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Policing The Christian Village

Paige Patterson, Southern Baptists, Catholics, and Christian accountability
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The pro-abortion referendum’s resounding victory in Ireland over the weekend is being interpreted as a blow against the Catholic Church … which, of course, it is. From the NYT:

When nearly one-third of Ireland’s Catholic population came to see Pope John Paul II celebrate a papal Mass in Dublin in 1979, divorce, homosexual acts and abortion were all illegal in the country. Ireland, like much of Europe, toed the line on Roman Catholic Church teaching.

In August, Pope Francis will return to Ireland for a World Meeting of Families event attended by the church’s most committed anti-abortion activists. But they will find themselves, after Saturday’s historic repeal of an abortion ban in a landslide vote, in a country that is clearly part of Europe’s secular sprint out of the Roman Catholic fold.

Across Western Europe, the church’s once mighty footprint has faded, in no small measure because of self-inflicted clerical sex abuse scandals and an inability to keep up with and reach contemporary Catholics. Church attendance has plummeted, parishes are merging, and new priests and nuns are in short supply. Gay marriage is on the rise, and abortion is widely legal.

And yet, Francis is not sounding the alarm or calling the faithful to the ramparts. He seems resigned to accept that a devout and Catholic Europe has largely slipped into the church’s past.

If Catholicism is dying in Ireland, as it clearly is, then that means only that Ireland is traveling the same path as the rest of Europe. Perhaps this fate could not have been avoided. But there can be no doubt at all that the Catholic Church in Ireland dealt a severe blow to the faith by its decades of facilitating and covering up sexual abuse. The Catholic Church had extraordinary power in Ireland, and exercised it irresponsibly (to put it as mildly as I can). The reputation of the institutional Church in Ireland is so bad now that pro-life campaigners asked the Irish bishops to stay on the sidelines of the referendum debate, for fear that their active presence would make it more likely that the pro-abortion side would win.

Think about that.

Here is a very powerful interview with the Irish Catholic journalist John Waters, on the eve of the referendum. In it, Waters condemns the bishops for standing on the sidelines. More (all emphases are in the original):

Who is in favour of the repeal of the 8th amendment? Because they want this, what do they have in mind?

This is part of an ideological programme to alter the very nature of human culture and human understanding. It is being pushed by he same global ideologues who three years ago bullied Ireland into destroying its definition of the family so that, now, a “family’ can be two men and someone else’s child. What they want is to destroy every normative understanding of the human being in the world as a spiritual entity, and every remnant of our sen of the human family as a sacred institution, replacing these understandings with an entire materialist concept, entirely amenable to science and ideology.


This problem and the vicissitudes of the children Charlie Gard, Isaiah Haastrup and Alfie Evans are arousing more consciences, making it clear that it is necessary to stop abortion, euthanasia etc, because they are among the pillars of the culture of death spread by multinationals, from some UN agencies, from NGOs like Amnesty International, from foundations like Open Society of George Soros, to destroy man?

I have been speaking about Alfie around Ireland for several weeks now. This same thing has happened several times in recent years in the UK, and also in Ireland. But really this is merely a preparatory stage – getting public opinion ready for what is to happen, which is the total arrogation of power over human life by the state to itself. Unless we begin to awaken, this is the future: a place where the state alone will decide how long the human person will live, and in what circumstances his or her life will be deemed worth living. The courts and the medical profession will assume the place of God, fulfilling C.S. Lewis’s prophecy that, when God is abolished, He is never replaced by all men, but by a few men. This is where tyranny begins. 

Whether you buy Waters’s dire take or not, there can be no doubt that the Irish Church’s catastrophic failures made it much easier for the Church’s enemies, and the enemies of the sanctity of life, to prevail. Today, in First Things, John Waters writes an obituary for his country. Excerpt:

The cancer at the heart of modern Irish culture is unbelief in anything that is not negotiable in the manner of currency. But that was the diagnosis up until last Friday. May 25 will go down as the beginning of the final stage of the disintegration: the carting of the human in Ireland from the spiritual to the material level, with the country that was once the jewel in the crown of European Christianity affirming that a baby is the mere chattel of her mother.

The Church, with the exception of a sprinkling of pastorals, was tactically absent. This reticence is understandable in respect of the public realm: The leveraging of antipathy towards Catholicism is a core element of the pro-abortion strategy. What was unforgivable was that this silence extended to pulpits. The Association of Catholic Priests, a kind of theo-ideological trade union, intervened to criticize a minor trend of pro-lifers delivering homilies during Masses.

