Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom and Rachel Held Evans (a.k.a. in defense of liturgy)

Baptismal font at the Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Olney (UK)

Seattle pastor Richard Dahlstrom challenged something Rachel Held Evans wrote in a recent op-ed for about millennials leaving the church.

Richard Dahlstrom is one of my favorite evangelical pastors. Rachel Held Evans is one of my favorite bloggers. If you want to see a successful pastor building real community instead of just building his own empire, watch Richard Dahlstrom. If you want a window into the spirituality of millennial Christians, read Rachel’s blog.

Rachel often talks with pastors about why millennials are leaving the church. She’s written about how younger Christians feel forced to “choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness,” how evangelical Christianity has become “too political, too exclusive,” etc.

Thus far, Richard and Rachel are on the same page. Their disagreement comes over what Rachel says next:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions—Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.—precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

To Richard, these are matters of mere preference. He wrote:

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

Well, I’m not sure Rachel ever said liturgy is “better” than low church, that Gregorian chants are better than Hillsong, or that pews are better than chairs. (Though wine IS better than grape juice.)

I may not be a millennial (I missed the cutoff by a few years), but I am one of those Christians Rachel writes about, who made the jump from converted-shopping-mall evangelicalism to liturgical, high church Christianity. And I can assure you that the decision had more to do with substance than style. (Which is not to suggest that one form of Christianity is better than the other.)

[Related: 11 things I things I love about the Episcopal Church]

While living in England, my wife and I found ourselves sitting in the pews of a 700-year-old Anglican church. We came for the un-trendiest of reasons: someone invited us. We kept coming for the un-trendiest of reasons, too: we made friends. We became part of the community.

But we were also captivated by the liturgy, by the high-churchiness of it all—for reasons that were not merely about style.

A high view of the Eucharist

A few years earlier, on a visit to the UK, a friend showed us one of the historic churches in his hometown of Shrewsbury. As we stood in the round sanctuary, looking toward the front, he asked:

“Do you know why the altar’s in the center and the pulpit’s off to the side?”

Um, no.

“Because for Anglicans, the Eucharist is the center of corporate worship, not the sermon.”

Not that long ago, his words would’ve made my evangelical ears bleed. The sermon’s the main event, not the Eucha — ahem, communion.

After the Reformation, after the Enlightenment, churches increasingly became places to receive information. Very good information, in some cases. Eventually, communion became something evangelical churches did once a year or once a quarter when they wanted to drag the service on a bit longer. (I assumed that was the reason when I was a kid, anyway.)

But communion is the one thing Jesus told his followers to do when they gather together. Regardless of how you understand the Eucharist—transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, symbol only, some/any/none/all of the above—this ancient ritual connects us to the death of our Messiah. It’s participatory, not passive. Yet it’s also a reminder that we come to the table empty-handed, in need of grace.

Christians have been taking, eating, and remembering for close to two thousand years now. The Eucharist is the beating heart of Christian worship. It brings transformation in a way that even the best sermon can’t. It speaks to the whole person, not just the mind.

Recovering a high view of the Eucharist—and restoring it to its rightful place in Christian worship—is one substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

An unbroken chain

Two years ago, a bishop placed his hands on my wife and me, confirming our membership in the Episcopal Church. Years earlier, someone placed their hands on our bishop, confirming his ministry to the church. Some time before that, someone else laid hands on that person, and so on… going all the way back to the apostles.

Anglicans have never been as clear or precise as our Catholic sisters and brothers on what we mean by apostolic succession. There’s a wide diversity of thought in our tradition, as there is on many other things, too. But there’s also a shared belief that we belong to an unbroken chain connecting us—by design, not by accident—to the very first followers of Jesus.

This realization cultivates a sense of rootedness, even as we innovate and seek new ways of living our faith in the world today. This Christianity thing didn’t start with us. Our congregations are not autonomous mini-empires, as some independent evangelical churches seem to be. We belong to a much bigger organism, transcending geography and time.

Seeing our place in an unbroken chain of Christ followers is another substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

A reminder of my smallness

The path up to the main entrance of our church in England cut through a graveyard where past worshippers were laid to rest. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was buried there. Some of the gravestones were so old you couldn’t read them anymore.

Every Sunday walking to church, you were reminded of your mortality, of your smallness.

Inside that 700-year-old structure—which wasn’t even the original building—we sang thousand-year-old songs (and a few newer ones as well). We recited prayers that had been uttered on that spot for hundreds of years. We recalibrated ourselves to a centuries-old rhythm.

