Archive for the ‘Duane’ Category

What is the Church?

March 27, 2006

Sorry it has been awhile since I have posted but this will also probably be the last time I post for awhile. My family will be moving overseas this summer and I just don’t have time to write and get everything else done before our move. My inspiration for what follows comes from here.

Let’s call her Rachel. She a girl from the midwest, in her 20’s, just barely, and has a hard time keeping from crying. She seems hesitant to share very much, but after a few minutes, she seems pretty comfortable talking with me. Her problem, as she says it, is that she can’t stop crying. She does not know why she can’t stop, but nevertheless, this is her problem.

As Rachel gets into her story, I come to find out that her boyfriend, with whom she is living, is addicted to pornography and is trying to get her to always do new and different things in bed. He does not realize he is addicted and she does not seem to think he is, but he can’t stop it and rationalizes to her why he needs to use pornography when she is not around.

She starts to go into her family background and lets me know that she is from a broken home where her parents divorced, she bounced back and forth between homes, and both stepparents didn’t like her, in fact one even hated her. She got into trouble at school, sold and used drugs as a teenager in high school and at one point almost died from a drug overdose. Her close grandparent has recently passed away and her boyfriend treats her like an object instead of like a person. Aside from his addiction to pornography, he is never happy with Rachel and is frequently yelling at her for even things such as cleaning the house. When she organizes, you see, he can’t find anything, so it’s her fault.

Neglected as a child, treated as an object by her boyfriend, and the loss of a close relative, no wonder she can’t stop crying. Sadly, except for a few minor details, her story is not unique. Rachel does not know what a normal, healthy family looks like. She doesn’t know what a healthy male-female relationship looks like. She doesn’t know what acceptance looks like. She knows a lot about condemnation, never being good enough, never anyone to care about what happens to her. One of her biggest needs is to be accepted and loved as a person, to have someone listen to her and try to understand how she’s feeling. She needs to be treated like a human being, as someone worthwhile. Where will she find this? In what kind of church would Rachel feel welcomed? Is there any such church? What would it look like?

It would be a place where people are vulnerable. A place where people admit that they don’t have everything right. Where people know that they are sinners and share their struggles openly. It would be a place where people accept and love, not judge and criticize. It would be a place where Rachel could be herself, with all of her problems, and not be expected to be perfect before she could belong. It would be a place where people would realize that they have not cornered the market on truth, even though they always strive for truth. It would be a place of forgiveness.

Sadly, I don’t think there is a church that meets this description. No, I’m not looking for a perfect church. That’s impossible among imperfect humans. But here’s what is possible: We can be a place of forgiveness instead of judgment. When we slip up and judge someone or treat him or her in an unloving way, we can say we’re sorry and reconcile with the one we’ve wronged. We can always strive to understand the word and strive for the most excellent theology, while admitting we have not arrived. Even Paul was able to admit that. Why can’t we?

I think a part of the problem is that we are afraid. We are afraid of being genuine and honest with others. We are afraid of taking off our masks and sharing our true selves with others. We’re afraid of what people might think. We are afraid they would judge us. We’re afraid that we are the only ones who struggle with the particular sins that tempt us, that no one else can understand. We are afraid they would use our vulnerability to hurt us even more. We are afraid to be human. How ironic. We sit on a pew hiding our problems from the very people who would be the best ones to help us with those problems.

What is the church anyway?

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The Problem of Evil

February 12, 2006

It is typically called, “The problem of evil.” Here is a simple, yet precise, definition from J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. by Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992) p. 89-90:

“God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true, the third would be false.”

Typically, it is a philosophical argument that we talk about when things are going great. Life isn’t really going too badly so, we just go on and think about the problems the world faces. We see the suffering of others sometimes and just wonder why that happens.

Aside from the perhaps obvious atheistic answer being “God does not exist,” (I don’t mean to simplify this so easily as their arguments are complex, but this is the basic point from which there is an attempt to defeat any defenses from the theistic point of view) there are theistic answers such as the free will defense, possible world theory (i.e., maybe this is the best of all possible worlds that God could have created), redemptive value in suffering, a theology that suggests that God is not completely omnipotent (process theology), or is at least open to the future (theology of God’s openness), and there are even attempts to separate out the issue into categories such as “natural evil” and “moral evil.”

Rather than going into detail about all these theories, I’d rather pose what is perhaps a more important question, namely, “Why does evil happen to me?” I’m not saying we don’t care when it happens to others, but we care more deeply when something goes wrong in our own lives. We addressed this somewhat last week with the idea of “obstinate faith,” as an answer to life’s situations, but we never really addressed this from a “God” point of view, in the sense of dealing with God’s culpability.

An even different approach sometimes occurs to us in the form of, “Why is that scoundrel (fill in whatever name you like here) doing so well in life after all the bad he/she has done?”

But even from another perspective we could ask, “Why does all this good happen to me?” Or even, “Why does good happen to anyone?”

You see, I feel like we’re asking for a fair system based upon merit, which, when we really think about it, that is not the way the world works, does it? At its very basic level, this is what we experience as what is most problematic. In other words, “If I knew what it was I was doing to deserve this, I’d stop doing it so that things would go better for me. What am I doing wrong? And if I’m not doing anything to deserve this, why is it happening?” It does come down to the question, “Why isn’t God running things more to my liking?” and, “Why isn’t there a system of rewards and punishments so I could at least know where I stand?” From the other point of view, “There must not be a God because a loving one sure couldn’t let the world run this way.”

An interesting guy named Habakkuk had that same question, but did not get the answer he either wanted or expected. Instead, he pretty much got more questions than answers. Here’s how the basic storyline goes:

Habakkuk: God, haven’t you seen all the injustice happening in my little corner of the world today? Why don’t you fix it? I thought you hated evil.God: So, you’ve noticed, huh? Well, I intend to do something about it, but something so ridiculous that you wouldn’t believe it even if I described it in detail from beginning to end. I’m bringing a ruthless nation in to destroy your nation and take everyone into exile.Habakkuk: What?! Now you really don’t know what you’re doing! I thought it was bad before, but how can you let a people more evil destroy people less evil than them? I thought you couldn’t tolerate evil. What are you thinking, God? Let me wait here and see if you will answer me again.

God: I see the evil going on and one way or another, my people will see it, too. By this punishment, they will come to know that I will not tolerate the way they oppress the powerless. As for the righteous ones, I’m not so worried about them. This is the necessary way to do it and those who understand me will live by their trust in me anyway. I don’t expect you to understand completely, but this is how it has to be.

Habakkuk: Why can’t you just save us like you always did in the past? I know the stories. Why don’t you just do it that way? Why all this horror? Here we are in the midst of your punishment and I can’t understand why you don’t save us now. But even in this calamity, I will still trust you. You know what is best even if I don’t agree with it.

