owen. “Of “Dad Moms” and “Man Fails”: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness.” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood XVII, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 26.
Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

In a blog post that refers to stay-at-home dads as “man fails,” Strachan gives something of a finer point to his position:

Men are not called by God to be “working at home” as women are in Titus 2:5. The ground is not cursed for women in Genesis 3:17, but for men, whose responsibility it was to work outside of the home—and to protect women… The curse bore down upon Eve’s primary activity, child bearing, showing that her intended sphere of labor and dominion-taking was the home (Genesis 3:16).[3]

Strachan, Owen. “The “Dad Mom” and the “Man Fail”.” Patheos. Last modified November 2, 2011. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/2011/11/the-dad-mom-and-the-man-fail/.

And in a debate on Moody Radio in 2012, Strachan summed up his view of gender roles in the following way:

I would say both men and women bear the image of God and so are fully invested for a life of meaningful service for God. That’s my starting point, but I would say then from a broad biblical theology that men are called to be leaders, providers, protectors and women are nurturers. Women follow men in the home and the church. Women are called to the high calling of raising families, given that God blesses them with children, and making homes, being homemakers. These are roles that I think Scripture hands down for us pretty clearly in texts like Genesis 3.[4]

Allen, Bob. “Prof terms stay-at-home-dads ‘man fails’.” Baptist News Global. Last modified September 27, 2012. Accessed July 20, 2019.
https://baptistnews.com/article/prof-terms-stay-at-home-dads-man-fails/#.XTPPWy-ZN0u .

Bruce Ware, professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary and former president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, captures his commitment to ultra-complementarianism more succinctly: “Clearly, God made men stronger and bigger, as a gender, and he made women able to give birth to, feed, and nurture children.”[5] (I offer my thoughts on this sort of masculinity here.)

Dorothy Patterson, wife of former seminary president Paige Patterson, expresses the same sentiment in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a text that Strachan commends as a “theological masterpiece,”[6]

Women have been liberated right out of the genuine freedom they enjoyed for centuries to oversee the home, rear the children, and pursue personal creativity; they have been brainwashed to believe that the absence of a titled, payroll occupation enslaves a woman to failure… In fact, the opposite is true because a salaried job and titled position can inhibit a woman’s natural nesting instinct and maternity by inverting her priorities so that failures almost inevitably come in the rearing of her own children and the building of an earthly shelter for those whom she loves most.[7]

Patterson, Dorothy. “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective.” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 372. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991.

She goes on to spell out exactly what a woman’s priorities might look like when properly ordered, in the absence of a salaried job or titled position:

Keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife—even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors. … Few women realize what great service they are doing for mankind and for the kingdom of Christ when they provide a shelter for the family and good mothering… No professional pursuit so uniquely combines the most menial tasks with the most meaningful opportunities.[8]

Patterson, Dorothy. “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective.” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 373. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991.
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

So, according to Strachan, Ware and the Pattersons, God created men to provide financial stability for the family; and God made women to care for children and keep house.[9] They don’t state explicitly that it’s wrong for a woman to work outside the home. But it’s clear that any actual human woman who fulfills her wifely and motherly duties in the way that they describe would find it difficult to pursue a professional vocation; and that fact is not incidental to their position.

Finally, it’s worth noting that ultra-complementarians claim that their position on gender roles is a biblical mandate that is worth fighting over—especially when it comes to teaching or the exercise of authority in religious organizations. Consider the words of Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (at Southern Seminary) and current president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. When Campus Crusade demoted Daniel Hartman for prohibiting women from leading co-ed Bible studies associated with CRU, Burk stated:

I commend Daniel for standing upon the truth of God even at great personal cost. This conflict threatens not just his ministry but his livelihood. … I’m sure it would have been easier simply to let it go and revise his personal beliefs in order to protect his position. He didn’t do that, and I am grateful for the stand he has taken.[10]

Burk, Denny. “When It Costs To Be Complementarian.” Denny Burk: A commentary on theology, politics and culture. Last modified December 1, 2012. Accessed July 15, 2019. http://www.dennyburk.com/when-it-costs-to-be-complementarian/.

Moreover, in criticizing the decision of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship to incorporate leadership roles for women in their church, Burk states that “the issue would definitely be one worth dividing over.”[11] So, according to ultra-complementarians like Ware, Burk, Strachan and the Pattersons, their commitment to patriarchy is more than a matter of conscience. It’s about submitting to the gender hierarchy that God prescribes for human flourishing. (And, ultimately, it’s about winning the Culture War.)

working Southern Baptist women

What Strachan, Ware, Burk and their ultra-complementarian colleagues seem to ignore is that their employers rely on financial contributions from women who work outside the home. These contributions come in two forms. First, the Cooperative Program (CP) allocates funds to each of the six seminaries based on enrollment; and an estimated 35% of the CP’s annual budget comes from the tithes and offerings of working Southern Baptist women.[12] Second, an estimated 25% of seminarians depend on income from their spouse’s employment to pay tuition and living expenses while completing their degrees.[13]

Here’s the big picture. If Southern Baptist families conformed to the patriarchal fantasy that ultra-complementarians describe, then Southern Baptist seminary faculty like Strachan, Ware and Burk would have to take a massive cut in pay. By way of detail, let’s consider the financial situation at the two SBC seminaries that employ the most strident ultra-complementarian faculty: Midwestern (Strachan) and Southern (Ware and Burk).

According to the Council of Seminary Presidents’ 2019 report, Southern received about $10.1M from the CP for the 2017-18 academic year (roughly $4400 per student).[14] That makes CP contributions Southern’s second-largest revenue stream, accounting for a little over 19% of Southern’s total income. But in the ideal world of ultra-complementarians like Burk and Ware, Southern Baptist women wouldn’t have any income on which to tithe. Given that 35% of the CP’s annual budget comes from the tithes of working Southern Baptist women, that would mean 35% less money for the CP to distribute among subsidiaries like the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, Lifeway and seminaries like Southern.

If we set aside fixed operations costs (e.g. energy bills, maintenance, transport, property rental),  and assume (charitably) that the CP would make even cuts across the board, eliminating the tithes and offerings of working Southern Baptist women would reduce the CP’s contribution to Southern from $10.1M to $6.5M.[15] That would constitute a 7% reduction in Southern’s total income.

