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!


Response to Renew’s Review (Part 2) of “Women Serving God”

August 16, 2020

I am delighted to continue the conversation Renew began when they started a multi-blog review of my book Women Serving God. Their first offering focused on hermeneutics (my response is here), and this second part focuses on 1 Corinthians 11. The review is almost 7000 words long (mine about 5000). Rick Oster and a document created by Rick and others (including Rodney Plunket, also a friend over many years) for the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee, are the primary resources for this installment.

Rick and I have been colleagues, co-workers, co-teachers in Europe, and friends for almost thirty years. I deeply value and appreciate our friendship. I also appreciate the detailed attention he gives to 1 Corinthians 11, especially the function of head coverings in ancient Roman culture. There are few exegetes I trust more than Rick, and whatever he says deserves careful consideration.

Rick and I were fellow faculty members at Harding Graduate School of Religion (now Harding School of Theology) from 1991-2000. I audited his course on 1 Corinthians and devoured his commentary on 1 Corinthians in the College Press Series. I am quite familiar with his perspectives on 1 Corinthians 11 & 14 from the commentary, his ground-breaking 1988 New Testament Studies article about Roman head coverings, and conversations as well as classroom discussions. I cherish those experiences and our friendship.

I am surprised to hear, however, that 1 Corinthians 11 is not a difficult text. I understand that Rick has a settled conviction about it, but it has been difficult since the second century with divergent understandings about whether it is hair or artificial coverings, the meaning of kephalē (head), and—in contrast to Rick and myself—how the church practiced this text by forbidding women to participate in assemblies. Church history, including the last 100 years, tells us this is a difficult text (see Brown’s paper for a brief history of interpretation).

Summary

Where we agree . . .

  • Whatever headship means, women audibly and visibly prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assembly described in 1 Corinthians 11-14, which supports, at the very least, a “limited participation” perspective or Renew’s soft complementarianism.
  • Paul roots his understanding in the theological reality of headship, which coheres with God’s creation of man and woman in Genesis 1-2.

Where we differ . . .

  • Renew understands headship as a function of male authority (which the covering supposedly symbolizes) while I think “headship” is more related to source of life, origin, kinship, and intimate connection or relation while tentatively recognizing the covering as a matter of sexual propriety and the honor of women as well as their “heads.” (Even if the covering symbolizes male authority, 1 Corinthians 11 does not exclude women from leading in prayer and prophecy in the assembly on that basis.)
  • Renew believes there are headship functions in the assembly that exclude the participation of women while I don’t see any evidence for that exclusion, especially in 1 Corinthians 11 (which is the chapter under review).

What is irrelevant to the purposes of my book . . .

  • The precise nature of the covering—whether hair or artificial, whether more Roman, Greek, Jewish, or otherwise—is irrelevant to how this text fundamentally supports, at the very least, the “limited participation” of women in Christian assemblies.

A Misunderstanding

Everything is cultural. I affirm that in my book, which is part of the point in saying there are no contextless, timeless propositions in Scripture. Every text is situated, and, especially in the case of the epistles (as Rick rightly notes), occasional.  I’m not sure where I say in the book (my book is being reviewed, the statement is put in quotation marks, and the heading names my understanding as something with which Rick disagrees), “Well, this is just something that’s temporal and cultural, and this over here is eternal because it’s not connected to anything situational in the letter.” I am truly scratching my head. This is not my view. I can’t identify anything in my book that would even approximate such a statement.

The counter to the above statement placed in quotes is that we must read the text closely, seek valid “historical reconstructions,” and interpret the meaning of the text. I totally agree, and Rick’s example of the “holy kiss” is a good one.

I think historical reconstructions are important tools. They are quite credible at times, and they help make sense of a text. Rick is a trustworthy guide in these reconstructions. At the same time, they are reconstructions. This entails a collection of archaeological artifacts and ancient texts being construed (interpreted) in a particular way in order to provide the basis for a reconstruction of an event or a ritual that is not fully or explicitly described in the text itself. There is significant room for missteps in such historical reasoning. While I highly value reconstructions because they often provide tremendously helpful insights, they themselves necessarily involve several levels of complex interpretation. It is not a firm place to stand if the reconstruction is the explicit ground upon which a theological point is made or understood. Nevertheless, I am an advocate for the sort of historical work Rick does, and I have learned much from him over the years.

On Veils

Much of Rick’s response explains his understanding of Roman head-coverings in Roman cultic worship. In my book, I make no sustained argument about whether Paul is describing artificial coverings or hair. Both views, even from the earliest centuries, have been defended by various authors. To me, it is immaterial for my advocation of, at least, “limited participation” by women at Corinth. Whether it is an artificial covering or the hair does not affect the conclusion that women participated audibly and visibly in the Corinthian assemblies.

I realize it is important for Rick for at least two reasons.  First, the Roman practice is about leadership. Those who led Roman cultic worship covered their heads, both men and women. As Rick has demonstrated and others have seconded (Massey, “Veiling Among Men in Roman Corinth,” Journal of Biblical Literature [2018] 501-517), Roman men (and women) covered their heads when they led their cultic worship.

Second, Paul wants to make a gender distinction based on “biblical doctrine of headship.” In other words, men pray and prophesy uncovered (contrary to Roman practice) and women pray and prophesy covered (in conformity to Roman practice) in order to symbolize a gender distinction that is rooted in male authority (male headship). Symbolizing male authority is not part of the Roman practice, but Paul—if I understand Rick correctly—is adjusting the meaning of the covering so that gender distinctions are evident in accordance with a “biblical doctrine of headship.” Consequently, the woman’s covering serves “to express submission to men just as Christ does to God.”

