Book Review: The Book of Books

The Book of Books: The Bible Retold
by Trevor Dennis
Published by Lion
ISBN: 978-0-8254-7867-3
480 Pages
$16.99

Read an excerpt of the book here. Purchase the book from the here.

Who is this book for: People familiar with the biblical narrative
Who is this book not for: People who are unfamiliar with the biblical narrative and might confuse his historical background and interpretive storytelling as being from the actual biblical text.

Overall Rating: 3/5 Stars

Review:

I was really excited to receive this book from Kregel for the purpose of review. I was hoping that it would be a great way for me to engage the biblical stories with my children (even if not now, but sometime when they are older). It is a hardbound book without a dustjacket (which is the only way they should make hardback books in my opinion), and is well made which means that this book will be around for a long time. These are all things that I have not found in many other "story Bibles" that I have looked at as both a parent and minister/teacher. In this regard 5/5 stars.

But then I started to read the book.

Dennis has set himself up with a difficult task. His goal is to both retell the story, to fill in some gaps (where he thinks it helps the story), and to engage with history (both in context... here's what happened leading up to this story and in the history of "tradition" which I will say more about momentarily). This is no easy goal.

Each section of the larger metanarrative begins with a short introduction/explanation that is clearly set off from the section of narratives itself. In the back of the book Dennis lists the texts that informed the story that he has told. For example, in his story, Songs of Light he cites in the Scripture references the texts of Psalm 23 and 121. This is both helpful if you want to read more, and sometimes frustrating when you read the story as he told it.

This book is written for and in the language of our friends in the United Kingdom and so there are a number of idioms that would be especially hard for kids. Here are some examples of what I am saying:

  • Goliath is "two meteres" tall.
  • It was shocking that Jesus went traveled through Samaria because Jews and Samaritans "didn't get on".

Dennis also blurs the lines of historical context, history of interpretation, and some quirky and unexplained interpretive moves throughout the book without explanation or with significant confusion added to the nature and shape of the narrative. For example...

  • Goliath is struck not in the forehead but in the knee. It is not because David has rendered Goliath unconscious or dead with his blow but has delivered a painful blow along with the sheer weight of Goliath's armor that David is able (seemingly without struggle from Goliath) to unsheath (!!) his sword and cut off his head. (And you thought the biblical narrative was hard to swallow!)
  • In his story telling of the Last Supper he cites at the beginning of the story that this account is taken from all four Gospels. The problem is that John does not tell of the Last Supper (at least not as related to the Passover). Another interpretive move that (at least for me) is a little "fast and loose" with the text.
  • In the story of the woman at the well, later Christians named this woman Photina. After telling this in the beginning of the story, Dennis goes on (with great embellishment and addition) to tell the narrative of Photina (as if the text really gave her that name). Not only this but he takes much of the historical background about the animosity between the Jews and Samaritans (drawing especially from Josephus) and incorporates it into the story.

In all of these cases (and there are others) it is hard to tell the line between the biblical narrative and the additional parts (whether historical, traditional, or from the author) of the story. This might well make for a refreshing read for those who are familiar with both the biblical narrative as well as the historical context and history of interpretation around these stories.

But I wouldn't read it to my kids.

All in all, this may be a resource you would enjoy to find ways to more dramatically tell the major stories of Scripture (especially to adults). I imagine that I will at times look to The Book of Books for creative ways to engage these narratives in preaching. But it seems to me that engaging these stories as they are told in this book with people who are new or unfamiliar with the narratives would just not be a good idea. In that case a cheesy picture Bible might actually be better.

If you know the stories well, or are looking for fresh ways to tell them, check out The Book of Books. If this isn't you or what you need in a retelling of the major stories of Scripture... stick with the Good Book itself.

 

Purity: Morality and Metaphors...

There are without a doubt, numerous metaphors for both sin and redemption in the New Testament (he lists 22!). But Beck warns us that an overemphasis or downplaying of this diversity can have destructive implications. He says,

The point is that metaphors can distort as much as they illuminate. No doubt this is why the biblical writers deploy a diversity of metaphors in approaching the experience of grace. And yet it is often the case that certain metaphors can come to dominate the conversation about grace and sin. Not only does this represent a loss of complexity, but it should also cause us to wonder about the entailments associated with the dominant metaphors. As noted above, these entailments can hide as much as they reveal. And without countervailing metaphors in play the distortions inherent in a given metaphor can affect the life and mission of the church. (36)

There are two categories of metaphors he categorizes for us: (1) Purity/Pollution and (2) Clean/Unclean. Purity metaphors he points out are connected to language of sacrifice and "washing" (whether in the blood of a sacrifice, ceremonial washing of hands, or baptism). Beck however picks up on a particular metaphor and its implications for missional engagement in the life of churches, Penal Substitutionary Atonement. He explains,

The concern over the ascendancy and dominance of penal substitutionary atonement in many sectors of Christianity is the concern expressed above, that the salvation experience is being reduced to the handful of metaphors that govern penal substitutionary thinking. The worry is that an over-reliance on the penal substitutionary metaphors is leading to a loss of complexity and nuance within the Christian community. More, there is a worry that the entailments of the regulating metaphors behind penal substitutionary atonement are being pushed too far, that the “logic” of these metaphors is being taken too literally, creating confused and thin understandings of sin and grace. … some suggest that the penal substitutionary metaphors, read too literally, create a problematic view of God: that God is inherently a God of retributive justice who can only be “satisfied” with blood sacrifice. A more missional worry is that the metaphors behind penal substitutionary atonement reduce salvation to a binary status: Justified versus Condemned and Pure versus Impure. The concern is that when salvation reduces to avoiding the judgment of God (Jesus accepting our “death sentence”) and accepting Christ’s righteousness as our own (being “washed” and made “holy” for the presence of God), we can ignore the biblical teachings that suggest that salvation is communal, cosmic in scope, and is an ongoing developmental process. These understandings of atonement—that salvation is an active communal engagement that participates in God’s cosmic mission to restore all things—are vital to efforts aimed at motivating spiritual formation and missional living. … restricting our view to the legal and purity metaphors blinds us to the fact that atonement has developmental, social, political, and ecological implications. (40-41)

...one reason penal substitutionary atonement might be so popular is that it is sticky; it activates an emotional system that makes its metaphors highly memorable and, thus, more likely to be shared in the activities of evangelism, testimony, or catechesis. Penal substitutionary atonement might be a theological sweet tooth. … the metaphors of penal substitutionary atonement make it a kind of theological “junk food”: appealing and alluring, but problematic if overindulged. One needs a balanced theological diet. (42-43)

...one of the concerns regarding the penal substitutionary metaphors is that they might attenuate missional engagement. Feeling “saved” and “clean” we lose missional motivation and downplay the biblical injunctions that suggest that salvation is an ongoing process of sanctification and, following the Greek Orthodox tradition, theosis: The gradual process of being formed into the image of Christ. But is this true? Do purity metaphors cause us to become morally lax and self-satisfied? The answer appears to be yes. (45)

Beck brings us back to the image of the "theological sweet tooth" to talk about why this metaphor can become so dominating and so eclipsing of the otherwise diverse expressions of the realities of redemption…

...although the experience of purity helps us understand morality, the metaphorical connection between the two is so deep that the experience of physical purity can come to replace moral action. And, given that the church is awash in purity metaphors, particularly those churches who privilege penal substitutionary thinking, there exists a constant danger that the church will exchange the private experience of salvation, being washed in the blood of the Lamb, for passionate missional engagement with the world. (47)

Beck continues to point out that while much of our soteriological imagination may be dominated by the purity metaphors (e.g., Penal Substitutionary Atonement), very few sins actually fall into this category, and that in reality the only sins that consistently fall into this realm are sexual in nature. This not only makes them metaphorically more potent, but it makes the communal and theological consequences much heavier.

But why are purity metaphors such a source of stigma, shame, and guilt? A part of the answer has to do with the possibility of rehabilitation. Recall, most sin categories are structured by metaphors that entail rehabilitation. But purity metaphors have no such entailments. Recall that contamination judgments are governed by the attribution of permanence. (49)

...purity metaphors, by activating disgust and notions of non-rehabilitation, are some of the most powerful metaphors used to regulate behavior. That is the good news about purity metaphors: they erect strong emotional and behavioral taboos that can be harnessed by moral communities. The bad news is that once the taboo is violated, the offender is crushed by the emotions (self-loathing prompting social concealment) and entailments (permanent, non-rehabilitative ruin) of purity violations. This is very often the experience of sexual sin within many churches. (49-50)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
While this chapter has some hard-hitting implications for the life of specific communities of faith, it seems a little more difficult to connect the dots to the conversation that we are attempting to engage in. I think however that there are a few points of connection worth exploring.

