Religious exemptions and the COVID vaccine

Religious exemptions and the COVID vaccine

Vaccine mandates have arrived, and so have questions about religious exemptions. What should Christians think about them? I’ll provide one over-arching principle, then briefly discuss some common religious justifications we see offered up.

A warning

The Third Commandment tells us we must not misuse God’s name (Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11). One way we do this is when we invoke God as an authority to justify something we want to do. I want to do something, so I use God as a blank check, and I get my free pass. But … did God really say that?

People misuse God’s name for all sorts of sins. To justify divorce in unwarranted circumstances, sexual immorality, sexual confusion, gender identity, and the like. Look anywhere, and you’ll find professing Christians using God as justification for their unholy ways. This is a violation of the Third Commandment.

Now we come to religious exemptions for vaccines. You must think carefully, very carefully, about why you object to the vaccine. If you’re using God as a free pass to escape a vaccine mandate, then you’re violating the Third Commandment.

You may object and cite an abortion connection, freedom of conscience, and the like. Fair enough―we’ll get there. But ask yourself, “Is [insert religious justification] really why I don’t want the vaccine, or is [insert religious justification] a convenient pass for me to avoid something I just don’t want to do?” If the answer is yes, then you’re in danger of violating the Third Commandment.

As a well-known news anchor once said, that’s “kind of a big deal.” You don’t want to do that. Now, to the religious justifications themselves.

The Abortion Objection

This is perhaps the strongest religious exemption of the lot. Some Christians claim the various COVID vaccines have a connection to abortion. Various news outlets explain this connection is distant and far removed, and that the vaccines themselves don’t contain fetal tissue. Still, some Christians find this horrifying. Here is a representative example from a professing Christian, quoted in the New York Times:  

My freedom and my children’s freedom and children’s children’s freedom are at stake,” said Ms. Holmes, who lives in Indiana. In August, she submitted an exemption request she wrote herself, bolstered by her own Bible study and language from sources online. Some vaccines were developed using fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses, she wrote, citing a remote connection to a practice she finds abhorrent. She quoted a passage from the New Testament: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit.”[1]

The Louisiana Attorney General provides a sample exemption letter with an identical objection.[2] Back to the New York Times article―note that this woman fronts her remarks with a discussion of “freedom.” Also, notice that she apparently didn’t consult her faith community about the veracity of her religious objection. Instead, she did independent study and looked up “sources online.” She then quotes 2 Corinthians 7 out of context and assumes a vaccine will “contaminate” her. As Michael Bird would say, “sweet mother of Melchisedec!”  

But, this woman isn’t you. Perhaps you have a more sophisticated form of this objection. Fair enough.

Back to the Third Commandment.

I want to ask you to re-ask that same question again―does this distant abortion connection really outrage you, or is it just a “get out of jail free” card you’re willing to use? Please think very carefully before answering this question. One way to be introspective here is to consider whether you were already against the vaccine before you learned about the abortion nexus.

Body as a temple

Proponents cite the Apostle Paul’s well-known remarks at 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19. One organization, called Health Freedom Idaho, published a sample exemption letter on its website that used this objection and cited these passages. It read, in part:

Accordingly I believe, pursuant to my Christian faith, that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is a God-given responsibility and requirement for me to protect the physical integrity of my Body against unclean food and injections.[3]

Again, this does violence to the text. First, Paul’s remarks about the body as a temple were directed to the Corinthian church as a body, as a whole―the “you are God’s temple” is plural! So, he is not referring to you as an individual at all. Some may quibble about 1 Corinthians 6:19, but the best one could say there is that Paul is addressing the community as a whole with an aim to individual application. The references are still plural, as follows:

ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε (“do you all [plural] not know”) ὅτι ⸂τὸ σῶμα⸃ ὑμῶν (“that your collective [plural] body [singular]“) ναὸς (“is a temple [singular]“) τοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν ἁγίου πνεύματός (“of the Holy Spirit, within you all [plural]?”).

If one still wishes to lodge an objection and lasso this citation to a COVID vaccine, one must deal with the interpretive problem. The sample exemption letter mistakenly interprets the temple motif to refer to physical pollution to one’s body, when Paul is in fact interjecting a rhetorical question (an accusation, really) about sins that may destroy their community (“the temple”), among which Christ resides (1 Cor 3). In the 1 Corinthians 6:19 reference, Paul refers to moral impurity “contaminating” the temple that is the Christian community. He says nothing about a vaccine. He’s talking about sin, about evil, about lawlessness (cf. 1 Jn 3:4).

This objection has no interpretive merit.

It’s a sin to do what I don’t want to do

The Liberty Counsel is a Christian legal ministry. It also provides a sample religious exemption letter on its website. This letter manages to encapsulate peak narcissism with its interpretive method:

It is against my faith and my conscience to commit sin. Sin is anything that violates the will of God, as set forth in the Bible, and as impressed upon the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. In order to keep myself from sin, and receive God’s direction in life, I pray and ask God for wisdom and direction daily. As part of my prayers, I have asked God for direction regarding the current COVID shot requirement. As I have prayed about what I should do, the Holy Spirit has moved on my heart and conscience that I must not accept the COVID shot. If I were to go against the moving of the Holy Spirit, I would be sinning and jeopardizing my relationship with God and violating my conscience.[4]

According to this letter, if the Spirit “has moved” you then you have a free pass―presumably about anything. This is absurd. Christianity is not a subjective religion with scripture that shape-shifts according to taste, like an Etch-a-Sketch. God gave us His word. That word has content. That content has meaning that can be known and understood in community with the brotherhood of faith in your local congregation, and in consultation with the Great Tradition of brothers and sisters who have gone before.

This definition of sin is also specious. Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4); doing what God’s Word forbids. The author wishes to make sin Play-Dough; it’s anything the Holy Spirit “impresses upon” him to be wrong. Sin isn’t concrete anymore, it’s subjective.

This kind of bible interpretation can justify anything, and it’s dangerous.

Freedom of conscience

This objection has a strong siren song, but is harder to justify than it seems. A Christian must have a rational basis for claiming a conscience objection. If food is sacrificed to demons, then that’s a pretty good reason to avoid eating it (1 Cor 8). You get it. You can “see” the problem.

What is the conscience issue with the vaccine? It isn’t enough to hold to some form of, “I don’t like it, so it violates my conscience, so I don’t have to do it.” That’s never been how responsible Christians have interacted with society. Health Freedom Idaho offers this attempt:

… the New Testament requires of Christians that we, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). When it comes to consuming things into our own bodies, as opposed to make payments to government, compliance with God’s law is required. The mandated vaccine, with its numerous additives and its mechanism for altering my body, is the equivalent of a prohibited “unclean food” that causes harm to my conscience. Vaccines to me are unclean. I believe in and follow God and the principles laid out in His Word and I have a deeply held belief that vaccines violate them.[5]

This objection says very little. It is scarcely believable that unclean foods under the Old Covenant are a parallel to a COVID vaccine. As just a preliminary step to justify this argument one would have to establish a basis for the division of clean and unclean foods, and I wish you luck as you survey the literature on that topic! The author provides no justification about why the vaccine violates his conscience. He just asserts it as a “deeply held belief.” That isn’t good enough. Some people have a “deeply held belief” that Arbys makes good roast beef sandwiches. That don’t make it so …

God doesn’t require it

This is a novel interpretation. The New York Times reports the following:

In rural Hudson, Iowa, Sam Jones has informed his small congregation at Faith Baptist Church that he is willing to provide them with a four-paragraph letter stating that “a Christian has no responsibility to obey any government outside of the scope that has been designated by God.”[6]

This argument is a non-starter. God hasn’t mandated seatbelts, either. Nor the Bill of Rights. The pastor owes it to his congregation to provide a more robust argument than this. If the pastor has one, it didn’t make it into the news article.

Christians shouldn’t be afraid

This is a well-meaning but sad argument. Its logical end is to eschew all medical aid in toto. The New York Times related the following:

Threatened with a formal reprimand if she skipped work in protest, Ms. Holmes woke up in the middle of the night with a Bible verse from the book of 2 Timothy in her mind: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”[7]

The Liberty Counsel also rallied to the cause by declaring Christians have a religious exemption because they have “… a reliance upon God’s protection consistent with Psalm 91.”[8]

2 Timothy 1:7 has nothing to do with rejecting all medical aid, nor does Psalm 91. It’s a symptom of what Scot McKnight has described as a puzzle piece hermeneutic rather than a contextual reading of the bible as a story. If a man cheats on his wife, can he cite 2 Timothy 1:12 (“I am not ashamed …”) and declare he has nothing to apologize for? Why not? It’s in the bible!

Final words

There may well be valid religious exemptions out there from a Christian perspective. Those cited here are largely specious; arguments in search of proof-texts. The abortion connection has the most merit, but I again caution believers to avoid misusing God’s name and violating the Third Commandment.

One Christian named Curtis Chang, who is a former pastor, wrote what Yosemite Sam would consider to be fightin’ words:

Christians who request religious exemptions rarely even try to offer substantive biblical and theological reasoning. Rather, the drivers for evangelical resistance are nonreligious and are rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.

Perhaps this goes too far. But, it is true for too many Christians. Maybe that isn’t you. Maybe you do have objective religious grounds―what are they? What have your pastors said? What has your faith community said? What has the global church said? Are your objections really grounded in the scripture, or are they a prop for some very non-religious reasons?

Only you know the answer.


[1] Ruth Graham, “Vaccine Resisters Seek Religious Exemptions. But What Counts as Religious?” New York Times, 11 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/11/us/covid-vaccine-religion-exemption.html?smid=url-share.  

[2] Retrieved from http://ladoj.ag.state.la.us/Article/10941.

[3] Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter for Religious Vaccine Exemption,” https://healthfreedomidaho.org/sample-letter-for-religious-vaccine-exemption/.

