Three Video Courses Available

September 23, 2020

The video Course “Anchors for the Soul: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” is available through RightNow Media as well as at HIM Publications (DVD or digital access for $19.95). It contains eight 10-15 minute videos plus an introduction and conclusion. The videos are based on the book by the same title. The series offers some anchors for living through loss, grief, and struggles as well as suggestions for how to help those who are struggling. The anchors are: God loves, God listens, God understands, God reigns, and God wins.

Tokens, a ministry led by Lee C. Camp, has produced a video course based upon my book Searching for the Pattern. There are six videos that address patternism, reading the Bible like Jesus and Paul, and finding our lens for reading the pattern in the Bible. A study guide for the course is available.

Praise and Harmony TV, a ministry led by Keith Lancaster, has produced eight videos based on my book Come to the Table. Topics range from the table in Israel to the table in the ministry of Jesus to the table in the church. This series offers a theological and practical understanding of the Lord’s Supper for the contemporary church. This is a link to the first video. A study guide is available for the course.


Women, Assemblies, and Churches of Christ

September 22, 2020

Several have asked for a briefer and more focused articulation of the topic of my book Women Serving God: My Journal in Understanding Their Story in the Bible that they could share with friends.

I have uploaded a PDF file entitled “Women, Assemblies, and Churches of Christ.” This essay offers a succinct case for the full participation of women in the assemblies gathered for prayer, praise, and mutual edification. I do not entertain the potential objections and alternative perspectives in this short piece. Women Serving God contains more detail and fuller argumentation for those who are interested.

This link will connect you with the study/teaching guide for the book, if someone is interested in more detail without purchasing the book.

Of course, one can only fully engage the argument through the book itself. But, hopefully, these two resources provide helps that are more accessible.

Peace upon the church of God.


Response to Renew’s Review (Part 4) of Women Serving God

September 4, 2020

Renew has recently published the fourth part of their review of my book, Women Serving God. This is my response.

Renew’s series 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.

This present post is my response to Renew’s Part 4. Renew’s blog is over 8000 words. My response is almost 7500 words.

Once again, there is not much interaction with McKnight’s book but almost wholly with mine. Given that the coming blogs by Renew will address elders and marriage, perhaps McKnight will become their focus because I do not attempt to make any sustained case one way or the other about either of those topics in my book (though I do touch on them in tangential ways when my interest in the assembly overlaps them).

Ten Points of Agreement

Despite a significant difference, particularly in application, Renew and myself share considerable common ground. I will explore this agreement in light of both the blog (Renew Review #4) and the White Station teaching document (SWS), which Renew has consistently quoted not only in this blog but in their previous blogs.

1.  Though 1 Timothy 2:8-15 “likely applies to the assembly” (SWS; emphasis mine), we agree the instructions are not limited to the assembly. In other words, men should always pray with holy hands (and women, too), women should always dress modestly (and men, too), women should be encouraged to learn in every circumstance (rather than simply in the assembly, though this statement “may be focused on the assembly” [SWS; emphasis mine]), and women are prohibited from teaching and authentein  (whatever those two verbs entail) in the assembly as well as in other spaces. Whatever Paul’s point is in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, it is not restricted to the assembly.

2.  We agree 1 Timothy 2:8 does not restrict leading prayer to men alone. As Renew (quoting SWS) says, “Paul’s instruction seeks to reestablish this witness, not by restricting prayer to men, but by addressing the specific issue with the prayers these men were offering alongside their quarreling.” The “purpose” of 1 Timothy 2 “is not to give instruction on who gets to pray and who does not.”

3.  We agree the term for “quietness” in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 describes “a quietness of demeanor (a common meaning of the relevant Greek term in the NT) rather than silence.”

4.  We agree there is a significant problem or disturbance among some women in the Ephesian church. This includes some overlap between the women of 2:9-10 and the younger widows described in 5:13 who were going from house to house “saying things they should not say.” These women are associated in some way with false teachers (cf. 2 Timothy 3:7). As Renew (quoting SWS) states, “If these women are to mature in the faith, it is clear their posture must change to one more conducive to learning.”

Note: the historical reconstruction of the origin and precise nature of this disturbance (whether related to Artemis, some kind of proto-Gnosticism, household dysfunction, or “New Women” in Roman society) is uncertain. There are clues, as Rick notes. The women are associated with the upper class, for example. Renew suggests that “Hicks makes much of [Artemis] cult.” Actually, I don’t. I make some suggestions, offer some possibilities, but I don’t provide a precise historical reconstruction nor commit myself to one scenario alone but attempt to work with the explicit evidence in the letter. Whether these women are associated with Artemis or not, to what degree seduction is part of the problem, is interesting, perhaps illuminating, but ultimately uncertain. The primary point—Rick and I agree—is that the context and language of the letter are how we gain insight into the dysfunction present in the congregation among both its men and women. I don’t put much stock in any historical reconstruction (including Hoag), though we often gain helpful perspectives from attempts. Rather, we must work with the letter as we have it and connect it, as best we can, with humility, to the known culture of the first century.

Additional Note: Rick thinks I “painted these women in 1 Timothy to be the most sinister, evil women in the Ephesian church. I know he’s tried to liberate them in a sense, but his path to get there is overdone.” Rick also suggests that if the women were that bad, Paul would have been much more forceful in his condemnation and not nearly “as gentle” as he was. I think Rick underplays the problem here. “Some have already,” Paul wrote, “strayed after Satan” (1 Timothy 5:15). I think that says something about how seriously Paul took the danger these women represented. Paul had already turned Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan” (1 Timothy 1:20), and now some of these women were following the path of Satan (much like Eve was deceived by the serpent).

5.  We agree that the invitation for women to learn is an astonishing one for a letter situated in Greco-Roman culture. This highlights a high view of women. Women are encouraged to learn in a submissive and quiet manner, that is, with a humble and peaceable demeanor, which is characteristic of all good learners (male and female).

6.  We agree women are called and gifted as teachers. As Renew (quoting SWS) says, “clearly women are to serve in some teaching responsibilities.” We also agree that 1 Timothy 2 does not prohibit girls from delivering a lesson in the presence of their fathers, women teaching baptized teenage males, or leading prayers. In other words, we agree that 1 Timothy 2 does not support what Reneé calls a “rigid complementarianism.”

7. We agree women were teaching false doctrine in the Ephesian church. Renew (quoting SWS) says, “Paul’s concerns here about women teaching men is not designed only to address a situation in which some women are teaching false doctrine” (emphasis mine). While Paul only names male false teachers who have already been excluded from the community (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:17-18), some women were teaching false doctrine by “saying what they should not” (1 Timothy 5:13). Some women were teaching in some unacceptable form or else Paul would not have forbidden them to teach.

8.  We agree that whatever authentein means (the word behind “usurp authority” [KJV], “assume authority” [NIV 2011], “exercise authority” [ESV], or “have dominion” [ASV] in 1 Timothy 2:12), it describes the manner and/or content of teaching. This is why, it appears to me, Renew and SWS refer to “authoritative teacher” or “authoritative teaching,” that is, “teachers who determine or communicate the spiritual direction of the church.” We agree that the word authentein, in some way, modifies “teach.” It is a kind of teaching that authents a man. [As in my book, I transliterate the controversial verb authentein (1 Timothy 2:12) because its meaning is disputed.]

9.  We agree creation theology is relevant and contains normative principles. There is no dispute about that, though we do disagree about what use Paul is making of the creation (and fall) narrative in 1 Timothy 2:13-14.

10.  We agree that Paul’s epistles are occasional and the theology present in Paul’s occasional letters are applicable to the church across time. I affirm this in Searching for the Pattern as well as in Women Serving God. I am in full agreement with Reneé’s point that the “goal” is to understand “what Paul is saying in this particular historical and cultural context and how we can obey his teaching today.” I do not suggest—as Rick recognizes—there is an eternal truth that is disconnected from the situation addressed. One must seek to understand Paul’s theology through the situated context of the text. At the same time, everyone recognizes that some applications in Scripture are limited to the situation and not intended as universal, timeless commands. For example, we no longer wear veils, and we no longer prohibit the wearing of pearls and gold or braided hair.

Renew’s (and SWS) Uncertain Conclusion: What is Prohibited?

Reading Renew and SWS, I discovered how uncertain the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 was in their own presentation. In my own work, I recognized that I might be wrong due to the severe difficulty of the text. I think I offered a credible interpretation, but it may not be entirely correct. Renew seems more certain than I do, or do they?

At first, it seems they are rather certain. Renew (quoting SWS) says, “women must not tarnish their witness through authoritative teaching (2:11-15). 1 Tim. 2:12 clearly states, ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent’” (emphasis mine). This, however, is a rather curious descriptor: “clearly.” This is particularly confusing since Renew (quoting SWS) has already substituted “quiet” as a better translation than “silent.” So, it seems it is not exactly accurate to say “1 Timothy 2:12 clearly states” and then quote this particular translation. But that is rather minor. I think the following two points are much more substantial.

1.  Is “teach” so clear? Apparently not.

  • Renew has to sort through all the various uses of “teach” in the Pastorals, in Paul’s writings, and the rest of the New Testament to discern its particular understanding of “teach.” It infers that “teach” means something like an “authoritative teacher” that is responsible for guiding the church.
  • Renew must distinguish between the kind of teaching that is forbidden to women and the kind of teaching women are encouraged to do. “Clearly women are to serve in some teaching responsibility” because “they are gifted to do so” (emphasis mine).
  • Renew must discern how this instruction applies and to what settings it applies—only the assembly, or does it apply to small groups, Bible classes, house churches, and other sorts of meetings where disciples gather to pray and learn? How is “authoritative teaching” defined in terms of house church meetings, Bible classes, and small groups? Or, does it only apply to preaching in the assembly? When does teaching become “authoritative” and when is it not “authoritative”? What text of Scripture identifies that? Do prophets speak authoritatively? Do evangelists speak authoritatively? Do Bible class teachers speak authoritatively? How does one decide?
  • Renew (quoting SWS) understands “teach” as “a spiritual gift and office (see Eph. 4:11) for the expounding and applying of Scripture,” even though 1 Timothy 2:12 does not describe an office or the task of expounding or applying Scripture as belonging to only one, or even two, offices.
  • In other words, “teach” in 1 Timothy 2:12 is not clear but has to be interpreted, restricted, and limited in some way. That involves several sorts of judgments about its meaning in the context of the New Testament and the Pastorals in particular. This move from “teach”(1 Timothy 2:12) to teach authoritatively as an elder, teaching pastor, or preacher-teacher is neither a plain reading of the text nor clear.

2.  Is the meaning of “have authority” clear? Apparently not.

  • Renew (quoting SWS) states, “we are not entirely sure how it [authentein] should be translated. It likely means that women should not be in a teaching role” (emphasis mine). Yes, you read that correctly. Renew says “likely” and confesses uncertainty about the translation of this term. Renew, however, provides no detailed discussion of its lexical meaning and the difficulties surrounding this hapax legomenon (only used once in the whole New Testament corpus).
  • Authentein, Renew (quoting SWS) says, “likely means that women should not be in a teaching role.” But “teaching role” has to be defined, and it is narrowed to preaching and/or elders ultimately or is there more or something else? How would we know without an official office of some kind? How does authentein give us this particular meaning?
  • The teaching prohibited women was the sort that was “like priests and rabbis” and involved them in “congregational leadership” (emphasis mine). From where does the comparison to priests and rabbis arise in the context of 1 Timothy 2? Is it only “like priests and rabbis”? How like are they? Were there distinct official (even professional) functions in the Ephesian church that operated the same as priests and rabbis in Israel? How do we know this? This equivalency is simply assumed in this review, and I addressed it previously in my review of #2. Moreover, it is strange to think that the prophets, judges, and queens (where women served in Israel) have no relation to this “authority” (if authentein has a positive or official meaning). Deborah had authority to prophesy, judge, and lead Israel (Judges 4:4-6), but apparently would not have authority to teach in the church today, according to Renew. Esther had authority to institute a new feast (not authorized in the Torah) and command Israel to keep it (Esther 9:29-32), but apparently would not have authority to teach in the church today, according to Renew. [I know Rick made a sharp distinction between prophecy and teaching in this review, but I covered that ground previously in my review of #2.]
  • Renew (quoting SWS) concludes, “In 1 Tim. 2:12, therefore, Paul is likely declaring that women cannot serve in that role” (emphasis mine). Yes, you read that correctly. Renew says “likely.”
  • The word “authority” or “dominion” has to be interpreted, restricted, and limited to the a specific positive function in the community of faith for it mean that Paul “likely” excludes women from the office of elder/pastor/lead minister or from preaching in the assembly. This is problematic because (1) authentein must be restricted to a positive meaning that is equivalent to that function even though there is no evidence that authentein had a positive meaning until centuries after Paul wrote, (2) Paul does not use his typical positive word for authority (exousia) or other similar characterizations in the Pastorals (e.g., Titus 2:15; 1 Timothy 3:4-5), and (3) Paul has a word for these offices or functions but does not use them here and thus does not identify the precise nature of the office or function (e.g., pastor-teacher in Ephesians 4:11) in 1 Timothy 2:12. Paul could have simply said, I don’t want a woman to be a bishop or evangelist [both terms occur in the Pastorals]. That would much clearer than “teach” if Paul intends to exclude women from authoritative functions in the community.