(1) How has the metaphorical framework of the "purity of the church" functioned in your particular religious tradition or congregation and how has that impacted (for better or for worse) your engagement with people of other Christian traditions?

(2) Maybe we need to think about the diversity of metaphors for the church. The body, the bride, the family of God, royal priesthood and holy nation. This chapter's discussion of the purity boundaries especially in relation to sexual purity causes me to wonder if our metaphors for the church have had a similar effect. What would the implications be for our work together if the primary metaphor was "bride" as opposed to "royal priesthood and holy nation". One of these has much more the sexual intimacy metaphors within it, and my hunch would be that this would be at work implicitly in our presumption about the risk of engaging people from other traditions.

(3) If we have in the past (as my tradition has, although it wasn't always this way) labeled other Christian traditions with an irreversible mark of pollution, how do we go about undoing this stigma both theologically and tangibly?

Unclean: Contamination and Contagion...

Perhaps most intriguing in this chapter is the introduction of "magical thinking". This is the idea that there are some certain types of psychological responses that don't really "make sense" and who's logic seems to be counter-intuitive and yet still remains valid to the individual. "Why is that disgusting?" someone might ask. Magical thinking would respond, "I don't know, but it just is." This magical thinking typically carries an element of permanence. Once the fly has been in the soup, or the feces have touched the cheeseburger there is nothing that you can do to rehabilitate it to a state of being clean. This brings us face to face with the theological and social implications of contamination and contagion.

...people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So we stay away. What we see in this example is how disgust psychology regulates how we reason about and experience aspects of the moral universe. Disgust psychology prompts us to think about evil as if it were a virus or a polluting object. When we do this the logic of contamination is imported into moral discourse and judgment. … We find magical thinking at work in Matthew 9. If sin is “contagious,” extending hospitality becomes impossible. This is the psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. What worries the Pharisees is Jesus’ contact with sinners. This worry over proximity is symptomatic of the magical thinking imported into the religious domain through the psychology of disgust. (25-26)

We now have four features of disgust psychology that we see at work both in our own thinking and its implications for both our theological reflection and ecclesial practice:

A Boundary Psychology: Disgust is a system that monitors boundaries. Disgust regulates the act of incorporation and inclusion.
Expulsive: Disgust is a violently expulsive mechanism. In mild forms disgust simply prompts withdrawal and avoidance. In stronger forms disgust involves violent rejection, expulsion, or elimination.
Promiscuous: Due to disgust’s developmental peculiarities (i.e., its sensitive period), culture can link disgust to a variety of stimuli, many unrelated to food. Consequently, disgust is often found regulating moral, social, and religious experiences.
Magical Thinking: The contamination appraisals involved in disgust are characterized by magical thinking, which overrides reason and logic. Consequently, when disgust regulates moral, social, or religious experience magical thinking is unwittingly imported into the life of the church. (26-27)

Beck goes on to cite four principles of contagion that are helpful for understanding the various facets of this construction as they apply to our categories of sin and social inclusion/exclusion:

Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity.
Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the pollutant confer harm.
Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object.
Negativity Dominance: When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is “stronger” and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn’t render the pollutant acceptable or palatable. (27-28)

Beck's conclusion to this chapter is to point out that in Matthew 9 Jesus confounds all of these "rules"…

What is striking about the gospel accounts is how Jesus reverses negativity dominance. Jesus is, to coin a term, positivity dominant. Contact with Jesus purifies. A missional church embraces this reversal, following Jesus into the world without fears of contamination. But it is important to note that this is a deeply counterintuitive position to take. Nothing in our experience suggests that this should be the case. The missional church will always be swimming against the tide of disgust psychology, always tempted to separate, withdraw, and quarantine. (30)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
While this chapter has helped us think more deeply about the psychological mechanisms in-play in our theological presumptions and ecclesial postures we find at the end of this chapter a serious undermining of just that framework. With Jesus and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God the rules of contamination and negativity dominance at the least are called into question, and at most are suspended entirely. For Jesus, it is not the impure that pollutes the blameless, it is the redeeming power of God that transforms brokenness into wholeness, impurity into purity, exclusion into restoration.

So my primary hunch here is that this idea of negativity dominance ("If they come in with us, we will be tampered…") must be at the very least reevaluated, especially as it pertains to relationships among people of other Christian traditions. The difference in this situation than from other boundaries that are set up for self-preservation (e.g., not eating rancid meat) is that this framework includes the person of Jesus Christ. In him, the polarity is reversed. So what does it mean for us to think about people who have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through Jesus to not be "contaminants" that will make us impure, but instead as conduits of redemption for our increasing wholeness. It seems to me that this is the primary implication here. God the Father through the accomplished work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit uses others to aid us in our journey of "being saved" (e.g., 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18) and to expel them as "unclean" is to do harm to everyone involved.

So a couple of questions to consider…
(1) What if real, tangible unity amongst brothers and sisters in Christ across Christian traditions is not merely a part of the world believing that Jesus is who he claimed to be (John 17), but that it is actually an indispensable part of our salvation as well?
(2) Why is it that we can handle larger doses of contaminants from within our own traditions than we can from outside of them?
(3) Who are the "tax collectors and sinners" that the "religious elite" (a.k.a. the Church) has marked as "unclean" in Chandler and how can we invite them to the table?

Unclean: Darwin and Disgust

Beck gives a rich description of disgust as a boundary psychology:

...disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust monitors the borders of the body, particularly the openings of the body, with the aim of preventing something dangerous from entering. This is why, as seen in Matthew 9, disgust (the psychology beneath notions of purity and defilement) often regulates how we think about social borders and barriers. Disgust is ideally suited, from a psychological stance, to mark and monitor interpersonal boundaries. Similar to core disgust, social disgust is triggered when the “unclean,” sociologically speaking, crosses a boundary and comes into contact with a group identified as “clean.” (15)

But disgust, although it is a universal experience across cultures (14), is not a reaction that is "pre-programmed". In other words, the things that trigger disgust in us are things to which we are formed to respond with disgust. There are things that are found to be offensive/disgusting in most/all cultures (feces, vomit, corpses, gore, deformity, etc.), but many of the things that trigger disgust in the sociomoral categories are conditioned and cultural (clothing, food, ethics, etc.).

The disgust domains (which Beck points out go quickly and deeply into social and religious implications) work out something like this:

Core Disgust (food): Revulsion centered on eating and oral incorporation: the adaptive core of disgust.
Sociomoral Disgust (moral offenses, social groups): Revulsion centered on moral and social judgments: the aspect of disgust related to issues of hospitality in Matthew 9.
Animal-Reminder Disgust (gore, deformity, animals, hygiene, death): Revulsion centered on stimuli that function as death/mortality reminders: the existential aspect of disgust. (19)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
I don't think anyone would deny that boundaries are not only important but indispensable. Boundaries are not only about purity, but they also mark out identity, they are formational, the are unavoidable. This highlights that tension brought out by Jesus in his confrontation with the religious elite in Matthew 9. Purity demands boundaries and by their very nature, the expulsion of things that violate those boundaries. But mercy, it crosses boundaries, it ignores them, it frustrates them. The ministry of Jesus confronts the boundaries that are set up, even ones that are based on the revelation of God in Scripture (or so it is perceived by those who are offended). Is this an irresolvable tension, mercy and sacrifice? Regardless of how we work out this question one thing is clear, disgust is deep, it is strong, and it is impactful in our lives and communities of faith.

Questions…
(1) Are there things that our particular traditions have formed as an object of disgust that are unique to our own interpretive traditions and church cultures that need to be reevaluated or rejected? (In my tradition, this might be something like the use of instruments in worship, or particular language surrounding the understanding and practice of baptism.)

(2) It is important I think to recognize that Beck does not suggest that we could/should find a way to move "beyond" the reaction of disgust, but instead suggests that Jesus consciously chooses to go beyond those very boundaries. What does this tension say about a God who (especially in the OT) clearly erects boundaries and in the NT (both in the life of Jesus and the early church) chooses to consciously ignore or surpass many of the same kinds of boundaries?

(3) What would the implications be of naming disgust as just that, disgust? Do you think this might have some impact on the way that we think about "them" (whoever that might be)?

Unclean: Introduction

This is the summary and working review of Unclean that is being read and discussed by a number of pastors and church leaders here in Chandler. You can see more about what we are doing here.

Beck begins the book by engaging the perpetual tension between mercy and sacrifice. He points toward two important psychological elements that have immediate and deep theological implications. First he explores the idea of disgust.

...disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust marks objects as exterior and alien. (2)

The second idea has to do with the matter of contamination.

how are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the “clean” and expelling the “unclean.” Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries. And it’s very hard, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see this, to both erect a boundary and dismantle that boundary at the very same time. One has to choose. And as Jesus and the Pharisees make different choices in Matthew 9 there seems little by way of compromise. They stand on opposite sides of a psychological (clean versus unclean), social (inclusion versus exclusion), and theological (saints versus sinners) boundary. In sum, the antagonism between mercy and sacrifice is psychological in nature. (2-3)

One of the major premises of this book is that psychology has significant implications or constraints on the church's theological reflection and imagination.

Theology—good or bad—affects how we experience the world, psychologically speaking. And psychological factors can affect and constrain theological reflection. ... Theology, one finds, is a deeply emotional and visceral activity. (4)

Beck brings to the table a metaphor that will be important as we continue through this book: Theological Sweet Tooth.

Some theological metaphors, ecclesial practices, and boundaries of inclusion and exclusion are rooted not in rich theological and biblical reflection but in their intuitive "feeling right". This is a reality in church life that is deeply rooted and hard to overcome.

In the absence of advanced theological training or the daily immersion in critical give-and-take, the church will tend to drift toward theological positions that psychologically resonate, that “feel,” intuitively speaking, true and right. … Striving after good theology is similar to managing a sweet tooth. Psychological dynamics will always make certain theological systems more or less appealing. And yet psychologically appealing and intuitive theological systems are not always healthy. In short, these psychological dynamics function as a sweet tooth, a kind of cognitive temptation that pulls the intellectually lazy or unreflective (because we are busy folk with day jobs) into theological orbits that hamper the mission of the church. As with managing the sweet tooth, vigilance and care are needed to keep us on a healthy path. (6-7)

The third element that Beck introduces is the idea of contamination and the connected framework of permanence. This is the reason that we are often attached to metaphors of washing, purification, and clean/unclean. To be sure these metaphors are replete throughout Scripture, but when used to the exclusion of other metaphors it serves a distortive rather than constructive role in theological reflection and practice.

Beck summarizes the groundwork that he has laid so far about the realms of disgust psychology: (19)

Core Disgust (food): Revulsion centered on eating and oral incorporation: the adaptive core of disgust.
Sociomoral Disgust (moral offenses, social groups): Revulsion centered on moral and social judgments: the aspect of disgust related to issues of hospitality in Matthew 9.
Animal-Reminder Disgust (gore, deformity, animals, hygiene, death): Revulsion centered on stimuli that function as death/mortality reminders: the existential aspect of disgust.

In a suggestive clue to a later development in the book he notes that these three realms of disgust are all confronted/addressed in the central element of the Christian faith, the Lord's Supper.

Core Disgust: Food—oral incorporation—is at the center of both the psychology of disgust and the Eucharist.
Sociomoral: Socially, the Eucharist echoes and reenacts Jesus’s ministry of table fellowship. Coming to the Lord’s Table we are to “welcome each other, as Christ has welcomed us.” Morally, the Eucharist echoes the Day of Atonement, the ritual where the sins of Israel were “cleansed.” In a similar way, Christians remember that the blood of Jesus “continually cleanses us.”
Animal-Reminder: The Eucharist has strong, even scandalous, cannibalistic overtones. The emblems—bread and wine—represent the body and blood of Jesus. Consequently, the gritty, Incarnational and embodied aspects of the life of Jesus (and the church) are graphically confronted in the Lord’s Supper. (19)

His conclusion:

Suffice it to say, I think the Eucharist, providentially so, is engaged in shaping and reshaping how we think about purity, hospitality, and mortality: the three domains, as we have seen, deeply affected by disgust psychology. (20)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
I am personally interested in thinking about the ways in which the idea of contamination, disgust, and "purity" boundaries affect the way that we think about people, theological convictions, and church practices in other Christian traditions.

Beck's groundwork thus far has laid an interesting foundation for us to not only think about the ways that these psychological frameworks shape our own individual and communal practice and self-understanding, but also for how our churches might think about relating to one another.

A couple of questions (some of them might be rhetorical) that flow (at least for me) from the introduction…

(1) In what ways do I perceive sociomoral disgust at work in the way that I think of people of other Christian traditions and theological convictions?

(2) What are the theological sweet tooth's that are present in my own life as a church leader and in my congregation that must be named and (re)examined?

(3) What role does Communion/Eucharist/Lord's Supper play in my congregation now in mitigating or at least challenging these purity boundaries in favor of mercy?

"Unclean" and the Unity of the Church...

This summer I, along with other church leaders in my community are embarking on an important and complex journey. Together, (some of us for the first time) we will be discerning and learning what it means to express the visible unity of the church in our community. To aid us in that task we are launching together into an important book that begins to get at the heart of the boundaries that seperate us.

Richard Beck, who serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written a challenging and important book for anyone who is in church leadership called Unclean: Meditations of Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality.

The blurb on the back of the book reads as follows:

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Echoing Hosea, Jesus defends his embrace of the "unclean" in the Gospel of Matthew, seeming to privelege the prophetic call to justice over the Levitical pursuit of purity. And yet, as missional faith communities are well aware, the tensions and conflicts between holiness and mercy are not so easily resolved. At every turn, it seems that the psychological pull of purity and holiness tempts the church into practices of social exclusion and a Gnostic flight form "the world" into a "too spiritual" spirituality. In an unprecedented fusion of psychological science and theological scholarship, Richard Beck describes the pernicious (and largely unnoticed) effects of the psychology of purity upon the life and mission of the church.

This book, primarily written to deal with the inner psychological challenges of local communities of faith (a.k.a. local congregations) is being read and interpreted in a different light in this project. Together with a number of other pastors and church leaders in my community we will be reading and interacting with the psychological and theological implications of this book as they relate to our (evolving) relationships with one another across lines of Christian traditions.

All church bodies (local, regional, or denominational) struggle with the implications and outworkings of purity psychology. Think about it this way:

If we (whoever that is: person, family, church, tradition) are right (or at least the "most right"...because none of us would claim to be perfect, right?) then "they" are wrong (or at the very least less right). This means that we must erect some sort of boundary or barrier to prevent them from tainting the purity of what we know or who we are.

Notice how one-sided such a posture is. "We" must keep "them" out, unless of course they are willing to leave where they are and join us. There is only one way in, and it's OUR way.

Jesus faced this situation more than once in his ministry, but perhaps never as clearly as the story that we read in Matthew 9.

   9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

  10
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

  12
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matthew 9:9-13, NIV)

In this brief moment we see clearly the implications of these boundaries of purity. The Pharisees have said, "There is only one way for God to be happy with you, and that is if you are with us." Jesus defies such artificial and destructive boundaries.

In the ancient world (and still to this day), people believed that if you were clean (pure) and you came into contact with someone or something which was unclean (impure) that the uncleanness was transferred to you and you lost your purity. But things are different when Jesus is in the equation. Look at this story from Matthew 8:

  1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

  3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4, NIV)

Notice the difference? When Jesus touches this man it is not he who is made unclean, it is the leper who is made clean. But the leper's request to be made clean is much more than a request to be cured of his leprosy. It is a plea to Jesus to make his whole life brought back into order. It is a plea for redemption both of his body and his place in the worshipping community of Israel. This is a transformation of mind, body, and soul.

This tension, the fear of becoming unclean, and the reality that the purity of Jesus is not ruined by the impurity of others but is itself transformed is captured in Jesus' powerful quotation of the prophet Hosea:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

What are the implications of this for Christian communities? What does this mean for the life of churches especially as it relates to people of other Christian traditions? Why does Jesus (and the prophet Hosea) put mercy and sacrifice in tension with one another, can't we have both?

These and many other questions will be explored here as we embark on this journey together.

This project, these questions and this book have all been brought to the front by an upcoming conference this summer, Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier.

This summer at Rochester College the implications of "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." will be explored by a number of scholars, theologians, and practicioners who are asking these questions in the day to day life of their faith communities.

One of the keynote speakers this summer will be the world-class Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. There are few if any scholars who have had such a wide influence on both Old Testament scholarship and simultaneously the faith and practice of the church. He has written a ton of books, commentaries, and scholarly articles. The tension of Mercy/Sacrifice was one of the major themes of his important book, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.

Richard Beck serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written two books including Unclean and his newest book, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience. He also writes at his award-winning blog, Experimental Theology.

 

 

If you're interested in attending Streaming you can get more information here. In the meantime check out Richard's books and come back as we enter into this very important discussion for the faith and practice of the church.

Here are a couple of videos from Richard about the upcoming Streaming conference:

 

One Church

This is the sermon that I preached at our community Holy Week services on Monday. This sermon is partly the outgrowth of the work that I have started writing here about Luke 10 Theology. Most important for me in this sermon was the attempt to reclaim some of the greatest and richest elements of my religious tradition the Stone-Campbell Movement (a.k.a. the American Restoration Movement). These are important words that don't often square up with either our speech or practice in many Churches of Christ. This makes this attempt at reclaiming that I think all the more important.