[4] Liberty Counsel, “Sample Religious Exemption Requests For COVID Shot Mandates,” 26 July 2021, p. 3. https://lc.org/Site%20Images/Resources/Memo-SampleCOVID-ReligiousExemptionRequests-07262021.pdf.

[5] Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter.”  

[6] Graham, “Religious Exemptions.”

[7] Ibid.  

[8] Liberty Counsel, “Sample Exemption” p. 1.

How we worshiped one Sunday in September

How we worshiped one Sunday in September

I’d like to share the way our congregation structures its worship service. I have nothing special to offer―only my own reflections on where our congregation is, and perhaps where we’ll go. What we do on Sunday mornings, and how we do it, is important. Perhaps my comments here will be useful.

The Missing Link

Many Christians don’t think critically about what happens on Sundays. This isn’t a rebuke, just an observation. Over 40 years ago, Robert G. Rayburn shared similar misgivings:

… having personally visited in a large number of churches in recent months and years, sometimes as a guest preacher, I have been amazed at the carelessness and insincerity that were evident in the services. The people were going through the motions of worship singing the words of the hymns and maintaining quiet when prayers were being uttered, but with no apparent sincere worship of God. The pastors who conducted the services were also careless in a number of services, for example there was nothing to remind the congregation that it is only the pure in heart who shall see God and it is only those whose lives have been cleansed from evil who are able to pray with the confidence that the Lord will hear them.1

How many of us plan worship services without much thought? By rote? We have a template, and we plug the components in. We have four songs to fill. Maybe we pick them ourselves, maybe we delegate. Maybe they follow a theme keyed to the sermon. Maybe they’re just random songs. Maybe the prayers are deliberate, or maybe they’re extemporaneous―with lots of “umm …” and “just ….”. Maybe we begin with announcements. Maybe we have a call to worship. Maybe we don’t know what a “call to worship” even is! Maybe we suspect it’s a Catholic thing … and we can’t have that, can we?

I say “we,” because that was me until a few years ago. I inherited a liturgy (sorry, an “order of service”), and I copied it. I only knew what I saw modeled. I didn’t think introspectively about what happens on a Sunday morning. I do remember an embarrassing moment during my ordination. I sat in Victory Baptist Church, in Pleasant Prairie, WI. The questioning had been going on for about two hours. Somebody, I forget who, asked “what are the components of a worship service?”

I muttered something like “preaching, singing, reading the scripture … and … umm …” I trailed off. My mind had blanked. Then, Marty Marriot, the President of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, rescued me. He stared at me until I “felt” his gaze, then he bowed his head and made an exaggerated steeple with his hands. “Prayer!” I shouted. The questioning moved on.

My point is that some of us don’t think very hard about why and how we do what we do on Sundays. For a long time, I didn’t. My focus was the sermon. The rest of the service was like previews at the movie theater. Sure, it was all important stuff. But, my focus was the sermon. I’m not alone.

Why do we only post the sermons on our websites? What about the rest of the service? Why is the barometer for a “healthy church” almost always the sermon? We all took several homiletics classes at seminary―how many on a theology of worship?

What We Do on Sundays

I’ve gotten older since then, and a tiny bit wiser. Here is what we do on Sunday mornings, along with some brief comments.

Announcements

I really don’t like them, but I can’t get rid of them. I’ve tried and failed. I have given up. But, when should we do them? I’ve seen some guys do them at the end, but that’s just weird, in my opinion. It’s a letdown. It ruins the whole impact of the service.

I do them at the beginning,2 because it’s the best bad option. I rationalize this by telling myself the service doesn’t really begin until the Call to Worship, which immediately follows.

1: Call to Worship

Many worship theologians remark that worship is a dialogue where God speaks, and we respond. The Call to Worship is a proclamation from God about what He has done, which provokes a response from us. It can be a scripture reading, a creed recitation, a song of praise―many things.3 But, it should actually call people to worship; it shouldn’t be a random verse that sounds nice.4 Yesterday, we used Isaiah 54:6-8.

1a: Gospel Connection

I stole this idea from my friend, Pastor Ted Clarke, at Radisson Road Baptist Church in Ham Lake, MN. I take two minutes and frame some Gospel remarks to accompany the Call to Worship text I just read. Sometimes it’s an explicit call for a decision, other times it’s more of a “look at God’s grace!” thing. This is what I said yesterday, keyed to Isaiah 54:6-8:

God meant for His people to find comfort in these words. The analogies of the grieving spouse. God as the loving, compassionate husband―our Lord, the Rescuer, who buys us back from the slave market. In the Christian story, this slave market is Satan’s orphanage.

Jesus’ death was the payoff to Satan that bought our freedom. His resurrection was the bait and switch where Jesus took that ransom back and defeated Satan by trickery.

That story of the strong man, from Mark 3, is when Jesus tells us He’s beaten Satan down, gone into his house and is plundering everything Satan has … and that’s us! Jesus rescues everyone who comes to Him.

When we worship, we give Him thanks, and encourage one another to pursue a total-life commitment to Him―to be living sacrifices!

In the event you raised your eyebrows when I presented the resurrection using the Christus Victor model, see my article on the subject. I believe both penal substitution and Christus Victor are valid facets of the same diamond.

1b: Prayer

God has spoken to us, and now we respond to Him.

My public prayers are now very short.5 I’m convinced long prayers are a waste of time because people zone out and start thinking about lunch. I have been writing my prayers out beforehand for some time. But now, following Rayburn’s suggestion, I structure them as collects. This means they’re very short and follow a five-step pattern:

  • Address: I address the Father to open.
  • Acknowledgment. I mention an attribute that is keyed to the need I’m addressing.
  • Petition. What I’m asking for, on behalf of the people.
  • Aspiration. Why I’m asking―why the petition matters.
  • Pleading. We only have access to pray because of Jesus.

The prayer to end the call to worship looked like this, yesterday:

2: Reading

God speaks to us again. We alternate between responsive and solo readings, and the content is either scripture or creeds and confessions. Yesterday we read a scripture selection from the hymnal about God’s comfort.  

3: Songs

We praise God in response to His declaration from the reading. The songs are keyed to the sermon theme, as are the reading and the remaining prayers. Yesterday, in this set, we sang “Because He Lives” and “The Solid Rock.”

4: Prayer of Intercession

Here, we respond to God after praising Him in song. This is also known as the “pastoral prayer.” Again, the prayer is in the form of a collect. Yesterday, the sermon was on Acts 5:12-42 and the prayer was keyed to my exhortation from that text:

5: Offering

We do no prayer for the offering; the Prayer of Intercession swallows it up.

6: Song

Now, in our dialogue, we address God again. We have two more songs, both keyed to the sermon theme. Yesterday, these two songs were “Amen” (by I am They) and “In Your Hands” (by Unspoken).

7: Sermon

God now speaks to us. My sermon was on Acts 5:12-42. The focus was how Luke shows us a picture of a God-honoring Jesus community and a realistic idea about the reception we can expect from the world―a mixture of hatred and admiration, depending on the audience.

7a: Prayer for Illumination

This is otherwise known as “the prayer the pastor does after the sermon introduction.” I’m including these collects because I think they’re important:

7b: Prayer of Confession

I explicitly have a time to confess our sins, keyed to the exhortation from the sermon. I don’t yet have congregation participation, but I’ll likely tiptoe that way. This kind of prayer is a radical departure for many evangelical churches, and I’m treading carefully, here:

8: Charge and Blessing

The service should end with a charge and an assurance of God’s blessing. This isn’t a time to re-preach your sermon. It’s simply a very brief charge to do the thing the entire service was about. This can be done by a scripture reading, a song, or a responsive reading of some sort. Yesterday, we sang one stanza from “Because He Lives,” to center our perspective on God’s grace and our real mission as a congregation.

Resources

I’ve found these very helpful, and perhaps you will, too. There are other good helps, but these are my favorites:

  1. Christ-Centered Worship, by Bryan Chapell. The best overview.
  2. O Come, Let us Worship, by Robert G. Rayburn. Penetrating analysis of worship and outstanding practical suggestions.
  3. Engaging with God, by David Peterson. Brilliant theology of worship that takes us beyond the tired regulative v. normative worship wars.
  4. The Worship Sourcebook (2nd), ed. Carrie Steenwyk and John Witvliet. The best sourcebook available. Period.
  5. Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth. A very valuable well of model prayers and orders of service for all occasions.
  6. Book of Common Prayer. Does anything need to be said?
  7. Book of Common Worship (PCA). A very valuable sourcebook.
  8. The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, Tom Fettke. An older hymnal (1986), but it has the best worship helps I’ve seen―especially the selection of scripture readings. I love this hymnal, and our church uses it.
  9. The Book of Psalms for Worship. Beautiful arrangement of hymns set to music.

1 Robert G. Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 19.  

2 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, p. 170.  

3 Variety is important. There are many ways to invite people to worship God. Bryan Chapell has some excellent charts and resources about how to achieve a result by employing varying methods, week in and week out, so the liturgy doesn’t grow stale (Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009) pp. 147f).   

4 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 176-177.  

5 See especially Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 197-203.  

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

In American Christianity, fear has long been a popular way to frame reality. The real enemy is Satan, of course, but the form of the threat has changed throughout the decades. It’s difficult to discuss this with sufficient nuance, because Satan is the real enemy, and he is a crafty one, and his tactics do change with the times.

And yet … some flavors of American evangelicalism seem to frame reality by way of fear a bit too much. Or, a lot too much. A good deal of this is tied up with various flavors of conservative politics. This is not always religion as a cloak for crude nationalist impulses. It’s also because, as historian Jason Bivens notes, political activism by conservative evangelicals also arises “from specific religious convictions as these have been shaped by their tradition’s understandings of social and political change, understandings that they aim to transmit and promote,” (Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism [New York: OUP, 2008], p. 14).

