1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Who Are These Women?

Be sure to catch up with the previous posts in this series:

Introduction

Textual Considerations

The Problem of Flat Bibles

Now we come to the first of the important interpretive questions regarding this passage: Just who exactly is Paul talking about?

This question, as we will see, has a lot to do with how we understand the overall message of this passage. So we must start here. But first there are a couple of issues that we must get on the table.

(1) Translation issues...

The first translation issue is in regard to the word "woman" in this passage. Both times it is the Greek word gune which can be translated as "woman" or "wife". The only key to which translation is intended is the immediate context.

So what should the translation be here in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35? Let's look to the passage itself to discern whether we should understand this as "woman" (everyone that is a female) or "wife" (which is a subsection of both women and as we will see of the congregation in Corinth).

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (NIV)

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(TANGENT: ENGLISH BIBLES AND HISTORY OF TRANSLATION ISSUES)

This is something that is rarely (if ever) discussed when we talk about the challenges of translation and of interpretation when we aren't dealing directly with the original languages of Scripture.

There are two things that are considered in translation of the Bible (at least in English) and that is (1) the understanding of the original language text(s) and (2) the history of translation. If you take a look through all of the English versions available for example at Biblegateway.com of this passage you will find that only The Message translates this term as "wives".

(Similar issues...and this is a whole post in itself...can be traced to the translation/transliteration of the word "baptism". It was in this move (one which all English translations that I am aware of have maintained actually obscures the idea of immersion which was the original intent/meaning of the term.)

Suffice it to say that "the majority of translations" is not (in itself) sufficient proof that there is not an alternate or better translation possible.

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(2) Contextual issues...

So how does this text itself help us to determine whether we should understand this passage to apply to "woman" (all women) or "wives" (some women)? The passage itself gives us the only clue we really need.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (NIV, emphasis mine)

Also, we learn earlier in 1 Corinthians 7 that there are other groups of women in the church at Corinth who do not fit this demographic. There are women who have never been married (7:27-28), women who are divorced (7:11, 15-16), women who are engaged to be married (7:36), women who have been widowed (7:8-9), and women who are currently married (7:2-5; 14:33-35).

Of all these various groups of women in the church at Corinth only one of them is able to keep this imperative (and it is a command) of Paul: the women who are currently married.

But I want to suggest that here Paul actually goes one step further in singling out (pardon the pun) this group of women in the Corinthian church. I want to suggest that the best way to make sense of this text is to understand that Paul is actually speaking about women who are currently married AND have believing husbands. This seems to me to be the only way that this instruction makes any sense.

SUMMARY

In the church in Corinth there are women at every stage of life, especially in relationship to marriage (as Paul's instructions earlier in the text make clear). There are women never married, currently married, formerly married, soon to be married, and those who are widowed. It also likely there were some women at each of these stages who did not have believing partners (whether husband, ex-husband, future husband, etc.)

The only way to make sense of this passage as it stands is that this is an imperative (a.k.a. command) of Paul for currently married women who have believing husbands. Any other way of reading this text (e.g. making it a universal command for all times and places for all people of the female gender) doesn't pay enough attention both to the context and to the actual text itself. 

In fact, to somehow make this a universal command (for all women, for all times) requires us to ignore both the larger context of the letter and the passage itself. In other words, the only way to make this text a universal is if you have a flat Bible.

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: The Problem of Flat Bibles

Don't miss the previous posts that led to this installment...
An Open Confession to the Churches of Christ...
1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Introduction
1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Considerations

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One of the primary challenges to a thoughtful, nuanced perspective on this text is what I call "flat hermeneutics". This is where the Bible is taken at "face value" meaning that simplicity is a sign of accuracy and that the text as it stands, in English (in a particular translation), without regard for historical, cultural, or textual context can be easily and rightly interpreted. It sounds something like this:

This kind of interpretive framework typically likes to be self-described as taking the Bible "literally." This rhetoric is used to imply that those who have a different interpretation have failed to take the Bible seriously, on its own terms, and to understand and appreciate that it is inspired.

This is particularly important when we come to a text like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (NIV)

The simple fact is that (almost) no one takes this text literally, and certainly no one within evangelicalism and Churches of Christ. Here's why:

  • Taken literally this text forbids all speech by women. They cannot speak publicly, whisper a question to their husbands, or speak publicly.
  • Contrary to what some might say, this text does not offer "room for interpretation" where we can interpret this passage to read: "Women should be silent in the churches except for congregational singing, saying amen, speaking to the children, and whispering quietly to people next to them." It just isn't there.
  • No one (including Paul) would call such things disgraceful.

But this is exactly what a "flat" Bible does. Flat Bibles prevent interpreters (which is everyone who reads Scripture) from understanding and appreciating what is actually happening in the text. Is Paul dealing with a specific problem or with a universal problem? Is Paul giving them a solution for their problem or for all cultures and all times? Does the issue and answer that Paul provides here seem in tension with other texts from the same letter or author? (For a great introduction to this idea I would recommend Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.)

Flat readings of Scripture either short-circuit such questions or fail to ask them all together (in my experience it is the latter). Typically this is done in one of two ways:

  • Certain texts are taken as normative and therefore determine how other "out of place" or "secondary" texts must be interpreted. ("So we know women didn't prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11 because they are forbidden to speak in 1 Corinthians 14. Or 1 Corinthians 11 must be private and 1 Corinthians 14 must be public." These are just some of the "flat" interpretations.) Ultimately, it seems to be the interpreter that gets to choose which texts trump the others. This is never a good way to read Scripture.
  • Others will suggest that it frankly doesn't matter what is said in other texts once the "trump texts" have been identified. 1 Timothy 2:8-15, some suggest, rules out the possibility that Phoebe was a deacon (Romans 16:1-2). Since Jesus chose twelve male apostles there must be distinction between men and women's roles. (Did we forget they were all Jewish too?) So yes, those texts that "don't fit" are in Scripture but they must not merely be interpreted to "fit" with the "big" texts.

This is important as we engage this text and the larger issues of gender equality in Churches of Christ. It is important that we allow Scripture to speak for itself. It is important that we admit that Scripture is as complex as our ordinary lives, which if we are willing to admit it, are anything but flat.

This doesn't diminish the value or authority of Scriptures, it admits it and honors it with the effort needed to rightly interpret in within a world that is very different than the world in which our Scriptures were born.

Snapshot: Can a Woman Baptize a Man?

A particularly embarrassing snapshot from our tradition...

The following excerpts are taken from the weekly column "Questions and Answers" in the Gospel Advocate . This particular article can be found in the January 24, 1980 issue on pages 35 and 52. This column is written by Guy N. Woods who in this issue serves as Associate Editor and would later serve as the Editor of the GA.   

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The question submitted to this column reads as follows: 

May a non-Christian baptize another into Christ? If a non-Christian may perform baptisms, would it also be proper for women to baptize men? 

Woods begins his response with what looks like a helpful and thoughtful reflection on the issue... 

One will search the Scriptures in vain in seeking qualifications for those who baptize. Does it not then logically follow that since no qualifications are given that none are required?  

Woods continues to survey biblical examples, such as the fact that it was Jesus' disciples and not Jesus himself who baptized. He recognized that this possibly suggested that only believers could baptize, but then engages in an exploration of the implications of those who were baptized by Judas. He continues his response...

Among those who baptized for Jesus was Judas Iscariot, eventually his betrayer. Were all those, by him immersed, without valid baptism? Were those Judas baptized re-immersed by some faithful disciple. Of course not. Here is indisputable proof of the fact that the validity of one's baptism does not depend on the character, or lack of it as the case may be, of the baptizer. How very thankful all of us should be that such is true.  

After a couple of other examples (someone who lives in Iran and can only be baptized by an unbeliever, and the baptisms of Thomas and Alexander Campbell by the Baptist preacher, Matthias Luce), Woods circles back to the original question and things goes terribly wrong...

May a woman scripturally immerse one into Christ? The question is both moot and impractical; moot, because it is purely an academic question, and impractical because seldom indeed woud [sic] there be an occasion for such today. Were I without Scriptural baptism and knowing such to be my duty, I would prefer that my Christian brother, known and loved by me, should immerse me; were he not available, my next choice would be a faithful godly man though unknown; were neither of the foregoing available, I would want to be baptized by any  man who would agree to do so in harmony with New Testament teaching. As a final alternative I would ask a woman to immerse me. Such a course I have not the least doubt the Lord would approve.

 This is pure and utter nonsense. It is offensive and is an example of theological presumption taking precedence over theological reflection. Scripture "can't" say (or allow or approve) ______ because then (insert theory, doctrine, or practice here) wouldn't be true. 

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Considerations

One of the reasons that this passage (among others dealing with the issue of "women's roles") are often left alone is because there are some complex textual issues that surround the texts themselves.

Here we are talking about issues concerning translation, meaning, context, and paragraph endings/beginnings. A quick survey of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and its immediate context in various translations should highlight a couple of the more important textual challenges that we face.

33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (NIV)

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33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (ESV)

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33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (KJV)

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32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

(As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?) (NRSV)

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32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of prophets, 33 since God is the God, not of chaos, but of peace.

As in all the assemblies of God's people, 34 the women should keep silence in the assemblies. They are not permitted to speak; they should remain in submission, just as the law declares. 35 If they want to understand something more, they should ask their own husbands when they get home. It's shameful, you see, for a woman to speak in the assembly. (Kingdom New Testament, N. T. Wright)

DID YOU NOTICE ANY SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES IN THESE TRANSLATIONS?

There are two textual challenges associated with this text that must be dealt with before we attempt the task of interpretation...

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(1) Translators aren't sure where to put "as in all the churches of the saints".

You see for example in the NIV and KJV that this phrase belongs with the previous paragraph about God not being about disorder but of peace. The ESV puts this phrase with the discussion of women in 14:34-35. The NRSV does something similar but makes the entire discussion of women in chapter 14 parenthetical.

Part of the challenge comes from the fact that early manuscripts were written in either all capital letters (called Uncials) or all lower case letters (called Miniscules) and lacked three very important things that you and I take for granted: spaces between words, punctuation, and paragraphs.

This means that in some places (this being one of them) it can be complicated to discern the unit of thought and proper translation of the text, especially when it comes to where sentences begin and end.

(2) Scholars debate the originality and placement of this unit of thought. Some scholars (most notably Gordon Fee in his influential commentary) see this entire unit as an interpolation (inserted by another author, editor, copyist) and therefore the text should be discarded as a whole. Others think that this passage should be placed at the end of the chapter after 14:40. Still other scholars think that the text should be understood as it is and in the place in which it is translated in our English Bibles.

SO HOW DO WE RESOLVE THESE TWO TEXTUAL ISSUES?

(1) The placement of "as in all the churches of the saints..."

There are two things that will help us understand better the placement of this phrase. It is my contention that this phrase more appropriately belongs with the preceeding paragraph (as is seen in the NIV and KJV). The first thing we can look at is how Paul uses a similar statement elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.

"...He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with with what I teach everywhere in every church." (1 Corinthians 4:17)
"Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches." (1 Corinthians 7:17)
"If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice - neither do the churches of God." (1 Corinthians 11:16)

Paul's pattern (and note that all of these examples are in the same letter) is that such a "universal" statement always concludes a thought or element of an argument. Paul does not use such clauses as a foundational stating point for his argument.

The second thing to be considered is how poorly the grammar of the passage would be if this disputed phrase were to be attached to the discussion of the silence of these women in the church at Corinth.

"As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches." (ESV)

"As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches." (NRSV)

For Paul, who writes with some of the greatest rhetorical flourish in 1st century literature, and especially within the New Testament, such a sloppy expression seems unlikely. Therefore, I believe that we are better off to understand the "universal statement" of "as in all the churches of the saints..." as belonging to the preceding unit of thought about God being one who is concerned with and by his very nature is a God of peace and not disorder. It is important to note that this placement of "as in all the churches of the saints" with 14:34-35 is a recent development (the last 100 years) of biblical scholarship. It is reflected in the translations cited above that move that concluding statement (as we have seen elsewhere in 1 Corinthians) to an introductory statement in this text.

(2) The originality and placement of 14:34-35.