Southern’s largest source of revenue is tuition and fees. Full-time seminary students attend class for at least 12 hours per week, typically during regular business hours. As a general rule, advanced degree programs require about two hours of study for every hour spent in class. So full-time seminary students should be studying for about 24 hours per week. Thus, between class time and study time, full-time seminary students are engaged in coursework for about 36 hours per week.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

That 36-hour time commitment makes it difficult for seminarians to secure benefitted employment that would enable them to pay living costs and raise a family, not to mention pay their tuition. So an estimated 25% of seminary students would be unable to attend seminary were it not for the substantive financial support of their wives.[16] Thus, without the financial contributions of working seminary wives, Southern’s enrollment would drop from 2,339 full-time students to 1,754. That would slash Southern’s tuition revenue by $4.34M.

Now recall that the CP’s contribution to each seminary is based on full-time enrollment. So without the contributions of working women, Southern wouldn’t just stand to lose $4.34M in revenue from the 585 students who would be unable to attend seminary were it not for the financial support of their wives. Southern would also lose the CP’s corresponding $4,400 contribution for each of those 585 students, which comes to about $2.55M. That brings the financial shortfall from a 25% reduction in full-time enrollment to about $6.9M, which is 13% of Southern’s current budget.

Combining the 35% cut to CP funding with the fallout from a 25% drop in enrollment, Southern Seminary’s budget would be about $10.5M lighter without the financial contributions of working Southern Baptist women. That’s 20% of Southern’s $52.1M budget for the 2017-18 academic year.

Making matters worse for ultra-complementarians like Ware and Burk, salary and benefits only account for 52% of Southern’s budget. Give or take a banquet here and a per diem there, the other 48% of Southern’s budget goes to fixed operational costs like maintaining its facilities.[17] Fixed costs can’t be reduced—that’s what makes them fixed. So the 20% budget shortfall would need to come out of the 52% of Southern’s budget that goes to salary and benefits. That would bring total expenditures on salary and benefits from $27.1M to $16.7M—a reduction of 38%. In other words, if working Southern Baptist women withdrew their financial support from Southern Seminary, faculty like Ware and Burk would need to take a 38% cut in pay.

The situation at Midwestern is even more precarious. Without the financial contributions of working Southern Baptist women, Midwestern’s budget would go from $22.1M to $16.4M—a loss of 26%. And their budget for salaries and benefits would go from $11.9M to $6.3M. So, if Southern Baptist women were to stop supporting Midwestern financially, Strachan and his colleagues would need to take a 47% cut in pay.

a modest proposal

My concern is this. Generally speaking, insulting one’s patrons is a bad idea. In light of the views espoused by ultra-complementarian seminary faculty, Southern Baptist women might decide that their tithe dollars would be put to better use by an organization that is unaffiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. After all, nothing in Scripture says that a woman’s tithe must go to the Baptist church that she attends; or that the tithes she gives to her Baptist church must go to the CP; or that her Baptist church cannot contribute to the CP on the condition that its contribution doesn’t support SBC seminaries in general, or seminaries whose faculty promote ultra-complementarianism in particular. Scripture says none of that.

My fear, in short, is that Southern Baptist women might come to the realization that they no longer wish to subsidize the propagation of ultra-complementarianism in Southern Baptist seminaries by contributing to the salaries of men like Ware, Strachan and Burk. And in light of the economic power that women hold over institutions like Southern and Midwestern, the consequences of that realization would be financially ruinous—not only to the few faculty who bite the hands that enable them to feed their families, but to the majority of their colleagues whose public stance on gender roles is consistent with the 2000 Faith & Message.

So, in the hope that such a catastrophe might be averted, I offer the following modest proposal. Seminary faculty who continue to publicly endorse the ultra-complementarianism of Ware, Strachan, Burk and the Pattersons should take a voluntary 20% cut in pay, effective immediately.

Those who profess that employment outside the home is a detriment to the “high calling” of all wives and mothers should not willingly profit from the very employment that they regard as so detrimental to such an important calling.

This proposal is indeed modest, insofar as it reflects a low estimate of the overall financial contributions that women make to Southern Baptist seminaries. It doesn’t account for, e.g., past contributions that women have made to building campaigns that produced the classrooms and offices where seminary faculty now work. It doesn’t account for the contributions that women make to defraying the fixed costs associated with operating a modern academic institution, e.g. air conditioning, electricity and landscaping. And it doesn’t call upon ultra-complementarian seminary faculty to repay years of financial benefits that they have accepted from women who work outside the home.


[1] Strachan, Owen. “Of “Dad Moms” and “Man Fails”: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness.” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood XVII, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 25. It’s notable that Strachan was subsequently named president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. To my knowledge, he’s never retracted or revised his equation of “complementarianism” with patriarchy. It would seem, then, that the term “complementarianism” has far more to do with public relations than any substantive aversion to patriarchy per se.

[2] Strachan (2012): 26.

[3] Strachan, Owen. “The “Dad Mom” and the “Man Fail”.” Patheos. Last modified November 2, 2011. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/2011/11/the-dad-mom-and-the-man-fail/.

[4] Allen, Bob. “Prof terms stay-at-home-dads ‘man fails’.” Baptist News Global. Last modified September 27, 2012. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://baptistnews.com/article/prof-terms-stay-at-home-dads-man-fails/#.XTPPWy-ZN0u.

[5] Ware, Bruce A. “Could Our Savior Have Been a Woman?” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood VIII, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 34.

[6] Strachan, Owen. “A Brief History of Complementarian Literature.” IX 9Marks. Last modified March 19, 2015. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://www.9marks.org/article/a-brief-history-of-complementarian-literature/.

[7] Patterson, Dorothy. “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective.” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 372. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991.

[8] Patterson (1991): 373.

[9] Given her commitment to ultra-complementarianism, I doubt that Dorothy Patterson is in the habit of publishing views that haven’t met with her husband’s approval. Hence, “the Pattersons.”

[10] Burk, Denny. “When It Costs To Be Complementarian.” Denny Burk: A commentary on theology, politics and culture. Last modified December 1, 2012. Accessed July 15, 2019. http://www.dennyburk.com/when-it-costs-to-be-complementarian/. Given the recent controversy surrounding Beth Moore, it’s worth observing that the CRU incident didn’t involve a church or a Sunday morning.

[11] Burk, Denny. “Some reflections on a church that has recently embraced egalitarianism.” Denny Burk: A commentary on theology, politics, and culture. Last modified April , 2016. Accessed July 15, 2019. http://www.dennyburk.com/some-reflections-on-a-church-that-has-recently-embraced-egalitarianism/. Note that Burk’s emphasis on the importance of gender roles is consistent with Strachan’s view that “To a considerable degree, complementarianism helps us understand who we are and what we have been placed on this earth to do. It does not attempt to answer every question about life. But it does give us a framework for understanding what men and women have been called to do by Almighty God.” (Strachan, Owen. “Complementarianism as a Worldview.” IX 9Marks. Last modified March 19, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2019. https://www.9marks.org/article/complementarianism-as-a-worldview/.)