John Fea, a Christian historian at Messiah College, discussed the phenomenon of “evangelical fear” in his 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Some may frown at that title, but I beg you to stay with me. Fea is describing a real phenomenon–the same one I have in mind. This phenomenon is that, for some American evangelicals, fear really is a vehicle for framing reality.

… this short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long—going back to the very establishment of European settlement in America. The various fears that combined to drive white evangelical Christians into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history. Evangelicals’ fears that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and that as president he would violate the Second Amendment and take their guns away, echo—and are about as well founded as—early American evangelicals’ fears that Thomas Jefferson was going to seize believers’ Bibles. The Christian Right’s worries in the 1960s and 1970s that they might lose their segregated academies should take us back to the worries of white evangelicals who lived in the antebellum South. Contemporary efforts to declare America a Christian nation should remind us of similar attempts by fundamentalists a century ago.

Believe Me (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 97.

This fear informs how they view the world, how they interpret the news, what they think of folks with different politics than their own. It impacts evangelism and a local church’s public face. Too often, that public face is one of outrage or bitter sullenness–sentiments incongruous with the joy the Gospel ought to bring, and the optimism it should foster in one’s heart.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be firm, but not angry. Realistic, but not afraid.

In this excerpt from a recent sermon, I chat a bit about this. I’m commenting specifically on the Acts 2:47: “they praised God and had favor with all the people.”

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

In a previous article, I outlined a brief case for why the regulative principle of worship (“RP”) wasn’t a label worth owning. I still believe that. Here is a modified version of the argument I presented there:

  1. The basic premise of the RP is sound. The elements, or building blocks, of worship must be regulated by scripture.1
  2. This ship runs aground in discussion of the circumstances of worship―what it looks like, how it is done.
  3. Thus, application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. But, these often say less than advocates want them to say. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and to the RP beyond the impetus to define the elements. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not provide direct help in solving disputes about the circumstances of worship.
  4. Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

I don’t like the RP label because it communicates little. It’s about as informative as saying, “I believe the bible!” I don’t like the RP label for the same reason I don’t like the term “fundamentalist.” Central Seminary, Maranatha Seminary and Fairhaven Baptist Bible College are fundamentalist institutions―but that label is pretty elastic. So it is with the RP.

One preacher declares that to conceive of worship (the entire service, not simply the music) as an “experience” is to surrender to mysticism out of a mercenary desire to escape the “banality” of Reformed worship.2 Another states that advent wreaths are sinful,3 claims the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation,4 yet the author is on session in a congregation which boasts a livestream service.5 Still another theologian reasons, “only the most self-absorbed congregation would say that it does not need to be concerned about making its worship relevant to the present generation.”6

Each one of these men agree with the RP. Each disagrees with the other.

So, I am unsatisfied with the label, even as I own its basic ethos. I don’t like the paradigm. I’ll own it when I have to use insider language, but (like “Calvinism”) it isn’t a t-shirt I’ll wear to Wal-Mart.

Rather than claim a label that communicates little, I prefer to say “scripture regulates how we do things on Sunday.” To identify the circumstances (the style and form of these elements), I prefer to use a rubric Dr. Larry Oats taught us (in a context I forget!):

  • Is there an explicit warrant for it? Go for it.
  • Is there an implicit warrant for it? It’s likely ok, if the interpretation is legitimate.
  • Is there a principle that guides us, here? Likely ok, but get confirmation from some trusted Christians.

To get down to brass tacks, I’ll present the “liturgy” from our service on 25 July 2021. I believe this will generate some helpful discussion. Though my headings here do not explicitly echo the standard Protestant liturgies,7 they contain the same ingredients:

Call to Worship

This opens the service. It’s meant to set our hearts and minds and ask God to bless our worship. If you have a good hymnal, it will have an index of suggested calls to worship in scripture or song that will be invaluable for your service planning. I have several resources at my desk for this purpose.8

Read Psalm 100

I recently began making a “Gospel connection” to each call to worship, so I know I’ve given the Gospel each and every service. This lasts no more than two minutes and is always keyed to the call to worship reference I just read:

Whoever you are, God’s loyal love endures forever. His faithfulness, His promises, are eternal―not like ours.

Serve Him with gladness. Come in from the cold and join His family. Jesus is the Revealer who tells about this world and ourselves, the Reconciler who came to heal our alienation from God, and the Ruler of the coming kingdom.

Jesus is the hinge of the Christian story. He explains this world and ourselves, and He calls us to repent and worship Him. In exchange, He offers us a place in His coming kingdom community―which is what He made us for!

I then offer a short prayer:

Dear Lord:

Comfort us. Strengthen us. Rebuke us. Encourage us. Accept our worship this morning. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen!

Scripture Reading

This reading is always keyed to the sermon. We alternate between solo readings, and response readings with the congregation participating. Every six weeks we recite a creed. This week was a solo reading, which any church member (man, woman, boy, girl) can do. This reading was done by a mentally handicapped woman. She struggles mightily to read aloud coherently, and I often help her. I feel her participation in worship outweighs the aesthetic “loss” of not having a “smooth” reader. I select all the readings in advance.

Read 1 Corinthians 13.

Worship in Song

We typically do a blended selection of songs. We have a song leader, with either a piano or guitar accompaniment. We rotate two song leaders (one boy, one woman), and two pianists (one boy, one woman). One of the pianists (the boy) also sometimes plays guitar in lieu of piano.

The songs, like the scripture reading, echo the sermon theme―in this case, brotherly love and community.

Sing “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”

Sing “Brethren We Have Met to Worship”

Sing “Come Thou Fount (I Will Sing).” This is a Chris Tomlin remix.

I do not select the songs. We have a living document with the sermon passage, the assigned reading, and the sermon “theme.” The song leaders choose songs based on the theme.

Pastoral Prayer

We don’t do a “prayer for the offering.” The pastoral prayer has subsumed that. Like the reading and the songs, this prayer is keyed to the sermon theme. I script every prayer, and almost never do extemporaneous prayer. This one is patterned after the scripture reading.

Lord:

All our gifts are nothing without love for one another. We may have knowledge, but without brotherly love we are nothing. We may give up our property and even our lives, but if we don’t have love, we gain nothing.

Lead us to bear all things, to believe the best about our brothers and sisters, and to hope that we can have the community you want us to have.

The offering then follows.

Worship in Song

Sing “Oh, the Deep, Deep Love” (Bob Kauflin)

Sing “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” (Peter Scholtes)

Here is one of the songs:

Worship by the Word

My sermon was on Acts 2:42-47:

Prayer of Confession and Petition

We don’t yet have a dedicated time for confession in the worship service. But, I have been using the “closing prayer” of the sermon as the prayer of confession, keyed to the sermon theme. Again, this is always pre-scripted. Today, I was supposed to lead into the prayer with the following preamble. But, for reasons even I don’t understand, I skipped it. But I’ll re-produce it here anyway:

God tells us that the sacrifice He most desires is a broken and contrite heart. Honest sorrow for sin and resolve to love Him more, rather than dead ritual

As we think of our community, of our church, of what it could be, and what it is, of what God wants it to be, and the distance we still have to go … let’s bring Him that sacrifice in our prayers now, and in our actions this coming week.

Now, the prayer of confession begins. The prayers are often paraphrases of scripture, with my own bridges as transitions. You saw that in the pastoral prayer, and the method continues here:

Lord, your word tells us that if you love us, then we also ought to love one another. That if we love one another, then we can know you abide in us. And your love is completed and perfected when we reflect it to one another in your family.

Forgive us for our bitterness, for our anger, for our “busyness,” for our self-centeredness, for our misplaced priorities.

Forgive us for the things our hearts are set and eyes are fixed on that so often have little to do with your Gospel and your community.

Lead us to find new ways, better ways, good ways, wholesome ways to reflect you in our community here.

Charge and Blessing

This is often a stanza from a relevant hymn, or the standard doxology, or perhaps a scripture reading (again, see the index in your hymnal for help, here). Today, the song leader was balancing another member’s toddler on her lap and motioned that the “last stanza” thing wasn’t going to happen.

So, I improvised with this:

Jesus loves us, and gave His life so that we might be free. Go and love Him and spirit and in truth, and let’s love one another, too. God bless.

That was the worship service. It took 77 minutes. The proper elements were there. It accords with the RP. We can quibble about what it looked like―the circumstances. But, I believe most congregations with a self-consciously conservative philosophy of worship would accept it. I hope our own small example is a blessing to you as you consider worship in your own context.  


1 Scripture shows us five elements: (1) we see the scripture in the ordinances, (2) we read the word, (3) we preach the word, (4) we sing the word, and (5) we pray the word.  

2 Jonathan Cruse, What Happens When We Worship? (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020), p. 6.

3 D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), p. 84.  

4 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”

5 See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

6 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 137.  

7 Adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition and intercession, instruction, communion/fellowship, charge and blessing.  

8 These include, (1) The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration, ed. Tom Fettke (Waco: Word, 1986), (2) Baptist Union of Great Britain, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005), (3) Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal Church (Feb. 2007), (4) Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Lifeway, 2008), (5) Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections, 2017).

The first church

The first church

Here is my translation of Acts 2:36-47. I’m doing a preaching series through the Book of Acts, and I try to translate the passages as I go. Sometimes that isn’t possible! But, for what it’s worth, here is my rendering of Acts 2:36-47, with some technical notes. I don’t claim to be a Greek ninja, but this is a representative effort from me …

Therefore, let the whole house of Israel know without a doubt that God has declared[1] Him to be both Lord and Messiah―this Jesus whom you all crucified. Now,[2] when they heard this[3] they were cut right to the heart[4] and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Men! Brothers! What should we do!?”

And Peter said to them, “Change your ways and your heart―each of you!― and be immersed in the name[5] of Jesus Christ[6] in order to have[7] forgiveness of sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, because this promise is for you,[8] and for your children, and for those who are far away―as many as the Lord our God calls to Himself.”

And with many other words he urged and pleaded with them, saying, “Save yourselves from this wicked[9] age!” So, then, those who believed and trusted his message were immersed in water. And about 3,000 souls were added [to God’s family] in those days.