As a result of these uncertainties (among others I could name), Renew states (quoting SWS), “Likely [1 Timothy 2:12] means that Paul permits no woman to serve in the role of authoritative teacher” (emphasis mine). You read that correctly. Renew says “likely.”

I don’t begrudge the term “likely.”  I think it is judicious, though I believe my understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 is more probable and credible. What is important is to recognize that 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as plain or clear as many suppose it is on first reading. In fact, the interpretative changes among complementarians over the past thirty years indicate how difficult this text is to understand and apply. 

Hūbner illustrates the notorious difficulty of 1 Timothy 2 in his 2016 essay. The text is far from clear or plain. One example from Hūbner illustrates this (his article has many more). While hapaxes (a word only used once in New Testament) appear once every eighty-three words (1.2%) in the New Testament as a whole, there are six hapaxes (including authentein) in eighty-two words in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (7.3%). That alone signals a level of difficulty that should give us some pause, humility, and circumspection about how we apply this text to the contemporary church.

Yet, according to Renew (SWS included), half of the church (half of the human race created in the image of God) is excluded from “authoritative” teaching among the people of God because it is “likely” this is what Paul means even though Renew (quoting SWS) is not “entirely sure” how to even translate authentein.

Likely” is a precarious and uncertain basis for excluding women from authoritative teaching.

Where we Disagree

While our agreements in reading this text are significant and we share a sense of “likelihood” about respective views, our differences identify the fork in the road between Renew’s perspective that the participation of women in the assembly is limited and my understanding that women are gifted to fully participate in the assembly (which is the thesis of my book).

1.  Prohibition: Authoritative Teacher

As noted above, Renew (and SWS) concluded that 1 Timothy 2:12 “means [a woman] should not be permitted to serve in the authoritative teacher role comparable to priests in the OT.” [Remind me, where does the text make this link to the priests of Israel in the context of church offices or functions? Were priests the only ones who taught Israel? Do women, as priests in the new creation, offer up spiritual sacrifices like the priests of Israel?]

The prohibition, according to Renew, does not rest on the fact that women were teaching false ideas alone, but on the fact that they are women, who ought to submit to God’s design for male headship in the church. In other words, Renew (quoting SWS) says, “Paul’s statement here is not about what a woman might teach; it is about the fact of her teaching at all.”

Rick says, “If these women were false teachers, if they were promoting pagan myths, Paul wouldn’t say don’t let them teach men. He would say don’t let these crazy, heretical women teach anybody.” Is that not the effect of saying, “I do not permit them to teach”? That is exactly what Paul says. The grammatical relation of “authentein over men” to this prohibition is debated. It may very well be that Paul is prohibiting these women (whom I believe are involved in false teaching) from teaching at all. Moreover, we might say that teaching men was exactly what these women were doing, and that is why Paul identifies it specifically (if we take “over men” as modifying “teach” as well as authentein). We don’t know what else they were doing, but they were targeting men (1 Timothy 5:11; see the fuller argument in my book).

But what does “authoritative teaching” or “authoritative teacher” mean? From where is the notion of “authority” derived? It is derived, in this context, from Paul’s use of authentein. Whatever authority is prohibited in 1 Timothy 2:12 is based on this word. But the word, as I noted above, does not carry a positive meaning. It carries the meaning of independence, self-assertion, or abuse. I provide some evidence for that reading in my book, which Renew does not engage in their review.

My point is confirmed by the contrast in the text itself:  “neither teach nor authentein a man, but she is to be quiet.” “Quiet” stands in contrast to teach and authentein. Since the verb authentein modifies “teach” in some way (as Renew and I agree), then, it characterizes the manner of the teaching because (1) authentein contrasts with quiet, and (2) the meaning of authentein is negative or pejorative (it is not peaceable or “quiet”). In fact, the uses of authentein in the century before and after the writing of 1 Timothy have negative meanings (demonstrated by Hūbner and Westfall). What Paul forbids is a style that is bossy or boisterous. In contrast to a gentle, mild, and peaceful demeanor, Paul prohibits a manner of teaching that is abusive and unruly. Or, as Bartlett suggests, it is an aggressive teaching that overcomes or persuades the other through abusive pressures, or the attempt to control, dominate, or gain the upper hand (Belleville). This is the manner in which the women of 2:9-10 were pressing their ungodliness upon men in the community of faith at Ephesus. Whatever word we might use to convey this negative meaning, it is how Eve treated Adam and he listened to her even though he knew better.

If we give a positive meaning to authentein (which I don’t concede), there is still the problem of identifying exactly what kind of authority this is and how it is exercised in the church. Complementarians can’t agree among themselves except that it excludes the function of an elder/bishop. As to what happens in the assembly, it is wide open for discussion. This indicates Paul is not as clear or plain as some think he is. Bobby thinks a woman may share the preaching stage but not preach solo. Some complementarians think a woman may preach to an assembly, serve on boards, vote, etc. Some complementarians exclude women from leading worship, speaking words at the table of the Lord, or even leading prayer. In other words, it is difficult to decide exactly who exercises authority, what the nature of the authority is, and what is the line that cannot be crossed in the assembly.

Moreover, even if I grant a positive meaning to authentein (which I don’t concede), the question still remains why Paul does not want women to assume this authority. Is it because of “male headship” or is it because these women have been deceived and are teaching false doctrine? Even if we assume a positive meaning, the prohibition may only mean something like: “I don’t permit these women who dress immodestly and promote ungodliness to teach and assume authoritative roles in the community because, like Eve, they have been deceived and are persuading men to follow them just like Eve did Adam who knew better because he was created before Eve.”

SWS says, “The closest equivalent to the role of Timothy and Titus in today’s churches would be the preacher, who is something more akin to the ‘pastor-teacher’ from Ephesians 4:11.” Or, Renew says, “That would be equivalent to a senior pastor or preacher in today’s context.” Seeking such an equivalency in the modern context is inferential at best. In other words, it is an application of 1 Timothy 2:12 that is far from certain or clear. Indeed, it assumes structures and practices that are not even clearly present in the practice of the church at Ephesus. If it were clear, complementarians would not have a wide disagreement, would they? Unless . . . soft complementarians are actually influenced by egalitarian culture rather than reading the Bible accurately, as rigid complementarians claim.

2.  Rationale: Headship Rooted in Creation.

Renew assumes that Paul teaches women in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to submit to men in the assembly. But Paul does not say that. When asked, Rick reminds us that 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 call women to submit based on the creation story. However, 1 Corinthians 11 never uses the word submit, and the submission in 1 Corinthians 14:34 (as I suggested in my response to Renew Review #3) is submission to order within the assembly (just like the prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:32). In any event, Paul does not here say to whom or what women are to submit in 1 Timothy 2:11. I think it is more probably submission to teaching, to sound doctrine, or submission to God. It seems to me they are to submit to what they are learning.

Renew (quoting SWS) says, “It is worth noting that 1 Tim. 2 shares with 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and 1 Cor. 14:34-35 a conviction that the creation narrative is the ground for the biblical doctrine of headship.”

  • It is far from certain that 1 Corinthians 14:34 describes headship (that language is not used in that text) and grounds it in the relationship between Adam and Eve (see my discussion in Response to Review Part 3). It seems to me the principle of submission there reflects the concern for order in the assembly.
  • “Headship” in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 does not entail authority (see my discussion in Responses to Review Part 2 and Part 3). The word submission does not appear in 1 Corinthians 11.
  • “Headship” is not mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Paul does not say, for example, “women should not teach a man because man is the head of woman”–which, of course, he could have said if that is what Paul intended.

I suggest in my book that Paul is not grounding his instruction in the principe of primogeniture. Rather, it is a narrative sequence of events from creation (Adam was first formed, then Eve) to fall (Eve sinned) to redemption (Eve—and the women of 2:9-10 [“they’]—will be saved through the childbearing, who is Jesus). I argue this extensively in the book. Renew does not address my argument which seeks to listen closely to Genesis 2-3 (as Rick says we should). Rather, Renew articulates their own argument for a creation norm for male authority over women based on primogeniture.

Primogeniture does function within the culture of Israel and Paul. However, Paul does not name the principle—he only provides the chronological information. Moreover, in the biblical story, especially in Genesis, the rights of the firstborn (primogeniture) are subverted: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Rueben, and Ephraim over Manasseh. (Renew does not engage the majority of my arguments against the primogeniture interpretation.) The chronological statement does not necessarily entail the ideological principle of primogeniture, but it may be read quite differently as sequential story-telling. In fact, the form of the text uses sequential language (“first . . . then;” note how this same language is used in 1 Timothy 3:10, one example among many). In my book, I argue that Paul’s language is about narrative sequencing to tell the story of Eve’s deception rather than about a normative principle of primogeniture (see the next section for a brief articulation of this viewpoint).

The “biblical doctrine of headship” as male authority over females whereby authoritative leadership in the assembly is invested in men alone is not only a misreading of Paul’s point but fails to make the interpretative move that is part of the historic understanding of this text within the church. I think this is critically important.

If the doctrine of male headship (understood as male authority over women) is rooted in creation, then—as the church for over 1800 years argued—it should apply not only to the home and church but to society. This is why women were excluded from social positions of power in the historic Christian tradition. The church, from early days, understood this text to apply to society as well as the home and the church. Consequently, within the last century many Christians opposed suffrage (the woman’s right to vote) and the participation of women in “secular” careers, including holding political offices as well as professional careers in medicine and law. If male authority is grounded in creation, then it applies to all of life. But the examples of Deborah and Esther demonstrate that it does not apply to political authority. Consequently, to see male authority over women as grounded in creation is problematic within the biblical story itself. When male authority is grounded in creation, there is no room for the divinely sanctioned and honored positions of authority Deborah and Esther exercised over men in both political and religious contexts.

Bobby and Danny suggest Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 concerns all women. But I believe it is about the women described in 2:9-10, which is not all women. 2:9-10 does not describe all women but the women who dressed immodestly and promoted ungodliness. 1 Timothy 2:11-12 addresses women involved in the same agenda because they, like Eve, are “teaching and authenting” men in order to lead them into evil.

And, they ask, “why did Paul ground his statement in the created order itself (2:13)?” Actually, Paul grounded it in the narrative of Genesis where Eve was deceived (which is emphasized by stating it twice) rather than the idea of primogeniture (not stated at all). I argue this extensively in my book, but many of my arguments are not addressed in the review. Reneé asked, “if Adam was persuaded by Eve, who believed a lie wouldn’t that mean Adam was also deceived?” No. Adam was persuaded to disobey, but he was not deceived. He rebelled against what he knew was true and sinned with his eyes wide open.

Reneé reminds us that creation theology is relevant and contains normative principles. I agree. Moreover, I also see authority relations in Scripture (there are proper modes of authority). I have no intention of explaining them away. What I want to see, however, is the biblical text that says men have authority over women in such a way that women are excluded from participation in certain activities in the assembly. I don’t think 1 Timothy 2:12 can supply that, and no other text excludes women from the exercise of their gifts in the assembly. Renew and I agree 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 do not exclude women from the exercise of their gifts.

Bobby and Danny list Grudem’s ten reasons for why gender “roles” are grounded in creation. I addressed almost all of these in my book. There is no interaction in the review with my discussion of these points nor explanation of how each point in the list is rooted in the text to support the theological case. So, I will leave it to the reader of both the blog and the book to make their own assessment.

Bobby and Danny believe Genesis 3:16 did not “create Adam’s headship [by which I assume they mean male rule or authority over women, JMH]; rather, it corrupted it.” Yet, the only time rule, dominion, or authority is explicitly identified in Genesis 1-2 is something the man and woman actually share (Genesis 1:28). Historically, the church believed Genesis 3:16 was the beginning of the rule of men over women. Genesis 3:16 is the first time the word “rule” occurs in the whole of Genesis 1-3 in relation to men and women.

Given the reference to Grudem, I remind readers of something I point out in my book. When Grudem attempts to apply 1 Timothy 2:12 to the contemporary church (first in 1995, then a second edition 2006—with changes that highlight the difficulty of his project), he identified nine governing activities, ten teaching activities, and one “public visibility or recognition” position that are restricted to men, while he detailed nineteen governing activities, twenty-five teaching activities, and nineteen activities related to “public visibility or recognition” that are open to women. This is primarily based on his understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12. The vast majority of churches of Christ would not agree with his distinctions, perhaps many Renew members either (I don’t know enough to speak about Renew’s constituency). In churches of Christ, we have our own lists, and we have a wide diversity among ourselves—both now and historically. Interestingly, Grudem himself has demonstrated how complicated the soft complementarian position really is.

