“Reading the signs of the times requires a church capable of standing against the legitimating stories of the day.
American Christians often think that if we had been confronted with someone like Hitler we would have been able to recognize that he was evil. Yet in many ways, the church in Germany was a church more theologically articulate than the American church has ever been; still the German church failed to know how to adequately challenge the rise of Hitler.
It failed because Christians in Germany assumed that they were German Christians just as American Christians assume that they are American Christians. Churches that are nationally identified will seldom be able to faithfully read the signs of the time.
Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees for their inability to read the signs of the times, that is, to recognize all that has been and all that is still to be must now be read under the sign of Jonah, remains a challenge for us.
Jesus has previously criticized the Pharisees for their failure to do what they profess. Indeed Jesus will soon recommend to the crowd that they should do what those who “sit on Moses’ seat” teach, but “do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt. 23:2–3). Jesus demands, as we have seen from his Sermon on the Mount, lives of integrity. To see the truth, to recognize the signs of the kingdom, requires that we be rightly formed by the virtues acquired by following Jesus. To know the truth requires the acquisition of the habits of truthfulness. Knowledge and virtue are inseparable.
Jesus’s refusal to give the Pharisees and Sadducees a sign has profound implications for how Christians understand truth.
We believe that the truth of the gospel cannot be separated from the kind of lives required for the recognition of that truth. Because we are aware of the inadequacy of our faithfulness to Christ, we are tempted to separate the truth of what we believe from the way we live. But Jesus refuses to allow us to abstract our knowing from our living. The gospel is not information; it is a way of life.”
“If you’ve ever struggled to understand the story of Judah and Tamar from Genesis 38, I’ve got you!! In this episode, Carolyn Custis James shares a framework for understanding the stories of scripture. And why Tamar, who posed as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law, is considered a hero…Wait, WHAT???”
Tamar’s story (Genesis 38) is one of the strongest ezer-warriorexamples in the Old Testament, and I loved discussing this powerful ezer narrative with Teresa Whiting. Tamar story is one of the Bible’s most overlook stories because readers and interpreters lock onto the word “prostitute” and can’t get past it. It isn’t considered suitable subject matter for a mixed audience in a Sunday morning church service.
But the Tamar/Judah story is the hinge that holds Genesis together and a story that can make a difference for all of us. Without understanding Tamar’s story, we can’t make sense of the radical transformation in Judah when his half-brother and his father’s new favorite son Benjamin faces the threat of being enslaved (Genesis 44). The Tamar/Judah story reveals how God used the courage of a woman to ensure a family’s survival and to transform Judah—one of the Bible’s darkest characters and hopeless cases—into a version of masculinity that shed’s patriarchy’s demands and instead reflects Jesus and his gospel. The end result is the reconciliation of warring brothers.
The story turns on Judah’s statement—usually mistranslated “She is more righteous than I”—when the more accurate translation according to Hebrew scholars is “She is righteous; not I.”1 That was when Judah looked in the mirror and confronted the kind of depraved human being he’d become.
Judah’s redemption should open our eyes to the powerfully wide reach of Jesus’ gospel and the hope-filled fact that no one is beyond the gospel’s good news.
It is sheer fiction to imagine that following Jesus means we can skate through life without stumbling over large and small disruptions. As Puritan pastor Samuel Rutherford reminded a suffering fellow pastor, and would doubtless say to those of us alive today, “It is folly to think to steal to heaven with a whole skin.”1
In the opening decades of this new millennium, we have all endured direct personal experience with powerful disruptive forces. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the whole planet, costing precious lives and sparking widespread divisions about immunization itself. Global climate patterns are changing, regardless of how you explain it. The Cold War between Russia and the West has suddenly re-emerged with Ukraine in the crosshairs. Issues of human rights, racial injustice, rising gas prices, global economic vacillations, porous national borders, and endless gun violence dominate daily media reports and spur new waves of divisiveness globally, nationally, within cherished relationships, and even inside the American church.
I have lived long enough to know from my own experience that disruptions can be global, cultural, and also deeply personal—sometimes all at once. I’ve had a good many personal disruptions in my own story, and suffice it to say, I have the scars to prove it. I’m also learning in hindsight that these unwelcome disruptions are significant markers in my journey with God that exposed flaws in my theology and drove me to ask questions I would otherwise never have asked. Disruptions shape our stories and our theology.
Let’s talk theology for a moment — what it is and is not. The word theology (mainly understood here as systematic theology) comes from two Greek words—theos (God) and logos (word, teaching, study). Theology is simply the contemplation of God. It is an ongoing, constantly developing human enterprise to understand God, his mission for this world, and how we are to live as his image bearers.
For better or worse, we are all theologians. What we believe about God—whether it is true or false, a little or a lot—is our theology.