[12] This is my own (undoubtedly low) estimate, based on factors like median income, prevalence of women in the workforce, etc. If the Cooperative Program keeps statistics on such matters, I’d be happy to be corrected.

[13] This is my own (undoubtedly low) estimate, based on my own experience and informal polling. Exact numbers are welcome from anyone who has them.

[14] “The Council of Seminary Presidents Seminary Formula 2019.” Cooperative Program: 2019 Ministry Report. Accessed July 21, 2019. http://www.sbc.net/cp/ministryreports/2019/presidents.asp.

[15] This assumption is charitable because it seems more likely that the CP would make smaller cuts to subsidiaries associated with missions—i.e., the CP’s original mandate.

[16] Again, this is my own (undoubtedly low) estimate.

[17] Actually, the cost of maintaining facilities isn’t entirely fixed. But the modest variability wouldn’t work in Southern’s favor. Empty dorms or family housing units would still need heat during the winter, e.g., to prevent pipes from freezing. But instead of having residents to pay for that heat, Southern would need to foot the bill as an institution.

on Christian masculinity

In six years as a husband, I’ve learned two things about marriage. (In case you’re counting, that’s one thing every three years.) The first is that it forces you to become a better person in ways you wouldn’t have chosen.

Don’t get me wrong. I was no slouch before I met my wife. In fact, I was a diligent self-improver. Once in 2009, and again in 2012, I came very close to having six-pack abs.

Following a breakup in my early twenties, I realized I had to come to grips with my sense of entitlement. Around the same time, I finally caught on that everyone in my grad program was at least as smart as I was—no one was going to hand me a Ph.D. just for showing up. So I learned to work hard instead of skating on natural ability and the advantages of growing up in a home with two teachers who have doctorates in education. By the time I got married, for all I knew, I’d conquered most of the character flaws that had been with me, in some way or other, since my days as a husky jean-wearing twelve year-old.

marriage isn’t convenient

By the time I met my wife at age 28, I honestly believed I was a patient person—nevermind that I literally did whatever I wanted when I wasn’t teaching class. I thought I was emotionally enlightened—nevermind that I simply excused myself from situations that required me to emote anything other than happiness or anger. And I took great pride in the fact that my apartment was always spotless—nevermind that my meals consisted entirely of cheerios or take-out, typically consumed while hovering over the kitchen sink.

So I wasn’t hopeless before I met my wife. But before marriage, the quest for my best self moved at my pace, according to priorities that I set. Everything was clean and convenient.

Marriage, on the other hand, is not convenient. But God didn’t create my wife or the institution of marriage with my convenience in mind. Marriage is about sanctification. It’s about acknowledging personal flaws that I’d be more comfortable ignoring, and reorienting my understanding of self-fulfillment toward a shared horizon.

there’s no such thing as an excellent husband

The second thing I’ve learned about marriage is that there’s no such thing as an excellent husband. There are things that every good husband does and there are things that no good husband does: a good husband remembers his wedding anniversary and his wife’s birthday, and he doesn’t commit adultery. But remembering my anniversary doesn’t make me a good husband, and neither does not committing adultery.

In other words, there’s no universal ‘excellent husband’ checklist. My marriage will not go well if I make a habit of saying, “Well, I earned a paycheck, washed the dishes and took out the trash. I talked to you about your day and how it made you feel. And I’m still undefeated in the adultery department. Check, check and check. I’ll be in my study, nailing down the details of the tribulation-rapture timeline.” That’s just too easy.

I am a good husband only insofar as I am a good husband to my wife, in the context of the life that we share. It’s impossible to be a good husband in the abstract. Beyond minimal guidelines like “say sorry” and “buy flowers,” success as a husband is totally meaningless apart from the unique demands of my particular marriage.

there’s no such thing as an excellent Christian

Following Christ is no different—which is why Scripture likens the relationship between God and his people to the sacrament of marriage.

It’s impossible to be a Christ follower in the abstract. There are things that every excellent Christ follower does and there are things that no excellent Christ follower does. No excellent Christ follower takes a widow’s only coat as collateral for a loan, or refuses to provide refuge to orphans and immigrants. All Christ followers demonstrate our love for God in the way that we care for those who bear his image. And caring for those who bear God’s image is meaningless apart from the unique needs of particular human beings. 

I am not a good Christ follower if I’ve made a habit of saying, “Well, I put my tithe in the offering plate. I invited that cashier at the grocery store to church last week. And I’ve taken every opportunity to reiterate exactly where I stand on homosexuality and abortion. Check, check and check. I’ll be down at Starbucks, working on a blog post about the mature manliness of Christ.”

All of that is just too easy. Anyone can donate to a building fund. Anyone can invite strangers to church. It’s a lot harder to put your ambitions on the altar every day and practice a faith that attracts people who know you—a faith that interests those who aren’t Christians and challenges those who are. And railing against homosexuality and abortion to a room full of people who say “Amen” and pat you on the back on their way out the door doesn’t make you a mature man. It certainly doesn’t make you a prophet. Prophets say hard things to the church about people in church.

According to the Gospels, those who didn’t claim to know God received from Christ nothing but kindness, gentleness and truth spoken in unmistakable love. According to the Gospels, Christ rebuked those who claimed to know God and didn’t act like it. According to the Gospels, Christ encountered the moneychangers in the Temple and threw them out, citing Jeremiah’s warning to the religious establishment:

Do not trust deceitful words, chanting, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Instead, if you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever. But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help. Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods that you have not known? Then do you come and stand before me in this house that bears my name and say, “We are rescued, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts”? Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.

Jeremiah 7:4-11 (CSB); emphasis added.

Church isn’t a hideout for thieves—not because thieves are irredeemable, but because the house that bears God’s name isn’t a safety deposit box for the spoils of injustice. This is echoed in Paul’s admonition to temper our association with immoral people inside the church:

I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? God judges outsiders. Remove the evil person from among you.

I Corinthians 5:9-13 (CSB); emphasis added.

Jesus isn’t a cowboy

An alarming number of evangelical males think that since Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, they have license to turn Christianity into some sort of gnostic virility cult. This astonishes me. They’re calling for a return to 1950s-era norms of masculinity—conveniently omitting the fact that we didn’t live through the great depression or kill any Nazis. A lot of them actually drink lattes. Lattes. I cannot imagine a more comfortable mode of human existence than that of a 21st century, latte-drinking John Wayne with a smartphone and nothing better to do than tweet at Beth Moore while his wife folds his laundry.