In contrast to Grudem, Paul wants Timothy to entrust both men and women with teaching people. Like men, women learn so they can teach. Just as Paul entrusted Timothy with teaching (1 Timothy 1:18), so Paul intends Timothy to entrust this to others (including women). 2 Timothy 2:2 reflects this Pauline agenda—people learn so they can teach. Paul wants Timothy to entrust the gospel with “faithful people” (anthrōpous) who are “able to teach others.” Paul uses anthrōpous (people) rather than aner (male as in 1 Timothy 2:8). Anthrōpous always refers to men and women in the Pastorals (plural form; 1 Timothy 2:1, 4; 4:10; 5:24; 6:5, 9, 16; 2 Timothy 3:2, 8, 13, 17; Titus 1:14; 2:11; 3:2, 8, 10). Since women are commanded to learn, they are also empowered to teach once they have learned.

3.  Childbearing: Forbidding Marriage and Childbearing

Renew may be correct about 1 Timothy 2:15, or they may not. Who can be sure about this difficult ending to Paul’s rationale for 1 Timothy 2:11-12? Indeed, the uncertainty of the text adds to the problematic nature of applying 1 Timothy 2:8-15 with any certainty, which Renew already recognizes (remember: “likely”).

Interestingly, SWS suggests that 1 Timothy 2:15 reflects the content of some of the false teaching. The false teachers were probably advocating “asceticism” as “a way toward greater piety.” I can see that possibility. Indeed, SWS thinks, “Perhaps Paul is correcting a strain of this heresy in 1 Tim. 2. In view of the kinds of opponents present in Ephesus, it may be that Paul is recasting a statement made by the false teachers” (emphasis mine). In other words, part of Paul’s rationale for 1 Timothy 2:11-12—and this is a significant point—is the rejection of what false teachers were teaching. That is how I understand, in part, 1 Timothy 2:13. I think it likely that Paul begins the sequence here, in part, to oppose what some false teachers were saying. The false teachers, perhaps based on some kind of early Gnosticism or due to the teaching of the Artemis cult, believed women were the origin of men or had some kind of priority over men. If so, part of the point of 1 Timothy 2:13 is to oppose the false teaching present in Ephesus. But who can be certain?

Reading 1 Timothy 2:13-14

Renew and I identify two different principles grounded in two different hermeneutical moves. Neither the ground nor the principle are explicitly stated in 1 Timothy but are inferred from what both think is going on in the text.

  Renew   Hicks
Text (2:13) Adam was first formed. Adam was first formed.
Ground Invests Adam with the rights of primogeniture (firstborn) between the sexes. Appeals to the narrative where Adam, first created, was first instructed but listened to his deceived wife.
Principle Primogeniture entails the principle of male authority over women. Eve functions as a typology for deceived women in order to warn the Ephesian church.
Application No woman should teach men or have authority over men. Deceived women must first learn before they teach; let them learn in quiet respect.

My approach has the benefit of intertextuality as what is explicit in Genesis 2-3 is weaved into Paul’s rationale. The italicized lines below are explicit in 1 Timothy 2:13-15 in the chart below while the parenthetical statements are the background story explicit in Genesis. This flow contains no inferred principle but intersects the text of 1 Timothy 2 with the text of Genesis 2-3—this is an example of intertextuality within the biblical canon. This flow, in fact, reflects the broad biblical drama of creation, fall, and redemption.

Creation                Adam was first formed (1 Timothy 2:13).

                        (The man was formed from the ground, Genesis 2:7.)

                        (The woman was formed from the man, Genesis 2:21-22.)

Fall                        Adam was not deceived (1 Timothy 2:14).

                        (He knew the command of God, Genesis 2:15-17.)

                        (But he listened to Eve, Genesis 3:17.)

                  Eve was deceived (1 Timothy 2:14).

                        (The serpent tricked her, Genesis 3:13.)

                  Eve became a transgressor (1 Timothy 2:14).

                        (She ate the fruit, Genesis 3:6.)

Redemption          She will be saved through the childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15).

                        (God promised a seed to crush the serpent, Genesis 3:15.)

                  If they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with modesty (1 Timothy 2:15).

Eve is only named in two passages in the New Testament: 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14. In both texts Eve functions as a type of deceived people, including both men and women in 2 Corinthians. In 1 Timothy, she is a type of deceived women (“they” in 2:15) who were teaching false doctrine (going from house to house “saying” nonsense). Because they were deceived by others, they were teaching pagan myths and behaving immodestly.

Significantly, the only word repeated in 1 Timothy 2:14 is “deceived.” That underscores the point—it is a deception problem, not a male leadership or authority problem. Eve represents the women in the Ephesian house churches who had been deceived by false teachers. She illustrates the danger of listening to deceived women. The specific situation in Ephesus involved deceived women, not deceived men. Paul is neither describing every woman nor the nature of women but identifying one woman from the Biblical story who was deceived in order to highlight the local problem in Ephesus. Deceived women were going house to house teaching pagan myths and cultivating relationships with men. It is not a universal statement about women any more than some who had been, similar to Eve, deceived by Satan in the Corinthian church is a universal statement about men and women (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). Just as some Corinthians had been deceived by some who taught a different (heteron) gospel, these Ephesian women had been deceived by those who taught a different (heteron) doctrine.

False teaching is the context of the whole letter (1:3-4, 18; 6:2-4, 12), and the specific context of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Some insist nothing is said about false teaching in 1 Timothy 2:8-15. This fails to recognize how the letter flows from “therefore” to “therefore” (2:1, 8) as well as how the whole letter is framed by the concern about false teaching.

Fight the good fight, Timothy (1:18-20).

“Therefore, I urge prayer” (2:1-7).

“Therefore, I want men to pray . . . likewise women to . . .” (2:8-15).

Paul wrote 2:8-15 because of what he said in 2:1-7. He wrote 2:1-7 because of what he said in 1:18-20. In other words, given these causal connections, what Paul wrote in 2:8-15 is directly related to the false teachings about which he charged Timothy. Whatever is happening in 2:8-15 and whatever Paul meant by those instructions, they are part of his response to the presence of false teaching in the Ephesian house churches. The topic of false teaching is integral to 2:8-15.

When Paul addresses the situation envisioned by 2:8-15, he is well aware of the false teaching, who is involved, what is happening among the house churches in Ephesus, and who the excommunicated protagonists were (e.g., Hymenaeus and Alexander). Far from a digression about prayer and public worship or an intentional blueprint specification, 1 Timothy 2:1-15 develops the letter’s theme—opposition to the presence of false teaching and associated behavior in the Ephesian house churches.

Some women were promoting ungodliness, and they were teaching false doctrines. Consequently, Paul does not permit these deceived women to teach and authent (overcome, persuade in a negative, controlling, or abusive manner) men. It is not because they were women but because they were acting like Eve who was deceived by the serpent and persuaded Adam to share her transgression. That is what Paul wants to stop.

Thirst for Power?

Bobby and Danny write: “And here we arrive at an important truth that we all need to pay attention to: Nobody naturally tends toward the kind of biblical, sacrifice headship described throughout the Bible. Do people thirst for power? Absolutely. But as both head of the church and submissive Son of God, it is Jesus who teaches us what actual headship and submission look like. None of it look like the ugly power plays of Genesis 3:16 which come so naturally to us humans.”

There are several dimensions of this paragraph that I find probematic. For example, I don’t see “headship” as authority. But we have covered that ground previously.

This language, however, draws an analogy that I find disturbing. If men are the head of women (in the sense in which I think intended), then it is men who exercise power sacrificially just as Jesus does as head of the church. Women, then, sacrificially submit to men just as men (and women) submit to Christ as the head of the church. In other words, men rule and women submit, just as men submit to Christ as the head of the church, and the Son of God submitted to God as his head. That analogy is open to significant abuse, and, in my opinion, misses the whole point of headship in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. But that is not really my main concern with the paragraph.

The “thirst for power” is certainly part of the brokenness of the world, and it is reflected in Genesis 3:16 to one degree or another. But I do wonder to whom (if anyone) or what specifically (if anything) Bobby and Danny are referring. They may have no specific reference in mind. I accept that. At the same time, I have heard many make this point in the context of women who “thirst for power” because they seek to use their gifts in the assembly. Bobby and Danny are clear that “nobody” escapes this fallen desire that comes “naturally to us humans.” So, I accept this is not their charge here.

Nevertheless, in the context of our present discussion, it raises an important question. Do women who seek to use their gifts in the assembly reflect a “thirst for power”? What if the problem is not so much women who have a thirst for power as it is men who want to maintain power. But that is unfair, one might say. Perhaps men are not so much concerned about maintaining power but obeying God’s directives. Exactly! That is exactly what interests me and interests the women whom I know that seek to use the gifts God has given them but are constrained by the exercise of male power and authority in the church. Consequently, the discussion must stay at the level of what does the text mean rather than who is thirsting for power.

Everyone in our discussion wants to live according to God’s intent in creation and God’s design for the eschaton. I don’t find it helpful, in this context, to quote some as saying, “This is unfair. It can’t possibly be right. We have to look like the world.” No serious disciple of Jesus that I know talks like that. Rather, it is a matter of what is the divine intent, what does Paul actually teach, and how do we love one another in healthy ways that reflect the gospel and its norms? This is, it seems to me, where the discussion ought to lie.

Summary

It seems to me that the bottom line for Renew is something like this: “teaching” in 2:12 is the function of a person in authority (perhaps an “official” capacity?) invested with the responsibility to guide the church and protect it from false teaching, and this is restricted to men because men are the head of women by virtue of God’s creative act in Genesis 2.

There are many assumptions embedded in that statement as well as concepts imported into 1 Timothy 2:12 that are not explicitly there. Here are a few.

  • Definition of “teach”
  • Identification of the “authoritative teacher”
  • Definition of authentein
  • Definition of headship (the meaning of kephale)
  • A particular interpretation of Paul’s use of Genesis 2
  • A particular interpretation of Genesis 3:16 as the corruption rather than the beginning of the rule of men over women.

None of these are absolutely clear, and taken together it is difficult to even use the word “likely.” There are too many assumptions to be certain. Renew’s conclusion is an inference rather than something explicit in the text. The text does not explicitly say what Renew claims the text means.

In fact, Renew’s conclusion is a reinterpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that explains away the traditional and historic understanding of the text that the church has held for centuries from near its beginning (I was charged with reinterpretation and explaining away texts in Renew’s first review). Renew’s blog contains many reinterpretations. Here are five.

  • “Teach” as a specific office or status (“authoritative teacher”) that permits some women to teach some men in some circumstances when the historic interpretation is the exclusion of women from any teaching of men in assembled groups.
  • “Authority” as a specific modifier for the kind of teaching Paul envisions when the historic interpretation is the exclusion of women from any kind of leadership in the assembly (including serving at the table of the Lord or leading worship, even prayer) or within the church body (voting, business decisions, etc.).
  • Eve’s role as an example of the negative impact of female leadership in positions of authority when the historic interpretation is that women are too gullible and weak, too easily deceived for leadership.
  • The application of 1 Timothy 2:12 to only the home and church when the historic interpretation is that women are excluded from leadership in society as well as the home and church because this is rooted in God’s creative act and thus applies to this relationship within the whole of God’s good creation.
  • The judgment that Genesis 3:16 is a corruption of God’s design for male authority when the historic interpretation is that it is the beginning of a male rule divinely prescribed as a punishment of Eve.

I wonder if these reinterpretations are also due to “egalitarian notions of humanity” dominating the current culture, which is the implied accusation against my position. For example, 1 Timothy 2:12 was once used to deny women the right to vote less than a hundred years ago. Did the church change its understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 under pressure from the suffrage movement (the first wave of Feminism)?

As Rick says, perhaps “with some historical and cultural background” and more careful exegesis, we can see “what is happening here.” Exactly! That is my claim as well. So, let’s discuss the details of the text rather than project a claim of egalitarian cultural influence. I might say as well that each of the above five reinterpretations also reflect the influence of egalitarian cultural influence in the last hundred years–I am fairly sure that is what rigid complementarianism (the historic traditional position) would say. It is good to remember that the soft complementarian position is itself of rather recent origin.

Conclusion

1 Timothy 2:12 remains the only text that explicitly identifies a gender boundary in the exercise of the Spirit’s gifts. Renew agrees that 1 Corinthians 11 requires different clothing but does not restrict the exercise of the Spirit’s gifts. Renew agrees 1 Corinthians 14 does not restrict the exercise of the Spirit’s gifts but forbids disorderly conduct. Only 1 Timothy 2:12 remains as a potential text that provides a boundary for the exercise of gifts.