[End of my paraphrased understanding of the conversation between God and Habakkuk in the book of the Bible called Habakkuk.]

What is your answer? What are some other answers you have heard? Are they satisfying? Is the answer Habakkuk gets satisfying? Do you have problems with the way I characterize the book of Habakkuk?

As always, let me know what you think.

Obstinate Faith

February 6, 2006

It is what Bernhard Anderson, in Contours of Old Testament Theology, is talking about when he says, “In the Old Testament faith is steadfast reliance on God amid the uncertainties and insecurities of life.” (p. 1)

It is echoed in the words of Rachel, a mother of four who is stuck in a horrible, one-bedroom, broken down hotel room, with no money and not much food, from Jonathan Kozol’s book, Rachel and Her Children, (p.71):

“Listen to me. I didn’t say that God forsaken us. I am confused about religion. I’m just sayin’ evil overrules the good. So many bad things goin’ on. Lot of bad things right here in this buildin’. It’s not easy to believe. I don’t read the Bible no more ‘cause I don’t find no more hope in it. I don’t believe. But yet and still…I know these words.” She reads aloud: “ ‘Lie down in green pastures…leadeth me beside still waters…restores my soul…I shall not want.’“All that I want is somethin’ that’s my own. I got four kids. I need four plates, four glasses, and four spoons. Is that a lot? I know I’m poor. Don’t have no bank account, no money, or no job. Don’t have no nothin’. No foundation. Then and yet my children have a shot in life. They’re innocent.”It is how Paul talks about Abraham in Romans 4:18 how he “hoped against hope” even though it did not look like he would have a child with his wife Sarah because they were both too old. It is Job who after he learns that he has lost everything he owns and all of his children, yet says in Job 1:21, “Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”

Why is this? How is this? Are these people crazy? How can they trust in God when life’s circumstances are horrible? The answer is what I call obstinate faith. It’s like saying, “God, I have no clue what you are doing and I think you are not running things very well, but I’m going to trust in you anyway.” It is the two-year-old child that will throw himself on the floor in a screaming tantrum rather than concede defeat.

How are we to think of such things? Why do people do this? When there is absolutely no hope, why continue to believe? It is the “problem of evil” at its worst. We don’t know why; we don’t understand; but we trust anyway.

Why?

Biblical Inerrancy: The Search for Certainty in an Uncertain World

January 2, 2006

I had originally planned to do something else this week, but there wasn’t enough support to pull it off. Instead, I thought I’d focus on a broader topic that I hope will bring discussion on both sides, that being biblical inerrancy combined with a few thoughts about postmodernity.

First, biblical inerrancy. I had an interesting conversation with an older lady from our church today having to do with a Bible class where I mentioned the topic of inerrancy. She did not like what I had said about it, but wasn’t even sure what the word I used was. Since then, she has not been back to any of the classes I taught, but she jokingly said that was not the reason. I tried to explain something about what I had said, but she just ended the conversation with something like, “I’ve just always believed God preserved his word in that way and there’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.” This is a typical response from many in Churches of Christ. I have always believed this and I won’t even consider the possibility of things being otherwise.

Let me define my understanding of what the current belief is among Evangelical Christians regarding inerrancy. It primarily concerns the New Testament, but could by extension be applied to the Old Testament. It is the belief that at least for the books regarded as Scripture, whatever the original author wrote in the original manuscript was inerrant, i.e. there were no errors as regards facts, truth claims, spelling, or anything else. They were pristine and perfect. For a fuller definition see this link. This was primarily a response to the fruits of a few hundred years of Textual Criticism, which is the study of the thousands of copies of portions of the New Testament written in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, as well as many more copies in translations such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic, to name a few. I choose not to go into detail here, but I have had both an introductory graduate course in the field as well as an advanced graduate course in the field, which was a guided study under the tutelage of a well-published expert in the field. I say all this just to let you know that if you have questions, I can most likely give you a sufficient answer.

The results of this field of New Testament study showed that there were thousands of differences in manuscript copies of the writings of the New Testament, and this just in the Greek copies. Although the vast majority of these can be reconciled as minor spelling problems, unintentional errors, etc., there are plenty of significant ones. In fact, though for a long period, the purpose of the field was to establish what was the “original text” as written by the author, the move recently has been more toward understanding how the various manuscripts functioned in their historical church settings, realizing that the history of the text is so complicated that establishing the “original text” is not an achievable goal.

All of this is background to why the need for such a belief. For most evangelicals, as well as Churches of Christ, not to believe this is tantamount to not being a faithful Christian. However, one of the main problems I have with this belief is that it is not based in fact or reality. Before you are turned completely off, try to hear me out. The belief is focused on how God must have (or even should have) preserved his word, though no Scripture supports this belief—the Bible does not say this about itself. Even the facts of history do not bear out this belief. The belief is based on documents that we do not have. We do not have the original manuscripts from the original authors’ pens. If it were so important to God for us to have the original text, surely he would have either preserved these originals or he would have preserved an exact copy of them if what we need was the original text as it came from the hand of the authors. We have no such originals or exact copies; every manuscript we have contains at least a few errors, or at least a few uncertainties, even in the shorter books like Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, and especially Jude. The belief is in a phantom text for which we have not a shread of proof. We cannot prove that Paul did not misspell a word here or there. We cannot prove that one of the gospel writers did not get a placename wrong or a detail mixed up. We don’t know exactly what Jesus taught on divorce (for more on this see a previous posting). What we have is thousands of copies of manuscripts, all with a certain amount of differences and errors. We don’t have an inerrant text. So why do we need to believe in something we don’t have? From the evidence, it is clear to me that God does not work to preserve his text in the way that this belief suggests. Instead, he relied on us clumsy, imprecise humans to copy his text down through the ages. Why is this such a problem for us? For me the heart of the matter is a need for certainty.

Let me explain. From my understanding of church history, part of the problem came up during the evolution debate and the “monkey trials” in the last century. This was part of a larger problem of “liberal” biblical scholarship that tried to challenge the credibility and reliability of Scripture, especially regarding certain beliefs such as creation and the resurrection. As a generalization, Evangelical Christianity, rather than attempting to give a serious argument to the questions, entrenched in their beliefs and made them a test of faith rather than trying to explain them and deepen them. So, rather than deal seriously with the criticism, we felt threatened and just decided we wouldn’t play anymore; we would create our own rules. Part of this was the need for certainty when it came to Scripture. If people were challenging its credibility and reliability based partly on the results of Textual Criticism, let’s just refuse to deal with the questions by pushing back to a time when nothing can be proven, i.e. the time of the original writings, and say that they were inerrant. Any scholarship, without the original documents in hand, could not prove otherwise. So if there were problems in the text, that was the result of copying errors and none could be attributed to a problem in the original manuscript. It was a great move in some ways as there was nothing that could challenge it.

