There’s a whole lot going on in Kate Shellnut’s humdinger of a report for Christianity Today, “Bethlehem Baptist Leaders Clash Over ‘Coddling’ and ‘Cancel Culture.’”
That’s a confusing headline. Readers will reasonably assume that this “clash” among John Piper’s successors at his Calvinist mega-church is a dispute between “coddling” and “canceling” — that one faction accuses the other of being excessively tolerant of sin while its opposite faction accuses it of condemning sin without mercy. But that’s not what’s going on here. Apparently, the same folks accusing others of “coddling” sin are simultaneously accusing those others of succumbing to “cancel culture.”
If that seems weird and contradictory, that’s because it is. And the fraternity of theobros driving this division are defiantly proud of that. These guys are from the “Young,* Restless and Reformed” crowd that has long sought attention by being provocatively “contrarian” and contradictory. That’s what brought all of this to a boil, when a bunch of these clerical frat boys started ranting about the “sin of empathy.”
The what now? That phrase suggests we’re either dealing with unserious people engaged in semantic nonsense, glibly redefining words to mean things they have never meant in order to use them in “provocatively” unusual ways. Or else that we’re dealing with unserious people engaged in moral nonsense who are glibly redefining morality itself as its opposite. Or, as it turns out, with both.
It also hints that, alas, we’re also dealing with people who are “Freakonomics” fanboys — people so enamored with the self-flattering pose of “contrarianism” that they’ve taught themselves to think only in terms of aggressively attention-seeking “hot takes.” This is confirmed later in Shellnut’s piece when she reports that one of these guys — a professor in Bethlehem’s parochial seminary — starts his classes with a discussion of freaking Malcolm Gladwell.
I’ve been using indirect words here — seems, suggests, hints — because this is a frustratingly indirect piece. It’s something like a deep dive into the surface level of what’s going on there at Bethlehem Baptist. Kate Shellnut has done a lot of admirable work and painstaking reporting on that level of the dispute, but it almost seems the piece works even harder to avoid directly addressing the larger divide underneath and undergirding that “clash.”
That deeper divide gets mentioned, but in a way that gets it backwards. See, for example, the subhed CT provides for the article: “A debate over ‘untethered empathy’ underscores how departing leaders, including John Piper’s successor, approached hot-button issues like race and abuse.”
No. The divisions at Bethlehem Baptist did not result from the church’s decision to set forth and “approach” the contemplation of abstract “issues.” Those divisions stemmed from the church crashing into the not-at-all abstract reality of racism and abuse. Pretending that reality is nothing more than a collection of abstract “hot-button issues” is exactly what got them into this mess.
But Shellnut’s piece mostly seems to accept the framing preferred by the church’s remaining leaders — those retaining control of its congregations, its seminary, and its side hustles like the hugely popular “Gospel Coalition” website. They’re the ones trying to characterize this dispute as the consequence of different philosophical understandings of the “sin of empathy.” That’s an after-the-fact rationalization for their own failure to accept the reality of realities like racism and abuse. And it’s not even a clever or coherent after-the-fact rationalization.
Shellnut tries to make sense of that rationalization, pointing readers to places where Bethlehem College and Seminary’s new president, Joe Rigney, tries to expound on his ideas about the vicious dangers of “empathy”:
Rigney has become known for raising concerns about the “sin of empathy,” a topic he’s written about on Desiring God and discussed in a video series hosted by Doug Wilson. His worries center on what he sees as–
Wait. Stop. Go back a bit there. A video series hosted by who?
If you’re blessed not to recognize the name of Doug Wilson, let me try to explain why any further discussion of Rigney’s alleged “concerns” about empathy is nothing more than a sideshow and a distraction.
Doug Wilson is a white nationalist. And he’s not shy about that. He co-authored a book defending slavery with an outspoken white nationalist activist from the League of the South. It was full of Thomas R. Dixon type stuff about the benevolence and necessity of such hierarchies between cultural/moral superiors and their inferiors — which is also an apt description of Wilson’s rapey, male-supremacist views on “biblical manhood.”
So just when his church and seminary community were forced to begin confronting the realities of racism and abuse, Joe Rigney chose — voluntarily, unforced — to sit down for a long, friendly, abstract discussion of the “sin of empathy” in a video series with his good pal Doug Wilson.**
The meaning, if any, of Rigney’s weird musings about empathy cannot be the story here. The story here is his untethered allegiance to an abuse-enabling white supremacist. That’s the whole enchilada. That’s what’s happening at Bethlehem Baptist and that’s why three pastors, four seminary faculty, and dozens of long-time members have recently walked away.
Nothing else in this story even qualifies as secondary. It’s not about “deeper philosophical issues.” It’s not about half-baked hot-take attempts to redefine virtues as vices. And it’s not about various “approaches to hot-button issues.” It’s about church leaders cozying up to white supremacy and abuse-enabling patriarchy while blasphemously trying to dress up those sins as a principled defense of “biblical truth.”
This is, from the perspective of Reformed theology, heresy “not simply in its effects and operations, but also in its fundamental nature.” It is, my Reformed brothers and sisters say, “a travesty of the gospel and, in its persistent disobedience to the word of God, a theological heresy.”
That language comes from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ 1982 condemnation of apartheid and white supremacy as an official heresy.
The WARC (now called the World Communion of Reformed Churches) is an international ecumenical communion and its initials are close enough to those of the World Council of Churches that right-wing American Calvinists can pretend to confuse the two, dismissing this international fellowship as some “liberal” faction that might as well be the Parliament of World Religions. But the WCRC includes many very conservative denominations who look on the Americanized Reformed theology of places like Bethlehem Baptist as suspiciously Arminian. These are churches that — unlike some of their American counterparts — embrace and accept the accountability of Reformed ecclesiology.
