When Quoting David Lipscomb about Women…..

December 29, 2014

In recent weeks, some within Churches of Christ have discussed the rising participation of women in worshipping assemblies. Some find this disturbing, even rebellious, while others think it encouraging. Whatever one’s perspective, sometimes we hope to find some resource without our past to guide or enlighten us.  I think this is legitimate–not so much as a “source of authority” but for a sense of historic identity.

David Lipscomb is sometimes quoted on this topic, and he is quoted on both ends of the discussion!

I fear that while one may quote Lipscomb to encourage women teachers and the another quotes Lipscomb to reject women teachers, sometimes we do an injustice to Lipscomb’s own views and Lipscomb is used to merely serve our own interests.

One recent Facebook page cited Lipscomb’s comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 from his 1 Corinthians commentary in the Gospel Advocate series (p. 216).

No instruction in the New Testament is more positive than this; it is positive, explicit, and universal; and however plausible may be the reasons which are urged for disregarding it, and for suffering women to take an active part in conducting public worship, yet the authority of the inspired apostle remains positive and his meaning cannot be misunderstood. He looks at it from every viewpoint, forbids it altogether, and shows that from every consideration it was to be regarded as improper for them to take any active part in conducting the public service.

There is no question that this represents Lipscomb’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. He opposed any audible participation by women in the assembly except singing, and particularly opposed any public leadership of the assembly through speaking. (See my understanding of this text in an 1990 paper.)

At the same time, Lipscomb was often quick to add that women should teach. When asked whether women should be permitted to teach in Sunday School, he wrote (Questions Answered, 736):

Yet women have the right to teach those who know less than themselves. Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos. (Acts 18:24-26.) So I am sure that a woman may teach the Bible to old or young, male or female, at the meetinghouse, at home, at a neighbor’s house, on Sunday or Monday or any other day of the week, if they know less than she does, if she will do it in a quiet, modest, womanly way. I have seen wrongs done by them at home, in the parlor, the dining room, the kitchen. This does not mean she cannot do right in all of these places. She can do right in the Sunday school.

In an article in the Gospel Advocate (25 August 1910), Lipscomb further encouraged women teachers (pp. 968-9):

Philip’s daughters prophesied at home to Paul and his company. (Acts 21:8, 9.) Men and women are so universally addressed together as one and the same that it is rejecting the word of God to say women are not as much commanded to teach the Bible as men are. The only difference is, they are not permitted to teach at certain times and in certain manners. Women may teach and be taught at home, at the houses of strangers, as they travel through the country, at the meeting for preaching; they may take an ignorant preacher to themselves and teach him ‘the way of the Lord more accurately.’…At the Sunday school the woman does not usurp the place of a man in teaching all present. Only a few who wish to be taught or to teach attend. The woman does not teach before all who are present. She takes her class, old or young, to themselves and teaches them. I never saw it otherwise. In this course they obey the command given to teach the word of God to the people and to avoid the things prohibited to women as teachers and leaders of the men….Suppose a number of men, women, or children, or all combined, were willing to study the bible, and a woman was the best teacher they could find, and they were to meet at her house to get her help, and she was to teach them in studying the Bible; would she do wrong in helping them?…Suppose it was more convenient to meet at the meetinghouse and study the Bible at an hour not used for the regular church meetings, would this be sin? What makes it a sin to meet at the meetinghouse to study the word of God? [5]

So, while Lipscomb thought it unbiblical for a woman to publicly teach or preach in the assembly of the church with all present, he did not think it inappropriate for a woman to teach a subset of the assembly in a bible class or Sunday school at the meetinghouse, whether men, women, or children. He did not think it inappropriate for women to lead a bible study in their home, even with men present.

When one quotes Lipscomb’s views on the public assembly because they agree with them, one should also recognize that Lipscomb disagreed with them when it comes to women leading home groups and teaching mixed gender classes at the meetinghouse.

So, what was the difference for Lipscomb? At the root of Lipscomb’s analysis are several principles. The fundamental principle is that a woman’s role is a modest, submissive one, which suits her for domesticity rather than public leadership. Consequently, she should take no public roles in public institutions or movements. She may act privately, but she should not speak publicly, as this would subvert the role God intended for her in creation.