Both the interpolation (inauthentic insertion after the original) and the rearrangement (putting it after 14:40) have been soundly refuted in the influential scholarly article by Curt Niccum, professor of New Testament at ACU entitled "The Voice of the Manuscripts on the Silence of Women: The External Evidence for 1 Cor. 14:34-35" (New Testament Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, April 1997, 242-255.) The internal textual flow and external manuscript evidence support show that this text is in its proper place and contains Paul's original instructions regarding the situation.

SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US AS WE BEGIN INTERPRETING THIS PASSAGE?

This passage should be understood as a digression (Paul saying, "And while I'm talking about this...") in the larger context of Paul dictating to the Corinthians the proper actions regarding speech in the corporate gathering of the assembly (what we might generally call "Sunday morning"). This context is most pressing in chapter 14 but extends as far back as chapter 11.

We are therefore in the best position (I believe) both textually and contextually to interpret this passage when we begin with it as our starting point in the translation of the 2011 NIV as follows:

33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (NIV)

NOW THE DIFFICULT QUESTIONS BEGIN…

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Introduction

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As many of you know, who follow me and this blog, I have publicly expressed my support for the movement within Churches of Christ which advocates for the full inclusion of women in all areas of the life of the church. For many in my tradition, this is a place in which we disagree. (Although a shift is happening in our movement that, to me, is very promising.) But one of the fundamental things that my brothers and sisters in Churches of Christ and I completely agree upon is that the faith and practice of the church should be rooted deeply in Scripture. 

So one of the questions (or confrontations) that I regularly experience goes something like this:

"If what you're saying is true then the Bible doesn't matter or you have to ignore passages like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2!"

This series is my attempt to begin to demonstrate that I personally, and many who share my convictions within our tribe have come to our conclusions because of our engagement with Scripture not our disregard for it! I believe that these texts are a part of the God-inspired Scriptures and are formative for the life of the church. Where I disagree with some is in the ways that we understand the background, history, interpretation, and implications of this text (and others).

This conversation is often difficult to have (especially around these more "central texts") for a couple of reasons:

  1. Too often people aren't interested in dialogue but in winning the debate/argument. (Something that I myself have too often done.)
  2. There are a number of important historical, cultural, and theological factors that are often unknown or ignored when studying this text.
  3. This conversation takes time, and we have too often valued brevity and "simplicity" over ambiguity and complexity.

So let's spend some time exploring one of the texts in this conversation that gives many people a case of theological heartburn...

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NIV)

So in the next few posts I want to highlight the following issues and questions…

  1. Textual Considerations
  2. Who are the "Women"?
  3. Cultural and Historical Background
  4. Key Words: "Silent, Submission, Disgraceful"
  5. Implications for Theology and Practice

Are there any questions that you want answered surrounding this passage? Leave them in the comments and I will incorporate them into this series!

An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of Christ...

This week has been a fascinating one for an important conversation in my tribe. On Tuesday, Wineskins posted a video interview with Lauren King who serves as the Preaching Intern at the Fourth Avenue Church of Christ where Patrick Mead serves as the Senior Minister. (At last check the video had 31,000+ views, which in our tradition is highly viral.)

The reaction to this news was swift, strong, and pointed. 

Blogs, open letters, social media comments, and aggravated conversations long dormant were revived. Words of affirmation, condemnation, disappointment, curiosity, and excitement flew far and wide. Different sides rallied the troops, tired rhetoric about "liberals" and "legalists" were brought back into use, and few (if any) had their thinking deeply engaged much less changed. I tried to follow the conversation, but after a while I lost track of whether there were more accusations of heresy or the suggestion that Churches of Christ finally understood the Gospel.  

So what are we to do?

I find myself in a strange place about this conversation. 

I grew up in a loving congregation in which so many godly women wielded immeasurable influence on my spiritual formation as a child. But at a certain point in my life the voices of those godly women all but vanished from my formal and intentional formation. 

In college, as I sought to learn and articulate my own beliefs I would have been immensely uncomfortable (although not entirely certain why) with the idea of someone like Lauren preaching on a Sunday morning or even studying to be a preaching minister. It would have been difficult to articulate why I took issue with this, but it just didn't "feel right." I knew that there were a couple of texts that I had heard on occasion, but I had not taken the time to learn for myself.

It wasn't until sometime later as I began an intense season of personal growth and study about most of my convictions that I started to ask the question about "women's roles" (which, by the way, a phrase coined in the 1970's, not the first century). After four or five years of studying the textual, historical, literary, linguistic, and interpretive history of relevant biblical texts did I come to my current position: In Christ, gender is not a distinction that circumscribes an individuals ability to serve in any capacity in the Kingdom of God. What matters is gifting, calling, and a holy life. 

So at some point in my spiritual journey I have subscribed to virtually every interpretive position on this question as it has been expressed in our movement.

  • That women are not to teach men (or boys who have been baptized), and that leading in public worship would constitute "authority over a man" and is forbidden.
  • That women could serve in more capacities than we currently allow, but not as the preaching or education minister (youth or children's minister perhaps) or as an elder. 
  • That women could serve in all capacities but that of an elder. 
  • In Christ, gender is not a distinction that circumscribes an individuals ability to serve in any capacity in the Kingdom of God. What matters is gifting, calling, and a holy life. (My current position.)

But the real reason that this conversation is important to me now, and the reason that it is a CONFESSION and not an argument // apologetic // diatribe against those who disagree with me is because, no matter the place I was at the moment, I often failed to act and speak towards the "other" (meaning the person who interpreted Scripture differently) in a way that honored God, built up the church, and enhanced its witness to the watching world. 

My hunch is that if all people on this issue (and any other issue for that matter) could start with a similar confession, our churches and our witness to the world would be radically transformed. So without further preface, here is my confession...


For the times when i have held to my convictions with suspicion of the other instead of love and discernment...

I humbly confess that this is counter to the central call of jesus to love the other and especially one's "enemies."

For the times that I have conflated my interpretation of Scripture with the exact words of Scripture, refusing to admit the possibility that there was more to consider or that I was fallible and limited in my understanding... 

I humbly confess this as idolatry parading as certainty and maturity.

For the times that I have thought or spoken of someone in derogatory words, whether "religious" or ordinary, whether labeling someone  as a legalist, liberal, misogynist, feminist, ignorant, arrogant, or stupid...

I humbly confess that this is ungodly behavior and reflects my lack of obedience to jesus' command not only to not murder, but to not have and harbor hatred toward my brothers and sisters. 

For the times that I have isolated myself from those who were theologically "other" from my current position (whatever that was at any time in my life)...

I humbly confess that it was not "them" who were dividing the body of Christ, but me and my choices to insulate, isolate, and reinforce functional and literal barriers between our congregations and between myself and other individuals.

For the times that I have allowed "distance" on some issue to translate into some form of universal distance, and where I have avoided or been indifferent to the gatherings, events, ministry, and general welfare of the "other" in my tribe...

I humbly confess that this form of exclusion is both unbiblical and utterly destructive of the church's witness in the world. It reflects a great failure on my behalf to take both the roots of our tradition and the teachings of Jesus seriously. 

For the relationships that i have strained or severed because of my position on this issue at different times in my life...

i humbly ask for your forgiveness and that you communicate to me the ways in which I have harmed you and the possibility of us being in a god-honoring relationship so that i may begin to respond in ways that are redemptive and reconciliatory. 


Based on this confession I hereby resolve to the following postures and practices:

  1. I will seek to shape my language and my tone in such a way that I am able to articulate my understanding in a way that is both humble and conditional, admitting that I don't have all the facts, that I could be wrong, and that in the end I stand in desperate need to God's forgiveness and grace. 

  2. I will seek to minimize the distance between people at a different place on the spectrum in our tradition whether through individual relationships, attending events at other congregations, and finding tangible ways to contribute to the flourishing of those communities whether in prayer, service, or some form of participation. 

  3. I will seek to understand the perspective of one who disagrees with me long before I seek to offer an answer of my own. And in this regard I commit to speaking in terms of questions, reflections, and hunches, avoiding language that could be taken to equate my words with God's words. 

  4. I will begin to reach out to those whom I have alienated, frustrated, or confused by my interpretive stance on this issue. I will seek to do so in a way that prioritizes reconciliation far above agreement or even dialogue. 

  5. I will seek to embody the kind of generosity of spirit, careful use of words, and motives driven by love not anxiety, power, or fear that I wish to see in others. 

In doing all this I seek to live out and embody the Prayer of Peace (a prayer often attributed wrongly to Saint Francis of Assisi):

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.


O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
t is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The Translators of the King James Bible on Change

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Look at this quote from the preface of the original 1611 King James:

For was anything ever undertaken with a touch of newness or improvement about it that didn’t run into storms of argument or opposition? … [The king] was well aware that whoever attempts anything for the public, especially if it has to do with religion or with making the word of God accessible and understandable, sets himself up to be frowned upon by every evil eye, and casts himself headlong on a row of pikes, to be stabbed by every sharp tongue. For meddling in any way with a people’s religion is meddling with their customs, with their inalienable rights. And although they may be dissatisfied with what they have, they cannot bear to have it altered.

 

Language Matters: Interpretive Divergence and the Preaching Moment

In the initial post in this series I sought to lay out the general terrain of what I am calling Interpretive Divergence. This phenomenon has immense implications for the ways in which our language and practices have the potential to shape or misshape people into the likeness of Christ for the sake of the world. I explored a couple of places that we see this reality, of a diversity of interpretation that results from human communication (either between two human agents or even between God and humanity). 

Here I want to begin to articulate the importance of this reality for the preaching moment. First a little bit about the language I am choosing here...

I am consciously choosing to refer to this as the preaching moment for a couple of reasons: (1) The formative implications and the space in which interpretive divergence takes place are in no way restricted to the individual delivering the sermon/homily/devotional/forty-five minute diatribe/rant. (2) This moment is not necessarily the entirety of the message. In fact, oftentimes the most impactful teachings (for good or for bad) that we internalize and embody are rooted in brief clips and flashes of memory. (Just try to remember the general three-point outline of the last six sermons you have heard.) 

So with all this in mind I want to explore the ways in which the preaching moment functions as a space where significant interpretive divergence can be experienced.

Take for example this teaching clip produced within my theological tradition (Churches of Christ) entitled, The Truth About the Lord's Supper. (It is not necessary to watch this clip to make sense of this post, but I wanted it to be included to help provide context if you are interested.)

One of the most memorable moments (for me) in this twenty-one minute presentation is summarized in this screenshot:

How might interpretive divergence in this preaching moment occur?

  1. The recognition that this five minutes is 0.05% of our week may not trivialize the Lord's death on the cross, but certainly the practice as it functions has the capacity to trivialize its place in the community who practices it.
  2. The recognition that this practice is subservient to (and thus in some way inferior to) practices that take much more time in the communal gatherings such as singing, prayer, preaching, and maybe even nonreligious activities like announcements.
  3. This could be taken as a logical and convincing argument concerning the frequency and value of the congregational practice in its current form. 

All three of these interpretive possibilities (and more!) are possible in a gathering of individuals with a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and convictions. It is also possible that while one may presume that in the moment this particular presentation was convincing and satisfying, it may be the case that down the road, that this same formative moment leads to an entirely different interpretive decision. (This is an example of hearing the same thing in a different way or with a different perspective. This is common place enough in our lives that it shouldn’t really be contentious that we presume this can occur with spiritual formation as well.)

SO WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS INESCAPABLE REALITY THAT THE THINGS THAT WE SEEK TO COMMUNICATE IN THE PREACHING MOMENT ARE BOTH SUSCEPTIBLE TO AND WILL INEVITABLY EXPERIENCE A DIVERGENCE OF INTERPRETATION, FORMATION, AND EMBODIMENT?

I think that there are three big takeaways here that every church leader must understand and bear in mind (even if, and maybe even especially if, they aren't the ones doing the talking/teaching/preaching) as they lead their communities of faith as ambassadors of the Gospel:

(1) WHILE THE PERSON SPEAKING IS NOT NECESSARILY CULPABLE FOR THE INTERPRETIVE DIVERGENCE THAT WILL INEVITABLY HAPPEN, IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE IMPLICATIONS OF THAT DIVERGENCE. 

