Shiny, Happy Gothard

My TV viewing habits are strange. I’ve never watched a reality show like Survivor or The Amazing Race. I refuse to watch Cable-TV news stations like FOX, MSNBC, and CNN. I’m allergic to so-called religious broadcasting and outside of some curiosity about Jim and Tammy Bakker almost 40 years ago, I’ve never watched outlets like the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death has framed my understanding of television.

So, when a friend texted me last week and suggested that I watch the new documentary about the Duggar family, Shiny Happy People, I thought it was worth a look. I had heard of the Duggar family but like all reality TV, I ignored them. I may have seen them once or twice on The Today Show but a story about a family with 19 kids struck me as unrealistic at best and bizarre at worst. I mean, if a couple wants 19 kids, I’m OK with that as long as they can support their family economically and give their kids a good education so that they can get good jobs and flourish as human beings. And to be honest, I wondered how a couple could send 19 kids to college or trade school to get the intellectual or vocational training they need.

To my surprise, the Duggar reality show was not so much about their family per se as about their claim that all of us should have large families like them. Having large families is God’s will and hence we should reorder our lives and our churches to propagate them. The source of this claim? A guy named Bill Gothard, a single man who claims to have cornered the market on Christian marriage and Christian families.

I had heard of Gothard before. In the late 1970s, I attended his week-long Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC) seminar at the Long Beach (CA) Civic Auditorium. Over 9,000 people packed the place all listening to Bill Gothard, a short man wearing a drab blue suit with an overhead projector. As he spoke, the audience busied themselves writing notes in big red binders distributed by IBYC. The social pressure to accept his ideological teachings about Christianity was overpowering. The former Southern Baptist turned Anglican writer and speaker Beth Moore put it this way. “I didn’t realize how much influence that whole Gothard movement had on my church and on my social circles until watching those…episodes. I didn’t realize that’s where the umbrella talk all came from. I didn’t realize that’s where saying parenting stuff like ‘first time every time’ came from.” Gothard led these seminars throughout the United States and Canada with thousands attending at each location, and the thousands of “alumni” made sure that Gothard’s teachings became known in evangelical and fundamentalist congregations across North America.

Authority/Submission as Ideology

The key words in the Gothard schema are “authority” and “submission.” For Gothard, the Bible presents an ideological system where right relationship with God can be found only when an individual is in submission to authority. Hence, the Christian family is viewed as series of hierarchical “umbrellas” where the husband is the dominant force in the family. Men submit to God. Women submit to their husbands. And children submit to the wife who is responsible for managing the daily affairs of the household while the husband earns a living for the family. In society, citizens are required to submit to law enforcement; workers to their bosses; and congregants to their pastors. A society functions well only when individuals understand and practice the roles of authority and submission.

The Bible is drawn upon to support this tight system of authority and submission, despite the fact that Bible verses cited are mostly taken out of context with little understanding of what the biblical writers actually said. To top it off, the Gothardian ideology draws upon an ideology called Reconstruction. Reconstructionism views Old Testament civil law as binding on Christians even though the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament law has been fulfilled by life, death, and resurrection of Christ and we now live under what the prophet Jeremiah described as “the new covenant,” a covenant shaped by God’s grace expressed through Jesus Christ.

The second time I heard Gothard was at a “pastors conference” in Greensboro, NC in 1985. This time, Gothard had something new to teach his followers. It was not enough to follow the system of authority/submission that he laid out in those big red notebooks. Now, Gothard wanted the pastors (all of whom were men since Gothard thought evangelical women pastors were an abomination) to start having bigger families. Families with ten or more children were held up as examples. There was even talk of how men could reverse vasectomies if they were unfortunate enough to have had one. It was a bizarre day.

My second trip to a Gothard event came about five years after the first major sex scandal embroiled the IBYC ministry. Gothard’s brother Steve had been caught in sexual relations with several minors at an IBYC center and while he was removed from the ministry, his brother Bill Gothard banished him to one of the organization’s campus buildings in Minnesota. After all of this, I dismissed Gothard (though I continued to warn others of what I saw as dangerous teachings), and he fell off of my radar screen. So, it wasn’t until a few months ago that the connection between Gothard and the Dugger family started to become clear.

“Shiny, Happy” Nightmare

The original Duggar series ran for a long time on the TLC Channel up until 2015. It portrayed a large, happy family where everyone worked together and coexisted well with each other. The reality was far uglier. The Duggar’s failed to educate their children, especially the young girls who were expected to get married at a young age and have large families of their own. Education was home-school only and with IBLP approved curricula. (The IBYC changed its name to the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) in the 1980s.) That curriculum was woefully lacking and did not prepare young men or women for college or careers. Marriages were arranged through a complex system of courtship, and women existed in a patriarchal system that allowed them no independence whatsoever. In fact, women were considered under the “authority” of their fathers even as young adults, and marriage represented a transfer of authority from their fathers to their husbands.

Yet the authority/submission dynamic was slippery, and it opened the door for all kinds of abuse in the Duggar family and the Gothard/IBLP organization. There’s no need to describe all of that here. Shiny, Happy, People tells the whole sordid story and as hard as it is to watch, I encourage you to do so. Recasting the Bible as a story of authority and submission distorts its message. The Bible’s message is one of sin and grace. All of us, men and women alike, have been created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-28) and while the entire human race has fallen into sin (Genesis 3), the biblical story is all about God’s grace for us expressed through Jesus Christ.