 

PS - 1 Million Restoration Movement nerd points if anyone can tell me how many times I quote directly from the Declaration and Address in this sermon and which propositions each quote comes from. Happy listening!

Love/Fellowship ≠ Endorsement...

I want to take a brief aside to address an objection to what I am advocating (larger cooperation and service alongside people of other Christian traditions). This is an objection that I have heard all of my life and it has been employed in a number of situations. It is a form of "exclusion" that is both very subtle and seemingly innocent. The objection is this: "If you do that people will think that you approve of all of their false teachings."

My contention in this post is that there are a number of difficulties (or problems) with this perspective which are actually damaging  to the life and witness of the church in the world.

  1. This correlation (relationship = endorsement) doesn't function in any other realm of life.
  2. In all honesty there is no one on the planet that we fully endorse without qualification.
  3. This is in direct contradiction with the framework that is laid out for us by Jesus himself.

Let's examine each of these in turn...

This correlation (relationship = endorsement) doesn't function in any other realm of life.
It should give us pause to recognize the selective nature of such a framework. Do parents give unqualified endorsement to all actions of their children? After all, they do live together and love one another. (This is especially true if your kids are toddlers or teenagers right?) When you buy produce at your local grocery store does this mean that you give an unqualified endorsement to the oppressive working conditions that are faced by migrant farm workers? (I am hoping that it is becoming clear what I am getting at here.)

In all honesty there is no one on the planet that we fully endorse without qualification. If unqualified endorsement is signified by relationship or intimacy (or for our discussion "loving our neighbor") then we are in trouble. (The irony is not lost on me that people use these categories to exclude any form or semblance of relationship with people of other Christian traditions. So we can't have a loving and mutually beneficial relationship with other Christians, but we can have the most intimate relationships of our lives like a spouse and our children?!?!) Maybe to make this more poignant we should ask it this way:

  • Which of the 12 Apostles did Jesus give an unqualified endorsement? Peter (when he cut of Malchus' ear), James and John (when they asked Jesus for permission to execute Samaritans by fire from heaven), Judas (this one should be pretty obvious)????
  • When Paul writes to the Corinthians: "To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:2-3, NIV) are we supposed to hear this as endorsement of all the things happening in that church (you know really minor stuff like incest, drunkedness, discrimination, etc.)?

We should at least be given pause in our withdrawal of relationship from other people who profess faith in Christ despite our significant theological disagreements in light of the surprising depth of "fellowship" that we see demonstrated between the Apostles (particularly Paul) and the churches to which they address.

This is in direct contradiction with the framework that is laid out for us by Jesus himself.
The perfect example of this situation is recorded for us in the Gospel of Mark:

    “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

   “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. (Mark 9:38-41, NIV, emphasis mine.)

Here Jesus makes an important distinction between who is with us (in John's mind) and who is with us (in Jesus' mind). Too often we equate the two. "If we're with Jesus--and everyone who identifies themself as a Christian assumes they are with Jesus--then they, if they aren't with us, must not be with Jesus." But Jesus says that we tend to have too small of a view about just who is exactly is "with us".

So what does this mean? What are the implications of what I am trying to say here. A couple of hunches:

  1. This idea that love/fellowship=(unqualified) endorsement is absurd.
  2. The forms of exclusion that are generated from such a position are counter to the very teachings of Scripture about the unity of the church and love of neighbor as we love ourselves.
  3. Jesus calls us to something much bigger than competition ("we're right and you're not of us so you are wrong), or co-existence ("you're ok, I'm ok"). He calls us to self-giving love for one another as we together seek the glory of God and the transformative power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus in our lives by the leading of the Holy Spirit together.

Who is Theologically "Other"??

Yesterday we talked about the various ways that people practice exclusion and began to look at some of the foundational issues regarding the story of the Good Samaritan to serve as a framework for engaging the issue of our relationships to people (not to institutions or traditions as we will see later) who are theologically "other" or different. But an important question that we must answer before we can work ourselves deeper into the theological impications of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is this: WHO is the person that is theologically "other"? In other words, who is the person that is theologically different enough from myself that we must find a framework in which to understand our relationship with them? But first, some fundamental assumptions that I am taking for granted without much further explanation:

  1. No human being has an unchanging perception of God (if they even believe in one) or the world.
    This is easy to demonstrate. Do you have the same understanding of the world or of God today that you did ten years ago? Do you still believe in the tooth fairy or that babies are made by love and not through sex (because your parents didn't want to tell you about the birds and the bees yet!)? Even if some (or many) of your convictions have not changed in some time (e.g., the divinity of Jesus) the way that you understand them and how they are connected to other elements of your theological framework are always changing. 
  2. No two people who have ever lived have an identical theology.
    This is not to suggest that there has not been over time some major elements of consensus and agreement. However, it is my contention that no two people have ever held the exact same convictions about God and the world, and certainly never at the same time and place.
  3. The way in which human beings understand God is always analogical.
    For example, God is not literally our father because God is not confined by gender. God is not a rock, or a fortress, or a shield (2 Samuel 22:2-3). Ultimately we are limited in our finitude, by the limits of our language and our understanding of that language in the ways that we understand God.

So the implication is this: EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER LIVED IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IS THEOLOGICALLY "OTHER" THAN MYSELF. 

But why is this important? What does this have to do with the Greatest Commands?

The reason that this is important is because it has been the tendency in the Church to exclude people who are deemed to be "theologically other". But this determination has always been subjective, often violent (whether physically or socially), and has failed to take seriously (in my opinion) the command to love neighbor. There are a million examples of this throughout church history. You could look at the persecution (and execution!) of Anabaptists at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants. Or perhaps less violently (although still an intentional form of exclusion) one could look to a not too distant dust-up in our tradition (Churches of Christ) where Churches who used instruments in worship were excluded from the national directory.

The practice of exclusion to people who are deemed "theologically other" has been a constant element of Christian history. But why? What constitutes the grounds for such an intentional and drastic exclusion (even up to execution!)?

In Churches of Christ this practice has been especially prevalent (I'm sure it is in other religious traditons but I can only speak out of my experience in my tradition.), but only around specific issues. In other words, we demonstrate a selective exclusion of the "theologically other". Some of these issues in our history have been things like:

  • Instrumental Music in Worship
  • Frequency of Participation in the Lord's Supper
  • Church Structure (Elders/Deacons vs. Pastors/Boards)
  • Understanding(s) of Baptism
  • Whether the silence of Scripture is permissive or prohibitive.
  • Cooperation with other congregations (whether more "conservative" or "liberal" Churches of Christ) or other Christian traditions (e.g., Baptist, Catholic, etc.)

The irony of such a criteria for exclusion is that it is inconsistent in its application. In my experience we have never excluded someone who is entirely outside of the Christian faith for their divergent (or nonexistant!) views of any of these issues! However, we have excluded all kinds of other people who truly love Jesus and are obedient in accordance with their understanding of the Scriptures. In other words, somehow we have found a way to justify the exclusion of some people in our understanding of "love your neighbor as yourself" and it has been people within the Christian tradition!!

THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM FOR THE UNITY AND MISSION OF THE CHURCH.

Tomorrow I want to address some of the issues that some will raise in objection to what I am pointing to here. We will try to answer some of the following questions:

  • How can we have fellowship/unity with people that we disagree with? Doesn't the Bible say, "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3, KJV)
  • When is the "issue" or "difference" significant enough that we must seperate from them to maintain the purity of the Gospel?
  • Or my personal least favorite: "We can still love them and acknowledge that they are Christians but we must remain seperate because of our differences." (It makes my blood pressure rise just to type it.)

It is my contention that there is a significant difference between LOVE and CO-EXISTENCE. There is functionally no difference between premeditated exclusion and indifferent acceptance of such an arrangement. Therefore, it is a vital task of the church to recover what it means to "love our neighbor" especialy as it pertains to other people within the Christian tradition.

The Declaration and Address (a foundational document of our tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement also known as the American Restoration Movement) puts it this way:

Christ established one church--just one. This church is made up of everyone who has faith in Christ and is trying to follow him in the ways God's Spirit in scripture has told us, and who others can see are being transformed into his likeness by the way they act. No one else has a right to be called a Christian.

Therefore, nothing should be required to recognize, fellowship, embrace, work, worship, and be fully and visibly united with all Christians that is not specifically made a requirement by God in his word. Nothing should be required in the way local bodies of Christians operate that is not specifically required by Christ and his Apostles for the church. Furthermore, the chief requirements for full fellowship that God has declared are our love for God and for people. This love is formed by our understanding of God's love for us shown through Christ.

