Everyone’s Orthodoxy is Someone Else’s Heresy

April 8, 2013

imagesLast week, my friend Emily Wierenga wrote a story for Prodigal Magazine.

It was a personal story about herself and her husband.  It was a story about what she felt God had shown her.  It was about the complicated, messy business of marriage and repentance.

I don’t want to talk about the content of Emily’s story.  I want to talk about the reaction it caused.

The reaction was huge.  It was swift.  And much of it was downright visceral with hundreds of comments from people who suddenly cared very passionately about Emily’s relationship with her husband.  It became an emotionally taxing day for Emily herself and my friends who run Prodigal.

Another friend, Bryan Allain, has poured a ton of effort into launching the Killer Tribes conference the last two years in March.  Obviously, the word “Killer” is meant in a completely fun, non-murdery context.

But I wonder if we as modern, educated, worldly, connected Christians – as bloggers, as culture-makers – really are becoming more tribal, more primitive, more warlike and more eager to kill people in other tribes, instead of more welcoming, more understanding, more inclusive.

Where’s the Party?

Any student of American history knows that George Washington was opposed to the formation of political parties in American government (though today he is considered to be a “Federalist.”)  Political parties represent the “tribalization” of government, a hive mentality rather than the promise of free democracy.

Of course, Washington’s vision didn’t last past his presidency.  The federal government became quickly divided as leaders ran to one side or the other of the line in the sand, and before you knew it, there were the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans.

I think Washington’s fears about party politics have completely come to fruition in modern America, (and have played throughout our history), as Americans are deeply divided, distrustful of each other, ready to go to war with each other – not through lofty rhetoric, but screaming and personal attacks.

Maybe the states of our country are united, but certainly not our people.

An Easy Command I Give To You

When Jesus sat down for his last meal with his disciples, he commanded them to do just one thing:

To love one another.

Jesus didn’t say this because he had never said it before (he had).  But with just hours left in his life, he wanted to tell his disciples that people would identify his followers by how they treated each other.

It’s not like it would be easy, even for those twelve guys.  John and James had a bit of an ego problem.  Matthew was a traitor to his countrymen as a tax man working for the Romans.  Nathaniel was kind of a racist. (Can anything good come from Nazareth?)  Peter was a buffoon.  Simon was a zealot (that means he was a fringe political right-winger).  Just put Matthew and Simon in a room together and see what happens.

Jesus told these men to love each other because it would be the toughest thing for them to do.  They could barely get through that meal and get along.

And Christian history has proven just how difficult it has been to just love one another.

Everyone’s Orthodoxy Is Someone Else’s Heresy

We think we have come so far.  We are so advanced, so modern.  We don’t sacrifice babies like the ancient Molech worshipers.  We don’t buy “snake oil” tonics like gullible people from the 1800s.  And we don’t burn heretics at the stake like in the Dark Ages.

Or do we?

According to Jesus, killing someone in our hearts makes us just as culpable as a murderer who kills a man in his body.  And with the internet, it’s just put us into contact with more of Jesus’ disciples than ever.  But instead of loving one another, we are often so ready to form into tribes, to beat the war drums, to burn a heretic at the stake.

Our blog community is full of heretics.  Our churches are full of heretics.  This is the way it has always been.  Paul addressed churches where Jewish Christians followed Kosher laws and Gentile Christians ate meat sacrificed to idols.  If you go to church or read blogs or interact with Christians in any way, you are going to come across some heretics.

Because what is orthodox to someone is going to be heresy to another.

You are a heretic to someone out there.

And we have a choice about how we treat heretics.  Our tribal, primitive instinct is to light the torches.  Our command is to love.

So what do you think?  Has our connectedness online allowed us to understand more?  Or are we just more prone to our natural instincts for tribalism and war?

76 responses to Everyone’s Orthodoxy is Someone Else’s Heresy

  1. thank you, thank you, thank you. with ALL the stuff we have to talk about, it’s been a long time since anything’s bothered me as much as the reaction to her article. seriously. thank you for saying this.

  2. I agree with your post– well, most of it. The first couple of paragraphs strike me as disingenuous. If it was a personal post, why mention a hot-button word like feminism, and use the post as a springboard to address feminists? (Not to mention the story about the abusive relationship, which just didn’t fit with the rest of the post and probably upset a lot of people for sounding like it was defending abuse.) I didn’t read through all the comments, but the first few I saw just seemed like simple disagreement, not nosing around in someone else’s life. If you’re going to attack a hot topic head on, you shouldn’t be surprised by the results. Again, this is only if you’re referring to the disagreement. If there were personal digs at her independent of the content, then that was wrong.

    All that said, I had a similar response when I shared an Atlantic post written by a gay former Liberty University student (long, but highly recommended). I took out an excerpt when I shared it that suggested maybe Jerry Falwell wasn’t the devil incarnate. Yeah, that didn’t go over so well. All it takes is disagreement on one issue to cancel a person out as a decent human being. I strongly disagree with Jerry Falwell’s stance on a lot of things, but there are other areas I can also admire and respect. We definitely forgot how to do that.

    • Agreed. I read the article, and it sounded like she was trying to make a statement about much more than just her own marriage, with the whole “I used to be a feminist but…” rhetoric. I mean, right there in the title she addresses her “feminist sisters” (wtf?). And the bit she threw in there about the abusive relationship, well, that was just creepy as heck.

      Sorry, but I have little patience for bloggers who write about their polical opinions and then act shocked–SHOCKED, I tell you!–when they get blowback about it.

      “Real” writers and journalists–the ones that appear in newspapers and newsmagazines–have to deal with negative feedback (sometimes really vicious negative feedback) all the time. I’ve never seen E.J. Dionne or Eugene Robinson do any handwringing about how their readers are “murdering their spirits” and crap like that.

      As I see it (and maybe, not being a writer, maybe I’m a bit off-base here), if you’re going to make controversial statements online, then have the balls to suck it up and deal with the negative feedback. Maybe even use some of the criticism as a way to improve your writing in the future. If you can’t handle the negativity, then maybe you ought to stick to writing about knitting patterns or something.

      • Abby, I completely agree that if we’re going to write online, we should be prepared for an array of strong opinions to come back at us.

