Monday, May 6, 2024

A Few More Issues with "Cultural Christians in the Early Church"

In my post "What is a Christian Book Editor's Job." I addressed a handful of issues I encountered in the early part of Nady Williams' book Cultural Christians in the Early Church. Most of the rest of the book was decent, but I ran into a few more major quibbles near the end.

In chapter 9, "The Siren Call of the Desert," Williams takes on the asceticism of the Desert Fathers, who sought to separate themselves from society (ostensibly to avoid the temptations of a decadent culture). Many of these monks became something of a tourist attraction for Christian pilgrims – something akin to early celebrity pastors, but without the expensive sneakers and multiple book deals.

In taking these ascetics to task for abandoning Christian community to live on their own in isolation, Williams writes:

The elders receive significant consideration in the New Testament because they are individuals who serve their local churches in a particularly intensive way. The qualifications for elders leave no room for the desert ascetics. Only those married (husbands of one wife) and raising faithful children are deemed qualified for church leadership. (p. 194)

Then on the next page, she writes:

The requirements for elders and deacons, which cite marriage, highlight how rejecting marriage, the ascetics rejected the enormous responsibility of discipling other image-bearers in their homes and communities. (p. 195)

How does Williams square these claims with Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7?

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” (v. 1)

I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.  Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.(vv. 7-9)

The same Apostle who gave the requirements for elders and deacons in his letters to Timothy and Titus tells the Corinthians that it is better to be single, as he is. By Williams' logic, Paul himself, who laid out the stipulations for church leaders, would himself have been ineligible to be an elder.

What about married couples who would love to have and raise faithful children, but either cannot conceive, or have suffered one or more miscarriages, and possibly the doctors say that trying to get pregnant again could pose a serious health risk? Are they disqualified as a pastoral couple or serving as deacons?

What about the ministry of John R. W. Stott, who, like the Apostle Paul, stayed single so that he could devote himself fully to serving Christ and His church? Should he have abstained from being a priest in the Church of England, and founding an organization that has helped provide advanced theological education to countless pastors from less-advantaged countries?

Now, Williams does state on page 194, "The examples of Jesus and Paul, who both remained unmarried throughout the dureation of their earthly ministry, only highlights this further." But I'm not so sure this is actually a good example of the maxim that "the exceptions prove the rule." As far as we know from the text of Scripture, Timothy never married either, yet Paul sent him to deal authjoritatively with false teachers in Ephesus, which is obviously a task invovling oversight of the churched there. We also don't know if Titus was married, yet Paul says he left Titus in Crete to appoint elders in the churches in every town. Is it really logical that Titus could carry out this task faithfully if he was not qualified to be an elder himself?

I understand Dr. Williams' desire to point out the errors of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) in pursuing extreme asceticism and restricting their involvement in Christian community. But in warning about the dangers of one ditch, she seems to fall into the opposite ditch, with her zeal to correct one problem leading to faulty exegesis. While I greatly appreciate Dr. Williams' work in diving into how the early Christians were not always the shining examples of piety that the lure of nostalgia would often lead us to believe, she definitely departs from her lane (her specialty is Roman military history), and could have benefited from some input from biblical scholars and historians specializing in church history to fact-check her work before it was published. (This raises the question for me whether the biblical scholars and church historians who endoresed the book read the whole manuscript and offered any corrections on the points I raise in this and my previous post.)

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