Two New Books (April, 2023) on Men and Women

April 14, 2023

One book advocates a soft complementarian reading of Scripture and the other an egalitarian reading of Scripture. The general editor of the former is Renèe Webb Sproles. It is entitled Male & Female: A Biblical Look at Gender (published by The author of the other is Philip B. Payne. It is entitled The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood: How God’s Word Consistently Affirms Gender Equality (published by Zondervan). Sproles is the Director of Cultural Engagement for Payne is Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary Northwest.

Male & Female is more comprehensive in purpose than Payne’s book. Sproles had previously written a compact book entitled On Gender. The new book expands that brief work, though it is not dependent on it or intended as an update or revision of it. With this book, Sproles edits an anthology that addresses questions of gender identity, cultural movements (like LGBTQ+), and transgenderism as well as the common questions related to the husband/wife in the home and male/female in the church. As the general editor, Sproles authors several chapters but is most often in dialogue with others. Her editorship manages the contributions of a dozen or so people. It is a multi-author work, but focused on the importance of gender identity, gender differences, and gender roles within the biblical story. This cannot, Sproles writes, be left to the “category of opinion” because “[w]hat Scripture says about creation, sin, and salvation point to very important secondary truths that were once taken for granted” (p. 17).

In essence, as I read it, the book is an exposition and defense of the Renew Network’s “formal statement on gender” which seeks a path between  “ineffective traditionalism” and “culturally dominated progressivism” (p. 26). Renew’s statement on gender is provided twice in the book, once at the beginning (p. 27) and once at the end (p. 339). This inclusio confirms the book’s main interest to defend, explain, and elaborate Renew’s self-styled “soft complementarian” position.

We believe both men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered ways, the nature and character of God in the world. In marriage, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, yet there are gender-specific expressions: husbands model themselves in relationship with their wives after Jesus’s sacrificial love for the church; and wives model themselves in relationship with their husbands after the church’s willingness to follow Jesus. In the church, men and women serve as partners in the use of their gifts in ministry, while seeking to uphold New Testament norms, which teach that the lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church and the elder/overseer role are for qualified men. The vision of the Bible is an equal partnership of men and women in creation, in marriage, in salvation, in the gifts of the Spirit and in the mission of the church but exercised in ways that honor gender as described in the Bible.

Payne focuses on the differences between evangelical complementarianism and evangelical egalitarianism as he walks through the various biblical texts as an exegete and theological interpreter. Payne, who has authored numerous books, academic journal articles, and blogs on this topic, offers this book as an exegetical journey for a general audience. He intends to “explain how the text of Scripture itself affirms gender equality” (p. xiv). This book, he says, “simplifies [his] 511-page book on this topic, Man and Woman, One in Christ (p. xv).

Payne finds these three ultimate emphases in the biblical story (p. xiii):

  • the Holy Spirit gifts all believers for ministry
  • the oneness of the body of Christ (the church) and the priesthood of all believers
  • the humility, service, and mutual submission required of all believers

Male & Female

Sproles’ Male & Female expands a series of blog posts Renew published in 2021. You can see a list of those posts that interacted with my own book as well as my responses to each blog at this page. You can see all of Renew’s blogs “On Gender and the Bible” here. My blog responses contain my critique of Renew’s soft complementarianism. I will not repeat those points here; interested readers can read the blogs for themselves. The original blog posts often interacted with my book Women Serving God.However, this published edition of the blogs, while sometimes explicitly interacting with my book, do not focus there. Rather, the essays seek to make a case for their understanding through an exposition of Scripture without sustained explicit dialogue with an interlocutor or opposing viewpoints.

