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

Update: Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s “Jesus and John Wayne” (2020) has persuaded me that my reflections here underestimate the prevalence of hyper-complementarianism in the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence. I leave the anecdotal account of complementarianism below since it accurately reflects my own experience.

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.