The Opening and Closing of the Letter to Philemon

September 19, 2017

As is common in ancient letters from the first century, the letter to Philemon has an identifiable opening (vv. 1-3) and closing (at least 23-25, some say 19-25).

Though brief, they are significant for several reasons.

First, they introduce us to the people connected to this letter. This includes not only the letter’s primary author (Paul) and its main recipient (Philemon) but also the community that surrounds them. Those communities are, apparently, deeply integrated in a common life and narrative.

Second, they introduce use to key theological ideas that shape the world in which these communities live. What appears in the opening and closing is not simply formulaic but arises out of the worldview that shapes these communities.

The Community

Interestingly, whether calculated or not, there are five names in the opening of the letter and five names in the closing of the letter. The symmetry is fascinating, and, if nothing else, balances the brief letter in an interesting way.

The names in this letter unite it with the letter to Colossae. Paul and Timothy are the authors of both letters, Archippus (Colossians 4:17) and Epaphras (Colossians 1:17; 4:2) are prominent in both, and the same four coworkers are named by Paul in both Colossians and Philemon: (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Colossians 4:10, 14).

Due to this shared milieu, most have believed Philemon lived in Colossae, and Epaphras and Archippus were ministry leaders in the church there. One ancient commentator, Theodoret of Cyrhus in Syria (d. 466?), reported that Philemon’s house had “remained to this day” in Colossae (a translation of his commentary is available in the Westminster Theological Journal [Spring 1999]).

If Philemon lived in Colossae, where was Paul a prisoner? Most have suggested Rome, but a strong case can be made for Ephesus. Onesimus is more likely to have met Paul in Ephesus than in Rome. Ultimately, we don’t know.

Either way, Paul emphasizes his imprisonment throughout the letter (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23). He calls himself a “prisoner of Jesus the Messiah” (cf. Ephesians 3:1). Though this might be claimed as an honorific title, socially it was a shameful situation. This emphasis probably intends to socially locate Paul with Onesimus rather than assert some kind of authority over the community. Paul shares the social location of a slave as a prisoner in the Roman system.

Paul, with Timothy, addresses the letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and to the church in “your” (singular) house. Philemon is Paul’s “dear (or, close) friend” (literally, beloved) and “coworker.” This suggests a kind of intimacy as well as shared mission. Coworker, in fact, is probably a technical term for some kind of known or gifted ministry (cf. Romans 16:3, 9, 21; Philippians 2:25; 4:3). Paul, Timothy, Luke, (John) Mark, Demas, and Aristarchus—along with Philemon—are “coworkers.” They are, in a broad sense, a ministry team.

Apphia is the only woman mentioned in the letter. Some suggest she is Philemon’s sister (some manuscripts read “his sister”), a few suggest she is Paul’s biological sister, but most think she is Philemon’s wife. They are addressed as a couple or a husband-and-wife team, much like Priscilla and Aquila (cf. Acts 18:18, 26). The fact that she is named probably intimates that she, along with Philemon and Archippus, are leaders in this house church. Much like “Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” in Micah 6:4 or like Priscilla and Aquila, she is a leader in the community.

Archippus is called a “fellow soldier.” This metaphorical expression reflects his devotion to his vocation or the work he shares with Paul. Some think Archippus is the son of Philemon and Apphia, but it is probably best to regard him as a leader in the church at Colossae, which is also suggested by Colossians 4:17 (“complete the ministry that you have received from the Lord”).

The church—the gathered assembly—meets in someone’s house. The language is singular, but whose house? The most natural suggestion is Philemon, and if Apphia is his wife, then this reflects her interest in the situation as well. Some think it is Archippus’ house since his name is the closest referent and that Philemon and Apphia were members of the congregation. Some suggest the “your” refers to Apphia because when Paul mentions women it is typically because they are leaders in the community in some fashion (cf. “Chole’s people” in 1 Corinthians 1:11). It is impossible to tell though it seems most likely that “your” (singular) refers to Philemon since he is the main addressee in the letter and the other singular second person references are to him throughout the rest of the letter.

Among Paul’s coworkers named in the closing of the letter, four appear as part of Paul’s seemingly regular entourage at this moment in his ministry: (John) Mark, Demas, Luke, and Aristarchus. The latter is the most interesting because Aristarchus is identified as a fellow prisoner in Colossians 4:10. If this is the same person that appears in Acts (19:29; 20:4; 27:2), Aristarchus was involved in the disturbances in Ephesus, traveled with Paul to Jerusalem, and accompanied Paul to Rome as well. Wherever Paul is imprisoned, Aristarchus shares that fate with him.