Rick’s precise historical reconstruction is a minority view in scholarship, though he has illuminated the Roman practices that many now acknowledge. Yet, most see a wider cultural backdrop for 1 Corinthians 11 than Rick does. I think his application of Roman practices has merit myself, and that is why I mentioned Rick’s understanding of the covering as a sign of piety in my book (though I did not go on to say, as I should have, that Rick also believes it is, for Paul, a symbol of male authority—my apologies, dear friend).

Rick is clearly committed to this historical reconstruction, and he has substantial reasons for that commitment. However, there is a significant amount of scholarship that places this in a wider frame. The covering is not simply about Roman worship practices, although those Roman practices are part of the equation in some way. Rather, it was generally understood within Greco-Roman culture that uncovered long flowing hair that was not put up on the head signaled sexual availability, impropriety, or impiety. I reference the sources in the book, particularly Winter (Roman Wives, Roman Women) among others. For example, Winter—based on texts and archaeological evidence—wrote (Kindle location 968): “Therefore, it can be confidently concluded that the veiled head was the symbol of the modesty and chastity expected of a married woman.”

The fact that Roman men wore a covering in their cultic activities reflects their piety at pagan altars; it was not about sexual impropriety. Roman woman also covered their heads, when they led, at Roman altars, which was also about piety. However, as Westfall (Paul and Gender) demonstrates, the wearing of coverings by women in other cultures was a matter of sexual protection and integrity. Rick assumes the Corinthian assembly is only concerned with Roman practices because, in part, it was a Roman colony and Paul is explicitly describing leadership functions in the assembly. That may be, but I don’t think anyone knows that with any certainty and the practices of other cultures, as Rick notes, were diverse. There is little reason to think that the practices of other cultures were not in the mix as well. I don’t think we can assume that the Corinthian assembly was thoroughly and exclusively an arena for Roman practices. There is too much mix in the culture to restrict this to Roman practices only. It may be that Paul is seeking to sort out a complex mix of cultural practices gathered in the Corinthian assemblies. And, as Rick argues, Paul sorts it out in a way that is not Roman and introduces (for Romans, at least) gender distinctions not present in their own worship practices.

It is difficult, it seems to me, to assess what Paul is saying about the covering, its cultural setting, and its meaning. I lean toward the certainty that there is no certainty about the practice, meaning, and implications of the covering in 1 Corinthians, given the mix of Roman, Greek, Jewish and other cultures in Corinth. The situation is complex, and we only have these few words from Paul to clarify it for us. Clarity, it seems to me, is elusive.

In any event, and this is the most important point in this section, the precise nature of the head covering is ultimately immaterial to the point in my book, which focuses on the participation of women in the Corinthian assembly. On that point, there is common ground between Renew and myself.

Common Ground

Our common ground is quite significant. In substance, we agree.

Renew, Rick, and I agree that women audibly and visibly prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assemblies. They served as leaders (Renew affirms this language in their conclusion) in the assembly while at the same time honoring their heads (whatever that may mean). Rick is quite explicit about this leadership because these are the women who covered their heads in the Roman cults, and Paul wants to continue that practice for women who lead in prayer and prophecy. This is why I moved from “no participation” to “limited participation” in my own journey. When I got to know Rick and came to some understanding of his position, my advocacy for “limited participation” was confirmed.  I thank Rick for the way he contributed to my own story

We also agree that Paul is talking about men and women in general rather than specifically husbands and wives. I did not make a sustained argument about that as Rick does in the review, but I agree with him. At the same time, this is part of the difficulty of the text—there are legitimate reasons for thinking Paul is only talking about husbands and wives. I don’t think we can say definitively. Nevertheless, I agree with Rick on this one.

We also agree that the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is the same as the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In fact, we agree that 1 Corinthians 11-14 as a whole is discussing the practices of the same Corinthian assembly.

On Headship

Rick believes a “straightforward reading of the text” reveals that kephalē (head) “means authority.” According to Rick, Paul intentionally changed the Roman practice to conform to what Rick calls “a biblical doctrine of headship,” which entails some kind of gender distinction. For Rick, this gender distinction is about authority because in 1 Corinthians 11:3 “head” means “authority.” Yet, it is possible this gender distinction is about something else if “head” does not mean “authority.”

I make no sustained argument in the book about the meaning of kephalē. My point is, and I say this several times, that even if “head” means “authority,” women still participated in ways that led the assembly in Corinth. That is my major interest in Part 3, and it is a point upon which Renew, Rick, and I agree. Whatever kephalē means (even if it means authority or rank), it does not prohibit the audible and visible leadership of women through praying and prophesying in the assembly. In fact, women, when covered, actually honor their heads as they pray and prophesy in the assembly. Renew agrees.

Nevertheless, because the review stresses that male authority is rooted in a proper understanding of kephalē and suggests this is the main reason Paul institutes gender distinctions for the head-covering contrary to Roman worship practices, I digress to say a few words beyond anything I said in the book.

