Matthew Bracey’s “The Institutional Good of Marriage, Family, and Society”: Review and Response

W. Jackson Watts

I was pleased to listen to Matthew Bracey’s excellent paper on marriage, family, and society at the 2018 Symposium in October. This is a subject of great interest to me, and I know one which Bracey has spent an extensive amount of time delving into. Some of his previous reflection on this broader subject can be found in a volume entitled Gender, Sexuality, and the Church (Welch College Press, 2016).

Review

In this presentation Bracey focused on what has been described as the “institutional good of marriage.” To speak of the “institutional good” of marriage is to speak to one of the ends or purposes of marriage. To state it in summary form, Bracey says, “the institution of marriage communicates a procreational good, a relational good, a spiritual good, and institutional good, each being the expression of love” (77).[1]  Each of these goods, then, could also be described as purposes for God’s gift of marriage.

The procreational purpose or good is fairly self-evident to most who have studied this subject. While not all marital relationships have the capacity to bear children (due to infertility, age, etc.), reproduction is tied to the complementary design of the two genders which God brings together in marriage. The design, we could say, gives rise to the good of procreation. Certainly in a world without sin nothing would hinder this good, but even in a fallen world this good purpose still often attains and blesses couples, and society.

A second purpose or good is the relational (or unitive) good. Genesis 2:18 describes the Lord making a helper suitable to the man whom He had made. Scripture then in numerous places unfolds the enrichment and beauty this one-flesh relationship brings, perhaps most notably in the Song of Solomon.

A third purpose is its spiritual good. The Christ-church relationship is uniquely pictured in Christian marriage. The husband’s sacrificial love serves to typify Christ’s supreme, sacrificial love for His people, while the wife’s willing submission and respect to the husband typifies the posture and attitude assumed by God’s people.

The remainder of Bracey’s presentation was focused on a fourth and generally neglected good: an institutional one.  Sometimes described as a public or formal good, marriage is not merely a private affair between consenting adults. Instead, marriage is a public institution whose blessings and benefits extend beyond the threshold of the couple’s home. Perhaps the best example of this larger social impact is the fact that couples will bear and nurture children who will in turn be citizens in civil society, contributing to its betterment or decline. The health and well-being, then, of the marital relationship has a direct bearing on the type of society we will become.

Moreover, rightly ordered sexual relationships contribute to the flourishing of human life, and by extension, the lives of those around us. Bracey summarizes this point best when he says, “The Christian ethic recognizes this reciprocal relationship between the soul and the state, and it places the family as an intermediary between them” (82).

As an aside, Bracey’s observation here feeds into a larger, growing body of literature that emphasizes the importance of mediating institutions between the state and the individual, such as the family, the church, neighborhood associations, civic organizations, and charities. Not only do these serve as a buffer between the state in the face of its tendency to overreach, but these mediating institutions enrich human life in countless other ways.

Bracey’s presentation is helpful as it introduces this fourth, crucial purpose for marriage, and then moves toward offering some practical implications for the institutional good of marriage and family in society. He highlights how marriage helps civil society to flourish and protects people (especially children, the most vulnerable) from harm. He then mentions several avenues for promoting the institutional good of marriage, moving from the individual to the family, the church, society, and government.

Response

Whenever people come to our churches looking for financial assistance, or a place to stay, it is no surprise that divorce and/or cohabitation lie somewhere in the background of the situation. This is not to be uncharitable to those who are victims, at least in part, of others’ bad conduct. Certainly churches must be places of mercy. Yet an understanding of the institutional good of marriage equips us to detect the impact of family breakdown. Perhaps it can also help us to offer marital counseling to people, who may also, along the way, require some help with rent or the utility bill.

Christians who have inhabited the story of Scripture understand the way marriage provides a safe, secure, and sustainable way of guarding the interests of men, women, and the children they bear. When they choose to honor God’s good design in joining together in legitimate marital union, and proceed to bring children into the world in that context, they are embracing a framework that, in the long run, has been proven to be for their good and the good of their neighbors.

None of this, to be sure, will guarantee marital bliss. Certainly we as Christians would want to say a lot more about the components to a healthy marriage. Perhaps as part of our ministries we can make marriage resources available to our communities, ultimately forming connections that can lead to evangelism and care. But Christians have robust biblical, theological, sociological, and historical reasons to contend for the institutional good of marriage.

As elected officials try to do more and more in the way of policy making to address poverty, might Christians lend a voice to the discuss and show where family order and stability is central to long-term wealth-building? Might we point out that those in intact families have better life outcomes by any measure than those who do not?

