God Creates the Cosmos

September 29, 2022

Days 2-4 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days

Texts: John 17:24-26; Isaiah 66:1-2; Genesis 1:1-2, 31

Why did God create the world?

I think it is for the same reason God sent the Son into the world. And it is this: to include humanity in the communion of God’s own love. That perhaps offers some perspective on why God created humanity.

But why did God create the material cosmos?

God created the material cosmos as a place where God would dwell with humanity and share life with them. The cosmos is like a temple in which God choses to dwell, and God made a temple for God’s own dwelling. Importantly, God did not built a house for solitude but to live with humanity in the good creation. God invites us to live in the house God built where we enjoy God, commune with God, and fill the cosmos with God’s love. The transcendent and unapproachable God graciously accommodates our finitude by creating a realty in which we, as finite creatures, might dwell with God.

Then what did God create?

God’s act of creation was a dynamic process that began with a chaotic mess and yielded a good, very good, world filled with diverse geography, diverse plants and animals, and a humanity invested with responsibility for the creation.

When God finished the work, it was good but incomplete. The creation had not reached its potential by the seventh day. It was only the beginning. The initial work was finished, that is, God created the space and filled it with the resources for its future growth and development.

Humanity was charged with filling the earth, which—at least—includes having children. The creation was designed to develop, change, and emerge into something more beautiful, more diverse, and more enriching. God has a goal for the creation. It was created to become more than what it was at its beginning. The story of creation is the story of God at work, in partnership with humanity, to bring the

Suffrage, Tennessee, and Churches of Christ.

August 18, 2022

Today is its 102nd anniversary.

In 1919, Congress passed the nineteenth amendment. Tennessee ratified the amendment on August 18, 1920 by two votes. That vote made it constitutional law. Harry Burn was a 24-year old representative up for re-election that Fall. He wore a red rose into the chamber which symbolized his “No” vote. His vote would’ve ensured defeat for the amendment. But he had a letter from his mother in his pocket next to his heart. That note changed his vote. “Hurrah, vote for suffrage!” Phoebe Burn wrote, “be a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” The amendment became constitutional law.

In contrast to Phoebe and Harry Burn, several ministers of the churches of Christ signed a petition, published in the Nashville Banner on August 20, 1920. It opposed suffrage because it would “revolutionize our entire mode of life and will in our opinion have an evil effect not only in our homes, our churches and our families, but will affect the whole social fabric of our present generation and of generations yet unborn.” Some teachers at David Lipscomb College (J. W. Grant, S. P. Pittman, and H. S. Lipscomb) and several ministers (F. B. Srygley, J. C. McQuiddy, and James E. Scobey) signed it.

J. C. McQuiddy, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, opposed suffrage and wrote several articles in opposition to the vote to ratify the amendment. Only July 22, 1920, after quoting Genesis 3:16-19, he wrote: “Thus, just after the fall, we find that God placed woman in the home and made it her duty to bring forth children, with the understanding that ‘thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ If any are disposed to find fault with this position, they are disposed to complain of the will of God Almighty, and not of the will of man. . . As the modern woman is demanding not only suffrage, but also political equality, it is clear that she cannot hold office and perform the duties of politics and remain at home at the same time.” “Woman Suffrage,” Gospel Advocate, July 22, 1920, pp. 715-716.

The opposition to suffrage ran deep, and it is was based on (1) Genesis 3:16 places a woman (wife) under the rule of men (husband); (2) 1 Timothy 2:12 means no woman can have authority over a man, whether in church, home, or society, (3) women must exercise their influence through a man, and (4) if women subvert the divinely created order in society, then it should not apply to the home or church either since creation is the basis for both.

1) “From the time that sin entered into the world, and entered through woman, she has been placed in a retiring, dependent, and quiet position, and never has been put forward as a leader among men in any public capacity from the garden of Eden till now…This seems to have been a general decree for all time, for God has never varied from it an any age or dispensation….’Thy desire shall be to thy husband,’ is indicative of dependence—not in any slavish sense, but in the sense that she is to look to man as a leader and protector, and, in certain measure, supporter and provider….God himself never changed this decree, and does not allow man to change it.” (E. G. Sewell, Gospel Advocate [1897] 432.)

2) “[I]t 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.” (James A. Harding from The Way [March 5, 1903]).

3) The negative impact of suffrage, James A. Allen wrote in the Gospel Advocate, December 19, 1907 (p. 812), would subvert “the law of nature, and the law of God, that the influence of woman must be exercised through man.”

4) D. G. Porter 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.” (Christian Quarterly [October 1874] 489-90)

Interestingly, few, if any, apply these texts in this way today. Perhaps we have learned something over the past 100 years, and we have more to learn yet.

May God have mercy.

Encountering Jesus at Table: The Emmaus Road Narrative (Luke 24:13-35)

July 21, 2022

Why do we eat at the Lord’s table like it is still Friday when it is Sunday, resurrection day?

We Don’t Give Up Because We Know . . . (2 Corinthians 4:18-5:10)

May 11, 2022

A Keynote Address for Harbor, Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA, on May 6, 2022

Influenced by both their Greco-Roman culture and egged on by the intruders Paul called the “super-apostles,” the Corinthians apparently thought the ministry of a celebrity pastor like Paul should be characterized by thrilling and brilliant rhetoric about his visionary experiences, triumphant successes, and generous rewards from grateful patrons.

But Paul’s ministry of reconciliation played out in weakness rather than power, in suffering rather than prosperity, in anxious care for the churches rather than victorious pride, and with manual labor rather than a paycheck from a generous patron.

Though called by God and empowered by God’s grace, Paul endured hardships, beatings, shipwrecks, hostility, afflictions, perplexity, and accusations. Today his ministry would not easily recruit apprentices or interns nor impress elders who held the purse-strings. This is not the resume one would expect from an apostle of God’s Messiah, or at least so the Corinthians thought.