In the evangelical subculture, it’s easy to become enamored by the Next Big Thing. Celebrity pastors. Multisite churches. Church online. Liturgy offers a helpful corrective to consumer Christianity because of its inherent un-hipness. Because it wasn’t invented yesterday. Because it’s been developed over centuries by a community, not by an individual with a “platform.”

The liturgy  reminds me I am not all that. I am not the alpha and omega. Church didn’t just start getting good when I showed up.

Being reminded of my smallness every Sunday is another substantial reason I am captivated by the liturgy.


None of this is meant as a rejection of more contemporary form of church, like the one represented by Richard Dahlstrom. I have friends who go to his church, so I’m somewhat familiar with it. It’s an incredible community, a welcome outpost of faith in a city that desperately needs good ambassadors for Christianity.

Nor am I rejecting “converted-shopping mall evangelicalism,” at least not in its entirety. I kind of like the fact that communities of Christ are reclaiming these former temples to consumerism and giving them a new purpose. The last nondenominational church my wife and I belonged to met in a converted shopping mall, and our time there saved my faith.

Nor is it to suggest that liturgical traditions like the one I belong to have it all figured out. Hardly. We can become too insular, too rigid. We don’t always allow enough room for the Spirit to move and do something fresh in our midst.

But for those of us who have found value and meaning in the liturgical traditions of the so-called “high church,” it’s not about style. It’s very much about substance.

Mutuality in the real world

Mutuality 2012 is done and dusted, but here’s hoping it’s only the start of a renewed conversation about equality in the church.

Hence this post: How does mutuality work in the real world?

More specifically, how does it work in a real marriage? (Note: not to be confused with Mark Driscoll’s notion of a Real Marriage.)

Is mutuality even practical?

Complementarians say no. Even if mutuality works well enough most of the time, they argue, every marriage comes to a stalemate at some point.

So what do you do then?

This was the question put to Amanda and me by our former pastor during one of our premarital counseling sessions. He asked what I’d do if I was offered a job in another state, but my wife didn’t want to move. (The irony will become apparent shortly.)

According to complementarian theology, somebody has to make the final call. Giving the wife an equal say is fine when you can come to agreement without too much bother. But whenever you reach an impasse, the husband becomes the decider-in-chief.

Male headship, then, is to marriage what the vice president is to the U.S. Senate: a tie-breaker. So argues Tim Keller:

Headship sometimes involves tie-breaking authority. In a marriage, you only have two votes; so the occasions do arise when there’s an impasse. How do you break the stalemate? It can only be broken if one party has the authority to overrule.

I agree with Keller that most relationships need a tie-breaker at some point. I just don’t see why it should fall to the man to break every stalemate.

However you interpret the apostle Paul’s statement that the “husband is the head of the wife,” neither Paul nor any other New Testament writer ever said it’s the husband’s job to be the final decision-maker. That’s an assumption which complementarians read into the text, not something the text actually says.

Returning to the question of how this all works in real life…

I remember a time when Amanda and I were faced with a major decision. We were contemplating an overseas move (ah, the irony), and we just couldn’t agree. Amanda wanted to go for it — and I did too, at first. But then I started having second thoughts. Major second thoughts.

Honestly, it was one of the most difficult points in our marriage. No matter how many times we hashed it out, we just couldn’t get on the same page.

Eventually, I conceded. I deferred to my wife’s judgment. I’d like to tell you this was some magnanimous gesture on my part, but it wasn’t. It was more like a grudging concession.

Looking back, though, if I hadn’t listened to Amanda — if she hadn’t broken the tie in that case — we would’ve missed out on one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.

There have been other times when I’ve been the one to break the tie. Somehow, through 10 years of marriage, it’s always worked out, regardless of who got to be the tie-breaker.

Sometimes Amanda has the most wisdom or the clearest perspective. Sometimes she can see things that I can’t. Sometimes the smartest thing I can do is defer to her judgment.

For me, appointing myself the final arbiter purely on the basis of my gender would be an act of colossal arrogance (not to mention stupidity).

I hope that over the next 10 years of marriage, I get better at listening to my wife — becoming more attuned to her perspective, her wisdom, and her unique insight. Sometimes she has the better judgment, plain and simple.

Sometimes, I would make a lousy tie-breaker.

