A month ago, I wrote about U.S. Catholic bishops voting to draft a new statement on communion, through which some hoped to deny communion to President Biden and other Catholic politicians who support policies—such as legalized abortion—that are contrary to the church’s teachings.
I argued that, if nothing else, this was one more example of how churches tend to get caught up in the broader culture wars between social conservatives and liberals.
Lest you think this tendency is confined to the Catholics, let me point out a pair of controversies now roiling the Protestant evangelical subculture.
The New Yorker magazine reported July 25 on a tempest stirred up by a new book from Beth Allison Barr, a medieval-history professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Baylor, historically a Baptist school, is occasionally described as evangelicals’ answer to the University of Notre Dame.
Barr’s book, “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth,” argues that religious conservatives’ teachings about men’s and women’s roles are largely a modern development with little basis in scripture.
Barr is a lifelong conservative evangelical whose husband is a Southern Baptist pastor. But after researching the subject as a historian, she’s come to reject the ideology called “complementarianism,” which holds that while the sexes are equal in the eyes of God, scripture assigns them very different roles in the home and at church.
Complementarianism encourages women’s submission to men in both family and religious matters.
“This narrative that men carry the authority of God is frightening, and it’s not Christian,” Barr told the New Yorker.
She believes gender roles in western Christianity didn’t really harden until the 19th and 20th centuries, in the wake of the social upheaval created by the industrial revolution.
And the current version of complementarianism didn’t develop until after World War II, she says, as a response to the mobilization of women into the wartime workforce and, later, against the rise of the feminist movement.
“Women think all of this is the Bible because they learn it in their churches,” Barr said. “But it’s really a post-Second World War construction of domesticity, which was designed to send working women back to the kitchen.”
“The Making of Biblical Womanhood” has become a hit. Fans, including evangelical women, say it methodically documents how conservative political and social dogmas have “hijacked evangelical Christianity.”
Opponents—there are plenty among male evangelical leaders, but also among women—argue Barr is plain wrong. Pastors inveigh against her from pulpits. They claim it’s Barr who’s sacrificed solid Biblical teaching in favor of political correctness, if not heresy.
Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the prominent and influential McLean Bible Church is undergoing its own cultural imbroglio, as reported by Christianity Today magazine, among various publications.
The megachurch, which then-President Donald Trump visited in 2019, is riven “over politics, race, and alleged liberal drift, plus a lawsuit filed by dissenters,” Christianity Today reported.
The bullseye of the controversy is pastor and best-selling author David Platt, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. (The church’s factions apparently disagree even on whether, or to what extent, McClean Bible Church is or can be affiliated with the SBC.)
When Trump attended the church, Platt prayed for him from the stage.
But now, a conservative McClean faction has accused Platt of “pushing critical race theory, revising biblical teaching on sexuality, and aligning with the SBC despite McLean’s constitutional prohibition of affiliating with any denomination,” Christianity Today said.
The naysayers claim Platt is too “woke.” In March 2020, he and a Black McClean pastor named Mike Kelsey took part in a Christian-themed march after the death of George Floyd, which some members interpreted as support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
There’s been an ugly dispute over the election of new elders and a rumor that Platt planned to sell a piece of the church’s property for the building of a mosque.
Platt denies most of the allegations. He maintains he’s just doing his best to proclaim the good news of God’s love and obey the Bible.
I imagine both sides feel certain they’re the ones in God’s camp, and that the opposing faction has sold out to a fallen, heathen world. That’s how these things tend to go.
From Christianity’s beginning, there’s existed a tension between having to operate within a broader culture—something all Christians in all eras and all lands have had to do—and keeping that culture at arm’s distance.
The lines become blurry. It’s impossible to maintain a pure-hearted objectivity. People inevitably do battle about where biblical Christianity ends and cultural pollution begins.
We forget that, whoever we are, when we read our Bible we’re always reading it through the filters of our own individual history, our race, our generation, the preachers we’ve listened to, the country we live in, the political party we belong to, the friends we’ve made, the news media we follow and 10,000 other things we’re barely conscious of.
It’s always good to maintain our humility, to remember that however certain we might be we’re doing God’s will—we could, without realizing it, be the very ones corrupted by secular culture.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.