“Places of Honor Among You” (Didache): Apostles, Prophets, Teachers, Bishops, and Deacons

February 6, 2023

The Didache (“The Teaching”) addresses Christian communities scattered across, most probably, the region of Syria sometime in the late first or early second century, which is probably the same provenance of the Gospel of Matthew, which was written earlier. The Didache assumes the realities of local communities shaped by shared experiences. They were baptized into a specific community. They ate together at Eucharistic meals. They lived in community as people who walked in the way of Jesus. They received travelling apostles, prophets, and teachers, discerned between frauds and authentic leaders, and were led by a group of bishops and deacons. At the same time, each local community recognized that it was part of a larger network of communities with itinerant ministers. As Thomas O’Loughlin suggests, the slogan “think global, act local” applies but with a twist. “They had to think and act local while thinking and acting global.”[1] The Dicache addresses communities who live in both local and global environments, with settled leaders and itinerant ones.

Both the settled, local leaders and the itinerant ones were honored by the local community. Didache 15:2 says, the “bishops and deacons . . . are the persons who hold a place of honor among you, together with the prophets and teachers.” Honor is given to both groups, whether local or itinerant.  The honor given to extra-local leaders paralleled the honor given to local leaders, the bishops and deacons. The Didache emphasizes the honor due to itinerant leaders because there is a natural suspicion regarding outsiders, and this is why Didache 11:2 insists that faithful communities “receive [them] as the Lord” (see also Didache 11:4 concerning apostles).

Both groups are also tested, that is, before they serve, they are “approved” in some way. Didache 15:1 refers to the bishops and deacons as people “who are honest and have proved (δεδοκιμασμένους) themselves.” In the same way, the itinerant leaders, specifically prophets, are people “examined (δεδοκιμασμένος) and found true” (Didache 11:11). In other words, local communities raised up leaders among them who had been tested by the community, and they also examined all newcomers who came to them “in the name of the Lord” (Didache 12:1).

These leaders, both local and itinerant, received honor within local communities, and they were both examined and approved.

Itinerant Leaders

In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul begins by enumerating three gifts, though he continues in the text to name others. “God has appointed in the church,” Paul wrote, “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.” We also hear something similar in Ephesians 4:11: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Acts 13:1 names several “prophets and teachers,” two of whom (Barnabas and Paul) became “apostles” (Acts 14:14) as they were sent by the church in Antioch to the Gentiles. Consistent with these biblical texts, the Didache seemingly names three kinds of itinerant servants: teachers, apostles, and prophets (chapters 11-13). While the Didache, Acts of the Apostles, and 1 Corinthians name the same leaders, Ephesians elaborates by adding evangelists and perhaps pastors as a separate category from “teachers” (though I am inclined to think of “pastors and teachers” as a single category in Ephesians 4:11, that is, a teaching pastor).

Teachers

Whatever we might say, the aural nature of these ministries is significant for the earliest Christian communities who lived without written guidelines, a need the Didache supplies. Though what we call the New Testament is circulating in some partial forms early in the second century (the “Four Gospels,” for example, or perhaps a collection of Paul’s epistles) there was no normative collection of these documents into a single book (or codex) for some time to come. Consequently, the church depended upon local and itinerant leaders for teaching, communication, and its sense of unity with other communities of faith. It is no surprise, then, that the teaching function is highlighted in the Didache. Not only do “teachers” teach, but apostles and prophets teach as well (Didache 11:10).

According to Didache 11:3, every itinerant leader (specifically, prophets and apostles) is expected to conform to the “ordinance of the gospel” (τὰ δόγμα τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). The dogma of the gospel might possibly refer to the written Gospels themselves, or, more probably, it refers to the canon of truth that functions as a rule by which Christians walk (cf. Galatians 6:14-16). The “ordinance of the gospel,” as I understand it, is the teaching of the Faith that constitutes the Christian confession, and examples of this are embedded in the New Testament documents themselves. These range from “Jesus is Lord” in 1 Corinthians 12:3 to the summary of the story of Jesus in Peter’s homily at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10:36-43. This is the gospel, and this is what teachers must teach if they are to be welcomed into the community. Teachers must not teach any other gospel but the one that belongs to the dogma, the constitution, or the decrees of the Lord himself.