God gave us the ability to think and reason--that is a good thing. If, however, in the process of using our reason we come to conclusions that other Christians do not reach, and that causes us to reject them, we have been deceived by the evil one. Our pride has taken over and stopped our continued growth into the mind of Christ--a mind of complete humility and self-sacrifice. Human reason is not the ultimate standard for truth. Christians ought to be growing constantly in their understanding of the profound truths of the gospel--that's part of our spiritual growth as communities. But requiring or even expecting others to be where you are is not conducive to the visible unity Christ so much wants.

Once again, having an understanding of every Christian truth is not a requirement to be a Christian, a part of Christ's church. No one who is trying to follow Christ ought to be forced to confess any belief beyond what they understand and know. All a person needs to know to be part of Christ's church is that they are lost and that salvation is through Christ. When they confess that they believe in Christ and that they want to obey him fully according to his word--nothing else can be required.

Everyone who confesses belief in Christ and commits to obey him, and who shows the reality of their commitment by the way they live, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as sisters and brothers, children of the same family and Father, temples of the same Spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whoever God has joined together this way, no one should dare divide.

Division among Christians is a sickening evil, filled with many evils. It is anti-Christian because it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ. It is as if Christ were cutting off parts of himself and throwing them away from the rest of his body! What a ludicrous picture! Division is anti-scriptural, since Christ himself specifically prohibited it, making it a direct violation of Christ's will. It is anti-natural, because it makes Christians condemn, hate and oppose one another--people who are actually obligated in the strongest way to love each other as sisters and brothers, just like Christ loved them. In other words, division repudiates everything Christianity is supposed to stand for.

Two things are responsible for all the divisions and corruptions in Christ's church through the centuries. One is a neglect or even and fundmental misunderstanding of God's will for us in scripture--that we have the mind of Christ and be transformed into his likeness. The other comes from the first. Some Christians, assuming they are "right," that they have gotten the "facts" perfectly, have assumed the authority to impose their conclusions on others as terms of recognition and fellowship.

In reality, everything needed for the church to reach the highest state of perfection and purity on earth is first to receive as members only those who have understood their lostness and confessed their faith in Christ and commitment to follow him according to scripture; second, to keep as members only those who show those commitments in their everyday lives; and third, to see that ministers who reflect these ideals, preach only what is clearly taught in scripture. Finally, they must stick close to what scripture makes primary, seen in the example of the early church in the New Testament, without being distracted or corrupted by human tendencies toward pride and control.

(Declaration and Address, Propositions 1, 3, 6, 8-12)

The Good Samaritan and Exclusion...

In starting this series about a Luke 10 Theology I want to lay out what I understand to be one of the primary theological implications of the second story in this text, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As a child I was taught that this story had something to do with helping others who were in need. The connections about why the first two people passed by completely escaped me. Later as I grew older I began to learn about the tension between Samaritans and Jews (although it was a sanitized Sunday School version). I certainly never heard about the ways in which they would seek to dishonor and make unclean each other's Temple or about John Hyrcanus who a littl over a hundred years earlier had raised the temple of the Samaritans to the ground. Hatred might not have been too strong a word.

But perhaps a more helpful framework for thinking about the relationship of Jews and Samartians both culturally and in this story comes from Miroslav Volf's award-winning book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Explanation of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. (Christianity Today lists this book as one of the 100 most significant books of the last century, and I agree.)

The way in which Volf helps us to think about this story and some of the more profound implications is through his categories of "exclusion". Here is a brief summary of the different ways in which individuals, institutions, and cultures organize and practice "exclusion".

Exclusion as Elimination
This is the kind of exclusion that can only be solidified by a process of extermination. Only in a denial of their humanity and a denial of their right to live can your ideal, agenda, or culture be held up as superior. One could point to the genocide in Rwanda for a horrific example of exclusion as elimination.

Exclusion by Assimilation
This is the more backhanded expression of "exclusion as elimination". This still denies the humanity and culture of the "other" but does not go as far as to take their lives if they "become like us". Interestingly I think there is some important space created by this category for the church to think about issues related to the role of the church and the issue of immigration.

Exclusion as Domination
This form of exclusion seeks to keep people "in their place". It has both obvious expressions (like the Caste system in India or Apartheid in South Africa), and expressions which are much more subtle and socially acceptable (like economic disparity along racial and gender divisions in the US). This form of exclusion functions to help those on "top" either maintain or grow in their position, power, wealth, etc. at the expense of those below. The poor get poorer while the rich get richer.

Exclusion as Abandonment
This is a form of exclusion that is especially prevalent in the way that the First World relates to those in the Third World, and the way that those in suburbs relate to the inner-city communities. (Some might refer to this as "white flight.") Volf summarizes this form of exclusion like this:

Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, we simply cross to the other side and pass by, miniding our own business (Luke 10:31). If others neither have goods we want nor can perform services we need, we make sure that they are at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them so that their emaciated and tortured bodies can make no inordinate claims on us. (Exclusion and Embrace, 75.)

Exclusion by Language and Cognition (a.k.a. "Symbolic Exclusion")
This form of exclusion seeks to seperate from a person, group, or institution through disparaging language and thought that dehumanizes or demoralizes the "other". This form of exclusion is so prevalent that it is difficult to describe the breadth of this practice of exclusion. Here are a couple of examples ranging in "severity":

  • The Jews are an inferior race who threaten the creation of a pure race in Nazi Germany. (The list of names, terms, and propoganda used to demonize and dehumanize the Jews in this situation is both too long and too offensive to list here.)
  • To the girl who dresses more immodestly or provocatively than we deem appropriate (a highly subjective criteria by the way!) we might use terms such as "slutty" or speak in such a way to give the impression that this individual must be sexually active and promiscuous.
  • To people who have different political frameworks we use different oppositional terms (defining ourselves against someone/something else). There are too many here to name like "liberal", "God-hater", "fundamentalist", etc.
  • To those who are theologically "other" we use a whole host of disparaging terms that malign both their understandings of Scripture (they are "ignorant", "rebellious", "brainwashed") or their character ("they don't respect the authority of God's Word", etc.). This is common even though it is something that the Bible explicitly forbids.

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4:6, NIV)

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV)

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:10-12, NIV)

"Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister." (1 John 4:20-21, NIV)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. ...  “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 5:21-22; 7:1-5, NIV)

We have heard from Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jesus.

CAN WE ALL AGREE THAT THIS IS A UNIVERSAL PROHIBITION?????

Volf concludes this section by speaking about a more sinister (and for our purposes more important) category for exclusion: Indifference.

Strangely enough, the havoc wreaked by indifference may even be greater than that brought by felt, lived, practiced hatred. ... Especially within a large-scale setting, where the other lives at a distance, indifference can be sustained over time, especially in contemporary societies. A "system"--a political, economic, or cultural [or religious!] system-- insinuates itself between myself and the other. If the other is excluded, it is the system that is doing the excluding, a system in which I participate because I must survive and against which I do not rebel because it cannot be changed. I turn my eyes away... I go about my own business. Numbed by the apparent ineluctability of exclusion taking place outside of my will though with my collaboration, I start to view horror and my implication in it as normalcy. I reason: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho will always be littered by people beaten and left half-dead; I can pass--I must pass--by each without much concern. The indifference that made the prophecy, takes care also of the fulfillment. ... We exclude also because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs accepted boundaries, disturbs our identities, and disarranges our symbolic cultural maps. (Exclusion and Embrace, 77, 78)

So what does this have to do with Luke 10 and the Parable of the Good Samaritan?

What I want to unpack in my next post is how this framework of "exclusion" helps us to understand the ways in which we have wrongly practiced various forms of "exclusion" in relationship to people who are theologically "other" both throughout church history (think of the Inquisition) and in our present experience (the polarizing of Churches of Christ in relation to other Christian traditions).

So I leave you with a couple of questions to consider before I take this deeper with the next post:

(1) What forms of "exclusion" have you seen or experienced in relationship to someone who is theologically "other" (a.k.a. "different") than you?

(2) How might Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan give us a framework for re-envisioning this relationship?
This story is after all about what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27-29)!

(3) At what point does someone become "theologically other"?
(This I think is the most profound and shaping question for this entire discussion, and the very question which this parable helps us to get a more theologically robust answer for.)

An Introduction to Luke 10 Theology...

As I spend the next couple of weeks thinking about an upcoming opportunity for me to preach at our community Holy Week services I want to take some time here to express in a more systematic way some of things that I am wrestling with, especially as it pertains to themes of unity and mission. Why these themes I think are bound up in the story of the Good Samaritan I will get more into in the coming days, but right now I want to lay out the importance of this text for the life of the church in our Post-Christendom reality.

