It seems the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod dropped a new doctrinal statement on male and female roles recently. While I’m LCMS rather than WELS, I was naturally curious about what a Lutheran denomination with a conservative reputation had to say about America’s most hated Bible verses–a doctrine that is now under unrelenting demonic assault. So how does it fare in this fierce battle against evil?
Unfortunately, if I were to describe it in one word, that word would be “sniveling.” It attempts to affirm Biblical teachings about the sexes but is so pusillanimous about it that it may as well have said nothing at all. The sound points are so buried in meaningless hedging that they are effectively lost. Let’s take a look at a few of the problems.
The most obvious and consistent flaw in the document is just how vague it is. Its stated reason for existing is because of “new questions and issues” and contemporary applications/misapplications of unchanging principles to changing times. But ironically, actual examples of application and answers to questions are precisely what it assiduously avoids, opting instead for mealy-mouthed abstractions that muddy the waters instead of clarifying them.
For example, it distinguishes over and over again between broad principles and culturally-bound applications, and warns us not to conflate the two. “Christians may arrive at different—but equally faithful—applications of the same principle,” it says. Now, that is a reasonable distinction as far as it goes. However, someone looking for guidance on which cultural roles are or are not in line with these principles won’t find any. Neither will they will find any help discerning whether a particular arrangement is faithful. That’s very peculiar in a document whose stated purpose is helping to apply broad principles to our specific circumstances.
Or consider all the talk about “equal status” as children of God and “equal importance” or “equal value” before Him. As it typical, nowhere does it explain the measurement according to which these things are deemed equal, leaving them entirely nebulous. Thankfully, it does affirm that these assertions don’t undo the different roles and significances that God has established for men and women. But if we take that seriously, it’s questionable just how meaningful the assertions of equality are except to affirm a few obvious points that no one ever denied–like that Christian men and women are both redeemed by Christ. Rather than providing any real instruction, it all comes off as the authors making quick supplications to the idol of equality so as not to offend her disciples who are sown among us like tares.
It’s no better when the document gets past its initial meanderings to its list of affirmations. For example, it says:
We affirm the blessing of scriptural narratives that show males and females using their gifts at various times and in various ways. We reject the attempt to set such narrative passages in opposition to passages that establish God’s unchanging will for male and female.
Great. I, of course, read this as not trying to use Phoebe against Paul, and I suspect it was intended as such. But someone else could just as easily read it as not trying to use Paul “against” Phoebe because this document is otherwise so vague.
Or consider this doozy:
We affirm headship as a good gift of God and make applications in situations where authority, as Scripture defines it, is clearly at work. We reject as an over-application of headship the teaching that authority is always present even when there is no clear evidence of it being exercised.
So… to what situations is this affirmation meant to apply? Where exactly is authority as Scripture defines it clearly at work? Where is there no clear evidence of it being exercised? How does one discern between the two? The wife who is being beaten bloody by her husband every day and the wife who thinks leaving dishes on the counter is grounds for divorce could both read this and come away affirmed that she need not submit to her husband because “authority as Scripture defines it” isn’t being exercised–or either one could conclude the opposite just as easily. Their respective husbands could likewise read it and consider themselves either affirmed or condemned. What good is a statement so broad in a document meant to clarify?
You might think that this absence of specifics would result in a very lean document, but you would be wrong. That leads us to the second problem: repetitiveness. “Beautiful and balanced” is the theme of the document, and they repeat that lame phrase more than two dozen times. The effect is essentially the same as that of every bluecheck calling Bruce Jenner “a brave and beautiful woman” over and over. It falls squarely into “methinks the lady doth protest too much” territory.
But despite the repetition, they never truly explain how either beauty or balance apply. It’s not so bad with beauty. They prefer to tell rather than show, which is poor writing, but otherwise understandable. But balance is a different story. Balance gives the impression of a set of scales in which each side holds the other in place when they are given equal weight. To be sure, men and women are balanced in some aspects of design such as temperament. For example: masculinity embraces risk while femininity embraces security; men tend to be more direct while women are more passive; men tend to appreciate the abstract more and women the concrete. This is why marriage civilizes both men and women alike. And it’s also why the alphabet people tend to become so unhinged.
But the WELS document makes no journey into that territory. Instead, it devotes itself to the roles God has established for men and women. It is precisely these roles, however, which God has not arranged in balance but in hierarchy. Women are not to have authority over men in either the Church or the home. (And since every other societal institution is there to support either the Church or the home, female authority elsewhere is highly dubious.) It is not the wife’s job to “balance” her husband’s authority to keep it in check, but to fulfill it as his helper and his responsibility. What’s more, it is only within that God-ordained hierarchy that men and women truly balance each other. Households where women rule are where husband, wife, and children all become absurdly unbalanced.
