Response to Renew’s Review (Part 5) of Women Serving God

September 12, 2020

Renew has recently published the fifth part of their series on the Bible, gender, and the church. This is my response.

Renew’s series, as a whole, responds to the publication of my book, Women Serving God. The following are links to the discussion between myself and Renew in the blogosphere.

  1. Renew’s Review (Part 1): Hermeneutics.
  2. My Response to Part 1.
  3. Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1. (I copied it into #4 below.)
  4. My Rejoinder to Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1.
  5. Renew’s Review (Part 2): 1 Corinthians 11.
  6. My Response to Part 2.
  7. Renew’s Review (Part 3): 1 Corinthians 14.
  8. My Response to Part 3.
  9. Renew’s Review (Part 4): 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
  10. My Response to Part 4.
  11. Renew’s Review (Part 5): Elders.

This present post is my response to Renew’s Part 5. Renew’s blog is over 7000 words. My response is brief–only 1500 words. Renew’s blog series (now in five parts) is now over 37,000 words and my responses are about 21,500.

As Renew turns its attention to the topic of church polity and the function of elders in the community of faith, it moves beyond the specific thesis and interest of my book, which Part 5 recognizes.

The purpose of my book is to explore the participation of women in the assembly. I make no sustained argument in the book that addresses the specific question of gender inclusion in the eldership. In fact, I explicitly defer that discussion to another book, which I hope to write.

Whether the eldership is gender inclusive or exclusive is materially irrelevant to the topic of whether women are invited to fully participate in the assemblies of the saints unless elders have some specific function or giftedness in the assembly that excludes all other believers. Among churches of Christ, other than a policy statement or something similar, there is no such function in our assemblies. In other words, whether it is leading worship, prayer, administration of the table, or preaching, none of these belong exclusively to elders—at least in the last one hundred years or so of the churches of Christ.

The topic of polity and gender exclusion/inclusion deserves careful attention and a close reading of Scripture as well as a coherent theological application of the story of God. I made the decision to defer that topic to another book rather than attempt to address it in this one.

Consequently, as Renew addresses the role of elders, it is no longer reviewing my book but offering a case for their own position, which has been their primary purpose (I surmise) from the beginning. Since their present blog offering (#5) moves beyond the purpose and arguments of my own book, I will defer any response to this specific topic until I have had opportunity to fully state what I think is the case and offer an extended rationale for my position (whatever my conclusion may be).

However, I will offer a few but brief observations on the points in the review that I think are relevant to the case I wanted to make in Women Serving God.

1. In part, the exclusion of women from serving as elders is grounded in material already covered earlier in the blogs or a future blog, according to Renew. I covered this material in my book or in earlier responses as well. This is the list Renew provides.

  • Adam’s primogeniture status and Eve’s role as a “strong helper.” Response: As I suggested in both my book and in my earlier response, this is a misreading of Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 2:13 as well as a failure to recognize “helper” (‘ezer) as a powerful ally (even rescuer) who shares the same nature, vocation, and identity as men (Genesis 1:26-28).
  • Priests were exclusively male and given a “special teaching role in Israel.”  Response: Teaching was not limited to priests; prophets taught as well, and women were prophets. Is the male Levitical priesthood of Israel a delimitation of female teaching under the priesthood of Jesus, who serves in a totally different order of priesthood (Melchizedek)?
  • “Jesus picked only men to be his 12 apostles.” Response: he picked only Jews as well to be his apostles. Does this exclude Gentiles from service as elders?
  • Husbands have a “Christ-like headship (authority) role as a servant leader,” which Renew will more fully articulate in a future Part 6. Response: this misunderstands the function of “head” in relation to Christ and the church as well as husbands and wife.
  • “In Christian gatherings, boundaries are established to uphold male headship in the church when women pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11) and during disruptions (1  Corinthians 14).” Response: male headship in 1 Corinthians 11 is not about male authority (as Renew understands headship) and the silencing of women in 1 Corinthians 14 is about communal disorder rather than male headship (see my responses to Parts 2 and 3).
  • “1 Timothy 2:11-15 teaches that in the gathered church, women are not to teach or exercise authority over men.” Response: each phrase in that statement is quite disputed and uncertain—it is not only about the “gathered church,” “teach” needs a narrow definition in order to make the point about elders, and “exercise authority” is about abusive and controlling activity rather than the authority of elders. The text more likely teaches that deceived women should not teach in such a way that they persuade men to follow their pathway into the hands of Satan (see my response to Part 4). By the way, it is important to note that nowhere in my chapter on 1 Timothy 2 nor in my response to Part 4 did I ever appeal to Galatians 3:28. My journey was an exegetical one with regard to 1 Timothy 2.

2. Hermeneutics is an important dimension of this discussion. At the same time, I see no evidence in our series of blogs that Renew and myself disagree, in principle, about the hermeneutical task (see my response to Part 1). We do disagree about the meaning and application of some (a few, actually) texts. But we both agree, at least, on these principles of “good hermeneutics”:

  • Scripture must have first place in our decision-making process and its norms guide us.
  • Our goal is to understand the teaching of Scripture so we might obey God.
  • We must discern where practices taught by Scripture function as applied theological principles in specific cultures and situations that no longer bind us (e.g., we no longer require head-covering, or forbid the wearing of gold and pearls, or require widows to be sixty before they are enrolled by the church, or follow Christ’s example of foot washing, etc.) and where practices are themselves part of the gospel norms (e.g., baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc.).
  • We seek a coherent theology of gender through a close reading of Scripture.

3. Concerning Galatians 3:28, I think the blog is too dismissive of the significance of this text. I offer my own perspective in Women Serving God, but it has not appeared materially in the blog series except for a brief mention in Part 1 in relation to hermeneutics.

  • The general context of Galatians 3:28 is “new creation” (deliverance from the present evil age in 1:4 to “new creation is everything” in 6:15–from beginning to the end of the letter), and the specific context of Galatians 3:28 is the inheritance (3:18, 29; 4:1, 7, 30; 5:21; the focused topic of this section of Galatians) believers have in Christ. This encompasses not only an initial inclusion in Christ (e.g., “who can be saved”) but also the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. That is a comprehensive context rather than a narrow one.
  • If the text says “there are no ethnic, social, economic, or gender hurdles” for “who can be saved” and salvation is much more than simply justification by faith or our entrance into the church, then it also entails “there are no ethnic, social, economic, or gender hurdles” for who can serve (gifts) in the church.
  • Would it be responsible to claim that Galatians 3:28 affirms Gentile elders and preachers or slave elders or preachers? What text authorizes slaves to become elders in the New Testament? Are they not under the authority of the household in which they live? Could a Christian slave be an elder in a congregation even while his Christian master is not an elder? Does Galatians 3:28 have implications for whether a Christian master should even own a Christian slave? The significance of Galatians 3:28 applies to ethnicity, economics, and gender as the story of new creation is lived out in the kingdom of God among communities upon whom God has poured the Spirit unless there is some explicit text that excludes Gentiles, slaves, or women.
  • This reading of Galatians 3:28 is not contrary to 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 11 when those texts are read in the ways I have suggested, and those ways are credible approaches to the texts that respect their context and meaning. There is, then, no contradiction, which is assumed in the blog because of the way Renew reads 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11.

There is much more to say, of course—especially about 1 Timothy 3, which is the main ground in the light of how 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is read. That is understandable, and it deserves focused attention as we seek to live out gospel norms and principles in contemporary communities of faith. In my third book in this series, I will take up the discussion of elders, gender, and 1 Timothy 3 as well as other texts. I hope that will be in the near future.

Peace to my friends at Renew.


Response to Renew’s Review (Part 2) of “Women Serving God”

August 16, 2020

I am delighted to continue the conversation Renew began when they started a multi-blog review of my book Women Serving God. Their first offering focused on hermeneutics (my response is here), and this second part focuses on 1 Corinthians 11. The review is almost 7000 words long (mine about 5000). Rick Oster and a document created by Rick and others (including Rodney Plunket, also a friend over many years) for the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee, are the primary resources for this installment.

Rick and I have been colleagues, co-workers, co-teachers in Europe, and friends for almost thirty years. I deeply value and appreciate our friendship. I also appreciate the detailed attention he gives to 1 Corinthians 11, especially the function of head coverings in ancient Roman culture. There are few exegetes I trust more than Rick, and whatever he says deserves careful consideration.

Rick and I were fellow faculty members at Harding Graduate School of Religion (now Harding School of Theology) from 1991-2000. I audited his course on 1 Corinthians and devoured his commentary on 1 Corinthians in the College Press Series. I am quite familiar with his perspectives on 1 Corinthians 11 & 14 from the commentary, his ground-breaking 1988 New Testament Studies article about Roman head coverings, and conversations as well as classroom discussions. I cherish those experiences and our friendship.

