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Adventures in Missing the Point: A Response to TGC's Essay on Power

On February 15, 2017

On January 24, The Gospel Coalition posted a piece by Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin entitled, “How Our Ministry Method Warps Our Souls.” The article probes questions about the nature of power and what it can look like in Christian ministry settings. “We’ve all embraced a certain form of power. The question is not if we’ve embraced power, but what kind of power we’ve embraced.” This, Strobel and Goggin claim, “is perhaps the most pressing question in the church today, because it defines everything we do in ministry.”

And the use of power has undoubtedly gone wrong in evangelical churches. “We’d have to be either naïve or simply uninformed,” the authors continue, “to be unaware of power being employed to control, dominate, and even, at times, abuse.” This can take countless forms and have multiple causes, whether lack of pastoral accountability, a spirit of independence and self-reliance, or mistaking popular leadership techniques for godly servant-leadership. All of this suggests that a “wholesale appraisal of [the church’s] understanding of power” is in order.

Amen. The basic thesis of this short and well-written write-up is desperately needed and, insofar as identifying some of the key problems concerning power, might be considered established.

There is a major elephant in the room, however.

The Gospel Coalition is an organization that is explicitly patriarchal, restricting positions of power in Christian life and faith to those of the male sex. Essays like these must, regrettably, be interpreted in precisely this type of “complementarian” context—forcing the ethic of Jesus and the expansive and liberating moral vision of the New Testament into a cramped, sexist-patriarchal box. In doing so, one is tortuously left grasping for answers in reading such statements as these:

“When our primary machinery for doing kingdom work is our talents and abilities, we’ve embraced the wrong kind of power.”

Yes, but we’ve missed the obvious: When our primary machinery for doing kingdom work is our privileged status, we’ve embraced the wrong kind of power.

“When leaders are chosen because of their charisma and stage presence, we’ve embraced the wrong kind of power.”

Yes, but we’ve again missed the obvious: When leaders are chosen because of their sex or ethnicity, we’ve embraced the wrong kind of power.

“When we neglect the little and always favor the big—and when influence, notoriety, and status trump holiness—we’ve embraced a form of power not of the kingdom of God.”

Yes, but we’ve missed something here, too: When we neglect the gentle, submissive, and weak and always favor the assertive, commanding, and strong—we’ve embraced a form of power not of the kingdom of God.

I realize the authors aren’t allowed to draw these obvious inferences because they aren’t “theologically correct”—and it is an irony for sure (essential implications of the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and incarnated are muted in the name of a coalition for the… gospel!).

But just imagine for a moment if pastors were taught to believe that maleness, or whiteness, or income bracket is what entitles one to being eligible for positions of power. Surely this ministry philosophy would fly in the face of NT theology and “warp our souls,” would it not?

The point is this: a reading of the New Testament and Jesus of Nazareth in its own context points us away from all flawed forms of earthly power and authority—those based on maleness, ethnicity, on who has the larger army, who has the most wealth, etc.

But, at least with respect to gender, this is precisely what complementarianism must affirm. However one interprets NT texts and various theological axioms, the practical result must always be that a male person remain “in charge” in home, church, and ministry settings. This has been the centerpiece of “headship” theology since its “gender-role” ideology emerged in the 1970s, and it is always the baseline factor in determining if a particular woman’s actions are “appropriate” or “inappropriate.” (See the “Headship Litmus Test”).

The essay, then, is but another internal critique of the patriarchalism undergirding the Gospel Coalition organization. Should enough attention be directed at essays like these, one would find the TGC and complementarian camp in a rather tight box, indeed.

Biblical texts would probably end up being beaten with a stick to say what they want them to say, even if the results are absurd (e.g., “Junia was a man in Rom 16:7,” “Deborah wasn’t a leader over men in Judges 5,” “Ephesians 5:22 isn’t really connected with 5:21,” etc.), and they would have to constantly correct popular male church leaders, present and former members, who have continued along the line of patriarchy to more distasteful ends (e.g., Mark Driscoll, Tullian Tchividjian, CJ Mahaney, Darrin Patrick, etc.).

But we need not be surprised at the dissonance: TGC and its affiliates try to stay close to the New Testament world and re-embody the gospel in today’s world as much as possible. Because patriarchy and sexism are fundamentally at odds with the Christian gospel, it is only expected that one find implicit sub-text/subliminal/unintentional critiques of patriarchy as these. The question remains: how long can this un-peaceful coexistence last? 

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