He was not, however, the only one imprisoned with Paul. Epaphras was as well. Colossae knew Epaphras who, presumably, was a leader in the church at Colossae and was sent by the church there to minister alongside Paul or even to minister to Paul in his adversity (Colossians 1:7; 4:12).

This is an impressive group of people—on both the receiving and sending ends of the letter. Their names loom large, and their names lend weight to the letter’s purpose and request. This is a communal moment about a communal concern; this is no mere personal concern.

A Common Narrative

The opening and closing of the letter project (and assume) a shared worldview, a common narrative. We may recognize this in what is repeated in both the opening and closing, particularly in the language of the “grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

Shared Lord, Jesus the Messiah. This is such familiar language we may miss its world-shattering significance. It signifies, at least, two major points that identify the narrative of the early Christian movement.

First, Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. This is, in part, a political statement. It sets allegiance to Jesus over against allegiance to the Roman Emperor. As such, it marks this community as an alternative one that is different from the surrounding imperial world. The fuller meaning of this confession is lived out in the day-to-day political and economic values of the Roman world, and we see the ramifications of that conflict in the Apocalypse (the book of Revelation) in particular. The believer’s fundamental allegiance is to Jesus.

Second, Jesus is the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One). To call Jesus the Messiah is to link this community with the story of Israel and Israel’s God. The narrative, then, is shaped by all sorts of values, history, and liturgy that constitutes Philemon’s community as part of Israel itself. This confession is not about a Greek “Christ,” but a Jewish Messiah. The church at meets in Philemon’s house is a missional outpost of Israel, part of the diaspora.

Shared Grace. This is the grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah as well as the grace of God the Father. Grace is the fundamental disposition of God toward Israel, toward those who confess Jesus as Lord. This is the atmosphere the church breathes. We are gracious toward each other because God is gracious toward us in Jesus the Messiah. This community is originated in grace, is rooted in grace, and lives that grace. It begins and ends the letter just as it shapes every aspect of the believer’s life in God and with each other.

Shared Mission. “Coworker” appears in both the opening and closing sections of the letter. Practically everyone named is a “coworker,” and we might think of all those named as such. They work together in the same field toward the same goal for the same God whose Messiah is the Lord Jesus.

Shared Hardship. Though it is not the same word, the shared social condition of imprisonment is highlighted in both the opening and closing. Paul is a prisoner, but so is one of Colossae’s own—Epaphras. Paul and the church in Colossae share the same hardship or affliction. They share the same risks as believers. Their common faith places them in a common danger.

Essentially, the opening and closing say, “We are family; we share the same story, mission, and grace.”

The question is, and it remains with us to this day, will we act like family?

The Narrative World of the Letter to Philemon

September 11, 2017

This brief letter contains its own narrative world. What it offers is partial, often ambiguous (to us), but nonetheless profound. I begin this series on Philemon by simply (though it is not all that simple) observing the world this letter evinces.


Paul’s letter presumes a relationship with Philemon who was, presumably, the host of a church in the city where he lived. The letter does not tell us where Philemon lived. Most think he probably resided in Colossae or Laodicea. Paul had never visited these cities (at least at the time when Colossae was written) but peopled frequently traveled between those cities and Ephesus.

Paul spent several years in Ephesus some time in the mid-50s. Through this missional outreach he became acquainted with Philemon whom he led to faith in Jesus the Messiah. Paul regarded him as both a son in the faith and a co-worker.

When Paul wrote the letter, he was in prison. No one is certain where, though the most common identification is Rome. Possibly, perhaps likely in my estimation, Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus. We know Paul endured severe risks in Ephesus (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:8-9) and may have been imprisoned there at some point.

At some point, Paul met Onesimus while in prison. We don’t know much about Onesimus except that he had some kind of relationship with Philemon and was indebted in some way to Philemon. We don’t know how he and Paul met except that when they did, Paul led him to faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Some speculate Onesimus knew something about Paul because of Paul’s relationship with Philemon and sought out Paul because of that. Perhaps he thought Paul might serve as a mediator or peacemaker between Philemon and himself. Or, perhaps Onesimus was also a prisoner when he met Paul. We don’t know. Either way, Paul ultimately sent Onesimus to Philemon with this letter in hand (perhaps also with the letter to Colossae as well).

The letter does not unambiguously tell us what the precise relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was. The traditional suggestion is that Onesimus was a runaway slave (Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrhus both assume this in the early fifth century). Others, though few, suggest the two are biological brothers involved in some kind of quarrel. No one can say with absolute certainty.

The letter’s narrative backstory, then, is “simply” something like this. Paul converted Philemon while in Asia Minor. Then Paul was imprisoned when Onesimus and Paul met. Paul converted Onesimus. Then Paul acted mediated some kind of conflict between Onesimus and Philemon toward reconciliation.

