Are We Good for Anything?

At a meeting affiliated with the Society of Biblical Literature in New Orleans, I sat listening as a man at a podium spoke most earnestly about the importance of the Genesis creation narratives in establishing the importance of creation-care as a Christian mandate. And he was right.

And, twenty years earlier this would have been prophetic; fifty years earlier it would have been revolutionary.

But in 2009, listening to someone proclaim that Christians should care about the environment, I thought, “Here we go again: Christians finally realizing 20 years after the rest of the world that something is important.” The recent posts here about women have a similar feel: a century behind, but the church will eventually come up with as good reasons as the rest of the world for ceasing its diminutive treatment of women.

This lagging behind has me wondering at times whether Christianity is really any good for the world? Is the world a better place because of our allegiance to Christ? Or are all the moves toward making the world a better place done by others and baptized by us?

There are, it seems to me, three areas where Christians have been, and are acting as, leading voices in changing the world for the better right now–areas where other non-Christian organizations are starting to invest more energy as well, but where we are doing something other than following everybody else’s wisdom.

One is adoption. There is a fantastic article about adoption in this month’s Christianity Today. Most important in the article is the realization that what we say about our relationship with God is supposed to transform how we act in the world. This does not mean, “God forgives me, so in thankfulness I live a moral life by keeping the Ten Commandments.”

It means that the very dynamics of the story are to become the dynamics of the stories that we live our in our Christian communities and individual lives. We realize that God’s love for us is a self-giving love, so we love one another with self-giving. We realize that we are justified by being united with the crucified Christ, and so we accept everyone into our communities who has been so united by faith, Spirit, and baptism. We realize that God’s intention for family is realized when God turns to adopt us into His, and we, in turn, look to the world to adopt its orphans into ours.

A second area is that championed by International Justice Mission as it has sought to free people enslaved in the sex industry. They were well ahead of the bell curve on this, drawing attention of churches to the issues of modern-day slavery and teaching us how to do something about it. Go give them a buck or two.

The third area is peace. This is still not popular, though a vocal minority of New Testament scholars and ethicists are drawing our attention to the fact that God’s gift of peace should be realized in the world in which we live and we should be agents of it. The gospel of Jesus came as a direct rebuttal of Israel’s hopes for a military deliverance. We all know this. And yet, while we are all-too-willing to deride the first-century Jews for not realizing that their salvation would come by military-denying means, too few of us have been willing to believe that God would continue to bring his reign about on the earth by the means of peace.

Those who, like Glen Stassen, are arguing for a Christian vision of just peacemaking are poised to lead into a future in which our heroes will no longer be those whose names are on the victory plaques of the battle field.

Theologically, Protestants have been hindered from changing the world for the better because we have been so focused on an inward piety that we don’t see any connection between that world out there and the new life God is given us. We need to cultivate our theological imaginations with the realization that salvation is not merely about new creatures, but about new creation.

It’s only when we realize that God’s saving hand extends to the whole earth, and is not simply a set of metaphors for our “spiritual” state, that we will begin to realize the gospel-imperative to extend the saving, redeeming hand of God to every sphere of human life.

The Horizontal Gospel and America’s Racist History

I’m working through the issues I mentioned last week about race, slavery, and Paul’s gospel. I’m starting with the race/ethnicity/nationality issue, and then moving to the issue of slavery itself.

Here are some initial thoughts, trying to capitalize on the recent realization that justification has as much to do about our relationships within the family of God as it has to do with our relationship with God himself. I look forward to some more lively discussion.

For Paul, requiring Gentiles to take on another’s racial and ethnic identity in order to enjoy full participation in the people of God, for them to be regarded as equals, is nothing other than a denial of “the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:5, 14). The gospel says that we become part of God’s family by being united by faith and the Spirit to the crucified and risen Christ. Creating other standards of full participation, or introducing inequalities based on other measures of value, denies this gospel. Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to become part of the people of God.

With such a horizontal argument about the implications of the gospel, Paul’s letter to Galatia eviscerates the social hierarchies that have marred Christian witness. When the gospel has been scripted into an overarching story of one race’s or one nationality’s inherent superiority, rather than standing as a larger story poised to transform those smaller narratives of inequality, it has, in fact, denied itself.