The problem occurs when you have people of intelligence, who did not grow up as Christians or left the Christian faith for some reason, who know there are problems and are unwilling just to believe something that is unproveable, and perhaps unnecessary. Is there another, more satisfying explanation that could answer critics and accord with faith? I say, “yes.” The original documents could have contained errors, but could still communicate truth. Let me illustrate by way of analogy. We have, since the invention of the printing press, been able to make countless identical copies of writings. We have come a long way from the time of individual people handwriting copies of the Bible or anything else. Yet I would challenge anyone to show me any recently published book, that has used all the modern technology of spell check, grammar check and numerous editors, that does not have a single typographical error, grammatical error, or for that matter, factual error. My own experience has proven that the first two are in evidence in every book I have ever read and postmodernity has taught us that the latter one is true because every “fact” is still told from a certain point of view and is not unbiased. This includes science textbooks, history books, novels, and many other varieties of literature. And yet no one would deny that these published works communicate reliable truth.

In my opinion, it is the need for certainty, on both sides of the issue, that drives our beliefs. On the Christian fundamentalist side, it is the need to believe in a certain, inerrant text, which seems to amount to idolatry, that is a belief in the text more than a belief in God so that the Bible supplants God as the ultimate object of faith. On the other side, that of unbelief, perhaps as a result of Evangelical Christianity’s belief in inerrancy, nonbelievers are certain that if the text does contain errors, it cannot be a source of truth and so cannot be said to accurately portray God, Jesus or the like. I will reiterate that this is a standard up to which even contemporary publications have failed to hold. Yet we rely on them nonetheless as sources for truth and learning.

A final note on certainty, to open this discussion up even farther, is my observation on the current political divide in the United States. We are uncertain about so many thing in this age of postmodernity that we seem to want to grasp onto whatever we have that is certain. I think that many of our bitter fights have to do with this grasping for any certainty we can find. It is in the thought that drives us, on both sides, namely, “I may not be completely correct in what I know or believe, but I am certain that you are wrong.” And so we home in on that certainty that the other person is wrong, all the while refusing to grapple with the uncertainties in our own position. It is so much easier this way, yet it is so much more detrimental. We don’t grow and we grasp for something that will not satisfy. And so we attack and so we dehumanize and we fail to ever really try to learn from others and see the merits in what they are saying.

These are just some of my thoughts. Let me know yours. It is through genuine dialogue that we all grow.

“To Write or Not to Write,” or better, “To Be Right or Not to Be Right”

December 25, 2005

A caveat: What I say next is meant to challenge and I have wondered whether or not I should post something like this on Christmas Day. However, with the tone of Al’s post, I will continue along those lines, so if you don’t want to read from this point forward, here’s your chance to stop reading now.

I don’t necessarily remember a lot of Christmases growing up. There is one, though, that sticks out pretty clearly in my mind. I’ll just have to say I was in grade school because I don’t remember more specifically than that. We had gone to my grandparents’ double-wide trailer up in northern Arizona as was pretty common growing up. Back when all of my aunts and uncles were still living, we were all there from my mother’s side for the Christmas occasion. That would give us a total of about thirteen to fifteen, including five to seven kids, all in a two-bedroom, two-bath, double-wide trailer. I don’t know exactly what the argument was, but as I remember, it was Christmas Eve, after supper, and there was some dispute about who was sleeping where, as you might imagine. Our tradition was to open all of our presents on the night of Christmas Eve rather than in the morning of Christmas Day, and I think we might have already done that, but I’m not sure. What I do remember very clearly is that it was late in the evening, probably around eight o’clock, and my dad got so angry about trying to determine who would sleep where that he decided our family would just leave and drive the two hours back to our house on Christmas Eve night. I remember my grandparents trying to talk him out of it for maybe half an hour but to no avail. Before I knew it, we had everything loaded up and were on our way back to our house to spend the rest of the Christmas holiday. Such was part of my experience growing up. This was not an isolated event, but part of what life was like in my house. It did not make it any easier to swallow, though, and I don’t remember enjoying Christmas very much that year.

Oh, one last thing. I don’t remember my father ever telling anyone he was sorry for what he did. In fact, quite the opposite. I have never, ever heard my father apologize for anything he’s ever done. The words “I’m sorry” are not in his vocabulary. Why? He’s never wrong. At least from his point of view, that is. So there’s never any reason to say those words despite all the times when he was clearly in the wrong.

The reason I bring this up is not to shame my father, who would likely not read this anyway as I don’t think my parents have an internet connection. Nor is the reason because I need to vent and am having problems resolving issues in my past. That’s not it either. I bring it up as an illustration of the way many “Christians” behave when they are defending “the truth.” There’s no reason to apologize no matter how vitriolic your language gets because if you are right, anything you might say or do in defense of the truth is okay because you’re doing God’s work. (Note the sarcastic tone.)

What gives us the right to treat those with whom we disagree as less than human? Where does that come from? It certainly does not come from our Scripture, our holy book. When we do this, how does this make us different religious extremists such as those who happen to be Muslim? Terrorists believe that any activity is sanctioned to get rid of the infidel, even suicide bombing. Now, I know we don’t kill anyone necessarily, though there are those who kill doctors who perform abortions in the name of Jesus, but is enraged, demeaning, invective language any less damaging to the other person, or indeed, Christianity’s reputation as a whole? Is it?

Is this what our Lord did? Did he insist on being right on every occasion and use whatever means necessary to do so? Take a look at Jesus’ trial before the Pilate in Matthew 27:11-14:

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (NRSV)

All of these people were bringing false charges against Jesus. Why didn’t he speak up? They were not even telling the truth! The truth was at stake and yet Jesus said nothing! But, perhaps you might suggest that it was necessary for Jesus to die and so he did not stand up for the truth because there were extenuating circumstances. Okay, I’ll give you that one. But let’s take a look at another story. This time from Luke 7:36-50:

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.””Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (NRSV)

What did Simon say that was wrong? Did he say anything wrong? Of course he didn’t. He was exactly right that this woman was a sinner, very likely a prostitute is what is intended, especially considering her sin is well known so that Simon knows of it. No matter the sin, which is not specified, Jesus says that he does not condemn her. What? He doesn’t condemn a sinner? What about the truth of how heinous her sin was? Is there no concern that he will be seen as condoning sinful behavior? What is Jesus doing? That and he doesn’t even tell her to stop sinning, he merely says, “go in peace.”