In the Didache, teachers appear as a general category, inclusive of apostles and prophets, but they may also be distinct but gifted instructors who are able to unpack the “ordinance of the gospel” that leads to “an increase of justice and knowledge of the Lord” for communities (11:2), perhaps leaders who know how to expound the Torah in the light of the exalted Messiah.  Apostles and prophets also teach, but their function is broader, especially for prophets who may lead the liturgy of the assembled community. The Didache does not give us much to work with concerning teachers (only 11:1-2).

Apostles

The Didache is concerned about the relationship of the apostles and prophets from the global community to the local community. This is indicated by how Didache 11:3 begins with, like many sections in 1 Corinthians (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12), “now concerning” (περὶ δὲ). This introduces a specific topic that needs attention. The comings and goings of apostles and prophets is something the community must navigate for its own health.

While Didache 11:3 may suggest that “apostles and prophets” (τὼν ἀποστόλων καὶ προπητῶν) are a single group, or perhaps, if we understand “and” (καὶ) as epexegetical, even “apostolic prophets” because nowhere does the Didache list a triology of itinerants (“teachers, apostles, and prophets”), most distinguish between the two groups even though “apostles” are not present in the Didache other than here. Seemingly, this group often appears before local communities, perhaps as missionaries or representatives of other communities. Didache 11:4 calls for their reception just as they would receive the Lord, and there is the expectation that they would only stay a day or two. They bear an honorable title, “Apostles,” and a spiritual authority attaches to that title. They are not part of the Twelve, who constitute a unique group. Rather, they are “people sent,” and we might presume they are sent by other communities. They teach, but they are more than traveling teachers. They probably served as connectors between communities who were sent with some authority to share news, mission, or teaching with other communities. They manifested the unity of the church. The fact that “staying” for any length of time is not an option means their mission is a brief one and their journey as servants to the global church must continue rather than become static. They come, and they go. But they serve with some spiritual authority which communities should receive as the Lord, which means they are not only apostles of a particular community but messengers of the Lord himself.

They are supported in a minimal fashion—daily bread. If they ask for money, they reveal their inauthenticity as “false prophets.” Curiously, they are called “false prophets” rather than as, for example, in 2 Corinthians 11:13 “false apostles.” Perhaps this indicates they are also regarded as prophetic figures themselves, perhaps they are “apostolic prophets.” Their function included teaching, prophesying, and uniting the global church. Whatever the case, we are given little information about them other than: (1) receive them as the Lord, (2) provide for their immediate needs, and (3) reject them if they ask for money. This seems to parallel Jesus’s instruction for the disciples in Luke 9-10 or Matthew 10, and it indicates a radical commitment to poverty in the context of their mission.

Prophets

The prophet is one who “speaks in the Spirit” (Didache 11:7, 8, 9, 12). There is significant disagreement about what that means. Some think it refers to some sort of ecstasy in their act of prophesying, while others think it refers to speaking in tongues, and others think it refers to dreams or visions shared with the community. We find similar phrases in Revelation 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10 and the Shepherd of Hermas, Mandates, 11:8-9, both published in the late first or early second centuries. There is something charismatic or visionary about it, that is, it is a gift exercised within the community by the direct action of the Spirit. The community was able to discern an act of “speaking in the Spirit” in some way. While there is also a general sense of speaking “in the Spirit” that is true for all believers who confess “Jesus is Lord” according to 1 Corinthians 12:3, in the Didache “speaking in the Spirit” is a characteristic of prophets alone. It is unclear exactly what that “speaking” entailed in terms of words, language, embodied presence, and/or rhythm. Perhaps their ability to “speak in the Spirit” is what empowers them to give thanks at the Eucharist in their own words (Didache 10:7), and this indicates that prophets sometimes led local communities in their Eucharistic assemblies.

When a prophet comes “speaking in the Spirit,” the prophet’s credibility is presumed. The community does not test or judge the prophet out of respect for the work of God through the Spirit. They do not want to deny the work of the Spirit among them. At the same time, while there is an initial welcome, the prophets will reveal their authenticity by their behavior. Their own actions will approve them or disqualify them. The community will discern who is a false prophet and who is a true one by their behavior. As Jesus said, “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). In other words, the Didache seeks to put an end to abuses of hospitality on the part of itinerant leaders. In addition, there is an eschatological concern about the appearance of “false prophets” who will turn “sheep” into “wolves” and “love” into “hate” before the “world deceiver” appears (Didache 16:3-4). Consequently, though welcomed, prophets must prove themselves.

