So the good folks down at Founders put out the trailer for their forthcoming documentary on social justice issues, entitled By What Standard? And the inter webs went berserk. You’d have thought Gideon got up in the middle of the night and knocked over a local idol or something. Wait, actually, that’s kind of what they did.
In my original comment when I shared the trailer, I noted that everyone is fine with talking about knocking over idols, but whenever anyone actually looks like they might come into contact with an actual, real live idol, the trembling lips and quivering voices share how concerned they are with the “tone” and harshness, and not being very nice or conversational or collegial, and hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and so often no one is quite sure exactly who’s feelings got hurt, but everybody has heard about somebody who heard from someone else and there are just lots of vague and speculative “concerns” milling about like fog over over a bridge, like so many freshman congresswomen with microphones in front of them. And the center of the most recent hurt storm was the allegation that the 1.5 second fuzzy frame of Rachel Denhollander with Owen Strachan’s voice-over describing “principalities and powers” was hurtful, offensive, and somehow equated Rachel with demons.
Now the Founders guys, being gentlemen and not wanting to be seen as taking anything close to a cheap shot, especially at a woman, especially at a heroic woman like Mrs. Denhollander, immediately had that 1.5 second fuzzy frame removed. Their official statement can be found here, which I should belabor at this point, is their official statement. What follows is not their official statement but my own personal thoughts and comments.
And I would simply like to make three points and then talk about what principalities and powers look like:
First, Owen Strachan was so absolutely right. And he was so right that exactly what he was talking about came right out and flexed its muscles for the whole evangelical webisphere. I want to circle back to this momentarily, but if Owen is even thinking about pulling out of the documentary, he must swear never to stand up in front of anyone and talk about principalities and powers exerting pressure ever again.
Second, the shrieks and howls that could be heard in various and sundry twitter feeds and Baptist institutions were in the first instance Exhibit A for our modern problem of mass biblical illiteracy. Has anyone actually done a bible study on “principalities and powers” in a minute?
It’s like we graduated from VBS and called it good with Bible memory and the only verse anyone knows is the armor of God passage (Eph. 6), and then everybody goes with their inner charismatic, inherited from binge reading Frank Peretti novels in middle school. But there are a number of other Bible verses on these words. The Bible teaches that principalities and powers are created authorities, both human and angelic. The Old Testament calls human judges “gods” (Ps. 82), and Paul says that Jesus created all things, thrones and dominions (visible ones and invisible ones), including the “principalities and powers,” and they were created by Him and for Him (Col. 1:16). This means that “principalities and powers” were not originally evil at all. Principalities and powers were created to serve Jesus. There’s nothing necessarily Satanic about principalities and powers. They are simply visible and invisible authorities that exert influence, pressure, issue incentives, deliver verdicts, threats, and generally provide various sorts of gravity – some may be angelic, some may be political, some may be religious, and some may be seminary presidents, and in a fallen world, sure, some of them could be rebellious, tyrannical, self-serving, evil and/or demonic.
Third, we are so biblically illiterate that we do not know what godly friendship looks like anymore. We are not used to seeing hard, direct, courageous, and loving confrontational conversations anymore. But the thing is, every time someone says something is “hurtful” an angel loses its wings. Ok, that might not be true, but I’m pretty sure the angels sigh and ask the Lord how long He’s going to put up with our insolence. And by the looks of things, I guess the answer is “longer than you thought.” But the point is that your feelings are not the standard. Does God’s discipline hurt? Hebrews says that it better or else it wasn’t real discipline (Heb. 12). Does parental discipline hurt a child? It sure better or else you were wasting your time (and his) (Prov. 23:13). The question that needs to be asked is: was it just? Ok, it hurt – but faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. And of course, a shyster can claim Proverbs 27:6 and be utterly unjust. But he would be demonstrably wrong. And that could be demonstrated from the facts of the case. But when you let feelings become the standard, there’s absolutely no answer to the charges of “hurtful.”