But, for Paul, it was exactly what one should expect. Though rich, Christ become poor so that we who are poor might become rich. Moreover, Christ was crucified in weakness. As followers of Jesus, the ministry of reconciliation boasts in weakness rather than revelations, success, or prosperity. The ministry of reconciliation invites its ministers to follow Jesus to the cross and to give themselves over to suffering and death so that others might have life. Ministers of the crucified Messiah give their lives for the life of the world and the life of the church, even a church like Corinth. Ministers yield themselves to the gospel of reconciliation by imitating a crucified Jesus.

Why do we do this?

I suppose Paul could have answered that question in many ways. What he offers in 2 Corinthians 4-5 is not the only possible answer, but it is the one that, in this conversation with Corinth, grounds him in the gospel and moves him to continue his participation in the ministry of the gospel. Paul will not give up; he will not lose heart.

One reason is the present power of the gospel in his life. It renews his inner life.

Paul draws an important contrast in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, though it is often misunderstood. Paul is not applying some kind of Platonic distinction between the soul and the body. On the contrary, he is comparing present suffering with an already/not eschatological vision. That is a mouth full, but it is important to grasp in order to see what Paul is doing here and what it means.

The outer body is the dying body; it is the body of Adam, an Adamic body. It belongs to this age, the age of decay and the enslavement of creation to death. It suffers affliction; it is what we see day by day. We see it in our bodies. We see it in the world around us filled with injustice, violence, and abuse. It belongs to this old world.

At the same time, the inner person is renewed—not by the old age, but by the new age. It is renewed by the power of God, and more specifically by the resurrection power of the living Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit. Our inner transformation by the power of the Spirit belongs to the new age as new creatures in Christ.

More specifically, Paul compares what is temporary and what is eternal, what is now seen and what is unseen. We walk by sight in this old world, but the power of the new age—which has already begun—enables us to walk by faith in what is unseen. We walk by faith in our confession of the presence of the Spirit of God who guarantees our hope in the resurrection.

It is in the light of this hope, that we perceive the wisdom of Paul’s comparison, though the comparison stings a bit at first look. For those who are in the midst of struggle and suffering, who are presently, enduring their affliction, that pain seems neither light nor temporary. It is crippling and long-lasting. It seems like, at times, it will never end, and in some sense perhaps it doesn’t. Suffering is a burden; it is real, unavoidable, and consuming. It is why we just might give up!

We might even be a bit miffed at Paul for diminishing our suffering as well as his own. We want to honor the weight of suffering in the lives of people rather than dismiss it. We don’t want to use Paul’s words to suppress lament, shame lamenters, and silence protests. We must give suffering its due weight, but not, however, more weight than it is due. Suffering is real, painful, and frustrating, and, at the same time, the journey is worth it. It doesn’t often feel that way, but our feelings can deceive us even as those feelings are genuine and authentic. We feel what we feel, but we also believe what we believe as Christ-followers.

As we hear Paul’s words, let us remember three significant markers in Paul’s life. First, Paul knows suffering. When Paul was compelled to boast in 2 Corinthians 11, he boasted in his suffering, his endurance. His suffering for the ministry of reconciliation is long, intense, and painful. Paul knows the trauma of hostility, natural disasters, and losses. Paul does not diminish suffering but compares it with something greater. Paul does not dismiss suffering but knows it gives birth to something better. Therefore, he does not give up.

Second, Paul knows glory. He has been to the third heaven, to Paradise. He has experienced the glory of God in ways he is not even permitted to describe or discuss. The glory experienced—whether mystical or visionary or whatever it was (even Paul is not too sure himself)—shapes Paul’s sense of divine presence and redemptive work. He has seen the glory, and, therefore, he does not give up.

And, lastly, Paul knows resurrection. He has seen the risen Lord, and the God he serves is, as he said in the first chapter, the God who raises the dead. This is his fundamental confession, and it is the nature of his ministry. He ministers bearing the marks of the death of Christ, but lives by the Spirit’s power of resurrection demonstrated in Jesu. He participates in the ministry of crucified Jesus even to suffering his own cross but knows a resurrection life awaits him. Therefore, he does not give up.

The resurrection is an eternal weight of glory that far surpasses the temporary light affliction we presently experience. We don’t give up because we know an eternal building fashioned by God awaits us, which is our resurrected body.

As Paul points it, we focus on the unseen and the eternal because we know resurrection is coming! Our present Adamic body is a temporary, earthly tent that will be clothed over with an eternal dwelling. We are dying; we are all dying. This earthly tabernacle is a burden because it is the mode of our suffering. Our bodies, like the creation itself, are enslaved to decay and death.

But we don’t want to be body-less; we don’t want to be naked as if without a body. Rather, we desire a resurrection body, one that comes from God so that our mortality is swallowed up in life. The resurrection body, in fact, is the very thing that God is at work to accomplish; it is the redemption God intends for the good creation. The resurrection of the body is also the resurrection of creation itself. The transformation or transfiguration of this body in conformity to the resurrection body of Jesus himself is the transformation or transfiguration of the creation itself.

This is why we groan. We groan for transformation; we groan for an eternal life; we groan for new birth. To groan is to utter deep signs of distress and pain. We long for resurrection! The temporary and light affliction generates these groans and a deep desire for something more, something better. Don’t get me wrong, even though this life is filled with evil and suffering, it is still God’s good creation, and life is good. But resurrection is better.

It is not uncommon to hear this sort of hope described as escapist. But I am no escapist. I am not an escapist; I’m a liberationist. I don’t want to escape God’s creation but participate in its liberation. I want to liberate God’s good creation through the eradication of evil. I want to liberate God’s good creation from injustice and greed through conformation to the image of Christ. I want to liberate the creation from its bondage to decay and decay through renewal and recreation in a new heaven and new earth.

I don’t want to escape this body. I want it to be clothed from heaven, to be given a body that will not die and live with God eternally as a redeemed and glorified human being. I don’t want to escape this body, but I want it liberated. I want it set free along with all of God’s good creation so that life might flourish and abound, where everyone will sit under their own fig tree, and the wolves and the lambs will lie down together.