Too often systematic theology is viewed as a process of determining divine essences and making logical deductions about God. But theology isn’t taxonomy, and God cannot be reduced to a bullet-point list of attributes, which is how a doctor knows you by your medical chart. The triune God is profoundly relational. One of the first things the Bible tells us about ourselves is that God created every human being to be his image bearer—making a relationship with himself our lifeline. True theology is intensely practical and relevant in every aspect of human life.
I have found Martin Bucer’s definition of theology especially valuable:
“True theology is not theoretical or speculative, but active and practical. For it is directed toward action, i.e., a godly life. . . . It is theology’s aim . . . that we shall ever more firmly trust in God and live a life that is increasingly holy and more serviceable in love toward our neighbor.”2
True theology necessarily requires humility. It is, and forever will be, unfinished business requiring constant repair, revision, and expansion. This never-ending human enterprise to know the God who created us inevitably compels us to admit we’ve all gotten some things wrong and have corrections to make.
Beware of those who believe their theological conclusions have God’s unique imprimatur.
As painful and unsettling as disruptions can be, they challenge our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and inevitably spill over into every dimension of life. Disruptions raise new questions for how Christians should think about contemporary issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights, racism, social justice, immigration, poverty, and global warming. Again and again disruptions compel us to deconstruct and reconstruct our faith and to struggle with how to follow Jesus into the twenty-first century and to reflect our Creator’s heart for the world. They may even reshape our understanding of what it means to be an “evangelical.”
The Bible is not a textbook of systematic theology. Rather it is full of stories—real stories about individuals and larger stories about tribes and nations. There are also parables that may not be historical but are “true” stories nonetheless. These stories are a marvelous literary vehicle for revealing divine truth and wisdom. They contain a dynamic power that constantly generates new insights and applications in a world unimagined by the original human authors. These stories are designed to teach us more about God. In the process, they teach us a lot about ourselves.
In recent years, Naomi’s story (recorded in the book of Ruth) has been rightfully restored as a Job story.3 Like Job, Naomi’s story begins on a high note. She is introduced as a successful Israelite wife and mother of two sons. According to ancient patriarchy’s practice of determining a woman’s value by counting her sons, Naomi scores a respectable two.
But also like Job, Naomi suffers an avalanche of calamities that destroy everything that gave her life meaning and purpose. A prolonged and devastating famine drives her hungry family to become refugees in Moab (present-day Jordan)—accompanied with a precipitous drop in social status. From there, her life goes from bad to worse. Once in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies; her two sons marry pagan girls, who, after ten agonizing years without a pregnancy, are certifiably barren. Then, the deaths of both her sons leave Naomi decimated. In despair and desperation, she returns home to Bethlehem to run out the clock and die. Like Job, she cries out in distress and draws a straight line connecting the LORD to her losses:
“The LORD’s hand has turned against me. . . . the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:13, 21; Job 6:4; 7:11, 16).
Ironically, Naomi’s return to Bethlehem in despair is the prelude to the real story. The centerpiece of Naomi’s losses is God’s hesed — a brand of love no English word quite captures. Hesed is a steadfast, voluntary, costly, sacrificial, never-ending love that defines God’s relationship to his people. Naomi is convinced that God has withdrawn his hesed. Yet in her darkest moments God’s hesed shows up in the bold initiatives and sacrificial actions of her immigrant daughter-in-law Ruth, who breathes new hope and purpose into Naomi’s story.
Although Naomi did not seek it, she became the theologian of God’s hesed. Naomi raised Obed (the son Ruth gave her) on lessons she gleaned in the school of suffering, which Obed passed on to his son Jesse, who passed hesed on to his son David, Israel’s king. Hesed theology became a guiding light for King David who passed Naomi’s theology on to us when he wrote with confidence, “Surely goodness and hesed will follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6).
Naomi’s story can and will inspire deeper reflection about God for every new generation. It also sheds light on the redemptive power, value, and, indeed, necessity of disruptions.
Jesus the Disrupter
Jesus was the quintessential disruptor. He disrupted his family, his community, the Jewish faith, the Roman Empire, two thousand years and counting of human history. Jesus disrupted long-held Messianic convictions deeply embedded within the Jewish ethos, including his own disciples’ expectations. Jesus did not come to mount an armed political insurrection against the Roman occupiers. Yet, after three years as Jesus’ front-row students, even after his arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, his disciples were still asking, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus disrupts our stories too. As a pastor’s daughter, I was taught God’s calling on me as a woman was to be a wife, mother, and volunteer Sunday School teacher in the church. Never did I imagine the disruptions, the heartache, and the course corrections I would experience. Looking back, I realize every painfully disruptive bump in the road, every question they provoked, and every misperception they exposed in what I believed about God, were ultimately life-giving insights I wouldn’t trade for anything, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
Please understand, I am in no way suggesting there’s a silver lining in our disruptions. Quite the opposite. Like grieving Sandy Hook and Gold Star parents, both Job and Naomi went to their graves in grief and with unanswered questions. But their unspeakable losses drove them to God in fierce new ways. Disruptions can create a crisis of faith that ultimately leads to deeper levels of trust in God.