This means that preaching must be done with extreme care. A careless phrase, an unarticulated assumption, an old hang up, or just an unwillingness to attend to the complexities of language and the formative power of words can both stunt spiritual formation and have devastating consequences. It seems unlikely (if not philosophically impossible) that a multiplicity of interpretation can be prevented, but we must remember that our ability to mitigate (or at the very least minimize) the malformative implications of our language falls squarely on those who are leaders. 

(2) THIS SERVES TO HIGHLIGHT THE IMPORTANCE OF A PLURALITY OF VOICES AS WELL AS THE NEED TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR DIALOGUE AND DISCERNMENT IN THE TEACHING LIFE OF THE CHURCH.

 When the primary (or exclusive) preaching/teaching voice for a congregation is relegated to a single individual or a number of individuals with a relatively narrow range of perspectives the likelihood and intensity of interpretive divergence is heightened. This is why I said earlier that the formative implications, the space in which interpretive divergence takes place, are in no way restricted to the individual.” In this kind of arrangement, one source of immense interpretive divergence is the inevitable encounter with people outside of the community of faith (whether congregational, denominational, or even people of other faiths or no faith). This encounter is likely to produce more interpretive divergence and disorientation than those who are formed in communities that value a multiplicity of voices and practice discernment and dialogue. Studies showing that many people raised in Christian Fundamentalism walking away from all forms of faith (as opposed to moving into less fundamentalist or more "progressive" expressions of the same faith) should be instructive here. 

(3) THE INEVITABILITY OF INTERPRETIVE DIVERGENCE SHOULD CAUSE US TO RETHINK THE WAY IN WHICH WE SEEK TO COMMUNICATE FORMATIVE TEACHING AND LANGUAGE IN OUR CHURCHES.

I have in mind three interrelated suggestions here that I believe are worth some discussion: 

We would be wise to move away from sermons that are long on time and heavy on content.

This is an important decision for a couple of reasons: (1) The amount of actual, durative retention in a monologue (which is what a sermon is, even when delivered by a dynamic speaker) is relatively low. And in this case the answer is not merely to increase the length of the sermon in hopes that what little they do retain will be more than the people who hear short sermons! (2) Most often, sermons that seek to be heavy on content and long in duration are in fact often filled with “fluff” (not in the sense that it is irrelevant or immature, but that it is material that is not essential to the overall idea being presented). Presentations of any real length require significant time and language to be used in building rhetorical and transitional structures in order for the presentation (again, a monologue) to “work”. In our contemporary culture, these kinds of presentations are often ineffective in producing the kinds of “retention” and formation that we are looking for.

We would be wise to move away from singular (or few) voices employing one-way communication with the community towards a more diverse and dialogical model of teaching and formation.

Undoubtedly we are feeling with full force the implications of our long-time decision to professionalize ministry as well as to root the teaching and leadership of our churches in the hands of a few individuals. When the formative voices of a congregation are (functionally) always a small group of people this should be taken as a sign of two things: (1) That the leadership of the community is not developing or forming any new voices that are worthy of consideration. (2) The space for people of different perspectives and interpretations will inevitably grow smaller and increasingly hostile. 

This is particularly true of communities in which the size (and sometimes the diversity) of the congregation makes one perspective not only unfeasible but pastorally irresponsible. This is my primary critique of multi-site ecclesiologies, the assumption that a message that is deeply formative yet generic enough for diverse and geographically diverse locations can consistently be drafted by the "expert" (a.k.a. preacher/pastor/founder/etc.). These kinds of communities inevitably are unable to capitalize on this moment in ways that are still attainable for other communities of faith. 

We would be wise to ask how our message would be heard by the "Other". 

This is the place where we can ask some really important questions like these:

  • How would this message be heard by someone coming from an entirely different perspective or life experience than the audience to which I perceive I am speaking?
  • Would this hold true for someone who professes faith in Jesus in a different part of the world? 
  • How would the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the LGBTQ community, the divorced, the single, the orphan, the abused and neglected, and the jaded hear this message?

I think that perhaps this is the place where the most insightful realizations about the power to (mis)shape with our language can occur. And if leaders find themselves unable to imagine or understand the perspective and potential interpretive divergence for these "others" then perhaps a deeper more fundamental problem has surfaced. 

In  many (particularly Evangelical-like) churches the preaching moment is intended to serve as the primary location of general spiritual formation for the community. Greater care must be given to the actual implications of the messages and beliefs that are communicated in this space. Leaders especially are responsible for the things that they communicate and the implications of things communicated poorly. 

 

Language Matters: Speech and Christian Formation

How we speak about God and the Christian life matters. 

I would hope that this isn't a real jarring assertion, but it is my intent to explore in the coming days the ways in which, too often, the church does not actually speak and act as if this is true. 

What I want to explore is a way to think about the implications and consequences of the language and practices of the church as we use them. I imagine that most churches have some expectation of the language and practices that are either not allowed or not recommended, at least in large doses. My goal to illustrate the ways in which things taken for granted, the things that "we" (whoever that is) understand as underlying convictions and assumptions, and the way in which we speak or practice without evaluating their implications or consequences is something that has the potential to be both unwise and destructive. 

First an extreme example. Imagine hearing this at church this coming Sunday...

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose this morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop into hell. 

Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God (1741)

If this was the regular content of the language and practices of the church you attended how might you expect to be formed? This sermon, at almost 200 years old, still in many ways captures the ways in which many understand God's feelings about themselves. These kinds of images, the ones that misshape, that embed and give birth to fear, anxiety, and instill a lack of value are pervasive and difficult to uproot. 

But not all Christian language and practice is so explicitly frightening and intentional in portraying Sinners (who we are) In the Hands of An Angry God (our relationship to Godself). I have no doubt that we are not without numerous examples of churches and individuals who spread messages and practices in the name of God and the Church that are harmful to someone's spiritual formation. 

The problem is that sometimes the most harmful and misshaping language in the church is the language that we assume is harmless, neutral, or even useful in talking about God and the Christian life. 

The Reality of Interpretive Divergence

Interpretive Divergence is language that is sometimes used to describe the multiplicity with which laws and legal opinions can be interpreted within a range of meaning. Its import for a conversation about theological reflection and spiritual formation is incredibly important.

We find the reality of interpretive divergence to appear across all kinds of communication. Any time you find misunderstanding, ambiguity, or a diversity of opinions about something someone has said or done you are faced with interpretive divergence. Interpretive divergence is the reality that all forms of communication (written, spoken, nonverbal, art, poetry, etc.) have the potential to be interpreted and understood in a whole range of ways. It is the reality that language has the tendency to "walk around on us." Understanding the complexities and importance of this reality are absolutely essential to any community of faith who wishes to positively form people into the image of Christ for the sake of the world. There are a number of places where interpretive divergence is on display within the very core of the Christian faith. 

Interpretive Divergence in Scripture

This paradigm is a helpful way to think about the kind of diversity and ambiguity that we find in the Bible itself. Why four Gospels? Why does Paul say things in one way to one church and seem to say something very different to another? How do we deal with the texts in the Old Testament that simply cannot be reconciled with one another? The answer is found in recognizing and embracing the reality of interpretive divergence in all human communication. Some might retort that Scripture is not "human communication," but this in no way removes the inescapable reality of interpretive divergence because even if the Bible is "inerrant" (a deeply problematic claim I believe) it is still read, interpreted, and understood by human beings. 

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Language

This is perhaps the place where our language and practice most clearly "walk around on us." The church has a remarkable depth and beauty from which it can draw for language and practices that are formative for people seeking to follow Christ for the sake of the world. But the church has also repeatedly demonstrated a remarkable ability to participate and even sponsor and support systems that are antithetical to the gospel message. There are the obvious examples in things like the Crusades, Apartheid in South Africa, slavery in the West, and the Church's deafening silence about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. But there are more seemingly benign examples with equally destructive consequences which have the capacity to misshape individuals or lead them to a rejection of their experience of the Christian faith. (One might object that what an individual experienced was perhaps not representative of Christianity, but this not only minimizes the persons experience, it also fails to address the truly (mal)formative nature of that persons encounter.) Specific examples of this kind of interpretive divergence will be the subject of future posts in this series.

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Perception

There is no doubt that often times the portrayals of Christianity in mainstream culture are extreme, sensational, and contrary to the best of the Christian tradition both in its past and in its contemporary expressions. Undoubtedly, one will find many more stories of the church's failures and flaws than of moments of beauty, redemption, and grace. And while we are quick to say, "I'm not Westboro Baptist Church." or "I never said I was okay with Apartheid, Slavery, or the Holocaust." this does not change the reality that the cultural perception of the Christian faith is a reality with which we must contend. It is a formative reality that plays in to both our own formation and in our mission in the world. The suspicion, skepticism, and sometimes even the victimization that is pointed at the church is not something to be ignored or overcome, it is something that must be confessed, heard, and taken seriously by the church. You are not Westboro Baptist Church... Good. But to people around the world whose lives have been shaped by interpretations, language, and practices of those claiming association with the Christian tradition (whether we would identify them that way or not)... that (whatever it is) is what Christianity means. 

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Life

This to me is the most intriguing location of interpretive divergence. This is the place where Christian language and practices is confronted by the realities and complexities of life that stretch Christian language and practice sometimes beyond the breaking point. Think about it like this...

Pick any of the following "Christian" anecdotes that are commonplace and sometimes even (loosely) based on biblical texts...

"God won't give you more than you can handle."
"All divorce is adultery."
"God works everything out for the good..."
"I'm so blessed to have an iPad/SUV/Enormous House..."

On the death of someone close: "God just needed them to be with him now..."
"The Bible is simple enough that anyone who reads it with an open-mind and a pure heart can come to the right interpretations on things that really matter."

Here's the thing, not only are these things theologically problematic, but for countless people who's experience of life runs counter to these anecdotes, they are actually harmful. 

God won't give you more than you can handle? So what happens when I have reached the breaking point and I cannot handle it anymore? Also, why would this God "give me" these kinds of things anyway? 

God works everything out for the good? How does this square with the reality that the vast majority of suffering for the vast majority of people throughout human history has not received some form of redemptive turn in this life? This assertion is both contrary to their experience and damaging to any kind of possibility that they could look to Jesus as one who enters into their suffering in his life, death, and resurrection. 

All divorce is adultery? How does this shape people who were divorced outside of their own choosing, or because of behaviors and patterns that were deeply harmful and destructive? What does this do to people's perception about redemption when an action that is functionally irreversible is portrayed as an ongoing, egregious sin? 

These are the kinds of places that Christian language and practice can be harmful for both Christians and non-Christians. The language that so often goes unexamined, or the assumptions and beliefs that are implicit but never named have immense capacity to distort or destroy our perception of God and his work in the world. 

We don't need to imagine that this is an isolated issue, one that doesn't effect each and every community of faith who has ever existed throughout time. The truth is that there is not a gathering of human beings, nor a congregation, denomination, small group, sermon, or family that is unaffected by the reality of interpretive divergence. And this is particularly true when we are talking about the language and practices that are intended to articulate and embody the Christian faith. Our inability or unwillingness to take this reality with utmost seriousness will inevitably result in the (mal)formation of people with whom we engage. It is possible that the unexamined, unarticulated, and sometimes even the explicit messages and practices in our religious communities have devastating formational consequences. 

How we speak about God and the Christian life matters. 

A Gospel Big Enough for Little Ones...

Jesus loves me this I know,
     for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong,
     they are weak but he is strong.

In this series I want to ask if the way that we talk about the Gospel is big enough to include the scope of which Scripture itself speaks, and of the people that are served by those churches. The language that we use, and their formative impact both intentional and unavoidable, have immense consequences for any community of believers. So in this installment I want to explore this question:

IS THE GOSPEL AS IT IS TAUGHT AND IMPLIED IN YOUR COMMUNITY OF FAITH BIG ENOUGH TO INCLUDE CHILDREN AS CHILDREN?