The fundamental problem with the English translation of “head” is that it is a literal translation of kephalē. Typically, that is not a problem at all. However, in this case, Paul is using the word metaphorically. He is not referring to the literal “head” but is using a figure of speech to say something about the relationship one sustains to the other (God to Christ, Christ to man, man to woman, 1 Corinthians 11:3). Translating it literally is a problem because the English word “head” has prominent meanings that do not belong prominently to the Greek word kephalē. While “authority” is one of the potential metaphorical meanings of the word, it is not a dominant one in classical Greek. Consequently, the association English readers attach to the word “head” are not immediately appropriate for what kephalē potentially intends as a metaphor in Greek culture. Another metaphorical meaning for kephalē is “source of life” or “origin.”

Rick thinks translating kephalē as “source” (or origin/relation) creates a Christological problem. The Trinitarian theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries, however, did not think so. They read “head” here as source or origin/relation. Therefore, it is not some kind modern or agenda-laden “special pleading.” It is, in fact, classic Nicene Trinitarian theology.

Here is an example from Cyril of Alexandria (To Arcadia, 1.1.5.5; quoted by Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 136):  “The source [archē] of man is the Creator God. Thus we say that the kephalē of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephalē of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the kephalē of Christ is God, because He is from Him according to nature.”

Another example is Ambrosiaster (probably from the late fourth century; cited by Payne, 137): “God is the head of Christ because he begat him; Christ is the head of the man because he created him, and the man is the head of the woman because she was taken from his side.”

Another example is Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Greek Church (from Payne, 137): “For Christ is the head [kephalē] of us who of us who believe . . . But the head [kephalē] of Christ is the Father, as procreator [gennētēs] and progenitor [proboleus] and of like substance with him. And the head [kephalē] of the woman is the man because he is her procreator [gennētēs] and progenitor [proboleus] and of like substance with him.”

According to Nicene theology, the Father is the source of the Son through an eternal relationship. Ancient Trinitarian theologians called this “order” (taxis) within the immanent Trinity (more specifically, the eternal generation of the Son). In other words, the Son is begotten from the Father, shares the same nature (homoousia) with the Father, and this eternal relationship does not include submission or authority. There is order and thus differentiation but without hierarchy or eternal submission or subordination (see the chapter by Madison Pierce, “Trinity Without Taxis?, in Trinity Without Hierarchy).

Many complementarians reject the Trinity argument for complementarian gender relations, and many have recently abandoned that position. Even the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) discourages that argument. Denny Burk, the President of CBMW, now rejects the argument that subordination is part of the inner (immanent) life of the Trinity except as part of the decision to incarnate in the covenant of redemption. The works of the egalitarian Kevin Giles (Trinity and Subordinationism) and the complementarian Fred Sanders (The Triune God; see his blog piece here) have clarified this in contemporary gender discussions among Evangelicals (Giles and Sanders had a two hour discussion on this agreed point here). For a history of this discussion and the shifts or clarifications taking place within soft complementarianism, see Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity.

If, however, one reads “Christ” as the one who became flesh as a human being, “source” is still an appropriate meaning because the Father sends the Son (Christ) into the world to be born of woman. In this sense, as a human being representing all humanity, Christ (the resurrected one) is submissive to the Father, including the eschatological act of turning the kingdom over to the Father. The Nicene Trinitarians recognized this (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa among others). Moreover, it is important to remember the incarnate one is also God, and when Christ turns the kingdom over to the Father, it is so that “God may be all in all,” which includes the Son rather than excluding the Son as part of the divine, eternal reign.

Rick’s two Christological objections against the meaning of source are not substantial and are out of sync with the history of Nicene Trinitarian theology.

Unfortunately, if Rick believes there is an “eternal order” of authority and submission between God and Christ, according to 1 Corinthians 11:3 (language used in one of the questions he was asked), I find this unfortunate because this claim stands outside the Trinitarian tradition of the Christian Faith. . Recently, this has been explicitly repudiated by quite a number of complementarian theologians as deeply problematic in substance (just as it was by Chrysostom and Theodoret among others in the fourth and fifth centuries).

Understanding kephalē as authority actually creates Christological problems. Eternal subordination, due to a headship ontology, entails the view that Christ is not equal in nature or essence to God. Chrysostom (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 3) put it this way, if “Paul had meant to speak of rule and subjection, as you say, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master” because, for Chrysostom, “rule and subjection” are not concreated but come after the Fall. According to Chysostom, “rule and subjection” are not present in Genesis 1-2.

Moreover, if we understand kephalē as “authority,” is this a claim that men have the same kind of authority over women that Christ has over men? Or, is it different in some way? Christ, it seems, has an ontological advantage over men in that Christ is divine. Do men have an ontological advantage over women that make them “heads” of women? In other words, if we read “head” as “authority over,” then this is rooted in ontology, nature, and essence. To put it another way, in this way male authority is grounded in some kind of ontological difference between men and women just as it is between Christ and man. I am convinced that the analogy of authority does not hold. Moreover, it does not fit the context of 1 Corinthians, as I will argue in a moment.

But we can agree on this. 1 Corinthians 11:3 is a theological statement, and the relationship between man and woman goes back to creation. The question at stake is the meaning of Paul’s appeal to creation and his use of kephalē.

Headship As Source of Life

As I see it, to see male authority in 1 Corinthians 11 depends on (1) the meaning of the covering, (2) the meaning of kephalē, and (3) a particular understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:10 (a passive reading of exousian echein in the sense of “have a sign of authority” when it literally says, “has authority”). I don’t include 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 because its point depends on the meaning of kephalē. More on that point in a moment.