        But is it too much for us as readers to assume the best from our Christian brothers and sisters?

        I’m not advocating that we all go back to knitting quietly and keeping our mouths shut. I’m just advocating that we have enough grace that we don’t cannibalize one another when we disagree.

        • Matt–

          A lot of your responses keep sticking in my craw and it’s this–

          You write: “But is it too much for us as readers to assume the best from our Christian brothers and sisters?”

          That’s where I think you’ve got it all bass-ackwards. You’re conflating “criticism” with “attacks”, and they are most definitely not the same thing.

          As has been pointed out in other comments, Emily’s writing had a lot of problems with it that went well beyond simply *what* she said–and those problems wound up distracting from what she might’ve actually been trying to say.

          Sure, if you insist, I can “assume the best” from her and figure that she didn’t write with a specific intention to be malicious. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that she still turned out a pretty sub-par piece of writing–it was vague, rambling, and brought up a lot of points that didn’t seem to fit.

          It almost seems like you’re saying that the “Christian” thing to do would be to just say “oh well, at least she *means* well” and leave it at that.

          While we’re turning stuff into metaphors, suppose I hire a nice Christian guy to come fix my roof. If he does a crappy job and leaves my roof full of holes, am I supposed to hire him back because he’s my Christian brother and I’m sure he was trying really, really hard?

          You see, THIS is precisely why Christian writers (not to mention songwriters, directors, artists, etc.) have little to no impact on secular culture, and it’s the reason why secular culture views much of Christian culture as poor-quality crap. Christians seem to be too willing to accept sloppy work, and too willing to view criticism as “uncharitable” or “unchristian”.

          Learning how to deal with criticism, without viewing negative feedback as a personal attack, is what seperates a professional from an amateur, in my opinion.

          Subject matter aside, if Emily’s essay (heck, you could say the same about the writing on a lot of other Christian blogs) showed up on the desk of the editor of a secular mag, it would’ve wound up in the “circular file” in a hot minute. Shouldn’t Christians demand the same level of quality from Christian writers that we do from secular ones?

    • Yeah, you know, I think that’s going to come up a lot today, that it wasn’t a “personal” story as soon as it went online, and we can pick apart the quality of her argument, etc.

      Although the disagreement started out pretty cool, it became clear to me that it got more heated that people expected.

      Again, I’m just advocating that we give grace when we disagree. If Matthew and Simon can do it, is it too much to ask of us?

  3. “But I wonder if we as modern, educated, worldly, connected Christians – as bloggers, as culture-makers – really are becoming more tribal, more primitive, more warlike and more eager to kill people in other tribes, instead of more welcoming, more understanding, more inclusive.”

    Really, Matt? I think you’re giving the human race (Christians included) too much credit here.

    We’re no more tribal and narrow-minded now than we’ve always been. The advent of the internet has just made it easier to figure out which tribe we’re in.

    Seriously–what did most Christians (and everybody else) do before they went online? They figured out which local church had the wacky ideas that they didn’t agree with, and then avoided it. They figured out which people had crazy opinions that made them uncomfortable, and then avoided them. When the newspaper ran a story they disagreed with, they grumbled and then cancelled their subscription. They figured out whether they were a Time person or a National Review person, and then only read that.

    Back in the day, I think Emily’s article would’ve appeared in Charisma or Christianity Today or something, where it only would’ve been read by people that pretty much just thought the way she does, and that would’ve been the end of it. There still would’ve been people disagreeing, but they would’ve just been limited to throwing the magazine across the room and moving on.

  4. matt, emily did not write a personal story at prodigal, and people did not respond viscerally to her relationship with her husband at all. instead, she addressed a letter explicitly to feminists, and people reacted viscerally to her troubling language about abuse and fundamentalist insistence that hers is only way to faithfully the bible. emily is a friend of mine and someone i care about a great deal, but she invited the pushback (and pageviews) by courting controversy and speaking not the language of personal story but blame and blanket prescriptives.

    honestly, i wonder if posts like this, which paint in black and white and attribute the langue of WAR to honest, deeply personal, (and frequently painstakingly gracious) disagreements are helping your cause any or just fanning the flames. love makes room for accountability, conflict, and nuance.

    • Suzannah, of course I don’t want to fan flames, and although Emily courted controversy, it appeared to me that she did not expect such a strong reaction – it was enough to make her feel she had to retreat from the online community for the time being.

      I’m not saying every comment was mean or anything. But I think we as people are human, and in our human nature, we resort to tribalism and war before we resort to love and understanding.

      To be honest, I knew that someone would make that comment – that as soon as she wrote an “open letter” to feminists, that it was no longer a personal story. In such a sense, I agree, as soon as you express any opinion online, it’s no longer private. But I still believe that her thoughts originated from her own marriage and what she felt God had been telling her.

      • One thing I’ve learned the hard way, through my own mistakes: You can’t write an “open letter” to a person or a group of people and then be surprised when they read it and respond. Emily wrote an open letter to egalitarians and feminists, and they wrote back. We shouldn’t be surprised by this.(This is why I find the “open letter” format ill-advised, and why I don’t use it anymore unless the letter is an exclusively positive one. Open letters are typically just one-way lectures or rants, disguised as a conversation.)

        While I know it is tough to get pushback online, Emily would do well to take at least some of the critiques to heart, especially those that were offered with sincerity and grace. For example, there were a couple of Hebrew scholars who pointed out that what she said about the Hebrew words for male and female just isn’t true. I’ve learned (again, the hard way) that it’s worthwhile to take into consideration the perspectives of those who may know more about a given topic than I.

        This is the comment I left after the post, and I fail to see how it is unkind or unfair:

        “Hi Emily. Thank you for the post. The writing is, as always, beautiful.

        However, I would caution against jumping to extremes when it comes to conversations about gender, power, and servanthood, and I think you may have created something of a false dichotomy here. The alternative to patriarchy doesn’t have to be matriarchy. The alternative to patriarchy is partnership, mutual submission, shared dignity, and shared worth. Not all who advocate for gender equality are advocating for a woman’s “right” to “rule over” a man. We are simply advocating for the full partnership of women in the home and church.