The Bible’s relational dynamic is not based on authority/submission. As Ephesians 5:21-33 makes clear, submission is seen as mutual; “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Marriage is a partnership where husbands and wives submit equally to Christ and to one another. No umbrellas here.

And no umbrellas in church, either. Of course, we have leaders in church and as followers of Jesus, we’re to listen to our leaders and encourage them in their work. But in the Bible, Christian leaders are not power brokers but servants. Jesus makes that clear in his own ministry. Yes, Christian leaders have power, but they are to use that power as a servant of Christ and of God’s people.

What I found especially sad about Shiny, Happy, People are the stories of people burned by the Gothard system who have lost their Christian faith. They were fed a deeply distorted almost-cultic understanding of the Christian faith, one that stripped them of their humanity. But God doesn’t do that. Instead, he sends Christ to restore our true humanity.

I happily describe myself as a Christian humanist. By that I mean God’s desire that all of us should flourish as human beings in the world and reach our God-given potential. We can do that in a variety of ways if we are following Christ. Following Christ is not about finding your place in a distorted reality of authority and submission. It is about what the Apostle Paul describes as “union with Christ” in Romans 6, about learning to follow Jesus amidst the hopes, joys, and struggles that we encounter in our daily lives. I hope that the Duggar family can find true freedom in Christ.

The documentary “Shiny, Happy People” can be found on Amazon Prime. It’s a four-part series; each episode an hour long. As with all television, it should be watched with a critical eye. For example, in episode four they try to link all evangelicals with authoritarianism and a desire to control others politically and theologically. That is a huge stretch and one that lacks evidence. While it may be a popular opinion on the political left it is a gross generalization. Having said that, I don’t doubt that the Gothard movement has political aims given that it is a Reconstructionist movement at heart. And yes. I did trash my big red Gothard notebook many years ago.

Has “Left Behind” been left behind?

Here’s a 64-dollar theological word: Dispensationalism. Ever heard of it?
Some of you probably have. Can you describe it? Well, like a lot of theology,
that’s easier said than done. Yet, you have been influenced by its ideas far more than you think.

Dispensationalism is a cluster of theological ideas about 175 years old that originated with an Irish clergyman, John Nelson Darby and was popularized in America and Canada through Dwight L. Moody and other late-19th century
evangelists. The term, “Dispensationalism” as a name wasn’t coined until 1928, when one of its opponents, Philip Mauro, used this term to describe it.

Almost 100 years after Mauro coined the term comes a new book asking whether dispensationalism is still viable, despite its widespread popularity throughout the 20th century. Historian Daniel Hummel, who teaches at Upper House, a Christian study center housed near the University of Wisconsin, asks that provocative question in his new book The Rise and Fall of
Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a
(Eerdmans, 2023). Hummel has given us probably the first
comprehensive history of dispensationalism and its impact on American
fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

So, is Hummel, right? Let’s take a look. Darby, according to Hummel, bundled
“three theological innovations into an interlocking set of teachings: a
new theology of the church, a new theology of the millennium, and a new dualism between heaven and earth that informed how he read the entire Bible” (21). This dualism led him to separate ancient Israel from the church, the Kingdom of God from the Kingdom of Heaven, and the people of God from any visible earthly citizenship.

Darby also insisted on premillennialism, the theological notion that the
return of Christ would be followed by the essential destruction of the visible
church and of society. Added to that are what Hummel terms “two key
novelties: that the prophetic timeline was stalled in a “parenthesis.”
period, with the kingdom (of God) postponed at Daniel’s sixth-ninth week
(leaving one “week” of seven years to completion); and that this
parenthesis would be concluded by the “rapture” of the church into
heaven, an event that other premillennialists placed at the end of the
prophesized ‘tribulations'” (22-23). Following the Anabaptists of the 16th
century, Darby believed that the visible church had become hopelessly corrupt
and that the only option for real Christians was to withdraw from the
established churches and denominations.


Darby’s schema emerged around the same time as William Miller claimed that
Christ would return “on or about the year 1843.” The Adventists (the
tradition through which I came to Christ) used what was called the
“year-day” method of interpretation, that in prophetic time, one day was equivalent to one year. The aftermath of Miller’s failed prediction did not
cool interest in biblical prophecy and hence Darby’s schema received widespread interest especially after the Civil War. Miller’s “historic” premillennialism was found wanting and the “new premillennialism” of Darby and his colleagues would find wide acceptance.

American Christian reception of Darby’s views was framed by the “Bible Reading method,” based on Scottish common-sense reasoning “that posited a common or “plain” correspondence between the words and their meaning that was accessible to all” (43). As Hummel describes it, “A person using the method most often took a keyword in the English Bible and marked as many occurrences of the term as could be found throughout the text. This inductive Bible reading created chains of verses assuming a biblical unity that was conveyed from expositors to audiences, from preachers to congregations” (44).