This good creation is my home, but it is filled with evil, with violence and injustice. Our hope is that even now, by the work of the Spirit and the ministry of reconciliation, the darkness is passing way and a fuller day is dawning. We don’t want to escape this process but participate in it. If we want to follow Jesus into resurrection, then we must follow him to the cross first.

Therefore, Paul says, we are always confident. We are determined; we are courageous. We have a confident and firm purpose despite the danger and the risks that lie before us. We know when we carry a cross that suffering lurks at the door.

This confidence or courage is quite breathtaking in the light of Paul’s own suffering. Paul looks life in the eye and knows the suffering, anxiety, and afflictions associated with the ministry of reconciliation that will arise just as they have in the past. But he is courageous, and he is confident because he knows the work of God that is preparing an eternal body for dwelling with God forever, and the presence of the Spirit in his life, including the renewal in his inner person, is the guarantee of that future.

We are confident, Paul says, because we know a future resurrection awaits us. We are confident because we know the meaning of life and death. Life in this Adamic body is absence from the Lord, though it is present with the Spirit. Death is absence from this Adamic body but it is presence with the Lord.

We walk by faith, not by sight. What we see is this Adamic body of death are the struggles that come with the ministry of reconciliation. That is cause for discouragement, even despair. However, the gospel in which Paul trusts answers that despair with hope. We walk by faith because our future hope is the defeat of death. We trust in the God who raises the dead. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we are confident that God will raise us from the dead as well.

Moreover, we are confident that even in death we will find ourselves in the presence (“at home with”) of the Lord. Literally, the word “at home” is “to be in a dwelling” which is a metaphor for bodily existence or life. Living in the Adamic body, we are away from the Lord whose embodied existence is in the heavens. But when we are absent from the Adamic body, we are “at home” or living in a dwelling with the Lord. In other words, though we no longer have an Adamic body, we do have a dwelling the Lord, an eternal building not made with hands. Perhaps Paul means that we have a resurrection body (eternal building in contrast to this earthly tent). If so, then Paul may envision the reception of the resurrection body upon death, or perhaps we sleep in death and awaken with a resurrection body, or perhaps the presence Paul envisions is a naked state where we are present with the Lord without a resurrection body that awaits the future.

Whatever the point, the pastoral point is the most significant point here.  Whatever the present condition of those who have died in the Lord is (whether sleeping awaiting their awakening in the resurrection, consciously living in God’s presence as naked souls, or living in the presence of God with resurrected bodies), we live with courage and boldness because we believe that those who are absent from the body are “at home with the Lord.”

The righteous dead are with Christ. Whatever that means, it is an assuring comfort. God does not abandon the dead but receives them and welcomes them into the presence of the living Christ. They are “at home” with the Lord. And it because we walk by faith and not by sight that we rest in that confidence. 

Every Easter morning, before dawn, I visit Joshua’s grave, my son who died at the age of sixteen in 2001. I visit to lament, mourn, protest, and wonder about might have been. The grave is traumatic for me, but I visit it to remember, lament, and give suffering its due weight. I rub my hand across his name plate as if reading braille, and I confess, “you are home with the Lord.”

However, I arise from the graveside to join the assembly of God’s people to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which is also our resurrection and the resurrection of creation itself. I join the assembly that is not only gathered in that church building, or a park, or a home, but to join the angelic choir gathered around the throne of God. The whole church, scattered across the globe, is there as well as the church militant confesses its faith, encourages each other, and encounters the living God. And the church militant joins the church triumphant as all the saints who have borne witness to the power of faith surround the throne. In that moment, heaven and earth are one as the host in heaven and the faithful on earth sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” In that Easter assembly, as in every assembly whether under a tree or in a building, Joshua and I sing together!

We entrust those who have passed to the Lord and confess, “They are at home with the Lord.” And we entrust our living—whether at home in the body and away from the Lord or away from the body and at home with the Lord—to the Lord. Because we entrust it to Christ, we are not distracted from our main goal: to please the Lord, which is to participate in Christ’s reconciling ministry. We seek to conform our lives to the image of Christ through daily renewal by the power of the Spirit. We want to become like Christ in every way and live worthy of the gospel of reconciliation, and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. Our identity in Christ moves us to seek this goal and the presence of the Spirit empowers our transformation.

We don’t live by what we see but by faith in what is unseen, which is ultimately the hope of the resurrection. The God we serve is the “God who raises the dead” (1:9).

Therefore, we don’t lose heart. We are the ministers of eternal glory, both now and in the future. We are ministers of God’s eschatological reality, God’s glory. Consequently, we don’t give up!

We don’t give up because we walk by faith in God’s reconciling work that is making all things new rather by the sight of the world’s enslavement to the powers. We see and lament the graves, the traumas, and the wounds, and, at the same time and more gloriously, we believe that new creation has already begun in Christ and God will make all things new as evidenced in the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, we confidently and boldly continue to participate in God’s reconciling mission.

Love, Hope, and Trust on Good Friday in the Gospel of Luke

April 14, 2022

Surrounded by people who falsely accused him, mocked him, beat him, divided his last possessions among themselves, and nailed him to a cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”

When one of the criminals crucified with Jesus confessed his guilt, recognized the innocence of Jesus, and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

When darkness covered the whole land and nearing his dying breaths, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (quoting Psalm 31).

If we had been standing before the cross some two thousand years ago, there was nothing about that scene that announced the forgiveness of sins, victory over evil, and trust in God’s good work. We probably would have wondered, as we often do today, where is God in this? Why did God abandon the Messiah to death?

Whatever our reasonings, the Messiah himself sought forgiveness for his persecutors, hoped in the victory his death entailed, and died with a profound trust in the God of Israel. What gives birth to such merciful love, expectant hope, and trusting faith?

I imagine Jesus might say something like, “the God of Israel is my father.” And that was sufficient grace for him during those horrible hours on Good Friday.

Based on a scene in Eighty Days Around the Bible: The Story of God from Creation to New Creation.