Okay, one last story, this time the famous one from John 7:53-8:11:

53 Then each of them went home, 8:1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (NRSV)

Now we like this story a bit more because in it, Jesus clearly does not condone sin. However, he does say once again that he does not condemn the one who was clearly a sinner. It was clear from the situation what was the “right” thing to do. The Law commanded stoning for one caught in adultery. The truth is at stake and God’s justice is at stake. How can Jesus take the Law’s stipulations so lightly? Didn’t God give the Law? Isn’t it important to stand up for what is right?

Something was more important and it had to do with loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It doesn’t mean to agree with one’s neighbor in all things; it means to love one’s neighbor on all occasions. But it goes beyond that to the point of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44), whether they are right or not.

Coming back to the sinful woman at Simon’s house, Jesus shows that she loves so much, i.e. in what she does for Jesus, because she gets it. That’s right, she gets it. What does she get? She gets the love of God. She gets how much she was forgiven and so she lives out that forgiveness in the love she shows other people.

We love the book of Romans but we ignore what Paul says right after the verses about being a living sacrifice in Romans 12:1-2. Right before he talks about spiritual gifts and using them appropriately, he knows there might be some arrogance with those whose gift seems more important. So he says in 12:3, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” This is the same approach he takes in Philippians 2:5-11, when he talks about Christ emptying himself to become human to save us sinners. It is humility, not arrogance.

Coming back full circle, when we condemn others, use hateful language toward them, attack them, or however you want to put it, we are wrong. It does not matter how factually correct we might be. If we don’t treat people in a loving way, we are wrong. Dead wrong. No excuses. No loopholes.

In such cases we need to learn the words that my father still has not learned–“I’m sorry.” It is a sign of humility. It is recognizing that we don’t have everything right and that we are all still struggling sinners, trying to do what is right as we are traveling on the path of life. It doesn’t mean that you’re telling the person “You’re right.” It is saying “I was wrong, please forgive me.” Until we learn to do this, we show that we don’t really get God’s love and we don’t really get the attitude of Christ.

Sorry for the sermon, but I’m in a preachy mood.

“Where Have All the Widows Gone?” – Schizophrenia, Part Two

December 11, 2005

As promised, it is time to get into 1 Timothy, but I’d like to take an important sidetrack to start. It starts in the form of church structure, something which we try to emulate in Churches of Christ.

Historically speaking, we do not know what deacons did in the first century any more than we know exactly what the distinction was between elder and overseer. When one looks at the church of Jerusalem (and other churches, like Antioch, Corinth, etc. as well), one does not find deacons, but only elders, very likely because of the structure of a synagogue. Where we find deacons, namely in Philippi (Philippians 1:1), Cenchraea (Romans 16:1) and Ephesus (1 Timothy 3:8-13), we don’t know what they were doing; all we know are qualifications, and that from 1 Timothy 3. There are more verses spent on widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16) than on deacons and yet we do not have established widows’ ministries in our churches. Paul does give clear instructions on what he wants to happen with widows, both older and younger, and yet we do nothing to support widows in our churches. Have widows disappeared? Have husbands stopped dying? Maybe widows don’t need as much help as they used to need. Is that true? Is it easier to be a single parent today than it was in the first century? I really doubt it. Why don’t we have an established way of taking care of them like the church at Ephesus had? Why is that not important to us?

This is in my opinion a curious case of a clear example (i.e. in our hermeneutic of command, example, necessary inference) of something that is clearly not cultural, at least in the sense that widows exist in both cultures and need help, that has not even been attempted to be followed in our churches. What is our justification for ignoring this? I really know of none; we just simply ignore it. Maybe someone else can explain otherwise. If so, please enlighten me.

Continuing on with 1 Timothy, while we are busy ignoring the example of the widows, we spend much time in making sure women are kept from the public eye based on our understanding of 2:11-15. Here is the NRSV translation:

11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

What we tend to leave out is 2:8-10, which reads (NRSV):

8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.

One thing that has always seemed problematic to me is how we treat Scripture as if it were written directly to us. Some would deny the need for studying the historical context to understand the situation better, as if doing this somehow took away from the authority of Scripture. Some might try to get around the implications of Scripture this way, but others, wanting to avoid this, would rather promote a misunderstanding of Scripture if that were what we’ve always thought. This is a good example in the text under discussion. If this letter were written directly to us, it sounds strange that men should be told to pray “without anger or argument.” I don’t know about your church, but I haven’t found it to be the case that men have a problem with anger and argument when it comes to prayer in the church that I attend. While I think we would agree that these have no place in prayer time, it seems that we could also see that there is some historical situation in Ephesus about which Paul knows something we do not, and so he is addressing it in this verse. Men at Ephesus were having a certain problem with anger or argument (or both) in prayer and it needed to be addressed.

Continuing on this trajectory, and back to our schizophrenia when it comes to application of Scripture, women in our churches do wear braided hair, gold, pearls, expensive clothes (not to mention provocative clothes, which is probably a much larger problem), basically everything that Paul tells women NOT to wear here in 1 Timothy 2:9. I ask again, knowing the answer, is the distinction between rich and poor any different today than it was then? Is it more proper today for those with wealth to show off by wearing extravagant clothing and jewelry, thereby exalting themselves and in some sense shaming those with nothing, than it was in first century Ephesus? If this problem has not gone away, then why aren’t we dealing with this issue? This is a command! And we ignore it! And in this same passage we condemn those who “lift up holy hands” today, even though it is a command to do it! What is this about? Is this a cultural thing? Was there something happening in Ephesus with certain rich women that Paul needed to handle just as he did with the men who had anger and were arguing when it came to prayer time? I think we would agree that this is possible. So, then, does historical knowledge help us interpret Scripture? It seems so.

Going further along this trajectory, could it just be possible that 2:11-15 deal with something historically happening in Ephesus just as the previous three verses, whether we know exactly what that was or not? Let’s look at some things that we do not understand. 2:15 says, “she will be saved through childbearing” if she continues in certain ways of behaving. Not only does that sound like being saved by works, how does childbearing have any place in salvation history? I am a man who cannot bear children. What do I do to be saved? I think the point is clear that, yes, even here, there is something happening at Ephesus that Paul addresses that makes him write these verses to Timothy. Due to the word connection between 2:9 and 2:15, which both use the term for “modesty” (it is the same Greek word), it is extremely likely that the women who dress extravagantly are the same ones that Paul is addressing here in 2:11-15. A further point, without even going into a serious examination of the Greek text, concerns whether or not this is about wives and husbands at home or about some form of church gathering. It is at least possible that what Paul is saying in 2:12 is that he does not permit wives to have authority over their husbands, and is not speaking categorically about all women being subject to all men. The example of Adam and Eve, a husband and wife, gives even more credence to this interpretation, though I will not push the matter further. It is also at least possible that the false teachers mentioned in 1:3-7 are the same wives that are teaching error and it is these who are told to be silent. This is not clear, but it is at least possible. There is also a possible connection with 5:13, young widows who are going from house to house spreading gossip (teaching too maybe?), who are referenced here, but the connection is not clear. It is interesting that the same Greek word is translated “woman” here in 2:11 and is translated “their wives” (even though the Greek word for “their” is not in the Greek text) in 3:11, though that very likely refers to women who are deacons, not wives of deacons, but I will get into that more deeply next posting.