The Didache identifies a few specific behaviors that demonstrate the distinction between true and false, and these specifics provide a means of communal discernment.

  1. Prophets who order a meal “in the Spirit” and eat it are false prophets.
  2. Prophets who do not live according to what is taught are false prophets.
  3. Prophets who ask for resources for themselves are false prophets.

If the prophets do (1) and (3) for the sake of others rather than themselves, then this confirms their authenticity. In other words, the prophet is for others rather than for self. The prophet is kenotic; the prophet is conformed to the mystery of the gospel in the self-giving nature of Jesus himself. When prophets act out of self-interest, then the community discerns their inauthenticity. Their behavior and teaching must match up and reflect the realities of gospel cruciformity. Interestingly, these criteria indicate that not only was prayer and teaching part of the function of the prophet but also charity. In contrast, any prophet who uses their gift to demand money for themselves is a false prophet. The Shepherd of Hermas also noted this problem in Mandates, 11:12, and Jesus rebuked the church in Thyatira for harboring the prophetess he called Jezebel despite her behavior and teaching identified her as a false prophet. In the Didache, as in the Shepherd and Revelation, discernment is necessary.

When Others Want to Settle Locally

Didache 12:1 says, “Let everyone who comes in the name of the Lord be received.” The question is whether this a group distinct from the teachers, prophets, and apostles, or is this a general comment on other visitors, perhaps non-charismatic ones, who arrive in the community as unknown persons. Most interpreters prefer the latter option because, in part, Didache 13:1 resumes the discussion of prophets and what to do when they want to settle. There is a distinction between the group in chapter 12 who wants to settle and the prophets in chapter 13 who want to settle.

When someone comes to the community and wants to settle and participate in it, the Didache provides some guidelines. The community must exercise discernment and “be on guard against” those who would abuse their generosity.

  1. Prove (δοκιμάσαντες) them in order to discern their intent.
  2. If they are transient, help them for two or three days but no more.
  3. If they want to settle with the community,
  4. let them work a craft,
  5. but if they have no craft, discern how to help without burdening the community.
  6. If they do not cooperate, they are unacceptably “using Christ to make a living.”

The Didache expects people to work for their living rather than interminably living off the generosity of others in the community.

But what if a prophet or itinerant teacher wants to settle? Didache 13 states that prophets and “true teachers” deserve food, “just as a worker does.” When the community discerns that these prophets and teachers are authentic by their conformity to the gospel and the truth of their teaching, the community must support them with the firstfruits of their produce, herds, and flocks. Didache 13:7 instructs the community to “take the firstfruits of money and clothing and whatever [else] you own, as you think best and give them according to the commandment,” which is probably an allusion to Matthew 10:10 (cf. Luke 10:7). These are sacred offerings as if offered to high priests and the obligation to share is analogous to tithing in the Mosaic covenant by which priests were supported. In essence, they are sacred sacrifices for the good of the community because the community is enriched by the presence of authentic prophets and true teachers.

The Didache envisions a situation where prophets and teachers may visit, stay for a few days to teach and lead the community, and then leave for other places. But it also envisions a situation where these prophets and teachers may settle in a community, serve that community, and work alongside its bishops and deacons. In other words, prophets and teachers are not always itinerant, but—we may suppose—they are nevertheless remain global leaders as gifted prophets and teachers.

Lessons for the Contemporary Church

First, the community of faith must practice discernment. While always remaining open to the work of the Spirit, including listening to those who “speak in the Spirit,” there is a sense of approvedness that is applied by the community. The central tests are (1) a life consistent with their teaching, (2) the content of teaching conforms “the ordinance (or dogma) of the church,” which is cruciformity, and (3) the for-otherness of their teaching, practices, and lifestyle.

Second, though discernment is necessary, the community must submit to the authentic prophets and teachers that come to them. They are to be welcomed “as the Lord.” This is not said of everyone. For example, those who come “in the name of the Lord” in chapter 12 are welcomed but the phrase “as the Lord” is only applied to teachers, prophets, and apostles (Didache 11:2-4). The community is called to receive, support, and submit to these itinerant ministers of the cross. In part, this means the local community should listen to and learn from the global community as their authority from the Lord is recognized in the context of the universal church.