Moving from Paul to the racially-based slavery, subjugation, and segregation that mars the stories of North America and Europe, I see the argument going something like this: If the laws and regulations that God himself gave to Israel cannot become markers of inherent national superiority within the church without denying the gospel, then neither can American stories of cultural or industrial development, white stories of racial superiority, or capitalist stories of economic necessity become stories of inherent superiority within the church without denying the gospel. In short, every line of argument (whether implicit or explicit) that the church accepted as undergirding the necessity or divine sanction of slavery was a tacit denial of the gospel that Paul proclaimed.

Carrying this a bit further, Paul’s refusal to allow his churches to be swallowed up by a distinctively Jewish identity points toward an embrace of cultural and racial difference as a defining marker of the body of Christ. Not only is it a denial of the gospel to uphold one race’s claims of inherent superiority, it is a denial of the gospel to require that all Christianity be cast in the mold of white, western Christianity. This is, of course, a challenge for missionaries bringing the gospel to new cultures overseas, but presuppositions of cultural and racial superiority haunt us at home as well, often in the guise of correct theology and worship practice. Many of our churches and denominations continue to communicate that one has to become white in order to become fully part of the people of God.

But Paul’s gospel will have none of this. The church in which there is no longer a relational disparity in which Jew is greater than Greek, free is greater than slave, and male is greater than female, we cannot countenance white as greater than black (or brown or yellow or red).

Women In Church–Around the Web

Since this has become the unofficial site of things women-in-the-church for the past couple weeks, here are two things from elsewhere:

(1) The Church of England is in the process of clearing the way for women to be ordained as bishops. I’m not sure that the BBC is the best interpreter of the news, but there it is. For my part, I’m amazed that there could be any remaining argument for excluding women from being bishops once they’ve been ordained as priests.

(2) Someone drew my attention to a post at the Touchstone Blog by S. M. Hutchens entitled, “Report from the Front: Mere Functionalism.” The gist of the article was this: the fact that women can perform all the functions of a priest doesn’t mean that women should so act. The equality of women and men is irrelevant, claims Hutchens, the point is what Jesus and the apostles said.

I have a couple thoughts in response to Hutchens. One reaction in particular has been spurred by the comments some of you have made on recent posts. That is, that it is better to argue for women’s ordination based on differences between women and men rather than to argue for women’s ordination based on their sameness. To this extent, I might agree with Hutchen’s rejoinder: can doesn’t imply should. In fact, if the point is sameness, the argument that God could deploy either and chose chose men for one task while assigning women another gains considerable force.

As argued by some of you, the much stronger argument for women’s ordination is difference. Precisely because God made us different. Precisely because God made us to compliment one another. Precisely because we tend to have different strengths. Precisely because we tend to have different weaknesses. These are the reasons for embracing women as full participants in the ministry of the church.

A Stray Thought on Women and The Bible

“When I say ‘God,’ what I mean is the God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This is a favorite quote from Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke University will always litter the Trinity Sunday sermons of Duke Div. grads. And with good reason.

But it strikes me that not a single New Testament writer could have said such a thing–though the NT points and hints in this direction. The NT provides the basis for a Trinitarian theology, but it is left to the history of the church to affirm God as Trinity. Or, to put it differently, it’s all well and good if that’s what Wainwright means by God, but when Paul says God he usually means “Father.”

So here’s something I can’t quite get my head around: If it took the church a few hundred years to figure out that God was Trinity, why is there a constant stream among the comments in my posts on women to the effect that holding a different view of women from the biblical writers (or a few biblical texts) is somehow tantamount to denying inspiration, not admitting that a certain passage is canonical, and the like?

The claim is parallel: the first-century church did not work out everything there was to know about God based on the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, rule, and return. So too, the first-century church did not work out everything there was to know about gender relations in the church based on the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, rule, and return.

There are important hermeneutical questions at work here. We do not simply say what the Bible said about anything. We say what we need to say in our own context based on what the Bible says and how we follow out the trajectory of that biblical story into the world in which we’re called to continue living it.

This is not a debate about whether we receive the authority of the Bible, but how we receive that authority in our context. I’m arguing for a gospel-story hermeneutic to help us faithfully play the story in our context, one that recognizes and embraces a diachronic reading of scripture and its application and thereby is willing to say, “We all do, and sometimes must say some things that the NT itself never does.”

Or, to put it differently, the Kingdom of God does not come as a transplanted forest, a fully developed ecosystem (or systematic theology) deposited from heaven. It comes as the smallest of all seeds that must grow and flourish in order for the birds of the air to come find shade in its branches.

P.S. Two apologies: (1) I am away from the internet and will not be able to keep up on any comments here for a couple days. (2) The picture. It was tough coming up with a picture that held together “Trinity” and “women”, and my solution might have been a bit … well… um… you know…

What, Are You Blind?