Taking a second look at the worst verse in the Bible

Theater at Ephesus

When Ship of Fools asked readers to submit nominations for worst verse in the Bible a few years back, there was a clear winner. Beating out passages on genocide, dismemberment, and all manner of inscripturated unpleasantries was this:

I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.
–1 Timothy 2:12, NIV

For many complementarians, 1 Timothy 2 is the Discussion Killer. The Trump Card. It’s the clobber text that beats up all the other clobber texts and takes their lunch money.

Paul couldn’t have put it any more clearly, could he?

Except that the name of Paul’s letter is not “Mandatory Instructions for Churches Everywhere.” Paul set his sights elsewhere in 1 Timothy—namely, he was counseling a young pastor at the end of his rope.

Paul had instructed his protégé Timothy to take charge of the dysfunctional Christian community in Ephesus, a church Paul had planted years earlier. The assignment proved to be too much for the young disciple.

I visited Ephesus in 2005 while studying the spread of early Christianity in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The trip offered another perspective on the “worst verse in the Bible.”

In Paul’s day, Ephesus was home to half a million people. It was a leading city of the Roman Empire. The population swelled for two weeks every year, during a giant festival to honor the city’s patron deity, Artemis.

Artemis was the goddess of fertility (among other things). Her priests were women and, as N.T. Wright observes, “they ruled the show and kept the men in their place.”

Artemis’ temple was said to be founded by the Amazons, a mythical group of female warriors who had little use for men, apart from the occasional need to procreate.

According to the Artemis legend, women were created first. Women were superior. Women called the shots. Artemis was mainly concerned with the welfare of women, which is why she promised to keep them safe in childbearing—no mean feat at a time when as many as 1 in 3 women died giving birth.

Men who wished to serve the goddess were free to do so… well, I say “free.” Actually, the cost could be rather steep. In return for the honor of service, Artemis required their manhood, quite literally.

New Testament scholar Catherine Clark Kroeger once described the initiation process as follows:

Males voluntarily castrated themselves and assumed women’s garments. A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele [a closely related deity]. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress. He is considered to have exchanged his sexual identity and to have become a she-priest.

It’s possible female converts in Ephesus came to Christianity straight from the Artemis cult. Can you imagine the difficulty they would’ve had learning to accept men in the church as their equals? Perhaps not unlike like the difficulty some men have accepting women as their equals today.

Before long, tensions might have boiled over. Church gatherings could have descended into chaos as some of the women announced they were created first and ought to call the shots. Timothy would have quickly reached the end of his rope trying to hold this fledgling community together.

So his mentor Paul wrote a letter. Reading that letter almost two thousand years later, we cannot hope to understand Paul’s advice without spending a little time in Ephesus.

Whatever the precise nature of the conflict, Paul was trying to correct a specific situation run amuck. So he prohibited Ephesian women from taking the reins of the Ephesian church, from usurping Timothy’s authority (as Paul’s surrogate), and from lording it over their brothers in Christ.

This interpretation may also help explain Paul’s otherwise bizarre reference to childbearing, which might just be be a direct challenge to Artemis:

But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
—1 Timothy 2:15

Don’t trust Artemis to look after you in childbirth, Paul was saying in effect, trust the risen Christ. 

If I’m right, then to conclude from 1 Timothy 2 that women are subordinate to men and therefore unfit to lead is to commit the very error Paul condemned in this passage. Only, this time the shoe is on the other foot.

Paul didn’t want women lording it over men, as Artemis had taught them to do. Nor would he have wanted men lording it over women. Remember, this is the same person who told the Galatians there is no “male and female” in Christ’s church.

If Paul were addressing a complementarian church today, where it was taught that women are inherently and forever subject to men, he may very well have written something like this:

I do not permit a man to teach or have authority over a woman; he must be quiet. For Eve was formed last, the pinnacle of creation. And Eve was not the one told to avoid from the forbidden tree; it was the man who was told and should have known better.

Sometimes harsh words are needed to correct an imbalance of power. That’s what we see in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul provides a short-term solution to a specific problem. In the long run, however, the only real solution is (you guessed it)…


Church of St. Mary the Virgin (5th century), Ephesus

A letter to my daughter

I originally posted this letter as part of Rachel Held Evans’ “Week of Mutuality,” a weeklong discussion of the egalitarian view of gender. This happens to be the view I hold after several years of, well, not seeing it this way. Some of the inspiration for this letter came from Micky DeWitt’s excellent post, “Fathers and Daughters.”  


Dear Elizabeth Lacey,

You are just over 21 months old, and you are overflowing with life. You’re just beginning to assert your independence—which is why your rain boots so often end up on the wrong feet, but heck if you don’t get them on anyway. (It’s also why you currently don’t want to hold my hand when crossing the street, but we’ll talk about that later.)

