Category Archives: Articles

The Lost Parables of F. W. Boreham

As I have been editing the F. W. Boreham Signature Edition series, I have learned almost everything anyone could want to know about which books, articles, and magazines Boreham used in the formation of his esssays. I have meticulously searched up his original sources, whenever available, using the best digital archives online: Google Books, the Internet Archive, Early English Books Online, and other more specialised sites, like Project Canterbury.

This has been no small undertaking. Take for instance, Boreham’s essay on John Woolman in A Faggot of Torches, the latest Boreham volume slated for re-release. Boreham quotes repeatedly from John Woolman’s journal: from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1871 introduction; from Alexander Smellie’s 1898 introduction; and from Amelia Mott Gummere’s notes included with a 1922 edition of John Woolman’s journal. Several of the quotations are paraphrased or updated to make them more readable; nonetheless, it appears that he quoted from two or three different editions of the same book.

The side-effect of all this sleuth-work has been a trail of un-footnoted material—the narratives where Boreham is not quoting or paraphrasing from anyone. Frequently, Boreham based entire essays on classic or contemporary novels. But sometimes he tells stories that simply have no references. He artfully presents these stories such that we accept them as history. But I know Boreham and his library well enough, that I believe these are his hidden contributions to the world of fiction. They are the lost parables of F. W. Boreham.

Boreham’s Historical Fiction

The Love of Brother Pacificus (The Ivory Spires, I, IV)

“The Love of Brother Pacificus” is a tragic tale of unrequited love between Brother Pacificus, a monk, and Mary Selwyn. We can surmise that the story takes place around a medieval double monastery, but beyond this the narrative is not historically grounded. Pacificus leaves the Monastery of St. Bede’s, ashamed of his love for Mary; at the same time, Mary, impressed by Pacificus’ piety, joins the Convent of St. Cecilia.

Neither the Monastery of St. Bede’s nor the Convent of St. Celicia refers to a real location. Probably Boreham’s intention is that the monastery was founded by Bede, and so this dates the story to the eighth century or the centuries that follow.

Again, “Selwyn” is the name of one of Boreham’s heroes, George Augustus Selwyn, whose biography Boreham wrote; and it is likely that he included this as Mary’s last name as a way of alluding to one of his heroes.

Enoch Stapleton (A Faggot of Torches, XII)

“Enoch Stapleton’s Text” tells the story of Enoch and Hannah Stapleton, who left Sussex to settle in Virginia in the eighteenth century. It is a chapter in A Faggot of Torches, which is slated to be reprinted this year. This book is in the Texts That Made History series, in which each essay recounts the impact of a single Scripture passage in someone’s life. Most of these are historical figures; only a few are characters from novels, such as Uncle Tom, Sim Paris, Hepsy Gipsy, and Robinson Crusoe—and in each of those, Boreham expressly tells us what novel he is drawing from. Enoch and Hannah Stapleton, then, are presented as historical figures.

In the story, the Stapletons travel on the Queen o’ the West and settle in a place called Newhampstead, on the Ohio River. A search will show that there were people by these names in colonial Virginia, but no record gives the level of detail that Boreham does. It appears that Boreham simply wrote this story himself.

Boreham couches the story of the Stapletons in true narratives found in colonial letters and in Bancroft’s History of the United States—but the main thrust of the story, as far as I know, is an original historical fiction.

Issachar and Ruth (In “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Text,” A Faggot of Torches, XXII)

Woven into the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe—another installment from the Texts That Made History—is the story of Issachar and Ruth, first-century believers, a father and daughter. Boreham ties in a quotation from F. B. Meyer. But I have found no other record of these names used of first-century Christians in Rome.

Like the stories of the Stapletons (eighteenth-century Virginia) and Pacificus (medieval England), the story of Issachar and Ruth is framed around a specific time and place (first-century Rome), but is a creation of the author’s fertile imagination.

Boreham’s Modern Fiction

Blackadder Lane (The Blue Flame, II, IV)

For years, my favorite Boreham book has been The Blue Flame (1930). It has many stellar essays that draw heavily from literature:

  • “A Lovers’ Quarrel,” from Florence Barclay’s novel Mistress of Shenstone, 1910;
  • “The Raven,” from the famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe, 1845;
  • “The Treasure in Coward’s Castle,” drawing on A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers, 1902;
  • “Leap Year,” drawing on Charles Lamb’s essay “Rejoicings upon the New Year’s Coming of Age” in The Last Essays of Elia, 1833.

Another essay, “Add! Add! Add!”, has an illustration about Handley Page’s plane being threatened by electrical failure. But in the true story, found in the Aerial Age Weekly for January 6, 1919, there is no mention of electrical failure. I am not sure if Boreham dramatised the story, or misread it, or it is just as likely that Boreham plucked the story from one of the many preaching magazines that he read. In any case, in the church, it has never been considered immoral to tell such parables with the intent of illustrating a spiritual truth.

But the story of “Blackadder Lane” is on another level—a full essay, grounded in late Victorian Lancashire, with first and last names, dialogue, and picturesque details. Boreham begins with an elaborate dramatic frame for how he heard the story of Blackadder Lane from a stranger on a railway journey in the late 1890s.

Blackadder Lane, she explained, was the darkest, dirtiest, and vilest quarter of the town. Decent people could only imagine what it was like, for decent people never went there.

F. W. Boreham, The Blue Flame

Blackadder Lane, of course, was transformed by a little girl named Dora Manning, who was a student at a boarding school at Preston (a city in Lancashire) and who was stirred by a revival at the Primitive Methodist Church. Knowing that “Blackadder Lane is a short cut from High Street to George Street,” she began to walk it nonchalantly with her friend, eventually resulting in a reversal of attitudes toward the decrepit neighbourhood.

The only problem is, there is no “Blackadder Lane” in Preston. English place names are remarkably well documented, and many of these records are digital; but a search for “Blackadder Lane” returns zero hits. It’s possible that Boreham dramatised a narrative he knew well; but I believe that it is simply a parable of his own creation. “High Street” and “George Street” are probably the most common street names in all of England—analogous to “Main Street” and “Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive” in the United States—and so including them also gives us nothing.

Let’s go to some fictional stories that relate to Boreham’s life and ministry down under.

Old Eternity (The Home of the Echoes, I, III)

One of my favorite essays in The Home of the Echoes (1921) is “Old Eternity.” The essay begins:

Old Eternity was a mystery—a fascinating but inscrutable mystery. What was his real name? Where did he come from? How did he live?

F. W. Boreham, The Home of the Echoes

Boreham recounts quite specifically meeting a hermit while on a hunting trip in Piripiki Gorge.

I extended my hand to take farewell of him.
‘But you haven’t told me your name!’ I said.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I have no name; at least, I have no need of a name up here!’
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘if you don’t tell me a name, I shall have to give you one. I must have a name of some kind in my mind to associate with you!’
‘And what would you call me?’ he inquired.
‘I think,’ I said, remembering the observation which formed the climax of his philosophy, ‘I think I should call you Old Eternity!’
‘Capital!’ he replied, his eyes sparkling. ‘Call me Old Eternity! For eternity won’t seem long, you know; eternity won’t seem long!’

F. W. Boreham, The Home of the Echoes

The essay concludes with a hint as to the identity of the old hermit. Boreham says that John Broadbanks told him that Old Eternity had died. He states that some years later he found the following advertisement in a paper:

ANY PERSON possessing information as to the whereabout of Professor COURTNEY PENNINGTON, who lost his wife and children, and was himself badly injured in the great railway disaster at Taddington Junction, on March 3, 1871 …

There is a clue, here, though. March 3, 1871 is Boreham’s exact birthday; and Boreham himself was injured in a railway accident at the age of 15. He walked with difficulty for the rest of his life, but never wrote of the incident in his essays. Could it be that Old Eternity is a fantastic bundle of personal allusions? Could Boreham have done this in his other essays?

Crusty (The Crystal Pointers, I, IV)

Similar to Old Eternity, Crusty is a hermit of the extremely remote outback. Boreham goes far out of his way to describe how far he was from civilization when he met Crusty.

Crusty’s distinguishing characteristic is that he has refused all dealings with women due to an unrequited love, Mary Chambers. Mary had left Crusty high and dry and married another man, many years since. Crusty had only learned of her wedding a month later and a few towns over, when he read ut in a newspaper.

Like in “Old Eternity,” the story hinges on archival research! Boreham writes that the remains of Crusty’s love, Mary, had been discovered in a quarry; she had apparently died in a tragic accident, and all Crusty’s bitterness had been for nought. The “Mary Chambers” who married around that time had been an unrelated person. As Crusty learns the news, his heart slowly warms.

The story teaches us to avoid holding grudges, to think the best of people whenever possible, and that even the hardest heart can be healed. “Crusty” was such a beloved story, that it was even printed as a little board book.

A pattern is emerging here: lonely hermits, remote reaches down under, the tragedy of unrequited love, and unlikely reunions, reversals, and restorations. I can neither verify or deny the story of Crusty, but it smacks more of legend and parable than of a true story.


I have said nothing here about the many essays in which Boreham absolutely lets loose—talking paper, visits to distant planets, time travel, and paintings come to life. Those that come to mind are “The Congress of the Universe” (The Nest of Spears, II, VII) and “The Uttermost Star” (The Uttermost Star, I, I).

I have also had no time here to speak of the level-headed John Broadbanks, F. W. Boreham’s apparently-fictional best friend, who appears in perhaps dozens of essays. He is apparently a placeholder for fictional dialogues and adventures. If John Broadbanks is fictional, there is almost no telling which other characters are real and which are imaginary.

For my own part, I believe that Boreham was simply filling in parables as he thought necessary for good preaching and teaching. Boreham did not live in the Information Age. Jesus himself does not clarify whether the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a historical narrative or not; and truthfully, it matters nothing.

Other stories told by Boreham include far-fetched coincidences. This would be poor grounds for disbelieving them, unless they follow a pattern, like “Crusty” does. Take, for instance, “His Worship the Mayor” (The Uttermost Star, III, III), which hinges on a mayor being reunited with a long-lost son after decades. I can verify nothing about that story; but neither can I claim it is definitely false. To Boreham’s contemporaries, it may have clearly rang of fiction. I do not know. But it is almost immaterial for the genre in which Boreham dealt—if a parable teaches something true and real, it does not matter so much whether it is a fact-driven narrative couched in an airtight bibliography. I think Boreham’s generation understood that better than ours, and for that, I thank God.

Worship As Transformation (In Spirit and Truth – Part 5)

So far in this series, we’ve gone over what worship is, worship as testimony, worship as teaching, and worship as theology. Today we conclude with worship as transformation.

In John’s first epistle, he writes that we do not yet know what we shall become, but we do know that when Christ appears, we will be like him.

How do we know that we will be like him? Because we will see him as he is.

This transformation into the likeness of Christ is not complete at regeneration; it takes place, instead, at glorification.

John explains our transformation into the likeness of Christ by stating that we shall see him as he is. It is not our own efforts, but the vision of Christ that transforms us.

Seeing Christ requires change. It requires change as a matter of justice, because the unrighteous may not—cannot? would not?—see him; but it also demands change as a matter of course. What we see changes us.

