It’s the Economy!

We need to be more self-conscious about the structures of power and influence that are at work in the Christian world

First, there is the fact that the same narrow gene pool exerts powerful influence across the spectrum of conservative evangelical organizations.  The same men operate in positions of influence in numerous headline organizations.  That represents obvious potential for conflict of interest and also offers the ability to control the news, direct debates, and decide who is allowed to speak and who gets to live – or die — in the Twitter feeds.  When one asks ‘How did these men get to such positions of far-reaching influence? Who appointed them to speak for me?  How do we get rid of them if they go astray?’

 

Perhaps the most significant result of the recent Trinity/complementarian combat has been the way it has hopefully revealed to a wider audience what has been clear to many for a long time: the economy of power and influence that exists outside the formal denominational structures of the conservative Protestant world.   I have written a lot about evangelical celebrity in the past but it is clear that celebrity is only one of the factors that shapes the current theological landscape.   The broader structures of power – formal and informal – do cultivate celebrity but their significance cannot simply be reduced to it.

The economy of evangelical power is complicated but I want to highlight just two aspects today, aspects which have been critical in the recent discussion and which have a profound doctrinal significance. First, there is the fact that the same narrow gene pool exerts powerful influence across the spectrum of conservative evangelical organizations.  The same men operate in positions of influence in numerous headline organizations.  That represents obvious potential for conflict of interest and also offers the ability to control the news, direct debates, and decide who is allowed to speak and who gets to live – or die — in the Twitter feeds.  When one asks ‘How did these men get to such positions of far-reaching influence? Who appointed them to speak for me?  How do we get rid of them if they go astray?’ the answers are not obvious.  And that should give pause for thought.

The second aspect is something noted by British political theorist, Claire Fox, as being emblematic of single-issue groups: catastrophization.   She has pointed this out with respect to bullying but her arguments have wider application.  She notes that there are powerful lobby groups with a vested interest in expanding the definition of bullying and in exaggerating its impact.  Such groups also have a defensive strategy of demonizing any critics through character assassination, impugning of motives, or accusations of being pro-bully or deliberately blind to the dangers bullying poses.   In short, such groups catastrophize a particular problem and then offer themselves and their agenda — often an increasingly radical one — as the only solutions.

The Trinity/CBMW debacle is a good example of the confluence of these two phenomena.  On the one hand, those with power in various organizations have tried to corral the debate by ensuring silence or ‘on message’ interventions. That has obvious high-stakes doctrinal significance for the issue at hand has been the Trinity.  On the other, the single-issue catastrophizers have attempted to marginalize critics by arguing that the brand of complementarianism being sold by them is the only one capable of solving the devastating inroads of radical feminism.   Maybe my experience is unique, but the bra-burning feminists are not as of this moment breaking down the doors of the OPC and demanding that we play Annie and Aretha singing ’Sisters are doing it for themselves’ before the call to worship.  The problem of feminism is out there but let us keep it in proportion — and let us keep our responses in proportion too.

The economy of power is here to stay.  All movements and organizations have their equivalents, after all.   That’s life.   But merely being aware of such can help foster change.  In fact, two things can and should be done to mitigate the potential for future mischief.  First, leaders need to start assessing conflicts of interest and taking appropriate action to disentangle themselves from such.   Second, we need to be more self-conscious about the structures of power and influence that are at work in the Christian world.  My earlier questions — ‘How did these men get to such positions of far-reaching influence? Who appointed them to speak for me?  How do we get rid of them if they go astray?’ – are the pertinent ones.

Carl Trueman is professor of historical theology and Paul Woolley chair of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This article is used with permission.