Traditional, Complementarian, or Egalitarian?

January 11, 2017

[An audio version is available here (under January 8)]

In this post I have no interest in advocating for any position, and my taxonomy is primarily applied to the historically controversial question about what function/role may women serve in the public assembly of the church gathered to communally praise/worship God. Rather than advocating a position, my goal is to further mutual understanding, that is, what positions have Christians typically held, and what hermeneutical reading strategies have grounded these positions in Scripture?

For me, the “labels” simply facilitate discussion by providing a way to locate particular understandings. I attach neither a pejorative nor an affirming meaning to any of these terms. They are only descriptors.

There is, of course, much more one could say about each of these positions both historically and theologically as well as exegetically (what do the biblical texts actually say?). My goal is to summarize rather than to fully articulate these positions in all their nuances.

1.  Traditionalists assert a “strong” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) and interpret this to mean that women are not permitted a “leading” voice in the assembly. This not only includes reading Scripture, preaching, or presiding at the table but also excludes women from making announcements, audibly requesting prayers, voicing a prayer, asking questions, or testifying about an answered prayer.  In other words, women must be “silent” in the public assembly of believers; women may not audibly lead the assembly in any way. Consequently, women have no “voice” in the assembly other than singing with the congregation (including, for some, responsive readings) or their public confession of faith before baptism (which usually consists in a brief answer to a question, such as, “Yes” or “I do”).   This is also extended beyond the assembly as women are excluded from other leadership functions in the church structure or ministries. For example, typically and historically, women cannot chair committees on which men sit, teach in any setting where men are present, or  vote in “men’s business meetings.”

Among Traditionalists, there are some variations and exceptions.  For example, in some congregations (particularly African American ones) women are encouraged to make prayer requests or offer testimonies in the assembly.  Generally, however, women may not “speak” (audibly lead) in the public assembly.

This is an historic position among Churches of Christ.  For example, both David Lipscomb and James A. Harding believed women should not speak in any public way when the church was assembled for worship because they thought the Bible taught such. However, they did encourage women to teach all who would listen (male, female, children) privately in classes and homes. They believed the distinction between public and private settings was key for the application of traditionalist principles (for more on this, see this blog).

For Traditionalists, like Lipscomb and Harding, women were also excluded from the vote, public leadership of any organization, and some even objected to their entrance into some professors (e.g., Lawyer or Doctor).  They believed the “order of creation” (Adam was created first, then Even) applied not only to home and church but also to society and culture as well. (For more information on this, see this link or this blog).

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology?  Essentially, it is something like this. Biblical texts are timeless and normative statements to which every situation and culture must conform. Every statement in Scripture is absolute and is never relative to or dependent upon the circumstances, situations, or occasions in which they are written except those that apply to dispensational distinctions (e.g., “Mosaic Law” in contrast to “New Testament” instructions). Thus, every application contained in Scripture should be reproduced in our situation.

As a result, texts like 1 Corinthans 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are understood as normative, timeless statements of God’s intent for women in the public assemblies of the church.  These function as explicit directives or “positive laws” (to use Harding’s phrase) to which the church must conform in order to remain faithful to its calling, and these laws are rooted in creation itself since God created man as the head of woman from the beginning, which is reflected in the order of creation as well as the reason for creation (woman was created for man, not man for woman).

2. Complementarians assert a “soft” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) in terms of role and function. Typically, they think of this leadership or headship in terms of responsibility and accountability rather than some kind of strict authority. Men are not empowered to order women to conform as much as men are accountable for the spiritual health of the community. As such, men, as Christlike “heads,” should  serve women, empower them, and sacrifice for them. Consequently, it maintains many traditional practices are oppressive and deny women the freedom God permits and encourages. As a result, this group is open to more significant and visible participation by women in church life and in the assembly since, importantly, not every form of leadership bears a “headship” function.

For example, Complementarians do not regard every function in the assembly as a “headship” function.  When Scripture is read, the authority lies in the text; when prayers are prayed, this serves the community rather than exercising authority over it; and whoever passes the trays, serves the community rather than standing over it.

There are a wide range of applications within this group.  Some are fairly limited in this permission and stand closer to Traditionalists while some encourage a broad inclusion, including exhorting the church, teaching in its theological schools, teaching Bible classes in the church, etc. Some churches encourage the participation of women in the assembly in every way except as senior minister (the “regular preacher,” some might say) and as (ruling) elders within the community.

Churches of Christ have known such Complementarians in its history. For example, the churches north of the Ohio who were influenced by Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Sommer regarded the participation of women as both a privilege (the honor to participate) and a right (a matter of justice). They encouraged women to read Scripture, lead singing, and exhort the church on occasion, though preaching as well as ruling as elders was not permitted. There were also similar congregations in Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (For more information, see this link.)

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Essentially, it is something like this.  Biblical texts contain the principles (theology) to be applied though the application of those principles may vary from culture to culture. We read Scripture to discern theological principles. Today we apply the principles rather than necessarily duplicating the applications. The same principle may yield different applications given different circumstances (both in the past and the present).

A key principle for Complementarians is “headship.”  Their understanding of the principle, however, does not entail exclusion from all leadership functions in the assembly. For example, they believe 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 addresses an assembled community where women audibly prayed and prophesied even while they honored their “heads.”  In other words, male headship–drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:3–does not deny women all forms of leadership.  Women in Corinth, for example, prayed and prophesied in the assembly without subverting headship or dishonoring their heads. This means women may have a voice in the assembly as long as they honor their heads when they do so, and men–when they are Christlike heads–empower women to participate because it is their privilege and gift to participate.