Third, the Didache expects a mutually enriching relationship between local and itinerant leaders. Chapter 15 seamlessly connects both sets. They have each “proved” (δεδοκιμασμένους) themselves, shown themselves honest, and eschewed greed. Local and global leaders are formed by the same character, though their gifts are distinct and different. The bishops and deacons, at a local level, “perform (λειτουργοῦσι) the functions of prophets and teachers” and they are elected by the local community through a show of hands (a vote; Χειροτονήσατε). The bishops and deacons, therefore, do not abdicate their local function to the prophets and teachers but serve alongside of them in the community. They perform or participate, in some sense, in the same ministry and deserve the same honor. Bishops are overseers of the flock and preside over its communal functions while the deacons are servants within and for the community; their focus is local. But they also receive global, itinerant leaders who enrich the life of the local community. At the same time, the itinerant leaders honor the local leaders, even though they are not themselves charismatics or people who have the ability to “speak in the Spirit.”

All the leaders, both local and global, hold a place of honor within the church, both local and universal.

Didache (Cody’s Translation)

11. 1Accordingly, receive anyone who comes and teaches (διδάξῃ) you all that has been said above. 2If the teacher (ὁ διδάσκων) himself turns to teaching (διδάσκῃ) another doctrine (διδαχὴν) [which will lead] to destruction, do not listen to him, but [if it will lead] to an increase of justice and knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord.

3In the matter of apostles and prophets (τὼν ἀποστόλων καὶ προπητῶν), act this way, according to the ordinance of the gospel (τὰ δόγμα τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). 4Let every apostle (ἀπόστολος) who comes to you be received as the Lord. 5He shall stay [only] one day, or if need be, another day, too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 6When the apostle (ὁ ἀπόστολος) leaves, let him receive nothing but [enough] bread [to see him through] until he finds lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 7Do not test any prophet (προφήτηv) who speaks in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι), and do not judge him, for every [other] sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven. 8Not everyone who speaks in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι) is a prophet (προφήτης) but only the one whose behavior is the Lord’s. So the false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης) and the prophet (προφήτης) will be recognized by their behavior. 9Any prophet (προφήτης) who gives orders for a table [i.e., a meal] in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι) shall not eat of it; if he does, he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 10If any prophet (προφήτης) teaching (διδάσκων) the truth does not do what he teaches (διδάσκει), he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 11No prophet (προφήτης), examined (δεδοκιμασμένος) and found true, who acts for the earthly mystery of the church (ποιῶν εἰς μυστήριον κοσμικὸν ἐκκλησίας) but does not teach (διδάσκων) [others] to do everything that he himself does, shall be judged by you, for his judgment is with God. The ancient prophets (οἱ ἀρχαῖοι προφῆται) acted in the same way. 12You shall not listen to anyone who says in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι), “Give me money, or something,” but if he is asking that something be given for others who are in need, let no one judge him.

12. 1Let everyone who comes in the name of Lord be received, and then, when you have taken stock of him, you will know [what he is like], for you will have right and left perception [i.e, perception of what is good and bad about him]. 2If the person who comes is just passing through on the way to some other place, help him as much as you can, but he shall not stay with you more than two or three days—if that is necessary. 3If he wants to settle in with you, though, and he is a craftsman, let him work and [thus] eat. 4If he has no craft, you shall use your insight to provide a good way for him to avoid living with you as a Christian with nothing to do. 5If he is unwilling to do what that way calls for, he is using Christ to make a living. Be on your guard against people like this.

13. 1Every true prophet (προφήτης) who wants to settle in with you deserves his food. 2In the same way, a true teacher (διδάσκαλος ἀληθινός), too, deserves his food, just as a worker does. 3So when you [sing.] take any firstfruits of what is produced by the wine press and the threshing floor, by cows and by sheep, you [sing.] shall give the firstfruits to the prophets (προφήταις), for they are your [pl.] high priests. 4If, however, you [pl. through verse 4] have no prophet (προφήτην), give [them] to the poor. 5If you [sing. through verses 5-7] make bread, take the firstfruits, and give them according to the commandment. 6Likewise, when you open a jar of wine or oil, take the firstfruits and give them to the prophets (προφήταις). 7Take the firstfruits of money and clothing and whatever [else] you own, as you think best and give them according to the commandment.

15. 1Select, then, for yourselves bishops and deacons (ἐπισκόπους καὶ διακόνους) worthy of the Lord, mild tempered men who are not greedy, who are honest and have proved (δεδοκιμασμένους) themselves, for they too perform (λειτουργοῦσι) the functions of prophets and teachers for you. 2So do not disregard them, for they are the persons who hold a place of honor among you, together with the prophets and teachers.

