Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Weekend with James Jordan: NSA Disputatio

Last weekend my beloved wife nearly made the ultimate sacrifice for me: she allowed me to skip town and travel to Moscow, ID in order to attend a short conference (held by Trinity Church pastored by Peter Leithart) featuring James Jordan, whose topic was officially “Christian Warfare: Wine, Women, and Song.” In the end, my wife and kids will benefit from their own sacrifice because the quick trip was refreshing and inspiring for me. Rather than giving a complete synopsis of the sessions I attended, I just want to give a quick overview along with the thoughts, responses, and questions that haphazardly come to mind as I reflect. These sessions, while completely Biblical and in keeping with the work of the Holy Spirit throughout church history, are provocative and quite out of step with many of the practices performed and promoted by today’s church, both among broadly evangelical conservatives as well as among Reformed communions of all stripes. Yet, we ignore these teachings to our detriment.

NSA Disputatio, February 10, 2011

I arrived in town with the purpose of attending the disputatio at New Saint Andrews College, something they do every Friday to close the week (and not officially a part of the conference). As introduction Mr. Jordan humorously reminded the students that the purpose of his time there was to present something disputable and controversial. Of course, he has no shortage of topics that would fall into that category. This particular talk opened by asking the question (I paraphrase), “Have we all become Mormons now?” He then went on to demonstrate that roughly beginning with the rise of Mormonism, a distinctly American heresy, the church underwent types of changes that were strangely resonant with Mormonism. He described at length the seating arrangements in a church service. Rather than being organized by families, churches assembling for worship used to sit according to sexes, not because of any denigration of either but rather as a way to distinguish roles in the body: men frequently sat at the floor level because they, with lower voices, provided an undecorated foundation. Women and children, on the other hand, having higher voices like angels, sat in a balcony (or matroneum) in order to decorate and glorify the words. Alternatively, in some churches they sat on opposite sides in order to provide for antiphonal or dialogical worship.

In fact, sitting according for family was unheard of throughout all of church history before the mid-nineteenth century. To do so has resulted in (caused, perhaps, by Mormonism) and perpetuates the faulty maintenance of familial ties before God. Mormonism’s emphasis on a family in which the husband and father is the “head” has entered into the church and has subverted a very fundamental truth about the nature of God’s gathered people. When a person is baptized, he is no longer identified primarily by his role in his earthly family. Rather, the family of God supersedes that earthly family, especially during the time of gathered worship. Thus, in order to picture the liturgical roles of all of God’s children (brothers and sisters) during worship, the entire church sits as equals who carry on differing liturgical roles based on differing gifts. When the seating arrangements were changed according to earthly families 150 years ago, certain notions about the role of the family crept in and are now passionately maintained by even those committed to Biblical truth.

For instance, there is an overemphasis on the role of the father as the head of the household. Jordan contends that, being one flesh, both the father and the mother are head. In the worship of some churches, fathers are even given the elements of the Lord’s supper to distribute to their families. But, conversely, fathers must never step in between any child of God and Jesus, who feeds them bread and wine. Jordan did not suggest any specific strategy for reversing this patriarchal mindset. He didn’t explicitly declare that churches should separate the men from the women. Yet, he strongly contended that a mindset that causes familial relations to rival the relations between Jesus and each of His people individually is detrimental and must be combated. I strongly agree with Jordan on this point as well as on the harmful manifestations and effects of it in the life of the church today, besides those that I already mentioned. Thus, what follows is a mixture of my own wording and expansion of further observations on this issue made by Jim Jordan.

One such manifestation is the diminished view of the role of women in the church and in the family. The idea that a woman exists at the behest and for the pleasure of her husband is prevalent in the church. Though officially disavowed, conservative Bible believers tend to practice a sort of inferiority of women to men, rather than simply a difference in roles based on the equality and difference within the Trinity (which Mormons deny). One does not have to buy into the modern wholesale disavowal of differing roles between husband and wife to elevate the role of the woman to its proper place. Eve was created not primarily to help Adam fulfill his kingly role of dominion. Rather, she was necessary as a liturgical partner, to beautify, enhance, and respond to the truth. Hebrew poetry and antiphonal Psalms, for instance, would be impossible without the creation of the woman.

Jordan also made the observation that homeschooling feeds the idea of the centrality of family life. As a committed homeschooler, I completely concur with this assessment. It is an unwise and unhealthy basis for homeschooling to claim that the family should be the central source of a child’s education. Again, whose child is he or she? This observation goes hand in hand with Jordan’s further contention that the prevailing understanding of sphere sovereignty is misguided and harmful. This construction provides justification for the church’s remaining largely out of the business of education. I’ve made a similar observation elsewhere.

In response, I have one observation and one question. First, I want to continue the conversation about the church’s role in education. I have made brief and undeveloped observations before about this topic, but I think it is time for the church to step up. The church is the first family of all of God’s children, and she must nurture those children. Elders, as representatives of Jesus, must seriously consider their role in constructing plans for educating God’s children. Certainly, this is not to say that fathers and mothers have no part in education. It is, rather, to contend that perpetuating the church’s policy of minimal involvement in education amounts to abdication of God-given responsibility. Churches must do more than simply persuading and motivating fathers to accomplish something that more appropriately belongs within the primary jurisdiction of the church.

Finally, I have one question to consider and attempt to answer. Perhaps the fact that I was raised as a credobaptist makes me curious about this. It seems to me that the basis upon which many churches place baptizing infants is the central role of a believing parent over the covenantal status of the child. Arguments for paedobaptism tend to go hand in hand with arguments for Christian education and family worship. In response, I don’t think that Jordan would deny the importance of these activities, but I do think he would reorient the argument. Parents bring their children to be baptized because, being part of their earthly family, those children are sanctified. Jesus has set apart children of even one believing parent for Himself. Thus, the parents bring those children to be identified with Christ and His body through the waters of baptism. And by that act of baptism, Jesus places His identity upon the child and incorporates them into His body. At that point, the child has a new source of identity. Whereas before, his primary identity was found in his earthly father (and thereby ultimately in Adam), now his identity is defined by Jesus. Now he answers first to Jesus and second to his earthly mom and dad. Now God is his father and the church is his mother primarily. Now, his earthly father and mother are most basically his brother and sister. Thus, if a church wants to administer vows before a baptism (which are really unnecessary because the obligation always remains), they should be taken by all the church body who, in the context of the church, have a equal responsibility to train up the children (that is, their younger brothers and sisters).

The disputatio ended with a brief time for questions. The students asked some excellent questions and provided Jordan the needed opportunity to nuance some of his statements in helpful ways. By the time disputatio was over, I knew I was in for a treat for the weekend. So much to think about already!

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