All worship is transformative.

A. W. Tozer called faith “the gaze of the soul.” As we look to Christ in faith, we are transformed by our worship. But it is not only Christian worship that is transformative—all worship is transformative. If we spend our lives worshipping at the altar of money or pleasure, that worship is what inspires all our waking hours.

We become what we worship.

As we focus on earthly things, we lose sight of our eternal purpose, which is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Our hearts become exposed to the same “moth and rust” that will destroy our treasured possessions. But if turn our worship to God in heaven, we remind ourselves that we are eternal beings.

Ultimately, our worship is the gaze that shapes our souls. God does not need to hear us praise and thank him. But when we glorify him with our lips, it helps us in some way to also glorify him with our lives.

Worship As Theology (In Spirit and Truth – Part 4)

In last week’s entry, we looked at worship as a way of initiating believers into theology. Now I want to look at some of the most well known songs of recent years as indicators of our theological condition.

The worship industry is skewing our theology.

The worship song “The Blessing” for many believers was a year-defining song in 2020. The song debuted in March 2020, just as covid-19 was becoming a global pandemic. “The Blessing” received a Dove Award for worship song of the year in 2020. There is nothing objectionable in the song itself; most of its lyrics are from Numbers 6. At its core, it is a simple reminder of God’s goodness, and yet I find the timing of its popularity to be perplexing.

I believe the worship industry is skewing our theology towards positivity, not by stating untruths about God, but by omitting truths that are crucial to biblical worship.

The Bible is filled with laments, but our worship is not.

It is interesting that as hundreds of thousands have died, rather than lamenting them or remembering the Son of God on the cross, Western churches have been repeating “He is for you” and “Amen” more than twenty times. This makes me very uncomfortable on a personal level. Is the song a timely reminder of God’s attributes, or does its popularity signal just how deeply we keep our heads in the sand when storms start blowing in?

Modern worship songs are obsessed with triumph; biblical worship means fellowship with the God on the cross.

A review of the most popular songs by Charismatic worship leaders indicates the extent of our theological imbalance. Even a cursory look at the most popular worship songs of 2020 and 2021 shows that triumphalism has become deeply ingrained into our worship. There is a definite tension between the man Jesus Christ going to the cross as a silent lamb, and the following lines from top ranked worship songs:

You win every battle.

Phil Wickham, “Battle Belongs”

The God I serve knows only how to triumph.

Elevation Worship, “See a Victory”

You can do all things but fail, / ’Cause You’ve never lost a battle. / No, You’ve never lost a battle / And I know, I know / You never will.

Elevation Worship, “Never Lost”

You are my Champion. / Giants fall when You stand, / Undefeated, / Every battle You’ve won.

Bethel Music, “Champion”

At the same time, in academic theology circles, Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God is considered one of a few books that has served to reorient New Testament theology around the suffering of the cross. Lucy Peppiatt stated in an interview that it was one of the best theology books of the twentieth century, and I agree. While suffering and Christ’s suffering are becoming a central issue for the lectern, the cross is being ignored more than ever on the worship stage.

The God of modern worship is a peppy, militarized caricature of the God of the Bible.

The military language belongs in our worship and is found on both Testaments—but it is a constant feature of our worship songs today, and is frequently found in churches that align themselves with pro-military political power. The clear conjunction of literal and figurative military language is unsettling. What’s likely worse is the attitude of triumphalism that is all resurrection with no cross.

I know next to nothing about the theology of Elevation Church. But the worship songs they produce are putting forth an image of a God whose core attributes are vague, triumphal, and optimistic. The more ethereal God is, the better the song sells. God never loses a battle, God raises the dead and brings new life, God blesses. It is the Facebook-algorithm-tailored version of worship. If this is all that we sing about, we are communicating that this is all that our children need to know about God.

Triumphalism is more characteristic of Islam than Christianity. In Islam prophets hardly sin and certainly never doubt, and the theological vision and political vision are one and the same. Whatever Jesus’ political vision was, it was certainly not triumphalist. The idea that God has never lost a battle may be true in some abstract sense (God successfully administrates all events in spite of the devil?), and worshippers may even sing it with that in mind; but it is precious little comfort to those who have prayed against covid-19 and watched multiple family members be carried away by the disease. The message of the cross is the distinctive message that we need to pass on to our children and to the watching world. God does not prevent all suffering by “winning battles”, but he does have victory over the devil in the humiliating death of Jesus.

We are being duped by bigger churches with more money and better music.

The theological ideas found in our worship music are, more than anything, a barometer of the kinds of thinking found in megachurches. What we need are fewer imitators and more prophets. We need worship leaders who both write their own songs and evaluate their selections for Christian meetings. Gatherings need to take worship seriously enough to spend equal time preparing worship and sermons—after all, they probably spend equal time teaching the congregation theology. In many churches, more of the service is taken up by music than the sermon itself. We often allow the undiscipled and undisciplined to take the microphone when we would never allow them in the pulpit. There needs to be a prophetic rebalancing, a deep repentance of our flippancy, and a new theology of worship must be developed to save the church from the poisonous reach of Mammon in our music.

Worship As Teaching (In Spirit and Truth – Part 3)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Colossians 3:16, NKJV

In his book, The Reset, Jeremy Riddle writes that worship team members and worship songwriters should be among the most spiritually disciplined and theologically minded in our churches. Worship is treated as a task that any musician can do, while preaching and teaching are reserved for those with special gifting, if not licensing or ordination. If we understood the profound influence of worship on our theological imaginations, we would reckon the influence of worship teams as not so far behind that of preachers. Worship teams need accountability, not just in their performance and production, but in their spiritual lives and discipleship.

Worship reforms the imagination of the church.

When Jesus told his disciples to drink the cup in remembrance of him, he requires us to believe that the cup is his blood. Baptism requires us to believe that we are being reborn from the dead in that act of washing. As we inhabit these metaphors, the sacraments span the gap between imagination and belief: we believe the cup is his blood because it is true in a spiritual sense; we imagine the cup is his blood because it is not materially true in another sense. To debate the transformation of the cup into blood is to miss the point, which is the act of remembrance. All sacraments necessarily have the same sort of ambiguity because they are themselves points of continuity between the physical world (represented to us in the sacramental elements) and the spiritual world (represented to us in our imaginations). Much of what worship does—no matter in what sect—is capture and transform our imaginations.

Worship music initiates believers into theology.

Worship is not the end of the pathway from the Word to theology; it is the beginning. Those who can’t understand sermons can understand songs and sacraments. Children of Christian parents are weaned from lullabies to hymns. Many a born-again believer “cuts his teeth” spiritually on his church’s worship lyrics.

It is not enough for worship to say something that is true about God. It should be saying something distinctively Christian about God. We should ask ourselves whether our sermons and our worship music are saying the same things about God. If someone only attended the music portion of our services, what kind of God would be portrayed to them? If our worship merely states that God is nice and that he has blessed us abundantly, we should evaluate whether our music could just as well be sung by adherents of other faiths.

Worship music should be examined the same way sermons are.

Some church members are theologically critical of all aspects of church, including music; most receive sermons critically and song lyrics uncritically. We may notice that we don’t like the rhythm or melody of a song, but we rarely analyse the lyrics. But if worship is itself a form of teaching, as I suppose it is, we should examine our music as closely as our sermons to find it acceptable before God.

Many make wide allowances for music that they do not make in other forms of teaching. Many would gladly sing “In Christ Alone”, never noticing that it consciously promotes several core tenets of Reformed doctrine. Worship, after all, is both in spirit and in truth. Pentecostals in particular focus on creating an attitude of love more than finding theologically acceptable songs. I believe, though, that we have lost balance completely.

Pentecostals and Charismatics are focused on worshipping God in spirit and are progressively placing themselves in the hands of a music industry that has put Mammon at the helm. Cessationists are focused on worshipping God in truth and little room is left for spontaneous expression, personal testimony, or the gifts of the Spirit. We have become polarized in our churches, and we desperately need a renewal of theologically informed songs that capture personal testimonies. Such songs will have the power to prophetically transform the imagination of the church.

Worship As Testimony (In Spirit and Truth – Part 2)

Christian worship is a way of embodying our personal and corporate testimonies. In song, we express what it means to us that God has saved us, changed us, heard our prayers, and formed us in the glorious likeness of his Son.

Not all worship is congregational worship.

Some of the testimonies we put into song are personal, individual, not suited for use in the congregation. This does not make them meaningless. There are plenty of lines in the Psalms of David that would be quite out of place in a Christian gathering! And even songs that are sung in gatherings are grounded in personal testimony. Psalm 18 begins with a long explanation, historically grounding the song in David’s biography:

To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul . . .

Psalm 18:1, NKJV

Personal testimonies become corporate testimonies.

The modern worship song “How He Loves Us” is a great example of the shift from a personal testimony to a corporate testimony. It became a radio hit for David Crowder in 2009, reaching number 8 on the Billboard charts and receiving a nomination for a Dove Award. (The album did win the Dove Award for best worship album.)

But many of us first heard that song in a viral YouTube video from 2005 by John Mark McMillan, who wrote the song. The lyrics are slightly different, the song is several minutes longer, and there is a whole verse about “the day Stephen died”, referring to McMillan’s friend who had died in a car accident. It is an intensely personal story, and the original song doesn’t make sense without knowing that testimony. Crowder repackaged the song for a broader audience—famously scrapping the “sloppy wet kiss”—and in the process transformed the song for corporate worship. Both types of song are indispensable in Christian worship.

Personal songs can be honest about suffering without shame.

The Psalms teach us that the variety of spiritual experience is great. Biblical commentators such as John Calvin have stated that this is practically one of the most important things we can glean about the Psalms as a whole. Christians are not aloof from the whole pageant of human life, ranging from lament to ecstasy.

My soul faints for Your salvation,
But I hope in Your word.

My eyes fail from searching Your word,
Saying, “When will You comfort me?”

For I have become like a wineskin in smoke,
Yet I do not forget Your statutes.

How many are the days of Your servant?
When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me?

Psalm 119:81–84, NKJV

Psalms like Psalm 13 and Psalm 42, along with many passages from the Prophets, show us that the lament is a legitimate form of worship. We miss much by making worship that pretends that Christians are always happy people. Jesus himself prayed to be delivered at Gethsemane, and asked God why he was forsaken at the cross—quoting Psalm 22 in doing so. Astoundingly, God himself fellowships with us in our unanswered prayers, which is in itself better than answering them.

Corporate testimonies become personal testimonies.

Testimonies are not just joyful expressions: they also serve to stoke our memories of God’s goodness when we cannot remember. When we are in a place of joy, corporate testimonies can remind us how to live in lament, and vice versa. We need these memories to rekindle our joy in the Holy Ghost.

When we are least attracted to worship, we are most in need of the collective memories that are preserved for us there. Worship changes our perspective and helps us to reorient our lives around God’s story that is happening all around us every day, even on the days that we do not sense that we are a part of that story.

What Is Worship? (In Spirit and Truth – Part 1)

The fact that our worship underwhelms us is a signal of how much we are in need of true worship. We need true worship to honor the Father rightly. We need true worship to change our perspective.