(1) The meaning of the covering is highly disputed. The evidence for the covering as symbolic of male authority is minimal; it is not the dominant understanding in the Greco-Roman world. It is not the meaning of the Roman practice itself (as Rick notes), which is about piety (which is why men covered their heads while leading). Rather, the evidence in the broader culture—as Westfall, Winter, and Payne  (who thinks the covering is the hair) among many others describe—points to the covering of the hair or putting up the hair as a matter of sexual propriety. Married women were covered because they were not sexually available for other men than her husband. She wears the veil to honor her husband, which respects the husband-wife relationship. It is a signal that other men may not look upon her as an object of their predatorial sexual desires. The covering protects the woman. There is nothing explicit in 1 Corinthians 11 that describes the covering as a function of male authority or female submission.

(2) The meaning of kephalē is also highly disputed. The lexical meaning covers a broad range from authority/rank (Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth) to source/origin (Westfall) to prominence (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians). [For a recent history of the lexical discussion, see Johnson’s article.] Complementarians now regularly acknowledge that “source” in the sense of kinship, origin, relation, or connection is a legitimate metaphorical meaning. (See, for example, the complementarian Clauch, “God is the Head of Christ,” in One God in Three Persons, edited by Ware).

In Paul, kephalē means source in Ephesians 4:15 and Colossians 2:19 (as well other potential texts where the church is the body that receives nourishment and life from the head who is Christ). It also means authority in a sense synonymous with ruler (archēs) and lordship (kuriotētos) in Ephesians 1:21-22. The latter, however, is not Christ’s headship over the church, but over authorities and powers. Christ is the “head over all things to the church,” that is, for the sake of or for the benefit of the church.

Context, rather than lexical studies, determine the meaning of kephalē. It seems to me that 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, which provide the grounding for the meaning of kephalē, are statements about source or origin rather than authority. The sense of source is explicitly stated while the word authority is not present or any word that might give that sense. I think a “source of life” reading best fits what Paul is doing here, and the relation of “head” (God, Christ, man) to “body” (Christ, man, woman) is the relation of kinship, origin, connection, and relationship that reflects glory, respect, and honor. It is not “authority over” but deep connection; it is the sort of relation a head sustains to its body. That relation, in the Greco-Roman world, was one of nourishment and life, The head was not the ruling agent (the heart was). Rather, the head was the source of life (e.g., it was believed semen originated in the head).

(3) The meaning of “authority” (exousian) in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is significant. I address this in my book. I will only repeat the conclusion (which is shared by many exegetes), and I trust readers will take up the book to see the details. Paul says a woman “has authority.” This is the only time Paul uses the word authority in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul places that authority in the hands of women. Women “have authority.” This is not a “sign” of authority (as many render it); the word “sign” is not in the Greek text. The verb is active in voice: a woman ought to have authority over her own head. Everywhere in 1 Corinthians this phrase occurs (e.g., 9:4-5), it is active in meaning. It is the right or privilege of the one who possesses the authority. Consequently, the only explicit claim about authority in 1 Corinthians 11 is that women have authority. Nothing is explicitly said about male authority.

Paul is not thinking about male authority and grounding that authority in creation. Rather, it seems to me, Paul upholds the honor that is part of a relationship between a head to its body while recognizing and accentuating the interdependence (mutuality) that exists between head and body. One does not exist without the other, and the grounding Paul provides for male headship is found in the sense of source. Woman was created from man (there is kinship, relationality) and for the sake of man (to fill the void so that humanity might fulfill its vocation to fill the earth, subdue it, and rule it together—the shared task of men and women). Paul’s argument is a source argument rather than an authority argument. It coheres with the meaning of kephalē in this context as source or origin of life (kinship, relationship, mutuality). “Authority” is extraneous to the context in relation to men, and the only authority named in 1 Corinthians that characterizes the relationship between men and women is a shared authority in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

Further, the creation argument includes the fact that women are now the source of men by God’s procreative design. While the woman was sourced from the man, so now men are sourced from women. Women were created as the source of all men. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 clarifies that the idea of source between men and women is a mutual one. While a woman came from a man, now men come through women. This is practically a restatement of the mutual authority between husbands and wives identified in 1 Corinthians 7:4. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, which describes what is true “in the Lord,” reflects the mutual life of men and women in the Corinthian assembly where both men and women pray and prophesy in the assembly. This mutuality is grounded in creation, and there is no statement that grounds male authority in creation. The headship relationship is one of kinship, origin, life-source, and connection, which women honor by wearing a covering that protected women from sexual aggression and claimed sexuality integrity for themselves.

Teaching and Prophesying

According to Renew and Rick, even though women prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assemblies, “the prohibited role is one of an authoritative teacher who guides the congregation in faith and practice” because that is a headship function. I do wonder where in Scripture that “authoritative teacher who guides the congregation in faith and practice” is identified as exclusively male because it is a headship function (however that is defined).

Of course, that is not evident in 1 Corinthians 11. No activity or gift in 1 Corinthians 11 is identified as something exclusively male. Consequently, to defend that position one has to step outside the context of 1 Corinthians. First, Renew connects us with the responsibility of the priests to teach the people. That, as far as I know, is uncontested. It is true that priests were only male in the Hebrew Bible and one of their significant functions was to teach. However, it is no longer true that priests are only male in Christ. I affirm the priesthood of all believers in the Lord.

Moreover, we might also remember that prophets taught Israel as well as priests. The writings of the prophets teach us, and they call us to obedience and we submit to what the Lord says through the prophets. That sounds like a headship-authority function to me. How does one define an authority-headship function and exclude prophets from it? This is especially true when the function of teaching is nowhere explicitly designated as a “headship” function.

