It’s not your ‘stance,’ but who you’re standing with

It’s not your ‘stance,’ but who you’re standing with March 14, 2013

(Content note: This post discusses sexual abuse and its defenders.)

We’ve discussed before the white evangelical preoccupation with having the proper “stance.”

That’s a favorite subcultural word — stance. “What’s your stance on inerrancy?” they’ll ask.

“Probably unacceptable to you,” I’ll answer, which is all they really wanted to know.

“What’s your stance on homosexuality?” they ask, and I try to answer while biting my tongue and wishing I could be fed straight lines like that one in settings where it was possible to make the most of them.

This obsession with policing the proper stance on various subjects is a symptom, I think, of a subculture in which orthopraxy has been almost completely abandoned. When orthodoxy is all that’s left, it’s not surprising that everyone should be incessantly interrogated as to the acceptability of their stances.

That’s troubling, given that Jesus did not say, “take this stance,” but rather “Follow me.” We’re supposed to be moving, not striking a pose.

Another problem with this whole stance business is revealed in the response we see from evangelical leaders to scandals involving the sexual abuse of children. Some of these responses have been awful, but I don’t think this is a result of anyone having the wrong stance regarding such abuse. I think pretty much everyone is agreed that the abuse of children is a horrific evil. We all have the same stance, and the proper one, when it comes to such things.

Yet it turns out that having the proper stance just doesn’t matter much. Our response to incidents of abuse turns out not to depend on having the right stance. It depends, instead, on who we choose to stand with.

Doing the right thing — i.e., doing good, loving — is almost always a matter of where we’re choosing to stand and of who we choose to stand beside much more than it is an abstract matter of the rectitude of our stance. This is why the Bible is so belabored and repetitive in its discussion of the weakest, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the least of these — those Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the quartet of the vulnerable,” meaning “the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished.”

Even when the Bible is laying out long lists of rules — especially then — it is reminding us that these rules are meant to place us at the side of those most vulnerable to, and most injured by, injustice. Remember that you were underdogs in Egypt.

Another way of saying this is that it is a matter of allegiance. When abuse occurs within an institution, it threatens that institution. If our primary allegiance is to that institution, then that is what we will defend. But if, instead, our primary allegiance is to the underdog, always and everywhere — which is to say, if our primary allegiance is to Christ — then we will act first and foremost to defend those harmed by the abuse, and to defend those potentially harmed by future abuse if the matter is not dealt with conclusively and openly.

This should not be complicated. It only becomes complicated if we make the mistake of imagining that the proper “stance” is more important than who we’re standing with.

We seem to make that mistake a lot, which is why Christians keep confusedly acting as though their primary allegiance is to the institution of the church — defending the institution at all costs, even if that means silencing or shaming the victims of abuse, or covering up for the predators who abused them.

This is why popular Reformed pastor/blogger Tim Challies face-planted in his attempt to respond to the  systemic abuse and cover-up allegations against his friends at Sovereign Grace Ministries. Challies posted a response that reads like something disgraced former Catholic Archbishop Bernard Law might have written. It’s all about maintaining “unity” amid the “turbulence” and about preserving the institution and its reputation, since the wicked world is watching and “loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace.” He treats the wounds carelessly, saying “‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”

The problem with Challies’ response is not his “stance,” but that he’s standing in the wrong place, standing by the wrong people, standing on the wrong side. His allegiance is cast with the institution, not with the vulnerable.

Challies comes from a religious tradition that emphatically rejects any teaching role for women. As T.F. Charlton notes, that patriarchal perspective means that it’s more difficult for him to perceive the danger and injustice of abuse.

Challies’ refusal to recognize women as teachers is also unfortunate because his post on Sovereign Grace Ministries prompted several excellent, wise responses from several excellent, wise women. Those women have a lot to teach him. If he’s smart, he’ll let them.

But since Challies needs to hear what these folks are saying, I don’t want to create any obstacles for him by insisting that he take instruction and correction from a bunch of women. So let me, instead, recommend to him some recent posts from several good, godly men:

Joy Jon Bennett: How Tim Challies Got “Thinking Biblically” Wrong (And How We Can Do Better)

Joy Jon Bennett: If Speaking Out Against Church Abuse I Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right

Dianna Daniel E. Anderson: An Unholy Evil: Ignorance, Silence, and Abuse

Rachel Raymond Held Evans: How [Not To] Respond to Abuse Allegations: Christians and Sovereign Grace Ministries

Rachel Raymond Held Evans: Into the Light: A Series on Abuse and the Church

• Anthony B. Susan: Sovereign Grace Ministries and Evangelicalism’s Abuse Problem

Challies should listen to those guys. Those dudes can teach.