For years, people abroad have teased me about the Island of Saints and Scholars, asking when we’re going to send them more monks. Usually they’re only half joking, the scale of Ireland’s disintegration being by no means fully understood beyond her shores. It falls to me to disabuse them of their romantic ideas about my country. Friday last should at least have the benefit of henceforth saving me that trouble.

In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill writes that “the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature,” thus becoming the “conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilisation they had overwhelmed.” He praises the monks “who single-handedly re-founded European civilisation.”

This is the Ireland of popular imagining. We now know it to be a legend long past its use-by date.

Read the whole thing.  I hope now that the believing Christians of Ireland will turn to the legacy of the monks to preserve what remains of the faith in this barbarian time.

I am reminded of a passage in a book about Father Arseny, a Russian Orthodox priest sent to the Gulag after the Bolshevik Revolution, in which the priest is drawn into an argument among political prisoners about who bears blame for bringing the Bolsheviks to power. Father Arseny blames the Church, saying that if the Church (of which he, obviously, is a part) had been holier, this civilizational catastrophe might not have befallen Russia. The priest’s response is more of a spiritual one than a matter of historical analysis, but there is probably truth in it. Whatever the historical truth, it is good for Christians to reflect on their (our) part in what allowed evil to triumph. That’s a very Christian thing to do, not to wallow morbidly in guilt, but rather for the sake of cleansing and repentance.

The Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the US — is facing something similar. It doesn’t involve child molestation, thank God, but it does involve men in power misusing that authority in matters of sexual misconduct, even sex crimes. A Southern Baptist writer named Tom Ascol considers the stakes. After listing some of the scandalous recent events, all having to do with the leadership of the powerful conservative Baptist leader Paige Patterson, Ascol writes:

I am led to believe that there is more to come. Influential voices from both within and without the convention have signaled that the dismissal of Paige Patterson from the Southwestern Seminary presidency is only the first step of many that need to be taken to clean up the SBC. That there is much in the SBC that needs to be changed, is a point beyond dispute to my mind. But the end games for some appear to include everything from the full acceptance of women pastors, partial acceptance of the LBGTQ+ agenda, and reparations by the descendants of slaveholders to the descendants of slaves.

My fear is that forces currently at work will harness good causes—like the respect and protection of women and the rejection of racism—in order to use them to advance the above-mentioned agendas. The way that I see it, the main reason that Southern Baptists are vulnerable at just this point stems from a failure to submit practically to the full authority and sufficiency of Scripture. This is ironic—a tragic irony, to be sure—given the recent history of the “battle for the Bible” in the SBC. Inerrancy won the day and the “conservative resurgence” has been heralded ever since as an unprecedented work of God to rescue the SBC from following mainline denominations into apostasy.

Yet, for people who fought to see the full authority of Scripture affirmed, Southern Baptists are too-often indifferent about living under its authority. See the stories linked above…and the ones yet to break.

I’m not going to get into the theological debate here among Southern Baptists, and it’s not necessary to do so to appreciate Ascol’s point: that the Southern Baptists who have been most responsible for holding the line on orthodoxy have misused their authority, and have opened the door for modernists within Southern Baptist life to capitalize on their self-discrediting to push a heterodox agenda.

The failure of those responsible for policing the village — that is, exercising authority justly — to do so has tremendous consequences. That is the main point in an essay Jake Meador wrote for Mere Orthodoxy over the weekend.

Meador (who’s a friend) goes after Southern Baptist conservatives for failing to criticize Paige Patterson, and for behaving more like culture warriors interested in power than like Christians who take the faith seriously.

Now, I have to insert a personal word here. Jake identifies the Southern Baptist seminary professor and pastor Denny Burk as a malefactor, based on his work with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an Evangelical group advocating for a specific, and traditionalist, view of the relationship between men and women, and for failing to criticize Patterson in a recent Washington Post interview.

I think this was unfair. Mind you, Denny is also a friend of mine, and I can tell you that for a long time now, we have been talking privately about scandals, political and otherwise, within the churches — his, mine, everybody’s — and how they compromise Christian witness. Denny Burk is not indifferent to this. In fact, in The Benedict Option, I quote Denny on the cost to churches that fail to discipline.