Christ the King

November 23, 2021

[Homily delivered at the All Saints Church of Christ on November 21, 2021 by William “Caleb” Rogers, a student at Lipscomb University and frequent preacher at All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. The lectionary texts for the day were Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37.]

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Our Gospel today, of course, records Jesus’ conversation with Pilate regarding the use of that term.

Because today’s Gospel comes out of order, let’s catch up: Judas has betrayed Jesus, the Romans have come to arrest Jesus, and Peter has cut off someone’s ear in a misguided effort to defend Jesus—more on that one in a minute.

After Jesus is arrested, John plays two games of hot potato. First, the narrative switches back and forth between Jesus’ fate and Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.

Second, the Jewish authorities and the Romans can’t seem to decide what to do about Jesus—or who should do it. Both groups have an interest in getting rid of Jesus—the Romans could do with one less agitator challenging the established social order and stirring up talk of rebellion and revolt, and the Jews could do with one less agitator challenging the established social order and stirring up talk of rebellion and revolt. The Roman calculus is simple—they’re in charge, and insurrection (real or imagined) is bad for business. The Jews have a little more complicated position—while they certainly wouldn’t mind a successful revolt, they’d like to avoid arousing the ire of the Romans. “If you come at the king, you best not miss,” and all that. Further, the specific Jewish authorities in question here are also established leaders whom Jesus is challenging—it’s bad for their business if Jesus is telling folks that the high priests and scribes are full of it.

But, these two groups also have reason to not want to kill Jesus. First, the Jews can’t do so themselves—they’re barred from executing people themselves, so they need the Romans to do the dirty work for them. Second, the Romans (especially Pilate) seem to view this as an internal Jewish dispute. At the end of chapter 18 and the beginning of chapter 19, Pilate expresses real desire to not execute Jesus. It’s not until the Jews tell Pilate that Jesus is challenging Caesar—the 1st century equivalent of asking to see Pilate’s manager—that Pilate gives in.

So, Jesus’ arrest and indictment take the form of this elaborate dance between the Jews and the Romans—Jesus is arrested by a combined force, then taken to one Jewish official, then another, then finally to Pilate. Neither of the Jewish officials get much of anything to stick, so they bring him to Pilate. Pilate ask them what the deal is, and their response boils down to: “We’d like to kill this guy, but we’re not allowed to, so pretty please kill him for us. Also we can’t tell you why.”

Pilate is a senior Roman official, and one usually didn’t get to be a senior Roman official by doing whatever the local leaders asked without asking questions. So, Pilate decides to figure out what’s going on.

Which brings us to our Gospel today: Pilate is trying to figure out what the deal is between Jesus and the Jews. Pilate doesn’t get it. Jesus’ identity and purpose is too foreign for Pilate to understand. Instead of understanding that Jesus is king-unlike-the-other-kings, Pilate remains blind. Ultimately—not in today’s reading but soon after—Pilate chooses the easy way out. He believes the Jews who say Jesus wants to replace Caesar as a worldly ruler and hands Him over to death.

Today, on Christ the King Sunday, we are called to recognize Jesus as King. Not in the way Pilate would have had it—not in the way Romans or Jews or Americans might understand kingship—but a true King, one whose rule transcends time and nations and peoples.

In today’s Gospel, Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about kings. Pilate asks Jesus if he’s the king of the Jews—apparently trying to figure out whether the Jewish leaders have charged Jesus correctly. Jesus doesn’t give Pilate a straight answer, but it’s not because he’s trying to confuse Pilate. Rather, Jesus can’t answer Pilate’s question honestly because Pilate doesn’t understand the question he’s asking.

Clearly, Jesus is King of the Jews, but not in the way Pilate means the question. Pilate’s conception of kingship—worldly power maintained by coercion and violence—doesn’t map onto who Jesus is or what Jesus is doing. If Jesus were that sort of king, he says, his followers would be putting up more of a fight to save him.

Pilate’s misconception isn’t unique to him—earlier in this chapter, as Jesus is arrested, Peter tries to put up a fight. He draws his sword and cuts off a servant’s ear. Jesus, though, reprimands Peter for that. Violence is not Jesus’ path to power.

Instead, Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this world. It’s a kingdom rooted not in a specific place or a specific people but in “truth.”

And here, “truth” doesn’t mean “right belief” or “correct doctrine.” Truth is right relationship with God through Jesus. Membership in Jesus’ kingdom isn’t based on living in an area the Romans control or being born into the Jewish ethnic group or having your parents be Roman citizens. Membership in Jesus’ kingdom is about relating to God and God’s son and God’s world in the way we were created to.

Which leads us, I think, to an important point about Christ the King Sunday. I was watching a movie with Jacob on Friday—The King, starring Timothee Chalamet and Robert Pattinson. It’s based on Shakespeare’s Henry plays. Toward the end of the movie, Henry V is talking to his soon-to-be wife, Catherine, a princess of France, whose hand he won by invading and defeating France.

As it turns out, Henry’s justifications for invading France were all unfounded—planted by one of his advisors to further Henry’s popularity. Catherine explains this to Henry, who, grasping at straws, says, “Why should you question my intent? Your father’s rule is illegitimate. He has no right claim to his throne.” Catherine responds, “All monarchy is illegitimate. You yourself are the son of a usurper.”

Which, of course, is true. Henry’s father, Henry IV, ascended to power by dethroning Richard II because of a personal slight. Every kingdom—monarchy, democracy, and authoritarian regime alike—is illegitimate. They are created because of the whims and selfishness of powerful men and sustained through force and violence. Our own beloved country, such as it is, was founded because some wealthy smugglers didn’t like that their tax burden was marginally higher. We fought a war in this country because wealthy southern aristocrats wanted to enforce slavery on the nation in perpetuity. 

Today, right here, our nation condemns hundreds of thousands of people to homelessness in favor of regressive land-use policies that further enrich the wealthy. Our kingdom has consigned millions to preventable disease and death because the profits of medical companies and doctors are more important. Our kingdom’s laws turn away refugees at our borders. Our kingdom holds harmless white men who kill for pleasure and imprisons black men for being poor.