        A man does not have to fit squarely and exclusively into the role of leader and a woman fit squarely and exclusively into the role of servant for a marriage to work. In my marriage, things work best when we both put ourselves into the roles of servant. This means I submit to my husband (which isn’t always easy!), and he submits to me (which isn’t always easy!) We solve the “power struggle”, not by giving one partner power over the other, but by both surrendering it, both putting the other person’s needs first, both doing the foot-washing. And we are happy in our marriage. (It’s not perfect, of course, but we’re happy.)

        Obviously, each partner is responsible for his or her actions, and so – in that sense – submission is one-way. You can only control your own actions, and the call to serve doesn’t change based on the supposed worthiness of the one being served. Like you said, how you treat your husband should not be dependent on how he treats you; I think that’s a great reminder. Still, I would STRONGLY caution against glorifying the decision to stay with an abusive spouse; women who leave those situations are no less noble than those who stay, and I get tired of hearing about the “enduring wife” in Christian circles; far too many women have stayed too long because of it, to the detriment of themselves and their children.

        All this to say, it’s important to be reminded of our call to serve one another. But that call is not based on gender (or race or socioeconomic status). It’s based on our shared value and dignity as human beings, and the shared example we have in Jesus Christ.”

        • Rachel, I could not agree more with you! I know that I personally take critiques to heart that I get, both online, at home, at my job, etc. To not do so would be obstinately defensive, prideful, and self defeating (and would be completely contrary to the spirit of what I wrote in this post). I commented on Facebook that the first tenant of my statement of beliefs is “I don’t know as much as I think I do.”

          I also know that there were many kind responses to Emily, so by talking about how heated things got, I don’t mean to paint everyone with the same brush. And I feel that I’ve been an advocate for the same kind of mutual submission / partnership that many bloggers advocate.

          What the whole issue comes down to with me is – when we think someone is way out in left field, totally wrong, even harmful in what they are saying, what is our responsibility towards them as brothers and sisters in Christ?

          • When someone writes something publicly, I think it is reasonable to respond by writing something publicly in return. If Prodigal has a problem with this, why have a comment section?

            As Christians, it is our responsibility to respond respectfully, gently, wisely, and in a way that avoids personal attacks. But I don’t think we have to remain silent, especially when the work is a public one.

          • Fair enough, Rachel. And yes, I think it’s only guys with the most fragile egos who don’t allow comments.

            I just think that perhaps, even in the course of our public discussions, there might be times when the most gentle, respectful and wise way to respond might not actually be in public. Not always, but sometimes, maybe.

          • Also, I would never in a million years accuse Emily of heresy. There’s a real definition to that word and I think it would be wise to use it correctly.

          • Matt, would you mind sharing some examples of the comments that you thought were “visceral” or from a place of inciting “war” rather than turning the other cheek? You have my email if you would prefer to share these examples privately. I am trying to understand where you are coming from and what you are pointing to exactly because I *did* engage quite a bit on Emily’s post, and consider that mine and the VAST MAJORITY of the comments were even more gracious than to be expected in 1) an open letter to feminists, 2) a post that uses story to preach an agenda, 3) uses careless and problematic language about abuse and suicide, and 4) a piece that bases itself first on misinterpreted Hebrew.

          • I have to second Danielle. For someone who has said that there is no war on women or black people in the US (who are murdered and raped and abused and unfairly imprisoned all of the time) you sure do have a habit of comparing online criticism to war.

  5. Thank you Matt. Just, thank you.

  6. Matt, I understand your general point here. The issue is that it’s not quite as simple.

    A large part of the problem, IMO, is that a prevailing anthem of the world…there is no absolute truth…is creeping into the church and in many “emergent” or “liberal” or “open-minded” circles it’s replacing God as the focus of their worship. Any time you take a stand for the actual word of the Bible, it’s war in some pockets among those who claim to be followers of Christ.

    We can try to brush it off and say “well, everyone has different opinions”…which is true…but that doesn’t mean every opinion is speaking truth.

    A perfect example is in Emily’s excellent post. For example, Rachel Held Evans, who long ago walked away from following Christ while still pretending she follows so she can keep her blog base for her publisher, jumps right in with a false assertion that Emily was glorifying abuse. There was NOTHING in Emily’s post that endorsed that. Instead, a person whose motives are to destroy Christianity jumps in to spin the situation into a direction that allows them to continue their campaign of deceit. Rachel’s opinion is simply invalid. There is no truth in it. It should not be seen as “war” to point out that she is wrong and trying to twist the situation for her own purposes and to call attention to herself.

    This is where the issue with “heretics” come in. Not everyone who says they’re a Christian is really following Christ and the mindset that we should let anyone who claims to be a Christ-follower go without question is simply not Biblically valid. “Loving each other” is not the whole of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ teachings are much richer and deeper than that. Jesus never condoned sinful behavior in the name of “love” (for example.)

    • I haven’t walked away from Jesus.

      Not even a little bit.

      And if you actually knew me, you would know this to be true.

      And as critical as I was of Emily’s post, I would NEVER accuse her of not being a Christian, just because I disagree with her on gender roles.

      • Yeah, see, as soon as we start throwing each other under the bus over what we assume everyone’s motivations are or what everyone’s “true” beliefs are, things go awry. We can’t have a real discussion if we run off the road and go to “you aren’t a real Christian” territory.

        I have spent a lot of thought on how we determine who is “in” (i.e. a “true” Christian) and who is “out.” There are lots of beliefs – is it the prayer you say, the way you were baptized, your beliefs or your actions?

        The fact is Jesus spends his last meal with his disciples and gives them one final command by which his followers would be known – that they love one another. That is the final marker of being a follower of Christ. And like I said earlier – it’s not like this was easy even for the original disciples to do. I am sure there had to be times when the guys began to doubt one another’s true motives (which weren’t always saintly pure – as when James and John are jockeying for authority), but Jesus commanded them to love one another.

    • Wow, Jason. Someone had a full serving of irony for breakfast. To assume you know, clearly without a doubt, that Rachel Held Evans is only playing at Christianity for the sake of readership, then accuse her of inaccuracy in her assessment of Emily’s article is so ludicrous that it practically negates anything else you have to say.

      The profound arrogance of it goes without saying…but definitely bears mentioning.