Resources

Cody, Aelred. “The Didache: An English Translation,” 3-14. In The Didache in Context: Essays on Its Text, History and Transmission. Edited by Clayton N. Jefford. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995. 

Draper, Jonathan R., “Apostles, Teachers, and Evangelists: Stability and Movement of Functionaries in Matthew, James, and the Didache,” 137-174. In Matthew, James and the Didache. Edited by H. van de Sandt and Jürgen Zangenberg. Missoula, MT: Scholars, 2008.

Draper, Jonathan R., “Social Ambiguity and the Production of Text: Prophets, Teachers, Bishops, and Deacons and the Development of the Jesus Tradition in the Community of the Didache,” 284-311. In The Didache in Context: Essays on Its Text, History and Transmission. Edited by Clayton N. Jefford. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Draper, Jonathan R., “The Didache in Modern Research: An Overview,” 1-42. In The Didache in Modern Research. Edited by Jonathan A. Draper. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Draper, Jonathan R., “Torah and Troublesome Apostles in the Didache Community,” 341-366. In in The Didache in Modern Research. Edited by Jonathan A. Draper. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Draper, Jonathan R. “Weber, Theissen, and ‘Wandering Charismatice’ in the Didache.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 541-576.

Halleux, André de, “Ministers in the Didache,” 300-320. In The Didache in Modern Research. Edited by Jonathan A. Draper. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Jefford, Clayton N., “Prophecy and Prophetism in the Apostolic Fathers,” 295-316. In Prophets and Prophecy in Jewish and Early Christian Literature. Edited by Joseph Verheyden, Korinna Zamfir and Tobias Nicklas. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

Milavec, Aaron. “Distinguishing True and False Prophets: The Protective Wisdom of the Didache.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2, no. 2 (Summary 1994): 117-136.

Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. New York: The Newman Press, 2003.

Niederwimmer, Kurt, “An Examination of the Development of Itinerant Radicalism in the Environment and Tradition of the Didache,” 321-339. In The Didache in Modern Research. Edited by Jonathan A. Draper. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Niederwimmer, Kurt. The Didache: A Commentarty. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Loughlin, Thomas. The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Patterson, Stephen J., “Didache 11-13: The Legacy of Radical Itinerancy in Early Christianity,” 313-329. In The Didache in Context: Essays on Its Text, History and Transmission. Edited by Clayton N. Jefford. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Schöllgen, Georg, “The Didache as a Church Order: An Examination of the Purpose for the  Composition of the Didache and Its Consequences for Interpretation, 43-71. In The Didache in Modern Research. Edited by Jonathan A. Draper. Leiden: Brill, 1996.


The Grace of Generosity: A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8-9

February 5, 2023

[Sermon begins at the 55 minute mark.]

How do you persuade a wealthy congregation in Corinth to share their resources with an impoverished and ethnically different group of people in Jerusalem almost 1,000 miles distant?

When they shared from their resources with the Jerusalem believers, Paul wrote, they would “glorify God by [their] obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ” (2 Corinthians 9:13). But Paul did not command them to share (2 Corinthians 8:8). Rather, he probed whether they truly believed the story of God in Christ.

If they believe that they have been made rich by the grace of God’s Son, who though being rich became poor for our sakes, then the Corinthians should share their blessings with those who are poor (2 Corinthians 8:9-10).

In other words, the Corinthians were not commanded to obey a rule, but invited to participate in the story of God. And when they participated, they would then obey the gospel (or conform themselves to the image of Christ).


The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

February 3, 2023

Forgiveness is a choice, according to Desmond and Mpho Tutu, and there is no wholeness in humanity’s future without forgiveness. Since we are all broken, “forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again” (p. 3). Forgiveness is how we heal the world, according to The Book of Forgiving.

Often, we may want to forgive but don’t know how to do it. The process is mysterious and difficult, especially when we are trying to divest ourselves of resentment and bitterness toward others and their actions. “On this path,” they write, “we must walk through the muddy shoals of hatred and anger and make our way through grief and loss to find the acceptance that is the hallmark of forgiveness” (p. 4). They also addresses self-forgiveness as well as needing forgiveness ourselves.