Acceptance of Darby was also tied to post-Civil War “sectional reconciliation,”
a political movement to promote reconciliation between Northern and Southern
whites. During the war, many northern whites especially in the border states of
Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware favored the Union and did not support emancipation of African American slaves. As Hummel writes, “By
1870, the outlines of a new radical subculture…combined the priority of
sectional reconciliation with key [Darby and] Brethren teachings about the
heavenly nature of the church and the premillennial arrival of the kingdom of
God” (51). And this posture narrowed Christian concern away from public and social matters. “The new premillennial teachings privileged civil peace over racial justice…White Christian unity, in other words, would more ably repair the damage wrought by the Civil War and empower the project of global missions” (52). Sadly, “sectional reconciliation” led to Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, and the marginalization of African Americans in American society. White fundamentalists, especially in the American South embraced Jim Crow, and this program for racial segregation was embraced throughout the country in the workplace, in housing, in transportation, and in the daily aspects of American life.

Scofield Dispensationalism

Since the late 19th century, Dispensationalism has evolved in four major
movements: Classical, Scholastic, Progressive, and Popular. The Scofield
Reference Bible
(1909) with annotations by Darby disciple Cyrus I. Scofield articulated essential dispensationalism: The dualism between heaven and earth as separate spheres of God’s activity, the distinction between Israel and the Church as two separate peoples of God, the postponement of God’s Kingdom until after Christ’s return, seven dispensations of time where God subjected humanity to a unique test of faithfulness in each, the “rapture” of
the church before a seven-year great tribulation, and withdrawal from most
political and social concerns (what the writer David Moberg termed “the
great reversal”). “The Scofield Reference Bible became the definitive
articulation of fifty years of new-premillennial thinking and organizing,
solidifying the movement’s successes and delineating its theological
boundaries” (132).

Scofield dispensationalism spread rapidly through American fundamentalism
and Pentecostalism. The Assemblies of God endorsed the theological system
articulated by Scofield (with the exception of its restrictive posture toward
speaking in tongues). And Scofield adherents were found in all of the major
Protestant denominations including Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and
even among some Lutherans and Methodists. The movement also faced opposition, especially among southern Presbyterians and others who embraced a Calvinistic “covenant theology”(192). At the same time dispensationalists became part of a fundamentalist coalition with those same Presbyterians in opposition to the modernist theology that had carried the day in major northern Protestant denominations.

Scholastic and progressive dispensationalism

Opposition to Scofield dispensationalism led to a more scholastic approach by advocates. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the first president of Dallas Theological
Seminary had a much different agenda than many of the fundamentalists who embraced dispensational ideas. Chafer saw the future not in continued culture wars with modernists, but in biblical and theological education that would train pastors and spread dispensationalist theology into churches and pulpits across North America. “The conflict between dispensationalists and
covenantalists spurred the most frenzied period of scholarly output and
institution building among conservative Protestants since the late nineteenth century” (198). And “dispensationalism grew into a full-fledged
theological culture” anchored at Dallas Theological Seminary and other schools like it.

Chafer completed his eight-volume systematic theology with the help of John
Walvoord (who would succeed Chafer as president of Dallas Seminary). Along with Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, John Fineberg and others, dispensationalism enjoyed a burst of scholarship that permeated schools and congregations in an ever-expanding network. This scholastic dispensationalism was reflected in numerous works, the most important being the New Scofield Reference Bible released by Oxford University Press in 1967. New Scofield conformed C.I. Scofield’s notes “to the most up-to-date dispensational thinking, which inevitably meant thousands of small, and few major, alterations”(252). Coupled with Charles Ryrie’s 1965 work Dispensationalism Today, scholastic dispensationalism gave the movement an academic feel that appealed to many thoughtful Christians, especially those who trained for the ministry.

For Ryrie, “the essence of dispensationalism is the distinction between
Israel and the Church” (252). From this flowed two more distinctives,
“plain hermeneutics, applied to every book of the Bible, and an argument that the overall point of history was to glorify God” (252). Scholastic
dispensationalism was less dogmatic about the number of dispensations but
adamant about the pre-tribulation rapture and the postponement of the kingdom of God until after the return of Christ to earth.

The latter two were emphasized as part of an ongoing conflict not only with
covenant theologians, but with the new-evangelical biblical scholars at places
like Fuller Theological Seminary. By the early 1960s, Fuller New Testament
Scholar George Eldon Ladd had staked out what he called “historic premillennialism” and argued that the kingdom of God was not postponed but
actually “already but not yet.” Based on Mark 1:14-15, Ladd and others argued that the kingdom of God had both this-world and next-world components, meaning that the Kingdom was not only future but present in the sense that Christians should engage the bleakness of culture with the light of the gospel, and should be concerned not only with evangelism but with social injustice especially racism, exploitation, and so on.

The Ladd critique aligned with other evangelical movements that emerged in
the 1950s-60s, and by 1990 it led to revision proposals within Dallas Seminary
and among dispensationalists themselves. Called “progressive dispensationalism,” Dallas theologians like Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock,
and others offered controversial proposals that aligned with Ladd’s understanding and those of Reformed theologians. (One joke that I heard was
that Dallas 2000 = Fuller 1957). Hummel describes it this way, “In the
1990s, a younger generation of dispensational scholars openly broke with the
older generation and joined a broader neo-evangelical consensus on issues of
covenants, eschatology, and salvation…Instead of the traditional view that
the current dispensation represented a “parenthesis” in God’s redemptive history that postponed the kingdom, progressives asserted a fundamental continuity, or progression, from one dispensation to the next. This
seemingly minor shift forced a reevaluation of a vast scope of once-settled dispensational theology, from the tradition’s literal biblical hermeneutics to
the nature of the kingdom, the church-Israel distinction, and the purpose of
God’s covenants” (314). Today, the progressives are probably the majority voice in within scholastic dispensationalism. But that shift is minor compared to the “pop-dispensationalism” birthed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is the dispensationalist form that has seeped into much of American culture and evidenced through pop-dispensational literature like Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind Series.