Finally, as I believe that our inconsistency has been put forth pretty clearly as I understand what we have done in selecting certain parts of 1 Timothy to follow while ignoring others, I will whet your appetite for next week by mentioning one final passage, this time from Romans 16:1-2. The NRSV, against ALL other translations, I realize, reads:

16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

I submit to you my firm belief that if there were a male name before the word here translated, rather appropriately I might add, as deacon, we would have no problem saying that he held the office of deacon at the church of Cenchraea. Since it is a female name instead of a male one, we resort to torturous interpretive methods to confute the “plain meaning of Scripture” because our current understanding of women’s roles does not allow for a woman to be a deacon. Is this virtuous? Is this an attempt to understand Scripture? Just because we have a problem with the idea that a woman could learn in silence and still be a deacon, does that mean Paul also had this problem? In my opinion, Paul did not see a contradiction where we see one. Is this his schizophrenia or ours?

Where have all the widows gone anyway?

Our Schizophrenic Biblical Interpretation, Part One of a Few

November 20, 2005

By way of introduction, I decided that I’ve been dealing with only easy issues for way too long and am not getting many comments and interaction. Since I see the purpose of the blog world as a way to engage in dialogue, I am starting this week by throwing out some thoughts on a tough issue, but you, O blog reader, have led me to it.

When one looks at our interpretation of Scripture, our holy book, one finds that we can be very schizophrenic at times. For instance, we believe that the commands of Scripture are important, but choose which commands we like to follow. When Peter tells the crowd of Jews in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized” (or “baptize yourselves”—a very plausible interpretation if you know Greek and Jewish practices of baptism), we say that is a command not only to the Jews but also to us by extension and that is how we become Christians. Great! I follow that. But then we come to what Jesus says to his disciples in John 13:14, “Since, therefore, even I have washed the feet of all of you, the Lord and Teacher, even all of you are obligated to wash one another’s feet.” Some Christian traditions do foot washing, particularly on the Thursday before Easter, but the Church of Christ does not. Yet it is laid upon Jesus’ disciples as an obligation (the word “ought” just does not express in English the force of the Greek word here).

Our interpretive thinking would go something like this: In those days the custom was to wash feet because everyone wore sandals and walked on dusty roads. It was just common courtesy. Therefore it is not a command or example for us (even though Jesus specifically calls it such in John 13:15) because it had to do with their customs and their situation. In Acts 2, Peter was telling people how to become Christians so this applies to everyone at all times. We see this practice continue in the book of Acts and can therefore assume it to be normative.

Going back to the custom thing, the custom with footwashing was to have one’s servants wash the feet of one’s guests. The “lord” of the house did not do such menial tasks. The point Jesus was making had nothing to do with the what of footwashing, but the why of footwashing—i.e. why he, their Lord and teacher, did a slave’s work. The command still applies and concerns humility, not custom. If we don’t want to wash feet, we need to find a different way to humble ourselves before others that is similar in kind to footwashing in the first century if we want to follow Jesus’ teaching. [I say this not derogatorily, but assuming that perhaps we don’t think Jesus’ teaching to his disciples has relevance for us today. I would then wonder how it functions as Scripture for us, then, and not just a good story.]

The real point of departure for discussing our schizophrenic interpretation comes in the so-called women’s issue, or the role of women in the church [don’t swallow your gum, Al, when you read this]. For the purpose of this particular blog article, I prefer for all of us to stick with 1 Corinthians and try to understand it first, without bringing in 1 Timothy or 1 Peter. After all, if we cannot make sense of Paul in just one of his letters, how can we bring in a later letter of his and then the letter of another author?

Here is another example of our schizophrenic interpretation. We read in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women are to be silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak. So we (i.e. Churches of Christ, and others) say that women cannot say prayers in the morning worship assembly, they cannot read Scripture, cannot lead singing, cannot lead the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist, communion), and cannot even pass it down the aisles (you who are not from this tradition will see the differences between us in how we do the Lord’s Supper). How this last thing relates to being silent I do not get, but that’s what we do. However, women sing from the pew in our assembly. If there is an announcement and the person announcing has incorrect information, women are free to give them the correct information from their seat in the pew. We do not follow this command even though we say we do. Women are not silent in our churches. Were they completely silent in the Corinthian churches? They certainly weren’t before Paul wrote this. Does he expect them to be completely silent until church is over? I don’t think so. This is where 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 comes in. It reads:

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head– it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious– we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Although I have some issues with the NRSV translation here, I present the text so you don’t have to go look it up. Some important issues to deal with to get out of the way with this text are that the head covering is clearly a cultural issue. It was a custom when going to offer sacrifice before a pagan god for a man to cover his head. We don’t really have a similar custom. Secondly, Paul is no egalitarian. He is definitely more liberal than many in his day, but he stills sees women in a subordinate role. I don’t have a problem with saying that this is Paul’s understanding of things. Thirdly, in 11:14, when he says that nature teaches men should have short hair and women long hair, he clearly does not mean “nature”, as hair on both men and women can grow long or be cut short. There isn’t a gene that keeps men’s hair from growing long or a gene that prevents women’s hair from being cut—what Paul means is that the custom of his culture is that women wear long hair and it is disgraceful for them to have a shaved head. Such is not the same for men. It is disgraceful for men to have long hair, but there are also certain Jewish rites in which a man shaves his head and this is not disgraceful for him. This is custom, the word he uses in 11:16, but there he is dealing with a larger issue. Finally, as all good God-followers do, he uses Scripture to buttress his argument. 11:8-9 deal with the creation account in Genesis 2:18-25, where God takes a rib (customarily) out of Adam and forms Eve so that she is both made for him (11:9) and taken from him (11:8). This is also likely behind what he says in 11:3 about man being the head of woman and that for this reason there should be a “symbol of authority” on her head (i.e. to symbolize her husband’s authority over her) in 11:10. Paul gets very egalitarian on us when in 11:11-12 he talks about neither being independent of one another, but that man now comes from woman and all things are from God. He seems to mean here that neither is better than the other, but both are equal. An issue that never has been resolved satisfactorily (to my understanding) is what the “because of the angels” in 11:10 means. I do not attempt to solve it here. I do have a problem with Paul saying that only man is the “image and glory of God” (11:7) because Genesis 1:27 says that male and female were made in God’s image, but I’ll leave that point for now.