In a Facebook post, my friend Pastor Danny Cox reflected on the redemptive impact of costly disruptions in his story:
“I live in a truer state of reliance upon God and learn to enter the mystery of God with a heart that is willing to be continually corrected, adjusted, molded, and shaped . . . that what I know today about God is probably not what I will know tomorrow.”4
More disruptions lie ahead, provoking new questions and issues unknown to previous generations. We may not find a Bible verse to settle every contemporary issue or heartache facing us. But we have Jesus’ example and the Spirit’s presence within our souls to accompany us on our journey and to remind us that disruptions are redemptive.
1 Samuel Rutherford, Letters of Samuel Rutherford, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 69. 2 Bucer was a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer. See H.J. Selderhuis, Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, Vol. XLVIII, (Kirksville, Missouri, Thomas Jefferson University Press, Truman State University, 1999), p. 356. 3 The Literary Approach or Rhetorical Method was a mid-twentieth-century breakthrough in biblical studies. It involves analyzing biblical narratives as literature—identifying perspective, conflict, plot, character development, key themes, etc.—story elements you learned in high school literature class. It also illumines the artistry of biblical narratives that English translations obscure. One more power-tool to help us unearth greater riches from the Bible. To learn more, read: Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, (New York: Basic Books), 2011, and Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative,(Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns), 1994. 4 Danny Cox, Facebook, October 21, 2022.
If you’ve already read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation, you no doubt agree with Beth Moore’s assessment, that evidence of evangelical clergy abuse (multiple varieties) that Du Mez documents “is staring us in the face.” Even more troubling, since the release of J&JW, further evidence of this crisis continues to emerge as new abusive scandals involving well-known and influential evangelical leaders continue to come to light.
The impact is shattering on individuals who have trusted and benefitted from the ministry of these disgraced leaders. It raises questions that may make us squirm, but we owe it to Jesus to ask—both “How can we make the American church a safe place for the vulnerable?” and also “How does accepted evangelical theology create an environment that is conducive to abuse in the first place?”
My book, Malestrom was already tackling the second question when it was first released in 2015. The 2022 softcover release connects the dots between the abuse crisis Du Mez exposed and patriarchy as a major causative force in this crisis.
Anyone expecting Malestrom 2022 to be anti-male will be disappointed. Instead, Malestrom advocates for men and boys and raises issues we should all be engaging on their behalf, as well as for the sake of the church and the safety of all of us. It features a line-up of men in the Bible who are often overlooked, especially when the subject of manhood is on the table. But God is in their stories and encounters them in powerful ways that compel them to shed patriarchy’s demands and embody a gospel view of masculinity that reflects Jesus.
Reviewer: Stephen S. Taylor, Associate Professor of New Testament at Missio Seminary. His comments regarding how we interpret the Bible are alone worth reading this review, but hopefully his review will also encourage readers to read Malestrom 20220 as well.
Malestrom is actually the Second Edition of Carolyn Custis James’s 2015 book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World. The “Introduction” and the nine titled chapters remain the same. Yet so finely tuned was the original argument that the subtle changes introduced in this Second Edition have an outsized impact on the clarity and persuasive power of the original. As insightful and transformative as the First Edition was, this is the edition to read, study, and recommend to others moving forward. I will explain why at the end of this review.
First, let’s look at the unchanged substance of the book. In a word, the book is a sustained attack on global and historic “patriarchy.” James adopts what is now the standard definition of the term, originally articulated by Sylvia Walby,
“Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and is dependent on female subordination.”1
The inexorable pull of patriarchy, based as it is in a potent brew of the will to power, male pride, and physical strength, and inter-generational cultural patterns, James likens to a maelstrom, the dangerous whirlpool that sometimes develops in the open seas trapping unsuspecting sailors in its vortex and dragging them down to watery graves. By the clever transposition of only two letters, the maelstrom becomes the malestrom and the central metaphor of the book.
“The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species–causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons.”2
The power of the malestrom lies in its initial subtlety and gradualness; boys are given role models that embody competitiveness, domination, and entitlement and by imperceptible degrees, as the rotation of the current becomes tighter and faster, they become misshapen incarnations of patriarchy, exhibiting and purveying its deadly results.
