Tag Archives: church

Does God Need You?

I remember the moment. The painful moment.

The pastor hadn’t been expecting the VBS coordinator to be giving a special announcement, but he looked up and saw her standing at the back of the sanctuary, waving her recruitment sign.

Vacation Bible Study was right around the corner, and she needed help.

So the pastor invited her up to make her announcement. After enumerating the myriad tasks that needed to be done, the VBS coordinator concluded: “We need you. The kids need you. And God needs you.”

The pastor was in a bind. He rightly hated manipulative appeals for help, and he was afraid we’d just been given one. And so, the theological reinterpretation commenced:

“God doesn’t need you. The kids might need you….” probably followed by a reframing of the plea to consider serving our kids.

It was a Presbyterian church, with strong Reformed theology. And at the heart of it lay this deep conviction about the sovereignty of God.

“God doesn’t need you.”

There is a sense in which I have to agree with the idea that God doesn’t need us. The crucifixion-resurrection complex stands as an eternal judgment upon the self-righteous religious who become so convinced that we are at the center of things that we rise up against God’s plans and inadvertently destroy them.

In that sense, then, God doesn’t need us, because God can raise the dead. God can call the things that are not so that they are.

“Don’t think to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!”

The Radical Vulnerability of God. Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ah… there’s the rub. God might not need me to be a child of Abraham, but God still needs children of Abraham–or else God and God’s story are a failure.

God might not need the first century law-keeping religious leaders to bring about God’s promised salvation, but God still needs a faithful human king–and that risen king’s only remaining item of business before leaving the place was to send out a handful of folks on mission.

When I started writing this blog, I called it “Storied Theology: Telling the Story of the Story-Bound God.” The sub-title was a nod in the direction of deconstructing the idea that God’s “otherness” leaves God completely free to act as God will.

God has chosen a different path.

God has chosen humanity, Israel, David, and Christ. God has chosen the apostles, prophets, preachers, and servants.

Recently, Andy Crouch gave a talk in which he outlined the main thesis of his new book; namely, that right use of power only comes when we properly embrace both the gift of power and of vulnerability.

God, of course, embraced the vulnerability of power in not only becoming human but even in the death of the Beloved Son.

But I don’t think it ends there.

God continues to depend on people, to subject Godself to the vulnerability of the fact that people must recognize God’s work in the world, enact God’s work on the world’s behalf, and be the enactment of the saving story God is writing.

God can do whatever God wants.

What God has chosen to do is to enter into a gifting relationship with the world and the church that leaves open the real possibility of being ignored, even of (on the small scale) failure.

This is the vulnerability that is true expression of power in a relationship of love. This is why, I think the VBS coordinator was right.

God needs you. And so do the kids. And so do we.

Authority, Easter, Church

I don’t worry about authority in the church so much.

I know that this is a big deal to a lot of people. I know folks who have converted to Roman Catholicism from various Protestant traditions largely because the unseemly mess of Protestant opinion seems to spring directly from the lack of authority.

How will we know what it is to speak for God if we do not have an authority on earth to make that known? Should we not look to those who have gathered and said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us?” Should we not look to the vice-regent that Jesus has installed on Rome, his holy hill?

Protestantism is, surely, a mess.

And evangelical Protestantism is a magnification of this messiness, manifested in the proliferation of churches and denominations and non-denominations.

Or, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till the mess gets here.

Without centralized authority, it seems that we are reliving the ignoble era of the judges: there was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

But I don’t think that the answer is the establishment of an authority here on earth. I don’t worry about the lack of an earthly authority for one reason: Jesus was raised from the dead.

If there is one confession that truly unites all Christians in all times and places it is this: “Jesus is Lord.”

Or, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 28, something changed with the resurrection. The authority that Jesus had begun to exercise while on earth has now been fully given to him:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

There it is.

The authority is Christ’s, and we shouldn’t attempt to take it for ourselves. Nor should we seek to give it to another person on earth.

I know, I know. Practically, this doesn’t help. We are, in fact, called to speak “authoritatively,” to speak for Christ, to exercise an ambassadorial function of those sent from the King to the distant kingdom in order to make our sovereign’s wishes known.

But that task is always one fraught with uncertainty. Locating Jesus’ voice in a person or a council only focuses the inevitable mistakes in the work a few rather than diffusing the mistakes more broadly.