And these Very Reformed churches didn’t condemn apartheid and white supremacy as heresies on political grounds or because of some particular quirk of political theology. The Reformed tradition does, indeed, include a long, sophisticated, insightful school of political theology, but the condemnation of apartheid wasn’t based on some arcane philosophical argument from Dooyeweerd. It was based on fundamental, Westminster Confession-level principles. To affirm white supremacy, these dozens of Reformed churches said, was to embrace blasphemous lies about God. It was, they said, error and sin according to Reformed Theology 101.
So while I appreciate all the hard work Kate Shellnut put into her report, I think ultimately it doesn’t so much bury the lede as orbit it from a safe distance.
Here, for example, is Shellnut’s discussion with one now former member of Bethlehem Baptist:
Sarah Brima and her husband were former members of Bethlehem and Rigney’s Cities Church but left in part over his affiliation with Wilson. She described how hard it was to leave a church they’d helped plant, even as disagreements about race and gender emerged. “These churches that are really heavy on theology, we hold our theology so high that when we’re leaving, it felt like we’re leaving orthodoxy by leaving our church,” she told CT. “If that’s how you feel, there’s probably a problem.”
Brima, who is white and whose husband is Black, said she saw the “empathy as sin” idea used as protection from critique and believes it can do “unique harm” to women and minorities, seemingly minimizing their feelings and experiences. “When met with issues that strike at the core of one’s identity, it’s natural to have visceral responses,” she tweeted. “This response, of course, is labeled as immature, manipulative, and reactive.”
Shellnut briefly mentions Brima’s concern about Rigney’s “affiliation with Wilson,” but doesn’t get into why that’s so deeply concerning. (The closest she comes is this uselessly vague description of Wilson as “an increasingly contentious figure in evangelicalism for his teachings on slavery, women, and other issues.”) And all we’re allowed to hear directly from Brima are the most abstract-level reflections about her concerns.
That led her husband to take to Twitter to share what they had to say that didn’t get included in the Christianity Today article. You can read Sahr Brima’s whole thread there, but I’ll transcribe part of it here:
Kate asked me why we left our mostly white church. I told her my pastor said it wouldn’t be sinful for him to own me & my family today (or—he quickly added after seeing the look on my face—vice versa) as long as he treated us like Paul commanded. But this didn’t make the article.
… It was a conversation between me and Joe Rigney re: how his views on slavery were similar to or different from Doug Wilson’s. It was…disorienting.
Joe’s views weren’t entirely aligned with Wilson’s—he thought chattel slavery was evil, and the civil war was God’s judgment on a Christian nation for reintroducing a pagan practice. However, he also believed that it was entirely possible to be a godly slaveholder, and to believe otherwise was bad logic; that NT slavery was equivalent to American chattel slavery, so NT commands still applied (i.e. “slaves obey your masters” etc.). We argued at length and as part of his argument, Joe used the illustration I paraphrased above. This ended our conversation.
I told him I strongly disagreed with him on this and that it confirmed our decision to leave Cities Church because “I don’t want me or my family to be downstream of anything that smacks of Wilson’s views or theology.”
This was not the first time I had to engage over topics dealing with my humanity with my pastors. Me & [my wife’s] concerns with the church’s affiliation, defense, and approval of Doug Wilson + views on the role of women in church & society were met with defensiveness, equivocations, apathy, recommendations to go read Wilson’s books rather than believe the “street level slander” about him (already did), accusations of slander and outright attack. We didn’t leave lightly—I initiated follow up conversations with the 4 main pastors.
But we left exhausted, demoralized, wounded, and reeling from it all; barely able to walk outside our house without re-living all the worst parts & feeling excommunicated from the spiritual community we’ve known for 5+ years (2 of our former pastors live mere blocks from us).
That’s not an abstract difference of opinion about some provocatively contrarian mumbling about empathy. It’s far, far more important — far more newsworthy — than that. Shifting the focus away from this much larger and more consequential story just muddies and muddles the whole business.
And the Brimas*** aren’t alone. Several other now former members of Bethlehem Baptist have also taken to social media to bear witness to their reasons for leaving that they felt weren’t well represented by the CT report.
This is a story about Doug Wilson, white supremacy, and enabling abuse. Not because these are “hot-button issues,” but because they are very real sins, heresies, and injustices that the current leadership of Bethlehem Baptist is determined to “coddle” while exhibiting “untethered empathy” for people like Wilson and Derek Chauvin.
Rigney’s distracting nonsense about empathy has also produced a bevy of fine rebuttals from pastors, theologians, ethicists, and mental health professionals. Many of these are quite good. See, for example Mark Wingfield’s “Have you heard the one about empathy being a sin?” or Scot McKnight’s “Empathy is a Virtue” or Chuck DeGroat’s “Is empathy sinful?” I agree with most of what those have to say. (I wish they’d all been available as rebuttals back in 2009 when the first right-wing trial balloons attacking “empathy” were floated.) But they’re also beside the point.
Ignore the sideshow. This is a story about church leaders refusing to condemn white supremacy and abuse.
* These guys are all middle-aged now, but in white evangelical circles that still counts as “young.” In any case, for most of these folks, age is irrelevant to their fervent desire to pose as an enfant terrible kicking against the establishment. They’re still striking that pose even though by now they’re all well established as parts of that very same establishment.
** If I haven’t yet conveyed the full import of that, just imagine that Rigney had chosen to sit down for a long chat with Richard Spencer instead. That’s what’s going on here.
*** The Brimas apparently also make excellent cookies. If I ever find myself in the Twin Cities, I look forward to sampling them, probably more than once.