To worship means to bow.

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

Matthew 2:2, NKJV

The word “worship” has come to signify an entire industry of music, often represented by record labels that are not even run by Christians. But even the English word outside of the modern church has little or nothing to do with music. To “worship” originally means to proclaim a person’s worth by bowing to them as an act of love and allegiance. In some biblical contexts, the English word “worship” means the physical act of prostrating oneself before another in expression of obedience (though biblical languages have several words that may be translated “worship”, and not all of them can mean this).

Worship does not depend on where we are.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.

John 4:20–21, NKJV

This may be the clearest New Testament teaching about worship, and yet we often hear mellifluous talk from the pulpit about how great it is to come into “God’s house” to offer worship. We are God’s house, we can offer our worship anywhere, and worship is much larger than the musical portion of our public services. We gather together to learn from each other, to receive teaching, and to remember Christ’s death, not because any institutionally-recognized location is a condition of acceptable worship. In fact, Jesus explicitly denies this idea. It is a Christian distinctive that we can worship God anywhere (see Acts 16:25!); we gather together and sing as one of many acts of worship.

Christian worship usually includes music.

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Mark 14:26, NKJV

Since the days of Moses, music has been a distinctive element in Judeo-Christian worship. The Muslim may well be perplexed that the Christian reads (rather than recites) his holy book, and sings (rather than performs in ritual) his worship. Music is powerful in its ability to engage the mind, memory, and emotions. Christian worship is not a purely intellectual exercise. It involves our whole soul, and Christian music is a key expression of that fact. The memories of the earliest songs of our childhood show us the formative power of music. Music also has the power of disarming us, allowing us to understand a new perspective without argumentation. This makes it a powerful tool for teaching, for good and for ill.

Worship is more than music.

. . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord . . .

Ephesians 5:19, NKJV

Paul and Silas did not only sing songs in prison; they also prayed and spoke and evangelised. Even Christian songs themselves are a form of teaching. Jeremy Riddle writes that we have grossly underestimated the teaching role of Christian worship songs. Our worship leaders and songwriters should not be spiritual novices with thorough musical training; whatever their musical training, they should be theologians, capable of mediating and transferring spiritual truth through both word and song.

Worship may be addressed from us to God, from God to us, or from us to one another.

There are not one but three patterns of Christian worship: praise, prophecy. and exhortation. Some psalms may use two or three of these in turn, signfiied by changes between first, second, and third-person pronouns (“I”, “you”, and “he”). It goes without saying that we may freely address praise to God, directly:

. . . To You, O LORD, I will sing praises.

Psalm 101:1b, NKJV

In addition, a few modern Christian songs include lines that are written from God’s perspective, speaking to us words of encouragement. This may seem overly bold to some, but David’s psalms often included prophecies along with prayers. Worship as prophecy is an established, biblical pattern:

“For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy,
Now I will arise,” says the LORD;
“I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.”

Psalm 12:5, NKJV

Thirdly, worship can include words of exhortation between believers. Psalm 91, one of the most remarkable and memorable psalms, never addresses God directly. Verses 3 to 13—nearly the entire psalm—are in the second person:

He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.

Psalm 91:4, NKJV

Worship is about God.

I will sing of mercy and justice.

Psalm 101:1a

Worship, in the end, is not about how happy or despondent we feel, but about God’s wondrous attributes. Worship is an act of grounding our finiteness in God’s infinitude. It is for this reason that it is so important that those who prepare Christian worship of all kinds—whether in song, prayer, prophecy, or exhortation—must be seasoned disciples, trusted teachers, and grateful prophets.

Worship is for everyone.

Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles!
Laud Him, all you peoples!

Psalm 117:1, NKJV

Worship is not a musical performance put on by a few special saints. It is the prerogative of all Christians. When I write about worship, I don’t want anyone to misconstrue my words as only applying to worship leaders. The condition of our worship will improve when Christians everywhere realise that it is their responsibility to reflect God’s glorious image in their services and sacraments.

Missions and Empire: Are Protestant Missionaries Colonists?

A Historical Inquiry

In some colonial contexts, nominally Christian religion was forced upon natives as part and parcel of the endeavor of colonization. This being the case, many missionary groups have historically been denied state support, even when tolerated by monarchs; others, like the Donatists (4th to 6th c.) and the Brethren (19th c.), would not accept such support if it was offered. The charge of colonialism, so often levied against the Christian religion, may not be applied equally to all Christian groups, since they have quite different visions of the state-church relation.

If we try to draw together a broad treatment of the relation between Protestant missionaries and their home governments, what we find historically falls into three categories: missions and empire in unity, missions and empire at odds, and missions and empire at distance.

Missions and Empire in Unity

Catholics in Latin America

As someone who publishes books on pioneer missions, I often come across the platitude that Christian missions is “the handmaid of empire”. This sweeping criticism is held up as a banner by detractors of Christianity, secular and religious alike. It is a just verdict in particular of the Iberian colonial powers, whose vision of Catholic Christianity was that of an unchallenged state religion.

Unlike other European colonizing powers such as England or the Netherlands, Spain insisted on converting the natives of the lands it conquered to its state religion.

Adriaan C. van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, p. xi

Even there, reformers arose to oppose the systematic violence against indigenous peoples. Dominican friars Antonio de Montesinos, Pedro de Córdoba, and Bartolomé de las Casas were bright spots in a dark tide of bloodshed, as they chose in 1511 to denounce violence against the people of Hispaniola.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Protestant Reformation did not immediately lead to any change in church-state relations. Luther and Zwingli were not more tolerant than their predecessors in Germany and Switzerland. Likewise, Protestant missionaries of the seventeenth century were not so different from Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded with an explicitly eschatological vision of a Christian utopia, with no room for plurality of religions. This included the intention of converting and civilizing natives, as the 1629 Charter spells out.

. . . whereby our said People, Inhabitants there, may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of [the] Country, to the KnowIedg and Obedience of the onlie true God and [Savior] of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth, which in our Royall Intencon, and the Adventurers free Profession, is the principall Ende of this Plantacion.

Massachusetts Bay Charter, 1629

Evangelization of indigenous did not precede settlement though, as is sometimes described. John Eliot did not attempt to preach to the Indians until 1646. Charlotte M. Yonge writes that Eliot thought that faith would lead to civilization. Though he worked with approval from colonial authorities, Eliot may also be regarded as a voice crying in the wilderness, since so few shared in this work at that time.

Anglican Missions

For two more centuries, the unity of missions and empire remained prevalent among Church of England missionaries—mainly working within the British Empire—but it declined as independent and evangelical Protestant churches began to proliferate. In 1900, the Governor of Bengal viewed missions as an “unofficial auxiliary” of British government there.

I view, then, the missionary work as an indispensable, unofficial, voluntary auxiliary of the government in carrying out in India its highest aspirations, the ennobling of the whole Hindu people.

Sir Charles Elliott, Governor of Bengal, quoted in Jacob Chamberlain, The Cobra’s Den, 1900, ch. 26

The sentiment was sometimes reciprocal. The President of the Church Missionary Society wrote as late as 1907:

[A. B. Lloyd] has been bearing his share of “the white man’s burden” of ruling, civilising, and Christianising the “silent peoples,” of whom John Bull carries no less than 350 millions on his back.

Sir John H. Kennaway, Preface to A. B. Lloyd’s In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country: A Record of Travel and Discovery in Central Africa, 1907, p. 7.

But even at that time, these were becoming outmoded ways of discussing a Christian’s role in reaching indigenous people. In a way, another reformation had been slowly spreading in European Christianity: evangelicalism. It was the focus on individual faith, rather than institutional loyalty, that began to lead to a major shift in Christian attitudes toward the state.

The First Evangelicals

To understand how all this began to change, we need to understand the beginnings of evangelicalism. In 1688 and 1689, at the university in Leipzig, August Francke and Philip Spener began holding a series of meetings in which the New Testament was read and discussed. They focused on a personal and living faith, but this was seen as an affront to the concept of a state church. Teaching individual conversion was controversial, and Francke became embroiled in conflict. After being prohibited from teaching in Leipzig, he began ministry in Erfurt; after fifteen months in Erfurt, he was expelled by the local authorities and given forty-eight hours to leave the city. All this happened in spite of his Lutheranism.

Francke continued his ministry by teaching children. He established an orphanage in 1698, which eventually became the largest charitable organization in the world. In 1893, the Missionary Review of the World called him “the father of evangelical missions.”

Count Zinzendorf was educated at Francke’s Foundations in Halle. In 1722, Zinzendorf founded his famous Herrnhut community for the Moravian Brethren. In 1727, a revival occurred in Herrnhut which led to several men volunteering to become missionaries.

In 1738, George Whitefield and John Wesley went to Georgia as missionaries. Wesley was greatly impressed by the faith of the Moravian colonists on their ship. Whitefield had been ordained in the Church of England, but in time his outspokenness led to him being rejected by ecclesiastical authority, and he began to pave his own path. Wesley, in a similar position, went to Herrnhut to learn of the Moravians. In 1739 and 1740, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching in the open air and at “revival” meetings. Their preaching sparked the First Great Awakening in America.

Missions and Empire at Odds

The First Lutheran Missionaries in Tranquebar

In 1705, the King of Denmark, Frederick IV, asked August Francke to select two men to go to the Danish colony of Tranquebar, in present-day Tamil Nadu. These were the first Lutheran missionaries. Francke chose Batholomaüs Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau, both trained by him in Halle under a yoke of Prussian Pietism. Though they were sent by the king, as Pietists, their eschatology and missiology was very much at odds with the Danish colonial government, and they butted heads on several occasions. Theologian Joar Haga writes, “the king’s interest in mission activity has been quite a riddle for historians to explain”, but apparently he was impressed with Francke’s work in Halle.

In addition, the Lutheran theologians in Copenhagen had grave doubts about the legitimacy of mission work. The Gospel had already been declared all over the world by the Apostles, according to leading theologians such as Niels Hemmingsen (1513–1600) and Hans Resen (1561–1638). They had explained that the Gospel had been declared twice before Christ’s arrival. . . . []

Joar Haga, “Consecrating the New Jerusalem in Tranquebar.” p. 419.

Haga writes that “The idea of mission was not a part of the original plan for extending Danish rule to India.” (p. 420) The Danish East India Company had been present for almost a century (since 1616) before Ziegenbalg established a church for Indians. In addition, the missionaries were not allowed to use the church used by the Danish and Germans. Even though they had the support of the king, they lacked many supports on the mission field, being generally regarded as radicals. Missions is certainly not the “handmaid of empire” in their case.

When Zeigenbalg preached the consecration sermon for his New Jerusalem church, he stated that it should never be used for “worldly and domestic” use, but that it would be dedicated to spiritual use, meaning preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. Their stated goal on the mission field was always that polytheists would leave idolatry for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Denmark.

Reform for Sati

The British East India Compny was very reluctant to interfere in native customs in India, to the extent that they did not even outlaw sati. Jemima Luke writes that the Baptist Missionary Society, the London (Congregational) Missionary Society, and the Church (Anglican) Missionary Society, along with many Hindus and Christians, including missionaries James Peggs and William Carey, sought reform for this practice, finally succeeding in 1829. Reforming native religion and practice was not conducive to resource colonialism (as opposed to the settler colonialism practiced in Latin America).