  7. There are two issues at work here, one is the presumption that Emily shared a personal story and that was all she did; the other is that this somehow has to do with orthodoxy and heresy. I’d like to speak to the last bit of that, as Suzannah has already elegantly pushed back on the personal story aspect.

    Emily did not just share a personal story. She brought the Bible into it. She brought the Bible and an interpretation of the Bible. Further, she brought an interpretation that is actually linguistically incorrect. Bad hermeneutics. And not bad from egalitarian vs. complimentarian perspective, but where even complimentarians pushed back on the reading of the Hebrew. It was poorly done. Interestingly, when that issue was raised, she never spoke to it. She never addressed the hermeneutical or linguistic problem, she did not justify the scholarship that caused her to draw that conclusion of the Hebrew language. What I want to highlight, though, is that is *not* an issue of orthodoxy or heresy. This post was not about orthodoxy or heresy. Particularly because the word “heresy” actually does mean something in Church history and it doesn’t have to do with this kind of post. Denying the divinity of Jesus Christ? Sure, that’s heretical. But interpretations of passages that misrepresent the original words of the passage? That’s not heretical, it’s just sloppy. What Emily did, what Prodigal allowed, it was just sloppy. It wasn’t heretical. It wasn’t an issue of orthodoxy. It was an issue of really poor translation. And she didn’t own up to that or justify it. She ignored it. So before we turn this into a statement on orthodoxy and heresy—which already seems like a real stretch—let’s keep in sight what the real issue was when it came to the Scriptural support of the post: it was poorly done and when corrected it was ignored. That’s *not* a “well, you can believe that way, I believe this way” … doesn’t work when we’re translating language! Hebrew words do, in fact, mean things. When you change their meaning to suite your argument, you’re just being dishonest, intentional or not. That’s not heretical, but it’s also not great.

  8. Matt, I can appreciate the desire to hope for the best for everyone. That’s what we all want. And there’s more to us than our blogs or what we post on other sites.

    So I guess my question is, if someone feels attacked or disparaged online, what do you personally think is the right way to respond in love and in unity? So, in other words, if I feel that someone has already wounded the unity of the church, what is the next step?

    I wrote a sort of indirect response to Emily’s post on my blog sharing my own story and saying, “Here’s an alternative story, and you can do what you like with it.” I tap danced around personally attacking Emily’s post or Emily personally because I trust she is doing what she thinks is best, but I couldn’t avoid saying, “I felt judged and attacked in that post.” I don’t know if Emily has given me and my wife the benefit of a doubt in our choices about our marriage in light of her post.

    I honestly don’t know what else I could have said under the circumstances. If I can’t say, “Ouch, that hurt!” then we have no hope as a body of believers. Naturally, fighting back just creates more pain, but we need to be careful about characterizing all responses as “fighting back.” So I’d like to know how you think we should respond when we feel hurt.

    • Ed, I get the feeling I’m going to get a lot of comments today from people who are going to say they didn’t think they were attacking Emily. That’s fine, if that wasn’t your intent. But I think you also have to give Emily the same charity by assuming that she wasn’t attacking you.

      How do we repair unity when we think it’s already been damaged? It’s tough, and maybe even tougher when we are able to so quickly and publicly voice our distaste for others’ opinions. Like I wrote recently, maybe a little Matthew 18 would go a long way – confronting people privately and saying “Do you know what you just said sounded way out of line?”

      It’s my opinion that our experiences and backgrounds are so varied that no writer can possibly account for how every last reader is going to take their words. The writer has some responsibility, but so do we as readers to understand and give grace if we feel offended.

      • As one of the regular commenters on Emily’s post, I would like to clarify that I did not feel “attacked.” I felt addressed — it was literally an “open letter to my feminist sisters” — and then responded. But there were also pieces that were triggering to some people, particulaly the mentions of spousal abuse, suicide, mischaracterizing feminism, etc. that seemed careless word choices at best and inflammatory at worst.

        I know Emily and love her heart and poetic mama-bear approach to life. But as a fellow writer (and one at Prodigal at that), there is a level of responsibility that needs to be taken to say, “Yes, we should have caught these triggers that DID feel like an attack for some people.” It is always the responsibility of the writer to be clear, and even excruciatingly clear when talking about sensitive, complicated issues such as abuse and mental illness.

        • I would like to add to this that I don’t understand why Matt is claiming that so many people felt attacked. I saw people say, “This post makes me uncomfortable,” and, “This post contains difficult or triggering language,” but (with a few possible exceptions), I don’t see the people who were troubled by the post claiming that they felt attacked.

        • I agree Danielle. As I stated on EE’s post this morning, it was my responsibility to make sure the stories didn’t cause triggers and, having never been abused myself (save for neglect when I was a child) I wasn’t aware of the enormous amount of pain my story about my Lebanese friend would cause. I am in deep mourning over using that anecdote, and want to reassure you that I take full responsibility for the blame in using that story. I continue to stand by my theology in the post, but I should not have used that particular anecdote and for that, I am sorry. I hope that with time you can forgive me. e.

    • The irony of the debate as I see it is this:

      Emily writes a strong story. Let’s assume for the sake of charity that she doesn’t intend to attack anyone.

      People feel attacked anyway. They feel Emily didn’t fulfill her responsibility as the writer to be clear with her words. So they respond, understandably, with strong words.

      Emily feels attacked. Commenters defend themselves saying “We didn’t mean to attack her.”

      Vicious cycle continues. Everyone feels attacked, while no one feels they attacked anyone else.

      • Also, Matt, I don’t believe that Emily’s post was a story. It used elements of story, sure. But it also used elements of Scripture. And both were done in haphazard, damaging ways. Story was misused as a vehicle for elevating an agenda and theology (something pure stories don’t do), and Scripture was misused as a bullet point to prop up the agenda.

  9. Hey Matt,

    I so appreciate your perspective here and also your care and concern for your friend. But can I pose a thought? You write, “I don’t want to talk about the content of Emily’s story,” but that’s really unrealistic, since the reaction was sparked because of the content.

    While I don’t know Emily personally, I’ve certainly read her posts. She seems like a lovely person with a big heart. And I value that.