I love the story of the blind man in John 9. Stereotypically Johannine, the kind of story that we read of in 6 or 8 verses in the Synoptics is told, retold, and developed for an entire chapter. As the story unfolds we have opportunity to witness various types of responses to Jesus and Jesus’ followers, we hear more of John’s Christology, but most of all we ourselves hear the testimony of the witnesses and are thereby called to make the same assessment of Jesus that the characters in the story are making.

One thing that struck me as I read the story just now was that the story of the healing is told three times. The narrator tells us the story in John 9:1-7. Then in vv. 8-12 the healed man tells his story to his parents and others who saw him. This posse, it seems, leads the man to the Pharisees to whom the man once again tells the story (vv. 13-17).

The rising action seems to reach its apex with the man’s confession to the Pharisees, that he believes Jesus to be a prophet, which is juxtaposed with the immediately following statement: “The Jews (Judeans?) did not believe about him that he was blind and regained his sight.” So they call their next witnesses, the man’s parents, who will testify that the man was blind and now sees, but not to how he was healed.

The theme of testimony runs through John like a red thread. Here we watch as the testimony is laid out, and the Pharisees refuse to believe.

In their third scene of questioning, the Pharisees turn once again to examine the formerly blind man himself. Now they are turning from the actions themselves to the man’s assessment of Jesus. “We know he’s a sinner, so what do you say?”

This greatness of this second round of testimony from the blind man to the Pharisees comes to light when we recall how the whole story starts. People bring in the blind man, and the question is,  “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” To which Jesus replies, “No, but that the works of God may be made known in him.” And so, when the Pharisees begin their questioning with, “Give glory to God,” we the readers know that their request is deeply ironic. Their insistence that Jesus is a sinner is precisely a denial of the glory of God, while the man’s own telling of his story and refusal to call Jesus a sinner is its affirmation.

The second great moment is this marvelous rebuke that the healed man levels against his questioners: “This is the amazing thing, that you don’t know where he is from and he opened my eyes!” We’re being told by the story what Jesus will later sum up: the blind man really is the one who sees, and these who should have been given sight by Moses are walking around blind.

The third great moment is when the Pharisees give their final rebuke to the man, “You were completely born in sin and you teach us?!” We who followed the story from the beginning know that the man was not born in sin, but was born blind in order that he might, indeed, become a living teacher, putting on display the work of God.

Besides being beautifully crafted, this story stands out to me for another reason as well: we’ve just gone through four scenes in a Gospels story (verses 8-34), without seeing or hearing from Jesus directly. Jesus reenters the scene in v. 35, where he will first wrap up matters with the healed man, an interaction that ends with the man affirming his belief in Jesus and kneeling before him, before turning to a final interpretation of what has happened. When Jesus confronts the man he’d healed, he tells the man, “You have seen him, and he is the one speaking with you.” Yes, blind man, you can see Jesus now.

Jesus interprets the scene for us, explaining what has happened as a microcosm of his ministry: for judgment I came into the world: so that those not seeing might see, and so that those who see might become blind. And, the Pharisees don’t miss his point. What? Us blind?! Alas, yes…

At other points in John’s Gospel, Jesus invites his critics to interpret the signs correctly: these are the work that the Father is doing through him, God’s own testimony that Jesus is the One sent into the world. Here we receive testimony from the narrator of the book of John itself and from the healed man. And the question then turns squarely on us: Do we see Jesus?

Reading Paul With African Americans

In the work on my book, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul…?, I’m currently wrestling through a chapter on justice. My question for the next few weeks: how do I present Paul to Howard Thurman’s grandmother, who told the following story?

“During the days of slavery,” she said, “the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters…, as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”[1]

UPDATE:

After I had written this post, someone drew my attention to a blog post by Anthony Bradley, an African American in the Presbyterian Church in America. The post itself, and the comments that ensue, are powerful indicators of the continuing importance of figuring out how issues of race relations are tied to the gospel story.


[1] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996),30-31 (this book was originally published in 1949).

Plotting Women into the Gospel Story

My recent posts on women in the church have dealt with gender in Bible translation and the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 (a classic text for male hierarchy in the church). Today I want to post a snippet of theological reflection that helps situate these “tip of the iceberg” concerns upon a larger gospel-narrative glacier.