The East India Company and Independent Protestants

British colonial government had a tenuous relationship with those missionaries in its midst who were Protestant but unconnected to the state church. In a biography of Sarah Loveless, Richard Knill writes:

The East India Company would not allow Christian missionaries to sail in their ships; therefore Dr. Carey, Mr. Loveless, and many others, were glad to sail to British India in the ships of foreigners!

The Missionary’s Wife, 1839; quoted in Thomas Timpson, Memoirs of British Female Missionaries.

Most Protestant missionaries, without any support of a state church, did not have the backing to travel to mission fields within the British Empire. In 1804, the Lovelesses sailed on an American ship for Chennai. Knill comments that arriving on a foreign ship “made it very difficult for a missionary to labour there.”

In the same volume, Thomas Timpson narrates how this policy of the East India Company changed “after great opposition” from British Christians. He records how in 1813, 900 signatures were sent to Parliament.

Divine Providence appeared to open a wide door in the year 1813, especially by the renewal of the East India Company’s Charter. Religious liberty gained a most glorious triumph over avarice and infidelity in the new charter: for Christians of various classes, especially . . . the committees of the London and Baptist Missionary Societies, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, sent 900 petitions to Parliament, for permission to propagate the gospel in Hindustan; and after great opposition, a clause, introduced by the government, was carried in the House of Lords, July 20th, securing protection to Christian Missionaries residing in India!

Thomas Timpson, “Elizabeth Harvard.” Memoirs of British Female Missionaries. 1841.

It is telling that Timpson, a Baptist, celebrates a unified victory of the British independent churches, and the Church of Scotland, seeking religious liberty—from their own government! Even after the change in policy, two missionaries who arrived in Bombay wrote that they were not supported beyond transportation. They were “as missionaries, unknown, unexpected, and even undesired.”

Other examples could be adduced. Recall that when Adoniram Judson and James Colman appealed directly to the Emperor of Burma in 1820 for the right to live and minister freely, they were denied. British aggression certainly did not serve his cause, and Judson was a prisoner of war to the Burmese for nearly two years, though an American. They could not help thinking that an English speaker would be helping their imperial enemy.

In his book on Unoccupied Fields (1900), Samuel M. Zwemer writes that the British government was happy for Muslims to advance their religion among pagans, but, except in Egypt, Christians were routinely prevented from doing so. Christian missionary activity in Muslim-majority lands was seen as provoking retaliation from local fanatics. Even alongside Anglican missionaries, who were sometimes seen as an approved “auxiliary” to British colonial governments, most British Protestant missionaries were considered a liability to their home governments.

Missions and Empire at Distance

Christians among Arabs

The criticism of colonial pretenses comes frequently from Muslims because, Islam being a political vision as much as a religious one, Muslim thinkers cannot help but believe that Christian missionaries work hand in hand with what they perceive to be Western, Christian governments—or, if not, they claim that that is how Protestant missions started.

This Islamic perception of Christians has been around since the earliest eras of Christian mission. Thus you will come across statements from pioneer missionaries in the Arab world, like the following:

I imagine his impression is, that we are sent out by the king of England.

Anthony Norris Groves, Baghdad, April 2, 1830; Journal of a Residence at Bagdad.

The prevailing idea is that we get so much money for every case from the Queen or our Consul in Jerusalem.

Archibald Forder, in a letter dated January 1893; With the Arabs in Tent and Town, ch. 2.

As a matter of fact, both Groves and Forder paved the way as pioneer missionaries apart from institutional backing; and both are held up today as early examples of “indigenizing” missionaries rather than colonizing missionaries. As a very early member of the Brethren movement, Groves absolutely rejected any entanglements between state and church. And Forder, far from “civilizing” Arabs, is regarded by two modern Arab academics as an example of “going native”. As much as was in his power, he dressed, travelled, and spoke like the Bedouins he worked among.

As evangelicalism began in Europe largely in the context of institutional opposition on the local scale—both among the Pietists in Germany and the Methodists in Britain—it now continues largely in the context of institutional apathy from Western governments. Today, most Protestant missionaries are not affiliated with a state church, but supported by independent churches and societies. Their home governments do nothing or almost nothing either to prevent or encourage them from overseas evangelism.


I conclude with these words from Susie Rijnhart, an unaffiliated missionary in Tibet.

Kind Christian friends have questioned our wisdom in entering Tibet. Why not have waited, they ask, until Tibet was opened by ‘the powers,’ so that missionaries could go under government protection?

The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.’ . . . Persecutions came upon them from every side, but nothing, save death, could hinder their progress or silence their message. . . . So it has ever been in the history of Christianity. Had the missionaries waited till all countries were ready and willing to receive them, so that they could go forth without danger or sacrifice, England might still have been the home of barbarians. Livingstone’s footsteps would never have consecrated the African wilderness, there would have been no Carey in India, the South Sea Islanders would still be sunk in their cannibalism, and the thousands of Christians found in pagan lands would still be in the darkness and shadow of death.

Susie C. Rijnhart, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, 1901, p. 393–395.

Wesleyans in the Wilderness: Assurance vs. “The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Beginnings of Wesleyan Assurance

“Can you be sure of your salvation?” Most evangelicals would answer with a resounding “yes,” but would have difficulty answering the follow-up question—“how?” We may agree on how salvation happens—Romans 10:9-10—but it is more difficult to agree on how assurance happens.

Calvinists tend to see justification as an objective fact, grounded in God’s timeless decrees, independent of our emotions, and for some, even independent of our continued guilt. Christians are taught to distrust their experiences. There is a virtue to this system in that it engenders self-forgetfulness. But it offers precious little compassion in moments of doubt or depression. Depression is only a misapprehension of divine decrees. “Who are you, O man?” Doubt is a rejection of the form of determinism called “the doctrines of grace”. We lack assurance only by lacking understanding.

Into such a theological winter came John Wesley with his “strangely warmed” heart, teaching personal, inward assurance of faith as a distinctive doctrine. Salvation was both fact and experience for Wesley from that moment at Aldersgate Chapel:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.
(Journal of John Wesley, dated May 24, 1738.)

Over against Calvin’s credal, decree-bound assurance, Wesley placed an experience of assurance. He grounded it doctrinally in Romans 8:16, among other verses. Like James Ussher, Wesley translated the verse this way:

The same Spirit beareth witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God.

This verse and the doctrine of experiential assurance was absolutely pivotal in early Methodist theology. In The Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, a compilation of 41 biographies of Wesley’s pioneer preachers, assurance plays a key role in salvation narratives. At least eight of them—Hanson, Hopper, Payne, Rodda, Valton, Walsh and Whatcoat—specifically refer to Romans 8:16 in their conversion narratives. But not all experienced assurance as a lifelong reality.

The Eroding Value of “Assurance”

The irony comes from the volatile mixture of Wesleyan holiness and Wesleyan assurance, both of which play a major role today not just in Methodist congregations—which include some 70 million members—but among the world’s 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics, whose theology is essentially Wesleyan in character.

Wesley taught that total victory over sin is not only possible, but normal for Christians. This is easy to defend from Scripture, with bald statements like “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34); “anyone born of God refuses to practice sin, because God’s seed abides in him” (1 John 3:9; compare though, 1 John 1:8-10). But it is hard to defend from Christian experience.

The strong expectation of assurance and the strong expectation of continuance in Methodism lead us to a strong expectation of continuing assurance. Wesley’s preachers frequently recorded that this combination was stumbling block to them, leading them to rationalize their own salvation. Read the words of Thomas Payne, after his conversion:

. . . But I had a Calvinian library, which I often read. And hence I imbibed that miserable notion, that it was absolutely necessary every believer should come down from the mount [i.e., by sinning, or doubting]. Hence I was persuaded that I must lose my first love; that I must doubt of my justification, which those wretched casuists lay down as one great mark of sincerity. For want of knowing better, I listened to these, till I lost the witness of the Spirit.

“Losing the witness of the Spirit,” of course, is tantamount to losing salvation in Wesleyan language, which rejects perseverance of the saints. Some contemporary writers make a helpful distinction by teaching that we may lose the witness or filling of the Holy Spirit without losing the Holy Spirit.

Another early Methodist preacher, John Valton, has a similar narrative of gaining assurance at the moment of conversion, but losing assurance afterward.

I have been much tempted to doubt of the pardoning love of God which I received in London. Because it was not incontestably clear, I feared it was not really the case; and that my comforts were only the drawings of the Father.

Bruce Hindmarsh comments on John Valton:

A few weeks later he was able to believe again. Significantly, Valton thought he might have been in the “wilderness state described in Mr. Wesley’s sermon”, and acknowledged that not everyone passed through the wilderness to the promised land.  . . .

Valton believed that he had fallen into the desert experience or “dark night of the soul”, and according to Wesley, he might lose his salvation! He referred to a sermon in which John Wesley explained the historic Christian teaching of the “wilderness state” in some detail. The theological tension between the “wilderness state” and Wesleyan assurance is obvious.

The sermon referred to by Valton was one in which Wesley explained the reasons for the loss of love, joy, and peace that so many experienced after conversion. He identified the possible causes of this “wilderness state” as outright sin, simple ignorance, or overwhelming temptation, but stressed that God does not withdraw from us; it is always we who withdraw from him. For Wesley, one might well need to be “renewed by repentance” and “again washed by faith”. Indeed, one could be converted again and again.
(Hindmarsh, Evangelical Conversion Narrative, p. 247; he cites Wesley, Works (BE), ii. 217; see also Works vol. 6, Sermon 46, as published in 1872, here.)

Certainly, to a Calvinist, Wesley’s view of salvation can lead to needless introspection, and a shaky, human-dependent salvation. Anyone in a state of depression may be stumbled by the thought that they might have inadvertently lost their first faith.

One can see how practical pitfalls come up both from affirming and denying the perseverance of the saints—namely, too much assurance on one side, and not enough on the other.

“The Valley” in Arminian Preaching

George MacDonald, an untraditional Arminian, wrote scornfully of assurance in his “unspoken sermon” on “The Hardness of the Way”:

None can know how difficult it is to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who have tried—tried hard, and have not ceased to try. I care not to be told that one may pass at once into all possible sweetness of assurance; it is not assurance I desire, but the thing itself; not the certainty of eternal life, but eternal life. I care not what other preachers may say, while I know that in St. Paul the spirit and the flesh were in frequent strife.

MacDonald made room for doubt and difficulty in his own relational theology. Perhaps, in his view, Christian assurance is distinct from a full-proof certainty.

Oswald Chambers, an admiring reader of George MacDonald, wrote that we usually lose our high feelings by failing to act on what God has revealed to us.