    That said, any time she writes about her marriage, I cringe. Not because of what she’s promoting (though I disagree with many of her husband/wife perspectives), but more often because of how she writes about her marriage. The tone. The awkward phrasing. What she shares and more importantly, what she doesn’t share.

    If I’m honest, Emily doesn’t make her husband seem very likable. And while I’m sure that’s not the case at all, that’s how I feel. The subtext for her Prodigal post read like a “cry for help”. And again, I don’t think she meant it that way. But that’s how it made me feel. That post made me want to rush to wherever she lives and rescue her. She didn’t come across as though she believed what she wrote, she sounded like a woman who didn’t have a choice but to believe what she wrote.

    And I think some of the reaction was based on how people felt after reading the post. How she worded phrases about her husband did not shine him in a good light, even when she was saying good things about him.

    Sometimes her words/phrasing made her seem more like somebody trying to convince herself that what she was writing was true as opposed to somebody who actually believed her words were true.

    People certainly reacted passionately. Partly because of what that post was promoting/suggesting as biblical or healthy or good marriage values. But I also think people responded the way they did because of how the post was written. There was too much suggested in the subtext. I asked myself several times… “Are we really talking about cutting onions here? Or is there more to the story that we don’t know?”

    Again, Emily seems lovely. And her husband/life are probably lovely, too. But that post did not convince me of that.

    • Hey Matthew – really interesting perspective. And I think it brings up a touchy balance that we as readers have to try to achieve, and that is reading the “subtext” or reading between the lines. On the one hand, I could read Emily’s post and try to give her the benefit of the doubt, fill in whatever spaces I thought she left blank, complete the meaning that I thought she was getting at. On the other side, you read between the lines to find a clandestine cry for help.

      I think it just goes to show how difficult communication really is, even through the written word. And I think the inescapable plasticity of the written word places more responsibility on us as readers, to be measured in our responses as we ask ourselves “Is that really what she said?” I mean, our whole problem with the Bible, as I see it, is our failure to do this – to be cautious with this very mysterious text that leaves a lot of places to read between the lines – before we loudly proclaim that our interpretation is the only correct one.

      • I see your point. But ultimately, it’s the writer’s responsibility to offer a clear non-passive perspective. You can’t leave things to your readers’ imaginations and not expect them to use their imaginations.

        • I have to agree with MPT. You nearly lost me in the first paragraph. “Let’s talk about the reaction to this post, but not get into the content of the post.” It’s dismissive – as if you think anyone responding negatively to the content just did so to attack, with no conviction based on the content. The content was problematic on so many levels. We cannot talk about the response while ignoring the content.

          What I find so frustrating about the Christian blogging community is that, when there is disagreement, there are so many attempts to silence it. I thought the reactions to Emilly’s post were civil, and dare I say even loving. We do not have to agree with one another to show love. And yet, Emily later began using persecution language and other attempts to silence those who disagree. And here you are, further using scripture to basically slap the hands of people who disagreed with the content, even referring to “killing someone in our hearts.” So dramatic.

          The content that was deliberately meant to confront feminists. Many of them responded. That’s how the internet works. I would highly suggest that if Emily or any other writers are going to feel attacked or persecuted because someone disagrees, that they stop writing posts directly to people they disagree with. But honestly, the more mature way to handle it would be to continue to write from the heart, and when people disagree, instead of assigning shame and blame and persecution narratives, see it as just what it is: someone who disagrees.

          • Kristen, I appreciate your input on this. Really, truly.
            Nearly everyone who has commented today has said that their own comments were civil. They didn’t feel they were being overly defensive, or attacking Emily.

            But, everyone also thought that they themselves were being attacked. Readers thought that Emily was attacking them. Emily felt that readers were attacking her, despite everyone’s professed intentions to be civil.

            And I think it just all illustrates our ability, perhaps even readiness, to feel attacked, whatever the intention of who’s making the comments. And if everyone leaves feeling attacked, like they have to defend themselves, then what has been the point of the discussion? Was anything fruitful accomplished? That’s for all of us to evaluate and decide.

            Of course, I’m not trying to silence anyone. How could I possibly do so, much less online? And what would it mean to anyone if I “slapped them on the wrist?” I have no authority to slap anyone’s wrist. So I do feel that labeling my call for grace toward each other as “trying to silence others” is not accurate.

        • Certainly! The only question that remains to be answered is what is any writer’s ability (or desire for that matter) to be completely clear, and what is any reader’s ability to use their imagination. It’s the same conundrum that keeps every Biblical scholar and the Supreme Court in business.

  10. This is my first, public comment on this subject.

    I have been deeply disturbed by all of it. All of it.

    I want to preface what I’m about to write by saying: I love Emily. Love her, love her, love her. You’ll never get otherwise from me. I have followed her for a long time, and I participate in her Imperfect Prose community (including on her IP team of readers and commenters). I trust her heart. She’s the kind of person who follows the followerless and encourages the broken and lost. That’s who she is. She makes time (when she has none) for those who seek love and encouragement.

    The post at Prodigal was written in Emily’s normal, bloggy style: which is to say, it was beautiful, poetic, lyrical, rambling, imperfect, fast and loose. Her normal, bloggy style was not well-suited to the very serious purpose of her post, which was absolutely to invite female, feminist readers to consider (according to Emily’s interpretation of scripture) submitting to their husbands.

    Even among those who believe in biblical inerrancy, I think there should be some sort of concession that we, as flawed humans seeing through a glass darkly, may misinterpret that inerrant scripture. I’m not a fan of heavy-handedness. I’m interested in what other people think and am always willing to learn about it: to be pointed in a direction or invited into a conversation. I think Emily went deeper and further than this, and–even though I live in joyful submission to my OWN, gentle husband–I didn’t like it. I will say, too, it was unusual for her to go beyond story and to challenge others in less than a gentle way.

    I stand with her, for now, because I think she made mistakes, as we’re all wont to do. I think she knew, going in, that she would invite backlash for her theological viewpoint. I do not think, however, that she realized how her (sloppy) weaving of story–her Lebanese friend’s, her grandmother’s, even her parents’–would distract from her purpose and trigger hurt in others. I would imagine that she has a team of editors at Prodigal, and I wonder why they didn’t suggest that she leave out some of that unnecessary business…or expand upon it…SOMETHING! so Emily wouldn’t distract from her purpose (and, therefore, stand a better chance of realizing it) or hurt others unnecessarily. If I were her, I would be cautious in trusting these folks, in the future. Maybe they wanted a lot of traffic. They got it.

