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Suspecting a Hermeneutic of Suspicion
I am encouraged by recent evidence that PCA pastors and elders are studying the DASA Committee Report1 in order to better care for those who have been or might be abused. Hopefully we will hear more from byFaith in the near future about how the DASA Report is impacting local church ministries. If the hard work of the DASA Committee bears fruit in greater protection of the vulnerable and healing of the wounded, and I pray it does, that will only be seen on the ground.
While I am counselor and advocate and care very much about that local work, I am also a theologian and apologist and care very much about the world of ideas from which the DASA Report is read, studied and interpreted. In that respect, I have some concerns. Suspicions might be the better word. The suspicion arose when I heard a pastor denounce the phrase “power differential” because “that’s CRT”.
Having been more active online in the last few months then I ever have in my life, I’ve realized that is a common reaction. I suspect there are many within conservative reformed denominations that would say “amen” to questioning the use of concepts like “power dynamics” and “power differentials”. The assumption appears to be that such language is unavoidably poisoned by association with Critical Theory.
Now, I don’t have proof. Unlike prior commissioned study reports from the PCA which have received widespread engagement and debate, to my knowledge no one has publicly criticized the DASA Report. So perhaps I am inventing a bogeyman. Yet, there are signs that point to similar presuppositions at play:
For example, in one case, PCA pastors said the church must be wary of using labels for sin that rely on manmade terminology and definitions. In their minds “sexual assault” is a manmade term (not in the bible) and a manmade definition (regulated by secular government), and the church has to stick to biblical concepts of sin.
When learning about the work of Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused, one PCA pastor expressed caution because he suspected some of the contributing specialists are progressive.
Last summer in July, 2022, shortly after Guidepost Solutions released its investigation of sexual abuse cover up in the SBC, some complained about continued use of Guidepost after it became clear that Guidepost was proud to be an “ally to the LBGTQ+ community.”
Another example: requests from OPC leaders in 2021 to retain G.R.A.C.E. for an assessment of church culture were met with criticism nearly identical in spirit to the SBC/Guidepost criticism. Because G.R.A.C.E. has “theological views fundamentally different than those of the OPC,” they should not be used. Both critics cited Amos 3:3 as proof of why G.R.A.C.E. and Guidepost should not be used: “Can two walk together, unless they agreed?” (NKJV; interestingly, the ESV does not work nearly as well for a prooftext: “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?”).
7 months after the request to hire G.R.A.C.E. was turned down, another OPC pastor went so far as to say that “hiring GRACE would be a mistake, that the ideology driving all of these actions is Critical Theory.”
Add to these the many conversations I’m sure we have all had where questions about abuse and “victim culture” are lumped together. Dr. Valerie Hobbs analyzed a PCA church Sunday school lesson given on the topic of “The Current Abuse and Victim Culture.” This statement from the PCA elder echoes what I’ve heard many times: “There's a lot of material out there which will sort of reinforce that, you know, if you think you were abused, you probably are.”
These are just a few examples of a common perspective which, ironically, uses a hermeneutic of suspicion to interpret initiatives aiming to help victims of abuse within conservative evangelical churches. Ironic, because critical theory / critical race theory (CRT) is itself believed to be rooted in a hermeneutic of suspicion.
I really hope I’m wrong in suspecting this suspicious reading of the DASA Report. But I do have these suspicions, and they lead me to an important question.
The DASA Report is intentionally grounded in the Westminster standards “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (BCO 21-5, 24-6).
“Therefore, the Larger Catechism’s teachings (hereafter, WLC) on the Ten Commandments are the official ethical teachings of the PCA. As such, the WLC serves as the basis for how elders are to engage in church discipline…[T]his report will ground its understanding of abuse in the ethical teachings of the WLC found in its exposition of the Ten Commandments.2
The first section of the report presents thorough “Biblical and theological foundations of understanding abuse.” And it is a very thorough study.
The question is, did modern, secular presuppositions distort how the committee members exposited the Westminster Standards?
Well, I’m not asking that question. But I’m guessing more than a few are. It just seems, in the PCA at least, that critical question is not being published for all to see. It comes in a private pastoral rebuke to a women’s ministry director for using the phrase “power dynamic” or “power differential”. It comes in private emails to victims of abuse asking for help from church courts. It comes in local church Sunday school classes from teachers who appear to devote more attention to critiquing straw man arguments about abuse than actually helping victims.
So when even a cursory glance at the DASA Report shows a committed belief that power differences are core to the dynamics of abuse,3 I fear that many PCA leaders will not take that seriously. It seems like the language is too triggering. I don’t know what the answer is for that problem, but I believe the DASA Report is headed in the right direction: focus on studying expositions of Scripture which are in no way influenced by modern philosophies.
Quote from the Westminster Larger Catechism
Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending: if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
Westminster Larger Catechism: Questions 151, which speaks directly to greater degrees of moral responsibility for those with more power. There are online texts of the WLC but I linked the PDF (go to page 296) because it includes all of the Scripture prooftexts which are essential to read to fully appreciate the meaning of the catechism. I suggest reading all of the texts cited for this question, especially answer #1 quoted above.
How do we balance the need for “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) with the need to “visit orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27)? Could it be that in our concern to exercise biblical justice we are actually avoiding justice altogether?
Which is now available in print with the title Addressing Abuse: A Theological and Practical Guide.
Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault, p. 2308 (reading the PDF version).
Frequency of each is 10x for “power differential” and 6x for “power dynamic”. See especially pages 2309-2311.