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).

Lipscomb strongly objected to the increasing participation of women in any public sphere, whether it was in an activist movement like the temperance movement or in any public institution, including the church.  “Women,” Lipscomb thought, “ought not to be encouraged to make public speeches on any subject” (Gospel Advocate [13 February 1913] 155-6). This is contrary to a woman’s “nature and disposition” which is more “suited to a quiet, retiring service.” Therefore, “all public teaching and speaking on any subject at any place puts woman out of place, out of her God-given work.” The whole tenor of Scripture “condemn[s] woman’s leadership” in every place “as well as in the church on Lord’s day” and “forbids woman to take a leading public part in teaching people at any time” (Gospel Advocate [19 January 1911] 78-79).

Lipscomb opposed women speaking publicly on any subject and taking any public role in society. He thought this subverted the role God gave them in creation. So, in other words, Lipscomb’s view on 1 Corinthians 14 actually extends to society as well as to the church assembly because this is what creation teaches. Creation applies to society as well as the assembly, according to Lipscomb.

Lipscomb, of course, knew the story of Deborah and the public role a few other women took in Israel’s history, but he regarded these as the exceptions which prove the rule.

“Among the children of Israel a few women were inspired as leaders and teachers of the people, but they always came as a punishment of the people because the men were unworthy and were unfaithful…Isa. 3:12…It may be that the same principle holds good now and women are justified in teaching or leading only when the men refuse to do the work. The women taking the lead ought to be considered a reproach and reproof of the men for their deficiency” (Gospel Advocate [13 July 1913] 634-5).

Interestingly, the exception still applies. But the rule also still applies.  Consequently, Lipscomb would oppose any leadership role for women in any public sphere, including lawyers, presidents, etc., unless there were no men willing or capable of assuming those roles.

Where are we, then?

1.  Lipscomb opposes all public speaking by women, not just in the public assembly of the church.

2.  Lipscomb encourage women to teach everyone who knows less than them, including teaching men as Sunday School teachers at the meetinghouse.

3.  Lipscomb thought, however, there were exceptions, as indicated by biblical history, such that in some circumstances women could lead the assembly when men were unwilling or unqualified to do so.

But there is more! The vast majority of those who do or might quote Lipscomb’s comments on 1 Corinthians 14 would be unwillling to do so regarding 1 Corinthians 11 (though some would be quite willing to do so).

Lipscomb believed that the “positive” instructions of 1 Corinthians 11 were just as “positive” as those in 1 Corinthians 14. In other words, women–in the public assembly–were required to were some kind of head-covering other than their hair.

The custom referred to must be women wearing short hair and approaching God in prayer with uncovered heads. He reasoned on the subject to show the impropriety, but adds in an authoritative manner, if any are disposed to be contentious over it, neither we nor the churches of God have any such custom (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 169).

Lipscomb was as certain about the head-covering as he was about the silence. The two stand or fall together for him. We need to recognize both when quoting one or the other.

Further, Lipscomb’s comment on 1 Corinthians 14 stresses the word “positive.” This is an important word in Lipscomb’s hermeneutic (how he interpreted Scripture). Many regarded Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 as “positive” instructions.

O. A. Carr, “Woman’s Work…No. 3,” Christian Leader & the Way (30 May 1905) 1: “The language is plain and positive.”

J. Perry Elliott, “Queries,” Christian Leader 11 (5 January 1897) 2: “Paul’s language—plain and positive as it is…”

Henry Hawley, “Woman and Her Work,” The Way (20 August 1903) 810: “the Lord positively forbids it.”

John T. Poe, “Female Evangelists,” Firm Foundation (29 January 1901) 2: “she will preach in the face of God’s positive command not to do it.”

E. G. Sewell, “What is Woman’s Work in the Church (Again?),” Gospel Advocate (22 July 1897) 432: “This decree is like the one in Eden: it is positive.”