Leaving all of the prior discussion aside for the moment, let’s focus on the key issue here. This passage is about customary practice in the churches when it comes to men and women praying and prophesying in the churches (Which were, of course, groups of people meeting in houses, with the possible exception of the Jerusalem church meeting in the temple [see Acts 2:42-47]. There was no distinction between private worship and public worship—it all took place in homes.). When Paul sums up his argument in 11:16 by saying no other church has a different custom, what he is talking about is the central concern—the practice is that men do not pray or prophesy with any sort of covering on their heads and women do pray and prophesy only with a covering on their heads. This is the customary practice in all of the churches and Paul wants it to be the case in the Corinthian church as well.

Getting back to our schizophrenia does Paul have it too? Does he contradict himself by allowing women to pray and prophesy in chapter 11 and then telling them to be silent in chapter 14? Most interpreters in Churches of Christ would say that 1 Corinthians 14 is what Paul really wants to happen—he doesn’t want women to pray, prophesy, talk, or anything. Is this true?

Without boring you too much, 1 Corinthians 12-14 deals with speaking in tongues and prophesying in the assembly. There was complete disorder in the Corinthian churches as tongue-speakers and prophesiers all spoke at once so no one understood and no one got any benefit. What Paul tells these people, both tongue-speakers and prophesiers, is to, you got it, “be silent” (14:28, 30). Why? Because God is not a god of disorder, but a God of peace as in every church (14:33). “Be silent,” is exactly what he tells the women to do (14:34). Clearly this is not the main cause of commotion in Corinth or Paul would have spent more time on it like he did with speaking in tongues and prophesying. But just as that was a problem unique to Corinth, and was situational, so also was the problem of certain women who kept piping up in the assembly with questions for their husbands, thus adding to the chaos that already existed there. Paul’s advice to them parallels his advice to the prophets and tongue-speakers—be silent, submit to having order in the assembly, and further specific instruction for them is to ask their husbands at home. The Greek bears this interpretation out and I can reference the person who demonstrates this because this is not my original thinking. What is shameful, then, is not for women to speak, but for women to keep on causing chaos by asking questions, thus interrupting the speaker and creating disorder in the church. Once again, Paul is dealing with the same issue in all three cases—the prophesiers, the tongue-speakers and the women are all causing disorder and chaos that are making it so no one benefits from their time of corporate worship.

Paul does not want all women to be silent everywhere any more than he wants all tongue-speakers or all prophesiers to be silent at all times. Women who pray and prophesy with their head covered are the normal custom in the churches and Paul wants this practice to continue. (For further reference to Christian women prophets, see Philip’s four unmarried daughters in Acts 21:9.)

I’ve gone on for too long, but this is what I see as an example of our schizophrenic biblical interpretation. Tell me what you think.

"Maturity—Knowing Our Limits" or "How Much Meat Do You Get?"

November 13, 2005

Book of Steps, Discourse 12.5-6:
5. Just as a nurse who brings up a child teaches it to eat bread as something superior to milk, so does this visible church teach her children to eat something better, and far greater, whereby they can grow up…. But what nursing mother who has many children, some thirty years old, others only thirty days old, is going to be able to set before them all one and the same food? If she were to set before them just solid food alone, then her thirty day old childe would die, whereas the thirty year old would grow; but if she provided only milk, then the thirty day old one would live and grow plump, whereas the thirty year old one would die in agony. This is the reason why our Lord and his preachers, who serve as leaders for everyone, instruct the thirty day old child as follows: ‘Do not eat with adulterers or mix with prostitutes, drunkards and accursed people, or with any whose actions are evil’; but to the thirty year old they say, ‘Take on the sickness of the sick, and be all things to all men; (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9; 9:22) do not call anyone a pagan or unclean (Acts 10:28) or evil, even though he may be so. Hold everyone to be better than (Phil 2:3) yourself, and in this way you will grow in stature.’
6. Thus they instructed everyone in accordance with what was appropriate for him. If someone thirty days old were to go off to the house of evil men, he would perish; but if a thirty year old goes to the house of evil men, he may convert them; and if they are not converted, he himself will not perish, for he has become a fully grown man in the spirit. [The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, trans. by Sebastian Brock (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1987), pp. 50-51.]

Sorry for the long quote, but I believe in giving a proper context for a quote and this time it seemed necessary to give more so that you would know what this writer was trying to say. The Book of Steps is a document written in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic in the province of what would be modern-day Iraq in the late 4th century A.D. It is one of those documents that are written for spiritual nourishment, training in righteousness one might say, for Christians’ growth. The reason I have quoted it here is to introduce you to such writings and also because I think this unknown Christian writer had something important to say. I’ll take two approaches to the topic under discussion.

First, I think this talks to us about knowing our limits and staying within them. From a confessional standpoint, I find that I have had many times when I have gotten myself in a situation where I was “in over my head.” I thought I was more prepared for a certain situation than I actually was. For instance, when I was in Iraq working at a hospital there, I really struggled with how to talk with two soldiers whose five friends had all drowned in a horrible accident when their armored vehicle rolled over into a canal. I had been notified myself only an hour or two before I had to go and talk to these two people. It was difficult to say the least and I think God helped me when I spoke with them, but I still felt inadequate to the task. As my deployment drew on, I learned how better to handle such situations, but one still is never fully prepared to face death and talk with people who have faced it.

On a lighter note, I remember as a teenager in high school how hard it was not to succumb to peer pressure. When I hung around with friends at school, who were inevitably not Christians, I used horrible language and really struggled with trying to maintain any sense of being a Christian amidst so many who were not concerned with morality of any kind. I was like the thirty day old mentioned in the quote above.

This is the type of problem I think that so many otherwise-well-intentioned Christians of all walks of life have when they succumb to pressures of the culture around them, even particularly in the form of an extra-marital affair. We are often shocked when we find out that a minister or a loved one we know of has had an affair and is getting a divorce. We self-righteously think, “I would never do that,” and wonder how such a person could have fallen so far. When we see a fellow believer that struggles with alcoholism or some other form of addiction, we think, “That could never happen to me.” But that is where we have a problem. The preacher who gets caught in sexual sin or the alcoholic that never intended to be such thought they knew their limits. They thought that they could handle more than they could. Paul, in the context of dealing with the Corinthians who are succumbing to outside pressure from people who mock their belief in the resurrection, tells them, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NRSV) We have signposts along the way, little urgings from God to warn us that we are in over our heads, but we tend to ignore them until it is too late. Good Christians friends, ones who are more mature than us, are essential sounding boards to help keep us in check.