Here are just a few of the issues and questions that need to be asked when thinking about the Gospel and its implications for children as children:

  • Does the way your church talks about the Gospel have a place for children to be full participants in the life and mission of the church?
  • Does the death and resurrection of Jesus have tangible implications for children as children or is its "real value" found only by those mature enough to grasp their own sinfulness and need of redemption? In other words, is the saving work of Jesus for them now, or for them soon/someday?
Bible 6.jpg

The way in which we teach the Gospel to children speaks volumes about our convictions about God, evil, the life of the church, and the redemptive work of Christ.

If you want to know what someone thinks about the Gospel, ask them how they explain it to the children in their family or in their church.

DOES THE WAY YOUR CHURCH TALKS ABOUT THE GOSPEL HAVE A PLACE FOR CHILDREN TO BE FULL PARTICIPANTS IN THE LIFE AND MISSION OF THE CHURCH?

Are children welcome to participate in worship in keeping with their desire and gifting? Could a child read Scripture in the assembly? Can they participate in Communion? Do they feel as if they are full members of the Kingdom of God or merely as little ones who someday will decide to be Christians? Does your church employ language that struggles to articulate their relationship to the larger church (you might not necessarily call them "members" like you do an adult) and to the saving work of Christians (that they might not be thought of as "saved" in the same way as adults)? Does your church have any way for children to serve as equal participants (and not some other, more marginal capacity like "helpers") in God's redemptive mission in the world?

If your answer to any of these questions is "no" then it is possible that the way the Gospel is articulated in your community and the way that it is formed in the heart of that child is not big enough to include children as children

DOES THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS HAVE TANGIBLE IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN AS CHILDREN OR IS ITS "REAL VALUE" FOUND ONLY BY THOSE MATURE ENOUGH TO GRASP THEIR OWN SINFULNESS AND NEED OF REDEMPTION? IN OTHER WORDS, IS THE SAVING WORK OF JESUS FOR THEM NOW, OR FOR THEM SOON // SOMEDAY?

When your community speaks to children about the death and resurrection of Jesus when do children experience the implications and benefits made possible by Christ's saving work? Is the Good News something for them in heaven (after death), when they reach the "age of accountability" and receive forgiveness of sins (after childhood), or in the present? Does your church use language that speaks about children as "innocent" or "exempt" that suggests that in some ways they are not (currently) in need of the redemptive work of Jesus? Is the primary formational response to the Gospel one of hope for the future (heaven or the forgiveness of sins when they become "accountable") or is it focused on the ethical response to the work of Christ here and now as children?

If your community struggles to articulate how children are active participants in the gospel as children then it is possible that the way you instill the gospel in children is not large enough to include them as children. 

ANY ARTICULATION OF THE GOSPEL THAT ISN'T GOOD NEWS FOR AND INCLUSIVE OF CHILDREN IS INSUFFICIENT. IT HAS CONSEQUENCES FOR THE FORMATION OF OUR KIDS AND MUST BE REIMAGINED TO BETTER ARTICULATE THE TRUTH THAT THE GOSPEL IS GOOD NEWS FOR ALL PEOPLE, NOT JUST ALL ADULT PEOPLE. 

Here are just a couple of ways that an articulation of the Gospel that isn't big enough for children as children has the power to (mis)shape the precious little ones in our care:

  • There emerges a false dichotomy between between childhood and "early adulthood". For little ones the Good News of the Gospel becomes little more than some form of preemptive insurance. It is information and truth that they will need as they emerge from childhood. There is often a move from positive, generic ethical actions (be kind, share, tell the truth, etc.) to more "Christian" practices such a repentance, baptism, spiritual disciplines, evangelism, and leadership development. 
  • The elements that "transition" them from children to "youth" are not theologically animated but are typically arbitrary (age, grade in school, etc.) This results in the formation of children serving functionally as some form of incubation or inoculation. It is preventative or formative work for when they can "respond" to the Gospel. And it is assumed, by the structure of many churches, that this place of transformation is rooted in someone's (arbitrary) age or educational achievement. 
  • We have done little to form and prepare children who do not continue in our congregation's spiritual formation program into adulthood. I think we would find that in this paradigm most children who don't remain in the community of faith into adulthood leave with little more than some basic ethical teachings they could get anywhere and a smattering of biblical stories, some of which could prove to be problematic later.

SO WHAT MIGHT BE WE DO TO BETTER ARTICULATE A GOSPEL THAT IS BIG ENOUGH FOR CHILDREN WHILE THEY ARE CHILDREN?

There are a number of important textual and theological questions that need to be explored as well as some time to reflect on our language and practice that I want to explore in future posts. So for now, let me propose a number of possibilities without explanation or the theological convictions behind these suggestions (that is what the future posts are for):

  • Children should be more intentionally incorporated into the worship service including in leading songs, prayers, and the reading of Scripture.
  • Children should be welcome and guided very intentionally as they participate in the Lord's Supper from an early age.
  • Children should be formed in an environment that engages them with the real ethical and moral questions that face their peers (e.g., hunger, abuse, poverty, death, etc.).
  • The biblical narratives that we choose as the primary formation of our children should be thought out more carefully than simply the stories that are "memorable" and can capture the imagination, but which can ultimately prove to be difficult and problematic texts later in life.

There can be no doubt that the church has both a great responsibility and great opportunity in the formation of children as participants in God's redemptive work in the world. May we take such a task with utter seriousness.

An Encouter with the Flannel Jesus...

In the church that I grew up in there was a rite of passage that you had to go through if you were in elementary school. It happened in the Winter and Spring of the fourth grade. It was absolutely unavoidable in my day, you simply had to go through it and hope you came out on the other side. No, it's not some kind of hazing or some intense "proving ground" as we prepared for our teenage years. It was Mrs. Gorton's fourth grade Sunday morning Bible class.

Perhaps the worst part of this experience was that the primary teaching method was the dreaded flannel board. This came with a seemingly endless supply of clouds, boats, loaves and fish, and Jesus in the same outfit that he always wore (it almost made you wonder if he had two outfits). The 12 Apostles all looked like brothers or at least cousins and they were all about 2 inches shorter and reasonably less handsome than Jesus. How could a kid like me ever survive six months of Bible class with this inhumane mode of teaching?

Mrs. Gorton was legendary. She had probably taught this class for well over a 1,000 years if not more. Her material never changed, her voice was firm, any form of distraction or not paying attention was greeted with a no tolerance policy. I'm sure she would have sent me out of class back to my parents had they not both been teaching at the same time. (I dodged a bullet there.)

For all the complaining, dread, and clock watching that I did in that cold classroom with the movable wall partitions and table with gum on the bottom I see things a little differently now. You see, this wasn't the last time that I interacted with Mrs. Edna Gorton. A few years older (not many) Mrs. Gorton has fallen victim to an agressive form of Alzheimer's and was in a nursing facility way across town. One week we decided that the youth group was going to go visit and sing hymns to/with Mrs. Gorton and those at her nursing facility. Two confessions here that I still think about: (1) I didn't even notice she wasn't around and (2) when I found out we were going to see her those same feelings of dread and impatience came rushing back. But something happened that night that I will never forget.

It was a cold night and the church van was jammed full. This was one of those nights that no matter how many layers you had on or how long the heater in the van had been running it was still cold. We pulled up to the nursing home and hesitantly went in. We went into this large open room that had a fountain in the middle and rather sizeable trees in large pots all around the outside. It was like a little oasis of life and warmth from the ice world we had just been in.

We finally found Mrs. Gorton and I couldn't hardly recognize her. She wasn't wearing her glasses that I'm sure she had had since maybe before I was born. Her frame had withered to not much more than skin and bones, she couldn't stop drewling, and was completely unresponsive to any engagement whether verbal or by touch. So we just began to sing circled around her wheelchair that she was restrained in because she lacked the strength to keep herself in it.

The first song garnered no response. The same with the second. The third song which wasn't in our music that had been prepared for us was My God and I. We knew it because many of us had just sang it at a funeral. We finished the first phrase "My God and I..." when Mrs. Gorton sat up and smiled. Her jaw began to quiver and her hands curled up. I wasn't sure what was happening. By the middle of the first verse we could tell what was happening. She was singing!! She joined us as we reached these words of the first verse...

My God and I walk through the meadow's hue;

We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter,

My God and I walk through the meadow's hue.

She lowered her head and went silent for a few moments. The third verse came around and the preacher started it with extra fervor and volume. And again Mrs. Gorton came to life joining us this time for the entire verse although still with eyes that were as blank as before.

My God and I will go for aye together,

We'll walk and talk as good friends should and do;

This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,

But God and I will go unendingly;

This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,

But God and I will go unendingly.

A with a smile on her face she took a deep breath and bowed her head and that was the last we were able to really interact with Mrs. Gorton.

I never saw her again. I don't know how long it was before she passed away, but that last time that I saw her, in retrospect, was probably one of the defining moments of my life.

You see I learned something about myself, Mrs. Gorton, and God that night. (Although I must admit I didn't learn it fully that night, but only after time and experience and some serious growing up.) I learned that in my arrogance and impatience I had severely limited the extent to which God was able to teach me and shape me. I learned that God works in ways that seem trivial, silly, or sometimes even downright insulting to our intelligence (Balaam and his donkey come to mind here).

More importantly I learned something about crusty, scary, old, and unpleasant Mrs. Gorton. I learned that in fact she wasn't any of those things (well, except old). In fact, she knew intimately something that I in some ways still haven't wrapped my mind around. For her, Jesus wasn't a white guy who always wore a white robe with a blue sash and brown sandles with his hands always lifted in some unnatural position. Jesus was alive, he was a dear friend and the one who set her heart on fire so that even after her mind had been devoured by her Alzheimers her spirit burst forth at the thought of God as her dearest friend and companion.

I'll never forget that flannel board. In fact, the last time I was at Northwest in the resource room I went and pulled out a flannel Jesus just to remember what she had taught me. An encounter with the flannel Jesus ultimately changed my life.

I hope someday to have the intimacy with God that was so obvious in my beloved Mrs. Gorton. I can't wait to tell her someday how thankful I am for that silly little flannel board.  

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7, NIV) 

Churches of Christ and Racism: Time to Listen

There is a long history of racial tension in Churches of Christ. And today perhaps more than ever, the black Churches of Christ and white Churches of Christ are separated in a way that seems intractable. Consider this an exercise in listening, first to a prominent voice from the past, and finally a great conversation from someone who is on the forefront of this conversation in our tribe.

Listen. Mourn. Repent.

Listen. Open your hearts and your tables.

We've got a lot of work to do, and we have to do it together.


  Foy E. Wallace Jr.

  Foy E. Wallace Jr.

First we need to listen to a voice from the past.

Foy E. Wallace Jr. was a prominent voice in the vast majority of our movement spanning from his editorship at the Gospel Advocate in 1909 to just before his death in 1975.

One of the more polarizing figures in our movement he commanded both deep respect and deep criticism. Few were able to withstand his opposition and his influence on both the white Churches of Christ and the relationship of the white and black Churches of Christ can still be felt today. This article, written by Wallace in 1941 embodies his position well.


NEGRO MEETINGS FOR WHITE PEOPLE

Foy E. Wallace Jr., Bible Banner (March 1941): 7.

"The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.

       R. N. Hogan

       R. N. Hogan

"Reliable brethren in the Valley have reported the definite inclinations of the negro man and his wife in charge of the orphan home for colored children at Combes toward social equality. They are supposed to be members of the church, and some of the white brethren are apparently encouraging them. It is said that these two negroes have privately stated that they favor social equality and are working for it. The young editor of Christian Soldier, in the valley, admits that he roomed with the negro preacher, R. N. Hogan, and slept in the same bed with him two nights!And he seemed to be proud of it! Aside from being an infringement on the Jim Crow law, it is a violation of Christianity itself, and of all common decency. Such conduct forfeits the respect of right-thinking people, and would be calculated to stir up demonstrations in most any community if it should become generally known.

"It has gained considerable currency that the colored preacher Hogan has been too much inclined to mix with the white people and to favor, in attitude, a social equality. Hogan should have had too much sense, if not self-respect, to have permitted the young white preacher to sleep with him, if the young preacher did not have that much sense or self-respect. But Hogan has been under the sponsorship of Jimmie Lovell and cannot be expected to have any too much sense about anything. I have always said that Marshall Keeble and Luke Miller could not be spoiled, but if I ever hear of them doing anything akin to such as this I will take back every good thing I have ever said of them. Keeble should teach these negro preachers better than that, even if we cannot teach some young upstart among the white preachers. Their practices will degrade the negroes themselves. It is abominable.