I am surprised to hear, however, that 1 Corinthians 11 is not a difficult text. I understand that Rick has a settled conviction about it, but it has been difficult since the second century with divergent understandings about whether it is hair or artificial coverings, the meaning of kephalē (head), and—in contrast to Rick and myself—how the church practiced this text by forbidding women to participate in assemblies. Church history, including the last 100 years, tells us this is a difficult text (see Brown’s paper for a brief history of interpretation).

Summary

Where we agree . . .

  • Whatever headship means, women audibly and visibly prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assembly described in 1 Corinthians 11-14, which supports, at the very least, a “limited participation” perspective or Renew’s soft complementarianism.
  • Paul roots his understanding in the theological reality of headship, which coheres with God’s creation of man and woman in Genesis 1-2.

Where we differ . . .

  • Renew understands headship as a function of male authority (which the covering supposedly symbolizes) while I think “headship” is more related to source of life, origin, kinship, and intimate connection or relation while tentatively recognizing the covering as a matter of sexual propriety and the honor of women as well as their “heads.” (Even if the covering symbolizes male authority, 1 Corinthians 11 does not exclude women from leading in prayer and prophecy in the assembly on that basis.)
  • Renew believes there are headship functions in the assembly that exclude the participation of women while I don’t see any evidence for that exclusion, especially in 1 Corinthians 11 (which is the chapter under review).

What is irrelevant to the purposes of my book . . .

  • The precise nature of the covering—whether hair or artificial, whether more Roman, Greek, Jewish, or otherwise—is irrelevant to how this text fundamentally supports, at the very least, the “limited participation” of women in Christian assemblies.

A Misunderstanding

Everything is cultural. I affirm that in my book, which is part of the point in saying there are no contextless, timeless propositions in Scripture. Every text is situated, and, especially in the case of the epistles (as Rick rightly notes), occasional.  I’m not sure where I say in the book (my book is being reviewed, the statement is put in quotation marks, and the heading names my understanding as something with which Rick disagrees), “Well, this is just something that’s temporal and cultural, and this over here is eternal because it’s not connected to anything situational in the letter.” I am truly scratching my head. This is not my view. I can’t identify anything in my book that would even approximate such a statement.

The counter to the above statement placed in quotes is that we must read the text closely, seek valid “historical reconstructions,” and interpret the meaning of the text. I totally agree, and Rick’s example of the “holy kiss” is a good one.

I think historical reconstructions are important tools. They are quite credible at times, and they help make sense of a text. Rick is a trustworthy guide in these reconstructions. At the same time, they are reconstructions. This entails a collection of archaeological artifacts and ancient texts being construed (interpreted) in a particular way in order to provide the basis for a reconstruction of an event or a ritual that is not fully or explicitly described in the text itself. There is significant room for missteps in such historical reasoning. While I highly value reconstructions because they often provide tremendously helpful insights, they themselves necessarily involve several levels of complex interpretation. It is not a firm place to stand if the reconstruction is the explicit ground upon which a theological point is made or understood. Nevertheless, I am an advocate for the sort of historical work Rick does, and I have learned much from him over the years.

On Veils

Much of Rick’s response explains his understanding of Roman head-coverings in Roman cultic worship. In my book, I make no sustained argument about whether Paul is describing artificial coverings or hair. Both views, even from the earliest centuries, have been defended by various authors. To me, it is immaterial for my advocation of, at least, “limited participation” by women at Corinth. Whether it is an artificial covering or the hair does not affect the conclusion that women participated audibly and visibly in the Corinthian assemblies.

I realize it is important for Rick for at least two reasons.  First, the Roman practice is about leadership. Those who led Roman cultic worship covered their heads, both men and women. As Rick has demonstrated and others have seconded (Massey, “Veiling Among Men in Roman Corinth,” Journal of Biblical Literature [2018] 501-517), Roman men (and women) covered their heads when they led their cultic worship.

Second, Paul wants to make a gender distinction based on “biblical doctrine of headship.” In other words, men pray and prophesy uncovered (contrary to Roman practice) and women pray and prophesy covered (in conformity to Roman practice) in order to symbolize a gender distinction that is rooted in male authority (male headship). Symbolizing male authority is not part of the Roman practice, but Paul—if I understand Rick correctly—is adjusting the meaning of the covering so that gender distinctions are evident in accordance with a “biblical doctrine of headship.” Consequently, the woman’s covering serves “to express submission to men just as Christ does to God.”

Rick’s precise historical reconstruction is a minority view in scholarship, though he has illuminated the Roman practices that many now acknowledge. Yet, most see a wider cultural backdrop for 1 Corinthians 11 than Rick does. I think his application of Roman practices has merit myself, and that is why I mentioned Rick’s understanding of the covering as a sign of piety in my book (though I did not go on to say, as I should have, that Rick also believes it is, for Paul, a symbol of male authority—my apologies, dear friend).

Rick is clearly committed to this historical reconstruction, and he has substantial reasons for that commitment. However, there is a significant amount of scholarship that places this in a wider frame. The covering is not simply about Roman worship practices, although those Roman practices are part of the equation in some way. Rather, it was generally understood within Greco-Roman culture that uncovered long flowing hair that was not put up on the head signaled sexual availability, impropriety, or impiety. I reference the sources in the book, particularly Winter (Roman Wives, Roman Women) among others. For example, Winter—based on texts and archaeological evidence—wrote (Kindle location 968): “Therefore, it can be confidently concluded that the veiled head was the symbol of the modesty and chastity expected of a married woman.”

The fact that Roman men wore a covering in their cultic activities reflects their piety at pagan altars; it was not about sexual impropriety. Roman woman also covered their heads, when they led, at Roman altars, which was also about piety. However, as Westfall (Paul and Gender) demonstrates, the wearing of coverings by women in other cultures was a matter of sexual protection and integrity. Rick assumes the Corinthian assembly is only concerned with Roman practices because, in part, it was a Roman colony and Paul is explicitly describing leadership functions in the assembly. That may be, but I don’t think anyone knows that with any certainty and the practices of other cultures, as Rick notes, were diverse. There is little reason to think that the practices of other cultures were not in the mix as well. I don’t think we can assume that the Corinthian assembly was thoroughly and exclusively an arena for Roman practices. There is too much mix in the culture to restrict this to Roman practices only. It may be that Paul is seeking to sort out a complex mix of cultural practices gathered in the Corinthian assemblies. And, as Rick argues, Paul sorts it out in a way that is not Roman and introduces (for Romans, at least) gender distinctions not present in their own worship practices.

It is difficult, it seems to me, to assess what Paul is saying about the covering, its cultural setting, and its meaning. I lean toward the certainty that there is no certainty about the practice, meaning, and implications of the covering in 1 Corinthians, given the mix of Roman, Greek, Jewish and other cultures in Corinth. The situation is complex, and we only have these few words from Paul to clarify it for us. Clarity, it seems to me, is elusive.

In any event, and this is the most important point in this section, the precise nature of the head covering is ultimately immaterial to the point in my book, which focuses on the participation of women in the Corinthian assembly. On that point, there is common ground between Renew and myself.

Common Ground

Our common ground is quite significant. In substance, we agree.

Renew, Rick, and I agree that women audibly and visibly prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assemblies. They served as leaders (Renew affirms this language in their conclusion) in the assembly while at the same time honoring their heads (whatever that may mean). Rick is quite explicit about this leadership because these are the women who covered their heads in the Roman cults, and Paul wants to continue that practice for women who lead in prayer and prophecy. This is why I moved from “no participation” to “limited participation” in my own journey. When I got to know Rick and came to some understanding of his position, my advocacy for “limited participation” was confirmed.  I thank Rick for the way he contributed to my own story

We also agree that Paul is talking about men and women in general rather than specifically husbands and wives. I did not make a sustained argument about that as Rick does in the review, but I agree with him. At the same time, this is part of the difficulty of the text—there are legitimate reasons for thinking Paul is only talking about husbands and wives. I don’t think we can say definitively. Nevertheless, I agree with Rick on this one.

We also agree that the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is the same as the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In fact, we agree that 1 Corinthians 11-14 as a whole is discussing the practices of the same Corinthian assembly.

On Headship

Rick believes a “straightforward reading of the text” reveals that kephalē (head) “means authority.” According to Rick, Paul intentionally changed the Roman practice to conform to what Rick calls “a biblical doctrine of headship,” which entails some kind of gender distinction. For Rick, this gender distinction is about authority because in 1 Corinthians 11:3 “head” means “authority.” Yet, it is possible this gender distinction is about something else if “head” does not mean “authority.”