Never allow a feeling which was stirred in you in the high hour to evaporate. Don’t put your mental feet on the mantelpiece and say, “What a marvellous state of mind to be in!” Act immediately, do something, if only because you would rather not do it. If in a prayer meeting God has shown you something to do, don’t say, “I’ll do it”—do it! Take yourself by the scruff of the neck and shake off your incarnate laziness. Laziness is always seen in cravings for the high hour; we talk about working up to a time on the mount. We have to learn to live in the grey day according to what we saw on the mount.
(My Utmost, April 16th entry)

In any case, Chambers concludes, we must live in low moments by what God revealed to us in better times. This was the topic of a famous sermon of his entitled “Can You Come Down?” The sermon deals with Jesus and the disciples’ transition from the Mount of Transfiguration to the valley where he deals with unclean spirits (Mark 9; Matthew 17). The theme was echoed in another famous sermon, Mountains and Valleys in the Ministry of Jesus by G. Campbell Morgan.

In a sermon about “processes”, Joseph Parker preached not only that we must sustain our obedience in the valleys, but that remembering the mountain will help us to do so.

We should lay up some memory of the Divine triumphs which have gladdened our lives, and fall back upon it for inspiration and courage in the dark and cloudy day. Go into your yesterdays to find God!

This was a perennial theme with Parker—we cannot always keep yesterday’s assurance, but we can resurrect it by memory. I believe D. L. Moody had a saying, that if God did no other miracle for him, he could live out his days content upon the memory of all that God had already done in his life. Memories help us make meaning out of our low moments.

“The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a poem and treatise by a 16th-century Catholic mystic, John of the Cross. The title of the book has been borrowed by many as another favorite term for what Wesley called the “wilderness state”, a state of depression or lack of spiritual awareness in the life of the Christian.

John of the Cross relies somewhat on The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous classic from two centuries earlier. ‘Unknowing’ meant ignorance, or unawareness, so the “cloud of unknowing” is a poetic term for whatever blocks the divine vision from view.

The Middle English of The Cloud of Unknowing is difficult, but it is an important work for those trying to understand the theological tradition of righteous unawareness of God. Below is an important passage (ch. 3).

Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list [desire]. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest.

For the anonymous author, this cloud of unknowing between us and God affects not only our feeling, but our reason. This leads us to think that God’s holy ones may be not only depressed, but even doubtful.

One can see why this tradition is not very popular among Protestants. The wilderneds state is frequently maintained as a pattern founded on human experience and tradition, not reason or revelation.

There are hints of the “dark night” in Scripture, though, aside from the impressions we receive from the narrative of Jesus descending the Mount of Transfiguration. Winkie Pratney, an Arminian writer, has written a book called The Thomas Factor which draws on a theological tradition of sanctified doubt. Pratney sees, in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, a kind of dark night of the soul. In spite of his powerful and victorious confrontations with evil, Elijah speaks of suicide. He says he alone has remained faithful. But God leads him to rest. An angel ministers to him and feeds him, not once, but twice. God reminds him that he has “seven thousand in Israel . . . that have not bowed to Baal.”


There is a loss of assurance that may happen in the life of a Christian, but it is not permanent. As Romans says, the Holy Spirit testifies to us that we are God’s children; but from what we know of history and biography, it is neither a constant, continual, lifelong witness, nor is it an emotional or intellectual witness. Spirit speaks to spirit.

The dark night of the soul entails some confusion of both feeling and facts. It led Elijah and Jonah to feel suicidal; it has led others, like Frederick Buechner, to question our most deeply held traditions about death and immortality. But confusion of facts and confusion of feelings should not always lead to a confusion of faith. We do not have to know that the sky is blue, or feel that the earth is round; there are many facts in our lives that are always true, though removed from our awareness or transcending our small understanding. We know they are true by a steady iteration of experiential confirmations, and an interruption does not change what we already know to be true. We may lack certainty and yet maintain assurance.

In affirming these things, we should free believers to rest not on their own awareness or assurance of God’s atoning work in their lives—but on the fact itself.

Scripture Questions on Women in Leadership

Some of you are aware, this is a topic I have been studying for much of 2021. This post is a partial culmination of months of study and about 20 books studied. I skimmed more than a dozen early Victorian books because I wanted to go well outside the modern debate to find out what old-time preachers said about Eve. What I found shows that consensus about women's subordination and men's authority was nearly unanimous; but there was precious little consensus about how that could be supported from the Genesis narrative. Below, you'll find a general overview of the biblical issues involved, starting with Genesis.

The Major Questions

The question of the role of women in our day can be summarized in three circles: 1) marriage/family; 2) the church; 3) society/creation. Logically, there is an implicational hierarchy at work; despite a spectrum of views on the topic, it is difficult to substantiate women’s submission in only one or two of these spheres when woman is free in the larger sphere. (This explains Christian feminism.) Conversely, when creation language is appealed to (cf. 1 Cor. 11, 1 Tim. 2), it is difficult not to imagine that all women are subordinate or inferior to all men. (This explains biblical patriarchy.) This is why the issue is so polarizing, and intermediate positions are hard to maintain.

The biggest Old Testament question is whether female subordination was intended from creation, or is a consequence of sin. Most, but not all, classical commentators choose the former; nearly all contemporary commentators choose the latter. From my own study of Genesis, equality seems to be the starting point. Martin Luther even supports this in some passages in his commentary on Genesis, though he later contradicts himself.

The biggest New Testament question is about the meaning of the prohibitions (1 Cor. 14:34, 1 Tim. 2:11) and domestic codes (Eph. 5, 1 Pet. 3). There is no question that Paul considered many women his “co-workers”. Most also maintain that Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1–2); and many from ancient times have believed that Junia was an apostle, as is the plainest reading of Romans 16:7. If we privilege these narratives, which are many, then we may choose to severely qualify the aforementioned prohibitions. If we privilege the prohibitions, then a lot of historical and scriptural evidence has to be thoroughly re-examined. Either position requires liberties in interpretation, which is why this debate must remain a second-order issue.

The Minor Questions

In this overview, I list all of the key Bible passages in this discussion. For each scripture, I’ve placed three views:

H = the hierarchicalist/complementarian view
M = the mutualist/egalitarian view
My thoughts = my evaluation of both arguments, with variant perspectives

Views presented here, when not cited, are generally taken from two representative works: on the hierarchicalist side, David Pawson’s Leadership Is Male: What Does the Bible Say? (1988); on the mutualist side, Lucy Peppiatt’s Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (2019). For a more moderate egalitarian perspective, see this booklet by Michael F. Bird.

1. Does the sequence of creation imply that woman is not a leader?

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Genesis 1:27

H: Genesis 1 shows man’s relation to God (vertical); Genesis 2 shows man’s relation to woman (horizontal). The first account emphasizes equality between the sexes “in value, potential, and destiny” (Pawson, p. 15), but the second account shows that in fact woman is created second, and man is therefore the leader. In 1 Timothy 2:13, Paul appeals to the order of creation for this reason.

M: “Since they are like God, they are best suited for a unique relationship to God.” (Dempster, qtd. in Peppiatt) Genesis 1 makes it clear that all humans may relate directly to God, but a hierarchicalist/complementarian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:7 directly contradicts this, since it states that woman only relates to God through the mediation of man.

My thoughts: John Calvin, Philip Doddridge, and many other hierarchicalists believe that the sequence of creation was irrelevant, and Paul appealed to the order of creation to make a different point in 1 Timothy 2. It was very common in the Victorian era to speak of Eve as the “crowning grace of creation” (e.g., John Angell James).

2. Does the manner of Eve’s creation imply female subordination?

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet [‘ezer kenegdo] for him.

Genesis 2:18

H: “Woman was made from man. Woman was made for man. Woman was made after man.” (Pawson, p. 18; similar language is employed by many authors) See 1 Corinthians 11:8–9. Woman is a helper which means that she is subordinate.

M: “In later Mishnaic Hebrew, the root of [kenegdo] means ‘equal.'” (Peppiatt)

Helpers can also be inferiors, equals, or superiors. On the Hebrew phrase translated “help meet”, David Freedman writes, “I believe the customary translation of these two words [i.e., ezer kenegdo or “helper”], despite its near universal adoption, is wrong. That is not what the words are intended to convey. They should be translated instead to mean approximately ‘a power equal to man.’ That is, when God concluded that he would create another creature so that man would not be alone, he decided to make ‘a power equal to him,’ someone whose strength was equal to man’s. Woman was not intended to be merely man’s helper. She was to be instead his partner.” (R. David Freedman, qtd in Peppiatt, p. 49)

Additionally, when Paul says that woman was made for man, he seemingly corrects (or contradicts) his own words on this point when we move from 1 Corinthians 11:8–9 to 1 Corinthians 11:11. (See more below.)

My thoughts: Older commentators frequently take the manner of Eve’s creation to imply a profound intimacy between Adam and Eve. The same is true of Adam’s naming of Eve. It is mainly in modern theology that every detail of the text is exploited to make Eve subordinate. In numerous Jewish commentaries and Church Fathers, the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib is taken to imply that they were created from the same “raw material”, which makes them compatible. My favorite is Sforno (16th c.), who wrote that kenegdo literally means ‘equal’, but God clearly couldn’t have meant positional equality, otherwise who would wash the dishes and cook the meals?

3. Does the curse of Eve introduce female submission, or extend it?

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16

H: The word “multiply” indicates that this curse is only an extension of already existing subjugation. The third line, “thy desire shall be to thy husband”, includes “an unusual Hebraism which means an ambition to control, manipulate, possess someone (as its occurrence in Genesis 4:7 clearly shows). That is, having led her husband into sin, she must now live with a continuing urge to subordinate him to her wish and will” (Pawson, p. 25).

M: The line, “thy desire shall be to thy husband”, has also been translated “your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” Thus, the possible translations are directly contradictory to one another.

My thoughts: Pawson has certainly overinterpreted this verse. Many translators (such as Alter) believe it follows Song of Solomon 7:10: “for your man shall be your longing.” There are other interpretations of this verse as well. In any case, there is no clear indication of female subordination before this verse.

In addition, commentators of the rank of Martin Luther and John Wesley deny that woman was subordinate before the fall, but modern complementarians generally affirm this. There are many other points in which modern complementarians (Pawson, Ortlund, etc.) are at odds with classical commentators.

4. Why does Adam name Eve?

And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

Genesis 3:20

H: Adam names Eve because he has authority over her. “Naming in Scripture is an expression of authority. . . . Incidentally, a legacy of his action is to be found in a wife taking her husband’s surname after marriage.” (Pawson, p. 18; cf. Ortlund; Luther’s Commentary on Genesis)

M: “One person names another not because he or she has authority over the named person but because he or she is the right person to identify or determine the essential significance of the named person.” (Andrew Perriman, qtd. in Peppiatt)

My thoughts: I thought it was strange that Pawson mentioned women taking their husbands’ last names, because this seems to happen only in Western European cultures. In most of the greater Middle East, South Asia, Korea, and China, a woman retains her father’s name at marriage; in Latin America, following Spanish custom, children take both parents’ last names (i.e., Pablo Ruiz y Picasso).

I would add that I know many aunts and grandmas who received new names from their nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, which throws a wrench in that idea! My own family calls me by a name given by my brother. Many societies in Latin America, Slavic nations, and Arabic-speaking nations use special names only within close family. The prerequisites of the act of naming can be kinship or intimacy. Authority is only one consideration, and it does not conclude the matter.