This is why Jesus can’t give Pilate a straight answer—no king is like Jesus because none of the kings Pilate knew about could be like Jesus.

Those kings held—and hold—power because of force and coercion and violence, because of continued popular support, because a majority of their people enjoyed how the king is cruel to a minority of the people. Those kings are illegitimate.

Christ, the ruler of the universe, is the only legitimate king. Christ’s rule comes not from chance or whim or sin but from Christ’s very nature.

Christ’s kingdom is different from the other kingdoms because membership is open to all. Citizenship in the kingdom of God is not limited to those who were born in the right place, or to the right parents, or with the right qualifications. To enter the kingdom of God, you don’t need to hire a lawyer to navigate the US Customs and Immigration Service.

The feast of Christ the King is a new one. Pope Pius XI established it in 1926, concerned by the rise in nationalism in Europe. In the document promulgating this new feast, he wrote, “This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.”

When Pius established the feast of Christ the King, it was in late October, the Sunday before the Feast of All Saints. Now, it comes on the last Sunday before the beginning of advent. In both cases, the feast is explicitly eschatological—it looks forward to a future kingdom.

Christ’s kingdom has not yet come in fullness. Our nations still have borders; kingdoms oppress their peoples and the world cries out for justice.

And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the Feast of Christ the King has no meaning for us. Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not of this world, and that’s true—Christ’s kingdom is nothing like the kingdoms of this world. Revelation, though, tells us that Christ’s kingdom is already in this world.

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” Made—past tense.

And in Psalms: “The Lord is King; he has put on splendid apparel; the Lord has put on his apparel and girded himself with strength.” Is—present tense, not future.

And in Daniel: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Was and is—this has already happened.

Clearly we still live with the vestiges of the kingdoms of this world. The government still punishes you more for feeding the hungry without a license than it does for shooting someone. The kingdoms of this world will still, in the words of Wendell Berry, ask you “to die for profit.” Pilate, after all, did send Jesus to be crucified.

But, of course, crucifixion didn’t do much to stop the coming of Christ’s Kingdom.

Today, on the feast of Christ the King, let us remember that the Kingdom of God is already among us:

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the kingdoms of the earth will wail.”


Response to the Review of Women Serving God in the Christian Chronicle (July, 2021)

June 27, 2021

I thank Renée Sproles for taking the time and energy to write a brief notice of my recent book Women Serving God. Her review appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Christian Chronicle. I appreciate her attentive effort to summarize and raise questions about it. I welcome such engagement.

I appreciate Renée’s sensitivity to the difficulties of a “no participation” (traditional) view. She recognizes that the restrictions found in many traditional churches are inconsistent with New Testament practices, and those practices have been personally frustrating to her. I share her commitment to a “way of doing church that honors God and embraces revealed freedoms.”

Many other women have found traditional practices frustrating as well. Women Serving God contains essays by Claire Davidson Frederick, Jantrice Johnson, Lauren Smelser White, and Bethany Joy Moore. They not only offer their own theological perspectives but share their own stories about growing up in churches of Christ.

At the same time, I think there are some insufficiently nuanced statements in the review. I do recognize an economy of words was necessary for such a brief piece where she intends to fairly express what insights the book has as well as her dissatisfaction with its conclusion. Understandably, she abbreviates points in order to meet the word limit she was given. Her task was a difficult one as brevity always is. I have more space in my blog response than she did in her published article. That, I hope, tempers my own remarks.

Nevertheless, I take this opportunity to respond to a few points, though neither her review nor my response can substitute for reading the book as well as her book entitled On Gender or the dialogue between Renew and myself through multiple blogs.

I will begin with her final paragraph. Her final question is: “what would our churches look like if we submitted to God’s revealed Word, taking advantage of our freedoms, and submitting to its boundaries?” I answer: it would look great!

I affirm the question and its sentiment. That is the purpose of my book: to identify the freedoms and boundaries in order to submit to the teaching of God’s word. I fear her question might insinuate that I am not interested in that agenda, but I trust Sproles recognizes that I, too, seek the same goal.

She is exactly correct that much of the problem lies within us as we presuppose certain perspectives about gender or patriarchy. That is why I wrote the book. I want to submit to God’s word just as much as Sproles does. We share this common interest and goal.

We both recognize that commands and instructions are embedded in occasional documents that address culturally situated contexts. For example, the command to greet one another with a holy kiss–a command that occurs more often than any seeming restrictions of women in the biblical text–is culturally embedded. This does not mean that culturally embedded commands are inherently relative. Rather, the commands address the readers in those contexts because they arose from a theology grounded in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. They are not simply cultural, though they are articulated within a culture. They are expressions of theological values rooted in God’s own life and identity, and they reveal the will of God. We read Scripture in order to listen to God’s voice and learn God’s will. The question is: how do we identify those values and apply them in our contemporary contexts? The search is not for “nuggets” (I never use that word in my book) but a pattern of divine activity that calls us to participate in the mission of God.

Paul says, “man is the head of woman.” I affirm that. The question is, what does Paul mean? What is the meaning of his metaphorical use of “head”? Whatever it means, Paul affirms women who pray and prophesy in the assembly as long as their own heads are covered. I offer a brief opinion as to what Paul might mean (which should not be reduced to a simple “source” understanding, though that is shorthand for a range of perspectives), but I neither stress it nor make an argument based on the meaning of “head.” This is not a major concern of mine in this book because whatever headship means, it does not delimit woman from audibly and visibly participating in the assembly, according to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Sproles and I agree that Paul authorizes women to audibly and visibly pray and prophesy in the worshipping assemblies of Corinth.

It is perplexing that Sproles believes the restrictive texts are more facil than difficult given the history of their interpretation. Indeed, the “limited participation” view has a wide diversity within its own advocates. Some believe women may lead worship (or singing), prayer, read Scripture, offer testimonies in a worshipping assembly, share the pulpit with a male leader in the assembly, or offer communion talks from the pulpit as well as teach Bible classes that include men. Others oppose some, if not most, of these practices. Sproles affirms some kind of “limited participation” perspective, though I am not sure where she draws the line on some of these practices. She does believe only men are to do the authoritative teaching in the assembly (and in other spaces?).