I make no sustained argument in the book about the meaning of kephalē. My point is, and I say this several times, that even if “head” means “authority,” women still participated in ways that led the assembly in Corinth. That is my major interest in Part 3, and it is a point upon which Renew, Rick, and I agree. Whatever kephalē means (even if it means authority or rank), it does not prohibit the audible and visible leadership of women through praying and prophesying in the assembly. In fact, women, when covered, actually honor their heads as they pray and prophesy in the assembly. Renew agrees.

Nevertheless, because the review stresses that male authority is rooted in a proper understanding of kephalē and suggests this is the main reason Paul institutes gender distinctions for the head-covering contrary to Roman worship practices, I digress to say a few words beyond anything I said in the book.

The fundamental problem with the English translation of “head” is that it is a literal translation of kephalē. Typically, that is not a problem at all. However, in this case, Paul is using the word metaphorically. He is not referring to the literal “head” but is using a figure of speech to say something about the relationship one sustains to the other (God to Christ, Christ to man, man to woman, 1 Corinthians 11:3). Translating it literally is a problem because the English word “head” has prominent meanings that do not belong prominently to the Greek word kephalē. While “authority” is one of the potential metaphorical meanings of the word, it is not a dominant one in classical Greek. Consequently, the association English readers attach to the word “head” are not immediately appropriate for what kephalē potentially intends as a metaphor in Greek culture. Another metaphorical meaning for kephalē is “source of life” or “origin.”

Rick thinks translating kephalē as “source” (or origin/relation) creates a Christological problem. The Trinitarian theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries, however, did not think so. They read “head” here as source or origin/relation. Therefore, it is not some kind modern or agenda-laden “special pleading.” It is, in fact, classic Nicene Trinitarian theology.

Here is an example from Cyril of Alexandria (To Arcadia, 1.1.5.5; quoted by Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 136):  “The source [archē] of man is the Creator God. Thus we say that the kephalē of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephalē of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the kephalē of Christ is God, because He is from Him according to nature.”

Another example is Ambrosiaster (probably from the late fourth century; cited by Payne, 137): “God is the head of Christ because he begat him; Christ is the head of the man because he created him, and the man is the head of the woman because she was taken from his side.”

Another example is Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Greek Church (from Payne, 137): “For Christ is the head [kephalē] of us who of us who believe . . . But the head [kephalē] of Christ is the Father, as procreator [gennētēs] and progenitor [proboleus] and of like substance with him. And the head [kephalē] of the woman is the man because he is her procreator [gennētēs] and progenitor [proboleus] and of like substance with him.”

According to Nicene theology, the Father is the source of the Son through an eternal relationship. Ancient Trinitarian theologians called this “order” (taxis) within the immanent Trinity (more specifically, the eternal generation of the Son). In other words, the Son is begotten from the Father, shares the same nature (homoousia) with the Father, and this eternal relationship does not include submission or authority. There is order and thus differentiation but without hierarchy or eternal submission or subordination (see the chapter by Madison Pierce, “Trinity Without Taxis?, in Trinity Without Hierarchy).

Many complementarians reject the Trinity argument for complementarian gender relations, and many have recently abandoned that position. Even the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) discourages that argument. Denny Burk, the President of CBMW, now rejects the argument that subordination is part of the inner (immanent) life of the Trinity except as part of the decision to incarnate in the covenant of redemption. The works of the egalitarian Kevin Giles (Trinity and Subordinationism) and the complementarian Fred Sanders (The Triune God; see his blog piece here) have clarified this in contemporary gender discussions among Evangelicals (Giles and Sanders had a two hour discussion on this agreed point here). For a history of this discussion and the shifts or clarifications taking place within soft complementarianism, see Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity.

If, however, one reads “Christ” as the one who became flesh as a human being, “source” is still an appropriate meaning because the Father sends the Son (Christ) into the world to be born of woman. In this sense, as a human being representing all humanity, Christ (the resurrected one) is submissive to the Father, including the eschatological act of turning the kingdom over to the Father. The Nicene Trinitarians recognized this (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa among others). Moreover, it is important to remember the incarnate one is also God, and when Christ turns the kingdom over to the Father, it is so that “God may be all in all,” which includes the Son rather than excluding the Son as part of the divine, eternal reign.

Rick’s two Christological objections against the meaning of source are not substantial and are out of sync with the history of Nicene Trinitarian theology.

Unfortunately, if Rick believes there is an “eternal order” of authority and submission between God and Christ, according to 1 Corinthians 11:3 (language used in one of the questions he was asked), I find this unfortunate because this claim stands outside the Trinitarian tradition of the Christian Faith. . Recently, this has been explicitly repudiated by quite a number of complementarian theologians as deeply problematic in substance (just as it was by Chrysostom and Theodoret among others in the fourth and fifth centuries).

Understanding kephalē as authority actually creates Christological problems. Eternal subordination, due to a headship ontology, entails the view that Christ is not equal in nature or essence to God. Chrysostom (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 3) put it this way, if “Paul had meant to speak of rule and subjection, as you say, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master” because, for Chrysostom, “rule and subjection” are not concreated but come after the Fall. According to Chysostom, “rule and subjection” are not present in Genesis 1-2.

Moreover, if we understand kephalē as “authority,” is this a claim that men have the same kind of authority over women that Christ has over men? Or, is it different in some way? Christ, it seems, has an ontological advantage over men in that Christ is divine. Do men have an ontological advantage over women that make them “heads” of women? In other words, if we read “head” as “authority over,” then this is rooted in ontology, nature, and essence. To put it another way, in this way male authority is grounded in some kind of ontological difference between men and women just as it is between Christ and man. I am convinced that the analogy of authority does not hold. Moreover, it does not fit the context of 1 Corinthians, as I will argue in a moment.

But we can agree on this. 1 Corinthians 11:3 is a theological statement, and the relationship between man and woman goes back to creation. The question at stake is the meaning of Paul’s appeal to creation and his use of kephalē.

Headship As Source of Life

As I see it, to see male authority in 1 Corinthians 11 depends on (1) the meaning of the covering, (2) the meaning of kephalē, and (3) a particular understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:10 (a passive reading of exousian echein in the sense of “have a sign of authority” when it literally says, “has authority”). I don’t include 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 because its point depends on the meaning of kephalē. More on that point in a moment.

(1) The meaning of the covering is highly disputed. The evidence for the covering as symbolic of male authority is minimal; it is not the dominant understanding in the Greco-Roman world. It is not the meaning of the Roman practice itself (as Rick notes), which is about piety (which is why men covered their heads while leading). Rather, the evidence in the broader culture—as Westfall, Winter, and Payne  (who thinks the covering is the hair) among many others describe—points to the covering of the hair or putting up the hair as a matter of sexual propriety. Married women were covered because they were not sexually available for other men than her husband. She wears the veil to honor her husband, which respects the husband-wife relationship. It is a signal that other men may not look upon her as an object of their predatorial sexual desires. The covering protects the woman. There is nothing explicit in 1 Corinthians 11 that describes the covering as a function of male authority or female submission.

(2) The meaning of kephalē is also highly disputed. The lexical meaning covers a broad range from authority/rank (Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth) to source/origin (Westfall) to prominence (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians). [For a recent history of the lexical discussion, see Johnson’s article.] Complementarians now regularly acknowledge that “source” in the sense of kinship, origin, relation, or connection is a legitimate metaphorical meaning. (See, for example, the complementarian Clauch, “God is the Head of Christ,” in One God in Three Persons, edited by Ware).

In Paul, kephalē means source in Ephesians 4:15 and Colossians 2:19 (as well other potential texts where the church is the body that receives nourishment and life from the head who is Christ). It also means authority in a sense synonymous with ruler (archēs) and lordship (kuriotētos) in Ephesians 1:21-22. The latter, however, is not Christ’s headship over the church, but over authorities and powers. Christ is the “head over all things to the church,” that is, for the sake of or for the benefit of the church.

Context, rather than lexical studies, determine the meaning of kephalē. It seems to me that 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, which provide the grounding for the meaning of kephalē, are statements about source or origin rather than authority. The sense of source is explicitly stated while the word authority is not present or any word that might give that sense. I think a “source of life” reading best fits what Paul is doing here, and the relation of “head” (God, Christ, man) to “body” (Christ, man, woman) is the relation of kinship, origin, connection, and relationship that reflects glory, respect, and honor. It is not “authority over” but deep connection; it is the sort of relation a head sustains to its body. That relation, in the Greco-Roman world, was one of nourishment and life, The head was not the ruling agent (the heart was). Rather, the head was the source of life (e.g., it was believed semen originated in the head).

(3) The meaning of “authority” (exousian) in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is significant. I address this in my book. I will only repeat the conclusion (which is shared by many exegetes), and I trust readers will take up the book to see the details. Paul says a woman “has authority.” This is the only time Paul uses the word authority in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul places that authority in the hands of women. Women “have authority.” This is not a “sign” of authority (as many render it); the word “sign” is not in the Greek text. The verb is active in voice: a woman ought to have authority over her own head. Everywhere in 1 Corinthians this phrase occurs (e.g., 9:4-5), it is active in meaning. It is the right or privilege of the one who possesses the authority. Consequently, the only explicit claim about authority in 1 Corinthians 11 is that women have authority. Nothing is explicitly said about male authority.