While we need to work diligently to not make the victims of cohabitation, divorce, and other destructive choices feel guilty for being victims, we do need to be honest about the good design of marriage and its positive benefits for the world.

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[1] Each page number is derived from the 2018 Symposium Digest of Papers.

Free Will Baptists Present at ETS in Denver

by Jackson Watts and Matthew Bracey

I (Jackson) have written several times in the past about the involvement of Free Will Baptists with the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). I always like to take the opportunity to call attention to this important relationship, not least because scholarship does not exist as an end unto itself; it exists to extend the lordship of Christ over the minds of His people. This has significant implications for colleges and universities, schools, missions organizations, and certainly churches. So readers may expect to hear more in the future about ETS on this blog. I am joined now by Matthew Bracey, a colleague who attended ETS just recently.

ETS held its annual meeting in Denver on November 13-15. Once again Free Will Baptists were well represented on the program, and one in particular received a significant recognition from a leading evangelical seminary. Here we’ll give a brief overview of FWB involvement, and highlight one unique moment.

Overview

Welch College Provost and Professor Matthew McAffee participated in the Old Testament Backgrounds/Ancient Near East section of the program by presenting a paper entitled “Lexicography and the Comparative Method: Some Methodological Considerations.” McAffee also serves on the steering committee of the Old Testament Backgrounds/ANE study group.

Commission Chairman and Welch College President Matt Pinson presented a paper entitled, “The Holy Spirit in Seventeenth-century General Baptist Theology.” This was given as part of a section on Baptist Studies. Pinson also serves on the steering committee of the Baptist Studies study group and the Eighteenth Century Theology study group.

Welch College professor and MA program coordinator Jeff Cockrell presented “The Good Deposit in 2 Timothy: Its Content and Trust.” This was part of a section on the Pastoral Epistles. Cockrell also moderated a New Testament section on Pauline Literature, and a Church History section focused on Baptist and Puritan Theology.

It was in this latter section that Jesse Owens, church planter and PhD candidate at Southern Seminary, presented  “Matthew Caffyn, Thomas Monck, and English General Baptist Creedalism.”

Zach Vickery, a rising biblical studies scholar, had a paper read in the Septuagint Studies section entitled, “The Translation Technique of LXX-Ruth.” Vickery is engaged in doctoral studies at the University of Glasgow.

Finally, I (Matthew), Welch College Vice Provost and Professor, moderated a Church History section, featuring scholarship on the Church Fathers.

Among the other interesting aspects of the meeting were some of David Dockery’s remarks. Dockery is president of Trinity International University, and he gave a paper on developing a theology of evangelical higher education. These insights also underscore our work as a Theological Commission.

Dockery said that we want a full-orbed theological vision for our work. Certainly we aim to have one, too! Readers of this blog or journal, Symposium attendees, and attendees of our annual Convention seminar can see over the years the diverse subjects our Commission has sought to address theologically. This is not accidental, or for the sake of diversity. It is an expression of our understanding of the nature of theology. Christian truth touches everything.

Another of Dockery’s remarks that bears mention here is the communal nature of theology.  Theology is done best in community for the sake of God’s people. We agree. As a Commission, we want to hear from you! We want to be in touch with the practical challenges of everyday life and ministry so we might best bring the full weight of the Free Will Baptist and larger Christian theological tradition to bear on those challenges. We best fulfill our charge when others ask questions, offer input, suggestions, or even criticism.

While the Commission has oversight of the content we produce, several of our resources seek to draw on the best that others are doing or have done in theological scholarship. Naturally our Symposium program consists of presenters who represent different walks of life and ministry. But even our journal, Integrity, consists of articles and reviews solicited or submitted from our Free Will Baptist leaders and writers. All this is to say, your involvement is critical to who we are and what we hope to be.

A Special Recognition

At ETS many organizations, such as publishing houses and seminaries, often hold  a lunch or dinner event. Usually these are a type of banquet or reception. One such event is the Southeastern Theological Fellowship Dinner, sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS). This is always an enjoyable and inspiring time (FD: I–Jackson–am an alumnus).

Each year at this dinner Provost Bruce Ashford recognizes a small number of scholars across the evangelical world for some notable contribution they have made to Christian scholarship. Past honorees have included scholars like Timothy George, Paul Copan, Scott Rae, and Douglas Moo. This year five more were honored for their contributions, including our Commission Chairman, Dr. Matt Pinson. He was joined by Kevin Vanhoozer, Peter Gentry, Nathan Finn, and Matthew Emerson. More on this event can be found here. Some images from the dinner can be found here, courtesy of SEBTS.

