Wounded, well-meaning and wolves

I recently referred to an article by Jonathan Leeman which led to a conversation about Spiritual abuse. In this article, I want to engage a little bit further with Jonathan’s article. I want to highlight some areas where I think he’s unfairly criticised, some important points he has made which need hearing and also an area where I think the argument needs to be made louder and clearer.

The basic thesis of Leeman’s article is that there is something called “deconstruction” happening: The deconstruction project is as follows according to Leeman.

The basic charge of the deconstruction project is that evangelical doctrine or what we might even call “Christian doctrine” is more culturally conditioned and self-interested than we evangelicals realize

He also goes on to cite an advocate of such a deconstruction project, David Gushee who lists a number of books that have been significant in the project.  Leeman observes that these books are arising primarily from disciplines such as history and sociology.  Now, I’m sure that Leeman would agree with me that it is no bad thing is historians are writing good books about history, including modern and ancient church history. Where Leeman has a concern is with the specific contribution that these have to deconstruction.

Why is that? Well, its because deconstruction isn’t just an academic exercise. We are talking about people actively seeking to dismantle the framework and foundation of their faith and lives in the hope of rebuilding that. Why? Again, it’s not out of mere intellectual curiosity but because of specific personal experience including toxic cultures and abusive behaviour. There are people who have been seriously hurt, there are others who also have been hurt, they may be “overblowing their hurt” but they are still wounded.

What I think Leeman is doing here is helping us to recognise three crucial categories in church life.  There are

  1. Wounded Christians who are experiencing serious pain and distress. These wounded Christians need to be cared for.
  2. Well meaning wannabe shepherds.  There are those who genuinely seeking to act as guides and helps, to care for the wounded and to get them to safety.
  3. Wolves. These are those looking in with the intent to get in and scatter/devour the flock.

Leeman’s argument in essence is that some of those who are identifying themselves or being identified with the so called de-construction project are part of that wannabe shepherd category. They may want to help but they are actually hindering. In fact there is the risk that they may actually be drawing sheep into the wolves’ sphere of influence.

Now on the surface, I don’t think there should be anything particularly controversial there. Factually we know that those categories exist. We know from experience but also because the Bible pretty much identifies the categories for us, they are not original to Leeman.

I think the heat has come because people have heard certain names in an article that also talks about wolves and have assumed that Leeman is attacking those people as “wolves.” This has resulted in defensiveness on their behalf and in specific cases from them.  Yet Leeman has been careful to make the distinction between wounded, wannabe and wolf clear.  Another consequence of this is that indignant at being called wolves, I understand some of the authors have then argued that Leeman cannot have read their books or understood them.  Yet if you read the article carefully you’ll see that not only does Leeman make the distinction clear between wolves and others but he explicitly states that in the article he is not:

My goal in this piece is not to offer specific responses to the books listed above, much less all of their arguments. Further, I’m not going to sort through the theological differences among the members of or sympathizers with the deconstruction project. 

Leeman’s aim is not to accuse or to label.  First because he is not seeking a conversation with those he regards as wolves but with those he considers to be shepherds or wannabe shepherds. Note, he’s not even in this context addressing the wounded, he’s addressing those who should be concerne dint he day to day care of the wounded.

His point is this, that when it comes to the pastoral care of souls, then the flock should entrust themselves to the  care of pastors who care for them by applying God’s word. Again, there shouldn’t be anything particularly controversial there. It’s basically what Paul instructs the Ephesian elders to do in Acts 20, its what both the writer to the Hebrews and 1 Peter have to say about the relationship between under shepherds and sheep.

However, Leeman contrasts this trust with entrusting yourself to historians and sociologists. Now if he were saying that the study of such subjects is a waste of time and that all academics are dodgy, then I think we’d all have cause to be worried. However, he’s not. He’s telling pastors and congregations that the specific tool, the shepherd’s staff if you like that we need for care fot he flock is God’s Word.  And he’s saying that in the context of a particular hermeneutic which drives much of the current debate. 