The second trajectory I want to take is the idea of growing by actually delving into deeper portions of Scripture, you know, the wrestling with God thing. So often in our churches and our Bible classes we hear the same things we’ve always heard. We read the same texts, hear the same comments, interpret them in the same way, and never get beyond the milk of Scripture. We have thirty year olds who are trying to live on milk and are not getting the nourishment they need. For instance, we gloss over the differences in our gospel accounts of the same incidents in Jesus’ life and act like the stories are exact in every detail. They are not. When will we wrestle with this and get beyond ignoring the differences in the text to grow into understanding why the gospel writers wrote the things they did the way they did? If Mark 16:9-20 was not in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the gospels, why is it in all of our Bibles? Is it Scripture? Why or why not? Getting beyond the thought that Scripture dropped out of the sky from God to really struggling with how God communicates his word to us through human authors, transmitted by fallible humans using imprecise writing instruments and paper, this is starting to get to some meat. Going beyond reading for information, i.e. which king reigned during what time and did what during his reign, to looking in broader strokes about what Scripture says about the nature and character of God—this is meat. Going to Job and struggling with why God picked a fight with Satan at Job’s expense and then never gave Job a real answer to his question—this is meat. God is not someone whom we can control, quite the opposite. We grow by struggling in our relationship with him, learning to trust him more each day. Without wrestling with the harder questions of Scripture, we do not grow into being able to face the difficult situations in life. We’re trying to grow up on milk without ever eating solid food.

I can honestly say that I was not completely prepared to deal with all the death and dismemberment I saw when I was in the hospital in Iraq. But if I had not already wrestled with the problem of evil in my academic education, I would have been paralyzed and completely lost, not knowing what to do or say to minister to the soldiers in Iraq.

As a final example, we wonder why so many Christian marriages fail today. I am convinced that at least part of this reason is that we have failed to grasp the concept of self-sacrificial love that was embodied in our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul goes back to the cross to solve every problem he encounters in writing to the churches. Philippians is a particularly relevant one in this discussion. To deal with a problem of two of its members fighting, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Paul gives many examples of self-sacrificial love, culminating in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11:
5 This think among yourselves which also Christ Jesus thought, 6 who being in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans, and being found in appearance as a man 8 humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death of a cross. 9 Therefore, God both highly exalted him and graced him with the name that is above all names, 10 so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and in earth and under the earth 11 and every tongue confess, “Jesus Christ is Lord” for the glory of God the father. (my translation)

Learning how to put that love into practice, we then grow up in the Lord, and are capable of facing even the most intense situations, perhaps converting others, but at least not losing our faith in the process. May God bless you with an environment in which you can grow and become more like Christ!

Ministers of Reconciliation

October 2, 2005

This will be a strange start for those of you that don’t know me, but it makes sense in my way of thinking. I do a lot of counseling with married couples, many of whom are on the verge of divorce. What I often find them troubled by is fighting in front of their children. Many think that they should not do it because it troubles the kids, makes them think their parents will divorce, or whatever, i.e. that it makes for an unstable environment for the children. For those of you who are counselors out there, you might disagree, but I tell them it is okay to fight in front of their kids. Now I assure them that knock-down, drag-out fights are not healthy at all, especially not in front of the kids, but that arguing is natural and is okay for the kids to see provided they also see you work things out and make up. Rather than provide an unstable environment, it provides a very stable one that shows the children a healthy way to handle the conflict they will inevitably experience in their lives.

Somehow along the way, we as a church have perpetuated a dysfunctional way of disagreeing over the years. We fight, no one gives in, both parties think they are right, and something of a divorce often happens. We have split over such things as Sunday school, one cup or many cups, having a church kitchen or not, ad infinitum. We don’t mind fighting in front of everyone else and arguing for our own way, but then we never reconcile. We don’t know how to make up. So our kids growing up in our churches never see the type of reconciliation our very Bibles teach us. How can we be ministers of reconciliation if we don’t even know how to do that among our closest friends?

Here’s my example from Scripture. You might disagree with my interpretation of the situation and there is enough ambiguity that I could be wrong, but there is a situation in Corinth that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians and seems to be solved in 2 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Paul has heard of a Christian who has his father’s wife. Paul tells the congregation in no uncertain terms to cast this wicked person out because of his unrepentant situation. He wants to deal with the flesh so the man will be saved. By the time Paul writes 2 Corinthians, it appears that his advice has been followed and has worked. In 2 Corinthians 2:6-10, Paul writes:

6 This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; 7 so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. (NRSV)

It appears that this is very likely the man who has been kicked out and he has repented. Paul’s advice is reconciliation. Let him back in and reaffirm your love for him because his punishment has been enough and brought about the desired repentance. Now it is time to show love.

Okay, last I knew we did not disagree about anything as serious as blatant immorality conducted by a Christian. Instead, we divided on matters of opinion. People disagreed so strongly that the congregation divided, half or more going one way and half or less going the other way. People did not reconcile, agree to disagree, love one another and move forward as brothers and sisters struggling with their own understanding of their faith. This is a huge problem. What we modeled was how to be obstinate, not budge on one’s own opinion, and drive someone else away. We did not model reconciliation. We drew lines in the sand and would not budge.

I’m not saying there is never a time to draw a line in the sand. Paul did that in 1 Corinthians 5, but it served a purpose—reconciliation. He drew a line in Galatians and would not allow Jewish Christians to require Torah obedience from their fellow Gentile Christians. John in 1 John draws the line at denying that Christ came in the flesh. There are certain lines that are important, but we have not drawn them there. We’ve drawn them based on our own interpretations of certain church practices typically. And so we divide and we perpetuate it because our children have learned from us how to fight and not give in.

After all, we’re right, aren’t we? And when we get into arguments that get heated, we’re not the only ones at fault, right? How can I apologize when I know he or she also took it too far and hurt me too? It’s not about you and your right to not reconcile. It is about showing humility, the very humility Christ had (Philippians 2) and reconciling with your brother(s) or sister(s) in Christ, just like Paul urges of Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4). It is about being Christ-like and giving up your own rights because it’s not about you. This is how Paul attempts to solve the eating meat sacrificed to idols problem in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Those who want to be able to eat it argue vehemently for their right to do so. Paul starts 1 Corinthians 9 by arguing for his rights as an apostle just so he can give them up in 9:15. Amazing! It is not about me and my right to be right. It is about showing love for my fellow believer.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes:

14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (NRSV)

We don’t live to ourselves but to Christ. We cannot be ministers of the reconciliation God offers to us through his son if we can’t learn to live out that reconciliation among fellow believers. We need to learn to say we’re sorry, even and especially at the expense of giving up our right to be right.

