Thursday, June 15, 2023

On Pelagianism, Montanism, Wokism, and "Theological Transgenderism"

It seems that we have lost the ability to actually discuss and debate ideas based on their substance. No one wants to take the time to actually comprehend the other side, to talk to people who hold a different perspective and make the effort to understand how they reached their conclusions. Everyone is looking for the hot take that will provoke the most reaction and gather more likes, followers, and retweets. Why bother with reading primary sources, reflecting thoughtfully, and making a cogent, reasoned argument about the topic at hand? Ain't nobody got time for that.

I've observed this happening for years in the soteriology debates. Promoters of John Calvin's theology are quick to label Arminians and other non-Calvinists as "Pelagian" or "semi-Pelagian." Since Pelagius' teachings were declared heresy at the Second Council of Ephesus in 431, simply associating someone else's views with those of a recognized heretic is often enough to end the conversation, as no one wants to be thought of as defending heresy.

Cessationists (those who believe the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, also called the charismata, ceased with either the death of the last of the 12 Apostles or with the completion of the biblical canon) are quick to label Pentecostals and Charismatics as "neo-Montanists," linking them to the controversial early church leader Montanus, who seems to have thought that the revelations he and his close followers claimed to receive were on the same authoritative level as Scripture.

On issues of social justice, whether racial or economic, we see similar behavior. The meaning of "woke" originally had to do with a person being awakened to and aware of institutional structures (in law, education, etc.) that had been in place so long that they were widely accepted as "just the way things are," but upon further inspection had a disproportionate negative effect on people of certain ethnicities, educational backgrounds, or economic strata. Today, the term "wokism" is thrown around to discredit any attempt to have a conversation about such systemic issues. 

The same thing has happened with a legal analytical framework called critical race theory, more commonly denoted by its initials CRT. While it does seem to be the case that critical theory originated among Marxist thinkers in Germany, many people have used that fact to completely discredit the analytical tools the theory provides, often referring to it as "cultural Marxism." Of course, every good American (and Christian) knows that Marxism is bad, so simply equating all of CRT with Communism is a sure-fire way to easily dismiss it without actually studying and analyzing the theory itself on its merits/demerits (a form of the genetic fallacy). Conservative activist Christopher Rufo basically admitted that the way to shut down conversation on topics many would rather not deal with is to get people to associate all those issues with critical race theory. In an article in the Washington Post, Rufo is quoted saying on Twitter:
“We have successfully frozen their brand—'critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
The latest example of someone taking a position they oppose and labeling it in such a way as to associate it with something they know people will have a negative reaction to actually comes from a Southern Baptist pastor. Rev. Mike Stone, one of the nominees for president at the Southern Baptist Convention's 2023 annual meetingon the Sunday before the convention opened in New Orleans, Louisianadelivered a sermon in which he accused those who support women in ordained ministry of "theological transgenderism." 

Knowing that transgender ideology is a threat to the mental, emotional, and sexual health of young people, Stone chose to label advocates of women in ministry leadership with a term related to sexual sin. He conveniently ignored the fact that women in ministry leadership has a long history that predates the modern transgender movement by centuries (John Wesley, the father of Methodism, personally commissioned two women in England as gospel preachers and leaders of the study groups known as "bands" -- one of these was Sarah Mallett, on whom I wrote a paper for a seminary class, which you can read here). 

Rather than actually engage with the excellent scholarship on the subject of women in ministry and church leadership by faithful biblical scholars and theologianssuch as Nijay Gupta, Carmen Imes, Craig Keener, Scot McKnight, N. T. Wright, Lynn Cohick, Cynthia Long Westfall, Ben Witherington III, Michael Bird, Gordon Fee, Rebecca Groothius, Deborah Gill, and othersStone simply chose to take a term that he knew would rile people upassociating the idea of female pastors with a movement that opposes traditional Christian sexual ethics and God's design of human biologyand apply it to an interpretive dispute that is totally unrelated to that debate. This is nothing but an attempt to scare rank-and-file Christian believerswho are not as well-versed or studied in the actual theological and exegetical issues involvedand get them to oppose women in ministry leadership out of fear that appointing women pastors is the first step toward compromise on issues of human sexuality. It is an example of what missiologist Brad Vaughn, who has over two decades of experience working in the honor/shame cultures of East Asia, calls "shame by association."

Many who oppose women serving as pastors will make the claim that allowing women to be ordained, hold the title/office of "pastor," or even teach the Bible to adult men, is the first step down a slippery slope toward full affirmation of the LGBTQIA+ agenda. But the denomination in which I am ordained, the Assemblies of God, has ordained women for decades, and still holds the line on a traditional Christian sexual ethic

Mike Stone's accudsations of "theological transgenderism" really amount to nothing more than fear-mongering and posturing, rather than intelligent discussion and debate on the exegetical issues involved in the matter. Ministers of the gospel, who claim to stand for and proclaim the ultimate Truth, should be above such smear tactics. After all, bearing false witness against one's neighbor is still a violation of the Ten Commandments. 

And I would posit that violation is even more egregious when the neighbors being maligned are brothers and sisters in Christ.

UPDATE: One day after I wrote this blog post, this episode of The Bulletin podcast came out, and they discuss the same "slippery slope" issue, starting at about the 36:20 mark.

UPDATE 2: Later on Friday, June 16, I was listening to my friends Jonathan, Braxton, and Nick on Trinity Radio, and they said some of the same things I stated above about the slippery slope fallacy, without having yet seen my blog post yet. In fact, Jonathan even mentioned the Assemblies of God as a denomination that has for a long time practiced the ordination of women, but has not given way to the culture when it comes to human sexuality. 

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