Moreover, this father and daughter team raises the question how we pursue both forgiveness and justice. Tutu’s experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa informs his approach to this topic. His wisdom, gained both through theology and practice, has much to teach us.

At the heart of the book is the fourfold path. It is “simple, but it is not easy” (p. 5). They explore these practices through stories, personal experiences, and theological reflection.

  • Telling the Story
  • Naming the Hurt
  • Granting Forgiveness
  • Renewing or Releasing the Relationship

“Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed” (p. 71). The truth must be told, and the story must be heard. If we don’t tell the story to someone (family, friends, church, justice system, etc.), it will fester in our souls and damage the soul further. Listeners must create a safe space, listen attentively without cross-examination, acknowledge what happened, and sympathize with the pain.

When we name the hurt, we give a name to the emotion which helps understand how the hurt has affected us. Naming the hurt is the beginning of healing. This moves the story “beyond bare facts to the raw feelings” (p. 95). If we don’t express those feelings, they will come out in other, unhealthy ways. In this way, “grief is how we both cope with and release the pain we feel” (p. 102). Naming the hurt includes lament. Listeners don’t try to fix, minimize the loss, or offer advice. They listen well, sympathize, and love the one who names their hurt (p. 108).

Granting forgiveness is an act of spiritual formation; it is growth, and it is a process. The authors offer many examples of forgiveness by people deeply hurt by a loss or injustice. We choose to forgive as we recognize a “shared humanity” of brokenness (p. 125). When we can come to the point where we wish the other person well and when we can pray for their health and spiritual life, then we know we have forgiven. We can then tell a “new story” (p. 132).

We may either renew the relationship (which is a perpetual hope) or release the relationship (which is sometimes the only option). This step beyond forgiveness is important for healing since to forgive another is not the final step of healing. Renewal is not a return to what was before, but a new relationship borne out of the fruit of forgiveness (p. 148). Tutu offers some strategies for a renewal process. Sometimes, however, we must release the relationship; sometimes the person has already passed, or the person is impenitent (or refuses relationship). In such cases, “releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma” (p. 154).

This is a helpful book filled with real-life stories, practical wisdom, and a call for healing in our world without undermining the practice of justice. I highly recommend it.


Jesus Preaches the Gospel

February 1, 2023

Texts: Luke 4:16-21, 40-43; Matthew 6:9-13, 33

Days 36-39 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

Did Jesus publicly preach the gospel during his ministry?

That depends on what you mean by “gospel.” If you mean that he preached his death and resurrection publicly, then the answer is no. If you mean that he preached the good news of the arrival of the kingdom, then the answer is yes.

Jesus preached the gospel of the reign of God through his teaching, and he also practiced the gospel through his ministry of healing.

Jesus practiced the kingdom of God through his teaching (illustrated by the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) and his active ministry of discipling people, reconciling people groups, and liberating oppressed through healing (as Luke 4 illustrates).


A Sermon on Obadiah: the Day of the Lord

January 27, 2023

The sermon begins at the 42 minute mark. Delivered on June 19, 2022 at the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ.

Obadiah is the shortest book of the Hebrew Bible. It is a word of judgment against Edom who has mistreated, throughout its history, Israel and Judah.

What might such a brief ancient and situated address to Edom say to the contemporary church? Surprisingly, a lot.

Gloating over enemies? Pride in their invulnerability? Hatred of enemies? Yes, there is much to say. The Day of the Lord came to Edom, and it is comes to all nations who share their path. The Day of the Lord, a day of reckoning, will come to all nations.

The Civil War was such a reckoning in the United States. But have we learned anything about violence, hatred, and accountability to God?


Israel Redux: The Messiah Begins His Ministry

January 26, 2023

Texts: Luke 3:21-22; Luke 4:1-2a, Luke 4:16-21; Matthew 4:13-17

Days 33-36 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

Israel needed a do-over.  Humanity needed a do-over. The Messiah comes to recapitulate the story of humanity through the story of Israel.

This lesson is the beginning of the Messiah’s participation in the story of Israel in such a way that it constitutes a do-over. The Messiah relives and fulfills Israel’s life and history with God.

  • Jesus crosses the Reed Sea with Israel through his baptism.
  • Jesus goes into the wilderness with Israel for 40 days.
  • Jesus, like Israel, enters the land of promise to bring light in the darkness.
  • Jesus proclaims Jubilee for Israel in the words of the prophet Isaiah in fulfillment of the mission of Israel.