    N. B. Hardeman

    N. B. Hardeman

"When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!

"In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.

"I saw a letter the other day from the colored preacher, R. N. Hogan, to a certain white brother stating that there were very few negroes in the section where he was preaching at the time, and that he was holding the meeting for the white brethren!

"When negro meetings are held in most of the places now, the white brethren over-run the premises. They herald these negro preachers as the greatest preachers in the world, when as a matter of fact if any of the white preachers should say everything they say to a word, it would sound so common that the brethren would stop it. But when a negro says it, in negro manner, the brethren paw up the ground over it.

"I was preaching in a certain city where Marshall Keeble had held a successful meeting. In usual style he had poured it on the negroes and it had run on the white people. One brother who was against hard preaching went wild over Keeble's hard preaching. Keeble preached it hard, calling names and giving the sectarians Hail Columbia! [T]his brother thought it was the greatest stuff he had ever heard. Later, when I was preaching in the same city, he squirmed until he polished the seat of a good pair of trousers because I drew the line on denominationalism. One night while he was squirming, I diverted attention by referring to one of Keeble's hard sayings. Immediately this brother sat erect, smiled and nodded in approval of Keeble's hard saying. I smiled back at him and said: Get yourself a negro preacher!

"I am very much in favor of negro meetings for the negroes, but I am just as much opposed to negro meetings for white people, and I am against white brethren taking the meetings away from the negroes and the general mixing that has become entirely too much of a practice in these negro meetings. Such a thing not only lowers the church in the eyes of the world but it is definitely against the interest of the negroes. If any negro preacher says that this is not true, that will be the evidence that it is true, and that he has been spoiled by the white brethren and wants to preach to white audiences. And if any of the white brethren get worked up over what I have said, and want to accuse me of being jealous of the negro preachers, I will just tell them now that I don't even want to hold a meeting for any bunch of brethren who think that any negro is a better preacher than I am! So that we can just call that argument off before it starts--and the meeting, too."                                                            

-- F. E. W.


Now for an alternative voice...

      Don McLaughlin

      Don McLaughlin

Don McLaughlin serves as the Senior Minister at the North Atlanta Church of Christ and is a leader in helping our tribe to talk about the realities of our culture and our tradition and the way that it impedes our ability to be reconciled across racial boundaries.

He recently had a fascinating conversation with Luke Norsworthy about Ferguson, white privilege, and ways in which we need to learn both the practice of hospitality and the ability to ask the response, "Tell me more."

Listen to the podcast here:

UPDATE: Justin Ardrey submitted the following video involving Don McLaughlin, Jerry Taylor, Josh Ross, and Eric Wilson. This is a great introduction to the conversation. Watch and engage. 

#SilentCofC: The Mission - A Story of Abuse from the Mission Field

The following is an actual narrative from current missionaries on the field in the Churches of Christ. These details are accurate but the names of all people in this narrative have been changed to protect both the victims and the missionaries who themselves were threatened with the revocation of funding and received death threats because of their bold and God-honoring response in opposing the perpetrator and serving the victims.

THIS IS REAL. LISTEN CLOSELY.


Introduction

The Mission is a corporation formed under the laws of the state of Texas. The Mission is recognized by the IRS as a registered 501C(3) nonprofit organization. For Missionary A and his wife Missionary B, there is no separation between ministry and business, and that sound Christian ministry practices and sound Christian business practices go hand in hand. From day one Missionary A’s business background and entrepreneurial drive coupled with a conviction of excellence that both Missionary A and Missionary B share are what have set the The Mission approach to ministry apart from many others. The convictions that are shared by Missionary A and Missionary B to make the tough right decisions, all the time, even when it does not feel like it will work out, are undoubtedly one of the major reasons that God has blessed this ministry the way he has.

Independent Missionary Background

Missionary A had known Independent Missionary all of his life. He grew up at the church that Independent Missionary’s family attended. Independent Missionary’s wife taught Missionary A in Sunday school and Independent Missionary also had 3 children who grew up there with Missionary A. Independent Missionary worked in law enforcement and was a respected member of the community. Independent Missionary and Missionary A were a part of a mission trip to Developing Nation. This trip impacted both of their lives.  Finally Missionary A quit his consulting job and moved to Developing Nation to work full time in ministry and about the same time Independent Missionary, now retired, also began spending extended periods in Developing Nation, 2 – 3 months at a time. 

It became apparent within just a few months of Independent Missionary’s arrival in Developing Nation that some of the interactions that he was engaging in with young ladies, ages 12–16, from the local church of Christ were not appropriate. After rumors started going around that were affecting the church that Missionary A was working with at the time Missionary A decided he need to talk with Independent Missionary. On a trip back to the US, Missionary A asked to meet with Independent Missionary. In this meeting Missionary A confronted Independent Missionary about his interactions, the rumors, and that as Christians we need to flee from the appearance of evil. Independent Missionary did not receive the observation well, he became very agitated and said that he was doing nothing wrong and so therefore he did not need to change anything just because there were rumors going around.

After this interaction Missionary A decided that it was no longer wise to be associated with Independent Missionary. Up until this point they had partnered together on some projects in different communities. Independent Missionary had a long list of churches, donors and civic clubs in the US from whom he was able to pull resources. However, the risk seemed to be too great.

By 2003 there was one family in particular that Independent Missionary had taken a liking to, the Perez family, 5 orphaned kids, ages 5–15. Their mother, a member of the church where Missionary A & Missionary B’s efforts had been focused early on, had recently passed away. The only thing that the children now had was a house that she had left them but no way to provide for themselves. Independent Missionary took it upon himself to take care of the family. This appeared innocent early on. When the oldest sibling, Juana, began cleaning Independent Missionary’s house and spending extended periods of time there, everyone at the local church began to wonder what might be going on. In late 2005 Juana became pregnant. Now with no income and no one to take care of her she approached The Mission for medical assistance. The Mission provided prenatal care and was present when the healthy baby girl was born. Juana has dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. The baby girl has strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and a very light, Caucasian complexion. The resemblance of the little girl to Independent Missionary was obvious to everyone who saw her. Juana, the mother, however stuck to her story, that the father was a local boy who had run off. By now, it was a common knowledge among all of the local Christians that Independent Missionary was the father of this child, regardless of whether or not Juana would admit it. The little girl was the spitting image of her father.  Unfortunately, it’s not a crime to commit adultery, and unfortunately by the time Juana had become pregnant she was 18. As disgusted as Missionary A and Missionary B were there was not much that could be done other than to distance themselves from this man as much as possible. 

Shortly afterwards Juana’s younger sister Sonia, only 15 years old, came to Missionary A & Missionary B and asked to talk. What she had to share was a heart breaking story. When Juana, in her third trimester, told Sonia that she needed to go to Independent Missionary’s house, and to do whatever he wanted to do. That their family depended on his support, that he had taken good care of them, and they needed to take care of him. Sonia hesitantly went to Independent Missionary’s house, not fully understanding what her sister was talking about. The ensuing rape, which was described in detail, had traumatized Sonia severely but she did not feel like there was anyone who she could go to. Many families in her community and in her church respected Independent Missionary because he gave so many gifts to so many families. No one would believe Sonia or if they did they would probably not support her since this man had given them so many gifts. 

Missionary A & Missionary B did not hesitate in their decision to take Sonia to child protective services. There she was interviewed by the social worker and taken for a forensic physical exam. The findings of the exam supported the details of Sonia’s story. Sonia was then placed in a foster home. 

Independent Missionary was actually in the country while these initial interviews with Sonia were taking place but since the justice system moves slowly and it would take a long time for the DA’s office to act on the information Independent Missionary was not at risk of being arrested. Missionary A was compelled to confront Independent Missionary, as a Christian brother, in Developing Nation, but after discussing with Missionary B they decided against it, fearing that he might harm Sonia after finding out what she had reported. Shortly thereafter Independent Missionary returned to the US. Once the formal investigation was completed a warrant for Independent Missionary’s arrest was issued. A board member of The Mission, also a member of the same church as Independent Missionary, met with Independent Missionary face to face to confront him on the charges in Developing Nation. Independent Missionary, as expected, adamantly denied the allegations. Independent Missionary was informed that if he returned to Developing Nation that he would be arrested. Soon The Mission board member, Independent Missionary, and a few other men familiar with the situation were asked to meet with the elders of Independent Missionary’s church. This meeting did not go as expected. Independent Missionary’s long time relationship with the eldership, his well respected presence in his community, and his law enforcement background influenced the elders. The elders believed his story that this was nothing but a little, poor, orphan girl in Developing Nation out to get some money and that Missionary A had no idea what he was talking about and he had fallen for the scam. 

Unfortunately this is a defense that has been used before by pedophiles that have abused children in third world countries around the world. It’s a very easy explanation, the victim must be lying, they must be after money, and unfortunately many Americans have given the benefit of the doubt to the accused instead of investing just a little bit of time to do some due diligence about the situation and the victims rarely see justice and the predators continue to attack children. 

By late summer of that year Independent Missionary was ready to return to Developing Nation, defying all logic and advice of his friends. This time he was indeed arrested by the police only a few days after his arrival. Videos of Independent Missionary handcuffed and shackled and being led into the police station filled the evening news. However, within 24 hours he was free, and placed under house arrest to await a hearing. Independent Missionary hired the best that money could buy in this small town, and that meant a very shady lawyer. Sonia & Juana were now both at risk as well as Missionary A and Missionary B’s family. Both Missionary A and Missionary B were subpoenaed to testify in a court in a small town in a third world country. The missionaries did not get much support and encouragement from the US, that they had done the right thing. One “mentor” even told Missionary A, “this is not your fight.”  However, Missionary A and Missionary B believed wholeheartedly that if it was not “their” fight then whose fight was it? Who was there to “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy" (Psalms 82:3)?

The Verdict

The shady lawyer’s defense was that this was a “gringo” power struggle and that it had nothing to do with the young girl. The lawyer, after discovering where Sonia was living, approached her and intimidated her into signing a document stating that the whole story had been made up. Then the lawyer went to work to try and cast doubt about the family. However, the evidence was quite compelling, a former house keeper with a baby girl with a striking resemblance of Independent Missionary, and physical exam that backed up the rape charges, however poor families who’d been recipients of Independent Missionary's gifts showed up in droves to support this man. In the end the judge found that there was not enough evidence for the case to proceed and Independent Missionary was released.

In the parking lot of the court Independent Missionary’s lawyer boasted to the government attorney, “You see, in our country money talks, my client is guilty, and my client walks free”.

In the End

  • Sonia was left with severe trauma and no justice.
  • Juana was left with trauma, a child, and no way to support her family.
  • Christians in a small community were misguided to learn that what is wrong might not always be wrong if you can get something from it.
  • Missionary A and Missionary B were threatened with a slander lawsuit if the details were made public in the US.
  • Missionary A and Missionary B were labeled as naïve and ignorant by Independent Missionary’s elders, major financial supporters of The Mission, for having believed the report and for not having handled the situation directly with Independent Missionary.
  • Long time relationship with these elders and their church were strained and eventually they parted ways.
  • A precedent was set across the ministry of The Mission that sexual misconduct, by anyone, would not be tolerated.
  • Operations manual of The Mission children’s homes directly reflects Missionary A and Missionary B’s commitment to protecting children.

Today, Independent Missionary is now single. At 65 his wife left him. He now lives in Developing Nation and continues to have teenage girlfriends and continues to “help” churches of Christ that fall victims to the US Dollars that he has to give away. 


Rather than offer immediate answers, I think it is important for us to sit with the tension that this true story naturally creates.

We need to think about the ways in which we engage in ministry both within our congregations and in other contexts. What protections are in place both for the children of our congregation, but also for those to whom we minister, particularly in places where the power imbalance is deeply exacerbated by poverty, illness, or cultural difference?