The principle of headship is rooted in creation. Complementarians believe the original vision for humanity included male headship, which is then played out in the history of God’s people (priests are men, Jesus called only male apostles in his ministry, and men serve as elders in the early church), and when this leadership is abdicated (as in the case of Adam and Eve) serious consequences follow.

Though the principle is the same (male headship), the application is both different and the same.  While head-coverings are no longer required, women still have the privilege of exercising their gifts in the assembly as long as they honor their heads.

3. Egalitarians assert the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position opens all functions in the church/assembly to women according to their gifts though the intent is to advocate for such with cultural sensitivity and deference to local customs or traditions.

Egalitarians seek to open all facets of the church to the inclusion of women. While some couch this primarily in the language of rights and justice, others frame it in the light of gifts and privileges, and still others emphasize both. At the very least, Egalitarians suggest the inclusion of women’s gifts is for the common good of the body, and if the Holy Spirit gifted women in  particular ways (just as the Spirit gifted men as well), then the Spirit calls the church to use these gifts for the edification of the body of Christ.

To what degree cultural sensitivity comes into play is difficult. On one hand, some assert a kind of justice which demands inclusion irrespective of local customs and subcultures.  However, many affirm, for the sake of love and unity, a more sensitive approach which calls for mutual formation toward the goal of full inclusion. This acknowledges that the cultural path to equality in some congregations is a long one.

On the other hand, the cultural situation in the United States calls for the full inclusion of women. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture of the early Roman Empire, the inclusion of women is not a cultural scandal, which biblical writers both accommodated and subverted to some extent. Rather, the exclusion of women is a cultural scandal in the present United States, and if Egalitarians are correct in their understanding of biblical theology, it is the church who oppresses women when it should be liberating them.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Egalitarians typically read Scripture as a witness to the goals of God.  Scripture points us beyond its own circumstances and specific applications through “seed” texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28), paradigm shifts in the story (e.g., the pouring out of the Spirit on women in Acts 2), and the original vision of equality in creation fulfilled in new creation (Genesis 1-2). This approach suggests God calls us to live in the future Scripture imagines.

Scripture address people within a culture. For example, the Torah addresses what to do with women who are captured in battle, or how women inherit from their parents (which they do not unless there are no male heirs). These encultured case laws assume cultural values (e.g., patriarchy) while at the same time seeking to subvert them in mild ways, and contemporary Christians recognize the problematic patriarchy in such texts. Yet, the mild subversion of some patriarchy in some of these texts point us to something beyond culture.  Deborah is an example of this kind of “seed” vision within the text which empowers women beyond cultural (patriarchical) constraints.

Egalitarians believe Scripture points us toward a new vision of humanity–a new creation–where humanity is one. This captures the original vision of creation itself, and it moves us into a new age (new creation) where men and women are equally empowered for ministry and service in the community of God as expression of the priesthood of all believers. Some in Churches of Christ now advocate this perspective (see this blog), and some congregations have embraced it.

Slavery was accommodated in the biblical text (and subverted in significant ways), yet we understand that the gospel contains the seeds for its abolition. In a similar fashion, Egalitarians believe patriarchy was also accommodated (and subverted in significant ways as well), yet the gospel contains the seeds and vision for its abolition. Consequently, the seed texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28) and vision texts (e.g., Acts 2) call us into a future where God’s people are one rather than divided by gender in the ministry of the body of Christ.

I imagine within many congregations of the Churches of Christ Traditionalists, Complementarians, and Egalitarians live side-by-side in their communities.  Congregations vary in their practice, and discussions will become ever more explicit as culture raises the questions for us and presses the church for a response.

Our first task, it seems to me, is mutual understanding. We must first listen and listen carefully. Do I understand what the other is saying, how they read Scripture, and what their desire for the church is in love and unity? We cannot talk if we do not first listen.

May God have mercy!

Below are some questions for possible use among those who want to discuss these thoughts in their community.

  1. How do you see these same three positions mirrored in various cultures throughout the world? For example, in some cultures, “Traditionalism” is still practiced in society. How has this changed in US culture over the years?
  1. Given these three positions, how has this changed in “church” cultures in the last few centuries or even decades?
  1. What do you regard as the key point—whether biblical text, cultural situation, or theological idea—in each of these positions?
  1. In what ways are you able to appreciate each position? State how you may complement each position and value something in each?
  1. One goal is “mutual understanding,” that is, we understand why each holds the position they do and we can appreciate the reasons why they do. How is that working for you?

Resurrection Sunday: The Emmaus Experience (Luke 24:35)

March 27, 2016

On Resurrection Day, almost two thousand years ago, two disciples were transformed by their experience of the risen Messiah at a table in Emmaus.

While walking to Emmaus, they heard the story of a Messiah who must first suffer and then enter glory. The stranger who walked with them expounded Scripture, and their hearts burned as they saw the story of God in new ways. As the Scriptures were opened, so were their hearts.

At a table in Emmaus, on that resurrection day, the risen Messiah was “made known” to these disciples “in the breaking of the bread.” We know from reading Acts (2:42, 46; 20:7, 11) “the breaking of bread” continued as an ongoing table experience among the followers of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.

What happened in the “breaking of the bread?” What continues to happen “in the breaking of the bread?”

The living Messiah is “made known” within the community of disciples. When disciples of Jesus are gathered around the table, Jesus is present, and—more than present—Jesus is revealed.