Living in community means that we will have disagreements. We don’t turn and run when things don’t work out as we like. We instead take the hard, but worthwhile, road of loving and forgiving, in that way modeling the very forgiveness we receive from God through Christ. The world needs to see the church as a witness of God’s reconciliation. They need to see that we can work out our problems and still love one another. The world needs to see the humility that realizes that I’m wrong and I’m a sinner in need of God’s grace and even in need of forgiveness from other people as well.

Will we break the cycle of division by showing future generations how to work things out peaceably? Will we show the example of our Lord by learning that humility can be a wonderful instrument leading to peace and love? Can we show respect for our fellow human beings by asking their forgiveness when we’ve wronged them? I hope so. Where else will people learn of Christ’s forgiveness?

Some Questions

September 19, 2005

Romans 11:33-36 (NRSV):

33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

We don’t believe this, do we? I mean, when it comes down to it, we believe we have God all figured out. You hear it in our Bible classes; you hear it in the way we talk about salvation; you hear it in our talk about various sins like homosexuality; you hear it in the way we talk about Scripture itself. God is not hidden from us, is he?

Have you noticed what we now consider to be “deep” and “intensive” bible studies? I hear people talk about Beth Moore studies (just to name one) and how deep they are. Yet if you read through the studies, Scripture is just a side point. She doesn’t delve into the depths of the nature of God like early church theologians did. Or look at Rick Warren and the innumerable studies on the Purpose-Driven Life. He does nothing different from what people have always done in the history of Churches of Christ. He uses Scriptures as proof texts and nothing more. He just finds a way to prove something else and uses different texts. Does that make a study deep? We need meat and yet we call breast milk steak. How is that? Have we so lost a sense of what meat is that “everything tastes like chicken?”

Or take a different issue. There was a Bible study recently on 1 Peter, which I must say I did not attend but I will try to be fair, that when 1 Peter talks about God’s foreknowledge and predestination focused on our own free will and ability to choose. 1 Peter is not talking about free will at all. How did that come to be the focus of the discussion?

When did we put ourselves above the text instead of under it? In the passage quoted, Paul has just revisited what God was doing with Gentiles and Jews in the section of Romans 9-11. He is addressing the problem of the fact that most Jews did not believe in Jesus as Messiah and so stumbled over the gospel. He reminds Gentiles that they were grafted into the root, but were not natural members so they must remember their place. He finally comes down to chapter 11 and mysteriously explains that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), quoting Scripture to prove his point. He tells how it was God’s mysterious ways that would use Jewish rebellion to convert Gentiles and Gentile mercy to convert Jews. So he creates a hymn to praise God for his wisdom.

But we don’t really believe this. We know that Peter really believes in free will and does not really mean “foreknowledge” and “predestination.” Even in the passage cited, we know that Paul does not really mean that all Jews will be saved. We know that the Holy Spirit is a gift given after baptism and that people would never receive the Spirit before they were baptized, despite the fact that Acts 10 reports otherwise. We know that when God says in Genesis 22:12, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” that he really knew all the time what Abraham would do. He didn’t just find out when Abraham took the knife to slay his son, did he? He is just condescending to our level to make us think he didn’t know what Abraham was going to do. He’s using human language, right? We know that Jonah must have had a longer sermon than just to say that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days, right? God knew Nineveh would repent, right? And God isn’t serious when in Jeremiah 18 he says that he works with people like a potter with clay to mold them and can change his plans if things go wrong, is he? God knows what is going to go wrong before it happens, right?

We don’t read things into the text, do we?

I have a dear friend who, when we started talking about Hurricane Katrina, just couldn’t assign blame to God. He had developed a very detailed angelology to account for why bad things happen in the world. Even when we pointed things out to him like God is still responsible for what he sends the angels to do, he would still not ultimately lay responsibility at God’s feet. I love him dearly but use him as an extreme example of what we all do. We come with preconceptions to Scripture and read them into the text. We have God figured out so he must be this way. If there is a Scripture to refute what we think, we have ways of explaining it away. We refuse to submit to the text, but instead submit the text to what we want it to say. What we think is deep is a new idea that we haven’t heard before that does not even come from the text, but is someone else’s new idea that has proof texts to back it up. In short, we don’t believe God’s ways are unsearchable as Paul says. We have God in a box and we like to keep him there.

We need meat not milk. We need to grow up and wrestle with hard texts in Scripture. We need to hear texts like when Jesus says that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25; Matthew 19:23-24; Luke 18:25), put ourselves under that text as the rich person, and wonder why it is so hard for us to enter the kingdom. We need to read through our Bibles with an eye toward what Scripture says about God’s character, who he is, what he’s like, not come with our own notions of what that means and read them into the text. We need to go to texts like Exodus 34:6-7 and try to understand why that is so definitive of who God is. We need to scrap our “God has a detailed, completely-mapped-out-plan-for-my-life” theology and find out what it means to live in relationship with him like his people at all times have done. They did not believe that he guided them moment by moment and that if they deviated from his plan, they were forever lost. They talked about God as father (Hosea 11) and all that such a metaphor implies. They talked about God as husband who has to divorce his wife (Hosea 1-2; Jeremiah 3:8-10) because she has been unfaithful. (See also Ephesians 5 with Jesus as husband and the church as a wife). [I must give credit for this to Dr. John Willis and his recent blog postings.] Yet we read texts like Jeremiah 29:11, “11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope,” and act like they were spoken or written directly to us. Did we not notice that he was talking to the southern kingdom, Judah, and his plan for a PEOPLE not an INDIVIDUAL? How did this come to apply to us as individuals?

Our study must go deeper than this. We must seek to learn about God by learning what he was saying to his people then so we can understand how he deals with people now. We are right in thinking he has not changed in his essence, his nature. Have we bothered with trying to understand why it is that Jesus went to all the poor, hurting people while we would rather not bother with such people today? That is challenging. That is deep. That is wrestling with Scripture and wrestling with God. Reaffirming what we’ve always believed is not deep or challenging, and I would argue, it is not faithful either. God’s people have always wrestled with him (hence the name Israel, which defines God’s people, and means “he who wrestles with God”). They have never quite understood all of his ways and why he does what he does. Most often that has meant that they just could not grasp his mercy. From time to time, though, it has meant that they could not understand why he lets bad things happen to good people (see Job and a third of the Psalms).

When we see things like Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami last December, and yes, even 9/11, can we really continue to believe that we have God all figured out? I say, no. But that is why it is so great when we begin to grow in our relationship with God and love him despite our struggles with why he does not make things turn out as we like all the time. That is what relationship means—we learn more about him and he learns more about us. We grow and we learn more fully what his love means in our lives. Is there anything better?