Monday, October 13, 2008

True Women and Making a Manifesto Manifest

I like Don Veinot’s description of the complexity of going about addressing problems within the Church – our brethren in the faith who have drifted off center. We tend to have a “white hat” and “black hat” mentality when it comes to classifying religion. If we can call a group a cult based on obvious doctrine, they clearly wear a black hat and we wear the white. You don’t need discernment when you identify people based on their hat. You just avoid the bad guys and hang out with the good guys who are on “your team.”

But this is deceiving. Veinot goes on to describe that the guys who are on our team and wear white hats do not provide us any kind of insulation against false teachings that squeeze into the “team” and are adopted by the guys in the white hats. He offers Bill Gothard as an example, someone who teaches many really good things. But along with the good, Veinot points out that Gothard redefined and misdefined many doctrines and terms (including grace and faith). He introduced his own standards, not as an option that reflected his own extra-biblical convictions but as non-optional standards as mandatory standards, promoting them as the only true Biblical interpretations of Scripture.

Weeding out those subtleties proves to be a complicated process. Though the white hat narrows things down for us, it does not excuse our responsibility to bring discernment to every area, even those places and people that we would otherwise consider safe. In those situations, the white hats work against us. It’s also complicated to observe when those in white hats confront others who also wear white hats.

I felt very much that way about watching the True Woman conference live webcast a few days ago. They wear “white hats,” profess faith in Jesus Christ and actually promoted a teaching that is very dear to my heart: the theology of suffering. Learning the depth of that lesson comes at a high price, one that I still pay in many ways, and for a host of different reasons, I could well relate to Joni Tada’s transparent and humble confession about the sin of whining to God about pain on top of quadriplegia. I hope that embracing the Cross and peace embracing one’s own cross conveys as one of the most significant messages that my life declares.

I wrote to Nancy Leigh DeMoss last year to express my concerns about her feature of a book published by a group I find to be cultic, asking her to consider not featuring that book on her radio broadcast or to also give equal time to the critics of that publisher. I found the general message of her ministry to be so similar to my own convictions that I made the assumption that we shared other common convictions. I made the white hat mistake – assuming that since we both confessed to be Christ-centered and appreciative of the message of longsuffering, I believed that we were also part of the same sub-groups (?sub-cultures?) within the greater community of believers. I made wrong assumptions.

True Woman featured many speakers whose messages I enjoyed. Nancy’s messages on Thursday and Friday were really wonderful, and I thought her preaching style outshined many others with whom she shared the platform, both in content and delivery. On Thursday, she pointed out the responsibilities of the True Woman of God: live a Christ-centered life, trust God, and say “Yes!” to God. If any Christian denies these factors, I believe that they don’t qualify for the title of “Christian.” The other influences were more subtle.

 I’ve mentioned before that Mary Kassian seemed like the odd element in the group with a message that did not blend with the other messages presented there.  Even the True Woman Manifesto does not sound overtly or sharply questionable, and its general message is very Christian indeed. I read the Manifesto which I understand was not provided to anyone until they arrived at the conference and was made available online when the conference was already in progress. I take issue with the choice of language and terms – terms and particular items with which I would not take issue if I had no prior knowledge of how the various speakers and supporting ministries very specifically defined those concepts. I’d like to point out some of the concerns I have about the document and why I have them. The Christian content does not trouble me, but the extra-Biblical material does.

“We believe that the creation of humanity as male and female was a purposeful and magnificent part of God’s wise plan, and that men and women were designed to reflect the image of God in complementary and distinct ways.”

In general, I have not problems with this statement, and without additional knowledge about how the very different ways one can specify “complementary and distinct ways,” I would have no cause for concern about this statement. In 1995, in “But What Should Women Do in the Church?” in CBMW News, Wayne Grudem presented lists of acceptable roles and stations for women. I’ve read and heard others say that by the current standard set by CBMW, this old list of Grudem’s no longer seems sufficient. If one signs the manifesto, does that commit one to agreement with someone else’s definition of what those complementary and distinct ways of manifesting the image of God? Knowing that I do not agree with some of the more stringent restrictions posed by the group of speakers featured at True Woman (though I am a soft complementarian), could I rightfully sign that document?

As Zimbardo and Cialdini note, people desire to look consistent to others, so they are more inclined to behave in ways that will encourage others to see them that way. Behaving consistently (“I always vote Republican”) also decreases the stress and work required for decision-making. One can decide that if a particular figure has made reasonable statements in the past, that they can allow their discernment to lapse somewhat, always agreeing with all statements on all issues for all time. If one is lucky and situations not ambiguous, this may work well, but it is not a sure plan. People often change over time, and situations can change. There is no guarantee that a person or group will remain consistent or accurate over time and on all issues. One takes some risk.

Note how Zimbardo condenses Cialdini’s description of how the human trait of consistency can be exploited by others:

  • Profiteers exploit the principle by inducing people to make an initial commitment, take a stand or position that is consistent with requests that they will later ask of them
(One might be asked to sign a stronger statement later, so in some sense, this does “prime the pump” for compliance. Biderman pointed out that compliance with small requests sets up a repetitive pattern in insignificant acts of compliance. One does not then suspect the benign nature of compliance on small matters, but if and when the acts become significant, people will be much less inclined to both question them or resist the pattern. Though this is an extreme example, this deomnstrates how Jim Jones’ followers willingly complied with his requests for them to drink poison-ridden Koolaide. Changing one’s mind suggests that one made a mistake initially, and the consequences of such force us to realize our own vulnerability. Many people find this threatening.)