Jesus said as much earlier in Luke:

  • “This is my body” and
  • “This cup…is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

Of course, the problem is the meaning of “is”? It depends on what the meaning of “is” is, right?

Paul expands the “is” in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “is it [the breaking of the bread] not a sharing in the body of Christ” or “is it [the cup] not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we participate, share in the blessing of, and commune with the one who gave himself for us. We share in the benefits of God’s work in Christ; we experience the reality the body and blood of Jesus effects. We experience peace with God, and at the table we are not only assured of God’s grace but God also gives grace there.

Luke also provides his own explanation in Luke 24:35. At the table, the living Jesus is “revealed” or “made known.”

What exactly does that mean? I think the Eastern Orthodox theologian Schmemann illuminates this a bit (For the Life of the World, 142).

In the early tradition, and this is of paramount importance, the relationship between the sign in the symbol (A) and that which it signifies (B) is neither a merely semantic one (A means B), nor causal (A is the cause of B), nor representative (A represents B). We called this relationship an epiphany. “A is B” means that the whole of A expresses, communicates, reveals, manifests the reality of B (although not necessarily the whole of it) without, however, losing its own ontological reality, without being dissolved in another “res” [another “thing,” JMH]. But it was precisely this relationship between the A and the B, between the sign and the signified, that was changed. Because of the reduction of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge there appears between A and B a hiatus. The symbol may still be means of knowledge but, as all knowledge, it is knowledge about and knowledge of. It can be a revelation about “res” but not the epiphany of the “res” itself. A can mean B, or represent it, or even in certain instances, be the “cause” of its presence; but A is no longer viewed as the very means of “participation” in B. Knowledge and participation are now two different realities, two different orders.

The bread and wine (the signs) remain bread and wine—their nature as bread and wine does not change. The relationship between the sign (bread and wine) and the thing signified (body and blood) is not merely symbolic or representative, but neither is it a change of nature or ontology (such that the bread becomes the body or the wine becomes the blood as different substance so that the bread and wine are annihilated).

Instead, the bread and wine become a means by which the living Christ is revealed. It is an “epiphany,” which “expresses, communicates, reveals, [and] manifests the reality” of the living Christ in the midst of the community. The table becomes more than a cognitive remembrance where we learn something about Christ. The table becomes a means by which we experience the living Christ and participate in the reality of the new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus.

At the table, Jesus reveals the future, we remember the future, and we experience the future. The table is an “ephipany”—we see the future! Death will not win; Christ has already won!

On Easter Sunday, like Resurrection Day itself, disciples all around the world gather around a table, and there the living Christ is “made known.” We not only learn about Christ, we experience Christ. We not only learn about the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, we taste it!

O Happy Day—the day God announced the future of the world through the resurrection of Jesus.

O Happy Day—the day we gather at the table to taste that future!

Blessed be the name of the Lord, who did not leave us in the dust of death but has given us new life through Jesus, who is our life.

 


Easter Morning: From Joshua’s Grave to Joyous Assembly

March 27, 2016

This Easter, before assembling with other believers, I visited Joshua’s grave.

photo

For me visiting graves has rarely been comforting. In fact, it is the opposite. The graveyard seemed too permanent. It contained too many granite stones which testified to both the pervasiveness and intransigence of death.

I have found in recent years visiting graves is good grief therapy for me. It can become a moment of spiritual encounter with God as I learn to face the grief and live through it rather than avoid it.

As I drove to the grave on Sunday morning early, I listed to some lament Psalms (including several musical versions of Psalm 13). I imagined the journey of the women to the grave that morning. I felt the lament, the sadness, and the disappointment (lost years, what could have been, he’d be 31 now). The women and I shared something.

At the grave I remembered, prayed, and protested.

But the grave does not have the final word. It seems like it does. Death overwhelms us–it looks permanent, immutable, and hopeless.

But that is why I assemble with believers on Easter (but also every Resurrection day, every Sunday). When we assemble, we profess our hope, encourage each other, and draw near to God. We encounter the living God who is (yet still, even now, and forevermore) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The hope of the resurrection is a future one. God did not leave us without a witness to the future. The resurrection of Jesus is our resurrection. His victory is our hope. His empty tomb is the promise of our own.

That hope, for me, is experienced not so much at the grave (though God may be encountered there as well), but in the assembly. When I assemble with other believers to praise, pray, and profess. In that moment the assembly of believers becomes one–one with the past, present and future, heaven and earth become one, and God loves on those gathered. In that moment, I stand to praise with Joshua rather than without him; we are one for that moment at least.

We continue to lament–both Joshua and I. We both yearn for the new heavens and new earth. We both pray for the day, like the souls under the altar in Revelation 6, when God will put things back to right and make everything new.

But for now the journey from the grave to the assembly is no easy one. It is filled with obstacles. Faith is a struggle and the walk is arduous. But at the end of the journey is an empty grave rather than a filled one.


Holy Saturday–Sitting By the Grave

March 26, 2016

Good Friday, and then Easter.

But a day is missing in that story. To move from Friday to Sunday we must walk through Saturday.

Saturday, however, is a lonely day. Death has won. Hope is lost. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a tomb. His disciples are afraid, hiding, and deeply depressed. Everything in which they had invested for the past three years seems pointless now.  They forsook their Master; they lost faith in that moment. They are leaderless, hopeless, and aimless.

On Holy Saturday we sit by the grave to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself. It is a day to weep, fast, and mourn. The late second century church (e.g., Irenaeus) fasted from all food on this day because it was a day of mourning. They did not break the fast until Easter morning.