And I suppose, that’s the point. By giving control to a group or a person we can eliminate diversity, but we cannot ensure even then that what we are doing is right.

We cannot turn our groping along toward the light into a full-fledged walking in the day simply by taking hold of the shoulders of the person who is groping along ahead of us.

Leadership is still important, but it will have to be much different leadership than the authority of a Tradition or Council if it is to function well in the story of the crucified and risen Christ.

If Jesus is risen from the dead, then “Jesus is Lord” must, in the end, be enough for us.

Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.

Seriously.

Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”

There Is No They

There is no they, only us.

I got a reminder of this today, an uncomfortable reminder that I probably needed to hear.

There is no “they.”

This is what I told the guy at the hardware store. More specifically, I told him, “YOU ARE True Value.”

I bought a hose storage unit at my local hardware store about a month ago. It worked well, for about two weeks. Then it started leaking.

Today was the day. I walked the half block, defective implement in hand, to ask for an exchange.

One guy said no, not before we try to fix it. He tried. It’s in worse condition now.

The other guy told me to send it back to the company, that they would replace it. “But I bought it here. How about we exchange it, and you send it back?”

“True Value won’t do that.”

“You’re True Value.”

There is no mystical “them” who is responsible. When you have a True Value store, you are True Value.

When you are part of a church, especially in leadership (but not only then), there is no “they” who will or will not do something.

In those moments when what needs to be done butts up against the policy, or when what they’ve done embarrasses us, deferring to “them” is not going to convince the person in front of you that you are not part of that “them.” That person will only be convinced that you are different when you act, when you do what is right.

I regularly need reminding of this. There is no “them” who is the church, or my employer, or my family, someone else to blame in that organization I’m a part of when I’m as frustrated as the outsider.

But probably the place where I need the reminder most is in dealing with Christians en mass. There is no “they” who are doing those things that drive me bat-poop crazy, only an “us.”

I can’t control “us,” but I can own us. I can take responsibility for how we are engaging, offending, alienating the person in front of me. I can take responsibility for apologizing for our brokenness and striving to rectify messed up situations.

Badmouthing “them,” or blaming “them” rings hollow when we are they. The person standing in front of us, or reading our blog post or our article or our book or our Facebook status knows that we are they, even though we’d like to distance ourselves and conveniently forget.

I need to realize it, too.

Corporate Election

There is no election of individuals outside of the community. God has a chosen people, and chosen persons are part of that people.

This chosen people is, itself, the body of Jesus Christ, the elect one.

So Barth has moved in his exposition of election from election in Jesus Christ (§33) to election of the community (§34). I’ve been working on this section for a few weeks, holding off on blogging about it until I had gotten a bit deeper in. I’m experiencing the section simultaneously as some of the most insightful and the most troubling of the Church Dogmatics.

First, the good stuff.

Barth’s movement from the election of Christ to election of the community resonates with me deeply. To be in Christ is to be part of Christ’s body. There is no such thing as a person isolated in relationship to God. To be in relationship to God is to be part of the family of God, which is to be God’s child as one is in the Son.

This kept bringing back the kind of note I kept writing in the margins the first time I read Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul: Hays was arguing for an ecclesiocentric hermeneutic—that the community was the interpretive end of Paul’s use of scripture. But I kept wanting to say that this was only so because the community is in Christ. Thus, it is truly a Christological reading of scripture, first and foremost, with the communal dimension being the necessary consequence.

I think my critique of Hays was rather Barthian, now. (And I’m not sure but that Hays would agree to a certain extent with what I’ve said above.)

The heart of Barth’s discussion of the election of the community is his small-print exposition of Romans 9 and 10. Keeping in view the big question of Israel as a people, Barth works through Rom 9 with a recurring manta that the differentiations God makes are all about the election of a people.

Pressing against the notion of double-predestination, Barth wants to focus on the positive purpose of all the differentiations: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Israel, the remnant—any rejection is subordinate to the purpose of election and salvation of Israel as a people.

But the chapter was also troubling.

Perhaps I’m only now coming to be as troubled by Paul’s argument as I should always have been, feeling the weight of his assessment of ethnic Israel’s place in the story. Or, perhaps, Barth speaks with a directness that sets of the radar of a politically-correct era.

But I kept wincing at Barth’s differentiation among who is “in” and who is “out.” He speaks of the church as those who respond in obedience to the message, the synagogue as those who reject it, and Israel as this elect people whose rejection of the message can be overcome when they join with the church in confessing Christ.