Last week, on the CBMW blog, Denny posted this in response to the Patterson scandals. Excerpts:

As Albert Mohler declared earlier today, it really does seem to be a time of reckoning. But it is not only that. It is also a time for moral clarity from all followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially as we consider the sobering words of 1 Peter 4:17: “It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

Moral clarity1 requires that Christians be clear about the evil of abuse. It requires that we condemn all forms of physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse. It requires that we believe the biblical teaching on relationships between men and women, and that this teaching does not support but condemns abuse (Prov. 12:18Eph. 5:25-29Col. 3:181 Tim. 3:3Titus 1:7-81 Pet. 3:7; 5:3). It requires recognizing that abuse is not only a sin but is also a crime. Abuse is destructive and evil. It is a hallmark of the devil and is in direct opposition to the purposes of God. Abuse must not be tolerated in the Christian community.

The local church and Christian ministries have a responsibility to establish safe environments; to execute policies and practices that protect against any form of abuse; to confront abusers and to protect the abused, which includes the responsibility to report abuse to civil authorities.

He goes on to explain, in a postscript, why he deferred comment about Patterson in that Post interview, until the board of trustees of Patterson’s seminary met and decided Patterson’s fate:

Ever since this controversy began, we have tried to speak with clarity about fundamental moral issues related to abuse (see herehere, and here). After an interview I gave to The Washington Post, some readers have asked why waiting until now to refer directly to the indefensible comments from Paige Patterson. The answer is that my aim was to defer comment until after the trustees of Southwestern Seminary had a chance to meet and take action. Since giving that interview to the Post, the trustees have met and thus my response you read here.

That’s an important distinction. Denny Burk is a professor at a Southern Baptist seminary, and is ethically bound to support the denomination’s trustee governance process for dealing with issues like this.

I’ve made a number of Southern Baptist friends in my Benedict Option work. In that light,  what I have come to understand about internal Southern Baptist politics, and factional hostility, a statement condemning Patterson from Burk or someone in his camp might have given Patterson’s backers ammunition to defend him. To us outsiders, they may be all conservative white males, but inside the denomination, there are critical distinctions. I don’t know Denny Burk’s mind — he has declined to let me interview him about this issue — but it’s easy for me to see that he was being prudent in not cutting loose on Patterson to the Washington Post. It seems clear from the statement he posted that he wants to see accountability for what Patterson did, but also clear, at least to me, that he wants to see that happen through the denomination’s method of handling such matters — the seminary’s board of trustees. That’s a matter of prudential judgment. You may believe that it was the wrong judgment, but it’s not the same thing as trying to cover up for Paige Patterson.

Denny Burk and his organization, the CBMW, were the originators of the controversial Nashville Statement, which Jake Meador criticizes thus: “the Nashville Statement and the publicity campaign associated with it were vintage culture war displays.”

The idea is that the Nashville Statement was not sincere, but rather a cynical act. This is unfair. Who can deny that LGBT issues are paramount in the American churches now, and that sides are being, and have to be, taken? The Nashville Statement was necessary. You don’t have to agree with it, or with all of it, to recognize that it was a statement of principle. To characterize it as a “vintage culture war display” is to attack the motives of those who drafted it and signed it. In what sense would a reaffirmation of doctrinal orthodoxy on these hotly contested issues not be a “vintage culture war display”? I hope Jake will clarify.

Sorry for all that background, but I needed to make clear that I agree with what follows, from Jake Meador’s column, while dissenting from his particular premises regarding Denny Burk and Albert Mohler. This is what I think is so important about the Meador piece, and something every one of us in the church needs to take seriously. In it, he’s talking about the effect conservative failures have:

This makes the progressive story appear to be true and it explains what happens next. If the progressive story is true, then the best way to avoid the abuse of the village is to avoid the village. For human beings desire power above all else and the only way to make sure they do not abuse power is to make sure they never have it. So we atomize. We break apart. We stand alone.

It’s better than the alternative.

Meador talks about the movie Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic sex abuse scandal in that city. He mentions scenes in which two of the reporters on the story, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), say that they can’t bring themselves to enter the church anymore because all they can think about is the victims of abusive priests. They both want the church, but can’t go into it because they’ve seen too much. For me, that’s the part of Spotlight that hit very close to home. It’s what happened to me too.

Meador writes:

I think we live in a republic full of people like Pfeiffer and Rezendes. They’re irreligious liberals, in the classical sense of the term, who make the best of their lives, working a job that may or may not satisfy them and finding what pleasures they can as they come.

In a deep part of their soul they still long for something more. Augustine says our hearts are restless till they rest in God. They have spiritual longings that they keep muted just beneath the surface and that our prevailing culture aids them in suppressing with the many amusements and baubles it makes available. But those longings still flare up sometimes because they’re human, because they’re made to know God’s love. They want the village. They want the meaningful life in which both material and spiritual longings are seen, named, and fulfilled.