Paul is not thinking about male authority and grounding that authority in creation. Rather, it seems to me, Paul upholds the honor that is part of a relationship between a head to its body while recognizing and accentuating the interdependence (mutuality) that exists between head and body. One does not exist without the other, and the grounding Paul provides for male headship is found in the sense of source. Woman was created from man (there is kinship, relationality) and for the sake of man (to fill the void so that humanity might fulfill its vocation to fill the earth, subdue it, and rule it together—the shared task of men and women). Paul’s argument is a source argument rather than an authority argument. It coheres with the meaning of kephalē in this context as source or origin of life (kinship, relationship, mutuality). “Authority” is extraneous to the context in relation to men, and the only authority named in 1 Corinthians that characterizes the relationship between men and women is a shared authority in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

Further, the creation argument includes the fact that women are now the source of men by God’s procreative design. While the woman was sourced from the man, so now men are sourced from women. Women were created as the source of all men. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 clarifies that the idea of source between men and women is a mutual one. While a woman came from a man, now men come through women. This is practically a restatement of the mutual authority between husbands and wives identified in 1 Corinthians 7:4. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, which describes what is true “in the Lord,” reflects the mutual life of men and women in the Corinthian assembly where both men and women pray and prophesy in the assembly. This mutuality is grounded in creation, and there is no statement that grounds male authority in creation. The headship relationship is one of kinship, origin, life-source, and connection, which women honor by wearing a covering that protected women from sexual aggression and claimed sexuality integrity for themselves.

Teaching and Prophesying

According to Renew and Rick, even though women prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assemblies, “the prohibited role is one of an authoritative teacher who guides the congregation in faith and practice” because that is a headship function. I do wonder where in Scripture that “authoritative teacher who guides the congregation in faith and practice” is identified as exclusively male because it is a headship function (however that is defined).

Of course, that is not evident in 1 Corinthians 11. No activity or gift in 1 Corinthians 11 is identified as something exclusively male. Consequently, to defend that position one has to step outside the context of 1 Corinthians. First, Renew connects us with the responsibility of the priests to teach the people. That, as far as I know, is uncontested. It is true that priests were only male in the Hebrew Bible and one of their significant functions was to teach. However, it is no longer true that priests are only male in Christ. I affirm the priesthood of all believers in the Lord.

Moreover, we might also remember that prophets taught Israel as well as priests. The writings of the prophets teach us, and they call us to obedience and we submit to what the Lord says through the prophets. That sounds like a headship-authority function to me. How does one define an authority-headship function and exclude prophets from it? This is especially true when the function of teaching is nowhere explicitly designated as a “headship” function.

Prophets are leaders in the New Testament. The prophets Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32) are called “leaders” (hegumenoi) in Acts 15:22 along with others. This is the same word that Renew notices in Hebrews 13:7, 17 that characterizes people whom the congregation follows and submits. Were not congregations to submit to prophet-leaders? Why is that not a headship-function, if “head” refers to authority?

Prophets teach when they prophesy because they strengthen, edify, console, and encourage in such a way that people learn and unbelievers are convicted (1 Corinthians 14:3, 24, 31). Many scholars recognize how prophecy and teaching “shade into each other” in the New Testament (for example, Boring, Sayings of the Risen Christ: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition, 79).

Prophets and Teachers are identified as distinct gifts in the New Testament, to be sure. We see this in the lists of 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 (“first apostles, second prophets, third teachers”), Ephesians 4:11 (“apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers”), and Romans 12:6-7. Interestingly, the prophetic gift is always listed first in the above texts, just after the apostles in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 and Ephesians 4:11. Prophets also offer an “exhortation” (1 Corinthians 14:3) which is exactly how Hebrews describes itself (Hebrews 13:22). Hebrews was a sermon of sorts (similar to what happened in the synagogue, Acts 13:15), and exhortation is what Scripture itself offers us (Romans 15:4). The hard distinction between teaching and prophesying is not sustainable.

Why is the role of the teacher a headship function but prophecy is not? This is the point to be demonstrated. One must demonstrate that prophecy is not a headship function while teaching is. Why is the headship function of teaching exclusively male? There is only one reason, it seems to me, to (1) make that distinction and (2) identify teaching as a headship function. This brings us back to 1 Timothy 2:12. The path of “limited participation” or soft complementarianism always ends up here. This is precisely where Renew’s position takes us—1 Timothy 2:12 is the sole text that excludes women from teaching as a function of headship. I’m fairly certain Renew will address this text more fully in a future installment.

Renew offers a new interpretation in the discussion of gender. They reinterpret the role of teacher as a headship function while the role of the prophet is not a headship function. For centuries within the history of the church, prophets were regarded as preachers, people who spoke the word of God, functioned authoritatively within the community of faith, and administered the Eucharist. The historic church regarded the function of prophecy as a form of preaching, and the distinction that “teachers” are authoritative preachers but “prophets” are only spontaneous speakers impressed by the Spirit in some way is a modern “reinterpretation” (to use the characterization with which I was charged in the first installment). It was primarily inaugurated by Grudem in order to explain the seeming contradiction between 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and 1 Timothy 2:12.

Whatever the “Ministry of the Word” is (as named in the review), and the combination of texts and inferences present in the discussion of that task, it is a headship function whereas prophecy is not, according to Renew. Moreover, none of the texts referenced to the “Ministry of the Word” (unless Acts 6:4 only describes the apostles) exclude women except one . . . 1 Timothy 2:12. That text, above all others and perhaps no other text, ultimately defines what belongs solely to “headship” in the context of the assemblies of the saints when they gather for praise and prayer. But 1 Timothy 2:12 does not even explicitly appeal to “headship.”

1 Corinthians 11 does not identify what functions or gifts only belong to headship. We know praying and prophesying are not “headship” functions. Nowhere else does Paul ever use the language of headship in relation to the exercise of gifts in the assembly. I think that rather odd, if Renew is correct in its reading of the New Testament.

Conclusion

Women cover their heads, not because of male authority, but because they honor their relationship to their head (source of life). Kephalē does not refer to rank or authority but to the kinship relationship the head sustains to the body which is relational, intimate, mutual, and nourishing. The head is the source and origin of life to the body, according to the ancients.

Paul appeals to creation to ground this relationality, not authority. The woman was created from the man (thus, kinship and a sense of origin), and the woman was created because of the man (the man could not accomplish the divine mission alone; he needed a powerful ally to partner with him). The head cannot function without the body.

In the Lord, this mutuality is clear—one is not without the other. They are not only interdependent, but they share the same mission, the same flesh, and the same origin. They are both from God. They share a mutual authority. One does not have authority over the other in 1 Corinthians 11. Indeed, it is mutual authority in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

In fact, the woman has her own authority which she exercises in the assembly as one gifted by God just as men are also so gifted. She does not need the covering of male authority, but she honors her head as the source of her life. Men should also honor women as the means by which they come into the world. Their authority is mutual rather than hierarchical (1 Corinthians 7:4).

Women, therefore, have their own authority to audibly and visibly pray and prophesy in the assemblies of the saints gathered for prayer and praise. They do not need male permission or the covering of male authority. They do, however, appropriately honor the source of their life just as men honor the source of theirs.



Response to Renew’s Review (Part 1) of “Women Serving God”

August 10, 2020

I am grateful for the attention Renée Sproles, Bobby Harrington, and Daniel McCoy give to my new book, Women Serving God, at Renew’s blog (their blog is over 7700 words but it covers Scot McKnight’s book as well; my response is only 2700+). I am happy to engage the conversation they have begun, and I look forward to future installments of their review. Sproles has her own book on this topic, which I read as part of my own study, entitled On Gender: What the Bible Says About Men and Women–And Why It Matters.

I have a strong affinity for the work Renew is doing, especially their commitment to discipleship and disciple-making. I have attended Renew events, read their books, and enjoy friendships with many people associated with Renew. I am grateful for how they accentuate discipleship among churches through their organization. Yet, apparently, we find ourselves in a disagreement about the full participation of women in the assembly, which is the focus of my book.

I sense a basic concern is that somehow “Western elite values” are going to strip away biblical commands and render obedience to the will of God ineffective. Of course, I would oppose any such agenda myself. Yet, this, as I understand it, is part of the resistance to the full participation of women in the assemblies of the saints. I expect that we will see textual and theological arguments that demonstrate that is what is happening. I look forward to seeing the explanation.

