Jason Meyer, the successor of evangelical superstar John Piper as senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, resigned last week.
In 2015, Meyer preached a sermon on domestic abuse that lots of Evangelicals shared and promoted. Even today, people on twitter are referring back to that sermon in their comments on his resignation.
The sermon was “Fooled by False Leadership.” Both a video and the text are available online. Please note that the posted text is not a literal word for word transcript, so please refer to the video for the actual specifics of what was preached.
With Meyer stepping down, this is a good time to look back at perhaps his most famous sermon. It contains some good points but was also deeply troubling in many ways. A thorough analysis would take many thousands of words to detail, but I will share some highlights that will hopefully make you question what you are hearing.
Where Did Meyer’s Description of Abuse Come From?
Meyer defines abuse as: “A godless pattern of abusive behavior among spouses involving physical, psychological, and/or emotional means to exert and obtain power and control over a spouse for the achievement of selfish ends.”
Where did he get this definition of abuse from? He is giving a sermon, with 2 Corinthians 11:16-21 as the sermon text. He spends about 20 minutes discussing the passage prior to beginning his discussion of domestic abuse. The abuse section of the sermon is even labeled “Application” in the online text.
Does his definition of abuse come from this passage (or anyplace else in the Bible)?
Compare Meyer’s definition with the United Nations definition of abuse: “A pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person”
They are very similar. Note especially the use of the phase “power and control” in both. This is a clear reference to secular feminist ideology which says abuse about is about power and control, such as the well-known Duluth Model. There is even a famous Duluth Power and Control Wheel.
Meyer’s sermon presents a framework and examples of abuse developed by John Henderson. It includes multiple types of abuse (mental, emotional, physical) and activities within each type categorized by severity. Thus this model is a grid, which someone helpfully posted online.
While a structurally different framework, you can see that the individual items in Henderson’s model pretty much map readily to the Duluth wheel.
Watching the sermon, you’ll note that when outlining the material on abuse, Meyer makes virtually no reference to the Bible.
Meyer’s categories are also not biblical categories. For example, he says there is a difference between “normative sinfulness” and “abusive sinfulness.” I’m not aware of such a distinction in scripture.
Also, none of the Henderson framework items used in Meyer’s talk is sourced to the Bible or any Christian confession or framework.
It appears that Meyer’s entire model of abuse is taken from contemporary secular sources, including feminist ones that inherently reject Bethlehem’s complementarian framework of gender. (But that’s a story for another day).
I don’t think the Bible is only source of truth in the world. There’s a vast array of facts and true knowledge that we can get from many sources. The sports scores are espn.com. Plumbing tutorials are on Youtube. You find out how to poach an egg in The Joy of Cooking.
There’s no shame in referring to secular sources. But here Meyer is preaching a sermon. He spends 20 minutes covering a particular scriptural passage, then transitions to an application section on abuse taken from undisclosed secular sources.
In other words, Meyer is deceiving his congregation by leading them to believe that what he is preaching is Biblical doctrine rather than secular ideology or methodology.
Had Meyer straightforwardly told them that Bethlehem was basing its abuse policies on secular frameworks, that might have been debatable as a wise choice from a substantive perspective, but at least it would be honest as to the sources and the level of spiritual authority they have. Instead, he uses a sermon context to imbue non-biblical claims with biblical authority.
Is it possible that Meyer’s sermon really was entirely Biblically derived but that was simply not explicitly cited in the text? I think it’s unlikely, but if I’m shown to be wrong I’d be happy to correct the record.
It’s notable that Meyer’s actual sermon text is not one dealing with domestic relations at all. 2 Corinthians 11 is about Paul vindicating his genuine apostolic authority against the claims of false apostles that are leading the Corinthians away from the true gospel. Theologian Alastair Roberts has a nice, short commentary on this chapter should you be interested.
Is Kathy Keller a Severe Physical Abuser?
To see how problematic Meyer’s use of a secular framework is, let’s apply it to a real life situation and see what it says.
Again, he presents a framework and examples of abuse developed by John Henderson. It includes multiple types of abuse (mental, emotional, physical) and activities within each type categorized by severity. Here is his chart of physically abusive activities.
Note that he classifies “destroying the other person’s items of value” as “severe” physical abuse.
In Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, they describe an incident in which Kathy smashes pieces of their wedding china (in which Tim has an ownership interest). This was specifically done in order to pressure Tim to make a change she wanted. In other words, it was about acquiring power and control over Tim’s action. (If you don’t have the book, a version of the story is told in this Christian Post article).
According to Meyer’s framework, Kathy Keller is thus a severe physical abuser.
While the Kellers call this incident a “godly tantrum,” I frankly I don’t think it was good behavior. But I would hardly say it was abusive.
Of course, secular abuse frameworks like the Duluth model are often exclusively about men as abusers. Meyer tries to be more evenhanded, but it’s clear his sermon has abuse by men in mind.
Nevertheless, by the standard of Jason Meyer’s sermon, Kathy Keller would have to be classified as a severe physical abuser. This should show you something is off.
Every Man at Bethlehem Baptist Is in Danger of Being Branded an Abuser
If you read the matrix of abuse criteria in the sermon text, here are some of the things that Jason Meyer and Bethlehem Baptist classify as abuse:
- Hostile facial expressions
- Cold shoulders
- Playing mind games
- Using Scripture to correct and control spouse to selfish ends
- Instinctive defensiveness
If you read through this list, pretty much anyone can be classified as an abuser at any time – even a man just accurately quoting scripture to his wife.
The sermon does say there’s a difference between “normative” and “abusive” sinfulness. But you will notice there are no criteria given for distinguishing between the two. This contents of this sermon would not, for example, allow us to somehow classify Kathy Keller’s “tantrum” as normal sin rather than abuse.
Also, the sermon suggests that there’s such a wide variety of abuse that it’s difficult or perhaps impossible to recognize them from pre-existing patterns. Meyer says:
First, we learned that not all abuse cases are the same, even though they may share certain things in common. Henderson told us that if “we have seen one abuse case, we have seen one abuse case.” We have seen one case—if you have seen one, you have not seen them all.
This leaves open the possibility that pretty much any situation could be potentially be defined as abuse, should a pastor want to interpret it in that light.
Add these together and, if the contents of this sermon are still in force at that church today, the elders of Bethlehem Baptist basically have carte blanche to declare any man in their congregation an abuser at any time.
Look at how easy it was to use his framework to classify a godly woman like Kathy Keller as a severe physical abuser. Imagine what they could do to you with it.
I view Bethlehem Baptist’s teachings on abuse as a major red flag about that congregation.
There’s a lot more that could be said about this sermon, but these points will hopefully help you to take a more skeptical look at a sermon that was widely praised at the time it was given. Meyer’s teachings on abuse are of questionable provenance. His categorization would seem to require classifying Kathy Keller as a severe physical abuser. And this sermon seems to provide wide latitude to classify almost any man an abuser should Jason Meyer or the other elders of the church want to do so.
I hope that when Bethlehem hires a new senior pastor, that man revisits and fixes its teachings on abuse.