I am quickly becoming convinced that Luke 10 is perhaps one of the most important chapters in the New Testament for the crisis that the contemporary church in the West faces as it seeks to understand its new (marginal) role in Western culture. Allow me to explain.

In Luke you have three inter-related and extremely relevant stories. You find the story of Jesus' commission of the seventy(two) and their work in search of the people of peace (10:1-24). The second story is that of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), this story I think needs a deeper/closer reading (which we will get to in time). Finally this chapter concludes with a brief scene of frustration between Mary, Martha, and Jesus about who is expected to what in the name of hospitality and cultural expectation (10:38-42). So let me give you what I think these texts give us here and then I will spend the next few weeks unpacking each of these texts as we dialogue about the validity (if there is any) of reading these texts in this way in our context.

The story of the seventy(two) (10:1-24) is a story of MISSION IN SEARCH OF GOD'S ALREADY-PRESENT WORK.

The story of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) is a story of LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR ACROSS THEOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE.

The story of Mary and Martha at dinner (10:38-42) is a story that DEMANDS THAT WE RETHINK WHAT IS EXPECTED OF US BY GOD IN LIGHT OF THE PERSON AND WORK OF JESUS AND NOT SIMPLY THE EXPECTATIONS OF THE CULTURE IN WHICH WE LIVE. 

There are a number of important things that are here for us to discover and to examine. Things that confront (and sometimes condemn) the way that we have thought about and acted out things in the past. But it is increasingly clear that as followers of Jesus, and as a particular Christian tradition (see our recent struggles) a failure to ask these questions and to be confronted by these texts seals our fate as a group of people who miss out on what God is doing in the world through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

So a couple of questions to ask before we begin...

(1) How have you read/understood these texts up until now?
For example, I assumed for a long time that the story of the seventy(two) was nice but not actually relevant to my life. It was about "them". I have learned much differently in recent years. 

(2) Are there any areas of your individual life or the life of your church that need to be reconsidered or even replaced? If so, what are they and how might any of these three narratives help us think about that. (More on how these stories address some specific issues soon.)

(3) What does it mean to engage Scripture not looking for practices and procedures, but instead looking for the character and nature of God, most clearly seen in Jesus and incarnated in his body, the Church? How might we need to rethink the way we think about the Bible in order that God has the space to speak afresh to us in these texts?

I think this will be a rich conversation, if you join it.

Does God Have Any Work for Us to Do Here?

The following is a real story about real people who had real faith and a reliance on God that is contagious. It is about people who are willing to admit the Bible means what it says and that God keeps his promises. It is about the ways in which God moves in the world to accomplish his will in ways that are beyond our comprehension. It's the story of ten kids and three adults from the distant land of Texas. But ultimately it is a story about the power and goodness of God.

This last Wednesday seemed at first to be just another Wednesday. It was a little busier than usual and so I had made plans to adjust my normal Wednesday schedule. Typically on Wednesday at noon I meet with a number of other pastors in town to pray for our churches and for our community. It has been a great experience and the ways in which we are already seeing God work has been inspiring. But there was no way I could go this week. I was behind in my school work, had a number of big assignments bearing down on me, and just couldn't make the time. God in his wisdom had other plans, great plans.

About half an hour before our weekly prayer meeting I logged into my school email to respond to another email that I had needed to address only to find an extremely gracious extension from our professor concerning the papers that were overshadowing everything else. After a moment of silence, a verbal shout of celebration, and a brief prayer thanking God for allowing this to happen I decided to go to the weekly prayer meeting. My week (and my life) would never be the same.

As I pulled into the parking lot of the 1st Christian Church in Chandler I saw a church bus with a trailer behind it. "Belton Church of Christ". Odd I thought. I had been at the building that morning (which is not common since my office is at home) and no one had come by. I went in and what happened from that moment on Wednesday at noon through even this present moment has been a series of events in which God has been the obvious orchestrator.

That afternoon I met thirteen people from the Belton Church of Christ who were on a spring break mission trip. "To Chandler???" was my first question. The answer surprised me, "We are on a mission trip to wherever God sends us to do whatever God has for us."

Later I heard the story of their journey from Belton, Texas to Chandler, Oklahoma. (I won't tell you that here. Go read it for yourself.) They immediately asked the pastors and church leaders who had gathered if God had any work for them to do in Chandler, OK. Wednesday they scraped a house that was being restored and helped move bricks for a church project at First Christian. The events of Thursday were the most transformative for me.

Thursday morning began with a mighty breakfast at our house with the whole group. The joy and love for one another was obvious. Their desire to be soaked in prayer and worship were apparent. Their confidence in that God was leading them to do exactly what he had for them to do was inspiring. After breakfast they embarked on what they deemed "the reason we went on this trip and why we came to Chandler" which was to do some work at the new medical clinic that is being created south of town at Forest Baptist Church. (To keep up with the progress of the clinic follow then on Facebook here.) This little church has had its share of struggles and challenges and they have this big, bold vision for the ways in which God can be glorified and people served in the name of Jesus through this medical clinic. I was thrilled to join them Thursday for their work there. Pastor Jeff and I have begun to develop a relationship that transcends our differences in a beautiful way. And that God would send a group of kids from our religious tradition to serve and encourage another church (not that Forest Baptist was the only one affected or impacted by these kids at all!!) in another tradition is exactly what we should expect from people who are led by the Holy Spirit. This clinic will be of immense value and importance in our community.

Thursday evening the group joined us for a meal and our Dwelling in the Word time. The text that we spent some time in together was from 2 Corinthians 2:14-17:

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? 17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. (NIV)

Together we talked about the ways in which this text spoke to our lives. We talked about the nature of being an "aroma", of the implications that we are people who are "being saved" and that "we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God." So many powerful things about the ways in which God is at work in our lives. We concluded the night with a time of singing and prayer. It was powerful to say the least.

Friday morning after some more time of serving another church in our community this group headed back home to share the stories of the ways in which God worked to provide and to guide this group of thirteen who went only knowing and believing that God would send them exactly when and where he wanted.

And you know what, that is exactly what God did.

There is so much more that could (and probably should) be told about this story. But what is important for me to share are some of the things that I have learned about God and his work in the world as a result of God making space for us to serve his Kingdom with these brothers and sisters.

These friends have caused me to think more clearly about some texts in Scripture. I "understand" them, they were living them out.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM THESE SPIRIT-LED BROTHERS AND SISTERS...

(1) God is serious about his people working together across lines of tradition in order to accomplish things that give glory to God and invite others into the Kingdom.

   38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

   39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. (Mark 9:38-41, NIV)

(2) When people understand that they are sent by God to express his love and concern for the world they will find places that were already prepared for them to serve.

    1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. 3 Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. 4 Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

   5 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ 6 If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. 7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

   8 “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

   13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.

   16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:1-16, NIV)

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8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV)

(3) That when God's people pray, God responds.

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 
 9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

   “‘Our Father in heaven,
     hallowed be your name,
10  your kingdom come,
     your will be done,
          on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
          as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
          but deliver us from the evil one.
(Matthew 6:5-13, NIV)

There is infinitely more that could (and should) be said about what this visit from our brothers and sisters, directed by God from Texas means for our community. Part of the reason I stop here though is because this story is still unfolding. Their impact has just begun in churches throughout our community, in their story that will run in this week's county newspaper, in the house they worked on, the clinic they invested in, and the community garden they kickstarted. Only time will tell the depth and breadth of the fruit that will come from a group of thirteen who followed the Spirit of God wherever and to whomever he led them.

QUESTION: DOES GOD HAVE ANY WORK FOR US (YOU AND I AND ALL WHO WEAR THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST) TO HERE (WHEREVER THAT MAY BE)?

LINK: BELTON CHURCH OF CHRIST SEEK AND FOLLOW 2012 BLOG

Book Review: How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

 

Note: I did receive a free copy of this book from Zondervan for this review. I am thankful for this opportunity.

How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams is the latest in the "How to Read the Bible" series from Zondervan.

A couple excerpts from the introduction lay out plainly what Williams is attempting to accomplish in this tight reference work.

The simple truth is that all of the Scriptures--Old Testament and New Testament--testify about Jesus seems to be often overlooked. ... Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended. It keeps our reading, understanding, teaching, and preaching properly focused on God's grand redemptive program that centers on his own Son. Seeing how each biblical book makes its own unique contribution to that redemptive focus enables us to use these diverse materials with much more confidence and accuracy.

What this little book (less than 280 pages!) seeks to do then is give a brief overview of each book of the Bible and proceed through a five-step process.