Congratulations to Dr. Pinson on this honor, and to all of our Free Will Baptists who are trying to be active on this important front.

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Audio recordings of any individual ETS session can be purchased for a minimal fee at http://www.wordmp3.com/. Other deals are also available.

Thanksgiving Wishes

by Theological Commission

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

This Thanksgiving season, we members of the Commission for Theological Integrity are thankful for the privilege of serving the people of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.

We only recently concluded our annual Theological Symposium in Moore, Oklahoma. We are thankful for such a great turnout and enlightening presentations.

We are thankful for the forthcoming edition of Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought.

We are thankful for readers of this blog.

We are thankful for those who attend our Convention seminar each July at the National Convention.

Finally, we are thankful for Christ and His gracious salvation.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Jeff Blair’s “Cultivating a Culture of Wisdom in the Local Church”: A Response

by Thomas Marberry

At the recent Theological Symposium held on the campus of Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma, Dr. Jeff Blair presented a paper entitled Creating a Culture of Wisdom in the Local Church. This essay was based on his recently-completed D.Min. thesis at Northern Seminary.

Blair begins his analysis by pointing out that many aspects of American culture, including our churches, have become decidedly youth-oriented. Contemporary culture favors new over old, innovation over tradition, revolution over preservation, and zeal over wisdom. Church programs are generally designed to appeal to specific age groups. Children and young people are seldom involved with adults in church programs; many churches even have separate worship services for children and youth. The net result is that church members of different age groups seldom worship together or participate in the same activities.

In this paper, Blair suggests that churches should reconsider this modern youth-oriented approach ministry. He suggests a return to a more biblically-based model which he labels “a culture of wisdom.” In a wisdom culture, the basic values are stability, order, continuity, productivity, and maturity. Much of the material in this essay is drawn from the exegesis of Scriptural passages such as Genesis 1-2, Proverbs 1-9, Matthew 11-13, 1 Corinthians 1-4, Colossians 1, and James. Blair argues that a different approach would provide more opportunities for younger people to spend time with and learn from older members of the congregation. They would do more things together.

Some of the ideas presented in this paper may be difficult for church leaders to hear, but they should be carefully examined and evaluated. Church programs that have been established for several years (including youth programs) should not be radically changed simply for the sake of change. Changes must be developed and implemented wisely and with the support of the congregation. Church leaders need to keep in mind that change does no good unless it puts the church in a better position to share the gospel with its community.

There are several aspects of Blair’s work that make it useful for churches. First and foremost, this essay presents a careful analysis of key Scripture passages that must guide and control the implementation of a program of wisdom. Second, this essay provides information that will assist a church to develop and implement a program of wisdom. Changes should not be made haphazardly; the church needs to develop a workable plan and strategy to implement a program of wisdom.

Third, this essay helps the modern reader to realize how much we can learn from the past. We cannot go back and live in the world of Biblical times, but there are many insights that are of eternal value. Fourth, this analysis stresses the importance of maturity. It emphasizes that the younger members of a congregation can learn much from their parents, grandparents, and the older members of the church.  Fifth, the wisdom model outlined in this essay promotes family solidarity. It suggests that families should worship together, learn together, and serve God together.

This is a paper that should be carefully read and studied by Free Will Baptists. We should always be open to ideas that can help us to minister more effectively in the modern world. A return to the wisdom practices of the Biblical world may help us to do that. There is, however, a word of caution that should be sounded: A culture of wisdom cannot be implemented quickly and easily in a local church; it will require time, effort, planning, and much prayer.

 

A Theory about Theory?

W. Jackson Watts

Recently I was preparing a sermon from Ephesians 3:1-13 as part of a series on Ephesians at my church. During my study I consulted several commentaries, including the NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians, authored by Klyne Snodgrass, now professor emeritus at North Park Theological Seminary.

Each volume in this commentary set is divided into three sections for each passage: (1) Original Meaning, in which the text is exegeted; (2) Bridging Contexts, in which the key themes and issues that arise from that exegesis are discussed; and (3) Contemporary Significance, in which some application is provided. Hence, the sub-theme of the entire set: “From biblical text…to contemporary life.”