They regularly gave[10] themselves[11] to the apostles’[12] teaching and to the community[13]―the breaking of bread[14] and prayer. Fear was coming upon every soul, because[15] many wonders and signs kept being done[16] by[17] the apostles.

All the believers were together,[18] and shared everything they had. They were selling their property and possessions and distributing it all to anyone who had need.[19]

Every day, by mutual agreement, they were meeting at the temple, breaking bread in their various homes[20] and sharing food together with joy and heartfelt sincerity. They praised God and had favor[21] with all the people. And each day the Lord was adding to the congregation[22] those who were being rescued.

Here are some of my friends who helped me with the translation:


[1] I can’t agree that ἐποίησεν here implies God “making” something (e.g. Louw-Nida, 42.29). The sense seems to be that God appointed Jesus to be both Lord and Christ (Louw-Nida, 37.106). The tense-form has a culminative flavor, where Christ’s ascension is the declarative event wherein Jesus assumes His throne (cf. Acts 13:32-33 and the preceding context). It could also be a gnomic aorist, in which case Peter would be emphasizing that Jesus has always been both Lord and Christ.

[2] The conjunction signifies a transition. 

[3] Ἀκούσαντες is an adverbial, temporal participle modifying κατενύγησαν.

[4] τὴν καρδίαν is an adverbial accusative of reference.

[5] The preposition expresses reference; they must each be baptized with reference to Jesus’ name.

[6] Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is a subjective genitive, but I kept this construction (rather than “Jesus Christ’s name”) because it just sounds … weird … to have it any other way.

[7] The preposition in μετανοήσατε … καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν expresses purpose.

It likely isn’t causal (“because of”), because this use of the preposition is debated. Richard Young (Intermediate Grammar, p. 93) and Dan Wallace (GGBB, pp. 369-371) caution against adopting its usage here. Dana and Mantey argue forcefully for the causal approach (Manual Grammar, pp. 103-104), but Young and Wallace specifically mention Mantey and state he is incorrect. Moulton and Turner (Grammar: Syntax, p. 266) also argue for causal. Even A.T. Robertson warns against hastily imputing a causal flavor to the preposition at Acts 2:38 (Grammar, p. 595). I greatly fear to tread where Young, Wallace and Robertson bid me not to go! I must take a rabbit-trail and point out that Eckhard Schnabel bizarrely claims Wallace is in favor of the causal construction (Acts, in ZECNT, p. 165, n. 22). This is insanity. Schnabel’s research assistant must have been sleep-deprived. Wallace was against it. 

One could argue it expresses reference; that is, they must repent and be baptized concerning the forgiveness of sins. This is odd; it would work with baptism but not with forgiveness. You would have to sever repentance and baptism, and make the “with reference to forgiveness of sins” be strictly about the baptism. You could justify this because the baptism is singular, whereas the demand for repentance is plural. I suppose you could make all this work, but it’s an awful lot of tap-dancing.

It’s simpler to see the preposition express purpose. Repentance + baptism is a unified act―action and symbol. Peter is not saying baptism is an instrument of salvation; he just couples the visible symbol of salvation with the act of repentance (GGBB, pp. 370-371). “Acts 2:38 is saying very little about the specific theological relationship between the symbol and the reality, only that historically they were viewed together. One must look in other places for a theological analysis,” (NET Bible Full Notes Edition, p. 2075, n. Y). See also BDAG, s.v. εἰς, p. 290 4.f.

[8] A dative of benefaction. 

[9] The literal meaning is “crooked,” and this figurative extension of the concept yields something like “wicked” or corrupt.”

[10] Ἦσαν is an iterative imperfect. 

[11] προσκαρτεροῦντες is a periphrastic present participle, and the subjects are the 3000 who just became believers. The word means to “attend constantly” (Abbott-Smith, p. 385), to “continue in, persevere in” something (BDAG, p. 811, §2b). Mounce says it means “to persist in adherence to a thing” (Expository Dictionary, p. 1258). The two datives are objects of the participle.

[12] τῶν ἀποστόλων is a subjective genitive. 

[13] We often think of “fellowship” as eating together. The real idea is much broader. Mounce declares it means, in this context, a “mutual interest and sharing of members in the community of faith,” (Expository Dictionary, p. 247). BDAG says much the same thing (p. 552, §1). Louw-Nida adds a very good twist when it says “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement,” (34.5; emphasis added).

So, I went with “community” as my translation. I think it’s best to emphasize the “involved” aspect of real community in the exposition, rather than the translation. The sense here is the “oneness” of the group, based on their shared brotherhood based on faith in Christ. Henry Alford also prefers the rendering “community” in his translation and commentary (The New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:42).

[14] An objective genitive. This last bit is epexegetical to further define “fellowship,” chiefly because there is no coordinating conjunction. There is dispute over whether this is simply a shared fellowship meal, or the Lord’s Supper. As A.T. Robertson puts it, “Perhaps there is no way to settle the point conclusively here,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:42).

[15] ἐγίνετο could be a descriptive imperfect which, in A.T. Robertson’s words, presents “a sort of divine panorama, a ‘moving-picture show,’” (Grammar, p. 883). But, it may well be iterative in the sense of “fear kept on coming upon every soul because signs and wonder kept being done,” (Robertson, Word Pictures, Acts 2:43). It’s a cycle. I split the difference by keeping the first verb descriptive, making the conjunction καὶ explanatory, and rendering the second ἐγίνετο as iterative.

[16] For the translation, see Abbott-Smith, s.v. “γίνομαι,” §3, p. 92. This is another descriptive imperfect.

[17] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[18] The pronoun is reflexive, and the preposition expression space or association.  

[19] This was likely an ad hoc response to a situation in Jerusalem. A.T. Robbsertsson remarks, “It was not actual communism, but they held all their property ready for use for the common good as it was needed (4:32). This situation appears nowhere else except in Jerusalem and was evidently due to special conditions there which did not survive permanently. Later Paul will take a special collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:44).

Henry Alford adds, “No trace of its existence is discoverable any where else: on the contrary. St. Paul speaks constantly of the rich and the poor, see 1 Tim. 6:17; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8:13, 15; 9:6, 7; 1 Cor. 16:2: also St. James, 2:1–5; 4:13.—And from the practice having at first prevailed at Jerusalem, we may partly perhaps explain the great and constant poverty of that church, Rom. 15:25, 26; 1 Cor. 16:1–3; 2 Cor. 8:9; also ch. 11:30; 24:17.—The non-establishment of this community elsewhere may have arisen from the inconveniences which were found to attend it in Jerusalem: see ch. 6:1,” (New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:44).

[20] I believe this refers to fellowship meals, not the Lord’s Supper. I also take the preposition in κατʼ οἶκον to be distributive of space (Bock [Acts, in BECNT, KL 4177],and Barrett [Acts, in ICC, p. 170) rather than an idiom suggesting they held circuit meals of some sort.  

[21] The phrase means “favor” or “goodwill,” (Abbott-Smith, s.v. “χάρις,” §2a, p. 479; Louw-Nida 25.89). It basically means the people respected them (cf. Phillips translation).  

[22] The personal pronoun is functioning as a switch-reference device, referring back to the company of believers Luke mentioned at 2:44. The “believers” there were plural, but now Luke refers to them as a singular group, to which new folks are being added.

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

This article was updated on 06 July 2021.

How should we worship on Sundays? The Church has often framed this as an argument between the “regulative” and “normative” principles. This is a simplistic grid―these approaches are more complementary than we realize. This article discusses the regulative principle.

Precis of the Regulative Principle Position

The Regulative Principle (“RP”) states “… everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture.”[1] Christians often distinguish worship by (1) elements (what we do), and (2) circumstances (how we do it).[2] RP advocates may apply it in two ways:

  • Track One: The RP applies to the elements only. The circumstances “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”[3]
  • Track Two: The RP applies to both the elements and circumstances. God’s will for worship “is either expressly set down or necessarily contained” in Scripture.[4]

RP proponents advance several overarching justifications:

  1. The 2nd Commandment says we must not worship the true God in a false way.[5] So, we must only worship the way He permits.
  2. Faith is response to God, and we only know how to respond to God from His word, so worship must be based on the word.[6]
  3. True piety means we do what God says, so we obey scripture.[7]
  4. If we worship God the wrong way, He may kill us (Lev 10:3).
  5. We wound the conscience of believers by forcing them to worship contrary to the bible.[8]
  6. The Church administers God’s rule for worship, and God’s rules are in His word, so worship must be based on the word.[9]
  7. We are all prone to idolatry, so we must worship according to scripture.[10]

The Regulative Principle Doesn’t Pass Muster

Application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. However,

  1. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and certainly to the RP.
  2. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not go beyond abstract principles that are not in dispute.

Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

Analysis of Extra-biblical Warrant

Belgic Confession, Art. 32 proclaims “do not depart from those things which Christ, our only master, hath instituted.”[11] The confession’s citations are out of context and inapplicable.[12] It simply advises us to do what Christ says.

Heidelberg Catechism, Q 96 says we must not “… worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”[13] It cites 1 Samuel 15:23, where Saul disobeyed a direct command from God. Likewise, Deuteronomy 12:30 simply forbids disobeying direct orders.  

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 108 explains the duties inherent in the 2nd Commandment, which are “the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word.”[14] The catechism mistakenly applies Exodus 20:4-6 to God―it is actually about idolatry. On its own, the catechism says nothing more than “do not worship God in a false way.”

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 110 describes why we must keep the 2nd Commandment and refers to God’s “revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom.” This is a polemic against idolatry, which has nothing to do with the RP.