  1. An overview of the book including a short statement about the overarching theme.
  2. A Memory Passage
  3. The Jesus Lens
  4. Contemporary Applications
  5. Hook Questions

In this brief exploration of each biblical book, Williams will examine the highlights that are especially pertinent for making the ultimate connection to Jesus. Obviously, for some biblical books (e.g., Ephesians) this is a much easier task. For others (e.g., Nahum) this is a little more difficult.

First I want to review his exploration of two books of the Bible (Nahum and Ephesians) and then give some final thoughts about the place of this book in our study, interpretation, and teaching/preaching of Scripture.

READING NAHUM THROUGH THE JESUS LENS

Now the book of Nahum is a prophetic "book" or oracle by the prophet Nahum against Nineveh.

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. (Nahum 1:1, NRSV)

Williams begins by contrasting the repentance of Nineveh in the story of the prophet Jonah with the contemporary situation in which God has had enough and will now punish them. The theme of the book of Nahum is summarized as follows:

The Lord is sovereign over all and will judge Nineveh.

Fair enough. The memory passage is Nahum 1:7-8:

The Lord is good,
   a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
   but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh.

Williams then moves into the "Jesus Lens" portion of the book. Here is where I struggle to connect the book of Nahum with his interpretive move. The prophecy against Nineveh is reinterpreted as an eschatological rescuing that God will do for us (through Jesus) at the end of history.

Like the people of God in Nahum's day, we can look forward to comfort and relief from those who trouble us, because God "will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled. ... This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (2 Thessalonians 1:6-7). Jesus is the one who will judge between those who are his people and those who are against his people. (pg. 139)

The contemporary application summarizes this book as a reminder that we have been set free from the destructive judgment of God and that we should therefore have an urgency about telling others how they too can be reconciled to God and escape judgment.

The Hook Questions end with asking questions about God's judgment and determining who is in charge of our lives. Good questions to ask for sure. But can we get these out of Nahum?

Summary: While the introduction to the book of Nahum is helpful, and the text for memorization is important both for our formation and our understanding of the book itself, the "Jesus lens" seems like a big stretch. It's like those times you heard a sermon that started out, "The Bible says, 'He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' And speaking of rain and water this brings me to my subject of baptism." The observations that Williams makes about God's judgment of those who are rebellious and his salvation for those who trust in him are not wrong, they just don't really come from Nahum without some significant hoops to jump through.

READING EPHESIANS THROUGH THE JESUS LENS

The book of Ephesians, written by Paul (questions of authorship are not raised here), to the church in Ephesus is one of the most theologically dense of Paul's writings. A tall order for four pages!! In a brief overview of who the recipients were and a discussion of the brokenness that comes from sin, Williams summarizes the theme of Ephesians as follows:

God establishes the church as the firstfruits of his shalom.

This is true. (One might question, as I do, if this however is the main theme of the book of Ephesians.) Williams uses this theme to tie together the recurring themes of unity (in contrast to the brokenness of sin) that flow throughout Ephesians.

The memory passage is Ephesians 2:17:

He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.

In the next step, the "Jesus Lens," Williams makes the point that Jesus is the one who brings this shalom back into our lives that was taken from us in our sin. He alone is the one who could heal the rift between ourselves and God, and that when this rift is healed we are then able to close the gap between ourselves and others as well.

The contemporary application revovles around the unity of the church and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit for such a life of unity both with God and with one another. "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:2-3)

The "Hook Questions" are intriguing:

  • Do you know peace in your life? Why should there be any brokenness at all?
  • Do others see peace in your life? How would they be able to see it? What have you done to promote the gospel of peace?
  • Where do you look for peace? What is the difference between what unbelievers call "peace" and what you call "peace"? Could you explain the difference to an unbeliever. Have you?

SUMMARY: There are some good things here. Is the theme of "peace" important in Ephesians. Absolutely. But again, it seems that this simply makes the most logical jumping off point for a people-centric reading of Ephesians. What does peace mean to you? How do you live out peace? If we read Ephesians carefully, I think we will see a much more God-centered framework for understanding how peace works in the community. In this section I struggle to see how the contemporary application and hook questions connect with the overarching narrative found in Ephesians.

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FINAL WORD ON "HOW TO READ THE BIBLE THROUGH THE JESUS LENS"

Ultimately, I think this will be a good starting place for those who want to get some clues as to how we can be informed about the connection points between Jesus Christ and the breadth of Scripture. Is this a perpetual challenge for the church? Yes. Is this why we often neglect especially the Old Testament? Sure it is. But a couple words of caution for those who will employ this resource (and for "hunting for Jesus" anywhere in Scripure, especially in the Old Testament):

I disagree with Williams overall premise that "all of the Scriptures--Old Testament and New Testament--testify about Jesus" (pg. 9)

I would be curious to see the "Jesus lens" of the laws about sexual relations in Leviticus 18, or David's "collection" of one hundred Philistine foreskins (yikes!) in 1 Samuel 18, or the lists of greetings that conclude many of the Epistles "testify about Jesus". In other words, the burden of such all-inclusive langugage only causes us to jump through hoops that simply aren't there.

There is a danger in "jumping" to the "Jesus lens" especially in the Old Testament.

It is a serious danger that we jump too quickly to Jesus in our understanding of Scripture, especially in passages that are either (1) in the Old Testament or (2) that are difficult to grasp or explain. We can be tempted to "rescue" God's reputation.

We look at the Canaanite genocide where God commands Israel to kill everyone (and I mean everyone) in those cities. We then hurry to the "Jesus lens" and say something like, "Because of Jesus no one has to die anymore." This doesn't mean that it is wrong, but we have not stopped to hear Scripture, to wrestle with what that text (hard to swallow as it may be) tells us about God or about God's people or about us. We have spared ourselves that difficult and sometimes unsettling work.

If this is the extent of your study of any particular book in the Bible you are on shaky ground.

I don't think by any means this is the intention of the book. He even tells in the introduction that a more detailed class taught at a seminary will be soon available that goes through much in the same way that the book does. But my point is this: This might be a good tool, but it is A tool.

Ultimately, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens will be a nice addition to your library for study and preaching/teaching if:

(1) You recognize it is a place to stimulate your thinking.
(2) You spend time in the actual text itself and its meaning and implications BEFORE you "use the Jesus lens."

GOD GIVE US MERCY TO READ YOUR WORD WITH EARS TO HEAR, EYES TO SEE, AND A WILLING AND RECEPTIVE HEART.

The Decline of the Churches of Christ in the US...

The Christian Chronicle recently released an article detailing the specifics about losses both in membership and congregations among Churches of Christ from 2003-Present. Their conclusion? In the last ten years we have lost one out of every sixteen members are have closed three congregations every two weeks for the last ten years. These numbers should be sobering. In the time that I have been at the Central Church of Christ I am personally aware of four congregations that have closed their doors, and know of a number of congregations that are barely hanging on numerically (not to mention other churches that are teetering on the edge of fracture and collapse).

But why?

The comments section on the Chronicle article are fascinating. Allow me to summarize some of what I heard from those who have responded publicly on the Chronicle website. 

  • Good! God is finally cleaning house in his church! This is the purge we have needed to keep the church pure and the false teachers away.
  • If we were more evangelistic then we would experience growth like we used to (hear here the 40's and 50's).
  • Well if we weren't so legalistic and addicted to patternism and John Locke we wouldn't have this problem.
  • This is just terrible. What can we do?

It is interesting that the Churches of Christ are in a nation-wide decline both in membership and congregations much like the rest of the denominational world (don't hear "denomination" as a derogatory term here). However, we see the opposite trend in "non-denominational" Christianity.

Mark Chaves, Professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University has said,

"If the unaffiliated congregations were all in one denomination, they would constitute the second-largest in number of participants (behind only the Roman Catholic Church) and the largest number of congregations... Although most Protestant churches are denominational, a noticeable and growing minority are not formally affiliated with any denomination." (From his book, American Religion, Contemporary Trends)

So what are we as members of Churches of Christ supposed to think not only about own decline, but about the tangible surge in the growth of churches that would label themselves very similarly to our movement as "non-denominational"?

First, I know that some people reading this will simply say, "Well it's because they offer entertainment and cotton candy theology that doesn't really take seriously either Scripture or the Gospel." Or some other similarly dismissive comment about their inferiority (whether in theology, worship style, morals, hermeneutics, or whatever). May I remind us here that only God knows the hearts of people. Any judgment from our position must be (1) humble, (2) relational, (3) and after significant self-reflection and an attempt to actually engage with "those people".

But for those of you who are willing to consider the reasons for such a dramatic shift within our fellowship I want to throw in my two cents about what may be going on. Some of these things we can change, some things we must, and some are simply the way that it is.