Prophets are leaders in the New Testament. The prophets Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32) are called “leaders” (hegumenoi) in Acts 15:22 along with others. This is the same word that Renew notices in Hebrews 13:7, 17 that characterizes people whom the congregation follows and submits. Were not congregations to submit to prophet-leaders? Why is that not a headship-function, if “head” refers to authority?

Prophets teach when they prophesy because they strengthen, edify, console, and encourage in such a way that people learn and unbelievers are convicted (1 Corinthians 14:3, 24, 31). Many scholars recognize how prophecy and teaching “shade into each other” in the New Testament (for example, Boring, Sayings of the Risen Christ: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition, 79).

Prophets and Teachers are identified as distinct gifts in the New Testament, to be sure. We see this in the lists of 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 (“first apostles, second prophets, third teachers”), Ephesians 4:11 (“apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers”), and Romans 12:6-7. Interestingly, the prophetic gift is always listed first in the above texts, just after the apostles in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 and Ephesians 4:11. Prophets also offer an “exhortation” (1 Corinthians 14:3) which is exactly how Hebrews describes itself (Hebrews 13:22). Hebrews was a sermon of sorts (similar to what happened in the synagogue, Acts 13:15), and exhortation is what Scripture itself offers us (Romans 15:4). The hard distinction between teaching and prophesying is not sustainable.

Why is the role of the teacher a headship function but prophecy is not? This is the point to be demonstrated. One must demonstrate that prophecy is not a headship function while teaching is. Why is the headship function of teaching exclusively male? There is only one reason, it seems to me, to (1) make that distinction and (2) identify teaching as a headship function. This brings us back to 1 Timothy 2:12. The path of “limited participation” or soft complementarianism always ends up here. This is precisely where Renew’s position takes us—1 Timothy 2:12 is the sole text that excludes women from teaching as a function of headship. I’m fairly certain Renew will address this text more fully in a future installment.

Renew offers a new interpretation in the discussion of gender. They reinterpret the role of teacher as a headship function while the role of the prophet is not a headship function. For centuries within the history of the church, prophets were regarded as preachers, people who spoke the word of God, functioned authoritatively within the community of faith, and administered the Eucharist. The historic church regarded the function of prophecy as a form of preaching, and the distinction that “teachers” are authoritative preachers but “prophets” are only spontaneous speakers impressed by the Spirit in some way is a modern “reinterpretation” (to use the characterization with which I was charged in the first installment). It was primarily inaugurated by Grudem in order to explain the seeming contradiction between 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and 1 Timothy 2:12.

Whatever the “Ministry of the Word” is (as named in the review), and the combination of texts and inferences present in the discussion of that task, it is a headship function whereas prophecy is not, according to Renew. Moreover, none of the texts referenced to the “Ministry of the Word” (unless Acts 6:4 only describes the apostles) exclude women except one . . . 1 Timothy 2:12. That text, above all others and perhaps no other text, ultimately defines what belongs solely to “headship” in the context of the assemblies of the saints when they gather for praise and prayer. But 1 Timothy 2:12 does not even explicitly appeal to “headship.”

1 Corinthians 11 does not identify what functions or gifts only belong to headship. We know praying and prophesying are not “headship” functions. Nowhere else does Paul ever use the language of headship in relation to the exercise of gifts in the assembly. I think that rather odd, if Renew is correct in its reading of the New Testament.

Conclusion

Women cover their heads, not because of male authority, but because they honor their relationship to their head (source of life). Kephalē does not refer to rank or authority but to the kinship relationship the head sustains to the body which is relational, intimate, mutual, and nourishing. The head is the source and origin of life to the body, according to the ancients.

Paul appeals to creation to ground this relationality, not authority. The woman was created from the man (thus, kinship and a sense of origin), and the woman was created because of the man (the man could not accomplish the divine mission alone; he needed a powerful ally to partner with him). The head cannot function without the body.

In the Lord, this mutuality is clear—one is not without the other. They are not only interdependent, but they share the same mission, the same flesh, and the same origin. They are both from God. They share a mutual authority. One does not have authority over the other in 1 Corinthians 11. Indeed, it is mutual authority in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

In fact, the woman has her own authority which she exercises in the assembly as one gifted by God just as men are also so gifted. She does not need the covering of male authority, but she honors her head as the source of her life. Men should also honor women as the means by which they come into the world. Their authority is mutual rather than hierarchical (1 Corinthians 7:4).

Women, therefore, have their own authority to audibly and visibly pray and prophesy in the assemblies of the saints gathered for prayer and praise. They do not need male permission or the covering of male authority. They do, however, appropriately honor the source of their life just as men honor the source of theirs.



A Reply to Renew’s Response to My Response

August 14, 2020

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

Renew wrote:

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

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

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

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

A Possible Overstatement

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

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

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

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

Q: A subjective hermeneutic?

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

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

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

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

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

Q: The full story?

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

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

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

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

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

Two Final Observations

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

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

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

My Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Response to Renew’s Review (Part 1) of “Women Serving God”

August 10, 2020

I am grateful for the attention Renée Sproles, Bobby Harrington, and Daniel McCoy give to my new book, Women Serving God, at Renew’s blog (their blog is over 7700 words but it covers Scot McKnight’s book as well; my response is only 2700+). I am happy to engage the conversation they have begun, and I look forward to future installments of their review. Sproles has her own book on this topic, which I read as part of my own study, entitled On Gender: What the Bible Says About Men and Women–And Why It Matters.