The best evidence against this logic, though, is found in Rabbinic commentaries, where Adam is regarded as the first human to name God. Surely Ortlund, Piper, and Grudem would not say that this implied that Adam had authority over God!

5. What may we learn from women who prophesy?

And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.

Judges 4:4

H: Prophesying is merely relating the words of God, and does not equate to teaching, leadership, or authority, and thus women may prophesy in both Testaments. (Pawson)

M: Female leaders and prophets—such as Deborah, Miriam, Zipporah, Manoah’s wife, Ruth, Hannah, Abigail, the Wise Woman of Tekoa, the Shunammite Woman, Huldah, and Esther—show that women had considerable freedom during the time of the Old Covenant. (Ellicott’s Commentary states this.) Special qualifications or limitations of women are imposed by societies, not by revelation.

My thoughts: I have heard several opine that women primarily lead when men aren’t taking up their God-given role as leaders (i.e., women may lead as an “escape clause”). The story of Barak and Deborah exemplifies this. But this doesn’t explain away all the prophetesses of the Bible.

In Barnes’ Notes, on 1 Corinthians 11, he writes that female prophets plainly “expound the Word of God” (contra Pawson) but gives other reasons that modern women should not teach. He writes that they would require the same inspiration as scripture’s prophetesses. The complementarian position here—that women could prophesy at one time but now cannot teach—is problematic.

6. Why did Jesus only call male apostles?

And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach . . .

Mark 3:14

H: Jesus only ordained twelve men, when he could have ordained six men and six women, to better represent both sexes. (Pawson)

M: “Although the twelve apostles were men, Jesus surrounded himself with women disciples as well. R. T. France writes, ‘In the cultural context of the time it was perhaps inevitable that men should form the inner circle around Jesus, but Luke 8:1–3 suggests that that inner circle was not very sharply distinguished in practice from the wider group of companions among whom women were prominent.’ Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other women accompanied Jesus on his mission and funded him out of their private means. Jesus chose women as traveling companions, disciples, and patrons of his mission.” (Peppiatt)

My thoughts: I agree with R. T. France. Some cultures are simply more gender-segregated in their activities, so I would not use the maleness of the twelve apostles as a talking point here. It is a descriptive fact, not a prescriptive fact.

7. Did Priscilla have a teaching role in the early church?

1 And [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them. . . . 18 And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow. . . .26 And he [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.

Acts 18:1, 18, 26

Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers [literally, ‘co-workers’ (KJV, ESV), ‘fellow-workers’ ] in Christ Jesus . . .

Romans 16:3

Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.

1 Corinthians 16:19

Salute Prisca and Aquila . . .

2 Timothy 4:19

H: Priscilla is frequently named before her husband Aquila because of her high social standing. On Acts 18:26: “The verb ‘teach’ is not used on this occasion, they did it later and it was a private context in their home, not a public one in church” (Pawson, p. 43).

M: “Four of the six times [Priscilla] is mentioned, she is mentioned first, giving us a clear indication that she is deemed to be the most prominent of the pair. In addition to this we know that she had a crucial role in instructing Apollos in the faith (Acts 18:26). Prisca, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis all ‘worked’ with Paul. Gaventa writes, ‘That bland verb does not convey a great deal in English, but this is the language he uses elsewhere when he is speaking about apostolic labor (as in 1 Cor 3:9; 4:12; 15:10; Gal 4:11; 1 Thess. 5:12)'” (Peppiatt).

“It is evident that Priscilla has served as a teacher (Acts 18:24, 26, 28).” (Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus, p. 98)

“Does it not seem as if Priscilla ought to be a greater Christian teacher than Aquila?” (Joseph Parker, The People’s Bible, in loc. Acts 18)

My thoughts: In verse 26, the verb for “took him” (προσλαμβάνω) can mean “received him into their home”, but the context here also matches closely with Matthew 16:22 and Mark 8:32, where Peter “took” Jesus aside and rebuked him.

Contra Pawson, the verb for “expound” (ἐκτίθημι) is hardly weaker than “teach”. In the Septuagint it means to “lay down” a decree; in the NT, it involves taking time to set someone straight who is mistaken. Thus, Peter “expounds” his visions to the Judaizers (in Acts 11:4), and Paul “expounds” the kingdom of God “both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets” (Acts 28:23). It is unconvincing to claim that “teach” differs categorically from “expound”, or that Priscilla was excused in correcting a prominent and well-versed male teacher because it was “private” (which is likely but not necessarily clear from the text).

In addition, no mention is made of Priscilla’s pedigree in the NT, but we do know some of Aquila’s background; so Pawson is only speculating as to why her name comes first. Chrysostom (4th c.) surmises that she must be “more zealous, and more faithful.”

8. Was Phoebe a deacon?

1 I commend unto you Phebe [= Phoebe] our sister, which is a servant [‘deacon’ in NIV, NLT] of the church which is at Cenchrea:
2 That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer [or ‘leader’ in YLT] of many, and of myself also.

Romans 16:1–2

H: Some writers and translators believe that Phoebe is a “servant”, not holding the office of deacon. Other hierarchicalists hold that women may in fact hold that office—of the related office of “deaconess”—but not higher offices in the church.

M: “The history of translation has certainly misled us on the nature of Phoebe’s central role in the early church.” (Peppiatt) “Paul uses [διάκονος] to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25).” (McCabe, “A Reevaluation of Phoebe,” 99.)

Several also point out that the Greek participle for “being”—οὖσαν, here translated “is”—frequently is used of someone holding an office, not of someone acting temporarily in a given capacity (as “servant” or “helper”).

My thoughts: The translation “servant” is speculative and is inadmissible here. Women have served as deacons since the earliest days of the church. One gravestone, found on the Mount of Olives, refers to a deacon Sophia as “the second Phoebe” (Η ΔΕΥΤΕΡΑ ΦΟΙΒΗ), showing that she was certainly believed to be a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem.

The discussion gets quite convoluted on whether Phoebe was a female deacon or a deaconess or a servant. Thomas Timpson, in his book on New Testament women, argues that she was not a deaconess, but simply a woman of privilege with great influence (though Timpson is not here arguing that women can’t be deacons).

In any case, it is problematic to argue from the union of 1 Timothy 2 and Romans 16:7 that women can be deacons but not elders; the phrasing of 1 Timothy 2:11 relates mainly to the manner of leadership, and does not prohibit female elders any more than it prohibits female deacons. If 1 Timothy 2:11 is read flatly, then women cannot teach in any capacity, period. That includes public schools, weaving, and dog grooming!

9. Was Junia an apostle?

Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

Romans 16:7

H: Some writers say that Junia is only travelling with the apostolic band (Pawson), or that she is highly regarded by the apostles, but not an apostle herself.

M: Chrysostom (4th c.) was overawed by Junia, writing that she was not only an apostle, but “of note among” them. Later, translators such as Martin Luther, Eberhard Nestle, and Kurt Aland suppressed this evidence of a female apostle, replacing “Junia” with a male name; furthermore, when the name “Junia” resurfaced, various liberties were taken with the text because of theological bias.

My thoughts: The plainest reading is that Andronicus and Junia are apostles, and women are nowhere prohibited from apostleship or eldership in the New Testament.

10. Does a wife have authority over her husband?

The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.

1 Corinthians 7:4

M: In the Roman Empire, a man had near-absolute power over his wife and children, and the statement that the wife has authority over her husband’s body is a tremendously subversive statement.

My thoughts: As Peppiatt brings out in Women and Worship at Corinth, there is definite tension between 1 Corinthians 7:4, where a woman clearly “has authority” (ἐξουσιάζει) over her husband in one area of their marriage, and 1 Corinthians 11:10, where a woman has to wear “authority” (ἐξουσίαν) on her head, because of the angels.

11. Does a woman have to cover her head in worship?

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. 13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. 16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

1 Corinthians 11:2–16

H: Verse 3 (like Ephesians 5:23) points out male headship, meaning men hold authority over women. Women may “pray” and “prophesy” (v. 5), but need to show submission and modesty in doing so. For some (Barnes), other special conditions would have to be met, such as clear evidence of inspiration. Paul clearly links veiling and submission to woman’s status at creation, in verse 8. This gives it the widest possible scope.

M: Peppiatt, in her book, Women and Worship at Corinth, proposes that Paul is quoting from his opponents in this passage, and she lists a number of rationales for doing so:

1) In verse 6, the writer advocates shaving women’s heads; the clearest explanation here is that it is a reductio ad absurdum for a prescriptive practice that Paul disagrees with.
2) In verses 7 to 9, woman does not relate directly to God, but relates to him through man. This contradicts verse 11, which makes man and woman interdependent. Verse 11 begins in Greek with a strong adversative particle, “nevertheless.”
3) In verse 10, women are encouraged to cover their heads “because of the angels”—a phrase for which no firm explanation has been given.
4) In verse 14, Paul could not be teaching against men having long hair, because he himself had long hair while fulfilling his vow.
5) In verse 14, Paul appeals to “nature itself,” which is not an argument that Paul uses elsewhere.
6) Very few churches throughout history have sought to apply this passage in their church worship. So it is apparent to everyone that there is some interpretive difficulty here.

More reasons are listed here.

A further consideration is that the hierarchicalist view of “headship”, which makes this a statement of man’s authority over woman, also makes a statement of God’s authority over Christ. This doctrine, known as “eternal functional subordination”, is now supported by many prominent theologians because of complementarianism—see the work of Kevin Giles on this.

12. Must women keep silence in church?

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
36 What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? 37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. 38 But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.

1 Corinthians 14:34–38

M: Paul is quoting from his opponents in verses 34 and 35, and in verse 36 he is strongly contradicting them. According to Peppiatt, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 together show that Paul was combating misogynism in the Corinthian church.

It is also very problematic that no “law” (v. 34) enjoins obedience on women, though some believe this to refer to Genesis 3:16 (which is a curse, but is found in the Torah).

My thoughts: In my opinion, λαλεῖν is mistranslated. It should be “it is not permitted for them to talk”. The verb has no reference to public speaking, which is why, if it is to be universally applied, then women can’t even greet each other in church.

Michael F. Bird believes that the context here has something to do with marital relations and family discussions during church teachings; as a principle, no one (women included) should disrupt a sermon by discussing the sermon with their neighbor or family member.

13. What is meant by “neither male nor female”?

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

H: In context, this verse relates to Abraham’s covenant. Only free, Jewish males could receive inheritances, and in Christ we all inherit the blessing of Abraham.

M: It is impossible to so strictly separate soteriological implications from social implications. (Peppiatt, Bird)

14. What about the “household codes”?

22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28 So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: 30 For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. 31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. 32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

Ephesians 5:22–33

18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
20 Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.
21 Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.

Colossians 3:18–21

1 Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

1 Peter 3:1–7

H: Even if historical context mitigates these commands, they cannot be negated on the basis of scriptural authority and inspiration.

M: Philip Doddridge, in the 1740s, wrote that mutual submission was the greater command, and these are lesser commands within that frame (though Doddridge still believed in male headship). This is an important consideration.