The Plot of the Letter

Community. Paul invites Philemon’s community into this story.

On the one hand, Timothy—whom Philemon presumably also knows—is the “co-author” of this letter with Paul, though the letter uses the first person singular throughout (“I”). Further, Paul sends greetings from others who are present with him, including Epaphras who is imprisoned with Paul as well as (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke who are all identified as “co-workers” just like Philemon is also Paul’s co-worker. In one sense, a whole community addresses Philemon, a community that knows both Onesimus and Philemon. We might even say, the letter carries the weight of that Christian community, and, consequently, its request is a loaded one.

On the other hand, Paul addresses the letter not only to Philemon but also Apphia (“our sister”), Archippus (“our fellow-soldier”), and the whole church that meets in someone’s (“you” is singular) house. Paul’s salutation wishes grace and upon upon the community (“you” is plural in verse 3). Paul addresses the whole community, though Philemon is the principal addressee, which is indicated by the singular second person (“you”) used throughout the rest of the letter. The addressees, however, reflect that Paul’s request is a public one, and the weight of Philemon’s own community is also in play.

These communities are important to the plot of the story. They function as witnesses; they represent the living community or fellowship of believers who will watch what happens. They are, in fact, a gentle peer pressure of sorts since they all share the same communion or fellowship (koinonia). Philemon is no isolated believer who receives a mere individual request. He is part of a community—both in his own home city and in other places. He is a believer in Jesus, and this means he is part of a community larger than his own household.

Reconciliation. Whatever the problem is—which is not unambiguously identified—Paul seeks to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. Since Paul appeals to Philemon, Philemon is, apparently, the offended party. Paul recognizes some kind of debt Onesimus owes Philemon, and Paul is willing to credit this debt to his own account.

What’s at stake is communion or fellowship (koinonia or koinonon) and mutual hospitality (or, welcoming), which lies at the heart of this new movement of believers in Jesus. Fellowship and welcome are the theological values that shape how believers treat each other, and the Philemon-Onesimus-Paul relationship becomes a case in point. Can this new community make peace within its own narrative world? Does it really believe its own story?

Moreover, reconciliation not only serves fellowship but also utility or participation in the work of God in the world. Paul desires Onesimus (whose name means “useful”) to become “useful” in Paul’s ministry. Philemon can make this happen through not only reconciliation but also missionality, that is, Philemon can send Onesimus back to Paul for the sake of ministry.

Further, Paul anticipates more than reconciliation and missional usefuleness. He does not say what that it is explicitly, but it is beyond mere peace and utility. Paul seems to think that if Philemon captures the full story, Philemon will do more than reconcile and send Onesimus back. The gospel, in essence, calls us beyond the boundaries of what is normally expected or even requested. What that might be is something we will consider in later posts.


We don’t know what happened. Did Philemon welcome this letter and respond positively? Were Philemon and Onesimus reconciled? Did Onesimus return to Paul?

Paul invites himself to Philemon’s home, but did Paul ever get the opportunity to go? We don’t know if Paul ever visited Philemon or Colossae. If he is imprisoned in Ephesus, perhaps he did sometime after writing this letter and its companion, the letter to Colossae. We wonder what that reunion might have been like. Perhaps he never had the opportunity.

We don’t know what happened to Onesimus. We would like to know. Some think the Onesimus in this letter is the same as the Onesimus who was bishop of Ephesus in the early second century (see Ignatius’ letter to Ephesus, chapter 1). No one is certain, however.


Ultimately, from where we sit, the letter does not fill out the backstory completely. Our retelling will have to fill in some gaps—sometimes best guesses, sometimes probabilities, rarely certainties.

But that is OK. This is the nature of literature itself. Indeed, it is what we are supposed to do. We enter this world in order to see our own more clearly.

Who are we in this story? Paul, the reconciler? Philemon, the creditor? Onesimus, the debtor? What is our relationship with each other like? What is the goal? Where is the peace? Where is justice? What is the bond between us? What is the conflict? Do we believe our own story? Are we willing to live our own story, even if it costs us?

How will we live together so that faith in Jesus the Messiah is honored, communion is authentic, and shared ministry bears fruit for the sake of the reign of God in the world?

That is the real story of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon, whatever the precise historical factors actually were. That is the story I hope to pursue in this series on Philemon.







Eating with Jesus: Only Once a Week?

September 8, 2017

We pray for daily bread, and we eat daily meals. Yet, some restrict the Lord’s Supper—the meal where we eat at the table of the Lord—to only and exclusively the first day of the week, Sunday. This restriction is a rather unique dimension of Churches of Christ. Is eating with Jesus (Matthew 26:29) restricted to only Sunday?