Surely Christ has called modern man to something more difficult than that. Anyone can pick a persona that he finds interesting and emulate it. Anyone can shoehorn John Wayne into a series of proof-texts. Following Christ is about giving up my power so that the power of God can be perfected in my weakness. Following Christ is about forsaking comfortable notions of manliness for a life of fear and trembling.  

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

the SBC’s new culture warriors

A plucky band of Culture Warriors is calling for another Conservative Resurgence in the SBC.

For several months leading up to the 2019 SBC convention, FoundersMin has been raising awareness about a spiritual predator—a wolf in sheep’s clothing, lurking behind SBC pulpits. Scores of men in the SBC have attended church gatherings in which they consented to sit under the teaching of woman Beth Moore. The response from several SBC leaders has been swift, decisive and proportional to the gravity of the threat. On May 31st, for example, the President of Southern Seminary tweeted that:

We have reached a critical moment in the Southern Baptist Convention when there are now open calls to retreat from our biblical convictions on complementarianism and embrace the very error that the SBC repudiated over 30 years ago. Honestly, I never thought I would see this day.

The gravamen of their complaint is this: the SBC has retreated from its commitment to complementarianism, and this retreat has been hastened by an erosion of our collective faith in the inerrancy of Scripture—a faith that was hard won in the heady days of the Conservative Resurgence over 30 years ago.

As it happens, I have a personal connection to the Conservative Resurgence. And I think these folks may be misremembering. 

The Conservative Resurgence 

(For those unfamiliar with the term, the “Conservative Resurgence” refers to a concerted effort by conservative Southern Baptists to take control of the SBC’s six major seminaries, beginning in the 1970s.)

My grandfather, Bob Crowley, was on the Board of Trustees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1985-95. The Baptist Press summarizes my grandfather’s service at Southeastern here.

Long regarded as the most liberal SBC seminary, Southeastern was basically untouched by the Resurgence until the mid-1980s. The Resurgence gained traction at SEBTS beginning in 1986, when a small contingent of conservative students met with an SBC committee to discuss incidents involving seventeen faculty members.[1] The committee found that roughly 50% of the faculty at Southeastern supported the ordination of women, rejected the doctrine of inerrancy or objected to the SBC’s position on homosexuality.

In 1987, when Southeastern’s Board of Trustees reached a tipping point in favor of conservatism, rapid changes ensued. In October of 1987, my grandfather was elected chairman of the Board. The following spring, the President and Provost resigned in protest over policy changes designed by the Board to block hiring and promotion of faculty who denied the inerrancy of Scripture. Most of the administration followed that summer. By the fall of 1988, enrollment had dropped from 1,246 to a record low of 803; and five of Southeastern’s thirty-five faculty members had resigned.[2]

Here’s the headline. At one time, a lot of SBC seminary professors openly denied the inerrancy of Scripture and supported the ordination of women to serve as pastors in the local church. In 2019, not a single SBC seminary professor does this and keeps his job.

Tom Ascol commending the work of Owen Strachan via Twitter
Owen Strachan invoking the Conservative Resurgence on Facebook (note that one of the issues confronted during the Resurgence was the ordination of women as pastors)

The Culture Warriors  

With sights fixed on Beth Moore, in podcast interviews, blog posts, Twitter feeds, live-streamed conferences and genre-bending short films, at least a dozen individuals associated with FoundersMin have rehearsed the following complementarian line. “In the book of I Timothy et al., Scripture explicitly forbids women from teaching before an audience that includes men. Therefore, women who teach men and all who allow women to teach men are not only in error, they deny the inerrancy of Scripture.”

Let that line of reasoning sink in: Whatever you think you believe about inerrancy, if you don’t agree with the FoundersMin apostolate in every interpretive detail, then you reject the inerrancy of Scripture. Astonishing, is it not?

For whatever it’s worth, I will here invoke the memory of my late grandfather. I don’t think I ever heard him use the word ‘complementarianism’. I’m certain that whenever he and Grandmother were forced to make a joint decision on which they couldn’t reach an agreement, my grandmother deferred to the judgment of her husband. I’m equally certain that on those occasions, my grandfather viewed the need for such deference as a failure of his own leadership. I suppose that arrangement counts as a version of complementarianism. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a point of pride. 

Be that as it may, in word and in deed, my grandfather categorically rejected the views now being promulgated by Owen Strachan, Tom Buck, Phil Johnson, Tom Ascol, Jared Longshore, Josh Buice and the rest of the FoundersMin apostolate. And yet my grandfather regarded his fight for biblical inerrancy at Southeastern as one of the most important undertakings of his 45 year career as a Southern Baptist minister.

Make of that anecdote what you will. Now let’s reason together.

Inerrancy and Impertinence 

The belief that Scripture is inerrant doesn’t arise in a vacuum.[3] We believe that Scripture is inerrant because we believe that Scripture is inspired by God. So when the apostles of FoundersMin say that anyone who rejects their interpretation of Scripture thereby rejects the inerrancy of Scripture, they’re presenting a dilemma: either you agree with their interpretation of Scripture, or you reject God’s authorship of Scripture.

But this is a false dilemma. There’s a third option, which their presentation of the issue obscures: it’s possible to agree that Scripture is God’s Word, while disagreeing about how to interpret that Word.

You and I can agree that Herman Melville is the author of Moby-Dick, even if we disagree about how to interpret Ahab’s obsession. We can agree that John Milton wrote Paradise Lost even if we don’t agree on whether the narrative depicts creation ex nihilo or ex prima materia. And fellow believers who are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture can disagree about the role that Scripture assigns to women. In short, interpretive disagreement doesn’t imply a denial of God’s authorship—i.e., inerrancy.

The FoundersMin apostolate refuses to countenance this third option; and many Southern Baptists refuse to accept their refusal. So we find ourselves at an impasse.

As a denomination, we have rules for settling disagreements of this kind. These rules are found in The Baptist Faith & Message, which is a detailed statement on matters of broad doctrinal agreement within our Convention—including matters of agreement around what is and is not clearly mandated by God’s Word. The most recent iteration of this document is The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

Article I of The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message states that Scripture is inerrant. With that assumption in place, Article VI provides that:

Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, Article VI

Article XVII adds that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it” (my emphasis).

So, according to the Southern Baptists who ratified The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, God’s inerrant Word reserves the office of pastor for men.[4] And beyond that, eligible interpretations of God’s inerrant Word are broad enough to allow local churches, comprised of individuals whose consciences are governed by God alone, the autonomy to discern God’s will concerning whether and under what circumstances women will be permitted to teach in their midst.

In other words, according to The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, the apostles of FoundersMin are mistaken. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be Southern Baptists; it just means that their overweening confidence in the rightness of their own views on complementarianism is inconsistent with Southern Baptist doctrine.