Nevertheless, the document’s greatest failing is this: Despite aiming to address the challenges of our day, it mostly ignores the primary one: feminist rebellion against God’s ordinance.
Yes, to its credit it does assign to sin the fact that “Those called to serve as helper resent submission to authority or seek to assert authority God has not given.” The authors also “reject the teaching that the interdependent and complementary partnership of male and female was established only after the fall.” There are a number of places where the statement either simply repeats Scripture or provides basic positive commentary. This is all good (at least it would be if it didn’t recast headship and submission as a less offensive and less precise “interdependent and complementary partnership.”)
But in keeping with it’s theme, it desperately strives to be “balanced.” That could be a virtue in a document meant to simply lay out unchanging Biblical principles. But if you frame your document as an update to address confusions in a specific time and place, then it’s a vice. If Paul had written Galatians to be “balanced” on the issues it addresses, it would have been an utter failure because it was addressing a radically unbalanced group of Christians.
Imagine a man watching his home go up in flames, but whenever he mentions water, he compulsively adds a reminder that drowning can be just as dangerous as burning to death, so don’t go crazy with those firehoses. That’s how the WELS statement reads. The rhetorical consequence is that it effectively treats American women’s outright rebellion against God’s ordinance as sins of generic weakness that apply equally to both sexes.
And even with the over-balanced and milquetoast approach it took, the authors still felt the need to undercut themselves:
31. In our callings (vocations) in the world, Christians will seek the best way to show love for God and neighbor when multiple good principles of God appear to be in conflict (Esther 4-5). That apparent conflict does not flow from any defect in God’s creation. It flows from human sinfulness distorting everything in God’s world.
32. When Christians wrestle with situations in which multiple good principles appear to conflict, we know the principle of the interdependent and complementary partnership is a good gift of God (James 1:17). However, this principle is not the only biblical principle to consider, and its application in every situation does not supersede all other biblical principles directing love for God and neighbor.
33. God is delighted when faithful Christians seek to be fully engaged in the world, as we remember that Christ has declared us to be salt and light in an unbelieving world (Matthew 5:13,14). As believers seek to be that salt and light, we desire to reflect everything that is a part of God’s beautiful and balanced design for his world, including the interdependent and complementary partnership of male and female.
34. Living out our vocations in an unbelieving world, we often find ourselves in challenging situations that call for difficult decisions as we seek to honor the interdependent and complementary partnership of male and female. As salt and light, Christians may arrive at different—but equally faithful—applications of the same principle.
35. Because of responsibilities in many God-given callings in life, Christian females may find themselves carrying out vocations that place them in positions of authority over males, and Christian males may find themselves carrying out vocations that place them under the authority of females.
36. As Christians grapple with such issues in our vocations and communities, we remember that our confidence remains in the abounding grace of our perfect Savior, not in our ability to arrive at the perfect decision in every situation. We thank God for the privilege amid such challenging decisions to seek counsel from other mature Christians to avoid being deceived by our own hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).
That section is as unnecessarily wordy as the rest of the document, for it could be summed up in a single sentence: Following God’s design for men and women is really hard, so if you think you have something more important to do, don’t sweat it. But which rebellious feminist wife or would-be pastrix doesn’t think they have more important things to do than appreciate “the beauty and balance of God’s design for men and women?” It’s as though the authors were afraid they might have inadvertently guided someone, so they nipped that in the bud before it could get out-of-hand.
And that fear is really at the heart of all of these flaws. It’s vague lest anyone be offended by specifics. It’s repetitive in an attempt to bury God’s offensive Word in trite aphorisms. It refuses to speak bluntly against the world lest the world be upset. This is what happens when we don’t believe Jesus’ promise that the world would hate us on his account. We try to flatter sinners and sand off Jesus’ rough edges so that He would bring peace rather than a sword. But we cannot truly halt the conflict between Christ and the prince of this world; any attempt to do so is just our roundabout way of joining the other side.
Lutherans need to do better than this. This issue is no minor battleground, and victory will never be attained without valor. But all WELS has done here is to squander another opportunity for faithful men to be bold. How many more opportunities do you think God will offer before he finally cuts us off from the land as we deserve? Or worse yet, removes our lampstands?