I think this exclusive approach is misguided. I will offer a few brief reasons. I have no intent to fully air the point here but only offer another approach, which I regard as more rooted in the story of God.

  1. Jesus himself instituted this meal as a continuation of and fulfillment of Israel’s Passover. When Jesus instituted it, it was not on a Sunday but most likely on a Thursday (though some say Wednesday). It seems rather strange that we can only do what Jesus did on Thursday when it is Sunday.
  2. The Passover celebration itself extended beyond a single day. It involved a whole week of feasting at the table of God. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was a daily meal with God from Sabbath to Sabbath (Leviticus 23:6-8). Israel ate their feast daily throughout a whole week of celebration. It was not limited to a single day. Israel, which is renewed in the church, knew ate with God during whole weeks of celebrations.
  3. Israel ate with God regularly, even daily, throughout its history through its sacrificial system. For example, the “fellowship” (well-being or peace offerings), whether as thanksgiving offerings or vow offerings, were offered regularly, sometimes daily (Leviticus 3 & 7). Whenever anyone had a thanksgiving to offer or a vow to make, they offered a fellowship offering, which involved eating with God at the table. They were also part of the weeklong celebrations of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Tabernacles, and Feast of Pentecost (Harvest) as daily meals with God in the community of faith. When talking about the Lord’s table, Paul advised the church to “consider the people of Israel” (1 Corinthians 10:18).
  4. On the day of Pentecost when God poured out the Spirit upon the church for the renewal of Israel (as Joel 2 promised), they continued in the apostle’s teaching and in fellowship, particularly in the breaking of bread and prayers (Acts 2:42). The Jerusalem church broke bread daily (Acts 2:46); it was not simply a weekly event nor only for Sunday.
  5. When Paul guides the church in Corinth in how to eat with God at the Lord’s table in 1 Corinthians 11, he does not specify any particular time but simply says “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:26). He does not say, “as often as you do this every Sunday.” His language is “whenever you do this…” (the same meaning as the only other time this language appears in Revelation 11:6).
  6. When we break bread at the table of the Lord, we eat with Jesus who hosts the table, and we commune with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Eating with God is a grand privilege, and there is nothing inappropriate with eating a daily meal with God.

Some restrict eating with God to Sunday because they read Acts 20:7-12 as an exclusive example that prescribes a weekly breaking of bread.

  1. On one hand, I strongly favor weekly communion. The intersection of the first day of the week, breaking bread (eating with Jesus), and the resurrection is a significant one. The first day of the week is the day of our deliverance because it is the day God raised Jesus from the dead by the Spirit. The same reason the church gathers every first day of the week is the same reason it should want to eat with Jesus every first day of the week. Eating with the living Jesus who hosts the table of the Lord is a celebration of the resurrection, and if that is so, why omit the divine ordinance God has given to the church to celebrate it when we gather on the first day of every week?
  2. On the other hand, the fact that the early church ate with Jesus every first day of the week does not mean this is the only day the church can eat with Jesus. Indeed, the Jerusalem church ate with Jesus every day (Acts 2:46).
  3. The prescriptive and restrictive use of Acts 20:7 assumes (a) the church did this every Sunday [which is not stated], (b) that action excludes any other time [this assumes that what it does not include it must exclude], (c) there are no other texts that indicate other times as well as Sunday [though Acts 2:46, in the same book of the Bible, notes another time], (d) implies a command to eat only and every first day of the week [though no such command appears anywhere in the New Testament], and (e) a hermeneutic that since Jesus commanded us to eat the Lord’s Supper Scripture must tell us exactly when to do so [thus dictating what Scripture must tell us, and if it must tell us, then we will find it].
  4. Acts 20:7 is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it is not a law. It describes what the church in Troas did but not necessarily what it had to do. It provides a good model which has theological import (the coordination of the first day of the week, resurrection, and breaking bread just like Luke 24), but it does not exclude other times when we might eat with Jesus.

The church participates in the story of Israel. Just as Israel, from its opening day assembly in Exodus 24:9-11 (“day of assembly in Deut 9:10), ate with God weekly and daily, so the church may also eat with Jesus weekly and daily.

One of my great joys is to eat with Jesus in the company of my students, home guests, and assemblies. I think we should eat with Jesus at least every week, and I enjoy it more often than that.


On Reading Philemon

September 7, 2017

Philemon is a brief letter with only 335 words in the Greek text, and it appears in the New Testament without any specific context. Philemon and Onesimus, the main characters in the letter’s story, are unknown elsewhere in the New Testament. Many, if not most of the details, are lost to us as readers to whom this letter appears as a stranger walking out of the fog.