Renew, it seems to me, never really answered the question I asked in my response to Part 3.   What, precisely, is the difference between a leadership function and a headship function? What plain reading of what text clearly identifies that distinction? 1 Timothy 2:12 does not clearly do that, and its plain reading does not fit the soft complementarian position.

Remember, Renew says (emphasis mine),

  • Likely, it means Paul permits no woman to serve in the role of authoritative teacher.”
  • “It likely means that women should not be in the teaching role.”
  • “Paul is likely declaring that women cannot serve in that role.”
  • “we are not entirely sure how [authentein] should be translated.”

Given all the “likely”s and uncertainties present, how can this be a certain conclusion, and how can it be taken so seriously that it excludes half the church from teaching authoritatively in the assembly?

For me, to exclude half the church whom God has gifted for the edification of the body of Christ from full participation and “authoritative teaching” in the assembly on the basis of a “likely” (according to Renew) interpretation of a single text in Scripture is unsafe and dangerous, especially in light of Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Esther, Anna, Mary Magdalene, the Corinthian prophets, Philip’s daughters, Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, and others I could list. I can no longer do that as I once did.

May God have mercy. Peace to my siblings and friends at Renew!


Response to Renew’s Review (Part 3) of Women Serving God

August 27, 2020

This is getting a bit confusing. Responses to Reviews by Renew with further Rejoinders. Way too many “Rs”. So, I’ll identify the contributions to this series at the beginning of each of my responses.

Renew, unfortunately, does not link my responses to their reviews on their blog. This is particularly unfair given that the most recent Renew review (number 7 below) responds to my #6 in addition to my book, Women Serving God. Their readers are not necessarily aware of my responses even though Renew is responding to them. Renew readers have no way of knowing or checking whether they are representing me accurately or the potential to read my supporting points.

Here are the links to the exchanges in one place. I respectfully ask Renew to provide the full links as well in their future responses and add links to past responses. I would be grateful for the courtesy.

Of course, Renew’s series started as a response to the publication of my book, Women Serving God. From there, we have the following 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.

This present post is my response to Renew’s Part 3. Renew’s blog is almost 7,000 words. My response is about 3,500 words.

Some Brief Notes

1. A Plain Hermeneutic. I affirm a “plain reading hermeneutic,” as Bobby describes it. In fact, my book (pp. 165-166) explicitly says that the grand story of God is readily available in sermons, songs, wisdom, narrative, and letters as one reads the Bible. It is available to all readers. Everyone, no matter what their educational or social backgrounds, may respond to the gospel through reading or hearing Scripture read. I believe the Spirit works powerfully to transform people and conform them to the image of Christ through the hearing and/or reading of Scripture.

At the same time, not everything is equally available or readable. As Peter said, and Bobby acknowledges, Paul wrote some things that are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Might 1 Corinthians 11, 14, and 1 Timothy 2 be examples of such difficult texts? Given the diversity of their interpretation in the history of the church, I think so. But this does not undermine the clarity of the gospel message about which Paul is so adamant throughout all his letters.

One example of this difficulty, and why the plain reading is not always the best reading, is the word head. When we read “head” in English, a dominant denotation is ruler, rank, boss, etc. However, this is not true in Greek. The semantic range is much broader, and the meaning of “ruler or rank” is not a dominant meaning or even part of the classical meaning of the term.  Consequently, an English reader may read “head” and take its meaning as plain, but while its English meaning is plain, the Greek range of meaning is obscured. Consequently, plain does not always work well in translation, particularly when the English does not maintain the ambiguity or the primary sense of the Greek.

2.  On Veils. To be clear, I did not say or imply Rick’s understanding of Roman head-coverings in Corinth was “some gloss or a fringe interpretation.” In fact, I acknowledged it had “merit” and noted Rick had “demonstrated” the significance of Roman head covering practices. In fact, I provided a link to Massey’s article in my own review (which Bobby quoted in Renew review #3). Rick has made a tremendous contribution to scholarship by noting the Roman practice. Both men and women covered their heads when they led worship practices in Roman religion. That is widely acknowledged.

At the same time, according to Rick, Paul differentiates between men and women in terms of authority and that the head-covering now represents male authority over the woman rather than the meaning of piety in Roman practices. In other words, Rick believes Paul changed both the meaning and practice of the Roman custom to conform to the “biblical idea of headship.” That is where the dispute lies. The Roman practice is not in question. Rather, the question is, why did Paul change the Roman practice (men uncovered rather than covered), what other cultural factors are in play at Corinth (why are women still covered?), and what is the theological meaning of the head-covering for Paul (male authority, sexual propriety, or other possible reasons)? That is much more disputed than the Roman practice itself.

3.  On Photius. My point, of course, in quoting Photius and other Nicene theologians in history is not to say this is an argument for understanding Paul’s meaning as a principle of exegesis. Rather, it was to illustrate that many theologians don’t see a problem with understanding God as the “source” of Christ, which Rick had dismissed in the earlier review. According to Nicene theology, the Father is the source of the Son, whether in terms of the immanent Trinity (through eternal generation of the Son) or in terms of the incarnation (the Father sends the Son and the Son comes from the Father). The idea that God is the “source” of Christ does not create Christological problems, whether in the biblical text or Nicene theology.

4.  The Submission of the Messiah (Christ) to the Father for Eternity. I understand Rick to describe the relationship between the human Messiah, the incarnate Logos (to use John’s language, John 1:1, 14) and the Creator God the Father. The language of “son” in this context, as Rick describes it, is Davidic royalty; it is Messianic language. In terms of the incarnation, we are agreed. This is the case for Psalm 110 and Psalm 2, to be sure, as it is applied in 1 Corinthians 15. I have no qualms with that point. Jesus is resurrected as the new human of new creation and exalted to the throne of David. At the end, the Messiah will hand over the kingdom to God the Father. The Davidic king—the incarnate Messiah who is descended from David as a human being and now reigns in resurrected human form—will turn the kingdom over to the Father. The Davidic king, as the human representative of all humanity, will turn the kingdom over to the Father. There is no disagreement that the incarnate Messiah was submissive to the Father and, as human, will reign in the kingdom of God in a subordinate position to God.

If 1 Corinthians 11:3 means that God is the head of the Messiah (Christ) in the sense that the Messiah is submissive to God and God has authority (rank, power, rule) over the Messiah, then we are talking about the incarnate Christ rather than the eternal Logos. But note this “headship” (and its attendant submission) entails an ontological difference. God has authority over the incarnate Messiah. That authority, then, is ontological in character because God has authority over the human Davidic king. I don’t think we want to say that male headship over women is analogous to that kind of authority, or is that what complementarianism entails?

The idea that Christ submits to the Father as the incarnate Messiah is true, and this assumes an ontological inequality because the incarnate, human Messiah submits to the divine Father.  If we proceed on that basis, then a strict analogy with men and women (“man is the head of woman”) entails that there is an ontological difference between men and women and that women must show the same kind of submission to men that the incarnate Jesus shows to God the Creator. But Paul says men and women have mutual authority (1 Corinthians 7:4). The analogy of authority does not hold.

If, however, one believes 1 Corinthians 11:3 is about the immanent Trinity, then it describes the relationship between God and Christ (Logos, the divine one through whom the world was created) before the creation. To say that the Creator has an eternal authority (power, rank) over the divine Logos within the one being of God is to introduce an ontological inequality into the being of the one God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Reading kephalē as “authority/rank/power” creates a problem for understanding the ontological equality of the immanent Trinity.

These difficulties are one of the reasons—and I gave other reasons in my previous response—that I prefer “source/origin of life, kinship, head-body oneness” for the meaning of kephalē. It seems to me, this is the analogy Paul is drawing in 1 Corinthians 11:3, and Paul is quite explicit about the idea of source in 1 Corinthians 11:8-12 (woman from man and men now come through women).

At bottom, Nicene theology has affirmed taxis (order) within the immanent Trinity, and this order is one of relation for the sake of differentiation within the one being of God. That eternal differentiation is not about authority because they are equal in power (authority), glory, and honor because there is only one God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. The differentiation between Father, Son, and Spirit is about relation, origin, or source (eternal generation and eternal procession) rather than authority, glory, and honor.

5. On Torah. Rick rightly points out that the Greek word nomos (law) may refer to any part of the Hebrew Bible. I had no intention of saying otherwise. In fact, in the same chapter, Paul described his quotation from Isaiah as something written in the law (nomos; 1 Corinthians 14:21). I agree with Rick that Paul’s use of “law”may refer to Genesis 1-2.

Common Ground on 1 Corinthians 14:34-36

1. We agree that 1 Corinthians 11-14 is describing activities in the regular assemblies of the Corinthian church. Therefore, we must account for the fact that women prayed and prophesied in the assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:5 when we seek to understand what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

2. We agree that 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 is about the orderly exercise of gifts in the assembly. Paul silences three disorderly groups: tongue-speakers, prophets, and women. None of the groups are totally silenced, but each are silenced with regard to their specific disorderliness, or, as Rick put it in the case of the women (wives), “vocal disruptions.” Renew, quoting the White Station document, identifies these as women who are “asking interrupting questions.” That is the interpretation I offered in my book.

3.  Whatever male headship means, there is no indication in 1 Corinthians that the exercise of any gifts were limited to men alone. In fact, “all” are invited to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:31), and “each one” brings their gift to the assembly, including hymns, revelations, and teachings (1 Corinthians 14:26). Even if wives submit to their husbands by abstaining from disorderly conduct, the silence is relative to disorderliness and not because the headship principle itself demands silence. As I have heard Rick note on several occasions (including his commentary on 1 Corinthians), the law asks for submission, not silence.

These are significant and important agreements. It is the common ground of “limited” and “full” participation perspectives. In 1 Corinthians, only disorderly women are silenced, but they are not silenced from praying and prophesying in the assemblies of God.

The Disagreement

Rick says, “Paul is saying that male headship is being dishonored by the way some of the women are interacting with some of the men.” If Rick means that woman ought to honor their heads in the sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, I can see that. However, Rick understands “head” to include a notion of male authority over women and concomitant submission. I don’t think male headship entails such, as I suggested in my response to Review #2. Paul does not actually use the language of headship in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and he does not use the word submission in 1 Corinthians 11.

In essence, we disagree about the meaning of submission in 1 Corinthians 14. In essence, this is the only disagreement Rick and I have about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

Renew suggests submission evokes “the biblical doctrine of headship,” even though “submission” is not used in 1 Corinthians 11 and principle of headship is not explicit in 1 Corinthians 14. Paul’s reference to the law in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is understood as a reference to the creation story in Genesis 2, which coheres with Paul’s use of the creation story in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 (if Paul means for the creation story to teach female submission to males).

This is the heart of our disagreement regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. I don’t think Renew’s understanding is as clear, plain, or certain as Renew seems to think it is.

1. A Reinterpretation. (Remember in the first Renew review, I was charged with reinterpreting texts to fit my agenda.) The historic understanding of the church from the 2nd century into the 20th century was that the “law” to which Paul referred was Genesis 3:16, which is the only Hebrew text that explicitly describes how men “rule” over women. Consequently, Renew and Rick reinterpret the meaning of “law” as a reference to Genesis 2 rather than 3:16.

Further, they also reinterpret the meaning of silence since the historic position of the church required absolute, total silence in the assembly. In other words, if Rick and Renew are correct, this text has never been clear or plain to the church throughout its history. This is even more the case if one thinks the prohibition only refers to the evaluation the prophetic message. That reinterpretation is of quite recent origin.

Bobby recognizes some complementarians argue 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 only forbids the participation of women in the judging (evaluation) of prophetic revelation, which—it is suggested–is the function of an authority figure in the congregation. [This is the position Reneé takes in her book, On Gender.] But why did not Paul use the specific word (judge) for the prohibition if he had that specific action in mind? Paul’s language is more general (speak). Moreover, Paul says, “let the others weigh what is said.” Who are the “others”? Most likely, it is other prophets, including female prophets. The others includes “all” who might prophesy and not a particular class of people who have special authority. In other words, the prophets (or perhaps even the whole congregation) evaluate the prophecy. Nothing suggests an authority figure evaluates the prophecy distinct from the prophets themselves.

These reinterpretations suggest that the historic, even plain, reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is inadequate and misunderstands Paul’s point. A plain reading, as Bobby recognizes, must pay attention to context, language, and canonical theology. On this, we agree.

2.  Since the activities of the women are disruptive and shameful, they need to stop, at the very least, out of a sense of respect or deference (appropriate meanings of the term “submit” [hupotassō]). If this means wives (women) must submit to husbands or men in the church (which Paul does not explicitly say which or either), it does not necessarily imply any male authority over wives (women). Since husbands and wives share mutual authority over each other’s lives (1 Corinthians 7:4), this mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) entails mutual respect and deference. As a result, if submission to husbands or men is the correct way to read this text (which is not certain), women should respect their husbands/men by not creating a disorderly disturbance within the assembly. Authority is not necessarily involved. It would also be shameful and disorderly if men interrupted and talked over others, including female prophets. They, too, would need to submit out of respect as well.