James effectively develops a thick description of these results: a manhood that turns in on itself, shrunk-wrapped around the narrow roles of “impregnator-protector-provider” and “sustained by the submission and obedience of others.”3 (As James wryly notes, such manhood would exclude Jesus and Paul!) The dark depths of the malestrom “lowers men’s sights and aspirations to a horizontal competitive quest for male power to win and achieve preeminence over other men.”4 And deeper still, the suction of the abyss reduces womanhood to a means to male ends: “the value of a wife is gauged by the number of her sons”5–a value that can be supplemented by the practice of polygamy6 and other forms of exploitation. The list goes on.
The malestrom robs the sunlit freedom of the sons of God: a freedom to see the horizon and to look toward “the loftier calling and the greater dignity of imaging God and walking faithfully before him,”7 a freedom “selflessly to invest [one’s] powers and privileges to promote the flourishing and fruitful living of others.”8
Sadly, James’s book is prompted by the fact that the ark of the church is spinning in the same vortex. This persistent and ugly truth is underscored not only by James in her “Introduction” and “A Concluding Unrepentant Postscript” but also by the timely observations of Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s “Foreword” and Dr. Frank James’s “Afterword.”
Most tragically, many sailors in the churchly ark insist that the powerful currents are not dangerous and that they have navigated to their coordinates using divinely-given Charts. James wisely sounds the alarm: the navigators have misread the Charts (a.k.a. the scriptures)!
“[T]he prevalence of this cultural system [of patriarchy] on the pages of Scripture… can easily lead (and has led) to the assumption that patriarchy is divinely ordained. Many believe this is the way God wants us to live, even though Westerners who embrace patriarchy are selective about the few patriarchal elements they retain from the Bible – which is itself an admission that something may be wrong with the system. Most throw out slavery and polygamy, along with associating disappointment and failure with the birth of a daughter, child brides, honor killings, and inheritance laws, for example. But they cling fervently to male leadership and female submission in the home and in the church. Some extend these male/female dynamics to include wider culture…. [S]o long as patriarchy is enthroned as the gender message of the Bible, it poses a significant barrier to a strong and flourishing Blessed Alliance between men and women and a healthy, fully functioning body of Christ, which in turn inevitably hinders God’s mission in the world.”9
James sets out, then, in the central chapters of the book, to correct this misreading of Scripture and, thereby, set a new course for the church by examining the stories of six men narrated in the scriptures: Abraham, Judah, Barak, Boaz, Matthew and Joseph (husband of Mary). All of these men journeyed after the birth of the malestrom (treated in Chapter 1), after the Fall that compromised the “Blessed Alliance” God has planned for his male and female image bearers. And all of these men resisted in one way or another, to one degree or another, the pull of the patriarchal malestrom.
Abraham gave up his prerogatives as the eldest son of his father, followed the divine call to be a landless wanderer, accepted God’s claim upon his procreative manhood and patriarchal legacy by submitting to circumcision and by being willing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son and heir. (Chapter 2)
Judah, both a victim and a perpetrator of patriarchal caprice, accepted the rebuke of his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and recovered thereby a measure of true manhood that propelled him to offer his life in exchange for a rival brother. (Chapter 3; I will return to Judah later.)
Barak, though a renowned warrior in his own right, recognized his limitation in the middle of a military crisis and insisted on the help of a spiritual superior, the Prophetess Deborah, and unexpectedly but gratefully received the help of another woman as well. (Chapter 4)
Boaz, at real risk to his own standing and legacy within the local patriarchy of Bethlehem, had compassion on an embittered widow, Naomi, and married an excluded Moabitess in order to preserve a family line, not for himself, but for his cousin, Elimelech. (Chapter 5)
Matthew, though a hated tax collector, contextualized the gospel about Jesus for the very community that had excluded him, testifying to the transforming hope offered by Jesus. (Chapter 6)
Joseph, already a kind and honorable man, became willing to sacrifice that honor in the awkward pregnancy of Mary and in a life-long commitment to playing a supporting role to Mary’s higher calling. (Chapter 7)
About all of these counter-cultural models of manhood, James writes with verve and insight. Did you know, for example, that circumcision of the male sexual organ was not simply a random covenantal sign, but actually constituted a divine claim on the foundational patriarchal prerogative of procreative sovereignty? James’ prose frequently achieves an enviable balance between concision, poetic expression, and measured scholarship. This balance is nowhere better seen than in the last two chapters, “The Manhood of Jesus,” and “Liberating Men from the Malestrom.” The second of these is obviously the “what now?” part of the book. James calls Christians, particularly Christian men, seriously and consistently to follow Jesus. Using the examples of Jürgen Moltmann and Paul of Tarsus, James demonstrates how the way of Jesus decisively defeats the ethnic and racial exclusivism that stems from patriarchy. In fact I would venture to say that there is no more powerful description in the English language of the impact of the gospel on the identity and self-understanding of Paul than the compressed account given by James.10
But this is the denouement; the climax is the previous chapter—a passionate description of the manhood of Jesus. There all the lines of the discussion converge: not only what perfect manhood should look like, but also what being human is all about. Accordingly, this chapter cannot effectively be summarized in a book review. Readers of this review will have to buy the book themselves and recommend it to their friends, Sunday-School teachers, and pastors.