The one exception to the above characterization is the book’s chapter on 1 Timothy 2:8-15. The book, like the blog, is heavily focused on my own work on 1 Timothy 2 in Women Serving God. I was disappointed to discover the book essentially reproduced the original blog without directly interacting with my response to Renew’s blog (for an hour-long oral presentation of my view of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, click here), though the book expands the blog in some respects (more is said on 1 Timothy 2:15, for example). The book repeats the same mischaracterizations and misdirections that I corrected in my blog, and it does not acknowledge the many points of agreement between Renew and myself about this text which I emphasized in my blog. Readers can judge for themselves without me repeating the points here. I would direct readers to a couple other blogs on 1 Timothy 2:8-15 that would more fully explain my critique of soft complementarian interpretations of that text, raise questions about its difficulty (including its complicated nature), and specifically 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

I will, however, offer two examples of the sort of mishandling of what I wrote by the Renew blog and reproduced in this book. For example, Dr. Richard Oster suggests if the problematic women in Ephesus were idolaters, Paul would have spoken to them like he does idolaters in his Corinthian letters. He also thinks I have depicted them rather harshly as “the most sinister, evil women in the Ephesian church” (p. 135). Paul would not, Rick says, “be so kind to the women in 1 Timothy who . . . are participants in idolatry, sexual immorality, and (pagan) mythology” (p. 129). In response, Paul is talking to Timothy and it is unnecessary to use the rhetoric in Corinthians to make his point as a persuasive technique. But, more importantly, Paul tells us that “some [of these women] have already strayed after Satan” (1 Timothy 5:15). That sounds pretty serious to me.

Another example is the claim that I make “much of [the Artemis] cult in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:8-15” (p. 127). Actually, I only suggest an Artemis background as a possible historical reconstruction. I do not depend on it. My understanding is that Paul is dealing with deceived women, but I don’t know what the exact background to that deception is. It could have something to do with Artemis in terms of their dress, habits, and function in the worship of Artemis. I don’t know. For example, I write (p. 177) that “These women, deceived by false teachers, needed to learn and submit to the gospel rather than promote pagan myths and practices learned from the Artemis temple, Greco-Roman cults, and/or proto-Gnostic teachers.” I’m non-commital to the backdrop or historical reconstruction (I offer three suggestions in the italics above) because we simply can’t know what that is. But we do know some women were deceived as they are imitating Eve who was deceived. Though the book (and blog) quote a paragraph from my book as evidence of my Artemis projection, the previous paragraph had other suggestions, and the paragraph quoted simply uses Artemis as an example. It does not claim this is the fact. Perhaps I did not communicate that very well, but that was my intent based on the research of Hoag (you can see something of his claims here). Moreover, the assessment that 1 Timothy 2:12 is not a universal, timeless rule does not depend on which historical reconstruction is the correct one. Rather, the letter itself provides the evidence of false teaching, women captured by such teaching, and women promoting such teaching by words and actions.

Those are only two examples. If you read my blog response to Renew’s original blog, you will see other examples and my responses.

Male & Female includes those original blogs (or a version of them) with the addition of some other essays (a total of 16 chapters) with a concluding summary by Sproles and Bobby Harrington (essentially the last blog in the series at on “Gender and the Bible”). The additional essays are devoted to the cultural environment and issues surrounding gender identity and sexual morality. Some first appeared in some form on Renew’s blog.

The structure of the book places the discussion of complementarianism and egalitarianism in the framework of the culture war over gender identity and sexual morality. This sets up the appearance (perhaps the claim?) that a move toward egalitarianism regarding marriage and the church is a move toward (perhaps even logical entailment?) the embrace of cultural movements like LGBTQ+ and transgenderism.

While I think it is important and valuable to talk about those movements, I don’t think they are at the heart of the disagreement between complementarianism and egalitarianism. Nor is the hermeneutic the same among those committed to biblical theology. Consequently, that mix functions more like a red herring in relation to the complementarian-egalitarian discussion. It is mixing oranges and apples.