Those of us who have spent time at graves–in my case the grave of a parent, wife, and child–understand this grief, the despair of the grave. I have spent much of my life running away from graves, and I have rarely spent much time thinking about Holy Saturday.

It is much easier to skip from Friday to Easter than to dwell on Holy Saturday. As what happened in my life, we skip grief as much as possible. It is easier to run from grief. We prefer to escape it rather than face it or endure it.

Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament. It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity. It reminds me to protest death and renew my hatred for it. It reminds me to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.

Indeed, to sit with the disciples is to sit with humanity in the face of death. When we sit at the grave we recognize our powerlessness. We cannot reverse death; we cannot defeat this enemy. Holy Saturday creates a yearning for Easter. We need Easter for without it we are dead.

But Easter is a faint victory if we do not fully recognize the horror of death. Death threatens us with non-being, and it dismantles life so that there is no meaning, purpose, or joy that lasts. Easter is God’s gift; it is God’s “Yes” to Death’s “No.”

Yesterday we remembered the death of Jesus on Good Friday, today we sit at the grave, but tomorrow, Sunday, we are renewed by the hope of the resurrection.

Jesus walked that path, and we follow him.  We, too, will have our Friday; one day we will be entombed and loved ones will mourn at our graves. However–by the grace and mercy of God–on that great day we will rise again to walk with Jesus upon the new heaven and new earth.

That is the meaning of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.


In Defense of “I’ll Fly Away”

February 24, 2016

This past weekend, on February 20, I was honored to participate in the memorial service of a godly woman in Colonial Heights, Virginia.

Rose Marie Paden–the beloved mother of the Paden boys and girls, and the second mother of the Hicks boys and girl–passed from this life on February 12, 2016. In 1953, Rose Marie and her husband Lowell Paden, along with their three boys at the time (L. V., Mike, and Dan), joined the Hicks family in Colonial Heights, Virginia, to assist in the nurture of a new church plant. The Padens and Hicks were extended families for each other as both were so far from their West Texas roots, and we shared many occasions but especially every Thanksgiving where we would play games, sing songs, and eat together. Rose Marie was a pillar for the church in Colonial Heights for over sixty years! Her works will follow her (Revelation 14:13).

The most moving moment in the memorial service was singing some of her favorite hymns as a congregation, led by three of her grandsons. Those hymns opened our hearts and minds to her faith, and we wept and were comforted.

One of the songs was, “I’ll Fly Away.”

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

Chorus
I’ll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

Oh. How glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

I have been known, at times, to chuckle about this song and sometimes to oppose it. There are several reasons the song makes me a bit uncomfortable.

For example, I believe our final resting place is the new heavens and new earth, when heaven and earth become one. Then God will dwell with the redeemed on a renewed earth, fitted for eternal habitation. I don’t believe our final state is some celestial home outside of the present cosmos beyond the lenses of the Hubble telescope.

Another reason for discomfort is the implied assumption that “flying away” is the final journey or goal. This tends to say something like, “When I die, I go to heaven, and that is all I desire.” This leaves out the resurrection from the dead, which is the hope of the Christian faith, and it lends itself to a dualistic understanding of the human being as the physical (material) is laid aside to inherit a wholly “spiritual” (immaterial) realm.

But in this moment I want to offer a defense of the song.

It expresses a deep faith in God’s victory over death.  In other words, death does not win, though it may appear to do so. Human identity does not cease. We are carried away into the bosom of Abraham. Rose Marie flew away into the arms of God. It is her home…for now.

It expresses a deep sense of the chaos in this present world. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “everything is hebel” (or absurd, enigma, a breath, vanity). This present cosmos is enslaved and shackled, and the creation itself longs for redemption and renewal, according to Romans 8. The song expresses joy of release from this present bondage to a place where Rose Marie awaits the full redemption of the cosmos, including her own resurrection.

It also expresses a truth about the state of the dead, which is dear to my heart. While death destroys the unity of the human person–separating body and spirit–human identity remains (“I’ll fly away”), and human persons, despite death, escape to a place of joy without end in the presence of God. It goes to the question, “Where are the Dead?” (A question I addressed in a series of blogs, which you can find in my serial index; here is the link to the first one.) In particular, I regard Revelation 7 a fairly clear statement about those who were once upon the earth but have now crossed over into the throne room of God where every tear is wiped away (see my blog on this text). I believe when we die, though we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord. In some sense we are at home, sheltered by God and the Lamb. And there we wait with the whole creation for the redemption of both the cosmos and our bodies. While we wait, however, we enjoy God’s presence and join the chorus around God’s throne.

I don’t imagine that most people think about all this when they sing the song. Most likely many (if not most) simply think about going home to heaven and never returning to the earth or they don’t think about the resurrection of the dead.

But on February 20th, I sang “I’ll Fly Away” with gusto because it expressed what I knew was true about Rose Marie Paden.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”

Amen, and Amen.  Rest in peace, Rose Marie.  Say “Hello” to Lowell for me.


Visibly Practicing the Unity of the Spirit: What Shall We Do?

February 23, 2016

Many have heard about the “five steps of salvation,” but here are  my “five steps” toward visibly embodying the unity the Spirit has already created.

  1. Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).
  1. Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
  1. Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).
  1. Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).
  1. Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).

See the fuller article here.


Suggestions for Our Harvests

November 17, 2015

I have some suggestions for Christmas!

But first a little biblical theology….

Israel enjoyed their Spring and Fall harvests with week-long celebrations. In the Spring, seven weeks after Passover, Israel celebrated the Spring harvest with the “Festival of Harvest/Weeks” (Pentecost). In the Fall, Israel celebrated the Fall harvest with the “Festival of Booths/Tabernacles.”