The big picture of the Christian story is that God has bound himself to humanity, through the nation of Israel, for the purpose of bringing the world from the failure of old creation into the glory of new creation. This, of course, is the story that Christianity shares in common with Judaism. What makes the story of Jesus uniquely Christian is that the means God chooses is a crucified Messiah whose kingdom-inaugurating activity was one of upending the economy of the world.

The implications of this surprisingly cruciform kingdom are consistently worked out in the words of Jesus and of Paul: to follow a crucified messiah is to commit oneself to self-giving love as the way of life. Moreover, both Jesus and Paul extend the application to the power-dynamics and social hierarchies of the world.

To follow a crucified messiah is to confess that those who are mighty by the standards of the world are not the ultimate insiders, but likely to be the consummate outsiders in the kingdom of God.

Conversely, to be enfolded into the kingdom of the crucified messiah is to be given the status of consummate insider, even if one was previously at the margins of society. “Consider your own calling, my brothers and sisters: that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many of noble birth. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world in order to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world in order to shame the strong, and God has chosen the ill-born things of the world and the despised—the things that are not in order to nullify the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

The way in which God shows that the world’s wisdom is foolish is by demonstrating that the economy of God’s kingdom is the inverse of the economy of the world. It is not what one brings from the world to the church that gives one value in the church, but that God has made one who had nothing to bring a member of this body of Christ. God has performed such an inversion so that no one may boast before him (1 Corinthians 1:29).

But here’s the point we too often skip past even when we affirm this much: if the “getting into” the Kingdom of God is not based on socially constructed hierarchies, then bringing such hierarchies into the church is a denial of the gospel itself. Much of the Corinthian correspondence is spent advancing just this argument about life in Christian community. The means by which we enter (God’s grace in uniting us by the Spirit to the body of the crucified Christ) is the sole grounds by which we differentiate amongst ourselves in the body (by the Spirit pouring out the gifts of God and thereby differentiating among the equal members of Christ’s crucified body).

This is the gospel story that, I believe, calls us to make good on what we catch glimpses of in the New Testament. When we read of women as co-workers, as a deacon, as an apostle; when we read of women speaking and praying in public worship; when we read of women transcending social mores in order to follow Jesus in his itinerant ministry or sit at his feet like a disciple; when we read of women being entrusted with the task of bearing witness to the resurrection—in each of these moments we are catching glimpses of a new creation in which there is no hierarchical distinction between male and female.

It is not a vision that is worked out consistently in the first century culture in which the New Testament writings grew up, but it is one that fits within the plot of a story that turns all social hierarchies on their head as God comes to rule the world through a crucified messiah.

This is the first reason why I believe that the inclusive, more egalitarian voice of the New Testament demands our allegiance in our contemporary settings: it does better justice to the gospel story. In particular, the more inclusive elements of the New Testament do better justice to the holistic vision of new creation that makes God’s blessings known “far as the curse is found.”

On Women’s Silence and Believing the Bible

I know this is too long for a blog post, but when has that stopped me before? Some recent thoughts on the importance of 1 Tim. 2 and women in ministry:

First Timothy 2:9-15 is the lynchpin passage for the position that leadership and teaching in the church are charges entrusted to men alone. At the seminary where I received my masters degree, the lecture on women in the church began with a serial elimination of the relevance of all other passages in the New Testament, imploring us to recognize that 1 Timothy 2 is the decisive statement of the issue. The passage in question reads as follows:

8I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;  9also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (NRSV)

The heart of this passage is v. 12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” As to this prohibition, we should be clear as to how absolute it is. Some, feeling the tensions between this passage and others, have suggested that women may teach in public worship (for example), so long as they are not teaching under their own authority but rather under the authority of the men who comprise the church’s leadership. They combine “teach or exercise authority” such that it now means “authoritative teaching” or “teaching on her own authority.” But this is not what the passage states. The contrast the passage establishes is between teaching or remaining silent, not between teaching authoritatively or teaching non-authoritatively.

The next important element to explore is the way that this restriction is tied to the narrative of creation and fall from Genesis 2-3. It seems to imply that what went wrong in humanity’s rebellion against God was an upending of the order of creation. Adam was created first, but the woman chose to listen to someone else. The priority of Adam in creation seems to imply that his superiority to Eve includes being less prone to deception: “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” The implication is clear: women should not teach now in the church because, being more prone to deception, their teaching would lead not only themselves but the entire church into transgression. This reinforces the point that the mandate of this passage is not simply to keep women from “authoritative teaching”, but from all teaching.