3.  One might respond that since “authority” has already been introduced in 1 Corinthians 11 through the idea of “head,” then submission in 1 Corinthians 14:34 must refer to a woman’s submission to her head (husband or males in the assembly).  As I noted in a previous blog, (1) the word head does not necessarily entail authority, (2) the only authority mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 is the authority a woman possesses in her own person before God—she has authority over her own head (11:10), and (3) authority between men and women is mutual rather than hierarchical, according to 1 Corinthians 7:4. Further, Paul never uses the word “submit” or “submission” in 1 Corinthians 11. He does refer to “honor,” but honor does not necessarily entail authority.  In fact, according to 1 Corinthians 12:23-24, every part of the body is to honor every other part of the body. Honor is mutual. “Honor” in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 refers to acknowledging the source of one’s life, just as each member of the body is to show honor to every other member of the body. Honor belongs to the whole body and is mutual.

4. We do have another place in 1 Corinthians that refers to submission. It is not chapter 11, but chapter 14. I think that is quite significant. The only places where Paul uses the verb “submit” in the context of the Corinthian assemblies (1 Corinthians 11-14) are within two verses of each other (verses 32 and 34). They occur in the same immediate context of disorder (14:26-40).

Just as the prophets should submit themselves to order within the assembly, so disorderly women should submit themselves to order within the assembly. The disruption is disorder, and the submission is to order. The facts are that Paul does not say (1) to whom the women are to submit and (2) where the law says women should submit. These two points are ambiguous and unstated.

There are clues in the immediate context, however.  First, Paul uses a middle/passive form of hupotassō (submit) in 14:32. The prophets must control themselves, that is, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” Second, Paul grounds this call to submission in God’s own identity. “Because” (gar), Paul writes, “God is a God not of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints.”

This parallels Paul’s language in 14:34.  First, Paul uses a middle/passive form of hupotassō (submit). The women are to control themselves; they submit themselves. Second, Paul grounds this call to submission in the law. “Because” (gar), Paul writes, “the law also says.”

  • The prophets must submit themselves because God is the God of peace rather than disorder or confusion.
  • The women must submit themselves because of what the law says.

The parallelism suggests Paul is probably referring to something general in the law parallel to the principle that “God is not the God of disorder but peace” rather than a specific text. The Hebrew Bible is replete with the theological idea that God brings order and battles chaos, which is the point of Genesis 1 itself. That God is the God of peace rather than confusion is something the law teaches. Everywhere else in 1 Corinthians when Paul refers to what is said or written in the law (1 Corinthians 9:8-9; 14:21), he explicitly quotes the text except here. He expects everyone who is disruptive to submit to order in the assembly and practice self-giving and humility rather than boisterous, talkative, or disruptive speech.

Consequently, I believe Paul is silencing the women on the same basis as he silences the prophets: the law teaches that God is the God of order and peace rather than confusion. The law teaches submission to that principle.

It seems to me, at the very least, it is good to acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a difficult and unclear text in many respects. It does not have a plain meaning unless one simply absolutizes the language and demands total silence on the part of women in the assembly. Consequently, the text has significant ambiguities and thus is a precarious basis upon which to build a theology of gender in relation to the assembly.

Leadership and Headship

This brings us to the bottom line of our disagreement, which I suspect will emerge even more clearly in the next posting by Renew.

  • We both agree women are gifted to actually lead (including speaking—such as prayer and prophecy) in the assembly in many diverse ways with diverse gifts.

Renew, however, believes there are functions, roles, or gifts pertaining to the assembly that belong only to men. These functions are, in Renew’s language, expressions of “the biblical idea of headship.” If a function, role, or gift in the assembly of God embodies the principle of headship, then it is reserved only for men.

  • The critical questions, then, are (1) what roles, gifts, or functions belong to headship in the assembly, and (2) how do we discern which roles, gifts or functions belong to headship in the assembly?

Or, to put it another way: what precisely is the difference between a leadership function and a headship function? What plain reading of what text identifies that distinction? This is the crux, it seems to me.

Renew believes women may not “serve in the role of the lead teacher/preacher” in the assembly. That language, however, is not found in the New Testament. But there is only one text in the New Testament that might even approximate that answer to the question. It is the one to which Rick and Renew point us. It is 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

In other words, the whole case for soft complementarianism—in terms of identifying what specific roles, gifts, or functions belong only to males in the assembly (which is the burden of my book)—boils down to a particular understanding of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, which is–in fact–their own reinterpretation of 1 Timothy 2. The historic interpretation of this text excludes women from much more than the “lead teacher/preacher” role in the assembly.

I welcome the discussion of 1 Timothy 2 that is coming in the next Renew review.

Peace upon my friends at Renew!


A Reply to Renew’s Response to My Response

August 14, 2020

I am pleased to receive an answer to my response to Renew’s review (first installment) of my book Women Serving God. I appreciate the tone and care in this piece. I reproduce, with Renew’s permission, their response below in toto from their Facebook page. My response follows their text below.

Renew wrote:

Reflections on Part 1 of On Gender and the Bible
(a Response to John Mark Hicks)
By 
Renew.org

Many thanks to John Mark Hicks for engaging us in dialogue about his recent book Women Serving God. We are grateful for the gracious tone he responded with and we appreciate him as a brother in Christ. We agree with John Mark on a great many important things, including the importance of arriving at biblical views of gender and church ministry.

In addition, there is a great deal in his book which is admirable. Very importantly, he champions servant leadership, encourages leaders not to stifle giftedness, and calls us back from traditionalism to the standard we should all affirm: the Word of God. Hicks writes, “Sadly, control and power are more often at play among the people of God than self-giving service” (146). This is a sad, true observation, and one which has often gone under the radar even as Christians have busily tried to cultivate correctness regarding these issues.

It will become clear in upcoming articles that we at Renew.org arrive at different conclusions from Hicks when it comes to the meaning of some biblical texts relevant to this topic. Our first article, however, dealt with how we interpret the Bible as distinguished from Hicks’s methodology. We are writing this to engage with some of Hicks’s responses to our first article.

A Possible Overstatement

It is true, as Hicks notes, that he never uses the word egalitarian to describe his position. Likewise, the point of Women Serving God is not to give a sustained argument about leadership structure in the church or in the home. Rather, the point of Women Serving God is more modest: he argues for full participation of men and women in their areas of giftedness when the church assembly is gathered. For this reason, we might have been overreaching to call Hicks’s position “egalitarianism.” He has the right to label his own position, and we don’t want to attach a label which isn’t the best fit.

Elsewhere, Hicks has defined egalitarianism as “the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position denies male headship as a theological value and opens all functions in the church/assembly to the church/assembly to women. There are evangelical (those who believe in biblical authority) and non-evangelical versions of egalitarianism.”[1] From this definition, we see that Women Serving God is arguing for at least some of the egalitarian perspective as he has defined it, although he hasn’t yet dealt specifically with leadership offices per se (i.e., “functions within the leadership”).

To be fair, however, Hicks gives arguments in his book which match the egalitarian position as we have seen it articulated by others. Whenever male authority is mentioned in his argument, it is implied to be something which is merely situational, with no binding implications. This is true of the maleness of the first human (121), the maleness of the Old Testament priests (138), the maleness of Jesus (143), and the maleness of the 12 apostles (148).

Whether or not the label fits, Hicks has certainly set up premises for an egalitarian conclusion. He is right that leadership is a gift the Holy Spirit gives to men and women (Romans 12:8). However, add in the idea that male leadership in the Bible is merely situational, and it takes no imagination at all to land on a church structure with female elders and senior ministers. The argument for egalitarianism has practically already been made. Yet the label “egalitarianism” can bring in unwanted or unintended connotations which we didn’t mean to import by calling his position egalitarian.

Q: A subjective hermeneutic?

It is indeed all too easy to use the label “subjective” for other people’s interpretations which you don’t like. Hicks is absolutely correct that the “blueprint” when it comes to gender roles “is not as clear as we have sometimes assumed” (26). To look at someone’s honest hermeneutical attempts and immediately cry, “Subjective!” would be ungracious and unfair.

When we use the word subjective, it isn’t because Hicks is trying to use cultural discernment in reading the text (as he points out, aren’t we all?). Rather, when it comes to Hicks’s hermeneutics regarding gender issues, it’s a selectivity which suggests subjectivity. He seems to be selective in what he emphasizes. Hicks articulates his case in a way that makes it appear the Bible is overwhelmingly stacked against the norm of male authority, except for one verse: 1 Timothy 2:12. Numerous times (116, 152, 153, 157, 160), he sets the rest of the Bible against this single verse when it comes to male authority in the assembly. Indeed, it was his one remaining “firewall” to embracing the full participation view.

To be fair, his book does present a defense of a particular position, and he is marshalling the best evidence for the full participation view. As a defense of a position (and since this isn’t a systematic theology of the entire Bible), there is going to be selectivity involved when it comes to which passages receive emphasis. When does selectivity therefore become problematic?

Being selective when it comes to Scripture becomes problematic when it brings about an overemphasis which overshadows other important truth. Hicks’s sincerity and diligence cannot be called into question. Still, in the interest of showing each and every actual and possible instance when women held positions of leadership in the Bible, there does seem to be an unfortunate overshadowing of a norm of godly male leadership which God set forth in both Old and New Testaments.

For example, the Persian Queen Esther gets her own subsection as a political and religious leader over God’s people, yet the book contains no mention of God’s pattern of placing kings over Israel (with the only queen in Israel being the usurper Athaliah). Shouldn’t either fact be just as frankly acknowledged? Another example: In describing Eve, Hicks uses language such as “powerful helper or rescuer,” “full and empowered partner,” and “the one whose creation fully equips humanity” (121-22). Meanwhile, Hicks implies that Adam holds “no hint of any rank or authority” before the Fall (123). That language feels a bit imbalanced, and the presentation a bit selective.

Q: The full story?

One of the definitive features of Hicks’s hermeneutic is to read each text through the lens of the eschatological goal (i.e., the new creation). When reading and applying Scripture, it is indeed imperative to know where we are in the storyline of Scripture. Likewise, we shouldn’t attempt to fossilize ourselves in First Century cultural norms; we should be diligent about effectively and faithfully contextualizing the kingdom of God in whatever culture we find ourselves in.

Still, we wonder if Hicks’s way of framing the Bible’s big-picture story of the Bible is complete enough. Is it the case that the complementarian view bloats a few texts (most notably, 1 Timothy 2:12) out of all proportion so that the larger trajectory of Scripture is muted and truncated? On the contrary, we suggest that it is soft complementarians who are best positioned to apply the whole of Scripture. While we gladly acknowledge the glorious giftedness that the Spirit pours out on woman and man alike (i.e., numerous passages of Scripture), we also recognize godly male leadership as a norm that God employs in both Old and New Testaments (i.e., numerous passages of Scripture).

It seems that Hicks minimizes the latter of these two Scriptural realities. Is the maleness of Old Testament priests significant, given that many ancient pagan civilizations had priests and priestesses? Probably not, Hicks concludes; he suggests that the maleness of the Old Testament priests was probably no more theologically significant than having something to do with women’s menstruation periods: “The sanctity of blood probably excluded women from the priesthood due to their menstrual cycle” (138). We are told that the maleness of the apostles is no more instructive of how Jesus wants the church to be led than their ethnicity as Galilean Jews (148). However, why was it that the apostles chose ethnically diverse men to lead in the Acts 6 distribution of food? And when the church branched out into Gentile territory, why was it that Paul continued to plant churches with male elders? There appears to be a norm of godly male leadership over the church, something which traces back to the church’s Founder. When you deemphasize this norm of godly male leadership which spans both testaments, you end up deemphasizing seemingly relevant parts of Scripture’s storyline. Even when it comes to the first stage in the storyline—Gen. 1-2—Hicks claims there is “no hint of any rank or authority” for Adam, yet Gen. 1-2 is precisely where Paul goes when establishing gender distinctions in church and marriage (1 Corinthians 11:8; 1 Timothy 2:13-14; Ephesians 5:31).

This metaphor is an oversimplification; so please don’t take this as a summary statement of Hicks’s position. But it’s almost as if the big-picture story of the Bible is being portrayed as a train which could move forward unimpeded, if it weren’t for a single log in the way. The train symbolizes full participation in the assembly with no gender distinctions in leadership, and the log is 1 Timothy 2:12. The log, we are told, can be removed if rightly interpreted. Could it be that, in keeping with the train metaphor, a more accurate portrayal would be that a healthy church moves forward when everybody’s giftedness is recognized and encouraged, and that the norm of godly male leadership—properly understood and humbly exercised—is not logs to be removed but rather railroad ties upon which a gifted church can move full speed ahead?