Male & Female affirms a form of gender essentialism where the differences between male and female entail different roles or functions in the home and church. I understand why gender identity is part of the point in this book on the topic of male and female and why it is important to address those questions. It intends to be comprehensive in terms of a theology of gender. Those topics need to be addressed, and it makes sense that the comprehensiveness intended by this book would address them. It appears to me that Renew is suggesting egalitarianism leads to the embrace of transgender ideology because egalitarianism represents a departure from and a breakdown of biblical gender differentiation. However, I don’t see the deep connection between those questions and the evangelical discussion between complementarians and egalitarians.

After reading the book, I am concerned that the kind of gender essentialism advocated in this book is problematic and has unintended consequences. It so strongly speaks of male authority, men taking on the function/role of Jesus, and women submitting to men like the church submits to Jesus that it is ultimately a hard complementarianism that allows women to speak in some spaces (including the assembly) as long as they are bounded by the male authority structure of lead teacher/preacher or elder/overseer. The “soft” dimension depends on where one draws the line for women speaking or not speaking, teaching or not teaching, what gifts they can use and where they can use them.

This version of complementarianism has the same problem all complementarians face (whether “hard or soft”). Where does one draw the line of authority as a boundary in terms of the practice of the church and home? Having grown up in congregations that practiced a hard complementarianism, we still had those debates (may a women teach an adult Bible class, may a women teach baptized twelve year old males, may girls pick up attendance cards, etc.). As the book notes, not all Renew Network churches have the same understanding of where that line lies. Some permit a women to preach in the gathered assembly while others reject this and only allow women in the “pulpit” for special topics or expertise as long as they are interviewed or accompanied by the lead minister or an elder (p. 141). Male authority in Male & Female must bound or give permission for the exercise of gifts by women in the assembly. And then some gifts (like teaching) are not permitted in the assembly at all, especially what moderns call “preaching.”

I do, however, appreciate the strong emphasis on transcending traditional practices that exclude women as well as the emphasis on mutual submission in marriage (even though the man is the authority figure in the relationship). I appreciate the call for husbands to be like Jesus and love their wives the way Jesus loved the church. I appreciate the call for a Jesus-like servant leadership. There is much to honor in this regard from the authors in Male & Female. Nevertheless, the sense that men are Jesus in their homes, and women are the followers of their husband’s authority creates, it seems to me, a problematic application of Ephesians 5 that lays the groundwork (unintended, to be sure) for abusive authoritarianism in marriage (and the church by extension).


If you have read Payne’s major work Man and Woman, One in Christ, there are only a few surprises in this new, popular version of his academic work. One significant development is the chapter where he argues that Titus 2:1-8 addresses church elders, including women. The word presbytidas in Titus 3:2 is the word used to forbid the appointment of women officers (female elders) at the Council of Laodicea in 363-364 C.E. Canon 11 says, “Presbytides, as they are called, or female presidents, are not to be appointed in the Church.” I think this is a helpful chapter.

While I am not convinced by his advocacy that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation by an ancient scribe who moved a marginal notation into the text at an early period, he does offer some interesting evidence in a couple of appendices. They are worth consideration and should not be ignored. He also continues his advocacy of hair as the covering in 1 Corinthians rather than some kind of external covering. He may be right, though I am unconvinced. Nevertheless, the context he offers is important: hair—whether up or down, covered or uncovered—was a strong emotive cultural fixture in the Greco-Roman world. Uncovered hair or let-down hair signaled sexual availability (thus, married women were covered) or at least was broadly understood in that way. I think 1 Corinthians 11 and the covering (whatever it is) is about sexual propriety rather than male authority.

Payne concludes with “ten biblical principles that entail gender equality”:

  • male and female are equally created in God’s image
  • male and female equally received the creation mandate and blessing
  • redeemed men and women are equally “in Christ”
  • church leadership as service
  • mutual submission in the church and home
  • the oneness of the body of Christ
  • the priesthood of all believers
  • the Spirit gifts all believers
  • liberty in Christ
  • in Christ, male and female are equal

I recommend Payne’s work, with a few caveats, as a good popular presentation of his academic work. It deserves a careful reading as coming from an accomplished scholar who has written about this topic for decades and has engaged his critics at every turn.