I did not use the terminology egalitarian or egalitarianism in my book. I made no sustained argument about the relationship of husbands and wives (family) or church polity (bishops or elders). My focus was solely on the assembly and the level of participation by women in worshipping assemblies of churches of Christ. Sproles puts “egalitarian” in quotes. Though some may think she is quoting me, I do not use the term.

In relation to the assembly, it seems the only difference (as far as I can see at this point) between myself and Renew’s belief statement is the function of the “lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church” (a phrase that does not appear in Scripture). I’m not sure how the function of “elder/overseer” plays out in the assembly in Renew’s understanding. Are there gifts and functions in the assembly that belong only to the “senior minister/pastor” (as Sproles names it). Perhaps solo preaching? Policy announcements? Officiating at the table? I anticipate that will be clarified as we move along in the reviews.

Hermeneutics

Renée’s first topic is hermeneutics (since we have met, I’d rather use her first name as a friend and sister in Christ). Good hermeneutics and theology matter, and without one, the other is skewed. This is why I wrote Searching for the Pattern first because it lays out my understanding of hermeneutics in the context of the churches of Christ. I only briefly summarize it in a few pages in Women Serving God.

Seeking a Theological Point?

Without reading the first volume, I can understand how one might think I’m only interested in drawing out a theological point or even a “timeless theology” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words) from the “baggage of culture” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words).

As I suggest in both Searching for the Pattern and Women Serving God, the theological point, in agreement with Renée, is the coherent story of God, which is the drama of God from creation to new creation; it is the pattern of God’s activity within the biblical drama. I’m not looking to draw a “theological truth from a time-bound biblical command” (her words). Rather, I am looking for the theological story (pattern, which is the gospel itself) that gave rise to that command and seeking to live obediently within that story in conformity to the meaning of that command.

For example, I agree with her baptismal example. My Searching for the Pattern has a case study on that topic. We follow Jesus into the water, participate in the gospel through baptism, and obediently conform to the gospel when we are baptized. Baptism and the gospel of Jesus are deeply and pervasively linked in the New Testament and, I would add, by the backstory in Israel. We are not immersed because it is an abstracted command as part of a blueprint hermeneutic. It is a gospel-formed command to follow Jesus into the water that is embedded in the kingdom story. For more, see my case study in Searching for the Pattern.

Subjective?

The search throughout Scripture for this coherent story, which is Renée’s own hermeneutic, is mine as well. To call it “subjective” is unhelpful. Precisely, in what way is it “subjective”? My approach is no more subjective than every hermeneutical reading of Scripture, but it is not so subjective that it necessarily privileges “culture” over the story of Scripture itself (which I sense is the real concern). I look forward to seeing examples where I supposedly do this with the text and discussing them.

At the same time, everyone reads Scripture with some cultural discernment (is that the subjectivity?). That is why women don’t wear veils, congregations don’t require holy kisses, or women are not forbidden to wear gold in assemblies even as women participate in limited ways through prayer, testimonies, etc. (soft complementarianism). Is it possible that this rejection of wearing veils and resistance to holy kisses is a case of “stripping away the teachings of Scripture on gender” in light of “Western elite values”? Is the privilege of wearing gold to the assembly a “Western elite value” that ignores Paul’s expressed desire? Might not soft complementarianism also be a failure to resist “Western elite values” when the historic tradition of the church silenced women in the assembly (including limited participation as it is understood in soft complementarianism), insisted on head coverings for centuries until only recently, and the early fathers objected to jewelry?

Four-Point Hermeneutic

I agree with the four points in Renée’s stated hermeneutic, though we both would want to elaborate their meaning and application. I incorporate each into Searching for the Pattern (I only slightly touch on #4 in that book). Principle #1 is applied throughout Women Serving God, especially Parts 3-6. I assume her second principle is conducive to understanding the role new creation plays in the biblical story as the “rule” (or canon; Paul’s word) by which we walk as disciples of Jesus (Galatians 6:15-16). I also assume her third principle also asks, “what does this mean?” without attempting to “wriggle out of obedience” (is that what I am trying to do?). I also assume her fourth principle gives space to critique the understanding of the traditions of the church, even if they are very early (such as a monarchical bishop, or that the early church fathers were not soft complementarians). I would add a fifth point: to read Scripture through the lens of the act of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, the eschatological goal (new creation) and its presence in the world, and the pattern we find in God’s incarnate example and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. This is a major part of the coherent story, it seems to me. We might say it is part of the second principle, which I have accentuated and made more explicit. But perhaps that fifth principle (as I stated it) is the rub and is excluded or conceived differently. I’m not sure; is it? How does Renée’s hermeneutic think about the function of new creation in telling the story of God in the Bible?

There seems to be a misunderstanding that I make a claim to “move beyond” Scripture in some way (which Renée puts in quotation marks though I never use those words). I never say that or intend that in the book. I don’t want to “move beyond” the coherent story in Scripture or the pattern present in it. Scripture points us beyond some specific circumstances (Artemis cult in Ephesus, silencing women who are interrupting speakers in the assembly) and some specific applications (veils, wearing gold, washing feet, it is better not to marry [1 Corinthians 7], etc.), but we don’t move beyond the coherent theology in the text. I don’t want to move beyond but understand the commands of God rooted in the gospel and God’s story. The question is, what does Scripture teach?

There is a sense, of course, in which we all “move beyond” Scripture in that we address topics, problems, and issues that are not specifically addressed in Scripture. For example, where does Scripture address cloning? But we don’t “move beyond” Scripture in the sense that we abandon the coherent story of God or subvert it. Rather, we apply that story to the new questions and situations that arise as we follow Jesus in the present context.

Trajectories in Scripture

I agree that salvation is both personal and communal, both individual and social; indeed, it is also cosmic. All my theological thought and teaching has been soaked in that very point for over thirty years. It is not “either personal salvation or new creation; it’s both.” I agree 100%. I’m not sure if Renée thinks I believe otherwise—she can’t get that from this book or my other writings. (In reading the review, sometimes I feel like my book is not is under review even though my name is associated with the idea. Perhaps this is the problem of reviewing two books at once as views and purposes are too easily conflated.)

The story of Scripture is God at work to transform persons, communities, and the creation; and the goal of that transformation is conformation to the image of Christ so that Christ fills all things. God will achieve that goal in the final consummation, and new creation is already at work in the church as a mission outpost of the kingdom of God here and now. In what ways does the final consummation (new creation) show up in the present? What is already present that belongs most fully to what is not yet? That is the reason for thinking about a new creation hermeneutical dimension—and I do so precisely because Paul did.

As Renée notes, there are trajectories in Scripture (e.g., movement from Mosaic to New Covenant; including—I would add—the inclusion of women as priests in Christ, how women now inherit without male instrumentality in Christ, rejection of polygamy, etc.). I suggest another is the movement from creation to new creation. There are key moments in that trajectory, including the Call of Abraham, Exodus, Incarnation, Cross & Resurrection, Pentecost, and New Heaven and New Earth. There are key texts within Scripture that interpret these moments.  Those texts help us understand the trajectory.

I don’t think I choose a text in the abstract. Rather, I am seeking the coherence of the story (Renée’s hermeneutical point #2) and how texts reflect, embody, or teach that trajectory within the story. What significance Galatians 3:28 has in the context of God’s coherent story is a matter for discussion. Highlighting that text is not necessarily cherry picking but paying attention to the movement toward new creation (new creaturehood in Christ) within the story of God.

Renée asks, “Why is the paradigm shift primarily to ‘oneness’ and not to citizenship in God’s kingdom or something else?” I only use the word “oneness” twice—once in terms of its reality in creation and new creation (p. 139) and about oneness at the table of the Lord (p. 146). I don’t suggest that citizenship and oneness are two ultimately different things but rather citizenship in the kingdom of God includes oneness and moves us toward the fullness of that oneness or unity we will experience in the new heaven and new earth. This is the goal of God from the beginning (John 17:20-26), and it is reflected in our union with Christ. It is the unity and fellowship of the Spirit.

Culture

There is always a danger that culture will reshape the theological story. This was part of my point in Part 2 of Women Serving God. The danger is not only found in present culture but in past cultures as well. For example, many leaders and teachers in the American Restoration Movement used 1 Timothy 2:12 to deny women the vote, silence women from leading prayer or speaking in any form in the assembly, prohibit women from teaching adult Bible classes with men present, prohibit women from teaching twelve year old baptized males in Bible class, exclude women from baptizing others, or exclude women from public careers in society. Renée and I are on the same page. We must not permit culture to subvert or override the coherent story of Scripture.

Anyone’s search for that coherent story can “lead us right off the pages of Scripture,” not just mine. Of course, the opposite danger is that some read Scripture so rigidly and in conformity to their traditions that they will, as Jesus put it about the Pharisees, make a convert “twice as much a child of hell as” the teacher (Matthew 23:15). To be clear, I don’t think that is what Renew is doing, but I don’t think I am leading people “off the pages of Scripture” either. But I do suggest that Renew might consider embracing full participation rather than a limited one for women in the assembly. Perhaps it is tradition that hinders that full participation rather than a coherent biblical theology.