It is in connection with the Jesus chapter and its framing that I finally hope to justify my earlier claim about the Second Edition’s superiority: “the one to read and recommend going forward.” I once heard an accomplished church historian minimize the impact of slavery on the moral fiber of the Southern states because, after all, “the agrarian way of life was much more biblical than the urban-industrial way of life of the northern states.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Old Testament tends to glorify the herdsman way of life over the agrarian (witness Abel [Gen 4:2] and the Rechabites [Jer 35:6-7]) and that the goal of human history seems to converge on a city rather than a tilled field or garden (see Rev. 21:9-27), this use of the Bible has persistently bedeviled biblical hermeneutics. It trades on an equivocation between what is said or assumed in the Bible and what the Bible says or teaches. An honest reader of the Bible finds many things in the Bible that should be judged or dismissed in the light of the gospel, not merely in the words, deeds, and attitudes of imperfect actors in the story but also in a range of instructions placed in the mouth of God or his agents. The Bible, for example, contains legislation assuming and regulating (but not proscribing) slavery, divorce, and the rules of primogeniture–all with a distinctly patriarchal cast. Examples of these could be multiplied many times over.
But with “The Bible says…” we are making a normative claim which presumably carries some divine authority even for us today. Such claims should never arise from the citation of isolated texts. They cannot safely be made even from multiple texts gathered according to some logical scheme. God, after all, has actually chosen to give us a story arising from an unfolding history whose enduring meaning (or takeaways for our lives) can only be prayerfully discerned or inferred in the light of the climax or goal of the story.
For lack of better terms, we might call the first way of reasoning from the Bible the “Biblicist” way: the Bible constitutes a flat field of unchanging truth within whose bounds we are free to seek normative truths for our lives. If we can find multiple points of support, all the better, but any point will do. The second way of reasoning from the Bible is what we might call the “Christotelic” way: normative truth (in our case, about manhood) can only be ascertained by reading the full story and by thinking through apparently relevant texts through God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ.
The Biblicist way continues to predominate in evangelical hermeneutical reasoning. James, however, is astute enough to break from this in the First Edition. She carefully articulates the distinction between what can be found in the Bible (what it assumes) and what it says:
“Patriarchy matters because it is the cultural backdrop of the Bible. Beginning with Abraham, God chose patriarchs living in a patriarchal culture to launch his rescue effort for the world. Events in the Bible play out within a patriarchal context. But patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message.”11(emphasis added)
But James goes even further: she recognizes the story-like nature of the biblical revelation. Using the creative motif of a “missing chapter” between the creation of gendered humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 and the Fall and punishment of the first pair in Genesis 3–a chapter that might have described the life and community of innocent humanity–James observes that we need that missing chapter,
“[its] omission is not a mistake or a publishing snafu, but an Authorial decision intended to make us dissatisfied and hungry for something more and better than anything we’ve yet seen. It makes us hungry for Jesus, who is the missing chapter and embodies the kind of image bearer God created all of his sons (and daughters) to become.”12(emphasis added)
Yes, this is a story carefully told by the Author. So here is the problem–and it is largely a rhetorical one–the numerous (and fascinating) chapters on Abraham, Judah, Barak, etc., as they stood serially and discreetly in the First Edition, tended toward a flat Bible and Biblicism. Consider this moving description of the chastened Judah, largely attributed to the impact of the Tamar incident:
“Judah pleads for Benjamin’s freedom with the passion of a prodigal who is utterly redeemed and transformed…. Patriarchy is still entrenched, but the malestrom’s power over Judah has been dismantled. Sacrificing himself as a slave in place of his father’s darling Benjamin is perhaps the freest choice Judah has ever made. For the first time in his life he is walking before God faithfully and being blameless. A very different selfless “not of this world” brand of manhood emerges…. He is an utterly changed man–the kind of man who has directly connected with the Center and now seeks the kingdom of God. Judah embodies the radical, self-sacrificing way of Jesus that is “not of this world” and gives us a startling glimpse of that missing chapter.”13
James’ moving depiction of Judah’s substitutionary speech threatens to undo the “Authorial decision.” Jesus simply becomes the fullest elaboration of the “missing chapter,” whose essential lines can already be glimpsed and understood in the lives of certain biblical anti-heroes like Judah. Judah’s failure to make a full confession of his own guilt to Joseph and the later insecurities that festered (see Gen 50:15-21) suggests that James credits Judah with too much. Did she need to, in order to make her case against patriarchy? No, that case rests on Jesus. Judah did grow, but his halfway measures should leave us dissatisfied.