Hummel argues that as pop-dispensationalism became dominant both in church and society, it caused the collapse of any serious scholastic dispensationalism as the theological rails established by dispensational theologians were discarded for popular categories. While I think that claims of
dispensationalism’s collapse at the hands of popularizers may be questioned based on the evidence (Dallas Seminary continues to grow in terms of students
and progressive dispensationalism in my view is an important conversation partner), there is little doubt that pop-dispensationalism has had an outsize
impact on many evangelical congregations especially those that are Baptist and

Pop-dispensationalism exploded with the 1970 release of The Late Great
Planet Earth
. The title riffed on Curt Gentry’s 1968 The Last Days of the Late Great State of California, a fictional account of a massive California earthquake that dropped half the state into the Pacific Ocean. But its author, Hal Lindsey, went ever larger. It wasn’t just California that would crash and burn, but the whole world, something like the Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012. Dispensational ideas like the rapture, the Great Tribulation, the division between Israel and the Church were shorn from the scholastic and later progressive dispensationalism taught at places like Dallas Seminary and dropped into what Hummel describes as a “genre-bending and
genre-creating–blend of prophecy, spirituality, and entertainment that landed in readers hands at the very moment these dispensational interests were
combining in the real world in new ways” (237).

The Late Great Planet Earth entered the apocalyptic world of the
1960s and early 1970s and sold over ten million copies It joined a host of
Christian and secular appeals in the Age of Aquarius, from the futurist Alvin
Toffler to pop-dispensationalist writes like Salem Kirbin and Jack Chick (he of
the infamous “Chick Tracts,” little cartoon books that trafficked in
pop-dispensational themes and apocalyptic anti-Catholic conspiracy theories).
Even Dallas Seminary President John Walvoord in 1984 distanced scholastic
dispensationalism and Dallas Seminary from Lindsey’s dark schema by claiming that The Late Great Planet Earth “goes beyond our teaching” (301). Lindsey’s accommodation of things like “modern military technology” in his
fantastic interpretation went far beyond the “strictly literal approach” that Walvoord, Ryrie, and other scholastic dispensationalists taught.

In 2004, the religion scholar Amy Frykholm wrote Rapture Culture: Left
Behind in Evangelical America
, and argued that pop-dispensational writers like Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and their many allies “brought dispensationalist premillennialism from the margins of culture into the mainstream.” But as Hummel writes, books like the Left Behind series, taught readers that dispensational theology was not monolithic, but “a multiple, dynamic, contradictory system with ‘cracks and fissures’ that illustrated ‘just how broad and diffuse evangelicalism is in American culture'”(322). In other words, pop-dispensationalism had gone postmodern.

Space does not allow me to explore the Left Behind series in depth but given its sales that easily surpassed The Late Great Planet Earth, it’s clear that its authors, LaHaye and Jenkins “had done a little more than toss a fictional account of dispensational eschatology into the ocean of American popular culture” (322).

In 1984, Neil Postman’s profound little book Amusing Ourselves to Death
described how television had shifted our lives to the prism of entertainment.
Art, politics, government, law, even religion are processed through an
entertainment lens, a theme that Postman amplifies in his 1991 work Technolopy and by writers like Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart. This shift
has driven the monetization of almost everything in American society meaning that the value of anything is not measured by its reason or its logical
consistency, but by how much money it can make its owners. Religion becomes a commodity, and pop-dispensationalists (and others in places like the Christian entertainment industry) have commoditized a 19th century theological tradition and disconnected its key elements from that tradition. They’re not the only ones to do that in postmodern America, and other evangelical traditions have tried it.

But the ultimate result of Religion as a commodity is cynicism,
marginalization, and division as seen by the growing trend of younger generations to reject the forms of Christianity that have historically done
well in America. To use a phrase from C.S. Lewis, we have replaced the
“true myth” of Christianity with untrue myths that appeal to our postmodern lives. For the sake of coming generations, we must do better.


While not a pure book review, I’ve tried to use Hummel’s The Rise
and Fall of Dispensationalism as a map describing how a 19th century
Anglo-American tradition born of the restorationist impulse in American
Christianity has seeped not only into congregations but has impacted the way we
live and how we perceive the Christian faith. My intent is not to debate the
merits of dispensationalism. While my own premillennialism is framed by N.T.
Wright and Eckerd Schnabel, I find progressive dispensationalism a worthy
theological conversation partner.

I must also confess that in my early college years, like many young
evangelicals of my generation, I was enamored with Hal Lindsey and
Late Great Planet Earth. I even attended a college retreat at Mt. Hermon,
CA just south of where I grew up, where Lindsey was the featured speaker, and the
weekend was marked by lecture and discussion of all things prophetic. However,
by my early twenties I had concluded that what Lindsey was peddling was
profoundly unbiblical and my thinking gravitated more towards the Reformed theology of G.C. Berkhouwer, the biblical theology of George Ladd and Glen
Barker, and the ethics of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jacques Ellul.