Perhaps the FoundersMin folks would feel more at home in a denomination with a robust hierarchy. But joining another denomination would require them to submit to someone else’s authority; and they don’t seem to appreciate supervision when it’s directed their way. And they’d prefer not to start their own denomination from scratch. (Too much work.) The SBC already has infrastructure and a mass of loyal congregants—and it just happens to have a power vacuum at the top, waiting to be exploited. So the FoundersMin apostolate has decided to hijack the SBC.

Tom Buck celebrating his gift of prophecy, albeit of the self-fulfilling variety.

And that, I strongly suspect, is why they’ve decided to pick a public fight with Beth Moore. I’m sure that they really don’t like what she’s doing, and they really do believe the complementarian line that they’ve been peddling all over the internet. But this is just part of their much broader attack on what they call “the threat of Social Justice.” These guys aren’t just committed to a very particular brand of conservative Reformed theology. They are cultural conservatives, and they think the rest of the SBC should be, too.

Conservatism and conservatism

This fight isn’t really about a new resurgence. It’s about the Conservative Resurgence that happened 30 years ago and what the enduring legacy of that Resurgence is going to be.

At some point, we need to reckon with the fact that the Conservatism of the Conservative Resurgence was part theological and part cultural. There’s an important difference. The question that Southern Baptists need to confront—especially Southern Baptists born before 1970 or so—is whether the SBC is going to go along with the FoundersMin effort to conflate theological and cultural Conservatism.

Don’t misunderstand. We should keep whatever elements of cultural Conservatism are strictly implied by theological Conservatism—e.g., the defense of life in all of its forms. But a lot of cultural Conservatism is either unrelated or antithetic to theological Conservatism. (I address specific examples in my open letter, here, and elsewhere on my blog.)

My generation is done with those aspects of the Southern Baptist tradition. So you all can try to salvage pieces of the Conservative Resurgence that never should have been there in the first place, just so FoundersMin-types can play Culture Warrior and pontificate about keeping women in their place and the dangers of social justice. In that case, you will continue to preside over a dying denomination. Or you can shepherd my generation in our efforts to confront the social infirmities that God has called us to address.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .


[1] Webb, Robert K., and Leslie H. Peek. “Academic Freedom and Tenure at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (North Carolina).” Academe (May-June 1989): 35.

[2] Ibid., 36-37.

[3] As presuppositionalists, those associated with Founders are well aware of this fact.

[4] Relevant passages from I Timothy et al. are cited in support of Article VI.

open letter to the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

To the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel:

I am a Christian, an academic and a millennial. I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy and a master’s degree in theology; and I teach ethics, political philosophy and history of philosophy at a liberal arts college on the East Coast. I mention my training and my occupation simply to say, in the spirit of I Timothy 4:12, that I have done my homework.

The purpose of my letter is this. Your Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel purports to clarify the relationship between “social justice” and the Gospel; and I feel compelled to tell you, publicly, that it does nothing of the sort.

I should begin by expressing my sincere hope that your Statement was not crafted for the benefit of my generation. In the main, we have rejected your easy gospel. That’s why we are leaving your church—not the Church, just your church. I hasten to add that no attempts at clarification or explanation will stop the hemorrhaging. We know what you’re selling and we’re just not interested.

Despite its aspirations, your Statement is nothing new. The collective evangelical imagination has long suffered under the yoke of self-appointed spokesmen whose enthusiasm for politics goes unchecked by the limits of their own expertise. Nowhere is the vacuum of discernment more acute than in the field of institutional moral analysis: systemic injustice is invisible to those—like you—whose moral horizons are tethered to individual piety.

Believers of my generation are eager to embrace a vision of political life that comprehends the social infirmities we stand to inherit. We are not nostalgic for the culture wars of the 1970s and ‘80s. And we are weary of effortless civil religion that serves politicians rather than the poor. Defending orphans and widows is a sacred expression of corporate worship. We want to go to church.

With this in view, your Statement is problematic for several reasons. First, your Statement presents “social justice” as a grab-bag of diverse agendas—some of which are inconsistent with a straightforward reading of Scripture, and others that are not only consistent with but indeed mandated by Scripture. For example, in the addendum to Article 3, social justice is described as an aggregation of concerns over things like economic justice, climate change, abortion and LGBTQ rights. By forcing those who care about economic justice into the same political tent as those who support same-sex marriage, you force earnest believers to pit their understanding of God’s design for marriage against God’s command to make laws that give the poor their due. While this false dilemma is useful to politicians, it is unhelpful to the Church.

Second, Article 3 of your Statement affirms that God requires us to give to every person “…what he or she is due,” and that we “…must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.” This insight is to be commended. But it is incommensurate with your opposition to public policies that would soften the echoes of past injustice. So either you misrepresent your beliefs about the importance of correcting historical injustice, or you are ignorant of the economic disadvantages that reverberate in the lives of those whose grandparents were unjustly denied access to the instruments of financial capital. And we don’t need Marx or critical theory to discern the wickedness of laws that permit predatory lending to those whose parents and grandparents were effectively barred from amassing and transferring what would have been their inheritance. The fear of God is sufficient.

Third, the addendum to Article 3 claims that justice as described in the Bible has nothing to do with economic justice. This is patently false. (See the Old Testament. Also see the New Testament, especially where Christ quotes the Old Testament. Marty Duren offers a detailed treatment here.)

Fourth, throughout your Statement, the pursuit of economic justice is carelessly equated with Marxism, communism and the view that all wealth should be evenly distributed. This carelessness is indefensible. And insofar as it engenders baseless anxieties about communism that encourage God’s people to abandon the cause of the poor, it is wicked.

Finally, the overall tone of your Statement is a source of concern. The Gospel is not furthered when ambitious ministers, by virtue of nothing other than their status as ministers, speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they have not studied in any disciplined way.

My generation stands to inherit problems of unprecedented complexity and scale. In practical matters of grave importance, the believers of my generation need guidance that is thoughtful and well-informed. If you are unprepared to offer such guidance, you would do well to take your own advice and restrict your remarks to the Gospel.

Best regards,

Scott M. Coley, Ph.D.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

the nihilism of the Religious Right

In a 1951 sermon, Billy Graham remarked that government aid to the poor is misguided, since:

Their greatest need is not more money, food, or even medicine; it is Christ. Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic circumstances.

Kruse, Kevin M. One Nation Under God. New York: Basic Books, Inc. (2015): 53.

And few years later, in 1954, Graham wrote in Nation’s Business magazine that:

Wise men are finding out that the words of the Nazarene: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you’ were more than the mere rantings of a popular mystic; they embodied a practical, workable philosophy which actually pays off in happiness and peace of mind…. Thousands of businessmen have discovered the satisfaction of having God as a working partner.

