Book Review: Feminine Threads by Diana Lynn Severance

I literally just finished reading this amazing book (I was finishing it while giving my almost 2 year old lunch just now), and I had to sit down immediately to write this book review before my thoughts get jumbled up with other issues.

The book is entitled Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History written by Dr. Diana Lynn Severance, and my general synopsis is that you need to read 51qsr2xmrkl-_sx318_bo1204203200_this book this year. You’ve flooded your mind with Reformation history for the past year (or more), and this book goes through Church history also, but from the unique perspective of focusing on the roles and works of women in the Church throughout the course of time. So if Church history has been important to you recently, than you need to read this book.

Now, for the convincing details…

Dr. Severance divided her 312 page book into 12 chapters that span consecutively from the New Testament Era to the end of the 20th century. I was impressed by the number of women included in this work that included Roman slaves and aristocrats, Christian queens of Barbarian tribes and countries, martyrs, women devoted to the ascetic lifestyle, ministers, missionaries, and women who organized extremely influential para-church organizations that are still around today. Severance also paid careful attention to women writers throughout history (even including quotations from their works), thoughts and beliefs held about women from society and the Church leadership, and the evolving views of the Christian marriage, family, and home due to cultural and historical influences. I think Dr. Severance did an excellent job retelling a fascinating, although at times frustrating, history of women in the Church in an extremely objective manner. Her writing did not appear to gloss or sugarcoat the facts. She simply told “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in a straightforward manner.

In an effort to keep my words concise here and conclude, I want to highlight five points that made the biggest impression on me while I was reading.

  1. Reading about all of the incredible work done by Christian women throughout the centuries has my mind completely blown. I honestly didn’t know women did that much throughout Church history, and their ability to influence was also unbelievable given the restraints and difficulties they often faced. It was incredible to read about, and I honestly wish we heard more about these faithful saints along with the notable people we hear emphasized continually.
  2. The providence of God throughout the course of history is absolutely undeniable. His hand clearly “set the scene” for many works and acts of women within the Church.
  3. The craftiness and subtlety of Satan’s schemes was also incredibly visible while reading through this book. I can only compare it to the “By-path meadow” that lay alongside the narrow way in Pilgrim’s Progress. While some things women began to pick up were clearly erroneous, many other things were much more subtle and had far reaching consequences. And while some women had natural limits and boundaries in terms of how far they would progress, other women following after them did not yield to those same boundaries and limits, and it appears that theyovercorrect perished in their sins. We have a very crafty foe that we need to be aware of.
  4. When we talk about people falling off into the other side of the ditch, only to overcorrect themselves and fall into another ditch, the discussion of the role of women within the church is always veering off to one side or the other. This pendulum has been swinging for centuries, and after reading this book, the discussion today (especially in the PCA) is only a rehashing of the same discussion that has been occurring for hundreds of years. As the Word tells us in Ecclesiastes 1:10-11:

    “Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”? It has already been in ancient times before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after.”

    Knowing this, I think that we ought to be shrewd and discerning and search out this history, understand what happened, consider what didn’t happen, determine would should have happened, contemplate the prevailing thoughts and influences (including global, social, and cultural) of the day, ponder the ramifications of the actions and lack of action of all people included, and wisely determine a way forward so that God continues to be glorified in the lives of both men and women in the Church.

  5. Finally, this book cannot but help to stir up the faith of believers. The Church has always been filled with some incredibly broken and sinful people who have done amazing and awful things throughout history, both men and women. Yet and still, the Church is the bride of Christ, and the Spirit of God has and continues His work of building, purifying, and preserving the Church of Christ today. And regardless of how things have appeared, appear to be, and appear to be progressing towards, we have the promise from our Lord and Savior that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.

Our history looks really really messy, and women have been the victims, creators, sustainers, and maintainers of a lot of mess throughout the history of the church. Nevertheless, it is a history worth knowing that can only help us to gain wisdom, teach us discernment, show us the importance of holding fast to the truth of God’s Word, help us to stand steadfast against the onslaught of the enemy, and increase our faith in our Sovereign Lord who continues to accomplish His purposes in each of us and in spite of us. As I am equally as confident as Paul when he said to the Philippians, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Maranatha!

(and get this book!)

Book Review: Edification and Beauty by Dr. James Renihan

This week I finished a book that I truly enjoyed written by Dr. James Renihan entitled Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705, and this book is also a part of the Studies in Baptist History and Thought series.  I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Renihan and a small portion of his family in December, and so I was excited and interested to read this book (which also happens to be his dissertation, but it’s still very readable).