So here is the superior virtue of the Second Edition. Although it leaves the central chapters unchanged, it puts them in a better framework by means of a different title: Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood (emphasis original). From the get-go, the relationship of Jesus to the other characters is clarified: he is not merely the best example of a well-understood ideal, but rather the ideal itself and the necessary goal of all the other stories. Lest this hermeneutical point should be lost, James underscores this “Christotelic” clarification in the very last words of the Second Edition:
“The fundamental question Malestrom addresses is straightforward: Does the Bible teach patriarchy? The answer can be tricky. Patriarchal abuse in one form or another appears on nearly every page of the Bible…. So is the Bible teaching patriarchy or does patriarchy serve a different purpose? In Malestrom, I concluded that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather it is the cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical potency of that gospel message…. All too often Jesus seems to go missing in evangelical discussions of biblical masculinity. But Jesus is the perfect imago Dei and should be front and center in any biblical deliberation of what it means to be a man in God’s world.”14 (emphasis added)
Amen, Carolyn Custis James! For the Christian, Jesus should indeed be front and center in any deliberation that purports to be biblical. There is no stronger hermeneutical basis–and no more certain dismantling of patriarchy.
Visit the Journal of Urban Mission website and check out the Journal for yourself. The JofUM is sponsored by Missio Seminary and contains insightful content. It comes out 2x/year (so won’t overwhelm your email inbox) and is worth subscribing.
“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse. . . It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, but that is the truth.” —Rachael Denhollander1
When Rachael Denhollander spoke those words back in 2018, America was reeling from explosive revelations of rampant clergy sexual abuse perpetrated by powerful men inside America’s protestant evangelical churches and ministry organizations. It was the beginning of a devastating reckoning that persists to this day. Survivors were (still are) speaking out—no longer lone voices, but en masse and online. Social media provided the platform. Survivors were using it. Some named names. A few could only muster courage to tweet, “#MeToo” or “#ChurchToo.”
Suddenly American evangelicalism was in the crosshairs of an abuse epidemic as old as human history. Respected, trusted, prominent evangelical men—pastors, youth leaders, bestselling authors, ministry executives—were facing consequences for abusing the power entrusted to them as clergy leaders. Loyal colleagues and devoted followers mobilized to protect the powerful, ministries, careers, and church reputations. Victims were often mistreated—accused of lying, shamed, blamed, and pressured to forgive and forget. Abusers often recycled themselves back into ministry leadership.
In the intervening years much has been done to educate church leaders about the multiple dimensions of this destructive epidemic. They’ve been told the necessity to involve law enforcement and trauma counseling experts when allegations surface rather than treat sexual abuse as an internal church matter. But this crisis is far from over. New allegations continue to surface. The fallout among congregants has been devastating: outrage, grief, shattered faith, and a deep sense of betrayal. Many are heading for the exits.
Denhollander was right. The church is not a safe place. And we have more work to do. For, if the Covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, we are fighting a losing battle if we fail to identify and eliminate the virus. We cannot adequately address this crisis unless we understand the theological context and motives that give rise to these tragedies. This requires posing uncomfortable questions, beginning with: What theological assumptions give rise to this problem?
Discarding the Patriarchal Assumption
There is little doubt that patriarchal assumptions shaped Christian theology from the beginning and continue to do so within evangelical theology today. They spark endless debates over male/female roles in the home and church. Admittedly patriarchy appears on nearly every page of the Bible. Nor can we deny that the Bible emerges from within an intensely patriarchal culture. Indeed, God chose patriarchs to move his purposes forward for the world.
Gerda Lerner defines patriarchy (literally, “father rule”) as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society.”2 Under patriarchy, a woman’s value depends on men—her father, her husband, and especially her sons. We see this cultural and theological assumption in the Bible where the gold standard for determining a woman’s value is to count her sons. Barren women aren’t begging God for daughters; they’re pleading for sons.
Too often definitions such as Lerner’s miss one very important point, namely that patriarchy includes male dominance over other men. From the outset of the biblical narrative, men have been at odds with other men. One need only recall Cain killing Abel and other violence that follows. When I speak of patriarchy I understand it as a social structure that empowers men over women, over children, and also over other men.
While recognizing and condemning some of patriarchy’s injustices (e.g., slavery, polygamy), many modern evangelical theologians have historically assumed God’s design for humanity is patriarchy, although a “kinder-gentler” version. However, a careful review of male characters who drive the redemptive arc in the Bible reveals a decisive rejection of patriarchal norms. Again and again, God’s call on men led them to shed patriarchy’s demands and to embody a brand of masculinity that ultimately reflects Jesus and his gospel. These extraordinary anti-patriarchalists used their male power sacrificially to bless and empower others.3
I want to argue that the theology of the Bible does not assume patriarchy; instead it dismantles and disarms it. Consider four theological observations.