My sympathies lie with Payne, though I have never called myself an egalitarian. Yet, fairness—at least in my context—demands that I read both. And I have.

Two books. Tolle Lege! Caveat Lector!

Renewed Israel Assembled for Word and Table

April 12, 2023

Texts: Acts 2:42, 46-47; 5:42; 20:7-12

Days 59-61 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

The assembling of Israel at Mount Sinai and the renewal of Israel on the day of Pentecost are deeply connected.

  • At Sinai God inaugurated covenant with Israel, and on Pentecost God renewed covenant with Israel.
  • At Sinai God’s presence was revealed through lightning, thunder, and smoke, and on Pentecost it was revealed by wind, fire, and tongues.
  • At Sinai God came to dwell among Israel in the tabernacle, and on Pentecost God came to dwell in the hearts of Israel through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • At Sinai God gave the law through Moses, and on Pentecost God taught Israel through words uttered by the Spirit of God.
  • At Sinai Israel gathered to hear the word of God and sit at God’s table, and at Pentecost Israel gathered to listen to the apostle’s teaching and sit at table with Jesus.

Acts 2:42 records that this newly assembled group of 3,000+ baptized believers devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to fellowship, and that fellowship involved breaking bread and prayers. Instead of four separate and distinct items, I think it is two (teaching and fellowship) with the second identified by breaking bread and prayers.

When they listened to the apostles teaching in the temple, they gathered as a community. When they shared fellowship through breaking bread and prayers, they gathered as a community. Israel, in effect, assembled on Mt. Zion just as they had done at Mt. Sinai. The assembly of Israel is renewed as the assembly of the Messiah in whose name the 3,000 were baptized.

They gathered, however, as a large community at the temple for teaching and prayers, and they gathered as smaller communities in homes for the breaking of bread. Their assemblies were not all the same sort of thing. Rather, they assembled in different ways in order to experience different dimensions of the reality of the Spirit. Perhaps thousands gathered in the temple to listen to teaching and participate in the prayers of the temple, and then they gathered in small groups in homes to eat together as they continued to praise God in prayer.

The standard was the teaching of the apostles. They were with Jesus for forty days after his resurrection. Those were days when Jesus clarified his mission, spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and help them read the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of his own work. If we wonder what the teaching of the apostles looked like, we only need read the sermons in Acts (e.g., Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, or his summary to Cornelius in Acts 10). It was the story of Israel, Jesus, and the renewal of Israel.

As renewed Israel, they continued table practices. They ate together, and they ate in the presence of God. The Messiah is the host of the table. The Gospel of Luke identified the meaning of breaking bread. It is a meal hosted by the Messiah to give life and enjoy fellowship. It is a resurrection of meal because in the breaking of the bread the living Messiah is revealed.

When Paul and the community in Troas broke bread, they broke bread with a resurrected Eutyches. But they not only ate with Eutyches, they ate with the resurrected one himself. This was a table of the living Messiah, and the community gathered in the presence of the Messiah who hosts his own banquet.

The baptized community assembled to hear the word of the Lord, and they assembled to fellowship, which included the breaking of bread and prayers. This was a continuation of Israel’s own life with God which began with a “day of assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:4; 18:16) and continued through the teaching of the law and eating at tables with God. The church, grafted into the tree of Israel, continues the same sort of practices: assembling, teaching, and table.

This is part of the process by which a community is formed, and in this case the formation of a community that embraces and participates in the mission of God.

Chosen Conversations

April 12, 2023

Season 1, Episode 1.

Available on Apple Podcasts here.

Available on Vimeo here.

Stan Wilson, Haley Villacorta, David Villacorta, and I have begun a series of podcasts/videos about “The Chosen” produced and directed by Dallas Jenkins.