From the water to the wilderness, from the wilderness into the land, Jesus relives the history of Israel to fully embody the life of God among the nations. The Messiah takes up the mission of God and invites us to participate in it with him.


A Sermon on Uzzah

January 23, 2023

2 Samuel 6:1-11 (begin at minute 36 for the sermon)

Uzzah was part of a religio-political procession; it was not simply about an inadvertent touching of the ark. What happened to Uzzah signals the unholy nature of David’s agenda. It is more about what David wants than what God wants.


God Becomes Human: The Trinity at Work

January 18, 2023

Texts: Galatians 4:4-7; John 1:1-2, 14; Hebrews 2:14-18

Days 30-32 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

Trinity is often either avoided or ignored; it is misunderstood or denied. The confession of one God who subsists in three “persons” (or relations) is a difficult topic.

As we seek to live within the biblical narrative, the three-fold action of God for the redemption of the world seems to play out rather explicitly in the writings of the New Testament.

  • The Father sends the Son into the world, born of woman, and then sends the Spirit into our hearts, crying “Abba.”
  • The one who was with God in the beginning and is identified as God is also the one who became flesh by the power of the Spirit.
  • Becoming flesh, the Son was made like other humans in every way in order to, in the power of the Spirit, conquer the power of the devil and make atonement for the sins of the people in service to God.

When we think of “Trinity” in terms of the work of God in managing the world for the sake of its redemption (what theologians call the “economic Trinity” where economic refers to management of a household), we see the three-fold work of God.  The Father initiates the drama of redemption; the Son incarnates, embodies the life of God, and makes atonement; and the Spirit empowers and rests upon the Son.

We also see this economic Trinity in our own lives. The Father elects us; the Son effects forgiveness and righteousness for our sake; and the Spirit indwells and transforms us.

This lesson is the beginning of a Trinitarian journey into the redemptive work of the Triune God for our sakes. The Trinity is the subject of the rest of the story!

For a brief summary of the theology of the Trinity, see this blog post.


Israel’s Scripture: The Prophets

January 11, 2023

Texts: Amos 5:14-15, 24; Zechariah 7:8-12; Malachi 3:1-5

Days 27-29 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

When Jesus characterized Israel’s Scripture as the “Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). The previous two classes discussed the Torah (Law) and Wisdom (which is typically included among the “Psalms” and often called “The Writings” in traditional Judaism). The third category is the Prophets, the third major categorization of Scripture in the life of Israel.

This category, in the Hebrew Bible, includes (1) the Former Prophets (the history books from Joshua to 2 Kings), (2) the Latter Prophets (the major writing prophets), and (3) the Book of Twelve (typically called the minor prophets).

Who are the prophets? What did they do? How did they serve Israel, and how did they form Israel’s faith and life with God? What is the theological function of the prophetic message in the life of Israel?

The prophets hold Israel accountable to their commitment to the covenant made with God at Sinai.  They remember Israel’s history, prosecute their offenses, and promise hope. They speak for God in both judgment and hope, and they remind Israel who their God is. Through their word, God guides Israel into the future.


Gender Ideology: “What is a Woman?”

January 9, 2023

Situation: the rise of trans people, especially among children (e.g., adolescent girls)

In 2007, there was only one pediatric gender clinic in the US; now, there are 300+ gender clinics (plus some services, like Planned Parenthood, dispense testosterone, depending on state laws, to minors without parental permission or a therapist note). Britain has seen a 4400%+ rise in incidences of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls (mostly teens) since 2014. This is called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD, teen girls with no prior history of gender dysphoria).

Gender Dysphoria: Severe discomfort with one’s biological sex.

  1. Classic/Typical Dysphoria:  appears in 1 in 10,000 (0.01%), overwhelmingly in males, begins in early childhood (2-4 years), persistent insistence on possessing the “wrong body,” and most experience same-(birth)-sex orientation. Typically, 75% become comfortable with their sex (most identify as Gay), while others transition to their desired sex (socially and/or medically).
  2. Social Contagion: “Trans Kids” (recently, they are mostly adolescent girls who have a long history of sharing their pain through self-harm, eating disorders, and anxiety about their bodies that is exacerbated by affirmation from authorities and social media influencers). In 2018, 2% of High Schoolers identified as transgender. Transition follows this form (not all fully complete it): (a) Self-identification and social transition (changing names, pronouns, gender expressions); (b) Puberty Blockers (when they have not yet gone through puberty); (c) Cross-Sex Hormones (androgens/antiestorgens; estrogens/antiandrogens); (d) Medical Transition (top surgeries; bottom surgeries).
  3. Activists: reshapes culture through the lens of gender ideology so that trans people are not only legally protected from harm but culturally affirmed and given space to flourish (e.g. sports, etc.).