This same pair of missionaries who brought us this heart-wrenching narrative will soon be sharing with us some important and practical ways in which this kind of horrific story can be prevented in the future. Along with some other reflections, their contribution will be an invaluable resource for this conversation.

Please lift them and all the others (and there are other missionaries with the same experiences whom I have heard from because of this series!) who have given their lives to serving far from their homes who must confront and protect the innocent to whom they have dedicated their lives, even with great consequences. God will not fail to reward them for what they have done on behalf of the innocent.

#SilentCofC: Changing Our Response (Gina South)

Today's guest post in the #SilentCofC conversation is from my new friend Gina South. Here is a little bit about her, and you will see quickly that her voice is both informed and generative. Let those who have ears to hear...


Gina M. (Tur) South is the State Director for the Alabama Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, and a member of the Alabama State Bar Association. Mrs. South is committed to advocating for children, and works with legislators to protect children in her capacity as State Director. Additionally, she provides education/awareness for both professionals and members of the community. Prior to her work with the CACs, Mrs. South taught Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at Faulkner University for 8 years. Mrs. South graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, from Freed-Hardeman University, and from Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Alabama. Mrs. South is married to Jason South, the Children’s Minister at Vaughn Park Church of Christ, and a Theatre Professor at Faulkner University. Together they have four children. The Souths are also current foster and adoptive parents for Agape of Central Alabama.


People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “let the little children come to me,
and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”[i]
 

Did you see that Jesus was indignant – regarding a children’s issue? Children are our some of our most precious treasures in this life. Our Lord did not want children to be treated as though they were less important, as though they had no business being placed in front of the Savior, as though there were far more important matters to be brought to the feet of Jesus. 

My heart is heavy when I consider that many of our churches are doing this very thing today. When our church leaders would rather discuss praise teams or event planning than address the direction of our children’s ministry, when paying down the church debt is more important than prioritizing child safety, when worship styles or church décor is more of a hot topic than the focus of our children’s hearts, I believe that we grieve the Holy Spirit, disappoint God, and bring Jesus to a place where He is indignant. With us. With how petty and short-sighted we are. Surely we can do better.

In my line of work, I see the aftermath of when we fail to protect children. I see the numbers of children, the cost to society, the hours of counseling needed to induce healing; I see the insidious way that it spreads, silently, secretly, and from generation to generation. Do you truly believe the statistics? Do you believe that one in four girls, and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18? Do you believe that only one in ten will actually disclose the abuse?[ii] Before my work with children’s advocacy centers, I did not. I was naïve. I assumed that the church cases were few and far between; I assumed that the statistics applied to the world, not to the church – not to any church I’d ever attended. But statistics are real, no matter what building you are in. Please do not believe for a second that because we are part of a small church family, or a close church family that we are insulated from it.

I grew up in the Church of Christ, and graduated from a Church of Christ high school and college. The Church of Christ values and the importance of God’s Holy Word have been deeply instilled from my childhood. These are my people; these are my roots. But just as most families have a skeleton in a closet, I have seen what I believe to be our skeleton, and it is the way we deal with accusations of child sex abuse, and the subsequent way that we treat the offender.

 In the situations that I have known about, the victim is told to stop talking about it, and the offender’s “record” is sealed shut. We silence the child because we do not want it to be true, or we think the child must be mistaken, or we do not want to ruin the lives of the offender, or the offender’s family. We seal shut the record of the offender and allow the offender to move on to another congregation, to molest more children, or we allow the offender to quietly resign, and seek employment in yet another place where he or she will have contact with children. Despite the fact that a sex offender molests on average, 117 children before being caught[iii], we do not press charges, or seek prosecution. We think that by not making a child face prosecution, we save them from public humiliation, or somehow protect them. We do not seek counseling for the child.

In doing so, our actions teach the child that it does not matter who touches them. It does not matter what happens to their bodies. Our actions highlight the truth: that we do not want to talk about the uncomfortable, that we will not discuss the painful topics, and that we will protect other adults to the detriment of our children’s safety. Is that really what we want to teach children?

It is remarkable that in Matthew 18, Jesus actually states, “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea,”[iv] and almost directly after that, He begins to address what to do when your brother sins against you.[v] The statements go together: it is our Savior’s desire that we protect children from evil behaviors. It is our Savior’s desire that we get to the truth of the matter.

Additionally, there is one small phrase we overlook. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…”[vi] When we have enough reasons to know that a person actually committed a crime, there is a Biblical mechanism in place to warn our church family. Are we doing what God has instructed of us? Are we warning our brothers and sisters? Keep in mind that you are not committing slander against an individual when you state the truth.[vii]

We must improve the way we deal with child sex abuse in the church of Christ.

The counselors who work with abused children tell me this: some Church of Christ children (and many other church-going children) are raised in such conservative homes that they are gravely unequipped. They lack the actual tools that children need to protect themselves. They do not receive the message “my body belongs to me,” and “it’s ok to tell someone NO.” Oftentimes, the children even lack the vocabulary needed to explain what has happened to them.

What can we do to improve? For parents, the following steps would be a good step in the right direction.

  1. Equip your preschooler. Teach them the actual names of their body parts, and teach them that nobody is allowed to touch them in a way that makes them feel bad, or uncomfortable unless it is the doctor, and is medically necessary. Make sure they understand that other children (not just adults) cannot have access to their bodies.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open. Tell them explicitly that they can tell you anything or ask you anything. Ask them if anyone is touching them, or doing anything inappropriate. Revisit the topic frequently enough so that as they grow, and get older, that they will always feel like they can talk to you about their bodies, or about sex, or about inappropriate situations they may have encountered.
  3. Educate yourself. Download the free McGruff Mobile smartphone app, where you can view an interactive map displaying crimes and sex offenders in your neighborhood. Actively seek information about how to talk to your child about body safety.
  4. Find out what your congregation is doing to protect children, and join in and assist.

What can churches do to improve?

  1. Give all members of the congregation (men, women and children) a voice in contributing to and implementing child safety policies. Seek the input of child safety professionals in your congregation. Create an environment where knowledgeable, qualified women and men can both advise and make policy decisions about child safety.
  2. Implement policies and procedures for child safety. Most church insurance plans have a model child safety policy that the congregation can implement. The Methodist churches have an impressive child safety plans (Safe Sanctuaries) in place today, and it is an excellent program that is a model for other religious groups.
  3. Hold regular seminars for both church staff and parents to teach them the signs and indicators of child sex abuse, and about how to identify individuals that are “grooming” children for abuse.
  4. Conduct background checks of all members who will have direct access to children.
  5. Make certain that your congregation has a policy of 2 workers for every class. No teacher should ever be alone with a child, regardless of whether the teacher is male or female.

Do not be naïve about the facts of child sex abuse. Do not neglect the children in your church family. Do not turn a blind eye, and do not fail to give your child the tools he or she needs, for who among us would dare to send an innocent, unarmed lamb into a battlefield, without so much as a warning? “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”[viii]


ENDNOTES

[i] Mark 10:14 NIV

[ii] Theresa Harvard Johnson, Angela Williams, Courage to Speak (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 20.

[iii] Nancy E. Grabe, et al., The Grooming Mystery (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 4.

[iv] Matthew 18:6 NIV

[v] Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

[vi]  Matthew 18:17 NIV

[vii] Disclaimer: the contents of this article are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice.

[viii] Matthew 10:16 NIV

Hiroshima, the Immorality of War, and Repentance

Sixty-nine years ago today, an atomic bomb was dropped on men, women, and children in Hiroshima, Japan. The unspeakable carnage and destruction which ensued are difficult to articulate even nearly seven decades later. Today, it is important for us to reflect and to remember.


Perhaps one of the best ways to remember is to listen to the words of Father George Zabelka, the Catholic Air Force Chaplain who blessed the bomb that was dropped on this day. Below is an extended excerpt from a speech given on the 40th anniversary of the bombing.




The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child's head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians – and I said nothing.

As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan.

I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it. I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church's leadership. (To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters is a stamp of approval.)

I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights struggle in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind. He said, "Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of our white brothers."

I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clear: "Love your enemies. Return good for evil." I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie.

War is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ's way. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. There is no way to train people for real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.

The morality of the balance of terrorism is a morality that Christ never taught. The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.

So the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter is not what the world needs from the Church, although it is what the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived, and, if necessary, die as Christ died, loving ones enemies.

For the 300 years immediately following Jesus' resurrection, the Church universally saw Christ and his teaching as nonviolent. Remember that the Church taught this ethic in the face of at least three serious attempts by the state to liquidate her. It was subject to horrendous and ongoing torture and death. If ever there was an occasion for justified retaliation and defensive slaughter, whether in form of a just war or a just revolution, this was it. The economic and political elite of the Roman state and their military had turned the citizens of the state against Christians and were embarked on a murderous public policy of exterminating the Christian community.

Yet the Church, in the face of the heinous crimes committed against her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians.

Christians continued to believe that Christ was, to use the words of an ancient liturgy, their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic. Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and his teaching, they couldn't fail. When opportunities were given for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early Church saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security and peace.

Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the Church refuses to be the Church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

Now, brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system. When I said Mass over there I put on those beautiful vestments over my uniform. (When Father Dave Becker left the Trident submarine base in 1982 and resigned as Catholic chaplain there, he said, "Every time I went to Mass in my uniform and put the vestments on over my uniform, I couldn't help but think of the words of Christ applying to me: Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing.")

As an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to the world as truth. I sang "Praise the Lord" and passed the ammunition. As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.

All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God's people. Excuses and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say is: I was wrong! But, if this is all I can say, this I must do, feeble as it is. For to do otherwise would be to bypass the first and absolutely essential step in the process of repentance and reconciliation: admission of error, admission of guilt.

There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.

I was there, and I was wrong. Yes, war is Hell, and Christ did not come to justify the creation of Hell on earth by his disciples. The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus. I was wrong. And to those of whatever nationality or religion who have been hurt because I fell under the influence of the father of lies, I say with my whole heart and soul I am sorry. I beg forgiveness.

I asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness – for myself, for my country, for my Church. Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This year in Toronto, I again asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas present. I asked forgiveness, and they asked forgiveness for Pearl Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military, and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried. Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation – admission of guilt and forgiveness. Pray to God that others will find this way to peace.

All religions have taught brotherhood. All people want peace. It is only the governments and war departments that promote war and slaughter. So today again I call upon people to make their voices heard. We can no longer just leave this to our leaders, both political and religious. They will move when we make them move. They represent us. Let us tell them

that they must think and act for the safety and security of all the people in our world, not just for the safety and security of one country. All countries are interdependent. We all need one another. It is no longer possible for individual countries to think only of themselves. We can all live together as brothers and sisters or we are doomed to die together as fools in a world holocaust.

Each one of us becomes responsible for the crime of war by cooperating in its preparation and in its execution. This includes the military. This includes the making of weapons. And it includes paying for the weapons. There's no question about that. We've got to realize we all become responsible. Silence, doing nothing, can be one of the greatest sins.

The bombing of Nagasaki means even more to me than the bombing of Hiroshima. By August 9, 1945, we knew what that bomb would do, but we still dropped it. We knew that agonies and sufferings would ensue, and we also knew – at least our leaders knew – that it was not necessary. The Japanese were already defeated. They were already suing for peace. But we insisted on unconditional surrender, and this is even against the Just War theory. Once the enemy is defeated, once the enemy is not able to hurt you, you must make peace.

Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan. I knew that St. Francis Xavier, centuries before, had brought the Catholic faith to Japan. I knew that schools, churches, and religious orders were annihilated. And yet I said nothing.

Thank God that I'm able to stand here today and speak out against war, all war. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against all false gods of gold, silver, and metal. Today we are worshipping the gods of metal, the bomb. We are putting our trust in physical power, militarism, and nationalism. The bomb, not God, is our security and our strength. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply: Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust in God. Their message was simple, and so is mine.

We must all become prophets. I really mean that. We must all do something for peace. We must stop this insanity of worshipping the gods of metal. We must take a stand against evil and idolatry. This is our destiny at the most critical time of human history. But it's also the greatest opportunity ever offered to any group of people in the history of our world – to save our world from complete annihilation.