This language assumes a distinction between “positive” (like, “don’t eat from this tree”) from “moral” (like, “don’t commit adultery”) commands. This reflects a legal hermeneutic as this language is rooted in British jurisprudence (cf. Hobbes) and the regulative principle of later Puritanism. A “positive law”—a specific legal injunction regarding the worship assembly, for example—cannot be disregarded without dire consequences. “When God positively commands,” Harding writes, “we should meekly obey” (James A. Harding, Christian Leader & the Way [17 December 1907] 8). For example, “positive law” prescribed the five acts of worship and those who add (e.g., instrumental music) to that number sin against God’s law. Yet, “nothing in the Bible is more positively forbidden” than public speaking by women in the church. When women are permitted to speak (teach or pray) in the public assemblies, the positive injunction against such is violated and violaters fall under the same condemnation as Nadab and Abihu (Sewell, Gospel Advocate 39 (4 November 1897) 692).

This hermeneutic understands “positive” commands as timeless, absolute dictums, which are unaffected by the occasion, circumstance, and context of their articulation. Further, they are so absolute that Deborah becomes an exception (rather a trajectory that points to something more), and every theological principle or movement within Scripture is trumped by the “positive” declaration. The “positive” command is more important than any redemptive movement of Scripture toward full inclusion of women in public leadership others might see. The “positive” command trumps any theological hermeneutic because the legal hermeneutic is the basic one as one seeks to discern what the Bible requires.

If this is the case, according to Lipscomb, those who seek to obey the positive command of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 should also seek to obey the positive command of 1 Corinthians 11.

Further, if one quotes Lipscomb to support a current practice, then it is only fair (historically) that one remember that Lipscomb also opposed any public role for women in society as well as the church and required women to wear a head-covering in the assembly.

Those who use Lipscomb to support women teachers in Sunday School classes would also do well to remember that Lipscomb’s position is based on a public/private distinction, which may not reflect the views of those who use his position to further their own.

In other words, when quoting historical persons in favor of (a) or (b), the “love your neighbor” principle requires that we quote them with fairness, equity, and honesty. Sometimes it is difficult to do, but love requires it.

 


The Empathetic God

December 27, 2014

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”

 


Mercy Over Sacrifice: The Missing Principle in Muscle & a Shovel

December 2, 2014

I recently published a new article at Wineskins.org.  You can access it here.


The Epilogue: Was Job Rewarded? (Job 42:7-17)

October 18, 2014

Don’t you hate a happy ending?

Many find the Epilogue too good to be true. At best, it has the ring of a fairy tale–it might even be pure silliness. It ends like a bad movie. At worst, it underscores the satan’s point–people serve God for profit. Job is rewarded; Job profits.

Some dismiss it as an orthodox attempt to defend the principle of distributive justice–in the end, everyone gets what they deserve. Others value it as an ironic twist by the narrator who offers a back-handed slap at orthodox defenders. It functions as a reductio ad absurdum.

However, these perspectives miss the real point.  The drama of the work was resolved in Job 42:5-6. This is the conclusion of the matter. Job experiences God and his lament has become praise.

Job is comforted before the Epilogue. He finds comfort in Yahweh’s presence, address, and grace. The story is “resolved” in that encounter. The story of Job’s lament ends at 42:6 before his prosperity is restored.  Indeed, the book could have ended at that point.

But it did not. So, what is the point or purpose of the Epilogue?  Let me suggest a few perspectives.

The Epilogue is the narrator’s comment on the previous drama. The narrator makes it clear that the friends were wrong and Job was right. Yahweh makes this clear: “My anger burns against you [Eliphaz] and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (spoken twice in 42:7-8!). What is “right” uses a verb that mans to be set up, established, fixed, or substantiated (BDB). Job is God’s servant and his prayer is effective for his friends. Job served as a priestly mediator for his friends–a most gracious act on his part.

The narrator/editor gives the readers a retrospective hermeneutical lens for reading the dialogues…just in case there is any doubt. The Epilogue functions, at least in this respect, to underscore the integrity of Job, the rightness of his speech, and the erroneous speech of the friends. The narrator places his stamp of approval on Job with Yahweh’s own words.