In a nutshell, this book is a history book, but a very intriguing history book about Particular Baptist history in England through the late 17th and into the very early 18th centuries. It is divided into six chapters (with plenty of subtitles….which I love) all expounding on the formation of the Particular Baptist churches (including the adoption of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1689), church government, the officers of the church, the practice of the regulative principle of worship, and the formation, necessity, and activities of church associations.

Now, I say this book is more intriguing than you would expect because Dr. Renihan spent countless hours examining old church records, minutes from church meetings, and lots of other primary sources that we wouldn’t even think exist today. Some specific topics that I found particularly interesting were

  • the demographic breakdowns of various congregations
  • how churches formed (especially in less populated areas)
  • the question and outworking of who holds the authority and exercises the power within the church
  • the role of “gifted brethren”
  • the outworking of “the communion of saints” among the churches
  • and all of the actual examples of how these Christians handled problems within their churches.

And after reading, you can’t help but be left with the deep impression that these Baptists were extremely serious about what they believed and equally as diligent to practice their faith very carefully. Faithful precision was of the utmost importance.

In terms of reviewing this book, if I had to capture my thoughts with a verse from Scripture, I would use Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, which says:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

 

And this passage comes to my mind because I think that books like this can help us. It’s important to remember the past, and it’s even more important to learn from the past, especially Church history. And I know that there is a plethora of books out about the Reformation and the history of various Protestant denominations, but as Reformed Baptists, we should make sure that we’re learning our own history too so that we can continue to grow in wisdom, understanding, and Christian maturity as knowledgeable Reformed Baptists.

Now I confess that this is my first time reading anything about Baptist history, but I enjoyed it and want to read more. It reminded me of my own upbringing in a Baptist church, and although my church wasn’t Reformed, they practiced many things that I read about in Dr. Renihan’s book (i.e. the yearly review of church history and being active members in the local Baptist Church association). In particular, I remember when I came to faith as a child (around age 6), and most members (including my pastor) did not believe that children could truly come to saving faith in Christ. But my mother made me get up near the end of the service and go to my pastor to tell him that I believed the gospel. My pastor stopped before he gave the benediction to actually question me on the gospel and what I believed in front of the congregation. He was surprised and satisfied with my responses, and then he told the congregation that unless there was an objection from anyone, he was putting me forward to be a candidate for baptism. Thankfully, there were no objections, but they made me take foundation classes for a while before my baptism. And when I participated in the Lord’s Supper the Sunday of my baptism, I had to stand beside the table to receive “the right hand of fellowship” from every member of the church. Later, when church meetings were convened, I stupidly thought that I could run around and play with all my friends outside, but my mother made sure that I knew that as a member, it was expected that I would be in the church meeting and paying attention, although everyone else my age was outside playing. In fact, as the youngest believer in my church, everyone had a hand in “rearing” me and making sure that I was not thinking and behaving like the other children (my actual peers) in the church because I had made a confession of faith, and my whole life was changed and dedicated in service to the Lord and my church.

My church took membership very seriously, and even from childhood, they made sure that I was involved (i.e. serving as an usher, cleaning before and after services, serving in the choir, teaching Sunday School, helping with Vacation Bible School, helping with fellowship meals, and much more) and they made sure that I knew that I had to be involved because I was an actual member of the church. I believe this is one of the lasting impressions I have from this book: the need and duty of every member of the church to be actively dedicated and involved in the edification and sustainment of the church. And I am grateful that this tradition and practice was passed down in such a way that I was able to see it modeled faithfully in my church as a child.

Shortly after starting this book, I figured that it was a good idea to read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment so that I would learn to be content and patient with the providence of God in my life currently, and that was a good decision. But I can honestly say that this book does not exalt Particular Baptists or their practical ecclesiology over and above other denominations in any way. It just gives you a brief window into Particular Baptist church life in the late 1600s, nothing more and nothing less. The picture that you see looks amazing and promising at times, and at other times, it’s difficult and disheartening because even with all of the hard work put into it, things don’t always end the way we want them to. Nevertheless, it is the Lord who is building His Church, and this book shows you His faithfulness in that work among the Particular Baptists. I heartily recommend this one!