When abuse happens in the church, as it clearly did under Patterson’s leadership, and when the church flinches when it is time to condemn that abuse, as Burk did earlier this week and as Mohler has in the past, we’re hurting those people. And we’re strengthening the idea that is also in their minds, the liberal story that says we’re all ultimately alone and that attempts by powerful people to work together for the betterment of a place aren’t really sincere. They’re just power plays.

Let me say this as clearly as I can: I do not believe that this criticism of Denny Burk and Albert Mohler is just! But I have to repeat it here because Jake Meador is making an important and necessary point about church life. In the Catholic Church’s case, this was by no means a conservative vs. liberal thing. It was a scandal that involved Catholics from all over the spectrum, each with his own motives for covering up, for denying, for deflecting, and for protecting the status quo. Meador is a theological conservative, though, as am I, so we are talking to our own people here.

I mentioned the other day on this blog the despairing words of a conservative Southern Baptist friend, who is fed up and worn out with the Southern Baptist church, in which she was raised. The Patterson scandal does not stand alone, not to her mind. She said that she’s sick and tired of the church ignoring brokenness for the sake of maintaining a shiny, happy façade. It’s fake, and she’s sick of it. I told her that this is not just a Southern Baptist thing, but a human thing, and also, to a certain extent, a Southern thing. Far too many of us in the South are resistant to facts that threaten the social order, and our self-image.

She insisted that no, there were specifically Southern Baptist aspects to her critique. Because I was out taking care of errands, I didn’t have time to get into it more deeply with her. But she’s been on my mind all week as an example of an ordinary person in the pews whose faith in the institution is being strongly tested. She’s wondering what the church is for. 

A lot of us are like that, not just progressives.

On the other hand, I’ve learned in my own tiny parish that all of us who gather on Sunday are broken and needy. We are figuring out how to help each other bear our burdens. This is something new to me, quite frankly. I am used to being anonymous in church, and wanting to be anonymous. Our Orthodox congregation is small, and we meet in a strip mall space because we can’t afford anything else right now. But it’s real, all of it. Just last evening I met with a friend from church, and we talked about things that we’re both going through, and our families are going through. We left promising to pray for each other, and to do better about bringing families in the parish together socially, outside of church, so we can get to know each other better. Reading all the things I’ve linked to in this post today, and reflecting on my own brokenness, and my own painful relationship to religious authority, has given me the resolve to work where I can — in my parish — to make our life together as Christians more real, not a holy façade.

I can’t solve all the problems of the Orthodox Church — or the Catholic Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or anybody else. What I can do is repent of my own passivity, and work towards making my own congregation what it should be … and making myself what I should be.

In the spirit of Father Arseny, this time of scandals in the churches should cause us to reflect penitentially on our failures. This does not mean surrendering to what progressives want. A sense of guilt over our failures does not warrant giving up on truth. But those same failures ought to also chasten us as we defend those truths. Our failures don’t make progressives correct in what they believe or demand. But our failures should make us grasp the weakness of our position in the public square, and in the hearts and minds of ordinary people who want to believe us, but who see in the things we have done and failed to do little evidence of true religion.

When I talk about The Benedict Option, I am talking to and about a church that has failed in its public witness. We have failed because of factors beyond our control, and we have failed because of things we do control. Ireland — like non-Polish Europe, like the US and Canada — is post-Christian, and probably would have gone this way if the church had been healthier. We’ll never know, though, and there’s no point in dwelling too much on it. Only dwell on it to the extent that it goads us to repentance and reform.

If we can’t even govern ourselves well, and make our churches into places of truth, love, and discipleship, what makes us think that we can transform the broader post-Christian culture? Why should the world listen to us when we so badly misuse the authority given to us? When the life of the church — including in local congregation, Christian schools, and within Christian families — treats the faith as little more than an ideology to comfort us in the way we are, and to be wielded against the church’s enemies (real and perceived), is there any wonder why we fail?

When Christians preoccupy themselves with flashy garbage like this “Trump Prophecy,” which Liberty University has helped make into a feature film, they are destroying the foundations for the church in exile by filling their hearts and minds with a false triumphalist narrative. Those Christians are not going to last. The struggles and suffering ahead of us will weed them out. We Christians in the West are entering a very long Lent. Examination of conscience and penitence is part of the necessary preparation. There is no time to waste. This is not a joke.

UPDATE: Don’t miss this. It’s from the woman who says she was raped while a student at a Southern Baptist seminary administered by Paige Patterson, and who says he mistreated her in the wake of it:




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