It is now well known that Jen Hatmaker took a stand in favor of same-sex marriage as consistent with the Christian faith. Recently Tish Harrison Warren wrote a piece in CT that drew a firestorm of critical response, including pieces and comments by a good number I know. I think each missed an opportunity to talk about something more important. Rather, they chose to pile on the institutionalism issue.
What the institution gives the institution takes away. Don’t forget it. I want to say something about institutions but then move to my more important point.
Jen was launched into the heights of Christian influence through the evangelical institution, and each of the critics of Tish I read got to where they are because of the same “institution.” That institution of evangelicalism has some reasonably long-historied convictions on same-sex marriage and relations and it should come as no surprise to anyone that those who are floating on the top of the evangelical institution can be pulled under if they choose to disagree with that institution’s convictions. This can come as no surprise to anyone. This is not about the power of the institution; this is about how institutions work. If you want to trip others on the basketball floor you will get censored.
Tish expressed a view that is important and it was mostly ignored. She responded on her own blog with humility about some of the criticisms, and I applaud her for that. Here is her important point: How does one monitor what people believe, teach, write about, and talk about? Her contention is that that the blogosphere and social media world are largely unmonitored and some think it ought to be unmonitored. But this is where the cutting angle enters: if someone well known in the institution chooses to veer from the teachings of that institution — and Jen surely could not have been surprised that many would disagree and Tish cannot have been surprised that supporters of Jen would disagree — they can expect the institution’s disapproval.
Wisdom calls us to think with Tish about how things can be done better.
I assume that Christian orthodoxy is important, worth defending, and we need people who know their stuff to be those who have to discern. You may not like the views of the discerners but I know no other way. We don’t vote on what is the best idea. The best ideas are best because they are best. It is the institution’s responsibility to find the best and to preserve it. While there are some who just don’t think theology and orthodoxy are important, by and large it seems this conversation was animated not by that sort.
I propose thinking of Tish’s big idea about preserving our best ideas in two ways: a Wisdom tradition and a Prophetic tradition. I am tempted also to say to think of this with Grey Hair and Young Hair. That is, the tradition vs. the youth culture that Thomas Bergler, in his books calls juvenilization of the American church. The Prophetic tradition both preserves and challenges; the Wisdom tradition preserves. The Wisdom tradition grows organically and slowly; the Prophetic tradition wants change and wants it now. Many today are infected with the Prophetic tradition and have no time for the Wisdom tradition.
We need both. They can usually get along if we have wise people on both sides. Hotheads on either side make things worse.
I don’t know Jen Hatmaker nor do I know Tish Harrison Warren, but I learned something when I was a young professor and full of all kinds of passionate, prophetic ideas that could change the world. I learned it from an older professor. I decided when I first began to teach to go to an older professor — the same one — every time I was making a big decision about teaching or writing and to ask his advice, and I made the decision at that time to do what he thought was wisest.
Here’s what I learned: He was wise and he was right or had the best idea each time. Not that my ideas were bad but that had I pursued my direction it would not have been as good.
What I see in Tish’s proposal is not institutionalism but wisdom. People with creative ideas need to learn that they are not the first to think such things; others have gone before them. Those people who went before them may well have a bigger and better perspective on those ideas. They may not, but it is not wise not to ask their opinions.
Theology and church ideas have a long history friends. 2000 years or so. The Bible is older than that.
The most neglected books in the Bible are the Wisdom books. They are the books we need most today. Why? Because young leaders have lots of good ideas and there are not enough wise older folks to listen to them and to give them wisdom for next steps.
The vast majority of our wise and powerful theological tradition was not created by authoritarian insitutionalists but by wise interpreters of the Scripture, by those who have discerned in the Spirit together what God is saying to the church, and this wise tradition is worthy of consultation every time we venture into dangerous ground.
Again, I have no idea to whom Jen spoke. But what I do know is that what Tish said deserves a better hearing. Why? Because calling what she did institutionalism is a misreading of her. What she did was offer wisdom about the wisdom of the evangelical tradition.
Sometimes the tradition needs to change, but it is unwise not to consult with the gray hairs when such decisions need to be made.
A well known pastor once told a group of people that the one thing young pastors and leaders need most is at least one seminary professor they can go to for wisdom on Bible interpretation. John Ortberg was right in saying that.
What they also need is gray hairs like John to whom they can when they want to change the world in one fell swoop.
We need tables with Prophets and the Wise talking to one another.