How the Bible Relates to Man-Made Creeds (Nettles) – Founders: The Blog

This morning, Rick Patrick posted an article on SBC Today entitled “The Rise of Soteriological Traditionalism.” In this article, he explains how the Traditionalist Statement was a natural product of a necessary movement in the SBC to balance its soteriology. Have I mentioned I hate the way Christians often over-use the word balance? It’s sooo imbalanced! But I digress. Having read the aforementioned article, I can’t help but think that Nettles’ article below might have perhaps been written, at least partially, in reaction to it.

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The pivotal question of how one concedes authoritative force to a creedal, or confessional, proposition holds paramount importance in their use in pedagogical and disciplinary ways. If churches, associations, or denominations as a whole are to use their creeds as instruments of ordination, church instruction, and discipline, then some method of demonstrating the biblical character of their propositions must be clearly conceived. Phillip Schaff rightly reminds Christians, that “the Bible has, therefore, a divine and absolute, the Confession only an ecclesiastical and relative, authority.” Additionally, he warns that “any higher view of the authority of symbols is unprotestant and essentially Romanizing.” Having issued that caveat, he proposed, “Confessions, in due subordination to the Bible, are of great value and use.” He called them “summaries of the doctrines of the Bible, aids to its sound understanding, bonds of union among their professors, public standards and guards against false doctrine and practice” (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3 volumes, 1:7, 8.)

Confidence in the biblical authenticity of a creed’s content comes by familiarity with its historical and doctrinal context compared with the way each party interpreted Scripture. Creeds and confessions help us in consolidating the exegetical options that have characterized disagreements in the history of Christianity. They set forth propositions that are the summation of a particular group’s understanding of what Scripture teaches. The confessional propositions make possible close investigation as to their biblical fidelity and acceptance or rejection on that basis. If the creedal proposition is accepted as an accurate synthesis of biblical truth, that proposition becomes an element of an interpreter’s exegetical principles. Keep reading…

Cultural Footprints in Public Discourse

Take a brief moment today to consider name-calling as a rhetorical device. Most of us would agree that it is disgusting when a person calls another person a name simply for the purpose of stigmatizing his or her ideas. This is a terrible approach to debate and dialogue. It may work to solidify opposition among the less astute, but it is nonetheless little more than mud-slinging. Not every use of names can be reduced to mud-slinging, though.

We would do well to recognize that many very historical names leave behind massive cultural footprints. Granted, sometimes people can be falsely charged as Marxists, Pelagians, Hitlers, and the like. However, to evoke one of these names—and myriad others—in a spirited debate, is not necessarily reducible to mud-slinging. In fact, oftentimes, when we reduce the use of these historical names in the cultural dialogue to mere mud-slinging, we run headlong into the error of denying cultural footprints and we demonstrate that we are ignorant of history.

For instance, a person who has studied church history should be very aware of the Pelagian debate where Augustine asserted that men must be enabled by God to do what He requires us to do. Pelagias responded that God would not require anything of us that we are incapable of accomplishing. When some professors and seminary presidents respond to Calvinists with the same line of argumentation and, subsequently, they are told they are making Pelagian arguments, they will often accuse their brothers of mud-slinging. By accusing Calvinists of mud-slinging, simply because they did not (directly) receive their argumentation from Pelagius himself, they deny Pelagius’ cultural footprint and / or demonstrate that they are ignorant of a major debate in church history.

Likewise, a person who has studied political history should be very aware of the Marxist debate where Marx and Engels asserted that a narrative must be forwarded that pits oppressors against oppressed so that a one-world communist utopia could arise. Marx and Engels primarily focused on economics, but they were also for the toppling of other institutions as well, like the family and the church. For them, any destabilization would lead ultimately to revolution, and revolution could only make possible the rise of their desired utopia.

So, when Christian leaders start to smuggle this language of oppressor and oppressed into the church, the idea of a power struggle between classes even within God’s church, some have rightly called them on the use of a Marxist tactic. Yet, predictably, they claim that this recognition of Marxism is nothing more than mud-slinging. By accusing their detractors of mud-slinging, simply because they do not (directly) receive their argumentation from Marx and Engels, they deny Marx’s and Engel’s cultural footprints and / or demonstrate that they are ignorant of a major debate in political history.

Conclusion

The next time someone uses a name you consider to be very negative to describe your position, try not to respond with a knee-jerk reaction and accuse them of mud-slinging. Rather, ask them why they make that connection. You may have imbibed a cultural footprint of which you are unaware. You may have a blind spot in your understanding of history. The other person may have a very valid reason for the connection he or she is making and, if he or she doesn’t, you can offer a more gentle correction than merely accusing him or her of mudslinging.