Ours is not a statement endorsing male leadership per se. We’ve all experienced how power-hungry males in leadership can completely wreck whatever they touch—including churches. Instead, ours is an endorsement of humbly following God’s way of doing church. We share this goal with our brother John Mark, but we suggest that there is a fuller way of incorporating all the relevant Scripture regarding this important topic than the model we read in Women Serving God.[2]

Two Final Observations

Hicks takes issue with our statement that he “interprets away the key texts.” As he puts it, “It is rhetorical flourish rather than an argument.” Hicks is right that we made that assertion without making the argument. That argument will come in future articles, in which we will do a deep dive into these key texts. For now, please note that it’s a point well taken, and we should have waited to make such a claim until we presented the argument on which it is based. We anticipate waiting until after we have published the rest of the series before we respond to any of Hicks’s future responses to our articles.

Finally, we want to close with a very helpful statement from Hicks’s book, followed by a single reflection. Here’s his statement: “It is time to honor all the gifts God has given to women and for male leaders to recognize those gifts, share God’s mission with the other half of the church, and hear the gospel through the faithful voices of our sisters” (207). Yes, there are areas of disagreement we have with Hicks’s argument, but let us punctuate this summary statement of our brother with an “Amen.” This statement is precisely what we want to see in our churches.

[1] See John Mark Hicks, “Hermeneutics and Gender,” http://johnmarkhicks.com/…/2…/06/hermeneutics-and-gender.doc.
[2] For more on this fuller way of incorporating all the data, please read “Q: Is there a better way than seeing WDWD passages and WKSP passages as exceptions to each other?” at 
https://renew.org/on-gender-and-the-bible-what-john-mark-h…/.

My Response

To be sure, there is overlap in my position and egalitarianism, specifically the full participation of women in the assembly. At the same time, egalitarianism typically involves a much broader vision than I articulate or defend in this book. The term “egalitarianism” has connotations and associations that would have distracted from what I was doing in this book, and some of those associations are not commitments I share. My book focuses on a specific question. I appreciate Renew’s recognition that I wanted to keep this focus and not import extraneous meanings often associated with the term egalitarianism into their review of my book.

I’m not clear as to how my selectivity (which we all do in marshalling an argument or proffering an interpretation of Scripture, as Renew notes) is subjective when I address the perceived male patterns that supposedly ground male authority over women in the assembly.  They seem to think I ignored that. More on that in moment.

The only two instances of my supposed subjective selectivity noted are: (1) I call attention to Esther, but I don’t mention the Kings of Israel, and (2) I imply that Adam did not hold any rank or authority before the Fall.  I’m not sure how these are examples of selectivity, especially #2. I don’t think Genesis 2 teaches that the man held any authority or rank over the women before the Fall unless one adopts a misreading of Paul’s understanding of Genesis 2. The book addresses this in relation to both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.

As to (1), I don’t see how this is subjective selectivity when the point of the section in which I talk about Esther is discussing the activities of women in the story of Israel. As a godly ruler, she exercised religious and political authority among God’s people. (Athaliah ruled in ungodly ways, just as many men did.) Male kings also exercised authority as well, which is uncontested and well-known by students of Scripture. Both did. And that is the point. Both did.

I do address each of the points raised to support the “norm of godly male leadership”—male priests, Jesus as male, male apostles, and male elders. The reader can see how I address those topics in the book. More on that in a moment. At the same time, it is important to remember that Scripture also pictures women who exercise authority and leadership over men like Deborah and Esther (consistent with the theology of creation since God does not sanction what violates the divine intent in creation, right?). It is not a uniform “norm of godly male leadership.”

I am grateful to see the affirmation of reading Scripture through the lens of the eschatological goal (new creation). Is it true, however, that I bloat the significance of 1 Timothy 2:12 for soft complementarianism?  Is this not the primary text, if not the only one, in the New Testament that is used by soft complementarians to delimit women from preaching or speaking authoritatively in the assembly (however authentein, “exercising authority” or “usurping authority,” is understood)? What other text does a soft complementarian (limited participation) use since 1 Corinthians 11 & 14 are typically understood to permit rather than prohibit the participation of women in the assembly, even encouraging praying and prophesying in the assembly (unless 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 prohibits “judging” as an authoritative function)? I am open, however, to hearing how the Corinthian texts might supply a principle or prohibition that grounds the “norm of godly male leadership.” I will await that discussion.

The part of the story Renew thinks I too easily dismiss is the thread of male leadership from priests in Israel to Jesus as male to male apostles to male elders. Thus, my understanding of the story, Renew claims, is incomplete. There is an assumption that this trajectory entails a pattern or norm of male leadership and authority over women. In the Lord, however, women are priests. Jesus represents all humans, and the goal is to conform all humans to the image of Christ. Nowhere does Scripture ever limit the gifts or authority of women because of the male gender of Jesus. The Twelve was limited to Jewish males, but this places no limit on the gift of apostleship Post-Pentecost (others than the Twelve are called apostles without being included in the Twelve, including a woman, Romans 16:7). Even if I grant only male elders for the moment (which I do not explicitly contest in the book), does this limit the gifts of women in the assembly? Is there a role in the assembly that belongs only to male elders? What text would provide that limitation other than 1 Timothy 2:12? So, we are back to 1 Timothy 2 as the lone text for delimiting the participation of women in the assembly.

Permit me to drill a bit deeper for a moment. Renew asks, “why was it that the apostles chose ethnically diverse men to lead in the Acts 6 distribution of food?” We are not told why. If we understand this as part of a pattern or “norm” of male leadership, would we not have to say a woman should never have that kind of function in the ministry of benevolence within the church? If we are going to use the exclusive male selection in Acts 6 as an example of a pattern or norm of male leadership and authority, then we must be careful to make sure that part of the pattern is carried out in the contemporary church? If that is a blueprint pattern, then may women ever serve as deacons? May they lead benevolent ministries? In what ways may they “serve tables” or are they excluded from serving the sorts of tables Acts 6 envisions? The illustration of Acts 6 and male leadership, it seems to me, highlights the danger of seeking male patterns where there are none explicitly identified or explained as such. This is the danger of inferences. This argument would exclude women from “serving tables” and ministries for which they are gifted and for which we have examples in Scripture, even as deacons (Phoebe, for example). It seems to me this illustrates how one might mistakenly discern a male “norm” and extrapolate from it more than intended by the story of God or the narrator (Luke).

It is nowhere stated that male priests are chosen because of some pattern or “norm” of male leadership rooted in creation. It is an inference that fits a particular way of reading. This inference, even if correct, is tempered by the fact that, in the Lord, women are priests who offer sacrifices of praise and serve as well as men. There are many examples of this kind of movement in Scripture. Why are not eunuchs chosen as priests in Israel? They are, nevertheless, priests in the Lord. Just as with eunuchs, there may be reasons for the exclusion of women from the priesthood that have nothing to do with the “norm” of male leadership.

Contesting my claim that there is “no hint of any rank or authority” for the man over the woman in Genesis 1-2, it is suggested that Paul sees it there. I don’t think he affirms that. In my opinion, that is a misreading of Paul. But we will get there when we discuss 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14 in later posts.

I appreciate Renew’s concern to combat male abuse and power-seeking male leadership. I fully believe Renew wants to embrace God’s design for humanity. Where we disagree, after we fully incorporate “all the relevant Scripture,” is whether God intends women to fully participate in the assemblies of the saints or not. I think “all the relevant Scripture” answers “Yes”.  Renew thinks otherwise.  We will let the readers judge as they walk with us through the various texts in future posts.

Renew, thank you for the response.  It is much appreciated, and I look forward to further discussion through the blog posts.




Video Course: Searching for the Pattern

July 23, 2020

Designed for small groups, Bible classes, or even personal use, these six videos introduce interested learners to the basic principles of my recent book.

The Tokens Show, led by Lee C. Camp, has released a video course based on Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Understanding the Bible.

There are six videos. Each is accompanied by discussion questions, transcripts, and other materials. The topics cover:

  1. Looking for the Pattern
  2. How Did Paul Read the Bible?
  3. Finding our Lens for Reading the Bible
  4. The New Testament: Rule for Faith & Practice
  5. How Did Jesus Read the Bible
  6. How Do We Read the Table?

Special Offer

April 2, 2020

During this difficult time, I am offering–with the generosity of my publisher–free access to online materials (videos and ebook) for small group discussion through a digital platform based on the book, Anchors for the Soul: How to Trust God in the Storms of Life.

Watch the introductory video here.

A completely online, small-group experience to help you connect with others as you process loss, grief—and isolation.

We’re offering this special experience to help you, the church, comfort one another and bring people together online.

Included in this limited-time offer is:

– Free access to 10–15 min videos of the author (available by video streaming).
– Free eBooks of Anchors for the Soul for each participant.
– Free access to author and teacher John Mark Hicks author via one live Q&A session.

Register your group here ===> https://himpublications.com/anchors-video-course-special/

This is a digital-only experience of the Anchors for the Soul Video Course with group access to ask John Mark Hicks questions.

It’s a six- to eight-week video series for groups.

You and your group of 10–30 people can interact with each other as you watch a video series and ask John Mark Hicks questions.

Sign up now (space is limited): https://himpublications.com/anchors-video-course-special/


Gathered into the Name of Jesus

March 24, 2020

A selection from A Gathered People by John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton, and Bobby Valentine.

Just as Matthew begins his Gospel with the assurance of divine presence in Jesus (Matt 1:23), so he ends his Gospel with the same assurance. When he commissioned his disciples to disciple all nations, he reminded them: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Disciples minister with the confidence that Jesus is with them; God is present in their ministry and life. Indeed, when disciples minister to people by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, they minister to the presence of Christ in the needy (Matt 25:20, 45).

While disciples rest in this confidence, they are also promised the presence of God through Jesus when they assemble (Matt 18:19-20):

Again, I truly tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

“Two or three” indicates that it is not the size but the intention of the gathering that is significant. When disciples gather (sunagagein) Jesus is present. But it is not just any gathering. Rather, intentionality shapes the nature of the gathering. When disciples pray together, the Father listens, and he listens because Jesus is present among disciples gathered “in” his name.

Matthew 18:19-20 needs careful unpacking. While the context is church discipline (Matt 18:15-17), the “again” of verse 19 separates this saying from the context much like a principle can be separated from any particular application. Discipline by the assembly is grounded not only in the principle that God has already confirmed their decision in heaven (Matt 18:18) but also in the correlation between communal prayer and divine presence through Jesus. The church’s discipline is rooted in the experience of the Father’s answer to prayer—God will grant the wisdom to make such decisions. But that the Father answers such prayer is rooted in the presence of Christ among the gathered disciples. In other words, the principle that Jesus is present among gathered disciples is a broader truth than any specific application to disciplinary action. It applies to prayer meetings. It applies to any gathering of disciples “in” the name of Jesus.

The theological point is significant. Our prayers to the Father are mediated by the presence of Christ. The Gospel of John makes the same point by directing disciples to pray in the name of Jesus (cf. John 14:13-14). But Matthew’s emphasis is more than just answers to prayer. It is about the presence of Jesus among the gathered disciples. This is parallel to some early Rabbinic sayings. Though they are of uncertain date (perhaps first century though more probably second century), they illuminate the point that Matthew is making in the Jewish milieu of his Gospel.[1] Mekhilta, the midrash on Exodus 20:24, states: “Wherever ten persons assemble in a synagogue the Shekhinah is with them, as it is said: ‘God standeth in the congregation of God’ (Ps 82, 1).” And, in Abot 3, 2b, Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradynon says: “if two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekhinah is in their midst” (cf. Mal 3:16). And, in Abot 3, 3; Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says: “When three eat at one table and do speak words of Torah there, it is as though they have eaten from the table of God.”

Paralleling these statements, Matthew 18:20 affirms that Jesus is the Shekhniah presence when disciples gather “in” his name. He is the new temple presence, the new glory of God among his people. The divine glory shines through the presence of Jesus among his people. When disciples gather, they become a house of prayer, just as Israel’s temple was a house of prayer (cf. Matt 21:13 quoting Isa 56:7). In the person of Jesus one greater than the Jerusalem temple is present because he himself is the Shekhniah glory of God (cf. Matt 12:6).

Further, “in my name” replaces the Torah in the rabbinic sayings. Instead of gathering to talk about or read the Torah, disciples gather “in [Jesus’] name.” A literal translation would be “into (toward, eis) my name.” The phrase expresses the purpose of the gathering—it is a gathering toward the name, perhaps “in devotion to the name” or person of Jesus, or to worship the person (name) of Jesus.[2] Indeed, Jesus is worshipped in the Gospel of Matthew more than any other Gospel (cf. 14:33)—most significantly as resurrected Lord in Matthew 28:17-20. Disciples worship Jesus, are called to participate in the mission of Jesus to disciple all nations, and are assured of his presence to the “end of the age.”