    Emily has a lot to learn. If she’s going to write about such serious matters, she’ll need to either tighten up (meaning: write more carefully and to the point, also provide more solid evidence than “this is my interpretation of perfect scripture”) OR grow thicker skin, because she got eaten alive at Prodigal. I hated to see it. Does she bear responsibility for it? Sure, she does. But I love her, I trust her heart, and I’m going to stand right here and see what she does, next.

    If she claps her hands in excitement that she’s being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, I’m jumping ship. If she fails to learn and grow from this experience, I’m jumping ship. If she stops being her normal, gentle, Emily-self, I’m jumping ship. (That’s not to say I won’t love her, just that I won’t read a bunch of nonsense.)

    But she’s a smart, good, Jesus-loving girl. I think she’ll figure it all out and be that much the better for it.

    • Love your comment, Brandee! You perfectly illustrate the need for grace. You know Emily’s heart and probable motivations, so it is easier for you to give her grace. Incredibly, you give her even more grace because you see the flaws in the original story.

      You just made me think of this. Let’s say some primitive tribal people wanted to attack the US. They bring the army – a couple of hundred soldiers with pointed sticks to DC. Would the US feel legitimately “attacked” by this pitiful band of soldiers?

      In some strange way, when we see a brother or sister speaking or writing, and we believe we can see glaring contradictions in their thinking, do we have even more of a responsibility to show grace, because their argument really doesn’t pose a serious threat to us?

      • Pardon the mixed metaphor, but there’s no use crying over spilled oil. You just stop buying gas from the sloppy company. I understand the need to respond and defend one’s position, I do, but they don’t say, “Even bad publicity is good publicity,” for no reason. Emily is my sister in Christ; I’m not going to stop loving her. Her words have a yellow light with me, though (and I’m not telling you anything I haven’t told her, one-on-one), as does Prodigal. I the lot of them can’t do a better job, I’m not going to read anymore. I’m just not going to read.

    • This might be the best reflection on the whole mess I’ve read yet. Thank you.

    • “Maybe they wanted a lot of traffic. They got it.” … This is something I was concerned about that day. I mentioned it on Prodigal’s blog the next day. I felt the tweeter feed during the day and evening from Prodigal was feeding into the situation. By the time they tweeted the second link they knew that the post had hit some raw areas for people but they continued to tweet the link. I have followed Emily for some time. I enjoy her lyrical beautiful writing. I do not even remotely view marriage roles as she does, however, I don’t think this prevents me from gaining further perspective from another persons viewpoint.

    • Brandee,
      This is my favorite comment by far!
      You nailed it.
      Those of us who know Emily’s heart
      saw this open letter as an encouragement to see the beauty she sees in a servant heart.
      She was raw and uncensored. Don’t we all want to be able to be authentic?

  11. We are so passionate about our own callings and ministries that we tend to forget that we really are not all the same. Yeah, I am get it wrong sometimes when I preach, but God still shows up and makes something happen. In this fallen world we will never get it just right. But a little grace goes a long way.

  12. Hey Matt, I have to say I’m really disappointed in this post. We can’t have an honest discussion about the reaction to Emily’s post without also discussing the content people were reacting to. To assert that her post was merely a personal story about her own marriage is a serious misrepresentation. She used three separate anecdotes about other people’s marriages that had nothing to do with her own marriage. And not only that, but she made enormous judgments and generalizations about those stories to prove a point – in an open letter format – to argue against feminism and accuse feminists of being selfish and unservantlike. It doesn’t get much more inflammatory than that. The narratives she constructed using those stories went so much deeper than a personal story about her own marriage.

    Her post’s content invited pushback and criticism, and while I can agree that not every comment was constructive, the criticism was very much needed. No one called her a heretic. She’s entitled to her beliefs and I don’t fault her for being a complementarian. But I said it in the comments, I said in my post for Prodigal on Friday and I will say it here again, that not all stories are ours to tell and writers need to know that boundary and respect it. And readers should be able to discuss that boundary and give honest criticism without being accused of torturing the person that posted their content publicly. Burning at the stake? Honestly.

    • Bethany, as I said before, the comments cannot be taken away from the context of the original post. What I intended to communicate was that I would not be commenting on Emily’s content itself, but rather I want to use this episode as a case study of how Christians interact online.

      My takeaway is that nearly everyone left the discussion feeling attacked. But no one feels they attacked anyone else. So somewhere along the line, something is being lost in translation, and I don’t think that is something to be dismissive of.

      Christians have a history of disagreement. It can work positively and lead to reformations. It can work negatively and lead to burning people at the stake. I used that as a metaphor – as a caution to all of us that our zeal for the truth can sometimes also be hurtful.

      • i don’t think that “everyone felt attacked” is a compelling takeaway. perception is subjective, but words mean things, and there is a HUGE difference between disagreement/conflict and personal attack. HUGE. there is also quite a leap between “agreeing to disagree” and insisting that one’s own reading of scripture is the only/exhaustive one (and everyone else’s is unfaithful).

        emily’s narrative was full of sweeping gender prescriptives and was careless with language and causality in ways that were hurtful *even though she didn’t intend them that way.* good intentions don’t excuse us from the harm our words and in/actions cause. it seems like you want to argue that since emily meant well, she is not responsible for her words, and you also want to argue that any critique of her piece (no matter how charitable) is inherently personal/attacking/against christian unity.

        no one is being burned at the stake. that’s a sloppy metaphor and unfair casting of emily and her critics. assigning positive intent (and taking responsibility) goes both ways.

        • This! This this this! I had the same thoughts about positive intent and disagreement and basically this entire comment.

        • Fair enough, Suzannah, and I do appreciate your comment. I guess I was more compelled by the perception of attack than you were.

          Just a thought – if we follow the “words mean things” to its natural conclusion, then by extension, we do what we accuse others of doing – insisting that our own reading of scripture is the only/exhaustive one and everyone else’s is unfaithful.