For those of you interested in this subject, Hummel’s book is a
groundbreaking work that covers all the nooks and crannies in a way that I have
not seen. Still, I have two criticisms. Despite all of his excellent analysis,
I’m not sure that we can pronounce the death of scholastic dispensationalism.
Instead, I see progressive dispensationalism as an important renewal of that scholastic tradition, especially in their more biblical understanding of the
Kingdom of God. Perhaps, the progressives will renew the movement to the point where future dispensationalists will care not only about evangelism and
missions, but addressing our long American stain of treating African Americans
and other minorities unjustly and caring about the social needs of our communities in ways that will cause human beings to flourish.

I also think that Hummel’s last chapter, Surveying the Aftermath, is too disjointed. Like all of us who write history, when we move from past to present it is harder to grasp what is truly significant from what is merely popular. That is why reflections on contemporary life must always be provisional. We will never know the significance of the times in which we live.

Still, Hummel has written one of the most satisfying books about American Christian history that I have read, and he does it from the vantage point of the burgeoning Christian study center movement on major American campuses like UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Florida, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I see this vital movement as perhaps the most important vehicle today to carry on the Christian conviction that the life of the mind is deeply important to both church and society. On a scale of 1-5, this book definitely gets five stars.

“Biblical Womanhood” in the Crossfire

One of the things I love about Advent Christian Voices is the ability of those who blog here to disagree respectfully on matters that are often more complex than we like to admit. That is an amazing quality in a time like ours fraught with division and fear of others who see things differently.

I’m diving into one of those areas, and adding my two cents into the good debate that Catherine Rybicki and Luke Copeland have had on these pages the past couple of weeks. This dive is prompted by my reading of Beth Allison Barr’s controversial new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Woman Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021).

Drop the Hammer

All of us bring spoken and unspoken biases to our work and I am no exception. So, let me state my point-of-view. Since 1977, I have been a biblical egalitarian who thinks that in family, church, work, and life women and men are partners in God’s call to ministry and service. My convictions are strong enough that I could not in conscience sign the 2000 SBC Baptist Faith and Message nor the Danvers Statement of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). My egalitarian convictions began with my experience at a Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts week-long seminar held in Long Beach, CA. Mr. Gothard was the complementarian poster-boy of the 1970s and thousands of evangelicals flocked to his seminars and soaked in his “teachings” about hierarchy. Mr. Gothard illustrated his teaching with his now infamous “umbrella” diagram complete with hammer and chisel; the tools for “molding” people, especially women and children, into his vision of Christian maturity.

I sat stunned as I watched 9,000 people lap up this stuff. No questions were permitted (those who know me know that I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask), especially questions that might challenge the entire house of cards that comprised the Gothard system. A couple of years later at one of his advanced seminars held in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Gothard told the group of pastors and leaders assembled that if a husband was assaulting and beating his wife, the wife had the obligation to stay and accept that in the hopes of witnessing to him. (Fortunately, one of the pastors there stood up in that large gathering, yelled out “you’re crazy!” and stormed out for all to see.) This was complementarian paradise and I wanted nothing to do with it; so I left behind Bill Gothard eager to discover a more Christian way, a way that affirmed the dignity, worth, and giftedness of every Christian man and woman.

Money, Sex, and Power

Fast-forward 45 years past the hundreds of books written and in my view, that way has become more clear even if the issues have become more complex. We’re not only talking about how we order our families, or about who can do what in our churches. Now we face the horrid reality of rampant sexual and spiritual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches throughout the United States and the entire world. Not a week goes by anymore when some prominent megachurch pastor or leader is outed because of gross sexual abuse or abuse of power. Richard Foster was right when he argued that almost all sin can be categorized as the abuse of money, sex, or power.

Barr offers her readers a helpful way of seeing how “biblical womanhood” of the past 50 years is more a creation of recent history than of early and medieval Christianity. The historical reality has been that the more centralized institutional structures of church and society become, the most restricted the lives and ministries of women. This is well illustrated by missions history. Many of the great endeavors in world missions were accomplished by women exercising gifts of preaching and teaching that they were not allowed to exercise in North America or Europe. Why? Because there was nobody else to communicate the gospel through preaching and teaching. And the folks who thought it was wrong for women to preach and teach were all thousands of miles away. You know what? God honored those women and thousands of men and women, boys and girls came to know and love Christ because God worked through their preaching and teaching. I’m fortunate to have met a few of them.

John Piper and others like to speak of Christianity as having “a masculine feel” and this “masculine feel” involves notions of authority and submission. This idea has become popular in circles where “biblical womanhood” is taught. Often it is connected to the heretical idea of the “eternal subordination of the Son,” Advocates of this rather Arian concept argue that “the Son, the second person of the Trinity is subordinate to the Father not only in economy of salvation but in his essence” (193). In other words, within the inner workings of the Triune God there is a hierarchical relation of authority and submission. There is a tactical reason for why some advocates of “biblical womanhood” like this idea. As Barr writes, “if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify” (195-96).

What about the Bible?