The phrase does not mean “by the authority of Jesus” as it might with the use of the preposition “in” (en). Here eis (into) signifies motion toward, devotion or commitment to the person of Jesus who is “God with us.” Into (eis) the name “expresses the conscious choice of identification with what has been involved in Matthew’s story: the action of the Father through the Son and by means of the Holy Spirit.” It is a “comprehensive commitment to Jesus and what he has brought, done, and stands for”—his mission in the world.[3] Disciples follow Jesus by participating in his mission and they gather “into his name” to worship (20:19—to pray), profess their commitment, and, as a result, to enjoy his presence. When they gather, the Shekhniah glory of God is present among his people through Jesus. Assembled disciples enjoy the presence of God.


[1] The Rabbinic citations are from Joseph Sievers, “’Where Two or Three…’: The Rabbinic Concept of Shekihnah and Matthew 18:20,” in The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy, ed. Eugene J. Fisher (New York: Paulist Press, 1990) 47-61.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004; revised and expanded) 2:233.

[3] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 750.


Gathered in the Spirit

March 21, 2020

Part of chapter 6 in A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter.

Whatever God accomplishes through Jesus, God does by the power of his Spirit. We experience new birth through Baptism because we are born “of the Spirit” (John 3:5; cf. Titus 3:5). We eat with Christ at his table through the communion of the Spirit (1 Cor 10:16; 2 Cor 13:14). We worship the Father gathered into the name of Jesus in the Spirit (John 4:24). Just as the Spirit mediates the grace of God through Baptism and mediates the presence of Christ through the table, so through assembly the Spirit mediates the presence of the Father and Son as we are transported into the heavenly sanctuary by his power.

Mediated by the Spirit

As previously discusssed, “in spirit” in John 4:23-24 is best understood as the Spiritual dynamic of worship. The Holy Spirit gives life to worship through the personal presence of God by his Spirit. The Spirit is the living water which Jesus promised would well up inside his disciples to offer praise and glory to God unto eternal life (John 4:10-14; 7:37-39).

This idea, however, is not limited to the Gospel of John. Jude (20), for example, encourages believers to “pray in the Holy Spirit.” Paul probably stresses the role of the Spirit as the means by which believers worship God more than any other. We are baptized “in” the Spirit (1 Cor 6:11; 12:13) and renewed by the Spirit whom God pours out on us generously (Titus 3:5-6). In this way we are initiated into the life of the Spirit and as a result our very existence is rooted “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9). We live in him and he lives in us (Rom 8:11; cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; 2 Tim 1:14), and we live by his power (Eph 3:16; Rom 15:13). Thus, we continually confess Jesus “by (en)the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3) and wait in hope “through the Spirit” (Gal 5:5). Given this abundant Spirit-language where believers live and move in the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God lives and moves in them, Paul characterizes Christians as people who “worship in the Spirit of God” (Phil 3:3).

Ephesians demonstrates how prominent the role of the Spirit is. For Paul the Spirit’s function is to not only mediate divine redemption to the people of God but also to mediate our fellowship with the Father and Son. The Father elects through the Son and seals us by the Spirit (Eph 1:4-5, 13). The Father redeems through the work of the Son and applies that redemption to our hearts by the indwelling Spirit. Indeed, we are the habitation—the dwelling place—of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:22). The Spirit of God strengthens our inner life as he dwells in us and empowers us for holy living (Eph 3:16). The Holy Spirit transforms us into holy people as he works within us. Just as divine action originates with the Father, comes through the Son and is applied by the Spirit, so our access to the Father is through the Son “in one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). In the power and ministry of the Spirit we are connected to the life of God and raised up to sit in the heavenly places with the Father and the Son (Eph 2:6). We pray “in the Spirit” to the Father “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph 6:18). The Spirit unites us with God and with each other (Eph 4:3).

While certainly more could be said about our Spirit-saturated existence in Christ, the long sentence of Ephesians 5:18-21 teaches that we worship in the Spirit. Though the context of Ephesians 5 is the ethical life of the new creature in Christ, the epistle is designed to be read within a Christian assembly and the language assumes a context where believers submit and speak to each other as they sing to the Lord Jesus and give thanks in his name. The words assume that the saints are gathered to hear the reading of the letter and praise God in song and prayer. The structure of the text is outlined below.

Ephesians 5:18-21

      “Be filled with the Spirit” (imperative)

                        speaking to each other in psalms, hymns, and songs

                        singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

                        giving thanks to God in the name of Jesus

                        submitting to each other in the fear of Christ

The command to “be filled with the Spirit” stands in contrast with “do not get drunk with wine.” The enthusiasm and energy of the Christian life is drawn from the Spirit of God rather than the chemicals of fermented juice or the spirit of Bacchus, the god of wine. The command means that believers take some responsibility in seeking out the life of the Spirit, but the participles indicate the means by which we pursue this filling of the Spirit or perhaps the result of being filled with the Spirit. Paul believes that when we sing to the Lord and give thanks to God we are filled with the Spirit. When we speak to each other in song and submit to each other in the fear of Christ we are filled with the Spirit. The Spirit is an active participant in the dynamic of singing, praying, speaking, making melody and submitting. The dynamic of worship and the presence of the Spirit are intimately connected.

The Spirit in our assemblies mediates our worship to God and God’s presence unveils the relational dynamic of the worship assembly itself. God is no mere spectator in the assembly as if he sits on his throne passively receiving our praise as an ego-trip. On the contrary, through the Spirit, the Father and Son are engaged in communing, rejoicing, enjoying, singing over and delighting in our love as we commune, sing, praise, honor and delight in their love. Sacramental encounter is a moment of mutual delight—an experience of mutual indwelling. The Spirit initiates and enables our praise and at the same time brings to our hearts the delight and joy of God’s own communion. The dynamic work of the Spirit brings us to God and it also brings God to us. Worshipping assemblies are events where God and his people are engaged in a mutual and relational “love-fest” through the active presence of the Spirit. The Spirit is the bond of love between God and his people.

Eschatological Assembly

If we draw near to God as an assembly through the Spirit, what does this mean for the worshipping assembly? The point is not about the presence or non-presence of charismata (e.g., speaking in tongues, prophecy, or even teaching, showing mercy, generosity and singing as expressions of giftedness; cf. 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12). We do not intend to debate the legitimacy, number and nature of the charismata (spiritual gifts). Rather, we are focused on something more fundamental. To worship “in the Spirit” is the foundation for the use of all gifts—whether it is the gift of teaching or speaking in tongues. The role of the Spirit is more fundamentally about presence and transformation. Indeed, the primary work of the Spirit is presence—God dwelling in his people and communing with them. Through that presence the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ and gifts us to minister. Transformation should shape the use of gifts from the Spirit. The Corinthians used their gifts in the assembly without the transforming love of the Spirit. Consequently, 1 Corinthians 13 (about love) comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (about gifts and their use).

But presence is foundational. Without presence there is no transformation or gifting in the new age. Without presence, there is no worship because worship happens in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the mode of communion between God and humanity. Through the fellowship of the Spirit—through praying in the Spirit, singing in the Spirit, eating at the table in the Spirit—we commune with God and he communes with us. Through the Spirit we enter the heavenly sanctuary and encounter God. There we delight in the love which the divine community lavishes upon us and God delights in the love that we lavish on him. The Spirit is the relational connection between heaven and earth.

When the people of God assemble on the earth, they are no longer located in a particular place or time. Instead, they are “in the Spirit.” They transcend space and time as they are lifted by the Spirit into the heavenly sanctuary. The church finds itself in the divine throne room. The preacher describes this moment in Hebrews 12:22-24a with language that contrasts the “Day of Assembly” in Exodus 19-24.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus.

The absence of the Spirit in this description is not surprising if one remembers that the Spirit takes us there (just as he did the Son on the cross; cf. Heb 9:14). We draw near (Heb 12:22 uses the same word as Heb 10:22) to a different mountain than Sinai. It is no longer on earth, but in heaven where God lives in the heavenly Jerusalem. There myriads of angels surround the throne in festive celebration. There the universal church scattered all over the earth is gathered as assembly. There the perfected saints who have passed through the veil of death are gathered. At Mount Zion, the assembly on the earth is gathered to God and to Jesus. The Spirit gathers the people of God and presents them to God and his heavenly hosts, both angelic and human. When the saints assemble, they assemble with the church gathered from all over the world and with the saints that have gone before.

This is the picture in Revelation 4-7. A gathered host praises God—the four living creatures, the twenty four elders, the thousands of angels, and a great multitude that no one can count. In Revelation 4 the host gathered around the throne cry out to the one who sits on the throne, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and praise, for you created all things” (Rev 4:11). In Revelation 5 the host acknowledge the presence of the slain lamb and cry out to him, “You are worthy…for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). In Revelation 7 the saints on the earth are sealed and protected from the coming judgment (Rev 7:1-8) while at the same time “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). This great multitude proclaimed, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). This great multitude around the throne is the eschatological assembly—“they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple” (Rev 7:15). Even now that great multitude praises God and the Lamb!

The Christian assembly on the earth gathered to God—gathered to worship the Father into the name of Jesus in the Spirit—transcends time and space to join this eschatological assembly. It transcends space so that the assembly is no longer “here” but “there” on Mt. Zion. It transcends time so that it not only includes the present saints upon the earth but it also includes those who have died in the Lord. It transcends time in that the assembly even now participates in the future eschatological assembly around the throne of God. When Christians meet together, they join the future—they see the future, experience the future, are emboldened to live in the present because of the future, and live in the present as if the future has already dawned. In that future God will shelter us and the Lamb will shepherd us—a future where “God will wipe away every tear from” our eyes (Rev 7:17).


The Duty to Assemble?

March 20, 2020

Are believers required to attend a weekly assembly of the church? Why should believers “go to church”? Or, more specifically, why should believers regularly attend an assembly of believers?

[This post is Case Study Two in Searching for the Pattern.]

I address this question often in my ministry. People ask about the significance of “going to church.” Typically, they don’t see its importance, and they think it is a secondary, even tertiary, dimension of following Jesus. Also, they are discouraged by what they experience when they attend a church. They see hypocrites, squabbles, and a lack of dedication to the gospel as they understand it.

My response, briefly, goes something like this. I affirm their sense of discipleship and commitment to the gospel, and I ask, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” “Yes,” they respond, “I follow Jesus.” “Then,” I reply, “go to church because Jesus did.” The look on their face is sometimes priceless—they are either disturbed, think I’m crazy, or a light bulb turns on. Let me explain.

Jesus went to church. What I mean is that he gathered with the people of God regularly, even weekly as well as on special occasions. He went to the synagogue or the temple even though it was filled with hypocrites, squabbling, and misguided devotion to God. If Jesus went to church, and we are disciples of Jesus, then we will go to church as well.

But we are ahead of ourselves here. Let’s slow down and consider the above question in some detail. Are disciples of Jesus required to attend a weekly assembly of the church?

If we follow a blueprint hermeneutic, we immediately recognize a startling reality. Though I have often said and heard that we are commanded to attend an assembly of the body of Christ every first day of the week in order to break bread at the table of the Lord, there is no explicit command in Acts and the Epistles that obligates believers to participate in a gathering of believers every first day of the week,

The only text that might qualify as an explicit command to assemble is Hebrews 10:25, which counsels against giving up the habit of assembling and actually calls for believers to attend more frequently as they see “the day” approaching (identifying “the day” is highly disputed). This expression (using a participle—“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”) modifies an exhortation. It is a warning. Even if we understand it as a command (which is possible), it does not identify the frequency nor the specific meeting to attend. It is a general encouragement to continue meeting together—to persevere and not give up. While it encourages greater frequency, it does not specify what frequency is expected or required.

I was taught, and I also taught, that the example of Acts 20:7 was an implied command for the weekly gathering of the church around the table of the Lord, and this specified the frequency intended by Hebrews 10:25. But the conclusion that every believer ought to break bread every Sunday in the assembled church is itself an inference; it is nowhere explicitly stated. It is inferred from (1) the assumption that the church gathered every week (based on a particular but disputed understanding of 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) and (2) the church gathered every week for the specific purpose to break bread (based on the implied command of Acts 20:7). Those inferences depended upon numerous rules such as generic/specific, coordinates, and how to identify expediency (among many others, as I detailed earlier). Thus, we concluded, by way of inference, that believers everywhere and at all times are obligated to break bread every Sunday in an assembly of believers. This inferred obligation is based on a series of assumptions. Each one is controverted, and none are indubitable.

Consequently, if there is no explicit command to assemble every first day of the week, and the claimed obligation for a weekly table gathering is based on inferences, are believers obligated to assemble? If not, why should disciples of Jesus assemble regularly and how often? I remember my own fear about this question. I wondered that if I let go of the certainty of the implied command and its obligation whether anyone would actually attend the assembly any longer. If there was no absolute and certain obligation, if there was no consensus on the command, if there was no consequence to disobedience, then would anyone actually come together for an assembly? Would anyone actually “go to church” anymore if it were not absolutely, legally, and certainly required? But I had to admit there is no explicit, certain, and clear command to assemble every first day of the week in Acts and the Epistles.