Westminster Confession, Art. 1.6 explains “[t]he whole counsel of God … is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”[15] It also mentions circumstances in worship need to be regulated “according to the general rules of the Word …”[16] This is the strongest support for the RP. However, because these are general statements about scripture, they are more hermeneutics for life than precepts for worship.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession, Art. 1.6 explains God’s will is “necessarily contained” in scripture.[17] Scott Aniol believes this is stricter than the Westminster equivalent.[18] However, a modern language version reads “or by necessary inference,”[19] and both versions explain “some circumstances” of worship are ordered by “Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word.”[20] Evidence indicates the 1689 Confession is not stricter than the Westminster equivalent.

Westminster Confession, Art. 20.2 says our consciences must be free from “any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.”[21] The scripture citations are irrelevant to the RP.[22] Application of the RP does not solve the matter of allegedly binding the conscience, because there is no “golden tablet” of RP implications―different congregations implement it in widely divergent ways. 

Westminster Confession, Art. 21.1 (cf. 1689 Confession, Art. 22.1) says God instituted the “acceptable way” of worship, and we cannot worship “in any way not prescribed by scripture.”[23] It cites Deuteronomy 12:32, which declares we cannot add or take away from God’s commands. This is a general principle, not a manual for worship. Other citations are out of context and irrelevant.[24] One wonders what Jesus thought as He worshiped in a synagogue, which is not prescribed by scripture.[25]

Analysis of Biblical Warrant

Appeals to Exodus 20:4-6 misunderstand the issue. For example, Mark Dever mis-cites this text and claims it is about how we worship. But, it is actually about who.[26]The passage is about idolatry, not worship.

At Exodus 34:13-15, D.G. Hart and John Meuther claim this proves God is jealous and those who contradict or thwart His will are “wicked, irrelevant and profane.”[27] However, this reference is out of context. God is telling the Israelites to drive pagans out because their presence will lead to idolatry (Ex 34:11-16). This has nothing to do with worship.

Leviticus 10:3 suggests worship must not be done improperly, but the text does not say what the men did wrong. This cannot go beyond basic principle.

Appeals to Mark 7:6-7 are specious. Here, Jesus criticizes Pharisees for zealously adding to God’s law and perverting what it means to have a relationship with God. RP appeals therefore cast rhetorical foes as damnable legalists. The text says nothing about worship―it is about the nature of a relationship with God.

At Colossians 2:22-23, Paul condemns asceticism as religion. This text is immaterial because RP opponents are not ascetics who teach a false religion. The issue in Colossians is false religion, not “improper” worship style.

In Matthew 28:20, Jesus declares we must observe what He commanded us. Fair enough, but every serious Christian would believe she does what God commands! This citation therefore proves nothing.

At Romans 1:21, Hart and Meuther declare “… those who are in Christ are incompetent to devise by their imaginations, even devout ones, any sort of worship that is appropriate or pleasing to God.”[28] This is an abstract point that is functionally meaningless. Without a “golden tablet” of infallible RP implications, it does nothing for us. 

Mark Dever declares John 4:19-24 tells us worship is regulated by revelation.[29] This principle is not in dispute. What is disputed is how to apply this revelation. This citation resolves nothing.

He repeats the same refrain at 1 Corinthians 14.[30] However, this is a passage regulating the use of apostolic sign gifts in corporate worship. The most applicable principle here is that worship must be done in an orderly fashion, but this is hardly in dispute.

Conclusion

Track Two of the RP is based on a faulty interpretation of the 1689 Confession. Track One, in its most distilled essence,[31] makes good sense but lacks scriptural and extra-biblical support when framed as a dogma.

RP is applied inconsistently and subjectively.[32] Ligon Duncan argues for a softer RP that is so generic it need not claim the label.[33] However, Hart and Meuther declare pastors are equivalent to Old Covenant priests,[34] we cannot do leisure activities on the Sabbath,[35] worship is not for our pleasure (mis-citing Calvin),[36] lighting an advent wreath is sinful,[37] horizontal worship is specious[38] (so much for brotherly love?), only pastors can read scripture aloud,[39] we must worship as if at a funeral,[40] believers who emphasize God’s love are evangelical Marcionites,[41] and only RP believers may claim God’s love.[42] They also claim the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation.[43] One wonders, then, why Hart serves on the Session for a congregation which boasts a livestream service.[44] However, no doubt his congregation reclines at table as it observes the Lord’s Supper and greets one another with holy kisses …[45]  

D. A. Carson correctly observes the New Testament does not furnish a positive example of a worship service,[46] RP advocates and their foes share much common content, and “[t]here is no single passage … that establishes a paradigm for corporate worship.”[47]

The RP is ripe for abuse as a cloak for ecclesiastical preferences[48]―a vehicle for traditionalism,[49] for mistaking dogma as Truth.[50] It can concretize liturgy in time,[51] or “justify” worship fences over top of revelation.[52] The concept is sound,[53] but one need not claim the mantle to apply what is otherwise known as good hermeneutical sense. It is not a position worth owning.


[1] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), p. 77.

[2] D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), pp. 85-86.

[3] “Westminster Confession of Faith,” Article 1.6, in Orthodox Presbyterian Church, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (2007).

[4] “Second London Confession,” Article 1.6, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised, ed. William Lumpkin (Valley Forge: Judson, 1969), p. 251). A modernized version of this confession has the words “or by necessary inference” (Founders.org. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/). This is a rather different interpretation that will not bear the freight Baptist RP advocates wish to see the 1689 London Baptist Confession carry.

[5] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 78.

[6] J. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice, ed. Philip Ryken (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 1183.

[7] “True piety manifests itself in humble obedience to God’s word in our expression of worship and thus urges us to worship that is wholly in accord with Scripture,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1237-1238).

[8] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 84-85. “The regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1222-1223). 

[9] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1206.

[10] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1229-1252. “… the liturgy, media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the ‘law of unintended consequences,’” (Ibid, KL 1334-1337).

[11] “Belgic Confession of Faith,” Art. 32, in The Three Forms of Unity (Port St. Lucie: SGCB, 2018).

[12] Colossians 2:6-7 is Paul’s exhortation to live life in communion with Christ, which is irrelevant to the RP issue. References to 1 Cor 7:23; Isa 29:13 (cf. Mk 7) and Gal 5:1 are likewise out of context and thus irrelevant to the argument.

[13] “Heidelberg Catechism,” Q 96, in Three Forms of Unity.  

[14] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.  

[15] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Emphasis mine.

[16] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[17] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, p. 250. 

[18] Scott Aniol, “Form and Substance: Baptist Ecclesiology and the Regulative Principle,” in Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, JBTM 15.1(Spring 2018), pp. 30-31.

[19] Founders.org. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/. Emphasis mine.  

[20] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, pp. 250-251.

[21] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. 

[22] Acts 4:19, 5:29; 1 Cor 7:23; Mt 23:8-10; Mt 15:9. In 1 Cor 1:24, Paul is saying he is not Lord over the faith of the Corinthian church members. The RP has nothing to do with this. Indeed it can easily be flipped against more hardline RP advocates, like Hart and Meuther, who claim their way is the only way.

[23] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[24] Ex 20:4-6; Deut 4:15-20; Mt 4:9-10, 15:9; Jn 4:23-24; Acts 17:23-25; Col 2:18-23. 

[25] Derek Thomas criticizes this objection, but curiously fails to answer it. He seems to view the elements of the RP being present at the synagogue, while implicitly dismissing the synagogue context as a circumstance (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1757f). However, more hardline RP advocates like Hart and Meuther (who forbid even banners inside a church building; With Reverence and Awe, p. 78) would surely disagree. RP advocates are not made alike.

[26] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 78. Dever makes the same mistake at Exodus 32:1-10 (pp. 78-79). 

[27] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83. 

[28] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83.

[29] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[30] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[31] I interpret this essence as (1) the elements of reading, preaching, praying, singing, seeing the Word, and (2) the circumstances deduced by good and necessary inference. 

[32] D.A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 54-55.

[33] J. Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?” in Give Praise to God, KL 583-587. “What is being argued here is that there must be scriptural warrant for all we do. That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequences. These formulations of the Reformed approach to worship also acknowledge that lesser things about corporate worship may be decided in the absence of a specific biblical command but in accordance with faithful biblical Christian thinking under the influence of scriptural principles and sanctified reason and general revelation (e.g., whether to use bulletins, what time the services are to begin, how long they are to last, where to meet, what the ministers and congregation will wear, whether to use hymnals, how the singing is to be led, and the like).” Emphasis mine.

[34] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 44. 

[35] Ibid, p. 72. 

[36] Ibid, p. 79.

[37] Ibid, p. 84. 

[38] Ibid, p. 97. 

[39] Ibid, p. 105.

[40] Ibid, p. 127. 

[41] Ibid, p. 125. 

[42] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 86.

[43] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”

[44] See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

[45] In Justin Martyr’s day (ca. A.D. 155), Christians still greeted one another in this fashion (Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961), p. 5). Consistent application of the RP in a manner Hart and Meuther suggest would also mean we must forego HVAC, microphones, electricity, indoor plumbing, piano, and any electronic devices for preaching.

[46] Carson, Worship by the Book, p. 52.

[47] Ibid, p. 55. 

[48] Derek Thomas declares those who believe application of the RP can be subjective because of the interpretive issues are “antinomian,” and remarks, “… it is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice. Citing the hermeneutical caveat is useful in order to extradite oneself from anything that appears to some to be shackling and legalistic. One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1698-1701).

[49] “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 1:9. Michael Bird rightly cautions against a fear of tradition, which is very different than traditionalism. He writes, “I am advocating instead for an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of mutual interpretation,” (Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 64).

[50] Thus, Emil Brunner rightly warns, “Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which the eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the ‘finger,’ to the interpretive doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity,” (The Christian Doctrine of God, in Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), p. 54). 

[51] The historical horizon for RP advocates does not seem to pre-date the Reformation.

[52] Terry Johnson and Ligon Duncan crudely suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture. “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (“Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 2664-2666).

[53] Again, these are (1) the elements of seeing, hearing, preaching, praying and singing the Word, coupled with (2) circumstances deduced by clear implication.