  • Commitments are most effective when they are active, public, effortful, and are seen as not coerced and internally motivated – influence professionals will try to make it difficult to renege on your previous position
(Signing a document in a ceremony or a group setting promotes compliance. Though DeMoss clearly stated that no one expected anyone to sign the document if they had reservations, the group obviously desires that the document be signed. The respected leaders signed the document, so it is obvious the desired outcome.)

  • If they are successful, abiding by this rule may lead to stubborn commitment to an initial position and to actions contrary to one’s best interests
(I just discussed elsewhere online how a student of a seminary professor took one class with the professor on a fairly specific topic. I presented odd and questionable statements made by this professor on an entirely different topic, but because the student liked this former professor, they denied that the professor had ever made any odd statements about this new topic or any other topic.)

  • The rule may become self-perpetuating – people will seek to add new reasons and justifications for their behavior even after conditions have changed

From the Manifesto:

As Christian women, we desire to honor God by living counter-cultural lives that reflect the beauty of Christ and His gospel to our world.

I certainly desire to honor God and reflect the beauty of Christ and His gospel to our world. That is a very concise summary of what I hope my life will accomplish, echoing Romans 8:29 – that God takes even my failures and works them beforehand to conform me into the Image of His Son so that I might be the firstborn of many in Christ. This same sentiment was expressed by Nancy Leigh DeMoss very clearly in her opening session at the conference. So in this general sense, I am in complete and total agreement with this statement. My concerns flow from ambiguity over what defines “living a counter-cultural life” however. I am not to be conformed to this world and I am in this world but not of it. I personally need little encouragement to act as a dissident when the occasion arises, and I am quite verbal about my testimony and actions in any setting. Yet I know that many at CBMW call for a culture war of Christians against egalitarian feminism both outside and inside of the walls of the church which they equate with homosexuality.

If a person who was unaware of these more specific definitions of “counter-cultural lives” according to the gentlemen in Louisville, then this prior commitment appeals to that person’s sense of consistency when the True Woman group becomes more clear and specific in their definitions. I can only suspect and speculate that because of the overlap in similar language and the specific beliefs of speakers and supporting groups, the finer definition of the term will emerge as one similar to CBMW. There is a greater likelihood that a person who would otherwise not accept Russell Moore’s specific definition will not question this definition if they had already aligned themselves with the group through signing the manifesto. We also tend to agree with those we like, and we respond to authority. Concerns about what defines a “counter-cultural life” might not bother me if someone (or many people) I respect have no problem with the term.

My other issues with this document follow suit and correspond with everything I’ve written here concerning gender. Every word that refers to gender has some kind of modifier attached to it. Character traits seem to have pink and blue labels. The manifesto includes several more terms and phrases that it defines vaguely, but hard complementarian groups specify far more specific definitions that are not well noted in the document. One could assume that those in attendance know what the phrases and vague meanings represent, but that is not clear in the document. And the conference did not discuss most of these definitions specifically. If I could give the True Woman conference a subtitle, I would have named it either “Bloom Where You’re Planted” or “Embrace Your Cross.” But the content of the conference did not address the specifics of the manifesto. It is an issue of poorly informed consent for me.

So in a very general sense, this conference was very nice. I especially enjoyed the testimonies that were featured during breaks between speakers and sessions, because those do absolutely bring glory to God and focus on all that we have in common: we are all sinners who have been graciously saved by nothing other than God’s mercy and grace! I am always blessed to hear the message that God is in all things, even those things that seem to be our greatest irritants. Those are the factors in our lives that drive us to Christ and transform us most powerfully. I enjoyed many of the sessions and found them very encouraging. I felt the witness of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. I wept and rejoiced. And this saddens me, for I am aware of this idealism that undergirds this manifesto was very much a part of the conference, though in a subtle way that didn’t offer “informed consent.” They provided for consent, but not consent that presented full disclosure about the full spectrum of the specific beliefs presented in the manifesto. Those statements didn’t just migrate into the document by chance, but they were carefully chosen and reviewed with purpose.

When I did missions work with Assemblies of God, I pulled a bit too many particularly nasty rotten teeth in the 105 degree heat one day and felt nauseous, so they reassigned me to tally statistics for two days. It was quite a switch from direct patient intervention. I learned at that alternate post that many of the people who came through the clinic just claimed to be Christian or become Christian in order to get free care. It seemed to many like the polite thing to do to reciprocate for the medical or dental care and for free medicine. The interpreters strongly suspected that many of the numbers we counted as conversions were not genuine. But, Oh, how sweet the true conversions were when we saw them, and they were mighty!

Sadly, the “sign the manifesto” reminds me of counting tick marks for Springfield, MO’s statistics department, gauging our effectiveness on numbers of reported prayers rather than evidence of the changed lives. I understand the significance, particularly on a trip like that, and we kept excellent records to provide the local churches and missionaries with information for follow-up. Only a small percentage of those very large numbers prove to be true conversions, though we will not count the true tally until we reach eternity. The Word was sown into the ground of people’s hearts and God will see that it does what He sent it to accomplish. I don’t know how to keep statistics on things like that.

I also attended a Baptist church for a time in the South where they had anyone who came to the altar sign a yellow card, and I think that there were folks that were also more fixated on the cards than the people sometimes. Many of the people who ventured down to the front were not there to give their hearts to Jesus, but they always announced how many yellow cards were collected at a service to follow, usually on a Sunday night. We were told that those yellow cards were decisions for Christ. This all came to mind when I noted the “sign the manifesto” section on the True Woman website. How can you count conversions when you have not succinctly explained to your audience to what you’ve converted them? Does informed consent count? Are you counting those whom you’ve coerced or those who have been truly converted?