I wondered, often, if Barth was losing sight of the fact that we gentiles, who by and large populate the church, are participating in the salvation narrative of Israel?

Throughout this section, Barth develops more of the notion that people might reject the election that is theirs in Christ. I think that this is in line with what we see in scripture, especially with respect to Israel, but it then raises the question of what good it is to lay out the argument he does in the previous section.

If the whole point of focusing election on Christ is so that we have a certain hope of our standing before God, but then he can go on to say that our election may be rejected, has he really accomplished the pastoral purpose of assuring people of God’s favor?

Perhaps it’s that last line that’s the key. We always have God’s favor. In Christ. As the overflow of the promise to Israel. As part of the church.

Birth is Easier than Resurrection

Given the choice, I’d rather plant a new church than attempt to revitalize an old one. Of course, no one’s giving me the choice, so what’s it matter?

But my thinking is this: it’s much easier to give birth to something new than to raise something old from the dead.

I know, I know–church planters are ready to kill me now, for saying that church planting is easy.

It’s not. I know that.

Giving birth isn’t easy. I’ve been in the L&D room twice. I’ve seen it.

But I’ve never seen anyone raised from the dead.

Ok, so old, declining churches aren’t actually dead.

Has this post run aground yet? Wait… don’t answer that.

But here’s what I’m getting at: the things that you need to place to create a growing, thriving church plant are insufficient for turning around a declining, dying church.

The hope that I’ve heard expressed on several occasions is that a young (associate) pastor will eventually come in, and being young, attract young families. With this new infusion of youth, the church is expected to gradually revitalize.

But, to steal a metaphor from Jesus, that’s an attempt to put new wine in old wineskins.

You can go down that road if you want, but it is going to mean that the old bursts apart.

In other words, it’s going to mean that the folks who have been around for decades are going to have to walk the way of the cross. They are going to have to agree that everything they think church just “is” is going to have to die for that new life to come ’round.

I’ve heard the anger in the voice of the long-time member recounting how the pews the people had given their lives for had been pulled out of the sanctuary.

I’ve received the blank stare when I’ve asked why adults have to be relegated to juice and cookies rather than wine and cheese.

I’ve endured the excruciating choir that one day will, no doubt, be filled with fine young voices! (Or not…)

A people with a history have a shared story that defines for them “what church is.” To rewrite that story for a new generation, to embrace a people who will so rethink things that “church” won’t even be the word that comes to mind for some–this is the challenge of revitalization.

Someone who wants to revitalize has to discover how to lead a people through a holistic process of reimagining what church is from the ground up, from the inside out.

“Can these bones live?”

“You know, o Lord.”

“Prophesy to the wind!”

Yes, indeed, prophesy. And raise these bones from the dead.

It’s Still Easter–So the Church Might Yet Live

The most difficult thing for us as Christians to receive, believe, and embody is that we serve the God who gives life to the dead.

I experience this dearth in myself.

I go into churches that were once vibrant, bustling, packed. And I experience hopelessness at the sight of classrooms become storage closets. I feel the emptiness, so much emptiness, in the spaces on the pews.

Can this death be undone? Can this people find new life? Can these bones live?

But this lack of hope—or is it faith?—reaches in from the dying gathering to the hearts of us who are called, ourselves, to die.

Such a place of apparent death holds up a mirror to us and asks, Have I been clinging to my own life, to the death of this place? Is the niche of power I carved out by finding my way to the vestry or diaconate, enabling me to maintain things here just as they were when they were so full of life—refusing to realize that clinging to the life of old is, itself, the source of the present death?

We create programs. We build a building. We find a place of influence. We offer an idea that sticks. We’ve birthed it. It is ours. It is us. It is me. So I will not give it up. I will not change.

I do not believe that God gives life to the dead.

I do not believe that those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives for Christ’s sake, and the gospel, will save it.

If only life were so simply defined as “bodily life,” what an easy call that would be to follow. If only the life that I claim for myself weren’t in every word, or idea, or relationship, or place of influence.

But it is all these. And all of these must go with the body along the way of the cross.

Which is why the church must remember that it is still Easter. Our only hope, for thriving life as a people and as persons, is in the God who gives life to the dead and calls the things that are not into being.

Talk About Sex

Talking about sex is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of things.