 

#SilentCofC: The Trust Deception (Jimmy Hinton)

Today's guest post is from my new friend Jimmy Hinton. He serves as the minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He writes often about issues of abuse at his blog and is in the initial launch of his new ministry, Church Protect. Jimmy's journey into helping the Church think about the scope and cost of child sexual abuse came in the aftermath of learning that his father, a Church of Christ minister, was a pedophile with dozens of victims. His voice is important in our fellowship and I am thankful for his contribution today.

WARNING: Jimmy doesn't sugar-coat the nature of abuse. This is important, but for some, especially those who have been victimized in the past, it may serve as a trigger. For the rest of us, please consider Jimmy's honest and unsanitized perspective as an exercise in learning empathy for victims of this horrific evil.


I had just spoken as a keynote at a large conference for professionals who deal with abuse.  For many theological and psychological reasons that I won’t unpack here, I take a strong stance that pedophiles should not have access to our children, even (especially!) in worship.  A man came up to me after my speech and said, “You’re a preacher and you say that pedophiles and children should be separated.”  “Yep,” I said unflinchingly.  “Let me just ask you, where is the trust and forgiveness in that?”  I assured him that mistaking forgiveness and trust is a grave mistake.  They are not the same thing.  We can forgive people who should never be trusted again.  It’s a strange notion that we somehow magically believe that people who say, “Sorry” will never struggle with temptation again.   

This man’s response is not uncommon among church leaders.  I regularly get challenged by people who have never spent time either with a pedophile or with their victims.  They haven’t had to face the reality of witnessing the lies, manipulation, and denial from pedophiles.  Nor have they heard the horror stories from survivors who were humiliated, stripped naked, poked, prodded, and caressed with the tongues and fingers of their perpetrators.  I have.  And I acknowledge what the Bible and psychologists both agree upon—Children need responsible adults to protect them.

When I shared this man’s response with my ministry partner, who happens to counsel incarcerated sex offenders, without hesitation he offered me the following advice. 

“Always keep a 3x5 notecard and a pen in your pocket.  Next time someone is adamant that you are ‘unfair’ and need to integrate pedophiles into your church, take down their name and personal number.  Write down their home address as well as their church address, number, times of service, etc.  And just tell them, ‘You know what?  You’re right and I’m wrong.  Pedophiles do need a place to worship among children.  We are not equipped to make that happen but we are willing to pay for the flight, bus ticket, gas, or whatever to send the next pedophile we meet directly to your home.  Thank you so much for agreeing to integrate them into your own home and church.’” 

Now before anyone draws too harsh a judgment, let me be clear.  I want pedophiles to be redeemed.  I’m not arguing that we ban them from church unless, of course, they show no signs of remorse or repentance.  What I’m arguing is that, according to the Bible, we have the highest calling to protect our children and so, pedophiles who have repeatedly perpetrated upon children have no business being surrounded by them.  We should offer an alternative worship service without kids where temptation does not cause a repentant pedophile to stumble.  We do it with drug addicts.  We don’t serve booze to alcoholics.  So why do we insist that we serve our children on a platter to someone whose appetite is so insatiable that he or she has repeatedly stripped a child of their clothes, innocence, and decency?  God “does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), so why do we? 

The most common cliché I hear from churches who insist on not taking any precautions to protect their children is this—“We have a group of volunteers we trust so why would we upset them by demanding background checks and watching over them every time they want to serve?”  Great question.  Let me tell you about a story of a man who trusted his own father. . . who happened to be a well-respected father and preacher!  My dad has dozens of victims who all have dramatic stories of shame, pain, and humiliation.  He was able to gain access to children precisely because everybody trusted him.  Let me also tell you about hundreds of other people who have shared similar stories with me as I listen to their painful stories.  They all tell a similar story: “Nobody questioned my abuser because he was the guy everyone loved and trusted.” 

I can assure you that if you are, like I was at one time, looking for the creepy guy standing behind the bushes by the ice cream truck, you’re looking in the wrong place.  A successful pedophile is not someone who offended a child and got away with it.  No, a successful pedophile is someone who offended children over and over while gaining the love, respect, and trust from those closest to him.  The successful pedophile is the last person anyone would suspect as an abuser and the first person someone would choose to care for their kids.  And there is a lot of success out there, especially in our churches.  My dad once wrote me from prison, “Churches and Christian daycares are the easiest places to offend.”  Touché. 

I call this the “trust deception.”  We Christians are deceived precisely because we want to trust.  Dr. Gene Abel did a massive study among over 1,000 pedophiles and found that 93% of them identified themselves as religious.  That’s a huge deal!  We picture pedophiles as monsters with 3 heads who deny God and mock Jesus.  It’s simply not true.  The vast majority of them believe in God and identify as Christians.  The reason I make such a huge deal about this is because religious people typically go to church!  If 93% of pedophiles are religious, that means the majority of pedophiles are frequenting your churches.  It gets worse. 

The reason churches are among the highest risk for sex offenses to occur is that we have created the perfect storm.  As the famed Dr. Anna Salter once told me, “They (churches) are such inviting targets.”  There are 3 main ingredients to our Molotov concoction: 

  1. Christians by nature are generally naïve.  Quite honestly, we don’t want to know what kinds of things happen outside our own happy bubbles.  It disrupts our happy time and forces us to think about something tragic and actually do something about it.  Let’s be honest—prophets like Jeremiah weren’t exactly known for gaining converts through uplifting sermons. 
  2. Churches are desperate for volunteers.  When someone—heck when anyone—volunteers to help out, especially with kids, we describe them as “gifts from heaven.” 
  3. We wrongly trust everyone because “church folk” are safe people and church is a safe place.  Wrong!  Going to church makes a person a trusted individual no more than standing in a garage makes them a car.  The only way church will be a safe place is if we make it a safe place.  And this can be done.  The refusal by many church leaders to adopt healthy policies to protect their kids is mind-numbing. 

There are 42 million survivors of child sex abuse in the United States alone.  As someone who does church consulting and regularly conducts workshops on abuse in the Churches of Christ across the nation, let me tell you, it is an epidemic.  Am I an alarmist?  No, I’m a realist.  Just in the last few months, I’ve had somewhere around 100 survivors of child sex abuse share their stories of churches either actively covering up accusations of abuse or just flat out denying that it happens.  Shame on us.  We can do better than this for the very children Jesus called us to imitate.  Christ became indignant when his disciples blocked them from coming near him.  How much more indignant should we become when church leaders deny children a safe environment to worship?  Children should not have to cower in fear every time they enter an assembly to worship.  Let’s vow to do better at preventing abuse.

#SilentCofC: The "Victim" and the Church (Ron Clark)

Ron and Lori Clark

Ron and Lori Clark

Today I have the privilege of sharing with you a contribution from Dr. Ron Clark. Ron is a church planter and minister at the Agape Church of Christ in Gresham, Oregon. Ron has served in numerous capacities related to abuse and violence including the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force, The Engaging Men Project (TEMP), and the co-founder of Community Against Domestic Violence. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and is a leading voice in Churches of Christ about how we engage issues of abuse and violence both in our churches and our communities.


Victim.

The word seems to strike fear in us not only as we say it, but as we think about those we know who are victims, have been victimized, or have family members who suffered as victims. It also seems logical to us that we remove the word from our vocabulary by empowering the word so that we can be “victors.” Victors has a better sound, connotation, and memory. However we forget that whenever there is a victor, typically there is or are victims. Yet for us it is a matter of avoiding that which is uncomfortable. Since victim connotes helplessness, suffering, and vulnerability—we opt to be victors instead. In addition to this we become, like the many other humans researched who observe an act of bullying and side with the bully or do nothing, people who collude with and empower the oppression of victims. Whether or not it is intentional, we side with the victors rather than the victims.

As Christians and people of faith this seems contrary to the God we serve. Since the beginning of time Yahweh and, later Jesus, seemed to stand opposite the oppressors and for the victims.

“Your brother’s (Abel) blood cries out to me…” Genesis 4:10

“I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt, I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering…” Exodus 3:7

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” Exodus 22:21-23

“Yahweh is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble…who does not ignore the cry of the afflicted…” Psalm 9:9, 12

“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered…” Proverbs 21:13

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the empire of God…” Luke 6:20

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers/sisters of mine, you did for me…” Matthew 25:40

“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head… (meaning that Jesus was homeless).” Luke 9: 58

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and drowned in the deepest lake/sea…” Matthew 18:6

The crucifixion of Jesus was an act of “humiliation” (not humility), a word used for sexual assault victims, the oppressed, and marginalized people of this world.

Throughout the Biblical text God is the god of the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, and those society has deemed unworthy. Additionally this group is also silenced. They have no voice, no one to represent them, and no one to understand their pain. Those who marginalize them do so because they have chosen the path of oppression, affliction, and a display of power over others. However, these “privileged” classes of people are also the groups confronted directly by Yahweh, the prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself. Their only hope of salvation is to hear the cries of the marginalized (victims) as the prophets exclaimed to their kings.

“Therefore O king (Nebuchadnezzer), please accept my advice. Renounce your sins by doing what is right and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed (poor). It may be then that your prosperity will continue.” Daniel 4:27

“’Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father (Josiah) have food and drink? He did what was right and just and all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares Yahweh.” Jeremiah 22:15-16

When we ignore the cries of the oppressed, marginalized, poor, or victims we collude with their oppressors. First, we assume that they deserve to be oppressed.

Homeless people are viewed as lazy and unwilling to work, rather than being part of a system that prevents them from receiving help.

Rape victims are blamed for being over sexual, underdressed, or sexually expressive and therefore responsible for this sin. We assume that every male is incapable of self control and must have been tempted by them. “Boys will be boys…” Boys who are raped are seen as deserving it because the must have communicated effeminate signals to “real boys.”

Abuse victims are considered to be women who over exaggerate their suffering. Those with bruises “must have pushed his buttons,” while those abused and controlled verbally and emotionally are considered “too sensitive.”

Does it amaze us that the most common age of sexual abuse victims are young girls age 10-15? How many times do we circulate rumors about “school girls” and young girls making up stories and false accusations? Is it possible that they are targeted because offenders know we wont believe them? Is it surprising that many of them, when sharing their story, state that they felt that no one would believe them?

Women in prostitution and pornography are believed to be fully in control and in charge of their own futures. They are seen as the aggressors, rather than the pimps who brutalize them and their customers who also exploit them.

Male violence victims are told that they need to “man up” and victimize other males.

Boys who cry are also told to “man up” and be stronger. They are also given female or gay labels if they don’t “man up.”

Trauma survivors are told that they need to “get over it” and move on.

Victims suffer unjustly. There is no valid reason for people to be oppressed, tortured, terrorized, or ignored in their victimization. Those victims who experience horrible acts of human oppression many times find acceptance and solitude by being intoxicated, high, or under the influence of various substances. Substance abuse exists among them because they hate living in reality and believe that people will not accept them.

The sad news concerning this—they all have a God who hears their cries, feels their pain, and suffered the same humiliation, shame, and rejection. Jesus also was homeless, poor, humiliated, and a victim of unjust suffering. Before Jesus became the Lord of the upper class—he was the Savior of the marginalized.

Unfortunately the Church, for centuries, has tried to dissect the Biblical text to find meaning for the oppressors, victors, and those with privilege. We worry about their forgiveness, their healing, and making a community where they can move forward and enter leadership again. For the victims we say, “Forgive, Forget, Move On, and Get Over It.” If they are revictimized, it is considered a small price for a community to be viewed as forgiving and loving the sinner. In doing this we ignore the voice of the ones among whom Jesus lived, ate and drank, and cry out for justice. We also silence their voice so that they will not speak up. Who would blame them, no one wants to be known as a “nagger” or “prophetic.” However, this is how oppression, privilege, and injustice thrive in communities. If we remove the voice of the victim, then we can all move forward and be victors.

When we listen to the voice of the marginalized we should find the empathy and compassion to respond to their needs. If we are allowing the Spirit of Jesus to live within us, we naturally move toward their voice and turn our ears to their suffering. We see ourselves not as oppressors but family who also suffers victimization. To be a victim introduces us to a community in which we are family and have each other’s best interest in mind. We also become more sensitive in our outreach and ministry:

Each time we discuss pre-marital sex there are a percentage of people who were molested by a family member, or coerced into sex by a male in their church. They believe that they are guilty because their victor told them they were.