          Most of us would not say that. We have enough grace to say that the words of scripture are more open to interpretation than that. In my mind, the “words mean things” argument is not that compelling. Sure, they mean something, but that meaning is buried inside a shell of presuppositions and assumptions that we all bring to the table.

          • but words DO function within definitions and context. otherwise, what is the point of all of this, and what hope could we possibly have of wielding them better?

            comments that resort to name-calling can be construed as attack. you and are are disagreeing right now, and neither of us is engaged in attack. we can apply some objectivity here, despite our subjective experiences. language isn’t a free-for-all.

            (bible interpretation really is another matter. we are removed by language, cultural context, and thousands of years, so meaning is a good bit harder to ascertain–or impose on one another.)

          • Absolutely, biblical interpretation is much more complicated than you and I communicating right now, which I think has gone quite well. :)

  13. Matt, I’m curious, in the comment above, Jason writes, “For example, Rachel Held Evans, who long ago walked away from following Christ while still pretending she follows so she can keep her blog base for her publisher, jumps right in with a false assertion that Emily was glorifying abuse.”

    The post you have written here is all about *not* encouraging this sort of dialogue, yet you have remained silent, have not moderated the comment, or responded by saying that such an accusation is unhelpful. You’ll stand up for Emily, but not for Rachel. That’s a disappoint to the very point you’re trying to make in this post. And, actually, the comment is much more like calling *Rachel* a heretic than *any* comment on Emily’s post was. So, what gives?

  14. Every time I read your blog, I find myself saying “Words mean things, Matt,” and every time, you obstinately refuse to actually consider that what you said was maybe not so clear nor corresponded with the understanding of the word that most people have. Case in point – orthodoxy and heresy. As Preston already noted, you seem to be mapping a reading of orthodoxy and heresy onto a controversy in which heresy and orthodoxy were not central discussions. For me, at least, the crux of the criticism hinged on the appropriation of another person’s story (specifically the suicide part, which I wrote about on my own blog) and the universalizing of a private, personal story. You cannot frame an argument as an “open letter to feminists” and then proceed to say that because something didn’t work for you, then all feminists are this way. What’s more is that Emily’s unwillingness to admit that she may not have been clear enough and her editor’s unwillingness to say that they made a mistake in how they edited fed into the controversy because it felt like the critics weren’t being listened to. Your narrative here erases the possibility that Emily was inappropriate in how she delivered her personal story AND with how she responded to the critics (“My words were not intended to be misconstrued” not only makes zero sense but is in no way a clarification). I’m frankly sick of Christians who are unwilling to engage in good faith about issues of representation and narrative and appropriation of abuse being defended for the sake of unity. It all ends up coming across as so much bluster and no substance after awhile.

    • Dianna – I try extremely hard to welcome other points of view here, to come to mutual understanding when possible, to be charitable when understanding is difficult. That really is what this whole discussion is about – our ability or inability to discuss our differences. To be honest, I’m a little bit confused at your accusation that I “obstinately refuse to actually consider…” My illustration of orthodoxy and heresy was used precisely to this point – that everything we take for granted will not correspond with the understanding that other people have. Everything we take for granted as truth will be disagreed with by someone else. I try go into every discussion I engage in with that assumption.

      • When you posted about feminism/equality a few weeks ago, your “clarification” post just dug your heels in more. When I challenged you directly about your use of spiritual abuse in a post that same week, it was pure defense without recognizing that you could be wrong.
        And this. Orthodoxy and heresy have set definitions within church history that have specific meanings. To apply them to this controversy with a wishy-washy “your truth is my falsehood” statement is to completely sever them from the meaning they have had for literally centuries. Indeed, for someone who seems to sit firmly in the orthodox, critical-of-post-modernist-philosophy camp, you seem to have zero problem leaning on Derrirda-esque analysis of language and understanding.
        It’s all very post-modern of you to apply your own personal meaning to words, but I’m afraid it doesn’t fly in actual discussions. At some point, one needs to consider that “it’s my definition of how things are” doesn’t actually hold up in a discussion where you tried to make a universal principle out of your personal definitions of words (this principle applies to both Emily’s writing and to this post defending it).

        • Dianna – when I say that someone’s truth is another person’s heresy, I still believe that there is one “truth.” But in our pursuit of truth, none of us are ever 100%. So the assumption that I have of truth is going to be someone else’s assumption of un-truth somewhere. And “orthodoxy” and “heresy” are not set labels, nor are they always consistent with truth. Church history would bear this out – that many people were labeled “heretic” in their time even though their beliefs today are now considered “orthodox.” Jesus himself was labeled “heretic,” though his words were true. So “heretic” and “orthodox” are labels that we put on ourselves or one another, not necessarily demarcations of what is actually true and false. If they were, then truth would often be determined by popular opinion. Just because there is a “consensus,” it doesn’t mean the consensus is right. So whether I am in the majority opinion or the minority, I have to have the humility to understand that I might be wrong.

          • And yet, and yet, I’ve never seen you admit you might be wrong, nor have I seen such humility from Emily nor her editors on Prodigal.

            I’m just going to leave it that.

          • The very last sentence of my previous comment:

            “So whether I am in the majority opinion or the minority, I have to have the humility to understand that I might be wrong.”

            I clearly spoke in first person. I didn’t say you have to have the humility to say you might be wrong. I could have said you need to be more humble and admit your might be wrong. But I spoke for myself.

            If that is not conciliatory enough for you, please refer to my last response to Preston.

          • Matt, you really can’t divorce the words “heresy” and “orthodoxy” from their contexts. They have a very charged meaning in church history and, accordingly, Jesus was not a heretic but a blasphemer. (That’s the word used in the Gospels for a reason. Again, words mean things.) Please understand that the pushback here is because you are using words that people well-acquainted with their use find troubling. Perhaps *this* is an example of admitting that you’re wrong, because the way you’re using those words changes their meaning.

          • Preston – in the spirit of what I had hoped would be the takeaway today – I will admit that anything I said today might be wrong.

            That has been my hope this whole time. That we have the ability to see ourselves in that light. Preston, I loved what you shared on Facebook the other day saying something to the effect of “I believe that 40% of my theology is wrong. I just don’t know which 40%.” I believe there is truth out there that is concrete and unchanging, but our frail human minds are stumbling and groping towards it, and we are lucky if we catch a glimpse of it, because we all bring assumptions and experiences to the table.