If the blueprint hermeneutic is inadequate to establish that certainty, how does a theological hermeneutic answer the question?

Let’s start with Jesus. When asked why I “go to church,” my first response is because Jesus did and does. As a disciple of Jesus, I follow Jesus, and consequently I go to church, too. That needs a little unpacking.

Jesus went to church. How could Jesus go to church when there was no church while Jesus lived? But there was. The word “church” (ekklēsia) simply means assembly or gathering. It is a gathered people. Israel was the assembly of God that regularly gathered in the presence of God at the temple for the great assemblies in worship (Psalms 26:12; 107:32; 149:1), at tables where communities gathered to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to God at Passover, thanksgiving sacrifices (Deuteronomy 27:7) and other festivals, and, at the time of Jesus, in the synagogues where they studied the Torah and prayed together (Luke 4:16-20). Israel was “God’s assembly.” In fact, Stephen described Israel as the “church (ekklēsia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).

This sense of “assembly” began when Israel gathered at Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 and 18:16 call it the “day of assembly,” and on that day God spoke to them. Israel was the church of God, and God’s church assembled. In Leviticus 23, God called Israel to regularly convene in “sacred assemblies” or “holy convocations” for Sabbath, Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles in addition to many other assemblies occasioned by special events and situations (for example, 1 Chronicles 29:1; 2 Chronicles 5:2; Nehemiah 8:1; Deuteronomy 27:1-7). The rhythm of regular assembly was embedded in Israel’s spiritual practices, and it formed Israel as they praised God, encountered God, and encouraged each other in these assemblies. These practices had a major role in Israel’s spiritual formation and its relationship with God. Israel was not fully Israel without assembly because they were the assembly of God. In the same way, the church is not fully the church without assembly.

Jesus participated in the festivals of Israel and weekly assemblies with other Jews. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus celebrated the Passover (John 2:13), the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10-14), and the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22, which is not even in the Leviticus; also known as the Feast of Lights). As the Gospel of Luke notes, Jesus attended synagogue every Sabbath day (Luke 4:16). Jesus, we might say, went to church every week.

Why did God institute such practices for Israel, and why did Jesus attend so regularly? These practices were rooted in the mighty acts of God’s history with Israel. The Sabbath, for example, arose out of both creation (Exodus 20:10-11) and Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). The Feast of Tabernacles reenacted Israel’s wilderness experience, and the Passover remembered their deliverance from Egypt. The Feast of Pentecost celebrated God’s providential provision of an abundant harvest for their sustenance. The Day of Atonement humbled Israel before the holiness of God and extended forgiveness. The Feast of Purim, unknown in the Torah but added at the time of Esther, celebrated the faithfulness of God in preserving the Jews in Persia (Esther 9:26-31). The Feast of Dedication, which is not commanded in the Torah either, celebrated the cleansing and renewal of temple worship in 164 B.C. The rhythm of assembly tied Israel to God’s mighty acts in their history and their relationship with God. These assemblies rehearsed the story of God. They were moments of grace, humility, encounter, and remembrance. Through them Israel professed their faith, experienced God’s gracious presence, and renewed covenant with God. They remembered God’s mighty acts.

Why did Jesus participate in these assemblies? We might say it was for the benefit of the attendees as Jesus taught in the synagogues, but that would not be the whole story. As both a human being and an Israelite (indeed, the true Jew), Jesus also needed community, celebrated the history of God’s people, and worshipped God. The temple was a place of prayer for Jesus, and he also ate the Passover and sacrificial meals in fellowship with God and the community at the table. Whatever the reason, Jesus participated in the communal life of Israel from the weekly synagogue service on the Sabbath to the annual Passover, and if Jesus participated, as disciples of Jesus it might be good for us to participate in the assemblies of God’s people as well.

But there is more. Jesus also goes to church. This may sound rather awkward as this is not how we typically think about assembly. Hebrews makes this point in several ways. Hebrews is probably a sermon delivered to an assembly of discouraged believers. Some had abandoned their faith, others were drifting, and a few were persevering. The sermon is filled with language that indicates it was originally an oral presentation, or at least intended to be read, to an assembly. For example, “time would fail me” (Hebrews 11:31), the preacher said. Or, “we have much to say about this” (5:11), or “even though we speak like this” (6:9). In fact, the preacher calls his work a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22), which is how synagogue sermons were described (for example, Acts 13:15).

When we recognize that Hebrews is a sermon spoken to an assembly of God’s people, this deepens the significance of its language. Jesus is present in this assembly. Indeed, according to Hebrews 2:12, Jesus participates in the assembly as one who praises God “in the midst of the congregation” (ekklēsias). Jesus proclaims the name of God to the assembly. Jesus shares the assembly with believers and stands among them as one who lifts up the name of God in the assembly.

While we may call this “Jesus goes to church,” it is probably more accurate to say “the church goes to Jesus.” In Hebrews 12:18-24, the preacher parallels the day of assembly at Mount Sinai with the present assembly of the saints. While the former was a mountain the people could touch (a physical mountain), the mountain upon which believers in Jesus assemble is Mount Zion in the heavenly Jerusalem, a mountain they cannot physically touch. When we ascend Mount Zion, we enter the city of the living God. We draw near to God, and when we do so, we go to church. Specifically, the preacher says that when we draw near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, we also come “to the assembly (ekklēsia) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). In this sense we “go to church,” that is, we approach God and Jesus in the heavenly Jerusalem where the whole assembly of God is gathered, where the whole church is assembled.

Some call this an “eschatological assembly.” This is a helpful phrase because it identifies the exact nature of the assembly described here. The word “eschatological” comes from the word eschaton, which means last. It refers to the “last things.” In other words, it refers to God’s future goal, that is, what God will bring about in the future. More than this, the word also refers to the way in which the future is already present since we are already living in the “last days” (eschatou; Hebrews 1:2). This is similar to Paul’s language of new creation, and just like in Romans 8:23, there is a sense in which the future is already present (we already have the first fruits of the Spirit, for example), but that future is not yet fully present (we do not yet have resurrection bodies).

When Christians gather as disciples of Jesus and for the glory of God, we participate in this eschatological assembly. It is already present in our gathering, but it is not yet fully present. When we gather, we are lifted up into the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God even though we do not yet live in that new Jerusalem in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). When we assemble, we join the heavenly chorus around the throne to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and we join the whole church from all over the world in the heavenly throne room and become, by the Spirit, part of that number that cannot be counted (Revelation 7:9-10). Moreover, we join the multitude of those who have already finished the race and are now present in the throne room of God. We join the “spirits of the righteous made perfect,” that is, we join Moses, Rahab, Mary, Peter, Paul, and Phoebe around the throne of God. We join all those who have died in faith before us. We assemble with the whole church, living and dead.

Returning to Hebrews 10:25, the verb (“draw near”) in verse 22 is the same verb as in Hebrews 12:18 and 22. When we “draw near to God” (10:22), we enter the throne room of God, the Holy of Holies (10:19), through the veil of Christ’s flesh. We enter the heavenly temple and join the host of heaven around the throne to worship God. Consequently, the preacher exhorts this discouraged church to draw near to God in full assurance of faith, hold fast their confession of hope, and stir up one another in love to good works (10:22-24). The assembly is the eschatological moment when we, as a community, participate in the heavenly assembly around the throne and, at the same time, profess our hope and lovingly stir each other up to good works as we encourage each other and are encouraged by God’s presence. We enter the presence of God for praise and prayer, and we stand there together as a people in hope and love.

Hebrews 10:25 urges believers to continue to assemble and encourage each other because something happens when they assemble. Or perhaps it is better to say, someone happens, that is, we encounter God as the community of faith enters the heavenly temple together to praise God in the Holy of Holies.

Hebrews 10:25, then, is not so much an explicit command rooted in an assumed blueprint that the church must obey as a matter of faithful obligation as much as it is an exhortation to embrace the eschatological reality into which we have been invited. In other words, we are invited to participate in the story of God through assembling together and joining the heavenly chorus of angels, the church universal, and all the saints of the past to praise God, confess our hope, and encourage each other. Indeed, it is better to hear the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25 in the context of the story of God rather than isolating it from the story as a proposition in a syllogism that identifies part of the blueprint. The story gives meaning to the exhortation, and this meaning is more transformative than an inferred blueprint obligation.

Why should believers in Jesus go to church? We may answer this question in several ways from within the story of God. No doubt others could be added as well.

(1) We are part of the story of Israel, and God invited Israel to assemble in God’s presence for praise, prayer, encounter, and remembrance (cf. Deuteronomy 4:10; Psalm 50:5). These assemblies were grounded in God’s mighty acts and called Israel into an ongoing relationship with God. We assemble because Israel assembled, and we continue this practice because we have been grafted into the story of Israel (Hebrews 12:18-24). The practices of Israel guide us in the development of healthy and formative spiritual and communal practices.

(2) As disciples of Jesus, we follow Jesus into the assemblies of God’s people. Jesus participated in Israel’s assemblies (John 2:13; 7:14-15), and he shared the rhythm of that life with God. In addition to times with small groups (his disciples) and solitude (alone with God), Jesus habitually assembled with the people of God. Jesus did not neglect assembling, even though he knew they were neither perfect nor necessarily loving or welcoming. If Jesus needed this communal life through assembling with others, we need it as well. Just as we follow Jesus into the water of baptism, so we also follow him into the assemblies of God’s people.

(3) Jesus is present in the assembly with the community of faith and participates in the assembly. As the firstborn from the dead, Jesus praises God with the people of God as he sings with us in the midst of the congregation (Hebrews 2:12). As divine, Jesus receives our worship alongside of the one who sits on the throne. In both senses, Jesus is present in our assemblies as the enthroned Messiah as well as the Son of God who receives our worship (Matthew 18:19-20). In either case, Jesus is present in the assembly as participant, host, and Lord, much like Jesus is present at the table in his kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, disciples follow, and Jesus goes to church both in the past and in the present.

(4) In our local assemblies, we assemble with all the saints, past and present. In our present assemblies, we anticipate the future as, by the Spirit of God, we participate in the present heavenly assembly around the throne of God (Hebrews 12:22-24). This is the work of God’s new creation which is already present but has not yet fully arrived. We await the future Messianic banquet and the fullness of God’s new Jerusalem, and, at the same time, we are privileged to enjoy that banquet and divine presence even now when disciples of Jesus gather as an assembly. That assembly transcends space and time as it includes all disciples everywhere (whether Singapore, Nairobi, or Chicago), whether living or dead.

When we fail to assemble, what is the most significant problem? It is not so much the violation of a command or an obligation as it is the loss of encouragement, the loss of encounter with God, the loss of God’s presence in community, and a failure to follow Jesus who participated in the assemblies of God’s people during his ministry and is present as the enthroned Lord in all the assemblies of God’s people.

But when should Christians meet? If it is important for Christians, like it was for Israel and Jesus, to assemble regularly and habitually, when should they do so? Are there any commands or prescriptions to guide our practice? How does a theological hermeneutic address this question?

As we saw previously in this book, there are good theological reasons for breaking bread every first day of the week as the assembled people of God. This assembly does not necessarily assume an institution, church building, or organizational structure. Rather, at its most basic level, it is an invitation to assemble with other believers to break bread every first day of the week. The conjunction of (1) the first day of the week, (2) resurrection, and (3) breaking bread in Luke-Acts provides a strong, even compelling, reason to eat the Lord’s supper every first day of the week. At the same time, my judgment about the strength of the point is inferential rather than explicit. We might appeal to the significance of the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1:10. But we don’t know with any certainty whether John is referring to the first day of the week (though I think there is good reason to think so) or to something else (like an annual event, or even the day of divine judgment).

Nevertheless, Israel’s weekly Sabbath and festivals, the inbreaking of new creation in the resurrection of Jesus, and the function of tables in the story of God (from Israel’s sacrificial meals to the eschatological Messianic banquet) ground a weekly table of the Lord, and I invite all believers to embrace this practice because of the theological meaning of the table as communion between God, those assembled, and with each other.

At the same time, Hebrews 10:25 suggests more frequent meetings, and there is reason to believe the preacher envisions daily assemblies or at least daily mutual exhortation (as in Hebrews 3:13).

Assembly is important, and it has theological significance. We participate in the story of God when we assemble, and we encounter God when we assemble as a community of faith. This is true wherever we assemble (home, building, or under a tree; whether three people or three thousand) because when disciples of Jesus gather for praise and prayer, Jesus is present (Matthew 18:19-20), and wherever Jesus is present, he invites us to sit at his table in his kingdom (Luke 22:29-30).

Similar to how Paul invited the Corinthians to participate in the gift to the poor saints in Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation, so God invites us to assemble with others in the heavenly Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation. While there is no absolute command, there is a divine invitation.