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  • reynard61

    If you want to see posts by “Oldest” or “Newest”, just click the “Discussion” tile and then the appropriate box.

  • malpollyon

    Yeah, but everything is still threaded, it makes it much harder to find the new posts and fragments the conversation.

    Edit: Oh great, apparently this is a new “feature” that applies to all Disqus sites whether they want it or not. Well unfortunately I’ll be reading these comments a lot less if threading is here to stay.

  • HAH! I’ve sometimes considered writing under a male pen name.

    Funny story – when traveling with World Vision in Bolivia, the hotel staff never could pronounce “Joy” correctly. They called me Roy, and to this day, a few of my team members still call me Roy.

  • You would be even more flabbergasted to read the emails I received rebuking me for speaking out against the situation at SGM and for critiquing Tim Challies.

  • Yeah. It’s also ignoring my font settings. What is it lately with threaded, 6-point-font comment sections invading my favorite sites? Oh right…Disqus.

  • Lori

    I commented about this in the Class War thread. According to the blog owner at another place I hang out, Disqus did a forced upgrade yesterday and forced all their users into the same format whether they like it or not. There’s no way to roll back to the old version and apparently no way to modify the new one to have flat comment threads and to avoid things like the down arrow (the “like” button was bad enough, but the down arrow thing is generally terrible for any place that wants an ongoing, civil community).

    IOW, Disqus is awful.

  • Fred. You. Rock.

  • And that’s precisely the problem, isn’t it? The mission, from God through Christ, is perfect; God is perfect. The institution, being made up of imperfect, fallible men, is and must always recognise itself as imperfect and fallible.

    There are many of us who came to the Church after Vatican II, which dragged it, kicking and screaming, out of the 16th century into the last half of the 20th. We then watched, dumbstruck and horrified, as the last two Popes in particular worked so strenuously and successfully to drag it back. Many of us, including me, ran away from the Church; it was the only way we could preserve anything of our faith, let it grow and lead us into new expressions.

  • *facepalm*

    As someone who spent half his career in security-related software systems, “you’re doing it wrong” has to be the understatement of the epoch.

  • How can you have a Church that even makes a stab at accomplishing its claimed mission without being transparent and forthcoming about the human failings of those acting in its name? That is the point that Challies, and far too many others, fail to have a reality-compatible answer for.

  • Truth. Modesty and humility were not concepts with which the coiner of that name had close familiarity.

  • That’s part of faith, yes? Ultimately, we believe that God sees things we can’t (not difficult; “too close to the problem” or “too emotionally involved” come to mind). Also, and I think this belief is held more strongly by Christianity than other Abrahamic religions, God sets a blanket policy but then administers it on a case-by-case basis. Stern, yet compassionate. We could all do with a bit more of that in this life, yes?

  • Not just Christianity. One of the major sources of intra-Islamic strife over the centuries has been the stress between:

    – those that think that once a person makes the statement of faith, he or she is a Muslim(ah) in good standing and any criticism from the community must be tempered;

    – those that believe that directives given to a sixth-century largely nomadic culture are literally and inerrantly applicable to us today; and

    – people trying to chart some form or other of “middle course” between the two extremes. Plenty of politics, ego and self-righteousness have been displayed on all sides, up to and surpassing the point where blood is spilt over the controversy (which should itself be counted as a grave sin, if Muslims believe that what Muhammad said God said about the subject has any relevance).

    Not at all uniquely a Christian failing. One is tempted to call it a “human” failing and leave it at that. I’ve recently tended to look at it more as a failing of those who twist what should be universal, egalitarian Truths into weapons to reinforce existing hierarchical, paternalistic “old white men” (to quote Sarah Jones earlier) or equivalent power structure. Sort of like what the Romans did to the early Christian Church, or far too many (from the Umayyads to the current Saudi regime) have done to Islam. I’m hard-pressed to think of a major religion surviving today that hasn’t had its own brushes with secular authority and come off the worse for it, though.

  • griefofwisdom

    It was worse, before that they called it People of Destiny International (PDI).

  • griefofwisdom

    Covenant Life Church was the original church in the “family of churches.” (they didn’t call it a denomination). People of Destiny/Sovereign Grace Ministries was the organization that oversaw Covenant Life Church as well as all the other churches in the denomination.