The critique of the Epilogue often turns, however, on the fact that Yahweh restored Job’s fortunes. But it is important to note that God does not restore his fortunes in the light of his “repentance” (as many read Job 42:6) but in the light of his priestly act for his friends.  God restored Job’s blessings “when he had prayed for his friends.” The “reward” (if we want to use that language) is not a “reward” for his response to Yahweh’s speeches, but a “reward” (if you will) for how he loved his friends. Job, paradigmatically, assumes the role that Israel had in the world–he served as a priest among his friends just as Israel served as a priest among the nations.

The significance of this point is that this has nothing to do with the satan’s question in the Prologue. That was answered in 42:5-6. Yahweh blesses Job in the context of his love for his friends.

But I think we can say more. It is significant that Job receives a “double” portion. That is an inheritance portion; it is a sign of special favor.  The firstborn receives double (Deuteronomy 21:17). Hannah received a “double” portion because she was loved (1 Samuel 3:5). Elisha received a “double portion” as the successor of Elijah (2 Kings 2:9), and it is eschatological language in Isaiah 61:7. Serving as a priest among his friends, Job received a “double portion” just as Israel as a priest among the nations receives a double portion.

Job’s blessings are a figure of eschatological inheritance. It is an act of divine grace; it is a gift, unearned and undeserved. It is not profit, but gift. The “happy” ending is a blessed ending, a foretaste of eschatological joy.

What did God find in Job? He found a person who did not turn from wisdom–he continued to fear and turn away from evil. Job maintained his integrity.  Though he lamented–often bitterly–he nevertheless trusted.

What did God find in Job? He found what Jesus said the Son of Man will be looking for when he returns to earth. Will the Son of Man faith upon the earth he comes again (Luke 18:8)?

Job is every person and every person is Job. Everyone is involved in the cosmic question–do we serve God for profit? Will we persevere in faith even when the circumstances are tragic? Will Jesus find us living in faith when he returns?


Job 12-14 — “You’re Kidding, Right?”

September 15, 2014

Perhaps a good word to describe Job’s reaction is….incredulous. Did Zophar just say what he did? “Did I hear him right?” Job might have thought.

Job cannot convince his own friends that the tables have been turned on him. While once he “called upon God and he answered” and “though righteous and blameless [integrity],” now he is a “laughingstock” to his “friends” (12:4). At the same time “the tents of marauders are undisturbed,” like those who stole his property and killed his servants (12:6). And it is God who has done this! Who “does no know that the hand of the Lord (Yahweh!) has done this?” (12:9).

The use of Yahweh in Job 12:9 is significant. It is the only time that the author puts the name on Job’s lips in the dialogues. It reminds the reader that Yahweh gives and Yahweh takes away as we are taken back to the Prologue.  Yahweh is responsible; life and breath are in his hands. The Job of the dialogue is in sync with the Prologue.

This is why Job must “dispute” with God, and the first half of his speech tells his friends that this is what he will do (12:2-13:19). Though he knows “wisdom and power” belong to God, though he knows “counsel and understanding are his” (12:13), though he knows God builds up and tears down whatever pleases him–and the series of divine actions in 12:14-25 are a testimony to God’s “wisdom and power,” Job cannot but dispute with the Almighty. He “desire[s] to speak to the Almighty and to argue [his] case with God” (13:3).

Instead of supporting him, the friends “smear [him] with lies” (13:4a). He would rather they just be silent–that would be true wisdom (13:5)! But they persist to defend God rather than empathize with their friend. They choose the seeming meaninglessness of God’s work over sitting with Job in his pain. They would rather lie and defend God than share Job’s suffering (13:6-12). Sound familiar to anyone? It does to me–it even reflects what goes on inside my own head at times.

So, why must Job speak? Why does he endanger himself with his honesty in addressing God? “Why do I put myself in jeopardy,” he asks, “and take my life in my hands?” (13:14).

This is the beauty of Job’s lament. On the one hand, he laments because he trusts God though he knows God may slay him. On the other hand, he laments because he experiences life as so totally unfair. This, I think, is the circumstance all faithful lament. It is honest about the seeming injustice of life’s tragic course, but it nevertheless trusts in the “wisdom and power” of God over that life.