While Renée seems to think that the net effect of my understanding is “to subsume the way of Jesus under the authority of a given culture,” I think that must be demonstrated. It is certainly not my intent. I assume we will see the evidence for this marshaled in future installments.

I think Renée misunderstands a significant point in my book. I am not opposed to the proper functions of authority within the community of faith that are rooted in God’s gifts to the community. Authority per se is not a bad word for me; I use it often in the book. When Renée states that I believe “hierarchy and authority are antithetical to equality, mutuality, and unity,” she is mistaken. I think hierarchy and authoritarianism (which is the word I used in the context she quoted) are antithetical, but authority and equality/mutuality/unity are not. Her extended quotes from my book come in the context of my opposition to sacerdotal hierarchical authoritarianism around the table and its misuse of “authority.” Contextually, I am referring to Jesus’s opposition to Gentile leaders who wrongly use authority (“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors;” Luke 22:25). Jesus contrasts that use of authority with how his disciples ought to relate to each other. The table is a place for the priesthood of all believers, shared places at the table, and mutual service.

Where we disagree, I presume, is that she understands Scripture to teach male authority over women (at the table?) in the assembly in some form or function. I don’t think that is part of the Bible’s coherent story. I look forward to the future discussion of the role of male authority in the assembly as well as the argument for grounding that male authority in creation ontology or essence (which I address in Women Serving God).

I do not, as Daniel & Bobby write, use Galatians 3:28 to undermine “authority.”  It does, however, undermine male authority just as it undermines ethnic authority (Jew vs. Gentile) and economic authority (slave vs. free) as boundaries for the pouring out of the Spirit’s gifts and the exercise of those gifts in the assembly.

It seems to me that Scripture is full of liberation, mission, and the hope of new creation: exodus, ministry of Jesus, resurrection, new creatures in Christ, and cosmic liberation of the creation (to name a few).  Let’s talk about what that entails for the giftedness of women in the assembly rather than projecting what it might mean in the hands of others. What does it mean in my book?

On Interpretation

It is unhelpful to say “Hicks interprets away the key texts,” as Bobby & Daniel do. (I imagine the only key text about which we might disagree in terms of the assembly is 1 Timothy 2, but I may be wrong.) That is a charge that needs demonstration, which I assume is coming in future installments. But why say that here, and why say it that way? It is rhetorical flourish rather than an argument. I don’t want to interpret “away” anything. I want to understand the mystery of God (the gospel of godliness) revealed in those texts. Let’s talk about what my book actually says rather than deflecting the question to what others might do with it.  When we discuss the details of the book’s argument, then readers can decide whether something is explained “away” or not.

It is fair to call it a reinterpretation, though these texts have always been under various forms of reinterpretation and diverse understandings throughout history. The church has historically reinterpreted other texts (e.g., slavery, veils, holy kiss, wearing gold, washing feet, age limit on the support of widows, etc.). Perhaps some texts need reinterpretation (or the revival of old interpretations long forgotten) in order to hear the coherent story (including new creation) more fully because centuries of male authority have given us the wrong lenses with which to read the text. Perhaps we need a moment like Peter had at Simon’s house in Joppa to help us see what we could not previously see so that we might read Scripture more appropriately and more fully in the light of what God did in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this dialogue. I hope we can proceed with some reciprocity, respect, and mutual love without rhetorical embellishments. 

Peace and grace from our Lord Jesus Christ to my siblings, Renée, Bobby, and Daniel. Rick, my dear friend, I suppose I’ll see in you in future installments. Peace to all.


Hermeneutics is Always Inferential

January 21, 2020

Below I summarize the point of Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.h

Growing up in Churches of Christ, I embraced and practiced a hermeneutic that sought an implicit blueprint for the work and worship of the church in Acts and the Epistles. Through a filter of generic/specific distinctions, coordinate associations, the law of silence, and expediency (among other rules for authorization), I shifted through the commands, examples, and inferences within the New Testament to deduce a blueprint, which then became the standard of faithfulness and a mark of the true church.  And if everyone agreed upon and practiced the blueprint, we would be united! Part I of my book tells this story.

The inadequacies of this approach as well as its subjectivity (every conclusion and most steps along the way were inferences) created doubts. This is not how the apostolic witness called people to gospel obedience. They did not read Scripture or write Scripture with a blueprint lens. Something different was going on. This is described in Part II of my book.

The problem is the location of the pattern. The pattern is not found in an implied blueprint in Acts and the Epistles. Paul does not call people to obedience based on a blueprint located in the practices of the church. Instead, he calls them to obedience based on the pattern manifested in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. This is the gospel we obey—the story of Jesus—rather than a blueprint we have inferred from the text but is not explicitly there. This is my point in Part III of my book.

Hermeneutics, even a theological hermeneutic which I promote in the book, always involves inferences. We cannot escape them; every application is an inference. But here is the significant point: the pattern is not an inference. On the contrary, it is the story in which we live. It is the narrative air we breathe. The pattern of God’s work through Christ in the power of the Spirit is clear, objective, and formative. It is the story told in Scripture; it is an explicit pattern.

We will find unity when we confess the same pattern, and the shame of our division is that we already confess the same pattern.  Our pattern is God in Jesus through the Spirit, or our pattern is Jesus. Here we are united, and our hermeneutics (whether blueprint or theological) must not undermine that unity but provide ways to embody it.  That is the point of Part IV of my book.


Response to Dan Owen’s Article in the Gospel Advocate

January 16, 2020

In the December 2019 issue of the Gospel Advocate, Dan Owen offered a brief response, in part, to my recent book Searching for the Pattern. I thank Dan for reading the book, and I am grateful for his article as it calls attention to an important concern about how we read the Bible. I wish I could link to the article for my readers, but it is unavailable.

Dan quotes this sentence from Searching for the Pattern (p. 119), which he finds problematic: “In other words, the rule or canon by which Christians walk is not fundamentally or foundationally the New Testament as a written document.” He then quotes another sentence: “The rule or pattern, according to the apostle Paul, is not a detailed blueprint pattern for church practices, but the cross of Christ and the inauguration of a new creation.”

Dan does not question whether there was a rule or canon before the New Testament existed as Galatians 5:15-16 indicates. His point, however, is that the New Testament comes to us as a rule or canon that contains the teaching of the apostles. Consequently, he thinks I proposed, “to some degree, a false dichotomy” (40).

However, I do not dispute that the New Testament is a rule or canon. It is the teaching of the apostles handed down to us through divine inspiration. The question is what within the New Testament is essential, normative, and necessary for the faith and practice of the church. As Dan notes, we must read each biblical text in context and in the light of the whole story of the Bible (42). Consequently, we must discern through a contextual and wholistic reading of the Bible what is required for Christian faithfulness today. In other words, we must discern what in the New Testament canon is an essential rule for the contemporary church. What I claim is that the rule is, in summary, the cross of Christ and new creation.

Dan wrote, “Those who reject the apostolic documents as inspired and immediately authoritative for our lives will travel down a very different religious road from those who accept only the theological ideas in the core gospel as normative” (40).

I believe, as I affirmed above, that the apostolic documents are inspired. I am not exactly clear, however, what “immediately authoritative” means. If one means something like, “when it is clear that the apostles intended to require X as normative for all churches in all times by writing Y, then we ought to obey.” I affirm that. The question, then, is how do we discern that?

But if Dan means that whatever is asserted or taught by the New Testament is “immediately authoritative” in the sense that “when the Bible says X, we automatically and without discernment do or replicate X,” then this is problematic because the Bible tells us to do many things we do not do, including women wearing veils, enrolling widows and only those over fifty-nine, or greeting each other with a holy kiss among many other particulars.

Where Dan and I agree, I think, is that through contextual and wholistic study of Scripture, we seek to discern what God requires of us and the kind of life and practices into which God calls us. The truth of this contextual and wholistic study, I suggest in my book, is summarized in the gospel (e.g., the work of God through Christ in the Spirit; the rule by which we walk, according to Paul, in Galatians 5). This is the means by which we discern what is and is not normative for the practice of the contemporary church. I believe this because this is what I think the inspired apostolic documents teach.

Where Dan and I disagree, it seems to me, is not so much about the inspiration and authority of the Bible but how to discern what is normative and required from reading the Bible. At the same time, we share lots of common ground. Through a contextual and wholistic reading of the Bible we may, as committed disciples of Christ, see the grand story of God as the truth, and that truth is the mystery of God’s reconciling work in Christ through the Spirit.


Hermeneutics and Racial Segregation

October 4, 2019

This is an appendix from my recent book Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.