The images and lyrics and jokes and stories that fill our culture place sex at the forefront of practically everything we see and hear.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But when the church tries to speak about sex, it often does so badly, earning it the dubious honor of being the only voice in the culture told to shut its mouth when it comes to sex. Why should pastors be considered sexperts? Stick to what you know, please!

And yet, a strangely religious claim has crept into our culture. In order to free ourselves to have the sexual experiences that we long for, we have as a people decided that sex is a purely private affair, not the sort of business that is the business of the church–or anyone else for that matter.

We adopt a strange gnosticism here, dissociating ourselves form our bodies, claiming that what we do with our bodies does not impact or reflect what kind of persons we are. (Assuming here consensual encounters between adults.)

But this week, the folks at ReImagine did a brave thing: they hosted a discussion about sex. Brave, in that they called a meeting for conversation and listening rather than mandating. Brave, in that the people who did speak told their own stories.

And the stories were honest, raw, humorous, and beautiful accounts of where sexuality fits with their spirituality.

That night of conversation was tremendously valuable; it created a virtual tidal wave (ok, that might be an exaggeration) of people who wanted to go next; it did leave people clamoring for more.

People need to talk about sex in ways that are true to our own experience. And people need to have space to figure out how their sexuality can be conducive to, and an overflow of, spiritual health.

Body and soul come together, as humans our parts are not hermetically sealed.

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hearing the stories was freeing. Storytelling is powerful. It can create a new normal. And, in fact, I would say that this is part of what our culture needs with regard to sex: a new normal.

To take but one example: to a person, I think, those who told their stories expressed some experience of shame in their struggles to get comfortable in their own skin sexually. Gay and straight, single and married, virgin and sexually active and currently celibate. The struggle to find freedom from shame is normal.

Another point where we need a new normal: more isn’t the way to healthier sexuality, and less isn’t the road to dysfunction. Appropriate sexual expression requires what the Bible calls wisdom: knowing what is right for who you are at a given time.

The question of how sexuality influences and is influenced by your spirituality is likely to have as many answers as there are people who take up the question.

But here’s where storytelling is so helpful: it lets us see and hear that it’s complicated. Living as an integrated person is not simply about following a simple rule of no sex until after you’re married and then as much as possible from that time forward.

The “no judgment zone” is not a place where many evangelicals are comfortable. We want to assess, size up, and judge the stories in order to immediately point people toward what we understand to be the way of holiness.

And pursuing holiness in our sexuality is crucial.

But if we are not willing to create space where “normal” is shown to be far from our own experience, if we are not willing to hear that neither the “normal” of the world nor the alleged “normal” of the pulpit is the reality of the people we live with every day–if, in other words, we are unwilling to set up the “no judgment zone,” we will never achieve the vulnerability required to grow beyond the presumed “normal” and into truly integrated people.

Without telling our stories truly, first of all to ourselves!, we will never be able to achieve fidelity. Telling our stories is not the destination, but it might be the only way to begin the journey–not only as individuals, but as communities.

What does such a story look like?

1.5 to 2 typewritten pages.

Tell your story–past, present, and/or future.

Ask yourself: how have I experienced my sexuality? Where has God been? Where is there guilt or shame? Where is there joy and celebration and ecstasy? Who am I right now, and what does it mean to be a sexual person (even if not currently sexually active)?

Have at it. And share it with a friend.

On Jesus’ Choosing Twelve Males

I know that many of you wake up on Fridays eager for the weekly Karl Barth post. I hate to put you off another day, but today I have something a bit more pressing to take care of.

Yesterday, I posted the first of two responses I wanted to make to John Piper’s description of Christianity as a “masculine” religion. Rachel Held Evans has issued the summons for replies, and I think this is an important moment to inject a more biblically sound reading of gender issues in the church. Thanks, Rachel, for stirring us to positive response.

Today’s issue has to do with the significance of Jesus’ choosing of twelve men to be his disciples. This is one of several issues I take up in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?.

The story within which this selection of the twelve is embedded leads us to draw a very different point from Piper’s.

Jesus chooses twelve men. These twelve Jesus specially commissions. Jesus came preaching, casting out demons, and healing. The disciples are sent to preach and heal and cast out demons.

Jesus comes proclaiming and inaugurating the reign of God, and these men are sent out to participate in that coming. When Jesus feeds the 5,000, he hands the bread to them. They are the chosen. They are the insiders.