But we are not totally lost.

The letter arises out of a community that confesses Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah. This lies at the letter’s core; it is its fundamental narrative. The letter does not defend or develop this confession in terms of its content, but it assumes it, builds on it, and calls others to live within it.

That world is centered on Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord.

  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 1)
  • “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
  • “for (into, toward) Christ” (v. 6)
  • “in Christ” (v. 8).
  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 9)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 16)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 20)
  • “in Christ” (v. 20)
  • “fellow prisoner in Christ” (v. 23)
  • “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 25).

This is a world where believers belong to Jesus, suffering as prisoners for the sake of the Messiah (3x); where believers live “in the Messiah/Lord” (4x); where grace and peace are gifts of God and Jesus the Messiah (2x); and where everything one does is oriented toward (eis) the Messiah.

The Christian narrative sees the world through the Messiah. It sees the world through grace (v. 3, 25), peace (v. 3), and love (v. 2, 4, 7, 9, 16) from which flow joy (v. 7) and encouragement (v. 7, 9) as the hearts (guts; v. 7, 12, 20) of believers are refreshed within the family of God. In this world, fellow believers are family—brothers, sisters, and children (1, 2, 7, 10, 16, 20). They are co-workers (v. 2, 24) and partners (v. 6, 17) who welcome each other (v. 17). This community is rooted in the gospel (v. 13); it is what the gospel produces. It is the fruit of the Spirit.

Whatever the exact issue or concern Paul addresses in this letter, he does so out of a narrative world centered on his conviction that Jesus is Lord, Israel’s Messiah. The God of Israel has poured out grace upon Israel, renewed peace, and saturated Israel with love.

Paul addresses a community grounded in that work of God. Paul includes the gathered people of God (ecclesia) that meets in Philemon’s (?) house among his addressees. He also sends greetings from other believers who are known to that community. Stretching from Paul’s community to Philemon’s, Paul assumes a shared life (koinonia, v. 7) rooted in familial love, mutuality, and faith.

Paul (and Timothy!) writes from a community to a community about a situation between two believers (Philemon and Onesimus). The church overhears Paul’s requests. Paul attends to the situation—whatever it is—in the context of the whole church. What may have been strictly personal becomes public because Paul assumes that the nature of the Messianic community in Christ involves the whole community when facing this particular issue (whatever it is).

Philemon, then, must respond—not as an isolated individual—but as a person who lives in the Messiah’s community; he must respond as a member of the family.

The gospel drives this; indeed, the gospel demands this (“obedience,” v. 21).

Consequently, when we read this brief letter, we enter a world that assumes a narrative about how the world is different because Jesus is Lord. And the letter says something about what a difference that makes.

The letter to Philemon is a window into the relationality and mutuality of the early Christian church, and the letter evinces what values ground that life together.

Out of the Mouth (Matthew 15:10-28)

August 23, 2017

Lesson preached at All Saints Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, on August 20, 2017 by Taylor Bonner.

Εκ του στόματος

A few years ago I was reliving my high school football glory days on the intramural flag football fields at Lubbock Christian University. This was one of my favorite events to participate in with my social club! There were crowds of fans, about ten people, who would huddle together in the blistering Lubbock wind to come watch the social clubs play. We had just finished a game one night and I was talking with one of my good friends. I do not remember what we were talking about, but I do remember that during the course of this conversation I made a vulgar joke. I do not remember what the joke was about, but what I do remember, quite plainly, was my friend calling me out. I remember my friend asking “Why did you say that?” I did not know why I said it, but I was more taken aback by the fact that I had been called out for saying something that was hurtful and wrong. I apologized to him, told him that he was entirely correct, and walked away feeling convicted. To this day I still remember him calling me out, afterwards telling me that he thinks a lot of me and has the utmost respect for me, and that it was this respect and love that caused him to confront me in the first place.

Did my friend love me in this moment? I believe my friend knew the importance of critically analyzing what comes out of our mouths, and how what comes out of our mouths reflect the nature of our hearts. To put a different way, our voices which animate and give life to our words, are signposts to who we really are. Do not get me wrong actions are important, and it is because of this that I often question the dichotomy we sometimes erect between words and actions, as if speaking or not speaking cannot be seen as an action? Jesus knew this all too well. Jesus knew the action of speech is an indicator of the content of our character.