These conversations seek to explore one dimension of “The Chosen” per episode. This week we focus on Mary in the first episode in the first season.

We see the dramatized interaction between Jesus and Mary in that episode as a proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus.

Join us for the conversation!

How Churches of Christ Have Historically Read the Bible

April 11, 2023

Churches of Christ are, gratefully, a people who love the Bible, and I grew up in an era when the church knew the Bible so well. At the same time, we read the Bible in a particular way that is perhaps not as faithful to the Bible as we might have hoped. In this interview, I talk about this.

Why Interpret the Bible?

April 4, 2023

Does the Bible need interpretation? Why don’t we just read it and do it? Is interpretation necessary to do that?

John Mark on John Mark

April 2, 2023

Confused already? Hang in there. This is a print version of a sermon I recently delivered on the New Testament character known as John, also called Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37), or traditionally known as John Mark. I think it is the first time I have ever “preached” a lesson focused on John Mark.

John is his Hebrew name, and Mark is a Greco-Roman name. Like Saul who was also called Paul, he had two names: a Jewish one and a Greco-Roman one. This was not uncommon in the first century. Jewish believers lived in both a Jewish world and in the world of Roman occupation and imperial rule.

We don’t know John Mark’s origins in any detail but we do know something about his mother, Mary. She owned a house in Jerusalem with a gateway (thus, larger than typical) and her household included servants, at least one whose name was Rhonda. Her home was a gathering place for believers as they assembled there to pray for Peter’s release from prison. Once released, Peter intuitively went to Mary’s house. Her husband is not mentioned; perhaps she was a widow. Whatever the case, she is a well-known leader in the Jerusalem community (Acts 12:12-17).

We may suppose that John Mark grew up in Jerusalem and was well-acquainted with the events surrounding Jesus. Some believe John Mark is the unidentified young man who fled naked from the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid arrest (Mark 14:51). At the very least, John Mark knew the leaders of the early Christian movement.

Sometime around the mid-40s, Barnabas and Saul travelled to Jerusalem from Antioch in order to share with the Jerusalem church a monetary gift to help with the famine. When they returned to Antioch, they took John Mark with them. Paul and Barnabas are clearly the leaders, and John Mark accompanies them. He is the a junior member of the team. Perhaps they chose John Mark because he was a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). Perhaps this was a kind of mentorship or apprentice move for the son of a prominent leader in the church at Jerusalem.

In Antioch, the Holy Spirit set aside Barnabas and Saul for the Gentile mission. They first went to Seleucia and then to Cyprus where they entered the synagogue at Salamis. There they “proclaimed the word of God.” They announced the message of God for the people of God at the synagogue. John Mark is still accompanying them.

John Mark is named as almost an afterthought, which confirms his ongoing junior status. But he is given a job. He is called a uperetes (Acts 13:5). The root of this word describes an enslaved galley ship oarsman. It became a general term for a servant or attendant. In military circles, it described an adjutant or staff officer (cf. Acts 5:22, 26). In a religious context, Luke uses it to describe a liturgical assistant in the synagogue (Luke 4:20). John Mark is an “assistant” of some sort rather than a teacher or prophet, but we don’t know in what exact way he assisted Barnabas and Saul.

However, after the next leg of that trip, when they sailed to Perga from Cyprus, John Mark left them (Acts 13:13). It is a curious note. Luke offers no explanation; it is stated rather matter-of-factly. Yet, why did John Mark leave?

The verb apolchorein means to depart, leave, or go away. While the term can mean something negative like withdrawal in battle, it does not necessarily have any negative meaning. We cannot deduce any rationale for John Mark’s return to Jerusalem. Perhaps he was homesick, or perhaps his mother needed him. Perhaps he did not like how Paul was becoming more prominent than Barnabas as if he was becoming the team leader. Perhaps he had grown fearful after several incidents on Cyprus. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the Gentile mission. We don’t know. We do know he returned to Jerusalem, which is where we will see him again in Acts 15:36-40.