R. W. Dale, in 1882, relates these passages to church-state relations, writing that the New Testament church was not meant to be revolutionary or radical in a political sense. Paul therefore commands Christians to obey the law of the land. They did eventually overturn the social order, but only by degrees. Dale writes, that these domestic codes are harder on men than women. Commanding men to self-denial and marital faithfulness was radical in the Roman era.

In his Lectures on Ephesians, Dale notes three arguments against a marital hierarchy:

  • If wives must obey husbands, then slaves must obey masters (American emancipation happened in Dale’s generation);
  • Paul never says that wives are to “obey” their husbands, Titus 2:5 KJV being a mistranslation (Joseph Parker and others have agreed);
  • “Marriage is transfigured” (p. 356) by devotion to Christ, so that we are “not under law but grace”, and any subjection or sacrifice enjoined of either spouse is representative of a tender affection founded in Christian love.

15. Who were Euodia and Synytche?

I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.

Philippians 4:2–3

My thoughts: Paul must have addressed these women in a corporate letter because they had some unresolved controversy which had bearing on the direction of the local church. It is hard to imagine, then, that they were not significant leaders, and it is patronizing to contend that they only taught women and children. (I share this view with Moises Silva.)

16. Why does Paul say he will “suffer not a woman to teach”?

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided [braided] hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. 11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. 12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. 13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. 15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

1 Timothy 2:9–15

H: Verse 12 relates back to Genesis 3:16, in which woman is by nature tempted to usurp the authority of the man. In verse 13, Paul establishes that the priority of Adam in creation means also that he holds priority in teaching and decision-making. In verse 14, Paul further establishes that “Adam was not deceived”; man, therefore, is less liable to deception than woman.

M: It is clear from a linguistic point of view that αυθεντείν (KJV, “usurp authority”) means something like “dominate”, and is not referring to prohibiting the holding of any specific office.

Some argue that 1 Timothy 2:11–15 involves the female cult of Diana (or Artemis) of the Ephesians. This comes from the Kroegers’ book, I Suffer Not a Woman.

  • Timothy was in Ephesus;
  • Women had a dominant role in the pagan cult there;
  • “Braided hair” (v. 9) was a sign of pagan devotion;
  • Diana was routinely invoked during childbirth, so Paul is clearly encouraging women not to fear in childbirth in v. 15.

Michael F. Bird denies the Kroegers’ argument, but maintains that the passage is not transcultural; it does not apply to Christians of all times and places.

My thoughts: Even classical commentators have noted that

  1. the sequence of creation does not imply male authority (v. 13);
  2. Adam was deceived, but not in the same way or time as Eve (v. 14);
  3. “she shall be saved in childbearing” is one of the most enigmatic statements in the whole New Testament (v. 15), and is often taken to refer to either “the seed of the woman” in Genesis 3:15, or a reversal of the curse of Eve in Genesis 3:16.

Since many eminent authorities have denied the literal sense of verses 13, 14, and 15, which are supporting context for verse 12, this problematizes the exploitation of this passage to deny women leadership roles. It indicates that there is some important missing context here, though theologians cannot agree what it is.

The parallel mentions of external fashions here in 1 Timothy 2 (“braided hair”) and again in 1 Corinthians 11 (“veils”) are also strong cues that Paul is addressing specific cultural practices in these two important passages.

My Calvinist Brothers and the Left Foot of Fellowship

“The Charismatic movement is . . . a work of Satan.”
John MacArthur

“[Arminianism] is not damnable heresy per se.”
Phil Johnson, Grace to You

Why are so many Calvinists heresy hunters?

Calvinists are everywhere. I have served Christ alongside many Calvinists, some of whom I respect greatly and love dearly. But I have encountered numerous times my Calvinist friends—who I consider my Christian brothers—going out of their way to create division between themselves and anyone who rejects their yoke. I am not just talking about heresy hunting, which I also deem unbiblical, but about Christians attacking Christians. This article is my own rough attempt to understand why Calvinists are so often the hunters, and so seldom the prey. A few systematically-minded neo-Arminians like Jesse Morrell or Greg Boyd do return the favor and call Calvinism “heresy.” (I believe John Wesley did the same.) But far more often this unsubstantiated insult is hurled in the other direction. By and large, Calvinists hate Christian liberty.

My own position is one that I have gleaned partly by necessity, from living in multiple countries, where culture colors Christianity differently, and I am forced to exercise patience and forbearance if I want any Christian fellowship at all: being “in Christ” is a spiritual position, not an intellectual one. F. W. Boreham and Joseph Parker remind me that a plurality of voices enriches the church. A. W. Tozer and Richard Foster remind me that our unity is spiritual, not doctrinal, and it is found in Christ, not in any human organization. With these facts in mind, we must allow some latitude in the theology and practice of our Christian brothers.

Calvinists against Christian Liberty

When Calvinists speak of the “doctrines of grace,” this evidently does not necessitate the practice of grace. Where they are gracious to fellow believers, it seems to be the exception. Throughout my Christian life, I have encountered Calvinists who heap insults on those that disagree with them. Arminians do this, too; but they are not usually put on a pedestal for it. The most prominent Calvinist teachers in the world regularly speak of Arminians as “barely Christian”, and no feathers are ruffled in the congregations of their megachurches—rather, they are celebrated for their firmness of conviction. I’ll give some examples, and then discuss why I think this happens.

MacArthur vs. Charismatic Christians

I have study Bibles of various theological orientations, but I have gotten the most use out of my MacArthur Study Bible. In spite of this, I would not hesitate to say, John MacArthur is an outright enemy of Christian liberty. He has unabashedly dubbed the entire Charismatic/Pentecostal movement—which today is just about a majority of worldwide believers—”a work of Satan.” He has written three books on the topic, culminating in his 2013 book Strange Fire, which was pompously launched at a conference, hosted at his church, titled after the book. Thousands attended. Strange Fire was a self-serving and, frankly, depressing display of how Calvinists attack Christian liberty, and celebrate each other while doing so.

Wade Burleson wrote:

John MacArthur would do well to imitate Gamaliel and stop his war against Charismatics. [1]

Calvinist Christians vs. Arminian Christians

If MacArthur sees Charismatics as agents of Satan, he and his colleagues are slightly more tolerant of Arminianism. Phil Johnson, editor of MacArthur’s books and director of Grace to You, magnanimously calls Arminianism “not quite damnable”, referencing the words of revered Calvinist Charles Spurgeon.

Spurgeon did not regard Arminians as hell bound heretics. He regarded them as brethren. Did he think they were in error? Yes. Were they guilty of gross inconsistency in their own theology? He would have answered emphatically, yes. Was their main error significant? Spurgeon did not shrink from referring to it as “heresy”—meaning unorthodox doctrine, heterodoxy, serious error. But he was very careful to make clear that he did not regard Arminianism per se as damnable heresy or utter apostasy from essential Christianity. [2]

Insults aside, in the New Testament, all heresy is damnable (Gal. 5:19-21). I think the use of that word here is culturally informed, not biblically informed, and it shows that their Christian community tests its legitimacy on doctrinal, intellectual grounds.

MacArthur and Johnson put great stock in the words of Spurgeon, but they do not imitate him in the practice of Christian liberty. Charles Spurgeon exchanged pulpits with Arminians. His chosen successor at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Arthur T. Pierson, was a Presbyterian, and had not received adult baptism—and Spurgeon was a Baptist. Spurgeon understood something that MacArthur does not: we can trust each other without agreeing—even on major points of doctrine—because doctrine is not the sole grounds for our unity. Christ is.

To be clear, doctrine may limit our Christian unity; but it does not define it.

R. C. Sproul is a little more gracious: in the same breath that he refers to Arminians as “barely Christian”, he goes on to state that he sees such theological debates as occurring “intramurally”—that is, within the confines of the church of God, not equivalent to dealing with unbelievers. It hardly mitigates the force of his “othering” of Arminians!

John Piper vs. Universalism

John Piper, like John MacArthur, is a Calvinist. Unlike MacArthur, Piper believes that spiritual gifts are still legitimate today. When it comes to doctrine, though, Piper doesn’t exhibit any more Christian liberty than MacArthur does. When Rob Bell published a book in which universal salvation was (undogmatically) stated as one possibility on a spectrum of Christian ideas on the afterlife, John Piper famously tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” The implication was that Bell had committed the sin of heresy, irreversibly exiting Christian fellowship. I find the idea of universalism as repulsive as the next guy—but I find no warrant in Scripture for considering someone reprobate for entertaining it. Piper treats our Christianity as a matter of intellectual assent; but the Bible says “he who has the Son has life.”

A Case Study: Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker

Another case is Calvinist treatment of Joseph Parker, prolific writer and preacher. Joseph Parker was a close friend to Charles Spurgeon, though Spurgeon was an adamant Calvinist and Parker a confident Arminian. Spurgeon wrote:

There is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what now-a-days is called Calvinism. I have my own ideas, and those I always state boldly. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. [3]

In today’s terms, Parker and Spurgeon would be megachurch pastors. Both preached to congregations of thousands, even multiple times a week, year after year. A. Cunningham Burley, the author of Spurgeon and His Friendships, fittingly described them as “two great lamps”:

It is really difficult today to explain the significance of Spurgeon and Parker, or to make credible the enthusiasm of those who listened to them years ago. Yet there they stood, like two great lamps, burning on each side of the River—Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and Parker at the City Temple.

There were striking similarities between these two men. They both began as boy preachers in remote country villages . . . They eventually gravitated to London and became the pastors of ‘downtown’ churches. Both men gained the ear of the crowd. Spurgeon’s audience varied from five to seven thousand. Parker was in the habit of addressing three to four thousand hearers a week. They were prodigious workers who put their own church first. When they were able to preach at all, they were always in their place when Sunday came round.

They learned (surely in the school of Christ) to praise each other’s genius and to rejoice in each other’s success. [4]

In spite of all this, I have several times encountered Calvinist writers going out of their way to discredit Joseph Parker. [5]

Even when Spurgeon was alive, a member of his congregation sought to discredit Parker, accusing him of insulting their orphanages. In fact, Parker was working to take up an offering for Spurgeon’s orphanages, and the man had overheard Parker saying that the children needed better clothing and food. On Sunday, as the story goes, Spurgeon blasted Parker from the pulpit, outraged that his friend would insult helpless orphans. Since sermons were reported in the newspapers, all London knew that Spurgeon had done this. At Parker’s next pulpit appearance, thousands flocked to his church, waiting with bated breath for his response. Parker merely took up an offering on behalf of Spurgeon and his orphanage, as he had planned before. Spurgeon had to apologize in person, and they were reconciled. [6]

Why Calvin’s Followers Belittle Christ’s Followers

As an outsider, I cannot truly understand why followers of Calvin belittle followers of Christ. But I can name here some incorrect premises that may drive these ungodly insults against Christ’s followers, who will judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3).

1. “Calvinism is the Gospel!”