I do sometimes scratch my head a bit with where the authors go with application of passages. For example, on this passage, Snodgrass says:

“In urging that we value the treasure of revelation, I am not urging focus on a particular theory of revelation. Theories are fine, as long as we do not forget that the revelation is unsearchable and inexhaustible and that our theories are always inadequate. People do  not have to use the same words—such as ‘inerrancy’—to value the treasure. To set up a particular expression as a necessary description canonizes the wrong material and only detracts from the revelation. What people need to know is that the gospel is truth  from God (1:13). While some theories are inadequate, several others are legitimate and useful. But our theories must not become substitutes for the revelation itself. We study the revelation, not our theories.”[1]

Criticisms of inerrancy abound, and it seems Snodgrass is at least implicating himself in that body of criticism. However, I’m interested in the larger criticism about theories of revelation which he offers.

What Does He Mean by “Theories of Revelation”?

First, Snodgrass is especially anxious about theories of revelation. Most Bible students learn about some such theories in the course of study. These concern how the Bible came to exist in its present form, which belongs more properly to studies of canon. Then there are ideas about the nature of biblical inspiration, which deal with the nature of the text and how it may or may not convey truth to the reader.

Right off hand, I cannot think of any evangelical theory of revelation that claims our understanding of revelation is not unsearchable, or inexhaustible. This includes our ability to apprehend all biblical texts to the point of 100% certainty and clarity, or our ability to be able to retrace with minute precision every revelatory moment in history. So Snodgrass’ claim about the adequacy of our theories makes me ask, “Does adequacy require comprehensiveness?” In my experience, the adequacy or sufficiency of a model or theory about the Bible does not require inexhaustibility to be faithful or legitimate.

I also wonder if theory, for him, includes any account or idea itself about revelation. As a former professor of biblical literature, I have a hard time imagining that in Snodgrass’ 40+ years of teaching he never utilized models, categories, or perhaps theories about textual composition. If the biblical text is somehow connected to what he means about revelation, then I wonder how he carefully avoided “inadequate theories” of revelation. It would be helpful for readers to know which ones he considered “legitimate and useful,” and what criteria one might employ to make that determination.

Which Revelation?

It would also be useful to know what Professor Snodgrass really means by revelation. The institution he taught at is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, which affirms the centrality of the Word of God. Their website does not explain, however, what this means. What counts as the Word? The written, canonical text? The message the text gives rise to? Surely some explanations or accounts (or theories?) might prove useful in helping us make sense of this.

The revelation that Paul speaks about in these passages seems to be the Damascus Road experience, through which the risen Christ called him to salvation and to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Yet when evangelicals typically speak of revelation they either mean general revelation available to all human beings (via creation, conscience), or special revelation (namely, the person of Christ and canonical Scripture). Categories or distinctions then become essential for helping us move from the revelation Paul speaks of, to the larger question of how we steward God’s revelation, namely, the Gospel of Christ for Jew and Gentile alike.

Does our attempt to distinguish, categorize, and perhaps even theorize about the relationship between these forms of revelation inherently diminish our stewardship of it? Or does it actually bring more clarity into how we ought to be handling the revelation? I opt for the latter.

A Question of Discipleship?

One aim of Snodgrass that I do appreciate has to do with discipleship. In the preceding paragraph he points to the fact that when we truly value the revelation of God we focus on the Gospel, which has implications not only for conversion, but discipleship.

In the context of Ephesians 3:1-13, the passage he is commenting upon, Paul is under house arrest for fulfilling his ministry to the Gentiles. His passion for the “mystery of Christ” compelled him to share, even emboldening him in the face of adversity. Snodgrass argues, “The value we place on something determines the hardship we are willing to endure for it. We will expend enormous energy and resources to care for a person or a prized possession we value a great deal. Paul valued the gospel enough to go to prison for it.”[2]

The larger point is well taken. We can intellectualize and become overly theoretical about biblical truth or principles to the point that we devalue actual lived obedience. But again, the question is whether theories or accounts of revelation inherently do this.

Perhaps Dr. Snodgrass could have served the reader better had he said something like this: “We must never substitute our theorizing for the glory of God itself. Our theories are only good insomuch that they find Scriptural support, for insomuch that they find Scriptural support they are able to bring the minds and hearts (that God’s Spirit indwells) into contact with God’s own mind and heart.”

In the end, Snodgrass seems to have a theory about theory. I’m just not persuaded that this theory, embedded ever-so-slightly in a biblical commentary, will help us to avoid the speculations that don’t promote “the stewardship from God that is by faith.” (1 Tim. 1:4). We need a more careful account about how theological models, categories, and theories can best point us to the Lord.

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[1] Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 170.

[2] Snodgrass, NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians, 171.

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