After leaders and members gathered in Jerusalem to discuss the question of circumcision (Acts 15:1ff), Barnabas and Paul decided to revisit the congregations they had planted in the Gentile mission on what we know as the “first missionary journey.” Barnabas proposed to bring John Mark along again. Luke uses the same word he used in Acts 12:25. Perhaps Barnabas wanted to continue to mentor John Mark and apprentice him in the work of ministry.

But Paul regarded his previous withdrawal problematic. He thought it inappropriate or unwise to take John Mark with them. Perhaps Luke indicates why. At this point, Luke used a different word for “depart” or “withdraw” in Acts 15:38 than he did in Acts 13:13. Here the word is apostanta, which is used for desertion, defection, or apostacy (cf. Luke 8:13). They took John Mark along with them as part of the team, but John Mark withdrew and returned to Jerusalem. Paul does not want to take him again. They had previously taken John Mark “into the work” of ministry (Acts 15:38), but John Mark did not complete the journey with them. Luke characterizes John Mark’s withdrawal as a sort of desertion or even apostasy. It appears John Mark’s defection was a serious one rather than something more emotional or relational. He, it seems, abandoned the work they had set out to do. Perhaps Paul viewed John Mark as a threat to the Gentile mission; perhaps Barnabas thought the Jerusalem council settled the matter for John Mark as it did for so many others.

Barnabas wanted to take him, undeterred by John Mark’s previous actions. Paul did not because he was concerned about his previous decision. Consequently, a “sharp disagreement” arose between them (Acts 15:39). This was a severe argument, an intense disagreement. We derive the English word paroxysm from this Greek word. The English word means a sudden and intense outburst of strong feelings or activity. The Greek verb means to stir up or provoke, perhaps to become incensed. This is how Paul felt when he saw the idols in Athens (Acts 17:16). This was an angry dispute.

What to do? On the one hand, John Mark’s track record gave Paul considerable pause. More than pause, he rejected the idea with intense passion. To him, it was a bad idea to take John Mark along on a second trial run. John Mark’s withdrawal must have hurt Paul deeply or, at least, severely disappointed him. The mission was too important to Paul to risk further disturbance. The Gentile Mission had just been under attack, and Paul probably did want any complications.

On the other hand, John Mark was Barnabas’s cousin, a family member. Perhaps he had more grace and a longer history with John Mark whose mother was Barnabas’s aunt. They came from a well-to-do family in Jerusalem and were leaders in the Jerusalem church. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another shot at this work. The “son of encouragement” lived up to his name with John Mark.

Who was right? I don’t know. Perhaps we are not supposed to take sides. John Mark disappears, along with Barnabas, from the history in Acts. We don’t hear about either of them again.

But here is what we do know.

Despite the disagreement, Paul was willing to divide the “work” between them and form two teams. His problem with John Mark did not mean John Mark should be totally excluded from the Gentile mission. The division of labor still included John Mark. So, while the two teams separated, they were still doing the same work–caring for newly planted congregations. Paul, for example, did not follow behind Barnabas and John Mark to make sure they were doing it right or to bad-mouth them among the churches. They divided the labor, they trusted each other, and went to separate regions to water the fields earlier planted.

Ultimately, John Mark became a valuable asset to Paul in subsequent years. By the time Paul is imprisoned either in Ephesus in the mid-50s or in Rome in the early 60s, John Mark is with him (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:10). Apparently, some kind of reconciliation was reached between them, but more than mere “bygones be bygones,” they became partners in ministry. In his last letter, nearing his own execution, Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark with him “for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). The word “useful” reflects someone who is of great value. Mark was no longer a hindrance to Paul’s mission but a valued minister.

Perhaps sometimes it is good to accentuate the mission more than any particular person, and sometimes it is good to accentuate the person in light of the long-term interests of the mission.  Paul put the mission first, and Barnabas put John Mark first. Was one wrong and the other right? Or, were they both right? Or, perhaps, it is not a matter of right and wrong but each discerning what is best in the moment for the sake of the kingdom. Discernments don’t always have to agree for the kingdom to prosper.