“God Before Gold,” Nation’s Business, September 1954, 34. Emphasis in original. Cited in Kruse (2015): 37.

A quarter century later, in his 1976 sermon on “Conditions Corrupting America,” televangelist Jerry Falwell asserted that:

…we are developing a socialistic state in these United States as surely as I am standing here right now. Our give-away programs, our welfarism at home and abroad, is developing a breed of bums and derelicts who wouldn’t work in a pie shop eating the holes out of donuts. And they will stand in line at an unemployment office rather than go look for a job.

“Conditions Corrupting America,” sermon delivered by Jerry Falwell on May 16, 1976. LU-Archives, OTGH-192. Cited in Winters, Sean Michael. God’s Right Hand. New York: Harper Collins (2012): Kindle edition.

And in the opening lines of his 2014 book, Awakening: How America Can Turn from Economic and Moral Destruction Back to Greatness, Ralph Reed offers an exquisite summary of the Religious Right’s basic economic outlook:

Are we watching our nation commit suicide? The United States of America was founded on the principles of limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility based on faith in God. Yet it seems we have abandoned those principles to such an extent that it may be too late for this beacon of faith and freedom to turn around. Is America… doomed to inevitable decline and demise? This is the central question of our time. While things aren’t always as they appear (more on that later), the trends are not encouraging.

Reed, Ralph. Awakening. Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2014: Kindle edition.

Sidebar: Ralph Reed is founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a perennial Evangelical Tastemaker. Reed is famous for leveraging his Christian Coalition network in lobbying for stricter casino regulations on behalf of the casino industry. Specifically, by his own admission, Reed accepted payments of no less than $1.23M from a consortium of Native American casino operations. In return, Reed unleashed scores of evangelical ministers and political activists to lobby for new casino regulations—neglecting to inform his evangelical friends that their lobbying efforts were aligned with the interests of the aforesaid consortium of casino operations, in that the regulations at issue would bar new competitors from the casino market. (Reed then had the temerity to list legalized gambling among the “alarming social trends” outlined in the first chapter of his 2014 book. Notwithstanding his stated fondness for liberty, regulatory capture didn’t make the list.) End of sidebar.

Reed’s book goes on to suggest that it isn’t too late to save America, provided that we engage in

“…spiritual searching, revival, and a rediscovery of the principles found in the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution.”

Reed (2014).

According to the Religious Right, then, our political community faces a simple choice. We can continue down the road to godless communism, driven by government intervention, welfare programs, moral degeneracy and spiritual atrophy; or we can return to God on the wings of free enterprise and market competition, propelled by spiritual revival.

I discussed the basic incoherence of this worldview in an earlier post. My aim in this post is to expose the moral nihilism at its core. 


As of 2018, the highest paid state employees in 31 out of 50 states are college football coaches. In 8 of the remaining 29 states, the highest paid state employees are college basketball coaches. So in 39 states, or roughly 80% of all the states in the U.S., the highest paid state employees are college football or basketball coaches.[1] Missouri is one of those 39 states. The head football coach at the University of Missouri earns an annual salary of $2.4 Million. That’s a big number. Just to put it in some perspective, $2.4M is about 18 times the salary of the Governor of Missouri ($153,821), and more than 48 times the annual income of an average Missouri household ($49,593).[2] In other words, it would take the Governor of Missouri about 18 years to earn as much money as the head football coach at the University of Missouri earns in a single year, and it would take the average Missouri household nearly half a century.

Now consider this. Public school teachers in Missouri are eligible to retire after 30 years of service. As of 2017, the average pay for a Missouri public school teacher was about $50K per year.[3] The product of $50K and 30 is $1.5M, which is about 60% of $2.4M. So, according to the labor market, a career of teaching in a Missouri public school is approximately 60% as valuable as a single year of football coaching at the University of Missouri. (It’s worth noting that this situation is far from exceptional. The salary of the football coach at the University of Missouri is 74% below the average for a football coach in the Southeastern Conference. The University of Alabama pays its football coach $11.1M per year, which is over 220 times the average salary of a public school teacher in the state of Alabama ($50K), and almost 285 times the starting salary for an Alabama state trooper ($39K).)[4]

These features of the labor market raise a number of important questions. For instance, is the labor performed by the head football coach at the University of Missouri in a single year equal in value to the labor performed by an average Missouri household over roughly half a century? In terms of work product, is the football coach at the University of Missouri worth 18 Governors of Missouri? Is a whole career of teaching in Missouri worth less than 8 months of coaching football at the University of Missouri?

In at least one sense, the answer to all of these questions is “Yes”: whether it’s a year of coaching football or a gallon of milk, the value of something just is what it costs to buy that thing. This kind of value is called market value, since it is determined by the price that is agreed upon when buyers and sellers meet in the market to buy and sell goods or services. Thus the market value of the labor performed by a Missouri public school teacher is equal to what it costs public schools in Missouri to buy teaching services. As it happens, that cost is about $1.5M over 30 years. And $1.5M is 60% of $2.4M, which is what it costs the University of Missouri to purchase a year of head football coaching services. So in terms of market value, a 30 year career as a public school teacher in Missouri is equal in value to 60% of a single year of coaching football at the University of Missouri.


Some people think that market value is the only objective truth about value. They reason as follows. “We all place different values on things, based on what’s important to us. For instance, some people value nothing more than living in the biggest house that they can afford; so they build a place in the suburbs, furnish it with whatever Ikea and Target are selling that year and spend the rest of their professional lives sitting in traffic for two or three hours every weekday. Others prefer a midcentury bungalow in a crowded neighborhood that’s only a few miles from the office. Some people don’t care all that much about their house or their job, as long as they can remain in the community where they grew up. Others care very little about where they call home, provided that they can earn decent a living doing something that they find meaningful. Some people value quiet; others want vibrant nightlife. Some people have dogs, some have cats, others have both and some people prefer to have no pets at all. No one is in a position to judge the value of these or any other of the infinitely many preferences that find expression in the different choices that people make. 

So the only objective truth about how valuable things are is the truth about how much things cost: the only truth about the value of a given house is the truth about how much someone is willing to pay for that house; the only truth about the value of a gallon of milk is the truth about how much people pay for a gallon of milk; and the only truth about the value of a teaching career is the truth about how much teachers are paid.” Let’s call this view ‘market realism’, since it asserts that the only real truth about value is the truth about market value.[5]

Notice that if market realism is correct, then there is no such thing as value that exists independently of the value that people assign to things. According to market realism, value is constituted by what people are willing to pay. It follows that people decide how valuable things are; and there is no value apart from what people decide. So if market realism is correct then there is no such thing as intrinsic value. The view that there is no such thing as intrinsic value is called nihilism. (The word ‘nihilism’ comes from the Latin word nihil, which means ‘nothing’. Hence, ‘nothing-ism’—as in, the worth of a thing is nothing unless humans say otherwise.) Thus a consequence of market realism is nihilism. 