I have several vivid memories about race relationships in my history. 

I grew up in two very different places. In one city, African Americans lived across the river in a different city. They did not live in mine. I did not attend elementary school with any children of color, and neither did my congregation have any people of color in it. On one occasion, when a minister of an African American church of Christ from across the river visited my father for several hours at our church building, a neighbor called the police.

In the other city, I attended an integrated High School. The congregation where my father ministered was integrated in both leadership and membership. I was too young to understand or know how those dynamics played out in the congregation, but I do know I attended church with people of color. My father ministered in India for six weeks every year for a decade, and my family welcomed diverse guests across all ethnicities in our home for meals as well as lodging them for weeks or months. I learned to respect and love people who were different.

The first congregation I served as a preaching minister was in a northern urban center where half the church was African American and the other half was Caucasian. We were small but enjoyed wonderful fellowship. I officiated my first funeral there. It was the wife of my mentor and close friend, one of the congregation’s African American leaders who had led many to Christ.

When I moved to the deep South, it shocked my system. I remember sitting at a table with some elders and their wives near the Florida-Alabama border where, after talking with them about reaching out to the African American community, one of the wives grudgingly agreed to welcome them into the church but insisted she would not invite any into her home. At a congregation in Mississippi, I was present the first time an African American led singing. In response, three couples walked out of the building and left that congregation. I have known ministers in the deep South who were dismissed because they baptized a black person in the church’s baptistry, preached on racism, or were involved in community efforts toward racial reconciliation. On multiple occasions, I have seen white people flee congregations they had attended for years when African Americans grew in numbers that threatened the balance of power and/or added color to the youth group in an unacceptable mix. Some parents feared their children might date, perhaps even marry, someone of another race.

Racism is alive, and while I hope it is dying, it does not seem to be in its death throes. Indeed, I fear it is raising its ugly head with even more ferocity in the past few decades. Yet, nothing is more subversive of the gospel than racist attitudes and practices. Racism strikes at the heart of the gospel itself!

How does a theological hermeneutic address this problem?

As a matter of perspective, I suggest a blueprint hermeneutic does not address the heart of the issue well. Every congregation should accept every Christian no matter their color, ethnicity, or nationality. But how would the blueprint hermeneutic make this argument? It cannot point to a pattern except that no congregation should accept the ethnic division between Jew and Gentile. That is helpful, but it is insufficient. Might it be that the blueprint hermeneutic is not up to the task? Instead, when the blueprint hermeneutic attempts to tackle this question, it naturally shifts to a theological hermeneutic. In other words, it does not resolve the question in terms of a scripted pattern but with a theological argument, which seems rather obvious to all who love God and their neighbors. To the degree our history has neglected a theological hermeneutic, to that same degree racism is able to get hold of our hearts because we have been more deeply formed by racist social pressures and practices rather than by the heart of God. Like the elder brother who precisely obeyed all his father’s rules but did not know his father’s heart, some are so focused on searching for, arguing about, and precisely obeying a blueprint that they don’t know the Father’s heart.

To make my point, let me rehearse, in a brief way, how a theological hermeneutic addresses racism. I will not fill this out in any detail as I assume (and hope) most will see the point rather quickly. To do this, I will simply walk through the story of God and note a few significant points.

Creation. Every human being is created in the image of God, and, therefore, is crowned with glory and honor (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 8:5). Every human being has the status of a royal priest within the creation, and despite the fact that every human being has sinned and fallen short of this glory, every human being still images God. Consequently, no one should curse, hate, or mistreat another person (James 3:9-10).

God intended humanity to inhabit the whole earth (Isaiah 45:18) and commissioned humanity to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). When humanity fills the earth, humanity diversifies. People do not eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and have the same skin color when they live in such diverse places as Alaska, Guatemala, Singapore, Germany, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, these geographically diverse peoples created diverse cultures. Just as God created diverse plants and animals with diverse colors, so God commissioned humanity to fill the whole earth. Humanity, by God’s design, grew diverse, and this is as beautiful as what God created in other aspects of nature. God intended diversity, and God loves diversity.

Israel. Racists often appeal to Israel’s distinct role as a holy nation to support some kind of separatism or segregation. But this woefully misunderstands what God is doing in Israel. For example, God chose Israel to bless the nations rather than condemn them, and God ultimately wants to include the nations rather than exclude them. God called Israel to be “a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Further, God invited the nations into community, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22). God sent Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah, who did not have the heart of God, objected to the mercy God extended.

In addition, Israel welcomed and included the aliens who lived within their borders. Israel was explicitly commanded, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Exodus 22:21). Israel was to love the alien just as she loved herself (Leviticus 19:34), and Israel shared its tithes with aliens (Deuteronomy 26:12). Aliens could eat the Passover (2 Chronicles 30:25), offer sacrifices (Leviticus 17:8; 22:18), and were included in the forgiveness God extended to the community (Numbers 15:26). Israel’s status before God did not authorize them to oppress others.

The Ministry of Jesus. While Jesus was sent to Israel in order to announce the coming reign of God, he did not neglect opportunities to serve and love Gentiles. We see this in his healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30) and the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). Ultimately, of course, the resurrected Jesus includes all nations as the object of gospel proclamation as he commissioned his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18). More, of course, could be said.

Church. The church is one race. Believers in Christ share life in a new community that transcends all nationalities and ethnicities. Peter calls the church “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” In other words, they are a new humanity, and they are a race that includes all ethnicities and nationalities. Like Adam and Eve, and like Israel, this new race is a royal priesthood who proclaims God’s “mighty acts” (1 Peter 2:9).

Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 2. Talking about Jews and Gentiles (the nations), Paul stresses that, through the cross, Christ knocked down the wall that separated Jew and Gentile and created “in himself one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:16). As a result, there are no ethnic or national divisions in the church, and there “are no longer [any] strangers and aliens” but only “citizens” and “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

New Creation. The picture in Revelation 7 is quite clear. There “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stands “before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white” (Revelation 7:9). Together they sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). There is no segregation in the throne room of God!

Of course, much more could be said about each of these movements within the biblical drama. But I have shared enough to demonstrate that racism is fundamentally out of step with God’s agenda in creation and new creation as well as throughout the story.

At the center of the gospel is the mystery of Christ rather than a racist narrative. The gospel testifies to God’s love for the whole world through the gift of Jesus (John 3:16), Christ’s death for all (1 Timothy 2:4-6), and God’s inclusion of all within the church, whether “Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” because “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, nor male or female because we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

While this only touches the surface of this topic, a theological hermeneutic is at work here. We discover God’s values, God’s identity, and God’s heart through the narrative, and in Christ God testifies to the “mystery of godliness.” God in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit through the resurrection and seen among the angels as the enthroned Lord, is now “proclaimed among Gentiles” and “believed in throughout the world” (1 Timothy 3:16). With Christ at the center of our theology, there is no place for racism, and racist practices subvert the gospel.

As segregation within the church reared its ugly head in the 1870s, David Lipscomb, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, opposed it. In 1874, when a consultation of church leaders met in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, it passed a resolution that recommended that “our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own.” Lipscomb opposed it, and he labeled it “destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, pp. 1017-8, 20). On another occasion, Lipscomb wrote: “The whole idea of churches along race lines is contrary to the spirit and the precepts of the New Testament, and to refuse fellowship to a child of God because of its race or family is to refuse it to Jesus himself” (Gospel Advocate, August 15, 1907, p. 521).

Nevertheless, Jim Crow culture led churches of Christ to segregate into different congregations. They were not alone, of course. It was the dominant culture. Unfortunately, the effects of that segregation still loom large. Indeed, some Christians have believed, as one stated in a letter, too many people “fall for the big lie that segregation is unchristian.”

In this instance, unlike in many cases where churches of Christ divided, the gospel is at stake. Whenever racism dictates and influences our practice, it subverts the gospel, and we proclaim and practice another gospel, which is no gospel at all. In such a circumstance, we find ourselves under Paul’s anathema (Galatians 1:6-9).

May God have mercy!


The Power of a Biblical Story

August 6, 2015

Bible stories.

Many of us have heard them since we were children.

  • Daniel and the Lion’s Den.
  • Noah’s Ark.
  • Three Angels Visiting Abraham.
  • Moses and the Burning Bush.
  • David and Goliath.

And many more!

Bible stories are important. They do more than tweak the emotions or offer a moralism, as important as those dimensions are. Their power arises from something (even Someone) much deeper than human morality or emotion.

What is the power of a biblical story?

The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about God. Even when a biblical story does not name God (as in the case of Esther), it is still about God. As such, God is the subject of every biblical story, and that story says something about God’s identity and character.

Biblical stories reveal God’s goodness as well as God’s holiness. We see God’s faithfulness, a divine commitment to the divine goal among God’s people. We see God’s transcendence but also God’s immanence; we see God’s holy otherness but also God’s deep involvement in the world.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who God is and what God is doing in the world?