POSSIBLE Reasons for the Marked Decline Among Churches of Christ...

  1. Churches of Christ are especially rooted in southern and rural contexts.
    This is neither negative nor positive, but it is reality. With the majority of the world moving to urban population centers this is an unavoidable reality that shapes all of rural life, not simply its religious dynamics.
  2. Churches of Christ have struggled with "creating space" for theological diversity.
    The dust up a few years ago about not including Churches of Christ who use instrumental music in the national directory is symptomatic of a larger unwillingness or inability to tolerate or allow diversity of understanding and interpretation.
  3. Churches of Christ have made significant theological shifts in the last 70 years that have obscured both the richness and diversity of our theological tradition.
    It is ironic to me that a lot of the work and theology of early leaders in the Restoration Movement would be considered false and destructive in many churches today. I find it interesting that the Gospel Advocate takes positions on fellowship, baptism, and other theological issues that are almost completely opposite of one of its longest running and most beloved editors, David Lipscomb.

So what are we to do?

Well this is where you come in... How can Churches of Christ find themselves more faithful and better equipped to be flourishing fellowship of believers in the 21st century?

Spiritual (Re)Formation Reboot...

Is anyone out there?

Have I really been gone from here since August? Wow. A lot has happened since my last post, and it is clear that it is time for a fresh start. So here we go.

I hope you will join me as I "start fresh" here at Spiritual (Re)Formation. A new look, hopefully some new topics, and a much greater consistency in writing will mark this new season here.

Let me give you a preview of some of the things that will be appearing here in the near future...

I have recently resurrected a series at the Central Church of Christ where I teach/preach where I am answering questions that are submitted to me from the members of my congregation.

Many of those questions I will soon be sharing here on Spiritual (Re)Formation. Some of those questions include the following:

  • Is instrumental music a salvation issue?
  • Why did Jesus cry out from the cross, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?"
  • When does seeking to be obedient become legalism?
  • How should we use church history to shape our theology and practice?
  • Who served as deacons in the first century church?
  • What should be the relationship of the church and the state?
  • How should we interact with (or pull away from) people with whom we disagree about theological matters?

These and other questions will arise as time goes on. Also, feel free to submit any questions you might have by sending me an email.

We will also be talking about issues of church and culture. What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? How are we to react to and engage with the culure(s) in which we live?

Maybe more specifically, how does a movement that has been preoccupied with the "first century church" maintain a faithful and culturally appropriate posture in the places in which we find ourselves?

This obviously brings in larger issues about definitions of culture, what we mean by "church" and some of the ways that we read, interpret, and use Scripture to define both belief and practice. In time, we will lay some of this groundwork and see where it takes us from there.

I also hope to begin some sporadic posts about our history, traditions, and some of the major shifts that have taken place in our heritage (both good and bad). The goal here is to better understand our roots and the places that we have "gone off into the weeds" as some like to say.

My hunch is that many of us don't know the richness and depth of our heritage. While it can be easy to be negative and cynical about our tradition (this is from the voice of experience!), I believe that there are powerful things from our own history that can and should be reclaimed in the present.

Finally, I hope to raise some questions (and propose some options) in the realm of hermeneutics or biblical interpretation. The way in which we read Scripture dictates much of what we understand (or miss). Understanding the ways we have been influenced by forces and ideas that we have never formally been taught is important. Here we will be listening to voices both old and new, both local and around the world. Reading Scripture is both a wonderful privilege (that many in history have not had!) and a deep responsibility and challenge.

We will look at some of the ways that the people in Scripture have interpreted and used Scripture, we will explore some passages that seem to reveal some tension both in perspective and understanding, and we will also talk about ways that are dangerous to our engagement with Scripture.

Overall, I think that the future is bright here at Spiritual (Re)Formation. I believe that the Spirit of God is moving in powerful and sometimes shocking ways in the church today to make us more into the image of His Son in the world. The most important part of this journey here however will be your participation. So stop back often, comment when you can, and most of all pray that each of us will be continually (re)formed into the image of Jesus.

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Universal Command or Cultural Response?

We have come a long way in this series as we have explored the sometimes contentious passage about women being silent found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. 

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)

If you have missed any of the previous posts in the series I would suggest you go back and read them (in order):

New Series: 1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women...

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Challenges

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Who are these Women??

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Cultural and Historical Background...

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: "Silence", "Submission", and "Disgraceful"...

And now we come to the question that has required all of the previous effort:

Is Paul here commanding something that is universal (for all people, time, and cultures without exception) or something that is specific and cultural (e.g. the situation in Corinth)?

First, the text in question with a larger portion of context (both before and after)...

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 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.

 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.

 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (1 Corinthians 14:26-40, NIV)

In interpreting this passage we have drawn the following conclusions...

  • The universal qualifier ("...as in all the congregations of the Lord's people.") belongs to the previous unit of thought contained in 14:29-33.
  • This unit of thought (14:34-35) is original to the text and is found in the correct placement in the text.
  • The "women" that Paul addresses can only be one demographic of the women in the church at Corinth. They must be married women with believing husbands. No other segment of the congregation is able to fulfill Paul's commands to "ask their husbands at home" and expect to be able to receive an answer that will help them learn.
  • The particular problem that Paul is addressing is that these married women with believing spouses are asking questions in the public assembly. These women are not asserting leadership, they are attempting to learn. 
  • Such an action is culturally unacceptable, and therefore Paul works a solution for everyone. These women should stop asking questions in the assembly and ask their husbands in a setting (at home) that is not inflammatory to the life of the congregation.  
  • This arrangement is one that is for the benefit of everyone involved. These women still have their questions answered and the "heartburn" that it is causing in the congregation has been dealt with. 

So does this help us to understand whether or not Paul was offering a universal command (or as I like to call it, "for everyone, everywhere, forever without exception, amen.") or was he addressing and specific situation that he never intended to "bind" on all women and all congregations?

It seems that the only answer, considering the things that we have looked at in this series, is that Paul is giving a command to a specific group of people (married women with believing husbands) about a specific situation (the conflict that it was causing in Corinth). 

IMPLICATIONS

Some people (and you will know if I am talking about you) are reading this and their blood pressure has just shot up to a level that is dangerous for their health. The questions are rolling, "So is he saying..."

So before you go there, let me tell you what I think the implications of this interpretation of this passage are...

(1) This passage does not command all women for all time to be silent in the public worship of the church.

(2) This passage gives a great window into what it means to live and worship in a community of people where there are inherent tensions between the freedom found in the Gospel and the expectations of the surrounding culture. 

(3) This passage has nothing to do with the leading (or prohibition of leading) of women in the church. It has everything to do with how these women were learning, it does not address in any way, shape, or form any form of leadership or teaching. 

CONCLUSION

It seems to me that this passage is a fine example (if not the loudest one) of taking a small passage dealing with something that is important (but not all important) and making it way too important! I wonder if Paul were to read some of the things written about and preached about this passage and what his reaction would be. It seems to me that he would be surprised at the volume and the venom that has surrounded this short passage (only 35 words in Greek). 

We need to be careful when we "use" Scripture to shore up a position or practice in the life of our congregations. This text is a perfect example. And it should cause us to be more cautious, more honest, and more humble of the way that we stack up Scripture for any reason (no matter the motive). This is God's Word and it deserves our utmost care, humility, and effort. 

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Who are these women??

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 (γυνη) 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).

     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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(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 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.)

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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. 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. 

 

IS THIS HOW YOU UNDERSTOOD THIS PASSAGE IN YOUR CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE? IF NOT, HOW DID YOU UNDERSTAND THIS PASSAGE BEFORE?

 

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Challenges...

(Some of these challenges were brought up by Robbie in the comments section on the previous post. I was already in the process of dealing with this information, but am thankful that he brought it up.)

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)

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...

(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.

(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 call Sunday morning). This context is most pressing in chapter 14 but extends also 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...

R. H. Boll on "What We Owe the Government"

The following is taken from Word and Work, Volume 10, Issue 7, July 1917 and is entitled, "What We Owe the Government" by R. H. Boll...

"There is one thing," remarked a friend, "that I cannot get over; and that is that we should live in a country and get the benefits of its government and enjoy its protection, and then refuse to fight for it in the time of need." In answer to which it is sufficient to say that our obligations to a benefactor cannot go so far as disobedience to the God who is the one great Benefactor, Law-giver, and Judge, to whom we belong, whose rights over us are first and absolute. We owe the government respect, honor, obedience, customs, taxes. We render to every man his due; to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, to God the things that are God's. But God's claims have the right of way always. It would be of interest to know on the other hand, how much the world's governments owe to the children of God. Was not Sodom destroyed because there were not ten righteous men in it?

What is your reaction to Boll's comments here?