Job speaks–he disputes, laments, complains–because “though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (13:15 as the traditional reading says). Or, perhaps the better translation is, “he may slay me, I have no hope.” It is difficult to choose between the two. But nevertheless, Job will speak. And he speaks–he disputes, laments, complains–because “man is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble” (14:1). With the former, Job knows he will be vindicated (13:18b), but with the latter he recognizes that the grave and suffering are the human condition (14:5, 10). This is the origin of lament–trust and trouble. Lament is a faithful response to God; it is not the cry of the arrogant, but it is faith mourning. Job will pursue his lawsuit against God (13:20-14:22).

Job feels this same tension regarding sin. He does not claim perfection. He remembers the “sins of his youth” (13:26). He knows his “offenses” (14:16-17). But he does not understand why God prosecutes his own servant to this degree. Though he sins, he nevertheless trusts God and follows his steps. “Why,” then, “do you hide your face,” Job asks God, “and consider me your enemy?” (13:24). It seems that God has used every excuse–including his sin, even the sins of his youth–to imprison him and shackle his feet (13:27).

But this does not fit Job’s understanding of God; it does not fit what he would expect from his Creator.  This is not the God to whom Job prays. Therefore, he will await the day of “renewal” when God “will call and I will answer,” when God “will long for the creature [his] hands have made” (14:15). In that moment, God will “count [Job’s] steps but” will “not keep track of [his] sin” (14:16). God will, Job believes, seal up his offenses “in a bag” and “cover over [his] sin.” If a person could live again, Job asks, then he would wait for his comfort (Job 14:14).

Ultimately, Job hopes in his God; he trusts in God’s grace and healing, even though he has no way of conceiving it. It seems impossible. In the midst of his lament it is difficult for him to see through the fog. On the trash heap, “he feels [only] the pain of his own body and mourns only for himself” because God has “overpower[ed] him” and “change[d] his countenance” (14:20,22).

This is lament, that is, trouble plus trust (hope) given voice. Sometimes the trouble overshadows the trust and sometimes the trust shines through the trouble. At this point it appears that the trouble is overshadowing Job’s hope though he rhetorically raises the impossible possibility. There must be more, but Job cannot see it at this point.

And, as Christian readers, we know there is more. We know a man did die to live again. We know him as Jesus. But until the final day when death is destroyed, we sometimes sit where Job sits and trouble overwhelms hope, even trust.

Friends who would comfort need to understand this. Let us listen to the voice without critique, judgment, or condemnation. Listen with mercy, compassion and sympathy, even empathy where possible.

God is listening–as the ending of Job confirms, and so should we.


K. C. Moser as Advocate for Grace

September 8, 2014

On August 13, 2014 I facilitated the 2014 Carroll B. Ellis Symposium on Restoration Preaching on the topic of Kenneth Carl Moser (or, K. C. Moser).

I have uploaded my handout for that day to my “General” page and you may access it here.

This is the table of contents:

General Chronology

A Theological Shift: What Changed Moser?

An Agent of Grace: Revisioning the “Way of Salvation”

Public Impact: Moser Leads a New Generation in the 1960s

Resources

Foy E. Wallace on Moser              

 


Muscle and a Shovel: A Review

September 5, 2014

The full review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shanks is now available in a PDF file. Anyone may print and distribute this as they desire.

The text is also available on Kindle.

 


A Sacramental Journey

September 3, 2014

Creation is good, but new creation is better. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper on the journey http://t.co/BJ3dFKyidt


On Reading Lamentations

September 3, 2014

There is always reason to weep.

We don’t have to look too far into our world—whether through social media, television, or newsprint—to find reason to weep. Yet, too often we—especially the church—ignore, hide our eyes, or look past the pain in order to escape into fantasy, denial, or hope. We rarely sit in our grief and lament.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a testimony to the value of lament. The whole book is a series of laments, a total of five. Responding to the devastation of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. (described in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52), the heart-felt cries of sorrow and pain fill the air and ascend to the God of Israel.

