Monday, July 2, 2018

Wisdom Versus Theonomy: An Example From My Experience

I have written over the last couple of years several posts on the topics of the Culture Wars™ and the interpretation of scripture. You can even go back to a post I consider one of my best: What I Mean By “Fundamentalism.” From Domestic Violence to human sexuality, I believe there is a foundational problem at the heart: American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists (increasingly indistinguishable) have a toxic and harmful approach to the bible.

Theonomy. Which in essence is treating the bible like an infallible rule book - a Torah for our times.

With the theonomic approach, the bible is weaponized - used to harm people. It is wielded primarily against modern ideas and discoveries, whether in science or in human rights. And it is wielded consistently against certain types of people: the most vulnerable. It is used to keep women and minorities “in their place.” It is used by powerful (usually white) men to exert control. It is used to keep cultural change of all kinds, but particularly the egalitarian view of human rights, at bay. (I’d love to write a whole post about this.) Not only does the theonomic approach result in this sort of weaponization, the more committed a group or denomination is to theonomy, the more retrograde and abusive it will be. (See, for example, the cultic groups my wife and I were raised in.)

In contrast, I believe that the bible is a deeply human book, rooted in the times in which its books were written, expressing multiple (and conflicting) viewpoints, messy and beautiful at the same time, and absolutely terrible as a rule book. Peter Enns (who deserves tremendous credit for essentially “saving” the bible for me) suggests an alternative: The bible is a book of wisdom.

In this post, I want to explore an example of the difference between treating the bible as a rulebook, and treating it as a book of wisdom.

Let’s talk about Titus 2 and gender roles.


One of my least favorite “proof texts” is the following (KJV, because that is the one that is preferred by most Theonomists):

But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine:
That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience.
The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things;
That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,
To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

Much, much hay has been made of “keepers at home,” and what it means. You have whole organizations centered on being “Titus 2 Women,” and a movement (in which my wife and I spent time in our teens) focused on keeping women out of the workforce and in the home as full time wives and mothers. (More about this later.)

The reason for this, in my opinion, is a misuse of scripture - an approach which is guaranteed to result in imposing the culture of the past on people in the present.


The Theonomic Approach

Here is how the Theonomist looks at the question:

In the nearly 70 years since the 1950s, there has been a significant shift in culture. Previously (in their view), women - at least white, middle class women - did not work outside the home. Rather, the husband was the sole breadwinner, and the wife devoted herself to domestic duties: childcare, housework, entertaining, and so on.

A variety of things led to a change. Feminism insisted that men and women were equal, and that women were thus entitled to political, social, and economic equality. It was thus unjust to relegate women to unpaid (and often undesirable) domestic duties, making them dependent on males for their very survival.

Economic changes returned our society to how it has been for most of human existence: both spouses need to work in order to provide sufficient income in most cases. Only the select men with above-average income plus benefits can afford to have a wife out of the workforce. (This has, of course, been the state of affairs for low income women throughout history. And particularly for non-white women in the United States.)

In any case, the Theonomist sees change, and decides to look at the bible to arbitrate between the past and the present.

The Theonomist then examines the bible looking for a rule. What is God’s will for women? Is it to work outside the home or not? VOILA! Titus 2 and a wonderful catchphrase: “Keepers at Home.” This has the wonderful advantage of requiring no historical context, and can be wielded as a weapon against modernity and cultural change. As a bonus, it reinforces their view of middle class (and white) people as more godly.  It’s perfect!

Problems with the Theonomic approach

Right at the outset, a problem appears: the rule only “works” for a very limited class of people. Namely, those with enough money to survive on one income.

The Theonomist cares not. Reality, and whether something “works” is irrelevant. We obey God rather than culture, and if the bible says it, then it is truth, reality be damned.

Therefore, those who follow the “rule” - families who live on one income while the wife stays home full time - are now “godly” or living the “biblical” lifestyle. And those who don’t are “evil” and “godless” and “giving in to culture.”

How big of a problem is this? Well, it pretty much excludes low income people from “godliness.” It also excludes, for example, African American slaves, who had no choice to even set up households, let alone one where the man earns the bread and the woman stays at home. (I believe this is a feature, not a bug, by the way. One of the reasons why “traditional” gender roles are popular is that they make wealthier whites the “godly” people, while relegating the poor, and brown-skinned people to a subhuman, “ungodly” status.)

This also defines “godliness” as something that is unavailable to most people worldwide - a non-working wife is a luxury that most people around the world do not have, and most people in history have not had. It has historically been available only to the rich and privileged. Thus, the great colonial powers get to feel more “godly” than everyone else.

In a nutshell, the Theonomic approach fails the test of universality. It can only be considered normative if you equate wealth and privilege with “godliness.” 

 This is a significant part of what the Culture Wars(TM) are about...

The Wisdom Approach

Here is how I believe the Book of Wisdom approach would look at Titus 2. First, you have to read the entire book. (It’s short - it will take you only a few minutes.) The author (whether you believe it was St. Paul or not) is addressing a specific problem, in a specific place, at a specific time in history. If you don’t take that into account, you miss the point.

Clearly, the Cretans were behaving badly. Getting into pointless arguments, forcing purity rules on others, getting drunk, and making a bad name for themselves among the non-Christians of their society. Hmm, that actually sounds pretty relevant today. But not the way Theonomists think.

The author therefore has some instructions about how to fix the problem. Focus on good doctrine, stop arguing about rules, but focus on living upright and kind lives. Do good things, stop quarreling and - I think this is the most important part: behave in a way that gives Christians a good, rather than bad, reputation.