All of this is nice, you say, but what about the Bible. Does Scripture not clearly limit the roles of women both in marriage and the church? Space prohibits me from going into all of the exegetical arguments, so let me make two points. First, throughout the Old and New Testaments we see women performing tasks that those who advocate for “biblical womanhood” argue are off limits for them. Junia (yes, she was a woman) was honored among the Apostles according to Paul’s words in Romans 16:7. Phoebe was described as a “deacon” earlier in the same passage. The first two witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection were women and they proclaimed it publicly first to the twelve, and then by extension to Jesus other disciples. Women prayed and prophesized, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. The are more examples. I think we begin with what the New Testament (and the Old Testament) tell us that women actually did, and we interpret the Pauline and Petrine teaching regarding women in that light, and not the other way around.

Second, In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul is clear that we are to “submit to one another our of reverence for Christ.” Then he identifies three pairs where those who are view as stronger (husbands, parents, and masters) and who are weaker (wives, children, and slaves) are asked to practice mutual submission in important ways. As Barr writes, “Instead of endowing authority to a man who speaks and acts for those within his household, the Christian household codes offer each member of the the shared community–knit together by their faith in Christ–the right to hear and act for themselves” (49). Exactly.

I don’t like labels, even though here I’ve used the term “biblical egalitarian” to describe my views. What does that term mean? For me, the following:

(1) Women and men are created in the image of God and hence are equal in terms of identity and function.

(2) There are no ministries in the church of Jesus Christ that are off-limits to women, even preaching and teaching.

(3) Marriage is a partnership where both partners learn to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

(4) There is no place for the spiritual or sexual abuse of women (or men) in the Church of Jesus Christ and instances of that must be addressed with the utmost seriousness when discovered.

(5) There is a place for complementarity as we recognize that there are physiological and emotional differences between men and women, but complementarity does not imply hierarchy in home, in church, and in society.

The writer Dorothy Sayers authored a short book in the first half of the 20th century with a simple question as the title. Are Women Human? You would think that the answer is simple and clear, but Sayers had noticed all of the overt and covert messages in church and society that appeared to scream out, “No, they are not!” She lived in a society where patriarchy was still the order of the day. Hopefully, that will continue to change and Christians like you and me will have opportunity to offer a biblical word that affirms that like men, women truly are human in Christ.


There are several good books that I would suggest for further reflection. The book that I have made mention of here is Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 244 pp. The best exegetical book that I have read is Philip Barton Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 541pp. This in my view is the best exegetical study of Pauline passages in the New Testament where Paul address women in family, church, and society. It solidified my biblical egalitarian convictions through outstanding biblical exegesis of those relevant texts. The little book by Dorothy Sayers is Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint 2005).

Why I Read “The Message”

Earlier today, I finished Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson titled A Burning in My Bones. I remember Peterson’s first book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction published back in the early 1980s. That almost seems another time, another place and in many ways that captures just how out of place Eugene Peterson was in our world of megachurches, celebrity CEO pastors, and congregations modeled on the latest management theories.

Complexity shadowed Eugene Peterson through his 84 years on earth. An average student who became a brilliant linguist in terms of the biblical languages. An introvert who valued silence and solitude whose pastoral ministry focused on engaging people and being their spiritual friend and guide. Someone who grew up in Pentecostalism and found his way into the Presbyterian ministry. One who travelled in broadly Reformed circles who wasn’t much of a Calvinist. A human being who sought seclusion but much to his surprise wound up hanging out with Bono and U2.

Translations and Paraphrases

Eugene Peterson is best known for is his paraphrase of the Bible simply called The Message. My leather bound copy of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs sits at my kitchen table marked with my underlines and marginal notes. For my devotions, I like to read the biblical text in different translations. One year I will use the NASB; the next the RSV; the next the NIV; and so on. That gives me opportunity to read different translations and discover how they present in English texts that were written originally in koine Greek and Hebrew. I also like to use specialty translations and paraphrases like The Kingdom New Testament done by N.T. Wright or The First Testament translated by the Old Testament scholar John Goldingay. My goal is simple. I want to read the text in a way that allows God to speak to me from its pages.

Along with my selected translation which for 2020-21 is the NIV (its most recent edition was published in 2011 and that edition fixes many of its earlier problems), I read the same passage in The Message. Beyond that I use The Message for longer blocks of Scripture reading. For example, when I start with a biblical book like Mark’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, I like to read it through in one setting to sense the larger context and discover what the author seems to be up to. And I use The Message to help me catch that larger context. (I don’t use it for preaching and teaching unless it is for illustrating the point of the NIV text I use for those activities.)

More Than Mere Words

Reading Winn Collier’s biography gave me an even deeper appreciation for what Peterson was up to in paraphrasing Scripture. His academic training in the biblical languages helped him grasp how those languages worked. Translation or paraphrase is not merely of converting a word or phrase from Hebrew or Greek to one in English. Languages are far more than mere words; they frame how people think and communicate in the era and the context in which they live. Moreover, all translation is interpretation and the point of translation is capturing the essence of what the biblical writer communicated in his cultural context and expressing that in ways that are sensible to English readers today.

Winn Collier captures Eugene Peterson’s sense of this work. “Languages are not mathematical equations; they are complex and expansive modes of thinking and communicating” (218). But there is more, because translating (or paraphrasing) involves communicating the written word of God. “Eugene believed translation is a kind of ‘lectio divina–more than only getting the words right, there is spirit, the vibrancy of the text, the livingness of the message.’ The Bible was not a dead book. It was vibrantly alive” (218). What Peterson was trying to do was paraphrase the biblical text into idioms common to the folks who worshipped at the congregation he served in the Baltimore suburbs and even more to working-class folks like his father, a butcher, and the people he grew up around in Kalispell, Montana.