In Matthew 15:10-20 we find Jesus fleshing this idea out. He says, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles him.” In verse 18 and following, after Peter asks Jesus to elaborate because of Peter’s confusion, Jesus explains that the heart is the origin for that which comes out of the mouth. What comes out of the mouth, can say a lot about what is occurring in one’s innermost being. Jesus does not view speech and action as a dichotomy, I believe Jesus sees the two as intertwined, because someone can “do” the right actions; the Pharisees could observe the proper dietary restrictions and ritual cleansing that must occur prior to eating. How do they speak of others, though? How do they witness to others? Are their words burdensome to the oppressed? Jesus is concerned with the heart, who we really are.

It is indeed interesting that right after this passage we encounter the story of the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon possessed daughter. A story in which I believe Jesus’ prior comments about speech come heavily into play. The identification of this woman as a gentile should not be overlooked and might provide some insight into why Jesus seemingly appears to be so callous. The identification of this woman as a Canaanite would immediately set Matthew’s Jewish audience on edge. This very specific identification would recall, for this Jewish audience, their history and story. Within this story they would remember the tremendous amount of conflict they had with the Canaanites. This group of people were viewed more or less as dogs; looked down upon because they weren’t “fully human”, they were the ones who tried to stand in direct opposition between Yahweh and his chosen people. I believe what we have here in Matthew 15:21-28 is an issue of race, an issue between Jew and Gentile. In this story we have an inferior Canaanite woman who is approaching the Son of David. Yet what comes out of this woman’s mouth is surely shocking. This gentile woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…” This woman has referred to Jesus as her Lord and the Son of David, a direct identification of his royal lineage. This is hardly something a Canaanite woman juxtaposed with the Kingdom of God should have said, and yet it came out of her mouth.

Almost immediately the disciples enter into the scene. These are the disciples of the Son of David, the living Messiah! These are the ones who were with Jesus in Matthew 8 witnessing Jesus’ affirmation that the Centurion’s faith was greater than anyone he has found in Israel! What will these disciples of Jesus Christ say to this woman whose daughter is experiencing a demonic event?! They came to Jesus and implored him, “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us.” Then Jesus does something incredible, he momentarily adopts the racism of his disciples in order to allow the woman to rhetorically dismantle that very racism. I must make this clear, I am not saying Jesus is racist! What I am saying is that Jesus is bringing out the racism the disciples are operating under. Much like a wound that requires the infection to be brought forth and then cleansed, Jesus himself is exposing the infectious modus operandi of the disciples. What is particularly interesting about this story is that though Jesus brings to light this racist ideology, he will allow the gentile woman to cleanse it. It will not be Jesus who teaches the disciples in this episode; rather, it will be the crying, begging, inferior “dog” right across from them. Jesus says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel!” I can see the disciples nodding their heads in agreement saying, “This is our Messiah. We are the chosen people, this is our inheritance, the promises of God are for us alone, go back to where you came from!” The woman begs “Lord, help me!” Jesus responds, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” The necks of the disciples are suffering from whiplash at this point from nodding so furiously in agreement! “Yes Jesus! We are the children, she is the dog, the promises of God revealed, embodied, and actualized by you are for us alone!” Then this “inferior” woman stops the vehement nodding of heads and says, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.” Even the so called dogs are rightful partakers of the kingdom of God and the promises contained therein. This woman has demonstrated that the Kingdom of God is not determined by geographic location or racial prejudices. This woman has correctly identified what the Kingdom of God and this Messiah are all about. I can picture Jesus smiling when he says, “O woman, your faith is indeed great…” What came out of her mouth? What came out of the disciple’s mouths? How did the disciples respond to this woman? What does this indicate about their hearts? Just as the woman challenged the disciple’s response to her demonic event, a response born out of racism, I believe this woman can challenge us today in our response to demonic events.

Church, our nation experienced a demonic event a little over a week ago. In response to this event we had many things coming out of our mouths. I read and heard of many pastors calling out this event for what it was, hate-filled, domestic terrorism, and a demonstration of the erroneous and devastating belief that some are better than others. Yet I also heard and read of many other things coming from the mouths of disciples. This past week I heard preachers speak of waiting, to allow time for growth to occur and work towards preparing the ground to become ripe for the harvest, as if the most bountiful yield any farmer has ever seen did not at first begin with the difficult but necessary work of plowing and tilling the hard and unprepared soil of potentiality.

I have heard it said, “be like Jesus”, as if Jesus himself did not carry harsh words and critiques towards the oppressive and burdensome religiosity of the Pharisees.

I have heard it said that we must continue to love, as if love is the antithesis of speaking out against those who are striving to strip others of not only their humanity, but also their divine right to daughtership and sonship.