When we speak negatively concerning divorce there are a large number of people who left an abusive or dysfunctional marriage to establish peace and safety in their family. There are also men and women who divorced their spouse because they wanted their children to live in a peaceful, healthy, and non-addictive home. For them it was not only an option God gave them, but an act Yahweh practiced during the Babylonian captivity. Sometimes divorce has to happen.

When we call people to turn their victimization into a victory we ignore the fact that Jesus/God, like them, was victimized on the cross, during the Babylonian captivity, and the violation of the Hebrew covenant. Victory came through justice, and the repentance of the offender, not the victim. The resurrection is new life and a new kingdom—where peace and justice reign.

When we push victims to forgive, without discussing the repentance of the offender, they are forced into a unhealthy relationship. Repentance precedes forgiveness. Forgiveness is the act of a victim who has been validated, given amends, and feels a sense of healing through the words of the oppressor. They also feel safe because a community names the oppression and offense as a sin, not their victimization.

When we talk as if victims enjoy living as victims we have not heard their story—their stories involve a desire to heal and get better.

When we assume young girls are exaggerating sexual assault, coercion, or clergy misconduct we tell them that victims’ testimonies are not as credible as offenders. We also assume that young girls (and sometimes boys) enjoy the shame of being a victim to horrible acts of male violence, oppression, and infliction of pain. History teaches us two things concerning this issue:

1.     Offenders are not open and honest with the truth. They often lie.
2.     Males tend to lie as well when it comes to sex

Our response as a faith community is to not only imitate Jesus/God, but to understand that a major quality of God involves “hearing the cries of the little people.” The voices of the victims are being silenced in churches, synagogues, and other communities of faith. Continually victims tell us that no one cares, not even God. However, the spiritual community has a powerful opportunity to advocate for the voiceless by giving them a voice.

When we say, “I believe you…” we empower their testimony.

When we understand that some people have different moral codes, not because they are rebellious, but because they have been taught by their oppressors that this behavior is desirable, we help them to move to change.

When we realize that victims will only speak in a safe environment, we create safe spaces where language is used to encourage rather than shame, hugs and intimacy involve compassion and holiness, and oppression/oppressors is/are confronted and called to repentance.

When we hear the voice of the marginalized, and allow God’s Spirit to live in us, we not only feel compassion and empathy, we feel anger at the injustice we see. We understand the anger of Yahweh and the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, and those throughout Christian history who have advocated against racism, economic oppression, gender discrimination, and human affliction.

When we stand beside them we not only suffer with them, but we understand the heart of Jesus who was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 5:30; 7:34). We become as they are, humans in the image of God needing acceptance, support, and justice. We see their ministry and speak to Pharaoh, “Let my people go…”

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are oppressed. Speak up and judge fairly by defending the rights of the poor and afflicted.” Proverbs 31:8-9

10 Things I Love About the Churches of Christ

A congregation in rural Arkansas that I pass when visiting my sister-in-law and her family.

A congregation in rural Arkansas that I pass when visiting my sister-in-law and her family.

Someone recently called me and said, "I've been reading your blog and you never have anything positive to say about the Church of Christ, it's always negative." Fair enough. 

I can understand how this perception is possible, particularly if you don't see me in my church context or some of my other writings (particularly in my A People's History of Churches of Christ work and my series of Table meditations). I identify with the segment of our tradition who believes that there is deep value and possibility in many of the fundamental convictions of our tradition, among others:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity; and in all things, love. 

Let the unity of Christians be our Polar Star.  

For more see this six-hour series from Dr. Leroy Garrett.

I deeply resonate with the metaphor employed by Leroy Garrett about his place in Churches of Christ: A Lover's Quarrel

He describes it this way: 

"I love the Churches of Christ too much to leave, and too much to leave them alone." 

I couldn't have said it better myself. 

So here are 10 things that I love about the tradition of which I am a part and which I love too much to leave alone.  

(1) The desire to read, interpret, and apply Scripture.  

We have a long history of exploring, interpreting, and articulating our understanding of Scripture. We have done so with diversity from our earliest days, and we continue to value the place of the biblical text in our life and practice.  

(2) An appreciation for congregational singing.  

While I do not believe that acappella music is a theological mandate (a.k.a. that instrumental music is a "sin"), I believe that it has immense formative power and should not be changed or discarded lightly.  

(3) A desire to make Communion a regular part of the life of the church.  

This is a gift that our tradition has given us, and that should not be taken lightly.  

(4) An intrinsic commitment to simplicity of worship.  

By and large our tradition has sought to engage in worship without an undue emphasis on "production".  

(5) The ability for significant diversity by way of congregational autonomy. 

Each congregation doesn't need to appeal to a central authority or prescribed set of rules in their decisions of faith and practice.  

(6) The desire to engage in critical scholarship across disciplines.  

For the relatively small size of our tradition we have produced a disproportionate number of recognized scholars in a wide-range of fields. We are not afraid to love God with our minds.  

(7) Our value of the practice of Baptism.  

While much of the Evangelical and Pentecostal world has made little of baptism, our tradition has continued to value this central Christian practice.  

(8) Our desire for good preaching.  

I have heard and seen from others outside of our tradition, that Churches of Christ have some of the finest preaching in the American/Evangelical scene. With people like Mike Cope, Josh Graves, Rick Atchley, Jerry Taylor, Fate Hagood III, Lawrence Murray, Sara Barton, Jen Christy, Noami Walters, and others I am quick to agree.  

(9) Churches of Christ have a deep love for missions.

I have seen this to be true both in the congregations that I have been a part of, and in my own family.  

(10) That our story is unfinished.  

We have a deep recognition that God is not done with us yet, that there is more work to be done, and a new horizon to see. We know that we are to do more than maintain the machine and speak of the "glory days". 

Do I love the Churches of Christ? Absolutely.

Will I stay in Churches of Christ? I believe it is my family, and you don't abandon your family.  

Are there things that I would like to see be different? Yes. And when God looks at me, there are things he sees which he desires to change as well.  

Do I look like I am "always hating" on Churches of Christ? Only if you don't know me.

So if this is your perception of me, send me an email or buy me a cup of coffee. I am an open book, looking to honor God and serve his mission in the world.

And if you and I don't agree on how that is/should be done, let's talk, as brothers and sisters in Christ, for that is what we are. 

That willingness to walk together even in our diversity and particularity...I couldn't think of a better way to honor God and the beauty of our Tradition.  

 

#SilentCofC: Church Practices for Prevention (David Duncan)

David Duncan.jpg

Today I want to introduce you to a dear friend who is one of my favorite ministers, David DuncanI met David while growing up and came to know him better in my time as an undergrad. I have found him to be thoughtful, courageous, and often willing to say what everyone else knows but is afraid to articulate. David contacted me almost immediately after the first post in this series went live to share information about what his congregation, Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, does to protect their kids from abuse. He has graciously shared his heart and some practical tools for this important conversation.


Christianity seems to be in a precarious position among many in the United States. Just a few decades ago it seemed that some form of pseudo-Christian culture would dominate schools, neighborhoods and thought in most sections of the country for as long as anyone could imagine. For those of us living in America’s largest cities, it is obvious that a great number of people would like Christian ideals to be moved to the nether regions or even entirely disintegrate.

In such an environment we should not be surprised when those hurt by church people go to the police or even the media. Although I am embarrassed each time a sexual or physical abuse case makes its way on to the evening news, I know it is a good thing that it is being reported. Christians, of all people, should care for children and all of society’s most vulnerable.  We should also be the first to admit our sins.

As far as I know, the congregation I work in has never had an incident of any type of abuse of anyone in any type of church setting or relationship. We are also committed to doing all we can to make sure our children and adults will always be safe in our care. Like many congregations, we have instituted several safety procedures to protect our children and adults. We believe that is better to be proactive rather than reactive.

First, every person that works with our children or youth submit to a background check. Every class teacher, assistant, nursery worker, trip sponsor, bus driver, minister, and even puppeteer is screened before allowed to volunteer for any activity with youth 18 years old or younger.

Second, every person working with youth or children undergoes a two-hour safety training course before being permitted to volunteer. The training and background checks are also mandatory for every elder and minister, regardless of ministry assignments.

As may be expected, implementing the program received some resistance. Wonderful volunteers that had been giving their time for years were a little surprised that they would be asked to undergo the same scrutiny as new people to the program. While understandable, there were some reasons that they were asked to participate.

First, we did not want anyone think favoritism was being shown to any particular person. Second, if there was a current or past problem, we need to be made aware of the situation. Third, background checks and safety training actually protects the volunteers. If they were ever accused of a horrible action, they would be able to show their past willingness to be properly instructed and screened.

The material we use to train our volunteers is popular among churches. We used the Reducing the Risk curriculum promoted by Church Law and Tax and Christianity Today. The video series costs $69.95. We also use some of our own information for our particular setting.

A two hour presentation made by workers serving our children and youth was initially made to the majority of our volunteers and offered at four separate times. A test over the videos was completed by each participant. Because we add volunteers on a fairly regular basis, all of the information has been recorded and is required viewing for all future volunteers.

We cannot make up for mistakes that might have happened in the past. We can, however, do everything we know possible today to ensure the children, youth and adults in our care for the future are dealt with properly. God has given us great responsibility and we plan to use it in a way that honors Him.


No doubt there are other churches doing things to protect their children. If your church is doing something would you share it with the rest of us? Leave a comment or share it on social media using #SilentCofC. We are better in this when we are together.

#SilentCofC: Autonomy and the Culture of Silence

Yesterday we explored this idea:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Today I want to briefly explore one of the most treasured (and misused!) elements of our ecclesiology: Congregational Autonomy.

For brevity, allow me to simply caricature what happens in our tradition when it comes to congregational autonomy.

First the elements of congregational autonomy that we celebrate...

  • Each congregation is run by its own elders. An eldership cannot exercise authority over other congregations or the members of those congregations.
  • Each congregation is enabled to make its own decisions about its life and doctrine without needing the pre-approval of some larger governing body.

Now, the more functional and dangerous components of this idea...

  • Lacking the authority structure to impose theological conformity, Churches of Christ result to social pressure, rhetoric, and a string of publications and outlets aligned with others of a similar orientation and practice.
  • Potentially embarrassing events (such as sexual abuse) can be addressed at the local level with nothing else done because it's not our problem and/or we don't have any authority or "right" to say something.
  • Autonomy typically means functional isolation, as if each church lives within a vacuum, although in dialogue with other equally self-contained congregations. This means that churches who do have resources to deal with things like sex abuse prevention are isolated from churches that need the same help.

In Churches of Christ, our "autonomy" has served to enable sexual predators to move from congregation to congregation with impunity.

In the last week since posting the introductory post in this series I have been contacted by four individuals who have stories of abuse being covered up (some in the distant past, and some in the last month!) and the perpetrator being asked to no longer attend that congregation, but to attend at a different Church of Christ! What the hell?!?!

Remember this excerpt from the outstanding article (published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology) entitled, What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse by Victor Vieth.

Child molesters manipulate both children and the church.

“Child molesters, particularly those meeting the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia, are extremely manipulative of not only their victims but also the church as a whole. According to Salter (2003, p. 28) ‘If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.’ In the words of one convicted child molester:

I consider church people easy to fool… they have a trust that comes from being Christians… They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people… I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. (Salter, 2003, p. 29).

Not only are child molesters skilled at lying to pastors and parishioners alike, they are often proud of their abilities to fool leaders and members of their congregations. In the words of one convicted child molester:

(T)here was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. You’re a good one … There were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, “You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.” I would think back and think “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.” (Salter, 2003, p. 199)

Congregational autonomy as it currently functions in Churches of Christ is at the very least problematic, and increases the risk that sexual predators are able to move within our tradition with impunity. It's time for the sake of our children and our witness in the world to think about how our functional isolation endangers the most precious and vulnerable members of our church family. 

Increased cooperation, communication, and commitment to protecting our children is the only faithful way forward.