It is important to paint this passage with the stark colors that it demands because it is only then that we can see that it stands in direct tension with the actual practice of the early church as evidenced in numerous places, including Paul’s own letters. Once we allow for the softening of its force such that teaching is o.k., so long as it is under the authority of the male leadership, we blind ourselves to the contradiction it presents to the presumption of women’s full participation in worship and the life of the church visible in passages such as 1 Corinthians 11 and Romans 16. It is, in fact, counter-evidence which, if vindicated, would call not only modern ordination of women into question but also the ancient practice of the apostles’ churches and fellow workers.

But we need to say more about this passage as well. Because not only does the ancient church serve as a living counter-point to this passage of scripture, almost every modern-day church does as well—even those who cling to the prohibition of women teaching on the basis of a commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God. To see how this is so, let’s broaden our vision to the other commands contained in this paragraph.

The first command mandates that women dress simply, adorning themselves with good works rather than external adornment: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (verses 9-10). My question for those who base their views of women in church leadership on verses 11-14 is whether or not they also enforce verses 9-10: Do you forbid people from dressing up to come to church on Sunday? Do you forbid your women from braiding or otherwise styling their hair? Do you forbid women from wearing a gold necklace or a diamond ring? With rare exception (such as Amish communities), the answers are no. We recognize that these are culturally or temporally bound restrictions, and that there might be other considerations (such as honoring God in worship) that might pull a community in a very different direction. But such concessions to our own cultural context begin to peel away the veneer of “obeying the Bible” as the reason for enforcing the subsequent verses. Are the mandates about dress not in the very same paragraph? Are they not set down to regulate the very same ecclesiastical context of worship? Why are we happy to enforce restrictions on teaching but not on dress?

Another set of related questions arises when we keep reading beyond the Adam and Eve allusion. The final verse of the paragraph states that the woman (Eve? all women?) will be saved through childbearing if they (all women?) continue in faith and love and holiness. The typical meaning of “through” in the Greek is “by means of.” Again we are face-to-face with a verse that not even the most biblically-adherent incorporate into their theology. Nobody, in short, thinks that women will be saved only if they add “having babies” to the standard markers of faith, love, and holiness.

Some have attempted to find in this verse a continuing allusion to the fall narrative, in which Eve is told that her seed will bruise the head of the serpent. This is unlikely, however. The verse in 1 Timothy looks at the action of women in the present day church (“they continue in faith…”), and “childbearing” is not well-suited to evoke an allusion to “see” from Genesis 3.

A more likely possibility is that the verse evokes the curse of pain in childbirth (Genesis 3:16). It is possible that “saved through childbearing” means something akin to “preserved through the act of bearing of children.” But again, this is unlikely both due to the translational difficulties and due to the context of 1 Timothy 2.

Reading through various commentators’ attempts to make sense of this admittedly difficult verse, I am struck by the irony that conservative scholars (e.g., Moo) reject the idea that the verse refers to how women obtain salvation simply due to the fact that this would contradict other passages of scripture. And yet, they are not willing to apply the same logic to verses 11-14!

1 Timothy 2:9-15 contains three statements about the activities of women in the church: (1) they are to dress plainly; (2) they are to remain silent; and (3) they will be saved by having children. The vast preponderance of the church has, rightly, rejected (1). The near entirety of the church has rejected (3). And they were right to do both of these. But having done so, it has evacuated any appeal to “submitting to scripture” as the reason for continuing to enforce (2).

“Anglican Unity Movement Splits”

So read the provocative headline over a one-paragraph news story in Christianity today. “Unity” movement “splits”.

Sigh.

I have a number of friends in Anglican Mission churches. I know that a number of the particular churches are doing great work. And, I know that a number of the congregations suffered for years under bishops that, for example, wouldn’t confirm their children or ordain orthodox clergy.

But from the get-go I have been disappointed that, in the process of dealing with these difficulties and ultimately leaving the Episcopal Church, there has been no indication that these churches share the typical Anglican concern for unity. It disappointed me that several large Episcopal churches that would not leave when AMiA formed waited a few years and then formed their own splinter group.

Unity has not been part of the DNA of the North American Anglican movement since its inception.

I had hope when the Anglican Church in North America was formed (just last year?!) that this element of our Christian vocation might begin to be part of American Anglicanism’s story. But it’s not to be. The Anglican Mission has left ACNA, a group that, according to the article, “it helped found last fall.”

Unity as a distinctive of Anglicanism: Requiescat In Pace.

Update: There’s a bit more detailed and nuanced version of the story on Anglicans United.

Telling the story of the story-bound God