Recommended Printed Resources

Abigail Favale (Roman Catholic), The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.

Helen Joyce (atheist), Trans: Gender Identity and the New Battle for Women’s Rights.

Abigail Shrier (Jewish), Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.

Mark Yarhouse (evangelical), Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

Debra Soh (atheist), The End of Gender: Debunking Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society.

Preston Sprinkle (evangelical), Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has To Say

Recommended YouTube Lectures/Podcasts

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWbxIFC0Q2o Abigail Shrier lecture

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSKQfATa-1I Abigail Shrier and Jordan Peterson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xUrtNW6Fzo Helen Joyce

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqZmx265N80 Helen Joyce

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WejfXjzFaMI Helen Joyce

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UubVmdppBY Helen Joyce and Abigail Favale

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-al2JOnxCM&t=3275s Abigale Favale and Preston Sprinkle

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkas5PkJzMs Abigale Favale

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-_b9eqrFZQ&t=342s Abigale Favale

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB6mgJkhBEU Mark Yarhouse

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzDrJT_X2M8 Lisa Littman (Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu8amCC4_wk Debra Soh

Question:  What is “gender”? How is it related to biological sex?

  • a social construct that varies from culture to culture;

therefore, gender is a fluid state without objective boundaries.

  • a matter of self-identification based on a sense of self;

therefore, gender is grounded in a subjective sense of self (even “innate”).

  • a fixed biological reality;

therefore, gender is grounded in and tethered to one’s biological sex.

Gender Definition

Gender is a comprehensive word that includes (a) social elements (which are culturally fluid in so many ways) and (b) struggles to identify (as some wrestle with their discomfort with their bodies and their self-image), but (c) ought to include biology as its objective ground and basis.

Much of current discussion excludes the body from such grounding or collapses the body into social construction or self-identity (e.g., male brain in a female body). Yet, binary biology is part of the ground of gender, and social constructs mimic this to one degree or another across cultures.

Lovingly, we may care for and accompany adolescents who are caught up in this “social contagion” (just like female adolescents have been caught in other contagions exacerbated by social media, like cutting [self-harm] and eating disorders) in ways that compassionately and sympathetically address gender dysphoria. While there are genuine experiences of gender dysphoria (the classic cases), there is also such a thing as “social contagion” that rests on social constructions for gender fluidity and encourages adolescents who are uncomfortable with their bodies to reject their body’s sex and identity as another gender (nonbinary, trans, etc.).

We can lovingly process this dysphoria with people while, at the same time, affirming the biological grounding of gender in their embodied sex. It is a difficult decision to reject the reality of one’s body; I cannot imagine that struggle. I know it is terrifying for those who experience this struggle, and they want some peace about how to relate to their bodies. As people of peace, we listen, dialogue, and offer a vision of the gospel that heals wounds rather than creating them.

Theological Claim:  There are only two sexes (“male” and “female” per Genesis 1:27).

Biologically, male and female are binary because a body either has one type of gamete or another (sperm or egg). No known human being has ever produced fertility through both. This biological reality is affirmed in the Genesis identification of human beings as “male or female” as well as in the biology of creation itself. All mammals are either male or female. Intersexed persons (0.02% of the population) are not a third sex but variations within male and female sexes. There is no third sex. Some people (0.002%) are born with both ovaries and testicles, few are functional and never both.

Without biological grounding, “gender” (and even sex itself for some) becomes an internal sense that is expressed through social conventions or expressions. Consequently, not only gender but sex itself becomes a fluid category. As a result, there is no definition of male/female except one’s own internal sense of identification. Biological sex, then, is folded into gender such that “sex” is “assigned” at birth rather than a given, a gift from God.

People who transition, whether driven by classic dysphoria or by social contagion, sometimes detransition. Some who transition regret their decision; others happily embrace it. Whatever the case, the church may pursue a welcoming and healing strategy rather than exclusion, derision, and hate. The church must prepare for how it will help trans people and nurture them in the faith.