            I know that I am lucky if I perceive some truth correctly. I know that many days, I see truth, but it’s clouded with lots of other stuff. I know that some days, I will be in like-minded company, who might encourage me further toward the truth, or might encourage me further in my erroneous thinking. And the same is true on the days I find myself in the minority.

            I had only hoped today that I could encourage all of us, myself included, toward greater grace to one another, in spite of or perhaps even especially when we feel our brother or sister is in the wrong.

    • Dear Dianna,
      I sent you a private message this morning but wanted to address this publicly here too… I think you’ll see in the comments over at Prodigal that I am extremely sorry for the pain that I caused through the anecdote about my Lebanese friend. Under no circumstance do I recommend women staying in an abusive situation; I was simply stating what had happened when this particular woman did. I am profoundly sorry for the pain that particular story caused. I continue to stand by my theology, but I believe (as I stated in the post) that spiritual submission needs to be combined with spiritual responsibility. When the man is not being spiritually responsible, I believe the woman needs to protect herself. I hope that with time, you can be reassured of my sincere apology. Bless you Dianna. e.

  15. Matt, apparently, the word you are looking for is “schismogenesis.”

    This article defines it and talks about how schismogenesis happens everywhere:

    I agree with Abby that Christan artists should be held to at least as high a standard as secular artists (and am more often than not disappointed in that regard – it’s like as long as you throw the word “God” into it, no one can complain). As a (mediocre) musician, it is especially murky territory because we’re told specifically to “make a joyful noise” and that’s taken by many to mean “it doesn’t matter how bad you are, as long as you’re performing with a good heart/intentions.” And that’s true – “performance” is the outside and God looks at the inside. But even God wanted the most skilled craftsmen to build His house. He didn’t say – “Hey! You’re a farmer and know nothing of goldsmithing! You come gold-plate everything for the temple! It’s doesn’t matter how bad it looks because I’ll know that you’re doing it with your whole heart.” He said “go get the best goldsmith in the land (and btw, his name is ____, so don’t get anyone else).”

    Rambling writing, poor editorial choices, bad academics should be called those things. The _truth_ sets us free, not “thinking the best of someone.” The _truth_ gives us the opportunity to grow and develop as artists. In my opinion, the LOVING thing to do is to correct someone when they’ve said something they didn’t mean to say or said something poorly or said something that’s incorrect.

    The question is, do we, as believers, do so publicly (through comments, responding posts, etc.) or privately (through an email or phone call or something)? When the artist publicly publishes a work, does that give us the license to skip the step in Matt 18 of going to our brother/sister privately first?

    I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. The artist has begun a public conversation. At that point, responding privately might help the artist, but doesn’t progress the conversation. And my loyalty as a believer doesn’t necessarily lie with the artist, but rather with the truth. So my natural inclination is to respond publicly when it is a public conversation and privately when it’s a private one. Is that right? I don’t know.

    • You ask some interesting questions, Melissa! And this is really what I wanted to discuss today – what is our responsibility toward each other as Christians, especially online. In the scheme of church history, our connection to Christians far and wide is unprecedented and new territory. And there may not be easy answers.

      And I completely agree that we SHOULD have high standards (and I say that too as a lousy singer!) :)

    • One need only remember the sad fate of Ohio’s Big Butter Jesus to see what happens when sincere intentions don’t make up for a sincere lack of skill (or a good civil engineer.)


  16. Hi Matt. I appreciate your need to defend your dear friend Emily. However I often feel frustrated when I read blogs and comments that follow your line of thinking here. There are some issues and subjects that demand our passionate and vocal response. This does not mean that those that disagree are being harsh – it just means that in response to an open letter they are offering their opinions. It is noticeable in the comments section of her blog that Emily stops engaging with those that disagree with her but continues to thank those that offer support (as she has done here). If you write an open letter you have to try to respond in equal measure (as you have tried to do here). Once again I applaud you for supporting your friend, and I wish Emily well, but I don’t think she is best served by suggesting that those who have commented are not being kind, let alone linking such to calling her a heretic (which they did not). Hope that helps. Al

    • I appreciate it, Alan!

      Obviously, no one thought they were being mean. Really, I just hope that maybe we can train our first reaction to be “Why does he/she think that?” rather than, “I disagree and here’s why.” Maybe we’ll become more understanding of one another.

      • I appreciate your heart is help on this one but it is frustrating when you feel the need to comment on something that means so much to you (ie what Emily wrote) and someone (like yourself) attempts to sto the flow.

        There are some things (like women being valued primarly by their realise to their husband) than needs a passionate response.

        I speak as the dad of four daughters. We need to speak up. Thanks for responding Matt

  17. I think we have all held some heretical views from time to time in our Christian walk.

    Thanks be to God that He loves and forgives heretics, too!

  18. Matt,
    I really liked this article.
    I am chuckling to myself at how many times in these comments in have read “words mean something” yet I can’t help but think there are a multitude of definitions for the term feminist. Some see it as women who want equality and others see it as screechy angry power hungry females. So yes, words mean something but perspective has a way of changing that meaning in each of is. Kindness and grace can go a long way in bridging that divide.

    • I know. :) As if by that phrase, the argument is settled. I think this whole discussion ha been an ironic illustration of what I had hoped would be my original point!

    • Well, actually, what you are talking about is the CONNOTATION of the word “feminist”…not the denotation. What people “see” or “feel” about a word doesn’t change the definition.

  19. How can call for us to love one another and then call my favorite disciple a buffoon? Clearly Peter suffered from ADD. Put down the Hater-ade, Matt!

    Okay, I kid. I get your point. I’m so tired of all the ugly discourse. Lately, when I find myself getting angry about an opposing viewpoint, I take a deep breath and try to figure out why I’m personalizing an issue that has little to do with me. Then I mostly keep my mouth shut.

  20. Matt, well said and framed. Why do we get locked into our perspective? Why do we focus on figuring out who is right and who is wrong? Why don’t we come together more often and learn from one another? It seems to me that a loving environment helps us overcome many of our self-imposed barriers.

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