I have a strong affinity for the work Renew is doing, especially their commitment to discipleship and disciple-making. I have attended Renew events, read their books, and enjoy friendships with many people associated with Renew. I am grateful for how they accentuate discipleship among churches through their organization. Yet, apparently, we find ourselves in a disagreement about the full participation of women in the assembly, which is the focus of my book.

I sense a basic concern is that somehow “Western elite values” are going to strip away biblical commands and render obedience to the will of God ineffective. Of course, I would oppose any such agenda myself. Yet, this, as I understand it, is part of the resistance to the full participation of women in the assemblies of the saints. I expect that we will see textual and theological arguments that demonstrate that is what is happening. I look forward to seeing the explanation.

I did not use the terminology egalitarian or egalitarianism in my book. I made no sustained argument about the relationship of husbands and wives (family) or church polity (bishops or elders). My focus was solely on the assembly and the level of participation by women in worshipping assemblies of churches of Christ. Sproles puts “egalitarian” in quotes. Though some may think she is quoting me, I do not use the term.

In relation to the assembly, it seems the only difference (as far as I can see at this point) between myself and Renew’s belief statement is the function of the “lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church” (a phrase that does not appear in Scripture). I’m not sure how the function of “elder/overseer” plays out in the assembly in Renew’s understanding. Are there gifts and functions in the assembly that belong only to the “senior minister/pastor” (as Sproles names it). Perhaps solo preaching? Policy announcements? Officiating at the table? I anticipate that will be clarified as we move along in the reviews.

Hermeneutics

Renée’s first topic is hermeneutics (since we have met, I’d rather use her first name as a friend and sister in Christ). Good hermeneutics and theology matter, and without one, the other is skewed. This is why I wrote Searching for the Pattern first because it lays out my understanding of hermeneutics in the context of the churches of Christ. I only briefly summarize it in a few pages in Women Serving God.

Seeking a Theological Point?

Without reading the first volume, I can understand how one might think I’m only interested in drawing out a theological point or even a “timeless theology” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words) from the “baggage of culture” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words).

As I suggest in both Searching for the Pattern and Women Serving God, the theological point, in agreement with Renée, is the coherent story of God, which is the drama of God from creation to new creation; it is the pattern of God’s activity within the biblical drama. I’m not looking to draw a “theological truth from a time-bound biblical command” (her words). Rather, I am looking for the theological story (pattern, which is the gospel itself) that gave rise to that command and seeking to live obediently within that story in conformity to the meaning of that command.

For example, I agree with her baptismal example. My Searching for the Pattern has a case study on that topic. We follow Jesus into the water, participate in the gospel through baptism, and obediently conform to the gospel when we are baptized. Baptism and the gospel of Jesus are deeply and pervasively linked in the New Testament and, I would add, by the backstory in Israel. We are not immersed because it is an abstracted command as part of a blueprint hermeneutic. It is a gospel-formed command to follow Jesus into the water that is embedded in the kingdom story. For more, see my case study in Searching for the Pattern.

Subjective?

The search throughout Scripture for this coherent story, which is Renée’s own hermeneutic, is mine as well. To call it “subjective” is unhelpful. Precisely, in what way is it “subjective”? My approach is no more subjective than every hermeneutical reading of Scripture, but it is not so subjective that it necessarily privileges “culture” over the story of Scripture itself (which I sense is the real concern). I look forward to seeing examples where I supposedly do this with the text and discussing them.

At the same time, everyone reads Scripture with some cultural discernment (is that the subjectivity?). That is why women don’t wear veils, congregations don’t require holy kisses, or women are not forbidden to wear gold in assemblies even as women participate in limited ways through prayer, testimonies, etc. (soft complementarianism). Is it possible that this rejection of wearing veils and resistance to holy kisses is a case of “stripping away the teachings of Scripture on gender” in light of “Western elite values”? Is the privilege of wearing gold to the assembly a “Western elite value” that ignores Paul’s expressed desire? Might not soft complementarianism also be a failure to resist “Western elite values” when the historic tradition of the church silenced women in the assembly (including limited participation as it is understood in soft complementarianism), insisted on head coverings for centuries until only recently, and the early fathers objected to jewelry?

Four-Point Hermeneutic

I agree with the four points in Renée’s stated hermeneutic, though we both would want to elaborate their meaning and application. I incorporate each into Searching for the Pattern (I only slightly touch on #4 in that book). Principle #1 is applied throughout Women Serving God, especially Parts 3-6. I assume her second principle is conducive to understanding the role new creation plays in the biblical story as the “rule” (or canon; Paul’s word) by which we walk as disciples of Jesus (Galatians 6:15-16). I also assume her third principle also asks, “what does this mean?” without attempting to “wriggle out of obedience” (is that what I am trying to do?). I also assume her fourth principle gives space to critique the understanding of the traditions of the church, even if they are very early (such as a monarchical bishop, or that the early church fathers were not soft complementarians). I would add a fifth point: to read Scripture through the lens of the act of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, the eschatological goal (new creation) and its presence in the world, and the pattern we find in God’s incarnate example and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. This is a major part of the coherent story, it seems to me. We might say it is part of the second principle, which I have accentuated and made more explicit. But perhaps that fifth principle (as I stated it) is the rub and is excluded or conceived differently. I’m not sure; is it? How does Renée’s hermeneutic think about the function of new creation in telling the story of God in the Bible?