Paul withstood Peter to his face in front of everyone – claiming the gospel was at stake, and surely some folks rolled their eyes and accused Paul of being a firebrand and hothead, divisive and hurtful. But Paul would call what he did “Christian love.” And Jesus loved Peter enough to say, “Get behind me, Satan.” In other words, sometimes good folks with good intentions can do things that play right into a satanic scheme, and they can do so without themselves being the devil incarnate. We are sinners after all, and fully capable of acting in various and sundry devilish ways. Ever had a bad attitude? There you go, welcome to the club. And the faithful and righteous thing is to do is point that out. I’ll even go further. The faithful and righteous thing is to hurt, cause pain, and even wound our brothers and sisters if necessary, to get their attention, to call them back to the truth, even though a bunch of evangelical fussers will hyperventilate about the “tone” of likening a good guy to Satan. Sorry, but I’m having a hard time taking you seriously, what with your heavy breathing into your intersectional airsick bag. Get back to me when you’ve actually read the Bible. The real question is: was the point “just”? Was the claim true? Yes, it hurt, but was it true?
So what do the principalities and powers look like? Some of them are angels who are ministers of our Lord sent to protect His own. Some of them are demons, messengers of the Accuser sent to stir up dissention, doubt, fear, and guilt. Some of them are presidents, supreme court justices, CEOs, seminary professors, politicians, entertainers, pastors, authors, podcasters, bloggers, pundits, parents – anyone with power, authority, a voice exerting pressure, gravity. There’s nothing essentially bad about being a principality or power – the question is whether you’ve surrendered your power to Christ, whether you have acknowledged that the Cross is the ultimate standard of wisdom and justice, whether you acknowledge that you have been given your authority to serve Christ, or whether you’ve sold your soul to the devil, whether you think power has levers and works by force and manipulation and fleshly pressure.
Paul says that the saints will judge the angels (1 Cor. 6:3). That means in principle the saints have been granted authority over all the spiritual principalities and powers in Christ Jesus. If we have been seated with Christ in the heavenly places (and we have, Eph. 2:6), then we have been seated far above all principalities and powers in Him and by Him and for Him (Eph. 1:20-23). Read it. It’s all right there. And so the irony is really rich when Boz Tchividjian, professional ambulance chaser, now representing an alleged victim of abuse, is suing the Village Church for damages. Those are principalities and powers alright, but that’s not the good kind. Those are the kind that Jesus exposes and triumphed over in the Cross, those are the kind that the saints will judge. Paul says this kind of exertion of power is shameful. And of course, in situations where there have been real criminal acts and/or coverups, it’s absolutely necessary to involve civil authorities. But these optics are way worse than a fuzzy image and a voiceover telling the truth about the way the world works. And I’m still waiting for the SBC tone police to go Full Ascol on that.
Now maybe Founders should have recognized the biblical illiteracy of the SBC and evangelical world and chosen their words/images more carefully for the sake of clarity, but it’s a simple fact that what the trailer actually said and pictured was 100% true. Mrs. Denhollander is one of the powers in the current evangelical milieu, and she is exerting pressure. This is a good thing if her authority is used to point everyone to Christ and His word, as she did initially in her victim statements a few years ago against Larry Nassar. But unfortunately in recent years she has taken up with Boz Tchividjian and even lent her voice to the Sovereign Grace inquisition. And now she is even criticizing Matt Chandler and Ministry Safe for not being sufficiently woke. But this is how the standard of “hurtful” works. Your attempts at justice are never good enough for justice, for the victims, for the families, for anyone.
The human capacity for hurt is a black pit, and when you start falling into it, you find that there is no bottom because it is made up of eternal condemnation and regret. The only way out of that black hole is the cross of Jesus where justice and mercy met and kissed 2000 years ago, where all our sins were paid for, where all the injustice of the world was hauled up by God and dropped on His innocent Son, crushing Him for our peace.
And all of that justice is right there in His word, in the Bible. This was not an emotional outburst by God. It was measured, pure, absolute justice for our iniquity. That is the only source of liberty and justice for all. Otherwise, you’re just making it up as you go along, which is a noose that only gets tighter every time you try to loosen it. And for the record, I do call that sort of thing utterly demonic.