Two teams emerged rather than one. The mission was enlarged, and John Mark was recouped. Two goods came out of a sharp disagreement. It was the sort of disagreement that meant separation but not disfellowship. It was the sort of disagreement that necessitated two separate teams instead of one team, but it did not subvert the mission. It enlarged it. Sometimes good comes out of disagreement. Though their disagreement was passionate, angry, and contentious, shared mission can transcend such disagreements and God can open more doors that we dreamed possible.

Disagreements and separations do not necessarily mean the subversion of the kingdom and its mission. It may enhance it as long as the disagreement does not undermine the mission and generate abusive hostility between the parties.

Oh, and by the way, apparently–at least according to tradition–John Mark also accompanied Peter at times, recorded his preaching, and authored a Gospel (1 Peter 5:13).

Peter calls him a son, which may reflect their intimate history going back to the days when Peter was released from prison in Jerusalem, or before.

The deserted John Mark became one of the most influential writers in the Christian tradition–the author of what many regard as the first canonical Gospel.

Perhaps Barnabas was right? Or, maybe they both were. Either way, in God’s good providence, the mission was furthered.

Tillard’s Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ: A Book Summary

March 30, 2023

J. M. R. Tillard, Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ: At the Source the Ecclesiology of Communion, trans. Madeleine Beaumount (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001).

I have now read the fourth of twelve books suggested by FB friends. This one was recommended by Reece LaBlanc. This is my summary; and this one is very difficult to briefly summarize for my FB friends. This book is no gentle flow down the stream; it is a torrent rapid of theological engagement through Scripture, historical theology, and theological reflection.

This book is not for the theologically faint-of-heart. It is a thoroughgoing theological reflection on the centrality of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) as the sacramental event that constitutes, at its most basic level, the church as church. It is a theological case for the conviction that the Eucharist is no mere addendum to the Christian life and community but is very spiritual reality into which we are grafted. The flesh of Christ and the flesh of the Church are united, and the Eucharist is not only an expression of that union but the source of the reality of the communion.

As I said, this is not exercise in the beginning or even intermediate theology. Rather, through reading Augustine carefully as a foundational thinker for the West and reading Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom as theologians for the East, Tillard finds a common theme, though sometimes abandoned in the West and in danger of being jettisoned in the West (even in the Roman Catholic Church). When the Eucharist is displaced as an enriching but dispensable practice (as has happened among many Protestant traditions in the West), Tillard argues we substitute the ecclesiology of communion for individualistic experiences of relationship with Jesus. Ultimately, the church—lacking its primary expression of communion itself—becomes as irrelevant and dispensable as the Eucharist. “Where is the communion?,” Tillard asks.

For Tillard, and the patristic writers he unpacks, communion is not a byproduct of individual relationships with God as God has collected all the individuals into a general fold bound together by cords of good feelings toward each other and a common subjective faith in God.  Rather, communion is the reality of the union of the flesh of Christ with the flesh of the Church—it is the mystical union of Christ and the Church in the Spirit. The Eucharist—where we receive the body and blood of the Lord—connects us to our own embodied lives in the midst of the gathered church (flesh and blood, concrete people). Shared Eucharist is shared communion, but not in a mere cognitive sense but in a deeply mystical and relational sense such that we commune with God and with each other.

The church is not, Tillard argues, the “sum or the juxtaposition of ‘justified’ individuals.” Nor can we reduce the church “a vast system of human solidarity.” On the contrary, the union is not mere solidarity, or justification (our sins are forgiven as individuals), or assembly in the same building. It is, in fact, the reality effected by the Spirit that unites the flesh of Christ and the flesh of the Church. Ecclesiology (the very nature of the church) is a Spiritual reality expressed and resourced by the concrete eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. It is communion; it is concretely experienced at the Eucharist table. This communion is “the knot” that ties everything together by the Spirit who unites God and humanity in Christ.