On Ken Ham and Fundamentalism

On Ken Ham and Fundamentalism

I opened the mail the other day to discover a letter from Answers in Genesis (“A Note from Ken Ham”). This wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was what Ken wanted. A color brochure fell out of the envelope. A new “Statement of Faith” from AiG. What was this about?

Ken had a challenge for me. He asked me to review “our updated statement of faith.” Then, he asked me to compare it to “your church’s/college’s statement of faith.” Ken encouraged me to provoke a discussion with leaders about why the church’s Statement didn’t match AiG’s. To be fair, Ken warned me “this could result in some hostility.” But, he declared, such a sacrifice was necessary to “help uncover compromise.”

My first reaction was purely ecclesiastical. Why does a man who runs two amusement parks believe it’s proper to incite doctrinal strife within local churches? His parachurch organization is not an agent of the Gospel. His organization disciples nobody. It baptizes nobody. It marries nobody. It eulogizes nobody. Ken is not there when a marriage is on the rocks, or when a family has no money and needs a new washing machine. Yet, here his letter sits, inviting Christians to accuse their churches of “compromise.”

My second thought was that I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how fundamentalist AiG really was. The flashpoints are Genesis 1-11, abortion, evolution, and sexual mores. But, especially Genesis. The letter declared, “[t]here are only a few Christian colleges/universities that will stand with Answers in Genesis today.” If you don’t “stand” with Ken on Genesis, you’re a “compromiser.”

AiG’s isn’t “fundamentalist” because it believes what it does about Genesis. It’s fundamentalist because it has no room for generous orthodoxy. It engages in what Michael Bird calls “doctrinal mummification.”1 Its theology is frozen. Set in concrete, just like Reagan’s feet.2 No matter whether you have a different, well-articulated view―there can be no détente. Such would be weakness. These compromisers are “very liberal,” Ken warns. They must be crushed.

Fear sells. Nigh on 22 years ago, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a sad book reflecting on their experiences with the Moral Majority. The issue of fund-raising letters came up. Thomas explained these letters always have the same four traits:

First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or impose their morality on the rest of us or destroy the country. Third, the letter assures the read that something will be done: We will oppose these enemies and ensure they do not take over America. Fourth, to get this job done, please send money (and the letter often suggests a specific amount).3

This is precisely what dear Ken does. He suggests a $50 donation and promises a copy of his latest book in return. It’s regrettable to see AiG live up to fundamentalism’s worst impulses of “intellectual rigidity and obscurantism.”4 Scot McKnight laments that people often weaponize “inerrancy,” and “more often than not they are affirming some authority for a specific interpretation that is part of their tribe.”5 Thus, if you disagree with AiG, you’re surely not on God’s side.

Long ago, in 1980, journalist Frances Fitzgerald did a profile of Jerry Falwell and the then-new Liberty College. She observed:

For Thomas Road people, education—in the broad sense of the word—is not a moral and intellectual quest that involves struggle and uncertainty. It is simply the process of learning, or teaching, the right answers. The idea that an individual should collect evidence and decide for himself is anathema.6

That is the approach Ken displays in his letter. It’s also in the new Statement of Faith, which contains this declaration:

The concepts of “social justice,” “intersectionality,” and “critical race theory” are anti-biblical and destructive to human flourishing (Ezekiel 18:1–20; James 2:8–9).7

It provides no definitions for these terms. Ken just says they’re bad. This is troubling, because in his letter Ken assured me the new Statement was carefully worded to “stop people” from using it “to justify compromised positions.” He even declares AiG will “monitor” to see how folks “can get to justify not believing God’s Word.” To disagree with Ken is to disagree with God.

Again, the doctrinal mummification, the feet in concrete, the intellectual rigidity. Of course, one can be against all those things, but what does Ken think they mean?

Emil Brunner wrote about evil as a social phenomenon; an infection that spreads throughout society “and then breeds further evil … the evil which is incorporated in social institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms.” He declared, “Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated within institutions … is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”8

Surely Brunner has a point? Does not evil lurk in society at large as a force, an impetus, an orientation? Does it not shape-shift depending on context? If, as Carl Henry wrote, every society has its myth, and that myth is the framework in which the society chooses to invest its notions of meaning and value,9 can evil really be an individualized phenomenon?

Wolfhart Pannenberg rejected transmission of sin through a social nexus, but he acknowledged society was a vehicle that produced sin in the individual.10 Surely this is correct?

Donald Bloesch wrote that “sin has social as well as personal dimensions. It can appear in the form of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious bigotry, ecological pollution and genocide … sin can poison the structures of a society as well as the heart of individuals.”11 Even Millard Erickson has a discussion on “the social dimensions of sin” in the latest edition of his systematic theology.12

Are these men all too woke?

Like many people today, conservative Christians often exist in an information echo-chamber. They’re socialized into it by their particular media, their peers, their schools, their families13 … their churches. Perhaps social justice, intersectionality, and critical trace theory are “anti-biblical” and “destructive.” What the thinking Christian mustn’t do is take Ken’s word for it.

Michael Bird warns about a “naïve biblicism” personified by Wayne Grudem, who doesn’t interact with non-evangelical theologians (like, say, Brunner, Bloesch or Pannenberg) and seemingly has no awareness of the sociocultural factors that have shaped him. The result is a theology that’s “open to being press-ganged to justify political agendas of the far left or far right.”14 The dangers need not be politics masquerading as theology―they can also be an unwitting intellectual and cultural isolation.

This echo-chamber can make a certain kind of Christian smirk when he reads President Obama reflect on the struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act: “I saw no way to sort out people’s motives, especially given that racial attitudes were woven into every aspect of our nation’s history.”15 The assumption is this cannot be true. But … what if it is true?

The legacy of racist and evil Jim Crow laws throughout the South is real. It’s an unfortunate fact that de facto “segregation academies” sprang up across the country, particularly in the South, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision declared “separate but equal” un-Constitutional.16 Bob Jones University didn’t ban interracial dating until 2000, and then only after suffering embarrassing media attention after George W. Bush made a campaign appearance at the school.17

On the very day Brown v. Board of Education was announced, a Senate sub-committee held hearings on yet another proposed “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution.18 The fact that some of the same Christians opposed Brown, whilst simultaneously advocating for a Christian Amendment, and then later supported and established private Christian schools (read “white schools”) to avoid the implications of forced de-segregation … is quite bizarre. It’s almost as if social structures, systems and cultural mores produce individual sin in people’s lives.

Be that as it may. I’m not arguing for the “evils” against which dear Ken is railing. I am arguing against the theological populism and obscurantism that are fundamentalism’s worst impulses. The fear of something new. Something different. Fear of a doctrinal introspection that bursts the bonds of a very narrow orthodoxy. Something that might shake those feet set in concrete or disturb the doctrinal mummy.

One historian has observed that early white fundamentalists spent their time fighting cultural battles, while their black counterparts often focused on racial advancement.19 This mania for the culture wars continues today in Ken Ham’s letter. Fear is the key. Christian historian John Fea observed “it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear. Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.”20 William Martin has noted the same phenomenon.21 At least one historian has made this “evangelical fear” the subject of an entire book.22 Remember Cal Thomas’ remarks about the prototypical fundraising letter? He recalls one operative admonishing him, “You can’t raise money on a positive!”23 Evangelicalism has always thirsted for the man on horseback to destroy enemies and save society. Therefore, AiG declares “social justice” (whatever that means!) is “destructive.”

People live by stories. “The cultural enterprise rests invariably on a secret or explicit faith.”24 These shared stories are what shape a people and bind a society together. Henry warns us that Christians are foolish to reject other people’s stories “as mere myth-spinning.” They are, all of them, a “quest for a comprehensive overview of reality”25―a reflection of the “I-Thou” relationship we were all made for and want.26

So perhaps, rather than not defining competing “stories” then dismissing them as “destructive,” Christians should start telling our own story?27 Is that not what evangelism is about? Shall we be always on the defensive, sniping from the ramparts while calling for our brothers to bar the gates? If so, our message is simply “We hate you! Believe in Jesus or die a compromiser.” Mark Yarhouse rightly criticizes this approach in the context of evangelism to homosexuals.28 He calls for “alternative scripts” that tell a better story, the Christ story.

Clodovis Boff writes about a friend, a bishop, who cried as he recounted seeing a woman dying from hunger, unable to produce milk for her dying infant child.29 It’s experiences like these that gave rise to Latin American liberation theology―the quest to use the Gospel as impetus to change social conditions … social structures. Such a salvation is mediated by liberations “that dignify the children of God and render credible the coming utopia of the kingdom of freedom, justice, love, and peace, the kingdom of God in the midst of humankind.”30

Social structures, social justice―is this “destructive?” An unthinking Christian may reflexively dismiss this as babble from a “liberal.” He will turn to his trusted gatekeeper and receive assurance that, yes indeed, this is “liberalism” and therefore “bad.” He will look no further.

A thinking Christian will engage, push beyond the echo-chamber. Perhaps you’ll end up agreeing with AiG, but surely we must all raise an eyebrow or two when Ken Ham boldly tells us what truth is … without any evidence he himself understands what he maligns. We must do better.

Or I suppose you could just send Ken the $50 he’s asking for. After all, he’ll send you an autographed copy of his latest book.  


1 Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 41.  

2 If you appreciate this reference, 50 bonus points for you …  

3 Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 58.

4 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway, 1996), p. 16.

5 Scot McKnight, “Inerrancy or Inerrancies?” 01 June 2021. Retrieved from https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/inerrancy-or-inerrancies.

6 Frances Fitzgerald, “A Disciplined Charging Army.” The New Yorker. 18 May 1981. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1981/05/18/a-disciplined-charging-army.

7 Answers in Genesis, “Statement of Faith,” § “Man.” Retrieved from https://answersingenesis.org/about/faith/.  

8 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.  