These are not only wrong because they are full of fallacies, but they are wrong because they all advocate for Christians to wait. In regards to the events of last week, there can be no delay in response from the church, there must not be passivity in our voice when it comes to racism and white supremacy. If we wait, if we are passive, and if we do not raise our voice against the evils we witnessed, then we have proclaimed quite loudly who we truly are. If, in response to this event, our sermons sound more like the sermons of white pastors during the Civil Rights era advocating for passivity and waiting for a more opportune time to take action, then we, too, side with the oppressor.

So did my friend love me when he directly called me out for my vulgar joke? Did my friend love me even though I walked away feeling convicted and ashamed. Did my friend love me when he chose to say something then and there, instead of waiting for a more opportune time? My friend loved me more in that moment than anyone else who had chosen to listen to this joke and say nothing.

I have witnessed a teaching that is growing in the church. A teaching that either explicitly or implicitly identifies love as the absence of confrontation. I do not know where this teaching came from, but it certainly did not originate from the very confrontational Jesus of Nazareth revealed in the scriptures, nor did it derive from the early history of the church and its direct confrontation with many of the social norms and policies of the Roman Empire. The problem with this philosophy of love is that if you are able to define love as that space in which confrontation does not occur, love becomes incredibly safe. When love becomes incredibly safe, we as the church and disciples within the body of Christ are able to hide under a self-constructed safety net of pseudo-love. And isn’t it quite interesting whenever we speak of “love” it just so happens, it’s a curious thing really, to by chance coincide with what is politically, theologically, and financially safest for our congregations at the current moment? Love is not safe, love is not in the business of self-preservation and complacency. Christian love is a dagger cutting through our natural instincts to protect ourselves and an outright challenge towards our timidity in risking ourselves for others. And what we love, how we love, and how we respond to what is happening in our country and the domestic terrorism instigated by white supremacists will show others the contents of our hearts and with whom we really identify. So who are we Church, what are the contents of our hearts? What will we say to these events and the events that unfortunately seem as if they are bound to follow? Will we be passive, or will we love? Will we wait, or will we love? Will we be silent, or will we love? For to do nothing, to say nothing, to call for waiting instead of action is to look into the eyes of the incarnate Christ and say to him “you were wrong.” What will we say? What will come out of our mouths?


Romans 5:1-5 — Boasting in Suffering

August 3, 2017

This is the link to my recent lesson on Romans 5:1-5 at Lipscomb University’s “Summer Celebration.” What does it mean to boast in our sufferings, and what does suffering produce in our lives?

Suffering has meaning; suffering has purpose…because we know suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.

Without peace, afflictions will destroy us; but, with peace, afflictions will form us.

Suffrage, Women, and Creation

July 6, 2017

In 1917, only a mere one hundred years ago after fifty years of suffrage in the state of New York, women voted in state elections.

In 1874, D. G. Porter, a minister within the American Restoration Movement, wrote an article entitled “Republican Government and the Suffrage of Women” (“Christian Quarterly” [October 1874] 489-90) in which he concluded that women do not have the right to vote “unless, indeed, it is proposed to proceed upon what seems the absurdest of all principles; namely, subordination at home and in the Church, but independence and equality abroad. We call this proposition absurd, because it would seem that if woman can be equal to man in authority anywhere, it must be at home and in the Church; and that her equality here, if indeed that ought to be her position, must be the foundation of her equality in external affairs.”
According to the argument, 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women to have authority over men because this is the order God instituted in creation. If this order is rooted in creation, it is universal. It cannot apply simply to the home or church, but it must apply to society as a whole. Consequently, women do not have the right to exercise the authority of voting or have authority over men in any situation in human culture.
This was a common argument in the late nineteenth century, and we can see something similar in some of the most respected leaders among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
James A. Harding wrote in 1903 (“The Way” [5 March]):
Paul lays down the general law under which he makes the special legislation concerning women speaking in church…it is wrong for her so to usurp authority anywhere…the same principles that prevent her from teaching in the church, prevail in the schoolroom or anywhere else; it is a question of women usurping authority over men and becoming leaders of them.”
David Lipscomb also wrote:
For women to enter the work of public speaking or of leadership in the affairs of this world is to cut them off from childbearing (Gospel Advocate [3 July 1913], 635)
Woman’s work in life is to bear and train children. No higher, holier, more sacred work has ever been committed to human beings. This is her chiefest work in life. If there were not a passage of scripture on the subject except to indicate this, it would forbid her engaging in any work incompatible with this. Public speaking in any of the callings of life that demand a constant strain on the mind, a constant anxiety and care in reference to the public affairs of church or state, an excitement of the ambitions for place and power, not only destroy her taste for and cause her to neglect the home and family duties, the duties of wife and mother, but such a strain on the mind destroys the ability for childbearing (Questions Answered, 739).
R. C . Bell (The Way, 1903, 776):
woman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for woman’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly….Every public woman—lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all—would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them….You are now no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power
History enlightens us.