That hermeneutic is the one that puts people’s stories at the heart of what they read, think and say.  It’s part of the postmodern worldview which makes truth subjective and communication challenging.  It’s what we see when it is assumed that white, middle class man’s thought and words are shaped by power, privilege, and their desire to hold onto it. It’s what happens when we assume that woman and Black people have their hermeneutic shaped by an experience of subjugation and victimhood. The result of this is that stories based on victim identity are preferred and those who are unable to demonstrate that identity, that story are considered to represent power and therefore not to have permission to speak. So for example the actual response form some to Leeman’s article is that it reads like a power grab.  Why? I suspect that if the same words had been written by someone different then they would not have been heard as such. It is more that we are reading the article through the hermeneutic of power and victimhood. Leeman is a powerful man, those he is seen to disagree with are perceived as victims/suppressed/voiceless. QED.

Leeman’s argument is that this hermeneutical tool wsill play into the hands of those who want to rob God’s word of the power to speak objective truth. Therefore it is ultimately dangerous.  His argument is that the tool that we need is we are to shepherd well and the thing that the wounded need if they are to be healed is the proper application of God’s word to their hearts in the context of healthy churches.

I believe that he has made two crucial and important points that we need to heed for the sake of the wounded. First of all, there is that important distinction between wounded, wannabe and wolves.  I believe that this is crucial to good shepherding. What often goes wrong is that we end up failing to distinguish between naughty sheep, goats, wolves and false shepherds. The result is that we confuse the cries and panic of sheep with the howls and attack of the wolves. When we do that, then vulnerable people get hurt.  However, we do need to be alert to the real existence and threat of wolves.  When the pack circles and teeth are bared then shepherds have a duty to spot it and respond to defend the sheep whether that’s from someone attacking through false teaching or abusive behaviour.

Secondly, Leeman is right to emphasise that the tool God has given us for the job is God’s Word. He is right to be concerned that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I’m currently reading a fantastically helpful article for a friend that looks at how the church can escape the problems of abuse and I’m so encouraged that my friend is showing us the way out of the mess caused by toxic culture through careful detailed exegesis of God’s Word.

Now for the bit that I think needs a bit more attention/to be shouted louder. I was originally going to talk in terms of challenge and pushback because I though these bits were absent from Leeman’s article but a second read found them. However, I think it is the point that it took a second read by a generous reader that highlights why more attention is needed here.

Leeman talks in terms of pastors as those who should be trusted. I agree they should be (and I use pastor here in terms of plural elders). However, what if the reason that you are “deconstructing” is because of your pastor and what they’ve said or done. What if your pastor was the bully? What if they allowed, overlooked, enabled abuse?  What if that elder didn’t have your back? What if they have been serving up  a dull and shallow poor apology for a meal instead of good, deep and impacting teaching?

So, that’s the first issue where I think we need to pay attention. Secondly, as several people have I think pointed out, there is something in the point that our story, experience, context shapes our hermeneutic.  None of us read things quite as objectively as we would like to think.  And yes, like it or not, there is something to that narrative of power and victimhood isn’t there. The idea that the victors control the story is not a new one. Furthermore, I think we see something in the way that our background/experience shapes our reading. Think about the bits of Scripture that appeal to you most and what appeals to people from other backgrounds.

Now, as I said, I think Leeman does address this because he points out that evangelicals have always had their own hermeneutic of suspicion.  It’s called total depravity. We do recognise that our fallenness and finiteness affect our reading of things.  Indeed, that’s kind of the point in Romans 1 and 2 isn’t it. The issue isn’t with God’s revelation in creation and the law but in our reading that chooses to twist and suppress it.

This means that we will end up with confused readings and sadly we do end up with abusive pastors. Further, there is something in the charge that our own hermeneutic hasn’t been great. WE need to consider that a faulty hermeneutic based by placing the wrong people and things at the heart of the story has played its part in recent abuse cases.  We see it for example in a hero-power-victor narrative which means we struggle to see David’s sin as against not just with Bathsheba. We see it in the struggle to recognise the complicity of historical heroes in the slave trade. It is also worth saying at this stage that I think historians therefore have their part to play in shining a light on the uglier aspects of our story.  If we struggle with that then perhaps that reflects a struggle with the concepts of common grace and General Revelation (but that is something for another day).

What I think needs to be shouted louder is this. The solution to this hermeneutical problem is neither to ignore it, to pretend it’s not there or to attend to run with it. Rather it’s to address and confront it. Leeman is right to see the confrontation as coming from God’s Word. This means that the exegete is also exegeted but not by his opponents. It’s God’s Holy Spirit using Scripture itself that exegetes my heart.  This is crucial if I am going to be a good under shepherd of the flock.

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