Calvinism is received differently from Arminianism. Arminianism and Calvinism surely predate Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin, respectively, but within Protestant theology, the former was delineated as an “ism” in response to the latter. Calvinism is treated by many as a kind of gnostic “special knowledge” required for salvation (“the doctrines of grace”). The native language of Calvinism is both dogmatic and exclusive. Calvinists frequently make it clear: if you do not hold these Calvinist doctrines, you are not in Christ; if you are in Christ, you must hold them at least unknowingly. A litany of quotations from Calvinist theologians show how common this sentiment is:

Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.
Charles H. Spurgeon [3]

Calvinism is pure biblical Christianity in its clearest and purest expression.
Leonard J. Coppes [7]

Calvinism is the Gospel and to teach Calvinism is in fact to preach the Gospel. It is questionable whether a dogmatic theology which is not Calvinistic is truly Christian.
Arthur C. Custance [8]

Arminians deny the efficacy of the merit of the death of Christ.
John Owen [9]

Arminianism is the plague of the church and the scourge of sound doctrine. . . . Arminians do not understand the Bible.
Gordon H. Clark [10]

Salvation as the Arminians describe it is uncertain, precarious and doubtful.
Gordon H. Clark [11]

An Arminian may be a truly regenerate Christian; in fact, if he is truly an Arminian and not a Pelagian who happens to belong to an Arminian church, he must be a saved man. But he is not usually . . .
Gordon H. Clark [12]

I believe that some Arminians may be born-again Christians.
Edwin H. Palmer [13]

They’ll say, “Do you believe that Arminians are Christians?” I’ll usually say, “Yes, I do—barely.”
R. C. Sproul [14]

Is the Arminian Jesus the same Lord and Savior as the Biblical Jesus? Not even a little. . . . If you believe and serve the Christ of Arminianism, you must recognize the fact that you do not serve the Christ of the Bible.
Steven Houck [15]

A religion of conditions, contingencies, and uncertainties is not Christianity—its technical name is Arminianism, and Arminianism is a daughter of Rome. It is that God dishonoring, Scripture-repudiating, soul-destroying system of Popery—whose father is the Devil.
Arthur W. Pink [16]

. . . rank Arminians, preaching another gospel.
Arthur W. Pink [17]

Satanic malice and the natural darkness of the human mind are, no doubt, contributory causes of Arminianism in its various forms.
J. I. Packer [18]

There is a stereotype in North American Calvinist circles that someone who becomes enlightened by “the doctrines of grace”—in their view, Calvinism—often becomes a rabid defender of those doctrines, unable to deal kindly with opposing viewpoints, condemning of non-Calvinist believers. It has been called “cage stage Calvinism”. But in the section above, I’ve quoted many similar reflections written soberly by the greatest sages of Calvinism. The reason that Calvinists old and new think this way is because it is part and parcel of the theological system. It is a system that is transmitted in such a way that prejudice against other Christians is somehow transmitted with it. It is conflated with the gospel in such a wholesale way, that it leaves its adherents with no alternatives.

2. “Calvinism Is Biblical!”

Calvinism and Arminianism tend to correlate with two different approaches to Scripture. In my own experience, Calvinism tends to thrive in an environment of systematic theology, and Arminianism tends to thrive in an environment of biblical/narrative theology. These are two different but complementary approaches to forming theology from Scripture. Systematic theology looks for specific inter-related propositions in the biblical text, unifying them into a coherent theological system. Biblical theology makes context king, over against any overriding need for theological coherence. Systematic theology compares logically-related propositions; biblical theology compares historically-related texts. Both approaches can produce good theology and bad theology. An illustration of this that I frequently come back to is Psalm 139.

In Psalm 139, David is profoundly affected by God’s omniscience. God knows his thoughts (v. 1-6); God sees him no matter where he is (v. 7-12); God knew him even before he was born (v. 13-18); God knows how he is grieved by his enemies (v. 19-24).

A line in Psalm 139:16 is somewhat puzzling for translators. The NIV reads: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” The KJV fits the context better, substituting “all my members” for “all the days ordained for me”. A Jewish translation, The Israel Bible, sounds more like the KJV: “Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book.”

For many Calvinist/systematic theologians, this line proves that God has ordained every event of our lives. For many Arminian/biblical theologians, it is affirming the same thing as the surrounding context in verses 13 to 18: God was active in David’s life before he was born.

The proof-text approach, employed, for instance, in the outlines of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology, can lead to a dogmatic and staunch confidence that your theology is found uncontroversially in Scripture, and anyone who contradicts you is contradicting the Word of God! You could use Psalm 139:16 in the NIV, ESV, or NLT to dogmatically affirm that God foreknows and foreordains every event of our lives, even sin and evil; but looking at the Hebrew Psalm in detail may lead to a completely different understanding of this verse.

3. “Calvinism Is Logical!”

Calvinism is touted as “logically consistent” by its proponents, and as a philosophical system it truly is. But—like Arminianism—some of its logical presuppositions are arrived at and defended somewhat mystically—through intuition, not through the biblical narrative.

Such a premise is found in Calvinism’s philosophy of time. There is no direct, biblical grounding for believing in a timeless eternity, even if there is indirect, philosophical grounding for doing so. There is also no direct, biblical grounding for denying the same doctrine—it is simply not a question that the Bible answers, no matter how fiercely we believe one way or the other.

As I explained above, I believe a systematic approach to Scripture lends itself to intolerance (healthy and unhealthy), but a biblical approach to Scripture lends itself to a plurality and diversity of voices (healthy and unhealthy). Both approaches have their extremes. A biblical approach helps me to gather inspired words about the afterlife, and see what ideas come of them; but a systematic approach teaches that these ideas are not created equal, and some are dangerous!

If I overextend the systematic approach, though, I may discourage or even destroy Christian liberty through my teaching, as MacArthur, Piper, Packer, Morrell, and so many others have done. A systematic approach to Scripture can lend itself to seeing heresy where there is none, because we become trapped by the premises we used to formulate our systematic theology.

A biblical/narrative approach allows me to accept opposing viewpoints with different premises—again, for good or for ill. Joseph Parker states this view repeatedly in his sermons:

Each man has his own view of God . . . The mischief is that we expect every man to speak in the same tone, to deliver the same words, and to subject himself to the same literary yoke or spiritual discipline. The Bible sets itself against all this monotony. Every man must speak the word that God has given to him through the instrumentality of his own characteristics.
Joseph Parker [19]

These words were preached and printed in 1892. They still resonate today. It’s obvious, though, that this way of speaking could easily lend itself to a post-modern viewpoint, in which the Scripture authors themselves may not have even agreed on any basic doctrine. Biblical theology frequently fails to produce a coherent ontology for those with sincere questions about reality. A single biblical theologian can entertain the contradictory theological frameworks of the Reformed, Arminian, open theist, and process theist, exploiting each framework in turn, without any statement about which, if any, is really true!

To live by the laws of reality, we must state that of two contradicting alternatives, only one (at most) is true. Likewise, if both alternatives are part of historic Christian doctrine, as Calvinism and Arminianism are, then we do not dismiss or condemn adherents of either doctrine.

End the Heresy Hunt

The Roman Catholic church in medieval times militated against aberrant theology and practice, ordering the execution of thousands, including great ministers like John Hus, Jerome of Prague, and William Tyndale. After the Protestant Reformation, it was Calvin and his friends, such as Zwingli, who kept up this legacy of intolerance in Europe, drowning numerous believers in Switzerland for rejecting infant baptism. Anabaptists were tortured and killed by both Catholics and Protestants. In the Donatist controversy, Augustine had written in favor of using force against heretics (i.e., murdering them); Luther held the same stance against Anabaptists; Calvin himself was directly responsible for the execution of Michael Servetus, who denied the Trinity.

There is nothing in the New Testament to motivate, justify, or excuse a Christian condemning to death those with aberrant and even dangerous theology. But John reminds us that “everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Those who are still on the heresy hunt may not be killing others, but they are reliving the cycle that began before Martin Luther, of seeking to quench opposing viewpoints. Like Job’s friends, they have a corner on the truth (Job 12:2). This kind of intolerance is not found in Christ or his apostles, and was directly rebuked by Jesus (Luke 9:49-55).

Jesus sought to correct the Sadducees on the resurrection (Mark 12:24-27). He did not hesitate to call the Pharisees “evil”, “a brood of vipers”, “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12). Many theologians of our day, prone to post-modern thinking, need to learn to call a spade a spade when future generations are on the line. Others—and many of them are Calvinists—need to learn to show grace to those they disagree with, because they are insulting Christ’s body and bringing dishonor to his precious church. They would do well to consider the words of Herman Bavinck:

Arminianism [is] undeniably present in American Christendom. There is much humbug in it. But I think we do better to incorporate and imitate the good things, than to condemn it all. . . . After all, Calvinism is not the only truth. [20]

By the foreordination of God, Jesus himself was killed as a blasphemer, as also were most of the apostles in time. Let us take care that we identify with Christ and the apostles more than we identify with their murderers.


[1] Wade Burleson, Gamaliel’s Wisdom and MacArthur’s War: Fighting Strange Fires Can Also Be a Fight Against God. Accessed April 20 2021.

[2] Phil Johnson, “Why I Am a Calvinist (Part 2)”. Accessed April 20 2021.

[3] Spurgeon’s Sermons, p. 129. This passage is also quoted in Spurgeon’s Autobiography.

[4] A. Cunningham Burley, Spurgeon and His Friendships. 1933.

[5] On the Wikipedia page on Joseph Parker, someone wrote that because Spurgeon had a “stricter theological framework” he “tended to distrust” Joseph Parker. Here was cited a short encyclopedia article, which said no such thing. Some Calvinist went out of their way to propagate a lie that Spurgeon distrusted Parker, when they were in fact friends who praised each other’s work and exchanged pulpits. Spurgeon even invited Parker to speak at his fiftieth birthday.

[6] The story is narrated here and is found in many compilations, but I cannot find any primary source for the story. If you have a primary source, please comment!

[7] Leonard J. Coppes, Are Five Points Enough? The Ten Points of Calvinism (Denver: by the author, 1980), p. xi.

[8] Arthur C. Custance, The Sovereignty of Grace (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1979), p. 302.

[9] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), Vol. 10: 13.

[10] Gordon H. Clark, The Biblical Doctrine of Man (Jefferson: Trinity Foundation, 1984), p. 74.

[11] Gordon H. Clark, Predestination (Phillipsburg. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987), p. 133.

[12] Gordon H. Clark, What Presbyterians Believe (1956), p. 74.

[13] Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p 26.

[14] Sproul is more winsome here than Owen, Pink, MacArthur, Custance, or Piper in the full explanation of how he sees Arminians, but I still wouldn’t call him if I got a flat tire. R. C. Sproul, “Are Arminians Christians?” Clip from footage filmed for Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism. Accessed April 20, 2021.

[15] Stephen Houck, “The ‘christ’ of Arminianism.” Accessed April 21 2021.

[16] Arthur W. Pink, “Comfort for Christians.” Accessed April 21 2021.

[17] Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead.  Accessed April 21 2021.

[18] J. I. Packer, “Arminianisms.” Chapter in Through Christ’s word : a festschrift for Dr. Philip E. Hughes. 1985.

[19] Joseph Parker, “Prophet of Judgment.” The Minor Prophets, The People’s Bible Book 20. Pioneer Library. Kindle edition.

[20] Quoted in George Harinck, “Calvinism Isn’t the Only Truth: Herman Bavinck’s Impressions of the USA.” Accessed April 21, 2021.