In contrast (let’s stick to Mark’s Gospel here), the women in the story are marginal. There are small handfuls of nameless women. They touch Jesus’ robe, they ask for healing for their daughters, they throw a few coins in a box in the temple, they anoint Jesus’ head with oil.

So while the women are coming in and going out, acting on faith and finding praise for their faith, it’s the boys who are getting it done!

Getting it done, that is, right up until the great, transitional moment in the story.

“Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ.” Ok, so far so good. Then, Jesus begins to tell them what this title entails: “The Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die. Then he’ll be raised.”

Peter rebukes Jesus. Jesus rebukes him back: “Get behind me Satan.”

What happens then?

Move on to ch. 9, and the disciples who had been empowered to exorcise are unable to cast out a demon. The disciples who had been given the charge to proclaim cannot overcome the mute-making spirit.

Later that same chapter Jesus again predicts his death. The disciples’ reaction? They walk along debating with each other about who is going to be greatest in God’s coming kingdom.

We begin to see what they don’t get about Jesus’ ministry: the cross turns the economy of the world on its head. They have a standard of greatness that entails a certain kind of leadership and power, but Jesus wants to transform their ideas. He wants them to see greatness in the cross and the child.

As if Mark, or Jesus, thought we might miss the point, we get the whole thing a third time.

Jesus predicts his death, and this time the subsequent response of the disciples is James’ and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand. Again, Jesus has to combat not merely the request, but the wrongheaded assumption about what greatness in the kingdom of God looks like:

Jesus called them over and said, “ You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Mark 10:42-44, CEB)

In the story, the disciples do not understand what is entailed in leading the people of God. They think it is about greatness and power rather than service and death.

And so, we have the group represented by Peter. The rock. Is being “the rock” a good thing? In Mark, the rocky soil indicates plants that spring up well, but fall away when danger or persecution arise on account of the word. Mark repeats the language of “falling away” when the disciples scatter, leaving Jesus to die alone.

The Twelve were committed to Jesus, and happy with him–but only as one who came with power. They had no faith in their calling to participate in his way of death. They did not have eyes to see that the ministry of Jesus turned the economy of the world on its head.

Shall we return to the women now?

How are we to assess these women who, in the narrative world, are outsiders, on the margins?

Unlike the disciples who are rebuked for being of little faith, Jesus commends these women as having great faith: “Daughter, go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

Moreover, there is one episode where Jesus ties a human inseparably to the gospel story. It is the episode of the woman who pours out oil over Jesus’ head. This looks to be a royal anointing! But when Jesus defends her he says, “Leave her alone, she has prepared my body beforehand for burial.”

The act of anointing prepares Jesus for burial: Messiahship and death are held together, and here is the only person in the whole story to get it. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

What does it mean to live at the margins, to be unnamed? How does this compare with being the twelve, the dudes, the insiders?

According to the economy of the world, with its measures of greatness, to be the twelve is to be exemplary, in the place to lead, to exclude others from leadership, to stand close to Jesus and guard the gates of who else can draw near.

And to the extent that we look to Jesus’ selection of them, and the apparent marginalization of the women, as paradigmatic for male leadership in the church, we show ourselves to be people whose minds have not yet been transformed by the very story to which we are appealing.

It is only by agreeing with the disciples’ way of assessing the world that we can see their “insider status” as a true insider status, to be replicated by other men in church history.

Jesus offers another way: You guys don’t get it! It’s the rulers of the Gentiles who lord authority over people. It shall not be so among you.

There is another way. It is the way of the cross.

There is another way. It is the way of the “marginalized” in the worlds eyes lying closest to Jesus in faith and understanding.

Are we really supposed to hold up as our model the “Satan” who denied the gospel of the crucified Christ, and claim that Peter is paradigmatic of the place of men as insiders and faithful leaders in the church?

Or should we not seek out the one who did the good deed for Jesus, holding together Messiah and death from her place at the margins? Should we not seek out the one who sought out Jesus merely to touch the fringe of his garment and learn from her what it means to walk in faith?

The irony of appealing to the boys as insiders is that in so doing we show ourselves to be adopting the boys’ understanding of power, privilege, and leadership in the kingdom.

And this view is roundly rebuked by Jesus in words of dissuasion and the work of the cross.

Imaging the Biblical God

Rachel Held Evans has drawn attention to John Piper’s recent declarations that Christianity has a masculine feel, and that this is, of course, great news for everyone–even women, whose feminine feel isn’t, apparently, part of what God intended for Christianity.