There seems to be a misunderstanding that I make a claim to “move beyond” Scripture in some way (which Renée puts in quotation marks though I never use those words). I never say that or intend that in the book. I don’t want to “move beyond” the coherent story in Scripture or the pattern present in it. Scripture points us beyond some specific circumstances (Artemis cult in Ephesus, silencing women who are interrupting speakers in the assembly) and some specific applications (veils, wearing gold, washing feet, it is better not to marry [1 Corinthians 7], etc.), but we don’t move beyond the coherent theology in the text. I don’t want to move beyond but understand the commands of God rooted in the gospel and God’s story. The question is, what does Scripture teach?

There is a sense, of course, in which we all “move beyond” Scripture in that we address topics, problems, and issues that are not specifically addressed in Scripture. For example, where does Scripture address cloning? But we don’t “move beyond” Scripture in the sense that we abandon the coherent story of God or subvert it. Rather, we apply that story to the new questions and situations that arise as we follow Jesus in the present context.

Trajectories in Scripture

I agree that salvation is both personal and communal, both individual and social; indeed, it is also cosmic. All my theological thought and teaching has been soaked in that very point for over thirty years. It is not “either personal salvation or new creation; it’s both.” I agree 100%. I’m not sure if Renée thinks I believe otherwise—she can’t get that from this book or my other writings. (In reading the review, sometimes I feel like my book is not is under review even though my name is associated with the idea. Perhaps this is the problem of reviewing two books at once as views and purposes are too easily conflated.)

The story of Scripture is God at work to transform persons, communities, and the creation; and the goal of that transformation is conformation to the image of Christ so that Christ fills all things. God will achieve that goal in the final consummation, and new creation is already at work in the church as a mission outpost of the kingdom of God here and now. In what ways does the final consummation (new creation) show up in the present? What is already present that belongs most fully to what is not yet? That is the reason for thinking about a new creation hermeneutical dimension—and I do so precisely because Paul did.

As Renée notes, there are trajectories in Scripture (e.g., movement from Mosaic to New Covenant; including—I would add—the inclusion of women as priests in Christ, how women now inherit without male instrumentality in Christ, rejection of polygamy, etc.). I suggest another is the movement from creation to new creation. There are key moments in that trajectory, including the Call of Abraham, Exodus, Incarnation, Cross & Resurrection, Pentecost, and New Heaven and New Earth. There are key texts within Scripture that interpret these moments.  Those texts help us understand the trajectory.

I don’t think I choose a text in the abstract. Rather, I am seeking the coherence of the story (Renée’s hermeneutical point #2) and how texts reflect, embody, or teach that trajectory within the story. What significance Galatians 3:28 has in the context of God’s coherent story is a matter for discussion. Highlighting that text is not necessarily cherry picking but paying attention to the movement toward new creation (new creaturehood in Christ) within the story of God.

Renée asks, “Why is the paradigm shift primarily to ‘oneness’ and not to citizenship in God’s kingdom or something else?” I only use the word “oneness” twice—once in terms of its reality in creation and new creation (p. 139) and about oneness at the table of the Lord (p. 146). I don’t suggest that citizenship and oneness are two ultimately different things but rather citizenship in the kingdom of God includes oneness and moves us toward the fullness of that oneness or unity we will experience in the new heaven and new earth. This is the goal of God from the beginning (John 17:20-26), and it is reflected in our union with Christ. It is the unity and fellowship of the Spirit.

Culture

There is always a danger that culture will reshape the theological story. This was part of my point in Part 2 of Women Serving God. The danger is not only found in present culture but in past cultures as well. For example, many leaders and teachers in the American Restoration Movement used 1 Timothy 2:12 to deny women the vote, silence women from leading prayer or speaking in any form in the assembly, prohibit women from teaching adult Bible classes with men present, prohibit women from teaching twelve year old baptized males in Bible class, exclude women from baptizing others, or exclude women from public careers in society. Renée and I are on the same page. We must not permit culture to subvert or override the coherent story of Scripture.

Anyone’s search for that coherent story can “lead us right off the pages of Scripture,” not just mine. Of course, the opposite danger is that some read Scripture so rigidly and in conformity to their traditions that they will, as Jesus put it about the Pharisees, make a convert “twice as much a child of hell as” the teacher (Matthew 23:15). To be clear, I don’t think that is what Renew is doing, but I don’t think I am leading people “off the pages of Scripture” either. But I do suggest that Renew might consider embracing full participation rather than a limited one for women in the assembly. Perhaps it is tradition that hinders that full participation rather than a coherent biblical theology.

While Renée seems to think that the net effect of my understanding is “to subsume the way of Jesus under the authority of a given culture,” I think that must be demonstrated. It is certainly not my intent. I assume we will see the evidence for this marshaled in future installments.

I think Renée misunderstands a significant point in my book. I am not opposed to the proper functions of authority within the community of faith that are rooted in God’s gifts to the community. Authority per se is not a bad word for me; I use it often in the book. When Renée states that I believe “hierarchy and authority are antithetical to equality, mutuality, and unity,” she is mistaken. I think hierarchy and authoritarianism (which is the word I used in the context she quoted) are antithetical, but authority and equality/mutuality/unity are not. Her extended quotes from my book come in the context of my opposition to sacerdotal hierarchical authoritarianism around the table and its misuse of “authority.” Contextually, I am referring to Jesus’s opposition to Gentile leaders who wrongly use authority (“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors;” Luke 22:25). Jesus contrasts that use of authority with how his disciples ought to relate to each other. The table is a place for the priesthood of all believers, shared places at the table, and mutual service.