Slow, Hard Work

It was slow, hard work. “This is going slower than I expected–and sometimes I think I’m doing excellent work, but sometimes it is pretty pedestrian….The translation continues to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy–and pushes me to prayer–trust–egoless work” (220-21). In addition, Peterson invited evangelical biblical scholars to read and critique his work and often adjusted the words and idioms based on their feedback. The Old Testament took ten long years. But the product offers a fresh window into Holy Scripture. Let me illustrate. Perhaps my favorite passage in the New Testament is Romans 12:1-2. Peterson’s paraphrase captures Paul’s intent and communicates it in idioms that we can grasp:

“So here is what I want you to do. God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping eating, going-to-work, and walking-around-life–and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Romans 12:1-2, The Message).

That’s what a good paraphrase does. It captures the biblical writer’s intent in ways that he might say it if we were his original audience. The Greek that the New Testament writers used was not the classical Greek of the philosophers; it was the “street Greek” used by common folks in their daily lives. That was Peterson’s goal, to paraphrase the biblical text into the “street English” of our day, and do that while capturing the essence of what the biblical writers communicated in their day.

Did he get all of it right? Does any English translation or paraphrase? I know just enough Greek to be dangerous, but one thing I do when reading is when I read something that seems to be a mistranslation, I pull out my trusty purple pen and make a note by the text. That is not to judge the hard work of so many who have given us good translations like the NIV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and others, nor does it besmirch the work of Peterson, J.B. Philips, Eugene Nida, and others who have offered paraphrases that hopefully capture the essence of the biblical texts.

I love reading The Message, and if you are looking for a good paraphrase that captures well the overall contexts of Holy Scripture, I recommend it to you. Eugene Peterson died in October 2018, but God has used him to our generations a marvelous gift. My guess is that long after I am gone, someone else will craft a paraphrase that captures the “street-English” of the mid- to late-21st century.


Winn Collier’s new biography of Eugene Peterson was released in March 2021 and titled A Burning in My Bones. It’s published by Waterbrook Press. Collier was given access to Eugene Peterson’s personal papers and his private journals, and spent significant time near Kalispell, MT interviewing and conversing with Eugene Peterson before Peterson’s death in October 2018.

Read the Bible (Really!)

This May 1, I will mark 56 years as a follower of Jesus. I still think about that day in Santa Cruz, CA when the evangelist offered the invitation to come forward and accept Christ as my Savior and Lord. Well, I didn’t go forward (I was pretty shy at that time) but I prayed the prayer the evangelist asked us to pray right there in my seat. And I knew that something happened. At the time, little did I realize that I was beginning a journey that would last a lifetime and take me to Seminary, to doctoral work in Christian history, and even for more training as a theological librarian. Now, I’m ready to retire at the end of June.

It’s easy to think that retirement marks the end of the story. But following Jesus does not stop when we transition to another season of life, and I’m looking forward to more good years for research, writing, and teaching. Even more, I know the journey will not end when my earthly life is complete, but will continue at the end of this age when the Triune God will renew the entire creation and followers of Jesus will be raised to life in a new heaven and new earth.

I’m old enough to look back, and a big part of my journey of faith involves reading Holy Scripture. I never tire of reading the Bible. I think I still have the first New Testament that someone gave me back in 1966, Good News for Modern Man, one of the first modern translations designed for folks like me who struggled with Elizabethan English. I devoured that New Testament and it was my companion throughout Junior High and High School. Soon, I was reading the New American Standard Bible in college, and the Revised Standard and the New International versions when I was a young adult. Today, I like to read both a translation and a paraphrase at the same time. My preferred translation is the NIV, and I supplement that with The Message, the paraphrase translated by Eugene Peterson between 1990 and 2011 that I very much like for reading large portions of Scripture.

I also love reading books about the Bible. John Stott’s commentary on Romans is one of my prized possessions. N.T. Wright and Michael Bird’s The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (2019) is a stunning introduction to the New Testament. These are only two of many excellent resources for understanding the Bible in which I’ve been privileged to sink my teeth.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the shock that Renee and I experienced when we saw a sign with three Bible verses outside of the U.S. Capitol during thee 1/6 insurrection. We copied them down to read and discovered that they were ripped out of their original context and made to say things that the biblical writers had no intention of saying. My love for reading the Bible means a concern for good reading of the Bible, as opposed to bad reading of the Sacred Book. Hence, this post. What can we do to make sure that we are reading the Bible well? Let me suggest four ideas that help me and that will help you.

Read the Bible in Context

This is foundational to good Bible reading. Context. Context. Context. Yet, how many times do we hear people rip a Bible verse out of context and use it to say something they want to say. It happens over and over in Bible studies, small groups, youth groups, Sunday school classes, parachurch ministries, and sadly even from many pulpits.

The idea of context simply means that before we can understand what the Bible may be saying to us, we must understand what it said to the people who first heard or read it. What did Paul, John, Matthew, Peter and the other New Testament writers want to say to first-century Christians who made up the early congregations scattered throughout the ancient world? Only when we grasp that, can we fully grasp what it might say to us.