The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about the human condition. We locate ourselves in the human condition; we find ourselves in the story. We see our own frailty, weakness, and unbelief in the story. We also see courage, strength, and faith in the story.

Biblical stories reveal both the depravity and the dignity of human beings. As we hear these stories, we recognize how evil human beings can behave but also the heights to which their faith draws them. We see both the absurdity of life with all its brokenness, woundedness, and death, but we also see the good gifts of relationships, community, and family within God’s good creation. Biblical stories tell both sides of the human story.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who we are, what we have become, and the heights to which God is calling us?

The power of a biblical story is how it invites us to participate in the theodrama. As we read the stories in the Bible, we are invited to see ourselves in the story. This is not simply a matter of locating ourselves there. Rather, we engage the story as part of the larger theodrama, the dramatic history of God at work within creation and human history. We are participants. This story is our story.

Biblical stories are not isolated moral plays; they are part of a larger narrative, a metanarrative. The stories themselves participate in God’s mission within the world. Each story is an expression of the larger story, and we are invited to participate in that larger story even as we see ourselves in any particular story.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: how does this story invite us to participate in God’s larger metanarrative?

So, what do we do with that?

If we know who God is, and we know what our condition is, then we are enabled to discern how a story summons us to play our role in God’s grand redemptive drama.

The God of the burning bush is both redeemer and holy. The holy God encounters Moses, and invites Moses to participate in God’s redemptive movement within the world. We see in Moses our own reticence, fear, and inadequacies, but we also see God’s enabling power and summons. God includes Moses in the redemptive drama such that Moses partners with God in liberating Israel from Egyptian bondage. What Moses becomes is rooted in what God does.

Who is God? The Holy Redeemer.

What is humanity? Weak and fearful, yes. But the story also affirms human dignity by inviting Moses to participate in the divine mission.

What is our summons? To participate in God’s redemptive agenda in the world, pursuing God’s mission in dependence on God’s power. We are still on the same mission as Moses, as the redemption of Israel is part of the grand narrative of God’s redemptive work for all peoples.

Biblical stories have something to tell. They inform, moralize, and motivate.

But, more importantly, through them we also encounter Someone. We encounter the God who invites us into God’s own story, God’s theodrama.

At bottom, biblical stories are callings. God calls us.


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!

 

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!

 


Mark 12:28-34 — Kingdom Priorities

May 14, 2012

As Jesus teaches in the temple courts, his opponents confront him with a series of questions. Jesus had enraged the temple authorities when he cleansed the Court of the Gentiles from merchandizers. They questioned his authority, his allegiances, and his theology. These hostile questions intended to subvert his popularity and/or endanger his life.

Now, however, a scribe—like one of those who questioned him in Mark 11:27—approaches him with some respect. While Matthew (22:35) portrays this incident as the result of a Pharisaic conspiracy to test Jesus once again, Mark is more ambiguous. Mark’s scribe was impressed with how well Jesus handled the succession of questions and consequently wonders how Jesus might answer the question that rabbis discussed among themselves: “Of all the commandments, which is the first of all?” Which commandment, he asks, ranks as “numero uno”! Which commandment is the most important?

Given that the rabbis counted 613 imperatives within the Torah, it is not surprising that there would be some discussion about which was the most important or which had priority. Allen Black (College Press NIV Commentary on Mark, 216) reminds us that many, including Jesus’ contemporary in Alexandria Philo (Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 168; Special Laws, 2.63), considered the ten commandments a summary of the Torah divided between responsibilities toward God (“piety”) and responsibilities toward people (“justice”). This two-fold categorization fits the answer Jesus himself gave: love God and love your neighbor.

Jesus identifies two commands—out of a host present in the Torah—as the first and second. “Love God” is the “first of all,” that is, it has priority, but the “second” is “love your neighbor.” The first quotes the great Shema (Hebrew for “hear”) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which was repeated twice daily by devout Jews in the Greco-Roman period (Allen cites Letter to Aristeas, 160; Jubilees 6:14). The second quotes Leviticus 19:18.

It seems rather amazing that Jesus could lift two isolated commands out of the Torah and identify them as first and second. The identification of the Shema as first is more understandable as its narrative function in Deuteronomy is the fountainhead of Israel’s response to God’s deliverance and land-grant recounted in Deuteronomy 1-5. Since God has graced Israel, Israel returns that grace with loving gratitude.

But the identification of Leviticus 19:18 appears more arbitrary. It seems to appear as one command in a list of others within the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18-20). Some suggest that Leviticus 19:18 functions as a summary statement in the Holiness Code, but this is not apparent. Nevertheless, Jesus recognizes its theological importance.

What enables Jesus to so clearly and succinctly identify these two texts—among many others that could have been chosen—as the first and second commandments? It is apparent that Jesus does not read Scripture as a flat text where every command is as equally important as every other command. Rather, he reads the text in a hierarchical fashion. That is, he recognizes levels of priority and importance. I suggest he reads in a narratival way such that the story (plot) of God moves us to recognize “love you neighbor” as the second greatest command. Some commands are more fundamental than others.

The scribe recognizes Jesus’ point. He repeats what Jesus quoted—and thus the narrative underscores the unparalleled significance of theses two imperatives—and also interprets the significance of prioritizing these two commands. In effect, Jesus has prioritized these two commands, according to the scribe, over “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In other words, Jesus has prioritized loving God and neighbor over the temple, its sacrifices and their atoning significance. This does not mean that sacrifices are unimportant but rather that they are less important that what some might have thought. The two greatest commands are love God and love neighbor–and we must be careful that we don’t respond with “but….” [fill in the blank with an “important” command].

There is a tradition with the history of Israel which prioritized the sacrifices so that if one comes to the temple and offers their sacrifices, then God is pleased with them (despite their lives). This is the safety of the temple to which Jesus alluded when he cleansed the Temple as Jesus quoted from Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jeremiah 7). Some believed that despite their adulteries and social injustice (how they treated the poor, widows and orphans) their sacrifices were accepted because the temple represented God’s gracious presence. The second command, love your neighbor, does not sanction such an interpretation of the temple.

What makes one more fundamental than another? How are these two imperatives (“love God” and “love your neighbor”) more important than sacrifices? Perhaps we might see in “love God and love your neighbor” an act of sacrifice itself. It is the gift of ourselves to God (our whole body, soul and strength) and, in turn, to others. We are the sacrifices. This is more important than any ritual which expresses that devotion.

It reminds us that God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) or Micah’s declaration of what the Lord requires more than a thousand rams, that is, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We are the sacrifices which God requires (cf. Psalm 40:6-8).

The context in which Mark places this exchange underscores the importance of “love your neighbor” (quoted twice). It appears between the exploitation the money-changers practiced in the temple courts (Mark 11:15-16) for which Jesus judges the temple complex and Jesus’ accusation that the wealthy temple authorities (“scribes”) exploit widows (Mark 12:38-40). Leviticus 19:18—love your neighbor—falls between the prohibition against defrauding (robbing) your neighbor (19:13) and honest business practices (19:35). Economic justice functions prominently in the last part of the Holiness Code.

Given the temple context, controversy and practices in Mark 11-12 as well as Jesus seemingly gratuitious comment about widows, “love your neighbor” has added significance. It is, it seems, a further judgment against the temple authorities. The scribe did not ask Jesus for the second commandment. He only inquired about what was “first of all.” Jesus volunteered the second and his reference to the social injustice of the scribes later in this chapter is a narrative clue for Mark’s readers as to why.

This may explain Jesus’ rather curious (backhanded?) compliment to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus notes that the scribe is “thoughful” (nounechos, only here in the NT)–he has got the right mind (nous) about it, but does he practice what he knows (loving God with soul and strength?)? Jesus did not invite the scribe to follow him and he did not say he was a kingdom participant. He still seems at a distance though near. Perhaps the scribe’s involvement in the temple complex was why, though near, he was not yet a Jesus-follower.

Whatever we make of Jesus’ “compliment,” the scribe correctly affirmed kingdom priorities. The kingdom ethic is to love God and love our neighbor. It is that simple though it is far from simple; easy to grasp perhaps, but difficult to live. The kingdom is rooted, grounded and expressed in love—God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for each other.

It is rather sobering, however, to consider whether, possibly like the scribe, we are “not far from the kingdom of God.” Is it possible that we might affirm but not practice the two greatest commands? Is it possible that we might know better but we don’t do better? Is it possible that we know about God but we don’t know God as people who love our neighbors?

Is it possible, I wonder, whether we know the commandments but we are so emeshed in the structures of oppression and injustice (much like the scribes in the temple; like those living under Jim Crow or in southern slave states) that we don’t even recognize that we fail to love our neighbors even as we insist that we do?

May God have mercy on us all.