These festivals did double-duty. Not only did they celebrated the Spring and Fall harvests, they were also tied to God’s redemptive acts within Israel’s history. Just as the Passover remembered the Exodus, so the Pentecost remembered the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the Feast of Tabernacles remembered the forty-year wilderness pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

The festivals, then, gave thanks not only for God’s present blessings in the harvest but also identified the present people of God with their ancestors. Through the festivals, Israel relived its history and received God’s gracious harvest gifts.

Embedded in Israel’s calendar, these annual events regulated Israel’s communal life. They provided a rhythm of identity, memory, and thanksgiving for Israel’s life with God.

In addition, they also provided a rhythm of generosity.

When Israel gathered to celebrate the harvest festivals, they were warned to “not appear before the Lord empty-handed.” They were to “give as they are able, according the the blessing of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Israel not only enjoyed its harvest, but it shared its harvest.

More specifically, they shared their harvest with “the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14).

This three-fold concern–the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow–is a recurring emphasis in Deuteronomy (10:18; 14:29; 24:17, 19; 26:12-13; 27:19) as well as within the rest of the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; Psalm 994:6; 146:9).

In particular, the call to bless and protect the “resident alien” within Israel receives special emphasis. The verb or nouns forms for this term occur 175 times in the Hebrew Bible. Variously translated as “sojourner,” “resident alien,” “foreigner,” or “stranger,” it describes a person who is not native to the land in which they live. Israel, for example, was an alien in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:7), and Israel should love aliens because they were aliens in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When Israel harvested its crops and celebrated God’s blessings, God expected they would share their blessings with the “aliens” among them. This is a rhythmic and ritualized generosity. Such ritual patterns not only symbolize Israel’s values, they also shape hearts and cultivate those values in the community.

Christmas has become that kind of ritual for Christians. It is a season in which we share with others. While as a cultural phenomenon the season is too often focused on consumerism and self-absorbed as well as extravagant family celebrations, it should be a time when families celebrate their lives together and share with each other while they also share with others.

Israel’s festivals were not self-focused or self-interested. They enjoyed God’s blessings as families, but they also included included the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  And, more to the point of recent days, they included the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, or immigrant.

So, here are my Christmas suggestions.

First, when we budget our Christmas spending, let us spend a significant percentage on people outside of our family and friends. My family budgets 1/3 of our Christmas spending on “Christmas giving.”

Second, when we share our Christmas giving with others, share with the immigrants in your community!  Just as Israel, include the immigrants in your festive generosity.

Third, identify immigrants in your world who work on the margins of your life–such as facilities workers, yard workers, etc.–and give them a Christmas gift.

Fourth, practice this as a communal (church) or family ritual so that its values are cultivated in your community or family as a regular, habitual, and annual festival analogous to Israel’s harvest festivals.

When God called Israel into this kind of ritualized, communal, and habitual practice, it seems to me God understood the practical effect this would have on their lives, characters, and communal life. It not only teaches us something but forms us into a particular kind of people.

That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

 

 

 

 


Theodrama: Act I, Scene 3 – God Invests Humanity with Dignity and Mission

October 28, 2015

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

The Lord God took the adam and rested adam in the Garden of Eden to serve and protect it.

Genesis 2:15 (my translation)

These texts identify humanity’s vocation. They invite humanity into God’s goal for the creation. God invites humanity to flourish, fill the whole earth, subdue the cosmos, and protect the divine sanctuary. God intends for Eden to expand and fill the earth as humanity faithfully participates in God’s mission. We are God’s junior partners in that mission.

God created us as God’s own images in distinction from all other life. Humanity has a special role within the creation as the image of God within the cosmic temple, God’s house. As the living images of God within the creation, humanity represents God in the world, mediates God’s presence as priests, and reigns over the creation as royalty. When God finished the temple, God placed images within it. Human beings (both male and female) are those images.

Multiply and Fill

This is humanity’s expansionistic function.

God “rested” humanity in the Garden. The Hebrew Bible uses this word to describe divine and human rest on the seventh day (Exodus 20:11; 23:12; cf. Deuteronomy 5:14), God’s gift of rest to Israel in the land (Deuteronomy 25:19; Josh. 1:13, 15; 1 Chronicles 23:25; 2 Chronicles 14:6), and God’s habitation of the temple (2 Chronicles 6:41). God created adam (the human being) from the adamah (ground) and rested adam in the Garden to rest with God as a royal priest in Eden.

Eden, however, was not a static reality. God intended humanity to multiply and fill the whole earth, to expand Eden until it filled the earth, until everything was “Holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Humanity, as well as animal life, is to populate the earth, and God “formed” the earth “to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). God multiplies and fills the earth with glory through the praise of God’s creatures (cf. Genesis 1:22; 8:17; 9:1, 7). God multiplied Israel (Genesis 47:27; Exodus 1:7; Leviticus 26:9; Jeremiah 3:16) and later multiplied the church (Acts 6:1, 7; 9:31; 12:24) as an embodiment of this original vision.

Nevertheless, when humanity failed to cooperate, God scattered them. Yahweh scattered humanity at Babel, Israel through exile, and the church through persecution. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with God’s glory.

Subdue

This is humanity’s creative function.

As Creator, God brought order out of chaos. Hovering over the waters enclosed in darkness, God brought order to an uninhabitable earth, a chaotic void. God subdued the earth to provide habitable space, and then God filled the space with life.