Context involves seeing the verse or passage of Scripture you are reading in light of what comes before and what comes after. Context also means that we read a verse or passage as part of an entire biblical book. In addition, we must understand some things about the history and culture of the time. For example, look at 3 John 2, “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually” (NIV). I’ve read and heard health-and-wealth preachers use this as justification that God’s will for you is to be healthy and rich, and that if you are not, then something is wrong with you.

But that is not what John is saying. With a little reading in a good study Bible (I like the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible) you discover that John used the format for a standard Roman letter, and in those letters it was the custom to offer a greeting that includes hope for the reader’s good health. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of these Roman letters and they follow a standard format, one that John uses here. So we dare not rip this little verse out of context and make it say something that it should not. You will find things like this when you are reading, and if you don’t understand what Paul, John, or others are trying to say, jot down your question and do a little background reading. I’ve been reading the Bible regularly for over 50 years and I don’t have it figured out by a long shot. I have some questions jotted down and when there is opportunity, I’ll do some research.

Read the Old Testament in Light of the New

The New Testament writers were adamant that the teaching of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians do not neglect the Old Testament. We value it because it tells us the story of God’s rescue plan to save humanity including you and me. That rescue plan centers on Jesus Christ.

Books of the Old Testament can pose a reading challenge. We’re confronted with all kinds of ceremonial and moral laws, especially in the first five books of the Old Testament. We find hymns, poetry, and wisdom sayings in books like Psalms and Proverbs. We read prophets pronouncing judgment on Israel and speaking of destruction of the Jewish temple. For Christians, all of this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the story of Jesus did not end with his ascension into heaven. It is an ongoing story that Scripture teaches will conclude only when our Lord returns again.

Scripture’s Fourfold Symphony

Jesus Christ is the focal point of what I like to describe as God’s symphony, a great narrative or story described in four movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New-creation. The first movement found in Genesis 1-2 tells us that everything in heaven and earth is created by God. John adds to that in the first chapter of his gospel by telling us that Jesus Christ was an active participant in that creation and that through Jesus all of creation holds together. When you read those passages, notice that the emphasis is not on the mechanics of how God did it. Instead, the Bible in these passages and others, tells us that everything in all of creation, including you and me, are the result of God’s creative activity. That is the first movement of this great symphony, and I can imagine all of the instruments in the grand orchestra being played with joyful care.

The second movement becomes a dirge, where humanity chooses to go its own way independently of God’s purposes and plans. Genesis 3 describes it in terms of the first humans disobedience of God that results in you and I being cut off from our creator. That is the essence of sin, the human choice to live apart from God and his good purposes and the consequences are stark: we are cut off from God, our interpersonal relationships become deeply distorted, the human institutions that govern how we live no longer support human flourishing, and even God’s creation, to us a term from the Apostle Paul, “groans” under the weight of sin.

If the symphony stopped there, all there would be to life is hopeless despair. But the third movement shows us just how just and merciful our Triune God is. From Genesis 4 on all the way through the New Testament, we read repeatedly of God’s rescue plan not only for us, but for humanity, and indeed all of creation. It begins with God setting apart a people whom he desires to be a light to all nations and people. That rescue plan culminates in Jesus Christ, the one who dies for us and whom God raises to life. Through Jesus, God’s new world begins to break into our world, a reality that is in many ways hidden (see the Kingdom parables in Matthew 13) but is slowly leading toward the finale.

That final movement has yet to be played, but the orchestra is building toward it. We know that it will be played at a future moment known only to God. As followers of Jesus, we long for that day when God will remake the world without sin and disobedience, when the beauty of God’s creation will be restored to God’s original intent. I cannot even imagine what that will look like–a world and its inhabitants without the distortion of sin. The older I get, the more I realize how little I grasp of that reality, and perhaps the vision of Narnia described by C.S. Lewis is the closest that I can get to it. I do know that the enemy of our faith wants us to concentrate on fighting about the details instead of imagining the amazing future God has for us.

When I read the Bible, I keep this fourfold symphony in mind. I’m always asking what God is doing in light of this. How does what I am reading fit into his unfolding purposes? Whether the passage is a narrative, a poem, a proverb, a word of prophecy, a letter, or writing that uses symbolic images as metaphors, all of it fits into the symphony of Scripture. In fact, that is how the second and third century Christians identified what books and letters make up the New Testament we read. (Obviously, they were led by the Holy Spirit and I think that this is integral to the process of God inspiring the writing and the collection of the Scriptures we have.) They knew that the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures deserved to be read as Scripture because together they describe God’s rescue plan that culminates in Jesus Christ.

This is why I love reading the Bible. It is the Word of God expressed in human language, in the everyday idioms used by writers who sought to follow God. Sometimes, Bible teachers and scholars make it overly complicated. At other times, many resort to citing verses out of context to make a text or passage say what they want it to say to support their religious, social, or political views. The best way to deal with both of those extremes is to read the Bible regularly. Read it in context. Ask how specific passages fit into this fourfold symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and new-creation. Like the early Christians who wrote the New Testament we grapple with Jesus Christ and his significance for our lives, our churches, and all of creation. Join me in the ongoing adventure of learning to read well.