Your personality is starting to flourish, and can I just say… I love who you’re becoming. From chasing the dog around the living room to enthusiastically greeting everyone who walks by—which, let’s face it, is a trait you probably got from your mother.

You won’t read this letter for several more years, but a day will come when you and I will sit down, pull up this old blog (assuming they haven’t replaced the Internet with something else by then), and read.

For there will come a time, I’m sorry to say, when you’ll meet certain people who will try to steal your sense of boundless opportunity.

They will tell you that some roles in life aren’t for you, simply because you’re a woman. That your gender means you have to take a backseat. That you are forever consigned to be in the audience and not on the stage. Always a follower and never a leader.

They will tell you this is so because God—the same God we read about at bedtime—made it so. They will tell you that God made you inferior, subordinate, second-class.

Oh, not that they’ll use these exact words. (Well, they might use “subordinate.”) Instead, they’ll talk about it in cloaked language like “complementarity” and “submission.” But what they really mean is, your path to God runs through a man.

No matter how much you have to share, no matter how much wisdom and natural leadership God gave you, they will politely insist you can never serve in a position of authority over men. You can never be the one who points others to God because, well, that’s a man’s job.

I wish I didn’t have to prepare you this—and I wish even more that no one would ever try to tell you these things. But I want you to hear it from me before you hear it from them. Because there’s something else you need to know:

They are wrong.

They’re the only ones, not God, insisting on a world where only men can lead.

Pay no attention to them.

Remember, you’re a daughter of Eve, who was created from Adam’s side and not his feet. Eve may have been  Adam’s “helper,” but then all great leaders are those who serve. Besides, the Bible uses the exact same word—helper—to  describe God.

Our faith would not exist if it weren’t for women—noble, brave, strong women like Ruth. Deborah. Huldah. Esther. Mary. Anna. Priscilla. It wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the women who followed Jesus to the end—who showed more faith and courage than Jesus’ male disciples. It wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the women who led house churches and became apostles.

Our faith wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the women who went to the tomb while the disciples hid, who witnessed the resurrection first—and became the first to proclaim the good news. That’s right: women were apostles to the apostles.

So if anyone tries to tell you there are certain things you can’t do because of your gender, don’t listen. The sad truth is, they’ve forgotten God is in the business of overturning manmade hierarchies and power structures. They’ve forgotten that we worship a God who gave away power—who invites us to follow his example.

I’m not going to say you can do anything you want simply because you want to do it. There’s more to it than simple desire. After all, lots of little girls dream of becoming the first female president, but there can only be one.

You see, each of us has different gifts. Each of us is made for different opportunities. Time will tell what your unique gifts and opportunities are.

But know this: your gender does not determine what you’re capable of. There is nothing in this world that’s off-limits to you because you’re a woman. “Male and female” doesn’t count when it comes to membership, service, and leadership in the kingdom of God.

Whatever may come, I will always cheer you on as you embrace your unique gifts.


Dad (otherwise known as “Dada” and, on occasion,”not Mama”)

Apostles to the apostles

A few days ago, Rachel Held Evans challenged male bloggers to respond to John Piper’s depiction of Christianity as a “masculine” religion. That’s why I wrote yesterday’s post about Huldah, a female prophet to whom the Jewish high priest, a male, turned for direction after rediscovering the Book of the Law.

There are many of examples of women in God’s story that contradict Piper’s claim, and today I want to look at one more.

It’s well known the 12 disciples were men. Piper makes much of this point, though J.R. Daniel Kirk has shown how Piper obscures a vital element of the gospel by doing so.

It’s also well known that in Jesus’ darkest hour, his female followers stayed close to him, while his male disciples scattered.

The women who followed Jesus feature prominently in the resurrection as well. Each gospel tells the story a little differently. In two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke), it’s the women who announce the resurrection to the remaining 11 disciples. (In John’s account, the women tell Peter and John about the empty tomb, but they don’t seem to realize why it’s empty.)

The women’s role is much more than a matter of being in the right place at the right time. According to Matthew and Mark, an angel gave them the task of announcing Jesus’ resurrection.

In the New Testament, an apostle was someone who had a direct, personal encounter with the Messiah and who, on the basis of that encounter, proclaimed the good news, teaching it with authority. The disciples are often referred to as “apostles.”

Now back to the women at the empty tomb. They are the first witnesses to Jesus’ triumph. They bring the good news of resurrection to the male disciples.