First, our Creator dismantles patriarchy before it even starts. Genesis 1–2 record God’s vision for his world and for all humanity—a vision God never abandoned and that Jesus came to restore.
In the opening words of the Bible, God elevates every human being to the highest rank imaginable—as his Imago Dei. This identity establishes humanity’s first responsibility as to know and reflect our Creator. We are participants in divine revelation, capable of conveying about our Creator’s character and heart for the world. God commissions every image bearer—males and females together—to rule over creation (not over each other) and to look after things, to explore, cultivate, and steward earth’s resources on his behalf. What happens in God’s world is our responsibility. This male/female alliance is a kingdom strategy that God blesses and pronounces “very good” (Genesis 1:27-28, 31).
The Creator names the woman for himself. She is ezer—a Hebrew military word used for armies but mainly used for God as the helper/rescuer of his people. God isn’t creating more work for the man who must provide, protect, and think for her. She is kenegdo—his match, as the North Pole is to the South Pole. She is an indispensable ally in advancing God’s kingdom in the world he loves.
It is important to note that the rebellion that takes place in Genesis 3 does not precipitate the unveiling of a new and improved social order. Far from it. God is issuing a prophetic announcement of a total collapse. The enemy cuts humanity off from our Creator—the very center of our being—and drives a wedge into the “Blessed Alliance,”4 dividing male and female. Humanity’s outward rule over creation abruptly turns against other image bearers.
Patriarchy is born. Now men rule over women and children and also over other men. The Bible becomes a predominately male story. Women are reduced to their reproductive ability and disgraced (or replaced) if they fail. Violence, injustice, discrimination, and abuse of every imaginable kind now shape the human story.
This is not the way God intends his world to be, and he never abandoned his vision. It is a fundamental theological assumption that every other text of Scripture must be subjected to the vision God cast in the beginning.
Second, the remaining Genesis narrative (Ch. 3–50) dismantles patriarchy.
Walter Brueggemann rightly notes that primogeniture is the linchpin of patriarchy.5 It confers crown prince status on a man’s firstborn son along with power over his younger siblings, including inheriting a double portion of their father’s estate.
But God doesn’t conform to patriarchal protocol. Instead, he chooses Adam’s second son Abel over firstborn Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob not Esau. Among Jacob’s twelve sons, Jacob chose Joseph (son #11); God chose Judah (son #4). Brothers are infuriated and erupt in jealousy, murder, deception, estrangements, even human trafficking. They’re ready to kill their brother over primogeniture.
Third, Jesus dismantles patriarchy and restores the Blessed Alliance. The Blessed Alliance was God’s vision in the beginning. It is Jesus’ prayer in the end that those who follow him would forge a community that embodies his self-giving love and displays an uncommon oneness—hard evidence before a watching world that Jesus has come and that his kingdom is not of this world.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . . and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23, NIV).
Jesus’ prayer raises the stakes and heightens the urgency of reclaiming our calling—corporately and individually—a community distinguished by self-giving love and oneness amid great diversity—a community where the entrance doors are busiest because people hunger for this kind of world.
Finally, even the alleged perpetuator of patriarchal theology, the Apostle Paul, joins the movement to dismantle patriarchy.
The former religious terrorist, Saul of Tarsus, born and schooled in patriarchy, undergoes more than a conversion to faith in Jesus the Messiah. Jesus’ gospel also radically transforms Paul’s understanding of gender. Paul came to depend on strong alliances with women, especially Gentile women. If the last chapter in his letter to the Roman church is any indication, Paul partnered in ministry with women and counted on them for strength and courage as he faced his own struggles.
Paul’s recognition and advocacy for women no doubt triggered a seismic cultural earthquake when he penned his letter to the church in Galatia—a mixed audience of men, women, and children, masters and slaves, Jews and Gentiles. Many rightly point to how Paul dismantles patriarchy’s power hierarchies in the church when he asserts:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Against the patriarchal cultural backdrop, Paul makes an even more radical assertion that some of the best English translations obscure. In a culture that privileges sons over daughters, he writes:
“So in Christ Jesus you are allsons of God through faith!” (Galatians 3:26).
Modern translations unwittingly dilute Paul’s meaning when they translate “You are all sons and daughters” or “all children of God.” Paul is saying that men and women are “all sons of God.” In one sentence Paul turns patriarchy on its head.
Patriarchy is not the theological assumption of the Bible. Rather, it is “the fallen cultural backdrop”6 that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. As Christ followers we will never grasp the earthshaking, radically transforming power of Jesus’ gospel if we read the Bible with Western eyes. The Bible is not an American book, and we will inevitably miss, dilute, sanitize, and distort the Bible’s message if we fail to recognize that fact. The Bible’s message is even more countercultural than we imagine.