Where we disagree, I presume, is that she understands Scripture to teach male authority over women (at the table?) in the assembly in some form or function. I don’t think that is part of the Bible’s coherent story. I look forward to the future discussion of the role of male authority in the assembly as well as the argument for grounding that male authority in creation ontology or essence (which I address in Women Serving God).

I do not, as Daniel & Bobby write, use Galatians 3:28 to undermine “authority.”  It does, however, undermine male authority just as it undermines ethnic authority (Jew vs. Gentile) and economic authority (slave vs. free) as boundaries for the pouring out of the Spirit’s gifts and the exercise of those gifts in the assembly.

It seems to me that Scripture is full of liberation, mission, and the hope of new creation: exodus, ministry of Jesus, resurrection, new creatures in Christ, and cosmic liberation of the creation (to name a few).  Let’s talk about what that entails for the giftedness of women in the assembly rather than projecting what it might mean in the hands of others. What does it mean in my book?

On Interpretation

It is unhelpful to say “Hicks interprets away the key texts,” as Bobby & Daniel do. (I imagine the only key text about which we might disagree in terms of the assembly is 1 Timothy 2, but I may be wrong.) That is a charge that needs demonstration, which I assume is coming in future installments. But why say that here, and why say it that way? It is rhetorical flourish rather than an argument. I don’t want to interpret “away” anything. I want to understand the mystery of God (the gospel of godliness) revealed in those texts. Let’s talk about what my book actually says rather than deflecting the question to what others might do with it.  When we discuss the details of the book’s argument, then readers can decide whether something is explained “away” or not.

It is fair to call it a reinterpretation, though these texts have always been under various forms of reinterpretation and diverse understandings throughout history. The church has historically reinterpreted other texts (e.g., slavery, veils, holy kiss, wearing gold, washing feet, age limit on the support of widows, etc.). Perhaps some texts need reinterpretation (or the revival of old interpretations long forgotten) in order to hear the coherent story (including new creation) more fully because centuries of male authority have given us the wrong lenses with which to read the text. Perhaps we need a moment like Peter had at Simon’s house in Joppa to help us see what we could not previously see so that we might read Scripture more appropriately and more fully in the light of what God did in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this dialogue. I hope we can proceed with some reciprocity, respect, and mutual love without rhetorical embellishments. 

Peace and grace from our Lord Jesus Christ to my siblings, Renée, Bobby, and Daniel. Rick, my dear friend, I suppose I’ll see in you in future installments. Peace to all.


Video Course: Searching for the Pattern

July 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

Women Serving God: A Study Guide

July 10, 2020

Does God invite women to fully participate in the assemblies of God?

My new book, Women Serving God, addresses this question. It is now available on Amazon in both Kindle ebook ($9.99) and print ($14.95).

In addition, I have produced a teaching/discussion study guide for the book designed for small groups or Bible classes.

Among churches of Christ, the voices of women are typically silent and excluded from visible leadership in assemblies gathered for prayer and praise. In this book, I tell the story of my own journey to understand how women have served God throughout the unfolding drama of Scripture. I describe my movement from the exclusion of the voices of women and their leadership in the assembly to a limited inclusion, and finally to the full inclusion of those voices and their leadership. Along the way, I describe some of the history of churches of Christ as well as my own history but ultimately focus on the meaning of biblical texts and how they support the full participation of women in the assemblies of God.

Three women, Claire Davidson Frederick, Jantrice Johnson, and Lauren Smelser White, respond to and extend John Mark’s thoughts.

John Mark is detailed, fair, and vulnerable about his own journey and our collective journey in Churches of Christ. I recommend John Mark as a trustworthy guide. Dr. Sara G. Barton, University Chaplain, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA

Do we believe that the Holy Spirit equally equips both women and men to carry out Jesus’s message of reconciliation? Dr. Hicks is a trusted guide in navigating the depth of scripture and the complexity of our cultural moment. Drink deeply from this well! Dr. Joshua Graves, Otter Creek Church, Brentwood, Tennessee.

With characteristic depth, rigor, and generosity, Hicks offers his own journey toward embracing the inclusion of women’s voices in the assembly. Hicks writes with a familiarity of Restoration Movement history that few can boast, with an accompanying dedication to searching the scriptures. Amy McLaughlin-Sheasby, Instructor in the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry, Abilene Christian University.

This book is a gift to twenty-first century Churches of Christ. Part autobiography, part history, part exegesis, and part biblical theology, Hicks’s exploration of the Bible’s teachings on the role of women in congregational gatherings offers several invaluable components. Dr. James L. Gorman, Associate Professor of History, Johnson University

JOHN MARK HICKS is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. He has taught for thirty-nine years in schools associated with the churches of Christ. He has authored or co-authored eighteen books, lectured in twenty-two countries and forty states, and is married to Jennifer. They share five living children and six grandchildren.


Special Offer

April 2, 2020

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

Watch the introductory video here.

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

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

Included in this limited-time offer is:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gathered into the Name of Jesus

March 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Gathered in the Spirit

March 21, 2020

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

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

Mediated by the Spirit

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 5:18-21

      “Be filled with the Spirit” (imperative)

                        speaking to each other in psalms, hymns, and songs

                        singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

                        giving thanks to God in the name of Jesus

                        submitting to each other in the fear of Christ

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

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

Eschatological Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Duty to Assemble?

March 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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