Unfortunately, some believe the call to “subdue” empowers humanity to exploit the earth and deplete its resources. On the contrary, “subdue” partners with God’s creative work to bring order out of chaos.

The seven days of creation did not rid the cosmos of chaos. Darkness still exists, the waters still exist, and a chaos figure—the serpent—entered Eden itself. God called the light good but not the darkness. God did not remove the waters but gave them boundaries. Outside of Eden, chaos exists within the creation.

Humanity partners with God to subdue the remaining chaos. This ordering includes things as diverse as domesticating a field for crops or goats for milk as well as developing software programs to bring order to a chaotic mass of data.

To subdue the earth means to partner in God’s creative work; it does not mean abusing or exploiting the creation. Whatever chaos remains in the creation, humanity is called to subdue it and order it for life in partnership with God.

Rule

This is humanity’s royal vocation.

Too often we hear “dominion” in tyrannical, oppressive, militaristic, or manipulative ways, but this is not how God rules. As images of God, we rule in the likeness of God.

For example, the kings of Israel, though they did not always effectively do so, represented God in the nation. God desired they rule with justice and mercy. Psalm 72 reminds Israel what “dominion” means, the humble exercise of power in the service of mercy (cf. Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53). Their rule was supposed to be more like how a shepherd “rules” (cf. Ezekiel 34:4) rather than how a dictator “rules.” Far from exploitation and abuse, God’s imagers rule as servants who give life. They benevolently care for the creation.

This gains greater clarity when we recognize we are co-rulers with God. God shares dominion with us. We are co-workers, junior partners. This is our identity, and it is part of our mission to develop the full potential of creation as we lovingly care for it and gratefully enjoy it. We pursue familial, social, and communal shalom as we embody the justice and mercy of God within creation.

This vocation involves every aspect of human life. The arts (music, literature, fine art) are expressions of human creativity. Technology manages resources; medicine serves wholeness; and social structures shape community. These are part of the human vocation, our partnership with God, as co-rulers and co-creators within the creation.

This means no work is “secular” as if it is disconnected from our missional identity. Every good work—no matter how “secular”—participates in the mission of God.

Human beings are called into multiple kinds of works or different vocational careers. As participants in community, we choose particular careers. We choose these careers as means to love God and serve our neighbors. Through these careers, we participate in the mission of God. Medical professionals partner with God in healing. Financial counselors partner with God as they mediate justice for creditors and mercy for debtors. Professionals in the legal community partner with God as they pursue justice. Environmental biologists partner with God as they preserve and care for the creation.

Partnering with God toward the fulfillment of the mission of God is ministry in the kingdom of God. Nurses, counselors, biologists, and lawyers co-rule with God. Through their careers, they are ministers and royal priests in God’s kingdom.

Serve and Protect

This is humanity’s priestly vocation.

We are priests in the temple of God. Though English translations often given an agricultural feel to these Hebrew verbs, such as “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), Ellen Davis (among others) has demonstrated this is priestly language (Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 192-194). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible when these two words occur to together, they describe the Levitical service of God’s appointed servants in the tabernacle (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:7).

The first verb normally describes ministering or serving the ground (Genesis 2:5; 3:23; 4:2, 12) or the garden (Genesis 2:15). The second verb is normally translated “keep,” “guard,” or “protect.” Priests protect or guard the holiness of the sanctuary. This may include agricultural dimensions, but given the temple and sanctuary language in Genesis 1-2, it stresses humanity’s priestly role within the creation. Like priests in the temple, we serve God’s creation and protect it from anything unclean.

As priests, we mediate the praise of creation to the Creator, and we mediate God’s rule over the world in the creation. We represent the creation in our praise of God, and we fill the material world with thanksgiving as we receive the creation from God with gratitude. As priests, we bless the creation and lead the creation in blessing God.

Priests are deeply connected with the parties they mediate. As images of God, we represent God to the creation. As part of creation, we represent creation to God. We are spiritual-material beings who participate in both the spiritual reality of God and the material reality of the creation. This is part of our human identity.

Conclusion

God placed humanity in the Garden of Eden as divine images in the cosmic temple of God to serve in God’s sanctuary. As living, breathing images of the living God, humanity was tasked to partner with God in ruling over life upon the earth, subduing the remaining chaos, filling the earth with God’s living glory through human flourishing, and serving and protecting God’s sanctuary.

Humanity is gifted to co-rule, co-create, and co-subdue in partnership with God. This is, at least in part, what it means to live as the image of God within God’s cosmic temple.


Theodrama: Act I, Scene 2: God Creates a Good, but not Perfect, World

October 20, 2015

The earth was a chaotic void,
and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while the Spirit of God hovered over the face the waters.

Then God saw everything made, and, Wow!, it was really good.

Genesis 1:2, 31a (my translation)

The title is a rather controversial one in the history of Christian theology. Many suggest the original creation was something akin to Platonic perfection, which resists any change because if one changes what is perfect, then it is no longer perfect. This kind of perfection has no room for change or development except devolution. One cannot improve on perfection.

However, this view actually undermines important features of creation within the biblical narrative. It fails to recognize the presence of chaos within the creation, the dynamic reality of creation, and the goal (telos) of creation.

 

From Chaotic Void to Really Good

When God finished creating, the creation was deeded “really good” (Genesis 1:31). However, the question to ask is, “Good compared to what?” What is the meaning of the word “good”? This can have moral, aesthetic, and functional connotations. Perhaps it means all three. God created good—not evil, God delights in the beauty of the creation, and God created the cosmos with a patterned regularity that works. Nothing in that language intimates perfection but only the fulfillment of God’s intent in creating.