This underlying commitment to nihilism explains why the market realist isn’t concerned about the disparity between how much the State of Missouri values the football coach at the University of Missouri and how little the State of Missouri values its public school teachers. Nor is the market realist likely to be bothered by the fact that the public school system in Kansas City hasn’t been fully accredited in three decades.[6] (For 30 years, in other words, the public school system in Missouri’s largest city has, in the judgment of those whose job it is to evaluate such things, failed to provide its students with an adequate education. Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that funding is the sole reason why this is the case. But it’s undoubtedly part of the reason.)[7]

According to the market realist, all of this is as it should be: the value of things is determined by how much we pay for them. So we pay our teachers exactly what they are worth, because the worth of teachers is determined by how much we pay them. The same goes for college football coaches, entire school districts, children’s healthcare, professional sports arenas, roads, bridges and so on.


I agree with the market realist that what we are willing to pay for something reveals how much we value that thing. No matter what we say we value, and no matter what we think we value, we direct our resources to that which we actually value.[8] Consumers demonstrate what they value as individuals in the way that they spend their personal resources (e.g. spending on clothes or travel, investing in hobbies, donating to charity, saving for retirement or what have you). And our political community demonstrates what we value as a society in the ways that we use our collective resources (e.g. spending on law enforcement, national defense, public education, infrastructure, healthcare subsidies and so forth). 

I also agree with the market realist that, as far as it concerns most things, value is determined by the market: objectively speaking, things like cars, toasters, T-shirts, houses, couches and college football coaching services are just as valuable as the price that they command.

But I disagree with the market realist’s nihilism. In my view, some things have value independently of whether or how much we value them. In particular, I believe that all human beings are intrinsically valuable. So it’s not up to us to decide the value of certain things that are essential to human flourishing—like access to basic education, nourishment or healthcare.

As a political community, we are free to decide how valuable we think these things are; and what we decide will be reflected in the resources that we devote to educating our children and caring for the sick. But we aren’t free to decide how valuable those things actually are.

So my disagreement with right-wing evangelicals amounts to this. Since I’m not a nihilist, I think it’s possible for the members of our political community to be mistaken about the value of things like public education and access to healthcare. Christians shouldn’t favor a distribution of resources that’s determined entirely by free enterprise in search of profit. Instead, we should use whatever political influence we have to secure resources for public goods that engender human flourishing—goods like public education and affordable healthcare.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .


[1]According to Business Insider, “College football and basketball coaches are the highest-paid public employees—here are the biggest paydays.”  See also ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”

[2]ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”

[3]National Education Association, “Rankings of the States 2017 and Estimates of School Statistics 2018.” This figure doesn’t adjust for annual salary increases over the course of a single 30-year career, since pay schedules vary dramatically by district. (More on this in Chapter Ten.) In any event, most such raises are vitiated by inflation. So an adjusted figure would overstate the average 2017 market value of 30 years of teaching in a Missouri public school.

[4]See ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”; National Education Association, “Rankings of the States 2017 and Estimates of School Statistics 2018.”;State Personnel Department, “State of Alabama Trooper Candidate Information Guide.” 

[5]For technical reasons that are irrelevant to present concerns, economists call this view marginalism. For a secular critique of marginalize from an influential economist, see Mazzucato, Mariana. The Value of Everything. New York: Hachette Book Group (2018).

[6]U.S. News & World Report, “Kansas City School District Doesn’t Make Full Accreditation.” 

[7]Baker, Bruce D., and Kevin G. Welner. “School Finance and Courts: Does Reform Matter, and How Can We Tell?” Teachers College Record 113, no. 11 (2011): 2374-414.

[8]See Matthew 6:21. See also the economic theory of revealed preferences (versus expressed or stated preferences).

the incoherent worldview of the Religious Right

In service to the mission, I should offer a brief comment on the worldview of the Religious Right. The three central tenets of the Religious Right’s worldview are as follows:

(i) Prosperity theology. If you work hard and live a morally upright life, God will provide for your material needs. It follows that if you are poor, you have failed to work hard or failed to live uprightly, or both. So the poor are responsible for their own poverty; and providing public assistance to the poor only serves to encourage laziness and immorality. Therefore, we should offer little or no public assistance to the poor, etc.

(ii) Christian libertarianism. The allocation of resources should be determined entirely through free enterprise and market competition. It follows that we should allow market forces to decide the value of everything, including labor and access to medical care. Some people shouldn’t earn a living wage or receive medical benefits, since some people’s labor just isn’t worth that much. But that is a small price to pay for avoiding communism (especially since those who don’t earn a living wage or medical benefits are either lazy or immoral—see prosperity theology). Therefore, we should have no market regulations to protect the poor, and no publicly funded health care option for those who don’t receive insurance through an employer, etc.

(iii) Christian nationalism. America is a Christian nation. And American has traditionally been a great nation, enjoying military and economic supremacy abroad, and law and order at home. But our nation has fallen into moral degeneracy. America will not reclaim its former glory unless we return to our Judeo-Christian roots. Therefore, we should once again have prayer and Bible reading in our public schools, and we must defend the traditional definition of marriage as ‘one man and one woman’, etc.

These three commitments cannot be brought together in any coherent way. I don’t mean to say that every tenet of this worldview is entirely false. On the contrary, as with many popular falsehoods, each tenet of the Religious Right’s worldview is least partly true—but only partly true. Observe.

According to Christian libertarianism, our society should distribute resources entirely on the basis of free enterprise and market competition. Generally speaking, the free market rewards those who are willing and able to sell something that consumers value. Importantly, the free market does not discriminate between things that consumers value and things that consumers should value. Thus, in assigning rewards to those who possess things that consumers value, the free market does not discriminate between, for example, those who sell life-saving medicines and those who sell pornography. So, on the free market, one can make a fortune in the pharmaceutical hustle or selling Hustler. The market cares not which. 

Now, according to Christian nationalism, America has fallen into moral degeneracy. Note that moral degenerates tend to value the wrong sorts of things—that’s what makes them morally degenerate. (For example, Bob is behaving in a morally degenerate fashion if, say, Bob pawns all of his daughter’s textbooks in order to obtain money for booze and gambling. Bob’s behavior is morally degenerate because he should value his daughter’s education far more than he values booze and gambling: he values booze and gambling too highly, and his daughter’s education not highly enough.) So, given our nation’s overall state of moral degeneracy, Americans do not tend to value the things that they should value; and Americans do tend to value things that they shouldn’t value.