Piper’s point is that God intentionally depicted Himself in masculine imagery, and that this sets the character for what Christianity is: God is Father and Son, God is King not queen.

In this post I want to outline some ways that scripture leads us to see that Piper’s view is selective to the point of being misleading. Tomorrow I want to tackle a much more serious issue: the way that Piper reads the Gospels as underpinning his theology demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the stories themselves.

The very first indication we get in scripture of how the nature of God maps onto human gender is Genesis 1. When God creates humanity in God’s own image, we read, “Male and female he created them.”

This is significant for two reasons. First, in what is the clearest connection of God to human gender, perhaps the only clear and intentional such connection in all of scripture, it is both male and female, together, who mirror God to the world.

This means that a “masculine” church or a church with a “masculine feel” is inherently lacking in its ability to reflect the image of God to the world.

But Genesis 1 isn’t simply about “being like” God in some general way.

To bear the image of God is to be the person to whom God has entrusted the rule of the world on God’s behalf. The purpose of humanity, “Let them rule the world on our behalf,” is inseparable from the categorization of these creatures as those made “in the image of God.”

In other words: it is not merely as humans that we reflect God together as male and female, but as those who rule over the world as male and female we bear the image of God. The kind of rule God has in mind is not a “masculine” rule, but a masculine plus feminine, male plus female, rule. Only this kind of shared participation in representing God’s reign to the world is capable of doing justice to the God whose image we bear.

Another dynamic of God, as God is reflected in the story of ancient Israel, is worth considering. As a religion without official goddesses, it falls to the one God to do the typically “feminine” duty of ensuring fertility.

In the ancient world, where being a woman was specially tied to bearing, nurturing, and rearing children, feminine images of God (and, of course, goddesses) were often tied to either literal or figurative bearing and nurturing of a people and/or of children.

This may lend some credibility to the idea that when the OT speaks of God as El-Shaddai. Although this is sometimes translated “God almighty,” other options have been suggested, including “God of the mountain.” But it’s worth noting that El-Shaddai is a term that appears in tandem with the covenant blessing of seed, offspring.

In Gen 17:1, God self-identifies as El-Shaddai and then institutes the covenant of circumcision which is tied to the covenant promise of offspring. Why does Genesis 35:11 say, “I am El-Shaddai, be fruitful and multiply” (cf. Gen 28:3)? Why this title for the God of fruitfulness and multiplication?

It has been argued that El-Shaddai is less a reference to God as all-powerful and more a reference to God as the one who grants fertility.

Genesis 49:25 reads:

by God, your father, who supports you,
by the Almighty (shaddai) who blesses you
with blessings from the skies above
and blessings
from the deep sea below,
blessings from breasts (shadayim) and womb.

It has been argued that Shaddai is related to the Hebrew word for breasts. Although alternative translation of “shaddai” has been “God of the mountains”–as someone who lives in a city with “twin peaks,” it seems to me that the options of “God of the mountains” and “God of the breasts” are not mutually exclusive.

In Gen 49:25 we may very well have an intentional juxtaposition of God as Father and God as nursing mother. The God of Israel is the God of womb and breast as much as this is the God of war and rain.

El Shaddai is the God who makes God’s people fruitful and multiples them. This is the God of fertility.

Good on the bra, but more "mountains" needed...

And so, when we see the Son appear in all His glory in Revelation, we are, perhaps, not entirely surprised to find this:

“His breasts are girt up with a golden girdle” (Revelation 1:13)

Ok, we are surprised to find it. So surprised, in fact, that the translations won’t have it! But mastoi are breasts. (Thanks are due to Jesse Rainbow for his article on the Son of Man’s breasts in JSNT 30 [2007] 249-53.) The great warrior king of Revelation? It’s the Son of Man, prepared to be nursing mother.

So when Paul says that he and his fellow apostles were present among the Thessalonians like a nurse or mother, perhaps we should understand that there is something distinctly “feminine” about leading the church of God. And, that this femininity is part of what it means to bear the image of God and manifest the presence of Christ.

Who is the Father of our Bible? Who is the Son? It is not only the king and conqueror, but the nurturer and nourisher, the one who cares for and holds close. Not only (I should say, stereotypically) “masculine” but also the (stereotypically) feminine.

It is the God who is only rightly and fully imaged as male and female. Together.