Embracing Creation

April 27, 2017

The Ray Evans Seminar, an annual event at the Alameda Church of Christ in Norman, Oklahoma, was held March 31-April 2, 2017.

The general topic was Embracing Creation, which is also the title of the book I co-authored with Bobby Valentine and Mark Wilson. The book is available here.

I gave six presentations as well as conducted a question and answer session.  You can download audio or video to your ITunes or listen online here.  You will need to scroll down to the appropriate date (March 31-April 2, 2017).

These are the titles of the presentations:

  1.  A Cathedral of Praise:  God, Creation, and Humanity.
  2.  The Joy of Creation: The Testimony of the Psalms.
  3.  Jesus: The Agent of Creation and New Creation.
  4.  The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth: The New Heaven and New Earth
  5.  Question and Answer Session
  6.  Creation and New Creation in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  7.  Why “Go to Church?”- Joining Heaven and Earth in the Praise of God

I provided this meager handout for the first four sessions.

Alexander Campbell’s Relationship to Protestantism

April 19, 2017

The following is three paragraphs from a paper which I have just placed on my Academic page.

The paper is entitled “The Unfinished Business of the Protestant Reformation: Alexander Campbell’s Relationship to Protestantism.”  It was delivered on April 8, 2017 at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference held at Johnson University. You may read the full paper here: Unfinished Business Paper.

“The function of the “restoration of the ancient order,” therefore, was not the restoration of Christianity as if Christianity itself had not existed for the 1000 years prior to 1809 (or 1804). Rather, it was a reformation through restoration which adjusted the present order so that it might more faithfully practice the ancient order, that is, to practice Christianity the way the apostles and their converts did.

But if this has no creedal function as a test of communion, what is accomplished by an exposition of the ancient order? Campbell answered that question in the series’s first article. “A restoration of the ancient order of things,” he wrote, “is all that is necessary to the happiness and usefulness of Christians.” The ancient order is a means to the comfort and practical vitality of a Christian community, which is a kind of perfecting or sanctifying of the community. This is communal sanctification rather than foundational Christian identity. The restored order functions as a means of grace that enables believers to more fully experience their faith in community, actualizes the visible unity of the church as congregations conform to it, and tends toward the conversion of the world. A united church—in both faith (evangelical core) and practice (ecclesial forms according to the ancient order)—is equipped for mission, which is the primary task of the church.

In other words, Campbell’s project for the restoration of the ancient order as well as the ancient gospel is an agenda within “Evangelical Protestantism” rather than in opposition to it. Campbell never intended his ancient order to become a particular version of Protestantism around which a sect would emerge. That is the very thing Campbell adamantly opposed as sects were built upon what is unique. Rather, the ancient order practiced Christianity minus the particularities of modern Protestantism without unchristianizing Protestants.”


Holy Saturday, Graves, and the Abundant Life

April 14, 2017

Every life visit graves, and every life ends with a grave.

Where is the abundant life when we are standing beside a grave?

I imagine that question passed through the minds of the disciples as they hid behind locked doors after Jesus died. From their vantage point, “Good Friday” was not good. It squashed their dreams and dashed their hopes. The abundant life ended with the death of Jesus.

The disciples had invested everything in Jesus. They left everything and followed him. They thought he was the Redeemer of Israel, the Messiah. Hope filled their lives, and they had some amazing experiences filled with joy and expectation. The abundant life was theirs, but now it had disappeared; it had evaporated before their eyes in a matter of hours.

Holy Saturday is the day we sit with the disciples in their fear, grief, and disillusionment. We sit with them because those days are also part of our lives. We don’t live on a mountain peak of praise and joy every day. Some days we have to face pain, hurt, and even death.

To skip Holy Saturday minimizes death and the world’s pain. To rush from Friday to Sunday fails to hear the victims, hurts, and the dark realities present in the world. We must listen, and we must weep with those who weep. We must weep for our own hurt as well as the hurts of others.

Jesus suffered with us in death, and his death reminds us that death is part of life. Suffering comes before glory; death comes before resurrection.

Abundant life faces life’s challenges, acknowledges the reality of suffering, and follows Jesus through suffering into life.

The abundant life does not avoid or escape suffering. On the contrary, it endures it, and the abundant life triumphs over it. Like Jesus, we must first suffer and then enter into glory. Only those who have suffered or suffered with others know authentic life.

Let us sit with the disciples this day; let us sit with the hopeless, the weary, the hurting, and the victims. Let us await the dawn of Easter with them.