Genesis 1:2 offers a clue to the meaning of the term. Taking Genesis 1:1 as a kind of section heading, Genesis 1:2 describes the earth before God begins to “make” the world as God intended. At that point, the earth is “without form and void” (tohu wabohu). Whatever the origin of this state, it is chaotic.

These words are only used together in the Hebrew Scriptures here, Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. Isaiah records a divine threat to devastate Edom (“a haunt of jackals and an abode for ostriches” in 34:13) and Jeremiah prophesies the desolation of Judah. In both cases the land is rendered inhospitable to life, an uninhabitable wasteland. These are “uncreation” texts where Yahweh threatens to undo creation and render a good land uninhabitable, that is, to return the land to a chaotic void

Genesis 1, then, describes the process by which God turned earth’s chaotic waters into good, habitable space suitable for life. God orders the chaos in such a way that life is potentially fruitful and creation may blossom into its full potential. Creation is “good” because it is suitable for life with all its diversity, regularity, and habitable space.

 

Creation is Good, Not Perfect

Tohu wabohu characterizes the disordered state of the cosmos before God begins the creative work of building and filling, which is one way to describe how God made the world. This is the pattern of Genesis 1:1-31.

Days     Built Habitable Space           Days   Filled Space for Life

1          Light                                             4      Sun, Moon, Stars

2         Sky                                                 5      Birds, Fish

3         Land and Sea                              6       Land Animals

God creates space and then fills it, which is the essence of wisdom in creation theology (compare Proverbs 3:19-20 with Proverbs 24:3-4). In this way, God ordered the chaos by making habitable space and then filling it with light and life. This is what God describes as “good.”

Though the creation is good, it is not perfect. Chaos still exists within the creation. God did not eliminate the chaos but rather limited it. For example, in Genesis 1:4 God calls the light “good,” but not the darkness.  It is a different formula than what appears in Genesis 1:10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, and 25b. Light is contrasted with darkness. Darkness is already present in Genesis 1:2, and it is part of the chaotic void. When God creates the light, God calls the light “good,” but the darkness is not called good. The light does not eliminate the darkness but puts a boundary on it. But in the new heavens and new earth, as pictured in the Apocalypse (22:5), darkness will no longer exist because God and the Lamb are the light of the new world: “night will be no more.”

Another example is how God bounds the waters rather than eliminating them (cf. Job 38:8-11). Just as God separated light from darkness, so God separates the waters from the dry land (Genesis 1:9). The watery “deep” in Genesis 1:2 (tehom) is part of the chaotic reality. The presence of the “deep” is a threat to the functionality of creation, and its destructive capacity is present in the Flood narrative where the “deep” is the source of the flood waters (Genesis 7:11). It is an act of “uncreation” and reverses the creative work accomplished in Genesis 1. But the new heavens and new earth envision a home where there is no more sea (Revelation 21:1).

At the end of the sixth day, chaos is still present within the creation. The world is not idealistic or perfect. Chaotic forces are present. They are not evil; nor are they necessarily hostile. Rather, they are the “stuff” out of which creation emerges, develops, and is dynamically ordered.

Chaos still exists within God’s good creation, and part of the dynamic process of God’s continuing work in the world is bounding, ordering, and ultimately eliminating that chaos.

 

Creation is Dynamic, Not Static.

God intended creation to grow, mature, adapt, and change. Creation was intended to develop into a future fullness—to become all it could be or to reach its potential. Genesis 1 is only the starting point; it was not the goal. Consequently, creation is always in process. Under God’s sovereign care and in partnership with humanity, the creation would emerge, grow, and develop till the divine telos was reached.

One indication of this divine intent is that humanity, like other creatures (Genesis 1:22), is blessed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill.” Humanity, like other creatures, is to populate the earth and the whole earth, as Isaiah confessed, God “formed to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). As every parent knows, having children changes things. Indeed, everything changes. Filling the earth is a process replete with change, development, and the scattering of human beings (and other creatures) across the planet—in much the same way Yahweh scattered humanity at Babel, scattered Israel through exile, and scattered the church through persecution.

Another indication of this divine intent is how creation participates in its own development. God created “light” by commanding it into existence, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). In contrast, God invited animal life to participate in their multiplication—not only in the command to “multiply” but also in addressing how the waters and the land “bring forth” living creatures (Genesis 1:20, 24). Unlike “let there be light,” which is an imperative command, let them “bring forth” is a jussive, which signals a participatory process.

These indicators, among others, suggest creation is a dynamic process rather than a static perfection, and creation participates and contributes to its own development. God and creation cooperate in the development of creation’s potential.

 

There is a Goal, a Telos

Creation’s dynamic character assumes God has a goal for the creation. God created with a purpose, and, therefore, creation has a telos. God, in partnership with humanity and in cooperation with creation, sovereignly and actively pursues that goal.

This pursuit is the outworking of God’s mission. Broadly, the missio Dei (mission of God) is to draw humanity into the circle of the Triune fellowship, unfold the full potential of the creation, and fully enjoy what has been created. Ultimately, creation’s goal is to become the home of the Triune God, in which God dwells and which God fills with divine glory.

God delights in, rejoices over, and communes with the creation, both humanity and everything else. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with glory so that God might rest in the creation where God will delight in the creation and the creation will delight in God.


Theodrama: Act I, Scene 1: God Builds a House

October 19, 2015

Thus says Yahweh:
The heavens are my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
where is the house you will build for me,
and where is my resting place?
My hand made all these things,
and all these things belong to me,
declares Yahweh.