Market forces and moral degeneracy conspire in alarming ways. For example, since Americans tend to value the wrong things, such as pornography, Larry Flynt and Hugh Heffner amassed fortunes by producing and selling pornographic materials on the free market. Meanwhile, Americans fail to devote sufficient resources to objectively important things like education. Predictably, the net result is that Flynt and Heffner got rich while most school teachers have to live on Ramen Noodles for five years to pull together a down payment on a modest home. Here’s the takeaway: when we combine an overall state of moral degeneracy with an unregulated free market, pornographers prosper more than teachers.

Finally, recall the first tenet of the Religious Right’s worldview: prosperity theology. It should now be clear that the free market in a morally degenerate society does not distribute wealth in a way that is sensitive to moral worth. It is therefore incoherent to maintain both that our society is morally degenerate and that the free market in our society rewards those who work hard and live uprightly.

Here’s the upshot. You can’t embrace Christian nationalism, Christian libertarianism and prosperity theology, because they can’t all be true–they don’t cohere. So the worldview of the Religious Right is incoherent.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

justice has nothing to do with charity

Within the evangelical community, discussions of “social justice” often emphasize charity and devote little attention to the moral significance of institutions. This paradigm allows evangelicals to advocate for political institutions that deprive the poor of their due, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

We need a new paradigm. Christ followers are required to advocate for public institutions that reflect the truth about what people deserve—not for the sake of charity, but because we are called to seek justice on behalf of those whose basic human needs are likely to be ignored by free enterprise in search of profit.


The distinction between charity and justice revolves around who owes what to whom—in a word, entitlement. For example, my giving you $20 constitutes an act of charity only if you’re not entitled to receive $20 from me (because I don’t owe you $20). By contrast, if you are entitled to receive $20 from me (because I owe you $20), my giving you $20 is precisely what justice demands. So justice depends on entitlement, while charity depends on the absence of entitlement.

In its narrowest sense, justice is a feature of individual conduct: I behave justly when I pay all of the taxes that I owe, or when I return my shopping cart to a designated shopping-cart-return area in the grocery store parking lot. And I behave unjustly when I deceive my golfing companions about the number of putts that I took on the 8th green, or when I decide not to inform my waiter that he omitted the extra side of French fries from my dinner bill. So, at the level of my own conduct, justice is achieved when I give all that I owe and take nothing beyond what I am owed.

In its broadest sense, justice is a feature of institutions. Specific examples of institutions include: the United States; families; contracts; the State of Missouri; Major League Baseball; the game of baseball; the U.S. Senate; the Constitution, and so forth. More generally, an institution is a system of rules or traditions that determine who deserves what: who deserves what honor; who deserves what paycheck; who deserves this authority; who is entitled to that opportunity; who is allowed to do this or to say that, and so on. In this way, institutions guide our understanding of what constitutes justice within a given sphere.

Conflicts arise when an institution’s rules are violated—when a spouse engages in an extramarital affair; when a Major League Baseball player uses a banned substance; or when a building contractor fails to complete a project by a given date. In extreme cases of institutional violations, an aggrieved party might appeal to a higher institution that has sovereign rules for deciding what justice requires. We call this higher institution a court. The rules that guide the decisions of our courts are laws; and our laws are sovereign insofar as there are no rules or institutions above our laws within our political community. Our courts also decide what justice demands in response to criminal conduct, such as fraud, burglary or murder—conduct so unjust that it is prohibited in all contexts, without regard to an individual’s status or institutional affiliation.

So our laws, as administered by our courts, are sovereign over all disputes about what is just, who is guilty of injustice, and what justice demands by way of compensation or punishment.[1] Our laws are authored by elected officials in Congress; and enforcement of the law is supervised by elected officials in the executive branch of government. So justice in our society is defined and administered by public institutions that are subject, ultimately, to the will of the electorate.


Here we confront an ancient question at the heart of Christian citizenship: what does it mean for our political institutions to administer justice?[2] Put another way: what does it mean to say that a law passed by Congress is a just law? Here’s one answer. “Since laws establish the rules about what is just, and Congress determines the law, it follows that Congress determines what is just. So a law passed by Congress is just by virtue of the fact that what is just is determined by the laws that Congress passes.” On this view, justice is whatever our political institutions say it is. Apart from the law, in other words, there is no objective truth about what justice is.

I disagree with that answer. In my view, there is objective truth about what people deserve and what we owe to each other. I have two sets of reasons for holding this view. One set of reasons derives from my faith: Scripture expresses pointed views about what justice is, and offers us a paradigm for political institutions that conform to the truth about justice. Since I affirm the truth of Scripture, I believe that there are objective truths about what is just; and I believe that those truths should be reflected in our own political institutions.

I also have philosophical reasons for believing that there is objective truth about justice. Here’s a concrete example. In 1919, our political institutions didn’t allow women to vote in federal elections. That was the law. So if justice were defined by our laws, then it wouldn’t have made any sense to claim, in 1919, that it is unjust to deny voting rights to women. But it did make sense. People said, “Look, contrary to what the law says, women deserve to have an official voice in how our political community is governed—justice demands that women be allowed to vote. Our laws are denying women that right. So the law should be changed, in order to give women this thing that they are due.”

Moreover, I don’t think that the truth about justice changed between 1919 and 1920, when our political institutions finally recognized women’s right to vote. Rather, I think that justice was the same in 1920 as it was in 1919; and by recognizing women’s right to vote in 1920, our political institutions became more just than they were in 1919. Similarly, I don’t believe that the truth about justice changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in our public schools. Rather, it is objectively true that segregation is unjust; and in 1954, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education altered our political institutions to reflect that truth.

Because our political institutions answer to an electorate, advances like desegregation and women’s suffrage are the result of political negotiations about what is just. We all enter the public arena with concerns about what we are owed, and we defend our interests according to our vision of what justice demands. These negotiations are the point of contact between political institutions and every Christ follower’s sacred calling to seek justice.

When we, as Christians, enter into the political arena where rights are negotiated, we are called to use our influence to advocate for the rights of those who have no other advocate. We are not called to seek wealthy and powerful political allies who will help us defend our rights. God is our defender. And God calls us to defend the rights of orphans, widows, immigrants and all who are poor and oppressed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy or having powerful friends. But we dishonor our calling and misrepresent Christ to the world when we advocate for political institutions that serve the interests of wealth and power at the expense of the poor, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .


[1]Even when an arbitration agreement is in place, courts have the authority to rule on whether that agreement is legally binding.

[2]For an ancient, non-Christian treatment of this question, see Plato’s Republic, especially Books I-II.