However, though focused on a specific moment in Israel’s history, Jewish tradition has recited these poems every year on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). This annual fast day remembers the day when the Exodus generation was told they would not enter the promised land, the day when the first and second temples were destroyed, the day when the Romans finally defeated the last Jewish rebellion against the Empire in 135 C.E., and the day when the Romans plowed under Jerusalem to rebuild it as a pagan city. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year, and it symbolizes all the tragedies that have fallen the Jewish people.

Tisha B’Av is Israel’s day of mourning. There is no eating, drinking, or sex on that day. Normally every day is filled with God’s good gifts of creation. Even amidst our daily encounters with hebel (what Ecclesiastes calls the absurdities of life), people eat, drink, and enjoy their spouses (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). But not on this day! On this day, the day when Lamentations is read, there is no joy. It is a day of lament.

Lamentations, to use the title of Leslie C. Allen’s book, is a “liturgy of grief.” These five laments express the pain of tragedy, call believers to an introspective faith, and accept God’s work among them. The laments help believers walk through their grief. It does not ignore or suppress the pain. On the contrary, it voices it. The community neither walks around nor backs away from the grief. Instead, they walk through it.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a communal lament where the people of God remember their story, express their grief, and appeal to their God. Tisha B’Av provides Judaism with a rhythm that incorporates grief into their faith and thereby integrates their experiences of real pain with authentic faith. Sorrow is expressed rather than suppressed.

The historic liturgies of the church have used Lamentations during Holy Week in the light of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (Tenebrae Services). The laments express the sorrow for sin and grieve death. The Christian Church, then, has adopted this resource within the Hebrew Bible to provide a rhythm of sorrow, repentance, and humility within its own calendar. Lamentations is incorporated into the climax of Lent as Holy Week moves toward Easter.

We read Lamentations, then, to (1) learn to lament, (2) to practice lament, and (3) to move through lament into God’s mercy.

Lamentations is actually five laments; each chapter is its own self-contained lament. We do not know who wrote them (they are anonymous), though an ancient (as early as the Septuagint translation) and strong tradition attributes them to Jeremiah. Whoever the author, they have functioned as significant communal laments for the people of God.

  1. Lament One is a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses, which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet).
  2. Lament Two is also a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  3. Lament Three is a poem where the first letter of each colon (represented as verses) within the tricolon begins with the same letter of the alphabet and the tricolons form an acrostic (therefore, sixty-six verses).
  4. Lament Four is a poem where the first letter of each bicolon (two lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  5. Lament Five is a poem formed by a series of twenty-two bicolons but there is no acrostic pattern.

While the relationship between these five poems will require our attention in coming blogs, it seems rather obvious that the central poem (Lament Three) is the pinnacle of the book. There are several stylistic as well as theological reasons for such a judgment. It is appears at the center in a unique poetic form, and it reminds Israel of God’s everlasting mercy. Consequently, we might picture Lamentations as a rising crescendo in the first two chapters that is climaxed in the third and with a descending decrescendo in the last two chapters.

In this view, Lamentations begins with lament as the book opens with the word ‘ekah (how?)—as does 2:1 and 4:1. Indeed, this is the Hebrew title of the book (“Lamentations” comes through the Latin Vulgate.). But the book ends with a prayer to Yahweh, “Restore us to yourself” (5:21-22). Between the laments and the prayer is the bold assertion—and probably the most well-known line in Lamentations—“the steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases” (3:22) and the confession “Yahweh is my portion” (3:24).

Lamentations, then, has the classic elements of lament itself. There is (1) complaint, including a description of the horrible circumstances under which people suffer. There is (2) petition, which appeals to Yahweh to transform the situation. But there is also (3) praise, which comes in the form of confident confession and hope.

Lament is not simply wallowing in one’s sorrow as if it is a function of self-pity alone. It includes that as well as other forms of complaint. But it is much more. It is also petition and praise.

Lament moves us through the grief toward a confident hope in God. It takes time, and it takes practice, that is, it takes the practice of lament itself. We must take the time to talk it out with God and in community.

Lamentations provides a resource for the people of God to voice their hurts, offer their petitions, and express their faith.


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

August 22, 2014

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

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

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

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

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

The Right Baptism and Right Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Approach to Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

May God have mercy!