All those admonitions as to how to behave are connected to that central idea. Don’t get a reputation for having out-of-control, drunken, disruptive members. Don’t get a reputation for quarreling with the authorities and your neighbors. (Wow, modern Evangelicals don’t believe that one anymore. At all.) Young women should not stand out for the wrong reasons, but should be doing good works within the cultural framework they are in.

Now, just a word here: “keepers at home” is a terrible translation, and like most terrible translations, politically motivated. Better ones I have seen are more along the lines of “managing their own households” - something implying not a withdrawal from earning income, but one of minding their own business and finding productive work.

I am reminded of II Thessalonians 3:11-12, where busybodies are urged to mind their own business...and get a job. I think the two passages relate to each other - there is the common theme of staying out of other people’s business, not being disruptive, and finding whatever good work is available in your situation and doing it.

So, Theonomic Approach: Q. “Should women work outside the home?” A. [usually] “No.”

Wisdom Approach: Q. “What wisdom about how we should live in our culture can we find in this passage?” A. “Don’t cause trouble, quarrel, force rules on others, fight with your neighbors, and bring disrepute to Christ. Instead, find good things to do and do them.”

Huge difference.


How this might apply to our own times

I have thought about this quite a bit, because of how my wife and I have experienced this. You can read a bit about Amanda’s miserable experience in Jonathan Lindvall’s cultic home group if you like. Unfortunately, that was not the end of her difficulties regarding her career. Certain extended family has never been okay with her decision to work outside the home, and she has taken a lot of disdain and shaming for doing so. Never mind that the two of us determined that splitting the breadwinning and household/childcare duties was better for us and our family - God clearly said that women were to be “keepers at home,” and anything less than that was sinning. The bible was weaponized against us.

I believe this was totally a unnecessary conclusion to draw from scripture - but it is the most likely result from the Theonomic approach. Alas, this wasn’t just an academic theological argument. It involved our real lives, and the unnecessary tension caused by it irreparably damaged relationships.

So I want to look at this in light of our own culture and times. Rather than looking to Titus 2 for a weapon to use against Feminism and women who work outside the home, what if we instead looked at the bigger, wisdom-based picture?

Let me say at the outset that I am NOT saying that there is anything wrong with stay-at-home moms. We all make choices for our families based on our individual circumstances, and I have no interest in getting all judgy about your particular choices. I assume that you made them for good reasons personal to you. (My one pushback here is that I wish stay-at-home moms were more honest about the fact that this option is only available to them because of their privilege.)


I think one of the more poisonous things about Evangelical/Fundamentalist subculture is an idol-worship of stay-at-home moms - and by implication, idol-worship of men with wealth. A woman’s “godliness” - indeed her worth - is dependent upon her husband’s income. It ties one’s spiritual status to one’s ability (and willingness in some cases) to comply with 1950s white middle-class cultural preferences. This is, I believe, wrong. And also, I believe it violates the spirit of Titus 2.

After years of having stay-at-home moms look down their noses at Amanda for having a career, say snarky and passive-aggressive things to her whenever her job comes up, and living with damaged family relationships because of this issue - I have the following to say:

Many (not all) stay-at-home moms would be better following the wisdom of Titus 2 if they were to stop meddling in other people’s families, get off their butts, and go get a job. Then they wouldn’t have time to bother people who do things differently.

I firmly believe that, if the author of Titus were to walk into our modern Evangelical subculture, that would be the advice. Stop quarrelling with those outside your subculture, stop this Culture War™ nonsense, stop fighting about purity rules and gender roles and otherwise disgracing our faith. Instead, go get a job. Find something useful and good to do that will take all that extra time off your hands. Something that will cause those outside your tribe to see your good works and praise God.

That is how the Wisdom Approach might look at Titus.


This is just one example, from a limited area. However, I can think of a number of other areas in which the Theonomic Approach is leading to terrible and cruel results. I already mentioned the question of divorce. Rather than trying to compile comprehensive rules about when one can and cannot divorce, the wisdom approach would take into account our modern realization that women aren’t congenitally inferior, and are not the chattel of men. Then we can discuss how to protect the abused, not send them back for more abuse.

Instead of trying to squeeze a literalist interpretation of Genesis into our public schools, perhaps we might embrace the insights of science as part of God’s wisdom - and take seriously the spiritual truths from the creation story instead. Rather than spending endless time and effort trying to decide exactly what we can and cannot do with our genitals, we might acknowledge the role of misogyny in sexual taboos, and look for wisdom for how to use our bodies in loving, not violent or hurtful ways. Instead of arguing about exactly what women should be “permitted” by men to do in the church, family, and society, we might each of us focus on how we can use our gifts for the benefit of all - and encourage others to do so. Instead of picking fights with our neighbors about why we can’t serve them, or which holidays matter most, maybe we could spend our time in loving our neighbors and bringing honor to our faith through our good deeds.


Oh, and one more since I wrote most of this: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions weaponizing Romans 13 to justify separating children from their families, criminalizing those who seek asylum in our country, and forcing them to choose between losing their children, and withdrawing their request for refuge.

Hey, notice that it isn’t the wealthy whites this is directed against? Of course not. The Theonomists always weaponize scripture against the vulnerable. That’s the whole point. To quote The Bard:

But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

(Richard III - as he commissions a pair of murders to slaughter children…)

1 comment:

  1. I saw that "Vitamins" ad in here and immediately wondered if her vitamins were actually Ritalin.

    Thanks for writing this...I am a stay-at-home parent right now in major part because my husband has a job that allows us to manage on one income and allows me to be at home with our daughter and to work on getting established as freelance editor. But we're both white, and he's lucky to have a good job. Part of our choice for me to stay home for now included the fact that childcare adds up very quickly, so I'd be dependent on finding a job that covered childcare plus more in order to make it work, but we still had more of a choice in the matter than a lot of families do.