The urgency of uprooting theological flaws that fuel the #ChurchToo abuse crisis cannot be overstated. Every day we witness fresh evidence of a world engulfed in division, hatred, violence, abuse, and corruption. The brutality of unprovoked wars and senseless mass shootings create a perpetual cultural state of trauma. Much of the American evangelical church has lost its moral and theological compass. The good news of Jesus is lost in the misguided theological assumption of patriarchy that shapes so many in the American church. Sanctifying patriarchy, as many evangelicals do, perpetuates power struggles, abuse, and violence that discredit Jesus’ gospel and contaminate his world.
Jesus is the true path to human flourishing—not just for some, but for all. The church must not be one of the worst places to go for help. It must become the place of refuge and human flourishing in this broken world. We have more work to do. With God’s help we can move toward transformation.
Among the many changes the pandemic brought into our lives, it pushed us to do a lot from the comfort of our homes. Now the spike in gas prices gives us another incentive to explore and utilize the expanded benefits of online learning.
Missio Seminary has already done a lot of online classes. Recently I was a guest lecturer in an online seminar Rev. Dr. Chad Hinson taught on The Theology of Power. It will be a long time before I stop pondering what I heard from Professor Chad and the students (pastors and prospective pastors) who participated. The discussion was sober and candid about the current widespread abuse of power inside evangelical churches and ministry organizations. But it was also determined and hope-filled because Jesus offers a better way—a redeemed power that blesses and empowers other.
Last evening, I joined an online class taught by Professor Steve Taylor on the Gospel of Mark. There’s so much more to learn! It is incredible to learn from these professors, and frankly, I can’t get enough of this.
This Fall Missio Seminary is launching 4 new Master of Arts in Missional Ministry tracks. Prospective students are invited to 3 open house presentations to learn more about these courses. Feel free to check it out for yourself and forward this information to others you know who might be interested.
Church and Non-Profit Administration
Spiritual Formation and Soul Care
Please note the dates. The first open house (see above) is this Thursday!
If you are called to ministry or counseling or just want to learn more, join the Open House to learn about Missio academic programs and experience the heart of the school. You’ll see why I am an avid supporter. Let them know I referred you and, if you enroll, you will receive a 15% discount!
Below are 2 more open house sessions Missio Seminary is presenting to prospective students and hungry learners.
I’ve heard a lot of people express a secret longing to go to seminary. Here’s your chance! Now you can fulfill that longing—at home in your pajamas!
Needless to say the conversation with Honestly, Though podcast host Rebecca Carrell and cohost Nika Spaulding was both deep and wide. Hard for it to be otherwise when engaging two women with seminary degrees and are actively engaged in ministry. It was definitely reminiscent of the days of the Synergy Women’s Network and conversations we had back then.
The podcast’s central topic was Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood, which started shipping on April 12. This new edition of Malestrom contains new material that connects the content of Malestrom 2015 with the ongoing #ChurchToo crisis documented in Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. Malestrom 2022 includes powerful biblical narratives of men who embody a whole new counter-cultural redemptive brand of manhood. The manhood they embrace is the birthright of every man-child born in the world. It bestows on him an indestructible identity, meaning, and purpose that points to Jesus, the perfect imago dei who empowers them to live out their calling as reflections of their Creator.
And yes, our discussion naturally wandered onto other topics of mutual interest. As I said, it was deep and wide, and also a lot of fun!
The second, revised edition of Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy & Redefines Manhood is now in print and available for pre-order. Many are saying the 2015 edition of Malestrom was ahead of its time. Now Malestrom is back to re-engage the issue of patriarchy that in recent years has dominated national headlines and devastated an unsuspecting white American evangelical church.
Malestrom 2022 picks up the disturbing questions Du Mez’s book provokes. In good conscience, we cannot allow the current ever-changing news cycle to distract us from focusing on the ongoing destructive impact of #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. Much progress has been made since these two movements exploded on Twitter. Experts have focused on addressing the traumatic effects on survivors and bringing consequences for abusers. More work remains.
But here’s the worrying truth: this problem will continue to rage and inflict unspeakable damage if we fail to confront this crisis at the source. Our job isn’t over if we stop short of probing to uncover and uproot abuse before it starts. If you haven’t yet read Du Mez’s book, you need to get moving! Then read Malestrom and join this urgent discussion. Jesus’ gospel contains great good freeing news for men and boys—far better than versions of masculinity they’re hearing today.
J&JW is an urgent call to action. Do this for the vulnerable. Do this for the men you love—husbands, brothers, sons, colleagues, pastors, and men and boys both inside and beyond church walls.
Jesus’ gospel is good news for men and boys. He offers and embodies a version of manhood that is life-giving and infinitely superior to patriarchy.