Ironically, the defense and practice of “limited participation” only emerged with any significance in the 19th century (by the earliest women itinerant preachers, in fact), and the interpretations of the restrictive texts that permitted this were not widely promoted until the late 20th century (particularly through authors like Grudem, Piper, and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). The interpretations offered for “limited participation” are new interpretations. They are neither ancient nor traditional. In other words, few understood these texts as permitting “limited participation” in a worshipping assembly until the last 150 years or so. Perhaps outside pressures influenced and moved people to create a new interpretation that is now called “soft complementarianism.” That highlights the difficulty in understanding these texts, whether or not limited participation is correct. I don’t think, however, the “limited participation” view is the best understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12.

These texts, particularly 1 Timothy 2:12, have been used to forbid women from voting in political elections, teaching in higher education, sitting on boards, voting in church business meetings, teaching eleven year old baptized males, teaching the Bible to any men under any circumstance, leading their husbands in prayer, baptizing men, eight year old girls from addressing a group of several men (including their fathers), pre-adolescent girls from picking up attendance cards, making announcements, or offering testimonies in the assembly, etc. I could continue this list if I wanted to use the space (some lists have over 100 items). Such applications indicate these texts have never been simple. The interpretations have been widely debated over the last 100 years unless one wants to return to a “no participation” view where, historically, women were not even permitted to sing in public worshipping assemblies during most of the Medieval period.

1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a difficult text. 1 Timothy 2:12 has at least twelve different possible interpretations, and Paul’s rationale in 1 Timothy 2:13-15 has at least six different possible interpretations. Even Renew’s article on 1 Timothy characterizes their understanding of the text as one which “likely means that women should not be in a teaching role” (my emphasis). “Likely” reflects some uncertainty or at least credible doubt, and this accentuates its difficulty.

Sproles asks, “How can Galatians 3:28…be a seed text to overturn male-female distinctions in the worship since Paul, who proudly co-ministered with women, writes to Timothy in a later letter affirming gender distinctions, even grounding them in creation order?” In response, I would say, because 1 Timothy 2 does not mean what Sproles thinks it means, and Paul is not grounding his thought in a hierarchical creation order. I answer her question in the book. One may not agree with my interpretation, but the answer to Sproles’s question is fairly straightforward: Paul does not mean what Sproles thinks he means.

Moreover, I never describe Galatians 3:28 as a “seed text” as my own view, though I did use it once in reference to a broad view of “full participation” when outlining three major positions at the beginning of the book. For myself and in my argument, however, I do not claim Galatians 3:28 is a seed text. Rather, it is consistent with Paul’s theology throughout his writings and applied to varied situations. Paul calls women to fully utilize their gifts within the assembly and the church, which expresses their status as co-heirs with men, just as the enslaved are called to fully utilize their gifts as co-heirs with free peoples with the faith community.

If Genesis 1 teaches a shared vocation and identity, and Genesis 2 teaches complementarity with differentiation without hierarchy, then servant leadership is mutual. Paul affirms this mutuality rather than excluding women from participation in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). Godly male leadership is present across the testaments and so is godly female leadership (Miriam led the congregation in worship, Deborah judged Israel, Huldah proclaimed the word of the Lord to the king’s representatives and the High Priest, and Esther instituted a new festival and commanded Israel to keep it).

I do appreciate that one can read my book and be left unsatisfied. I understand that. I do not expect everyone to agree. Everyone will have to do their own assessment after reading the book for themselves.

I wrote the book to begin a discussion. One of its first fruits has been the dialogue between myself and Renew. I think it has been a healthy discussion, and I invite everyone to read it.

Thanks for your review, Renée. I appreciate your commitment to the word of God and your desire to submit to it.

May God give disciples of Jesus peace, wisdom, and discernment.

Women and the Bible: Notes on Ecclesiastes 7:23-29

June 4, 2021

The NRSV reads (my two translation adjustments are in brackets):

All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but [she] was far from me. 24 That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. 26 I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, 28 which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made human beings [upright], but they have devised many schemes.

This text has been used as an example of the Bible’s (or, at least, this particular author’s) misogyny. While some suggest that we should not be surprised that the “Teacher” would hold pessimistic and/or misguided views of humanity, I think a misogynistic reading is a misunderstanding of what the Qoheleth is doing in this critical juncture in the book’s argument.

This is a significant moment in the book where an unfulfilled search is emphasized (“I did not find what I was looking for but only found something more bitter than death itself”) as well as the inability of human beings to know much of anything that has enduring significance by their own wisdom.

“I have tested” (7:23) recalls Qoheleth’s quest that begun earlier in the book (2:1). That testing followed folly, not wisdom. The conclusion is that wisdom [she] is inaccessible (“far off”) and unfathomable (“deep, very deep”). No human being can discover it.

The search (“turning my heart toward”) itself is traumatic and fraught with dangers. The search seems like a good idea, that is, to “know, search out and seek wisdom and significance” (7:25).  The Hebrew term behind “scheme” or device is attested only in 7:25, 7:27, and 9:10. A cognate appears in 7:29 often translated “plans, schemes, or inventions” (only elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible at 2 Chronicles 26:15). The point seems to be something like generating meaning or significance with the embedded idea of self-creation perhaps.  Perhaps the point is something like this: when we cannot discover authentic meaning, we create our own (or, as the existentialist Sartre said, we create essence out of our existence).

What does one find out (or discover)? The Hebrew term translated “find” is used eight times. The movement of the text is something like this:  I wanted to find X, but instead I found Y; finding X is harder than finding one human being in a 1000 (or, “finding a needle in a haystack”) since I was unable to find X (wisdom personified as a woman). What I did find is Y, which is folly (personified as a woman).

“Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom,” prominent in Proverbs 1-9 (especially 9), form a wisdom backdrop for this section.  “Dame Folly” is a snare, a trap, much like an adulterous seductress (Proverbs 5-6). “Lady Wisdom” (Proverbs 8) is the embodiment of the wisdom that arises out of the fear of the Lord. Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but discovered “Dame Folly.” Bartholomew’s commentary on Ecclesiastes puts it this way (p. 275): “Human autonomy is so ingrained in modern culture, even though it has been challenged but not abandoned under the guise of postmodernism, that it is difficult for us to see the radicality of the ironization of an autonomous epistemology here in 7:23-29…[it] demonstrates that starting with an autonomous epistemology is not wisdom but folly and will lead one not to truth but right into the arms of Dame Folly.”

While 7:28 is sometimes read as misogynous (women are less virtuous, or they are inferior intellectually, etc.), it is probably better to see it as either hyperbole as in there is no one who is upright, male or female (taking the cue from 7:29, and consistent with 7:20), or proverbial as in it is easier to find a needle in a haystack than it is to find “Lady Wisdom” (taking the cue from 7:25-26). In other words, finding Lady Wisdom is more difficult than finding one man in a thousand. He did not find wisdom; rather, he discovered folly. And this is consistent with humanity in general: though they were made upright, human beings devise many foolish schemes.

Qoheleth has a moral compass—the one who pleases God (e.g., “good before the face of God”) and the sinner (cf. Ecc. 2:26; 5:5; 8:12). Though Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but did find something—“this alone I found”—“that God made ‘adam upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” God created humanity with dignity, identity, and vocation, but humanity created their own paths (folly).

Theologically, the creation narrative lies behind this reflection in Qoheleth. God made ‘adam (human being; cf. 3:11, 14; 7:14; 11:5; 12:1). The Solomon persona in 2:5-6, 11 contrasts with God’s own creative work. While God created something good, Solomon seeks some that satisfies his own interests. The “Fall” narrative is part of this context as well: “they” (human beings) have created their own meaning and wisdom through their various schemes.

Qoheleth’s search, personified by Solomon, is rooted in the human ego or autonomy; it is the process of self-discovery. Qoheleth did not employ traditional wisdom (which begins with the fear of the Lord) but rather employed a version of Hellenistic wisdom where humanity is the measure of all things. Qoheleth adopts the dominant cultural worldview in order to examine “vanity” (hebel, used 37 times in Ecclesiastes) and discover “wisdom.” It did not work. He did not find authentic wisdom but only folly.

Traditional Hebrew wisdom actually lies in the backdrop of Qoheleth’s thinking. Qoheleth pursued an alternative but it was a dead-end and ultimately returns to what is “known” (what is confessed; cf. 3:12, 14; 8:12) and the fear of the Lord (5:7 is an imperative; cf. 3:14; 8:12-13). “Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom” form a backdrop throughout the book as well.

Theologically, Qoheleth’s search is about the nature of epistemology (autonomous?) and the fundamental resource of wisdom, which arises out of the fear of God. Postmodern readers resonate with the dead-end nature of autonomous human discovery, which attempts to discern a metanarrative to give meaning to human life.  Job 28 also shares this. The question is “who narrates the world?” Qoheleth probes the meaningfulness of Israel’s narrative for a Hellenistic setting and provides a theological resource for probing that narrative in the postmodern setting. This is part of its canonical function.

Theologically, Qoheleth lives with both the “vanity” (hebel) of life and the goodness of creation (“rejoice” of 11:9 and the imperatives of 9:7-9). The text ultimately orients us toward a humble, though frustrating, fear of God in the face of death.

Christologically, one may not only see the eschatological response to death but also the embodiment of the goodness of life in the midst of death in the ministry of Jesus. “Vanity” (hebel) is not denied; indeed, it is shared with humanity. At the same time, it is redeemed in the context of an “already, but not yet” eschatology.

Helpful resources:

Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Exegetical, 2014)

Choon-Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible, 1997)

Michael Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions (Sheffield Academic Press, 1989).

Response to Renew’s Review (Part 5) of Women Serving God

September 12, 2020

Renew has recently published the fifth part of their series on the Bible, gender, and the church. This is my response.

Renew’s series, as a whole, responds to the publication of my book, Women Serving God. The following are links to the discussion between myself and Renew in the blogosphere.

  1. Renew’s Review (Part 1): Hermeneutics.
  2. My Response to Part 1.
  3. Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1. (I copied it into #4 below.)
  4. My Rejoinder to Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1.
  5. Renew’s Review (Part 2): 1 Corinthians 11.
  6. My Response to Part 2.
  7. Renew’s Review (Part 3): 1 Corinthians 14.
  8. My Response to Part 3.
  9. Renew’s Review (Part 4): 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
  10. My Response to Part 4.
  11. Renew’s Review (Part 5): Elders.

This present post is my response to Renew’s Part 5. Renew’s blog is over 7000 words. My response is brief–only 1500 words. Renew’s blog series (now in five parts) is now over 37,000 words and my responses are about 21,500.

As Renew turns its attention to the topic of church polity and the function of elders in the community of faith, it moves beyond the specific thesis and interest of my book, which Part 5 recognizes.

The purpose of my book is to explore the participation of women in the assembly. I make no sustained argument in the book that addresses the specific question of gender inclusion in the eldership. In fact, I explicitly defer that discussion to another book, which I hope to write.

Whether the eldership is gender inclusive or exclusive is materially irrelevant to the topic of whether women are invited to fully participate in the assemblies of the saints unless elders have some specific function or giftedness in the assembly that excludes all other believers. Among churches of Christ, other than a policy statement or something similar, there is no such function in our assemblies. In other words, whether it is leading worship, prayer, administration of the table, or preaching, none of these belong exclusively to elders—at least in the last one hundred years or so of the churches of Christ.

The topic of polity and gender exclusion/inclusion deserves careful attention and a close reading of Scripture as well as a coherent theological application of the story of God. I made the decision to defer that topic to another book rather than attempt to address it in this one.