9 Carl F. H. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 156.  

10 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 255f.  

11 Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), p. 45.  

12 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 584-599.

13 Two sociologists label these as “agents of socialization” (Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein, The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology, 6th ed. (New York: Norton, 2018), pp. 109ff).

14 Bird, Evangelical Theology, pp. 88-89.  

15 Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020), p. 405.

16 “After the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, Southern public schools—sometimes entire school systems—shut down rather than desegregate. Private “segregation academies” sprung up to replace them. In some states, governments provided grants to subsidize tuition. The movement accelerated following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited segregation in schools receiving federal assistance and authorized the government to file suit in federal court to enforce Brown,” (Rick Perlstein, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn: 1976-1980 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), p. 346). See also Martin, With God on Our Side, pp. 168ff.

17 “Bob Jones University Drops Interracial Dating Ban.” Christianity Today. 01 March 2000. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/marchweb-only/53.0.html.  

18 Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 95ff.  

19 Daniel Bare, “The Unearthed Conscience of Black Fundamentalism,” in Christianity Today. May/June 2021, p. 64.  

20 John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 66.   

21 Martin, With God on Our Side, p. 2.  

22 Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (New York: OUP, 2008).

23 Thomas and Dobson, Blinded by Might, p. 58.  

24 Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 1, p. 156.  

25 Ibid, p. 155.  

26 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 55-56, and Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1 (reprint; London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 184-185.

27 Joshua Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).  

28 “What the church can help people with—regardless of whether orientation changes—is identity. We can recognize that a gay script is compelling to those who struggle with same-sex attraction, especially when they see few options emerging from their community of faith. Therefore we can help develop alternative scripts that are anchored in biblical truth and centered in the person and work of Christ,” (Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2010), pp. 54-56).

29 Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006), pp. 1-2.  

30 Ibid, pp. 8-9.  

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.

The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).

Eternal generation says that:

  1. the Son was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
  4. in a way we can’t ever understand
  5. but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!

Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.

Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …

Lexicons

The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.

  • BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique[1]
  • Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ[2]
  • Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”[3]
  • Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”[4]
  • LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22[5]

Septuagint Usage[6]

Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX.[7] The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.

Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.

The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.

Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.

Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”

Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor

The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.

Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.

Unique, one and only, special.

Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …

Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).

Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.

One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.

Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”

One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!

Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son

One and only, special, precious.

New Testament Usage

The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.

Luke 7:12: As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Usage Related to Jesus

With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.

John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.

John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.

John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life

The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.

1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him

See the comments at John 3:16 (above).

Apostolic Father’s Usage[8]

There are no new surprises here.

1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years

Self-explanatory

Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones

One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.

Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.

This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.

So, What’s It Mean?

Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).

Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”

It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”

In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicates more than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.

The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.


[1] BDAG, p. 658.

[2] Abbott-Smith, p. 296. 

[3] Moulton and Milligan, pp. 416-417. 

[4] Louw-Nida, §58.52.

[5] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).

[6] The LXX citations here are from Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[7] I do not include Ode 14, because it is clearly a Christian composition of some maturity. It is not properly a citation from before the time of Christ.

[8] My citations here are from Rick Brannan, tran., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012).

What is Pentecost About?

What is Pentecost About?

Pentecost is one of those events in the Christian calendar that hasn’t fared so well―so many people don’t know what to do with it! We know what happened, but the problem is what it means. Like so many discussions involving the Holy Spirit, Pentecost sometimes becomes a list of things that it doesn’t mean:

  1. Whatever else it is, it can’t be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
  2. The gift of prophecy, the experiences of dreams and visions―it’s all good, but it has nothing to do with us, you see …
  3. The gift of tongues can’t be real foreign languages; they have to be ecstatic, other-worldly sayings that require an interpreter

Presuppositions drive interpretation, shutting out the actual words on the page. Pentecost gets submerged under 50 feet of controversy. Like espresso diluted with sugar, it becomes so much less than it’s meant to be. Its meaning is lost in all the noise of theological disagreement.

What does Pentecost actually mean?

Peter tells us. He stands up, facing a crowd of perhaps thousands in the temple courtyard, and simply says “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16). What happened that morning―the Spirit descending visibly, audibly, in deliberately dramatic fashion―was what the prophet Joel said would happen. Whatever the phenomenon of Pentecost means, Joel explains it―what does Joel say?

Peter quotes a long passage from Joel (2:28-32). It’s a mysterious passage―otherworldly. There are great promises, even fantastic ones. The run-up to Peter’s citation shows us Joel urging repentance. God wants us to return to Him. The day of the Lord is illustrated by an army of locusts that devour everything in their path. Judgment is coming.  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments,” (Joel 2:12).

And, once God’s people do that, He’ll make everything all right (Joel 2:18-27), and that’ll set the stage for something else. After God rescues and gathers all His people. After God makes us safe. After God destroys our enemies. After God blesses the land and gives us a booming economy. After He returns to dwell with us … then some important stuff is going to happen.

Acts 2:17: And in the last days it shall be, God declares

Peter is interpreting Joel, who said:

  1. after we repent,
  2. and God rescues, gathers, dwells with us,
  3. then something special is going to happen
  4. the Messianic age will be here, in some form,
  5. and it’ll come with some very specific bells, whistles and divine signs

Peter, by quoting Joel as he does, says “this is it―it’s here!”

  1. God has rescued!
  2. God has gathered!
  3. God has made His people safe!
  4. The age of the King is here!
  5. These are the divine signs Joel told us about, right here in front of us―God is striking up the band and shouting, “Here it is, guys!”

Some bible teachers don’t agree. They say “what happened at Pentecost is like what Joel said … it resembles what he said …” But, this is mistaken. Peter said, “but this is what was said by the prophet Joel …”[1] Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s words.

How can this be what Joel said, if all the stuff Joel promised would happen beforehand haven’t fully happened, yet?

  1. We’re not all gathered
  2. We’re not all safe
  3. Christ’s enemies are still around
  4. God hasn’t given us economic peace and stability
  5. God doesn’t physically, visibly dwell with us here

But (and this is the point) it’s started to happen. The dominoes are starting to fall. The ones at the end of the line are still standing, but not for long. Peter says, in effect, that just as the Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the first fruits of the agricultural harvest, so Pentecost morning is the first-fruits of God’s rescue harvest.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32-33).

God, to Joel’s audience, says: “Return to me, because the Messianic age is coming, and it’s really gonna be something!”

Peter says to the pilgrims on Pentecost morning: “This is what Joel said would happen! This is the first fruits of the Messianic age, when Jesus is the King!”

God’s message to a modern Christian audience is: “If you’re a Christian, you’re part of this new Messianic age, and what happened at Pentecost proves it!”

What did the Spirit do at Pentecost, that inaugurated the New Covenant? What does all that theater (tongues of fire, the rushing wind) mean? Peter explains, by continuing his Joel quotation.

Acts 2:17: that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh

All means all (young, old, slave, free, high society, low society). Peter says God just poured out His Spirit on all His people. Christians often wonder what the Spirit did that was so unique. Depending on your church tradition, you may have heard the following:

  1. It was salvation! But, surely salvation already existed. This is a mistaken view.
  2. It was indwelling! Some Christians believe the Holy Spirit never indwelt believers before the New Covenant. This is also incorrect;[2] how could you love God and your covenant brothers and sisters without the Spirit?

So, what did this “pouring out” of the Spirit do for them then, and what does it do for us, today? Joel tells us now.

Acts 2:17: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams;

People often want to know what “prophesy” means. It can either mean (1) inspired unveiling about future or heretofore unrecognized events, or (2) communicating God’s message for His people and the world; teaching, exhorting. In some contexts it’s a combination of both. Here, the emphasis shades over to the teaching aspect. We know this because, on Pentecost morning, the pilgrims said “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” (Acts 2:11).

The bit about visions and dreams tells us God will now communicate with His people in dramatic and very personal ways. He’ll draw us into His presence in a way so much more intimate, close and personal than when He hid Himself behind the veil in the temple.

Jesus pours out the Spirit on “sons and daughters.” Both men and women. Joel (and Peter) show us no gender hierarchy in God’s family, which is a pretty revolutionary statement in a patriarchal world.

Acts 2:18: even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

God doubles down. He won’t just pour out His Spirit on men and women, generically. But on men and women who are slaves. In Peter’s context, slavery is a class status, not the race distinction it became in America. Slaves are the lowest class in society. God’s promise to give the Spirit in equal measure to even male and female slaves is quite something. One wonders how the Pharisees would have reacted (cf. Jn 9:34).

What a revolutionary vision of men, women and class in God’s family! Each has gifts to exercise. Each has an equal and honored place in the community. No matter what label the world sticks on us about age, social class or gender, inside the family there is a collaboration, a sharing, a reciprocal exchange and harnessing of gifts. There are implications here for those who wish to pick up what God is putting down.  

What does all this mean?

It means every Christian has the supernatural ability to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) other people about Jesus (sons, daughter, young, old, slave, free). To tell people about the future, about how this story ends, about how and where this merry-go-round that is the world is going to stop. To look at the scripture the same way you peek at the end of a new paperback thriller, to see the end, and tell people about it so they can be sure their end will turn out all right. To teach people about Jesus. It also means that people can know God more personally, intimately, and experientially than ever before.

Do we believe, really believe, that God’s kingdom has broken into this world? The torn veil, the resurrection, the ascension―all of it was leading to this dramatic moment when God does everything but charter a plane to write in the sky, “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Violent wind, flames of fire, thousands of pilgrims gathering around, and then the realization that all believers (men, women, boys, girls, old, young) have divine empowerment to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) to people about Jesus the King.

He’s empowered you. He’s gifted you. He’s equipped you. He’s put you where you are. He’s given you the words of life to rescue captives from that future of fire, blood, smoke and doom (cf. Joel 2:30-31).

It’s not salvation. It’s not a first indwelling. It’s divine empowerment in service of the Gospel and community.