Isaiah 66:1-2a (my translation)

Yahweh, the God of Israel, announces some fundamental truths about creation. It is the house Yahweh built, it belongs to Yahweh, and it is where Yahweh lives.

This pronouncement follows the divine promise, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17), and anticipates the time when “all flesh shall come to worship” Yahweh when they inhabit the “new heavens and new earth” (Isaiah 66:22-23). Until that new cosmos emerges out of the story of redemption, humanity lives in God’s present house, the “heavens and earth.”

God is Creator

Isaiah’s text echoes Genesis.   The “heavens and the earth” describe what God has created (Genesis 1:1). The “heavens” do not refer to some heavenly divine sanctuary beyond the glimpse of the Hubble telescope or to a dwelling place outside of the cosmos itself. God created the “heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God created the cosmos; the “hand” of God “made” (‘asah) everything (kal). The divine “hand” is a metaphor for the exercise of power and involvement.

Yahweh’s affirmation is all-inclusive. The divine hand “made all these things.” This also echoes Genesis. When God rested on the seventh day, twice Genesis 2:2-3 uses the language of “all” (kal) God had “made” (‘asah). Everything between Genesis 1:1 and God’s rest in Genesis 2:2-3 is the object of God’s work, creating, and making. There is nothing within the cosmos—including the cosmos itself—which is not a product of God’s loving power. Whatever began to exist, God “made” it.

This entails two interrelated truths. God owns the cosmos; it belongs to the Creator. Nothing within creation can make a claim on God or place God in debt to it. Yahweh made this clear to Job (41:11, ESV).

Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.

This yields a second truth. God is sovereign over the creation, and God is ultimately responsible for what God created. Just as God’s “hand” made the “heavens and the earth,” so God’s “hand” is responsible for how the creation is not only ordered but how it continues to operate. This time, hear Job (12:7-10, NRSV):

But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will teach you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.

The “hand” of God “made” everything, and every breath in God’s universe is in God’s “hand.” The hands that “made” the cosmos are the same hands that continue to act within the cosmos (Job’s “done” in verse 9 is ‘asah).

The Creator is neither an eternal force within a pre-existent cosmos nor a hands-off spectator. God is neither a pantheistic monism nor a Deist. God created everything, and God is deeply involved in how the history of creation unfolds.

God is the owner, and God is responsible.

Creation is God’s House

Yahweh does not construct a house out of brick and mortar, but out of earth and sky. The sky is God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool. This metaphor points to not only the reign of God within the cosmos, it identifies the cosmos as God’s palace. The cosmos is God’s kingdom, even God’s throne room.

Architectural imagery is a common metaphor for creation in the Hebrew Bible. For example, when Yahweh interrogated Job, the initial questions are framed in architectural images (Job 38:4-10):

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?…
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone?…
Or who shut in the sea with doors…
and prescribed bounds for it,
set bars and doors…

In other words, God erected a building, a house, a temple—the creation is God’s cathedral.

The psalmist parallels the creation of the earth with the construction of the tabernacle. “He built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever” (Psalm 78:69). The tabernacle, though a poor representative of the earth, was the initial step toward the renewal of God’s redemptive presence. God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38) and then later the temple (2 Chronicles 6:40-7:3). When humanity was excluded from Eden, God’s sanctuary, God did not give up but pursued humanity through the calling of Abraham, dwelling in Israel’s tabernacle and then the temple. In time, God “tabernacled” in the flesh as Israel’s Messiah (John 1:14), and later dwelt within restored Israel through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:22).

While Israel, at God’s direction, built a “house for” God (2 Samuel 7:13; 1 Kings 8:17-20), no earthly house is sufficient because the cosmos itself is God’s house. God has already made God’s temple, and the earthly sanctuaries are only types of the one God had previously made.

Ultimately, though God is graciously and redemptively present in the earthly sanctuaries scattered throughout the biblical narrative, God “does not dwell in houses made with human hands”—as Stephen concludes, quoting Isaiah 66:1-2a (Acts 7:48)—because God dwells within the cosmos itself.

Creation is Where God Lives

When God finished the temple of creation, God rested in it. This is God’s “resting-place,” according to Isaiah.

This is temple language, and it describes how God took up residence within the temple and named it a “resting-place” (Psalm 132:14).

This is my resting place forever;
here I will reside, for I have desired it.

Though God resided in Israel’s temple, this did not limit God’s rest. God rested within the whole creation since the “earth” is God’s footstool (Isaiah 66:1) just as the ark of the covenant was God’s footstool in the Holy of Holies (Psalm 132:7; 1 Chronicles 28:2). Israel’s temple pointed to the larger reality of the universe as the temple of God, and God’s restful residence in Israel pointed to God’s rest within the cosmos.

God lives in God’s house. God came to dwell in it, to love humanity, walk with them in the Garden, and enjoy the shalom of Eden as a divine sanctuary. God’s temple is the heavens and the earth, and the whole creation is God’s home. It is where God rests with humanity in delightful fellowship (Gen. 2:2-3).

This is one reason Israel practiced Sabbath rest. Because God rested on the seventh day of creation within the creation (Exodus 20:11), so Israel rested from its work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:12). God intended to share the divine rest with Israel, both in their journey (Exodus 33:14) and in their land (Deuteronomy 3:20; 12:10; Psalm 95:11).

That rest, which is ultimately dwelling with God in the new heaven and new earth, awaits believers (Hebrews 4:8-11; Revelation 14:13) in the age to come.

Maranatha!