Consequently, as Renew addresses the role of elders, it is no longer reviewing my book but offering a case for their own position, which has been their primary purpose (I surmise) from the beginning. Since their present blog offering (#5) moves beyond the purpose and arguments of my own book, I will defer any response to this specific topic until I have had opportunity to fully state what I think is the case and offer an extended rationale for my position (whatever my conclusion may be).

However, I will offer a few but brief observations on the points in the review that I think are relevant to the case I wanted to make in Women Serving God.

1. In part, the exclusion of women from serving as elders is grounded in material already covered earlier in the blogs or a future blog, according to Renew. I covered this material in my book or in earlier responses as well. This is the list Renew provides.

  • Adam’s primogeniture status and Eve’s role as a “strong helper.” Response: As I suggested in both my book and in my earlier response, this is a misreading of Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 2:13 as well as a failure to recognize “helper” (‘ezer) as a powerful ally (even rescuer) who shares the same nature, vocation, and identity as men (Genesis 1:26-28).
  • Priests were exclusively male and given a “special teaching role in Israel.”  Response: Teaching was not limited to priests; prophets taught as well, and women were prophets. Is the male Levitical priesthood of Israel a delimitation of female teaching under the priesthood of Jesus, who serves in a totally different order of priesthood (Melchizedek)?
  • “Jesus picked only men to be his 12 apostles.” Response: he picked only Jews as well to be his apostles. Does this exclude Gentiles from service as elders?
  • Husbands have a “Christ-like headship (authority) role as a servant leader,” which Renew will more fully articulate in a future Part 6. Response: this misunderstands the function of “head” in relation to Christ and the church as well as husbands and wife.
  • “In Christian gatherings, boundaries are established to uphold male headship in the church when women pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11) and during disruptions (1  Corinthians 14).” Response: male headship in 1 Corinthians 11 is not about male authority (as Renew understands headship) and the silencing of women in 1 Corinthians 14 is about communal disorder rather than male headship (see my responses to Parts 2 and 3).
  • “1 Timothy 2:11-15 teaches that in the gathered church, women are not to teach or exercise authority over men.” Response: each phrase in that statement is quite disputed and uncertain—it is not only about the “gathered church,” “teach” needs a narrow definition in order to make the point about elders, and “exercise authority” is about abusive and controlling activity rather than the authority of elders. The text more likely teaches that deceived women should not teach in such a way that they persuade men to follow their pathway into the hands of Satan (see my response to Part 4). By the way, it is important to note that nowhere in my chapter on 1 Timothy 2 nor in my response to Part 4 did I ever appeal to Galatians 3:28. My journey was an exegetical one with regard to 1 Timothy 2.

2. Hermeneutics is an important dimension of this discussion. At the same time, I see no evidence in our series of blogs that Renew and myself disagree, in principle, about the hermeneutical task (see my response to Part 1). We do disagree about the meaning and application of some (a few, actually) texts. But we both agree, at least, on these principles of “good hermeneutics”:

  • Scripture must have first place in our decision-making process and its norms guide us.
  • Our goal is to understand the teaching of Scripture so we might obey God.
  • We must discern where practices taught by Scripture function as applied theological principles in specific cultures and situations that no longer bind us (e.g., we no longer require head-covering, or forbid the wearing of gold and pearls, or require widows to be sixty before they are enrolled by the church, or follow Christ’s example of foot washing, etc.) and where practices are themselves part of the gospel norms (e.g., baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc.).
  • We seek a coherent theology of gender through a close reading of Scripture.

3. Concerning Galatians 3:28, I think the blog is too dismissive of the significance of this text. I offer my own perspective in Women Serving God, but it has not appeared materially in the blog series except for a brief mention in Part 1 in relation to hermeneutics.

  • The general context of Galatians 3:28 is “new creation” (deliverance from the present evil age in 1:4 to “new creation is everything” in 6:15–from beginning to the end of the letter), and the specific context of Galatians 3:28 is the inheritance (3:18, 29; 4:1, 7, 30; 5:21; the focused topic of this section of Galatians) believers have in Christ. This encompasses not only an initial inclusion in Christ (e.g., “who can be saved”) but also the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. That is a comprehensive context rather than a narrow one.
  • If the text says “there are no ethnic, social, economic, or gender hurdles” for “who can be saved” and salvation is much more than simply justification by faith or our entrance into the church, then it also entails “there are no ethnic, social, economic, or gender hurdles” for who can serve (gifts) in the church.
  • Would it be responsible to claim that Galatians 3:28 affirms Gentile elders and preachers or slave elders or preachers? What text authorizes slaves to become elders in the New Testament? Are they not under the authority of the household in which they live? Could a Christian slave be an elder in a congregation even while his Christian master is not an elder? Does Galatians 3:28 have implications for whether a Christian master should even own a Christian slave? The significance of Galatians 3:28 applies to ethnicity, economics, and gender as the story of new creation is lived out in the kingdom of God among communities upon whom God has poured the Spirit unless there is some explicit text that excludes Gentiles, slaves, or women.
  • This reading of Galatians 3:28 is not contrary to 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 11 when those texts are read in the ways I have suggested, and those ways are credible approaches to the texts that respect their context and meaning. There is, then, no contradiction, which is assumed in the blog because of the way Renew reads 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11.

There is much more to say, of course—especially about 1 Timothy 3, which is the main ground in the light of how 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is read. That is understandable, and it deserves focused attention as we seek to live out gospel norms and principles in contemporary communities of faith. In my third book in this series, I will take up the discussion of elders, gender, and 1 Timothy 3 as well as other texts. I hope that will be in the near future.

Peace to my friends at Renew.

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

August 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

  1. Renew’s Review (Part 1): Hermeneutics.
  2. My Response to Part 1.
  3. Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1. (I copied it into #4 below.)
  4. My Rejoinder to Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1.
  5. Renew’s Review (Part 2): 1 Corinthians 11.
  6. My Response to Part 2.
  7. Renew’s Review (Part 3): 1 Corinthians 14.

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

Some Brief Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Ground on 1 Corinthians 14:34-36

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

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

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

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

The Disagreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership and Headship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace upon my friends at Renew!