What would happen if we lived life like Pentecost had happened to us, personally? God wants you to be encouraged, inspired, energized, excited. He wants us to read about this, then go out and live like it’s real, not something in a book. To many of us (including me!) the reality of God’s empowering is atrophied, like a muscle that’s gone weak because it’s never used. The empowering has become abstract, academic, far away, maybe even almost a fable we pay lip-service to―something that’s not “real.”  

It isn’t that―it is real. What Joel said is here, right now. Jesus is in heaven, granting repentance, granting forgiveness (Acts 5:31), pouring out the Spirit on His people. What would happen if Christians exercised their “faith faculty”[3] to live like this empowerment was real, not words on a page or pixels on a screen?  


[1] ἀλλὰ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ εἰρημένον διὰ τοῦ προφήτου Ἰωήλ

[2] For an argument for Old Covenant indwelling, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 2 (Detroit: DBTS, 2009), pp. 267-276.

[3] John Phillips, New Testament Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1956), pp. 23-42.

Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood released on 20 April 2021. It provides a historical argument for egalitarianism and it has taken the evangelical world by storm. Many are not pleased. On 30 April 2021, one Twitter user who sports an avatar of John Calvin in a suit asked, “Why do all the anti-patriarchy chicks seem to cut their own hair?” James White liked the tweet.

The same day, Desiring God sallied forth with an article arguing that a man is a prophet, priest and king to his wife.

On Mother’s Day 2021, three Southern Baptist seminary presidents felt compelled to tweet about women preachers by quoting various 19th century theologians who supported slavery. Adam Greenway cited B.H. Carroll, who served in the Confederate Army for two years. Danny Akin replied to Greenway and declared, “He is correct my friend. 100%. The Bible is crystal clear.” Al Mohler quoted John Broadus, who was a Confederate Army chaplain. Beth Moore replied, “Happy Mother’s Day, Al.”

Barr’s book released not long after Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, and together they offer a formidable scholarly critique of complementarian theology.

Barr takes a risk by not making her book cold and formal. It is academic, but colored throughout by her very personal story. Early on she declares “my husband was fired after he challenged church leadership over the issue of women in ministry,” (p. 3). She lays her cards in the table and states “Complementarianism is at its root misogynistic … based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog …” (pp. 5, 6).

She recounts her years of quiet frustration as her own views on women in the church shifted. “I stayed silent when I wasn’t allowed to teach youth Sunday school because the class included teenage boys. I led discussions with special permission when no one else was available,” (p. 5).

Barr is not an angry “feminist” with a “radical agenda.” She is an evangelical Baptist who is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Baylor University. She holds both the MA and PhD in Medieval History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Barr spends little time exegeting biblical texts; there are many resources which fight that battle.[1] But, she is impeccably credentialed to speak to this issue from a historical perspective and that is her unique contribution to the discussion. “It was historical evidence that showed me how biblical womanhood was constructed—brick by brick, century by century,” (p. 10).

Barr uses the term “patriarchy” throughout her book, rather than “complementarianism.” Patriarchy is “a general system that values men and their contributions more than it values women and their contributions,” (p. 16). She observes that Russell Moore claims Christian patriarchy is different, in that women only submit to their own husbands. But, Barr says, this is a distinction without a difference―patriarchy is still patriarchy. “It cannot be peeled off suit coats like a name tag as evangelical men move from denying women’s leadership at church to accepting the authority of women at work or women in the classroom,” (p. 18).

What if, Barr suggests, we ought to flip the narrative? “Instead of assuming that patriarchy is instituted by God, we must ask whether patriarchy is a product of sinful human hands,” (p. 25). This is not a new question. Is female submission an original aspect of creation, or is it result of the Fall?  But how to move this conversation forward? Both sides are well-entrenched. Barr declares, “Historical evidence about the origins of patriarchy can move the conversation forward,” (p. 32). She then spends the rest of her book doing just that.

Patriarchy is not part of God’s good creation. The fact that some flavor of patriarchy has always existed is a clue for the Church. “Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t it be the other way around,” (p. 37)?

In her second chapter, Barr suggests we misread Paul if we see him upholding patriarchy. Rather, Paul pushes against that construct from within that world. “[W]hat if Paul was teaching Christians to live differently within their Roman context? Rather than New Testament ‘texts of terror’ for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy,” (p. 46)? She offers numerous quotations from medieval sermons to suggest modern evangelicals read Paul as they do because their ecclesiastical culture blinds them. She especially takes issue with attempts to interpret Ephesians 5:22ff as a separate paragraph from Ephesians 5:21 (p. 50f).

Barr’s third chapter is perhaps her most powerful, because here she is in her element as a medieval historian. She introduces the reader to several women preachers and their “cloud of witnesses.” Her argument is not, “See, women have preached before, so it must be ok!” Rather, she argues, “You’re interpreting the bible wrong. See, look at all the other voices from the Church that have seen it differently. Grudem doesn’t have the last word!” She observed,

I knew the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were (p. 84).

Patriarchal tendencies have always led church authorities to push back. “The problem was male clergy who undermined the evidence,” (p. 87). She then follows with a delightful chapter on the Reformation’s impact on women, and how the role of “being a wife” was redefined as the highest ideal. “As the household became more firmly established as a woman’s space, professional work became more firmly identified as a man’s space,” (p. 109).

Her fifth chapter tackles the issue of gender-inclusive bible translations. She notes the ESV had its genesis in a kerfuffle about “changes” to the NIV. “The uproar among evangelicals was instantaneous. Gender-inclusive language was no longer just an argument over proper translation; it was the slippery slope of feminism destroying biblical truth,” (p. 131). Barr writes:

The ESV was a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God.

As a medieval historian who specializes in English sermons, the debate over gender-inclusive translations amuses me. It amuses me because the accusers depict gender-inclusive Bible translations as a modern, secular trend fueled by the feminist movement. Yet, as a medieval historian, I know that Christians translated Scripture in gender-inclusive ways long before the feminist movement (pp. 132-133).

She then chronicles the rise of the cult of domesticity and its emphasis on saving men from sexual immorality by emphasizing female purity. Barr draws on work by other historians and summarizes this mindset as consisting of piety, purity, submission, and domesticity (pp. 165-166). Women are naturally more religious than men and are thus ideally suited to pass these values on to children. Women are not sexual creatures and must be protected from predators. Real women are not emotionally or temperamentally suited to be leaders and will want to follow a strong man. Women are not meant to work outside the home, so women’s education should focus on domestic skills (e.g. home economics).

“Indeed,” Barr argues, “doesn’t biblical womanhood just seem like an updated version of the cult of domesticity? Instead of biblical womanhood stemming from the Bible, it stems from a gender hierarchy developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to deal with the social and economic changes wrought by work moving outside the home,” (p. 166).

Thus,

Instead of just being something that women usually did, domestic prowess in the home (centered on the family) now became something that good Christian women should do because it is what we are designed to do. It is our primary calling in this world. Domesticity, for evangelical women, is sanctified (p. 159).

In that vein, Owen Strachan, a theologian at Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, recently tweeted this:

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I do not believe Barr would argue domesticity is bad. But, I do believe she would insist it does not have to be the only sphere in which women can meaningfully contribute to Christ’s coming kingdom.

Patriarchy, Barr argues, adapts to changing circumstances. “Like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter—conforming to each new era, looking as if it has always belonged,” (p. 186).

She identifies eternal functional subordination as heresy.[2] “Arianism, like inerrancy, proved the perfect weapon against women’s equality, the perfect prop for Christian patriarchy. Except it is still heresy. Arianism repackaged,” (p. 196).

This is an extremely well-researched book. Each chapter is replete with copious footnotes and historical examples. Indeed, perhaps her book’s greatest strength is its role as a tour guide to a world of scholarly historical monographs on gender roles in the West. Populist readers may dismiss Barr out of hand. More careful readers will see her arguments deserve careful consideration.

We all know pre-understanding clouds interpretation. I once had a woman tell me she believed someone who did not believe in the pre-tribulational rapture could be a Christian. This woman did not know other eschatological frameworks existed. Has our cultural heritage blinded our interpretation on the role of women in the Church?

I have two critiques. Barr’s definition of “patriarchy” is abstract, and thus I believe she erred by not using the “Danvers Statement” to better define her target. It would have been helpful if Barr had aligned herself with some mile marker in this debate. Perhaps CBE International’s Men, Women, and Biblical Equality Statement” would have been appropriate. Also, her attempt to tie the fundamentalist-modernist controversy to patriarchy is an unfortunate misstep,[3] and Barr seems out of her element here.[4]

Should you read the book?

If you are a conservative, theological populist, then you will probably not like this book. If you follow and enjoy Tom Buck, Denny Burk, Tom Ascol, Owen Strachan, and self-proclaimed “1689 Baptists” on social media, you will probably not like this book. This is why you ought to read it anyway.

If you want to hear a scholarly, reasoned, and formidable historical argument for egalitarianism, read this book.

If you want to explore a path less traveled than arguments about the grammar of 1 Timothy 2:12-14, read this book.

If you want to read some of the best of what the other side has to offer, read this book.

If you enjoy reading substantive arguments that challenge you, read this book.

If you believe women are called to do more than work in the nursery, teach elementary-age children, and teach younger women in the church, then read this book.

Notes

1 See (1) Ronald Price (ed.), Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005) and (2) John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021).

2 For context to this issue, see Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordinationist Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).  

3 “… the early twentieth-century emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women. As we have seen, preaching women peppered the landscape of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America: they flooded the mission field as evangelists and leaders, and they achieved popular acclaim as preachers among Pentecostal and even fundamentalist denominations. As these women rose in prominence, so too rose inerrancy teachings. And these teachings buttressed male authority by diminishing female authority—transforming a literal reading of Paul’s verses about women into immutable truth,” (p. 189).

4 Barr admits she knew little about the fundamentalist-modernist battles and had to receive a crash course from a colleague at a conference (p. 187).