Given that Jesus’ resurrection lies at the very heart of the gospel (as Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15), we can put it even more bluntly: women proclaimed the gospel to the apostles so they could proclaim it to others.

God chose women to be apostles to the apostles.

Not exactly what you’d expect from a “masculine” religion.

To be fair, the four resurrection accounts differ — and not just in trivial ways. According to Mark, the women run in fright. They tell no one what they’ve seen because they’re terrified.

What accounts for the difference? Each writer shapes the story to serve his own purpose. Each has a slightly different point to make, so each freely modifies the details as needed.

This shouldn’t cause us to lose confidence in the reality of the events they’re describing. But it should give us pause to remember: the Bible has a context. It has a cultural backdrop. Each book had an original audience to which it was speaking.

No book presumes to say everything that could be said about everything. The Bible does not seek to give us the final word on every matter.

Multiple perspectives, multiple viewpoints live together within its pages — which should give us pause when we read something like, “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man.” It may be — in fact, it is very likely — this was a specific word to a specific community dealing with a specific situation. To apply it to every church in every situation is to steamroll over the rest of the Bible, including the parts where women are apostles to the apostles.

Would anyone have told Huldah to shut up?

Rachel Held Evans has called on manly bloggers everywhere to respond to John Piper’s recent declaration that Christianity is, by God’s design, a “masculine” religion.

The mission? Write a post that highlights feminine images of God found in the Scriptures or that celebrates the importance of women in the church.

When I read Rachel’s post, I immediately thought, “I have just the thing.” Then to my dismay, someone much smarter beat me to the punch in sharing what has to be one of the most striking examples of divine feminine imagery in Scripture. For more see J.R. Daniel Kirk’s post. You’ll never think of Amy Grant’s 1982 hit the same way.

As a consolation prize, I’ve chosen to tell the story of Huldah instead.

(Huldah technically doesn’t meet Rachel’s criteria, since she’s neither a feminine image for God nor an important woman from the church. But I think I’ll get by on a technicality .)

The scene: It’s about 40 years before the fall of Jerusalem. God’s people have strayed far from the covenant, led by one bad king after another. When Josiah comes to the throne, he makes a valiant but ultimately doomed effort to turn things around.

He “seeks the God of his father David.” He bulldozes pagan worship sites. He orders the temple, God’s dwelling place, restored.

At one point the high priest — a male, as John Piper would no doubt remind us — stumbles across a dusty old scroll. It’s the lost Book of the Law, Israel’s covenant with God. (It’s a sign of how bad things were that the priests had mislaid it in the first place.)

Hilkiah the priest reads the scroll to Josiah, and the king is shattered. He realizes just how badly God’s people have trampled the covenant. So he gives these orders:

Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found.

Note very carefully: the whole nation needs someone who can tell them what the Book of the Law means for them. They need someone who can give them a definitive, authoritative word from the Lord.

It’s not like they don’t have options. There are other prophets open for business. One of the all-time heavy hitters, Jeremiah, was active during Josiah’s reign.

So who do God’s king and high priest turn to for a word from the Lord?


(Given that Huldah is not high on the list of popular baby names, it might be helpful at this point to emphasize this is, in fact, a woman’s name.)

You can read the rest of Huldah’s story here and here.

Huldah’s moment in the sun is admittedly brief. But that in no way diminishes the profound, paradigm-shattering significance of her story.

Yes, all the priests in the Old Testament were men. So were just about all the kings. But in the people’s darkest hour, when the king and his priests needed a clear word from the Lord, who did they turn to?

A woman.

It’s a shame no one reminded Huldah she wasn’t allowed to teach men.

The best thing I read this week

Rachel Held Evans has a great post about the real story of Esther and Vashti. Some commentators have held up Esther as a model for what a good, “submissive” wife is supposed to look like — which is a bit like saying that Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites teaches us good management practices. Rachel writes:

I never learned in Sunday School that Esther, whose Jewish name was Hadassah, was forced, along with perhaps thousands of virgin girls from Susa, into King Xerxes harem. Or that the king had banished his first wife, Queen Vashti, for refusing to publicly flaunt her body before his drunken friends. Or that, in response, he had issued a ridiculous kingdom-wide decree that “all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” and that “every man should be ruler over his own household.”  Or that under the care of the royal Eunuchs, Esther and the women of the king’s harem each took a turn in the king’s bed to see who would please him best. Or that the women received just one night with the king, after which they were transferred to the eunuchs in charge of the concubines, with the instruction not to return to the king’s chamber unless summoned by name, under the penalty of death.

You can read more here.