Belligerent, Bullying Believers: Spite, not the Spirit

Recently, the polymathic Susan Wise Bauer wrote generously about my book, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender (Baker Academic, 2005) in the fine magazine, Books & Culture. (Full disclosure: I happen to be a contributing editor to said journal.)

She begins, however, by testifying to the oh-so-concerned correspondence she has received by those who stand with her regarding such issues as Christian home schooling, but who are also aghast at her endorsement of Biblical feminism. These folks don’t just disagree with Ms. Wise Bauer and her opinion: They see her and it as dangerous and warn others, as well as her, against the spiritual peril she poses.

Islamic activist Irshad Manji’s website records a fraction of the many simply disgusting things that other people have written to her in opposition to her campaign for the liberalizing of Islam. There is plenty to argue about in her sweeping agenda (I myself don’t agree with it all, as Irshad herself knows), but many of her opponents don’t argue. Instead, they stoop to vile name-calling and worse: threatening her with divine retribution–in the prospect of which her opponents too obviously seem to revel.

And then an e-mail from one of my publishers came today today, telling me how a representative of her company went to his first convention of evangelical Christian booksellers and returned shaken and dismayed at how often he was asked whether he was “saved,” how often he was warned about his doom, and how he finally was denounced as–horrors!–a “Roman Catholic.”

I have suffered my own share of abuse (let’s call it what it is: not “prophecy” or “exhortation,” but abuse) from those whose self-righteousness and self-importance far outstripped their insight, let alone their charity. My book on feminism, which Ms. Wise Bauer reviewed, particularly has riled up certain patriarchalists who have gone far beyond questioning my theological method, and even my basic intelligence (!), to concluding that I am a vicious dissembler and in fact not a Christian. As Ms. Wise Bauer shows, this all makes a certain sense. If you think you inhabit a religious North Pole at the top of the world, then every step someone takes away from that position is South–down, down, down to perdition.

And it’s not just people to the right. I remember being deeply bemused, when I used to write a column for a major Canadian daily newspaper (the Winnipeg Free Press), at nasty mail I got–not only from reactionaries (I got that, too)–but from New Agers and religious liberals who were furious with my old-fashioned orthodoxy.

One particular gem was a greeting card, with a rainbow and flowers on the cover, that included a long note that began ominously with, “You seem to need a little sunshine and colour in your life,” and slowly morphed into a rant that concluded: “God damn you for your intolerance: You remind me of my father!”

The point here is not that everyone should pretend to be happy with each other. The point is not that we should avoid honest disagreement, even criticism. The point is the Golden Rule, and the apostolic injunction to “speak the truth in love“–sincerely seeking the good of the other person, not just seeking to get something off one’s chest.

Yes, sometimes we might have speak to certain people in order to address, not them, but others listening in. But to do so means to write off the ostensible subject of our remarks, and that is a very grave thing to do.

Most of the time, then, whether I am speaking the truth in love is the test. Am I addressing the other person to advance my cause, my interest, my agenda, or to help him or her?

It’s a simple test, yet one that would shut up a lot of us a lot of the time–including me, alas.

0 Responses to “Belligerent, Bullying Believers: Spite, not the Spirit”

  1. Sivin

    Thanks for this post. Observing from Malaysia here, I’m seeing quite a fair share of “bullying” (in my view) coming out of the USA evangelical books being published whether it’s relating to Biblical feminism or to the current “emerging church” discussions (I’m sure there is more). I confess, after a while it’s gets tiring on the intellect. But I get a little frustrated when we have to deal with the debris of such “bullying” when their material arrive in our bookstores or are distributed through their ministries or supporters. “Where can we go from here?” is a question I’m always asking.

  2. mtraphagen

    Dear Dr. Stackhouse:

    It gets worse (sigh).

    I had the opportunity to meet Susan Wise Bauer when she was a visiting speaker at Westminster Theological Seminary (where I am an M.Div. student). Because a couple of classmates of mine are from her church, I was able to join them for a most enjoyable lunch conversation with her. Ever since, I have been following her writing and thinking.

    Because of her B&C review, my wife and I picked up Finally Feminist and enjoyed it very much. While we weren’t comfortable with every idea in the book, on the whole we found your proposal to be the most sane and charitable one we’ve come across in the evangelical gender wars.

    So it was with some dismay (but out of experience, little surprise) that I read a post by Rev. Rick Phillips on the Reformation21 blog written as a response to Ms. Bauer’s article. Rev. Phillips only exhibited and compounded all the fallacies and specious accusations that Ms. Bauer had observed in the criticisms to date. I wrote a rejoinder to Rev. Phillips (published here) which has drawn a large number of readers and generated a lengthy comment thread.

    Ms. Bauer expressed her appreciation to me privately, and said that I had said much of what she would wanted to have said. She deliberated whether she should issue a response of her own. Finally, yesterday, she published her own response on the blog of one of my classmates (read it here).

    That was not to be the end, however. Today Rev. Phillips managed to turn an apology for hurting Ms. Bauer’s feelings into yet another insulting and condescending snap at her.

    I don’t know, Dr. Stackhouse, if you consider yourself within the Reformed wing of Christianity, but if you aren’t, and you read the posts I’ve linked here, I say “welcome to my world.”

  3. m

    Thank you for this reminder about what speaking the truth in love looks like. Also, your observation about addressing (or trying to impress) an audience listening in by triangulating the addressee at his/her expense is keen one.

    I also have been prone to, guilty of, and hurt by the insistence on being right. When I do, I steamroll over the people I am trying to communicate with, forsaking the relationship with the addressee for my own gratification–the effect of which is palpably unloving. There’s a certain kind of violence, violating another’s personhood.

  4. Brian Prentiss

    Dr. Stackhouse,
    Thanks for addressing this in the way that you did. The charity/love quotient is very low on the “Right” side of this whole sordid affair. Though the attacks from Rick Phillips and others should be addressed point by point, what you are calling for is so much more central. Until the ethos of debate in evangelicalism shifts from imputing motives to granting mercy and charity, we will forever be consigned to infighting and irrelevance.

  5. Kelvin

    Dr. Stackhouse, I have been waiting eagerly for you to start a blog, and am very happy that you have done so. Further, I am so exited that God has used this post to answer a quesion that I have been asking him for the last two days: what does it mean to respond in love in a Christian community?

    Thanks! Blog on!

  6. Bryan Riley

    We sure struggle to find Jesus. We can find “truth”; we can find “grace”; but oh so rarely do we seem to be able to marry the true as well as He did. We want grace for ourselves and truth for others. We want to be god all too often.

  7. Mary

    I am reading the book, Finally Feminist, for a class on Ministry by Women and I am really enjoying it.

  8. Robyn

    As an unabashed “egalitarian,” I’ve done my fair share of reading on the topic of gender in Christianity. How has your book escaped my notice? I’m off to Amazon to purchase it now.

    To date, my favorite work has been Dr. Sarah Sumner’s “Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership.” In addition, an occasional paper from the Evangelical Covenant Church explicates many of the relevant points.

  9. jaigner

    Thank you so much for your book, Dr. Stackhouse. Your work has helped me greatly on my path from the complimentarian facade with which I was raised to a resting place at the egalitarian position.

    Conservative Christianity easily forgets its manners, though personally I don’t understand your work to be liberal in any sense. The faithfulness to Scripture is pervasive and is what helped me the most.


  10. John Stackhouse

    Many thanks for these encouraging words, friends. I am gratified that so many have found this small book to be helpful to them on this crucial set of issues.


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