So, the enfleshed community (the concrete, visible church), through the Spirit and in Christ, communes with the transcendent, holy God and Father who has embraced humanity in its poverty. The flesh of Christ did not live for itself but for the sake of others, and the Eucharist in which we participate calls us (indeed, forms us and constitutes us) as people who will also sacrifice ourselves in agape love. The Eucharist is both a constitutive moment whereby we experience this profound union and, at the same time, a moment where we are formed by the work of the Spirit to become bread for the world, sacrificially giving ourselves for each other and the world just as Christ gave himself for us.

The church is supposed to be community of unceasing mutual love. As we dwell in the love of God through the Eucharist, so the Eucharist fills us with love so that we might become the reality in which we participate. The mutual indwelling experience in the Eucharist renews the mission of the church as “the healing of the body of wounded humanity.” The Eucharist not only testifies to this and renews it, but it is most fundamentally union with God in the flesh of Christ by the Spirit of God. The Eucharist, then, is a concrete source of life for the community that constitutes the community in the Spirit through the flesh of Christ.

Tillard is pushing against the dangers of Western emphases on individualism as well as reducing the meaning of assembly to listening to the word preached.  The West tends “to see the church as a society of baptized persons held together by obedience to the word, rather than as the communion united by the eucharistic body.” While the East has always been faithful to this vision of the Eucharist, the West has struggled to maintain it. According to Tillard and the East, there is “an unbreakable bond between church, Holy Spirit, and Eucharist.”

The nature of the communion that “defines the church” is this union between enfleshed members of the body of Christ communion (participating, sharing in) the flesh of Christ by the Spirit of God. In this we, we are one in the Spirit as a church, and the church experiences, renews, and instantiates this union most profoundly and concretely when at the Eucharist together. This, indeed, is a liberating moment as the grace of Christ’s own sacrifice frees us from our own selfishness so that we might become Christ to the world itself. And we do this not as individuals but as the body of Christ—a community in communion with God through Christ in the Spirit.

Perhaps, at bottom, the point is that ecclesiology is not fundamentally about voluntary congregationalism or loose bonds of shared commitments (even creeds). Rather, it is a profound union of the flesh of the church with the flesh of Christ in the Spirit through God’s gift of the Eucharist. It is a relational ontology—a participation, a mutual indwelling, a shared life—made possible by the flesh of Christ. It is not so much about how we, who are members of the body, make unity a reality but rather how the Spirit has united the flesh of the church with the flesh of Christ as a gift of God. And the Eucharist embodies that union—with God in Christ by the Spirit and with each other. That constitutes the communion of the church.

Lamenting While Waiting in Hope

March 29, 2023

Texts: Romans 5:1-5; 8:18-27; Hebrews 5:8-10

Days 71-74 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

Divine grace empowers hopeful waiting even as we groan for wholeness, for shalom.

We live in-between-the-times. The creation is a very good place to inhabit. Yet, it is presently filled with chaos, both natural and moral. In many ways, God’s good creation is also a broken place, especially where human sin contributes its nauseating and tragic influences. Some call this “fallenness.” Whatever we may name it, we live in a reality filled with both good and evil, both order and chaos.

Evil and chaos create suffering in human lives. And sufferers groan under the burden, yearning for deliverance. We groan for a world without suffering. We yearn for shalom in every aspect of life, both body and soul. We groan for release from the brokenness of the world. We yearn for the death of death itself. We seek something or someone who will free us from this bondage, especially death.

The gospel offers hope. The grace of God appeared in Jesus of Nazareth. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God defeated death. The gospel means, through the pouring out of the Spirit, that victory has already arrived and is experienced even now. But the fullness of that hope has not yet appeared.

We live with hope by the power of God’s grace, and yet we continue to groan under the bondage of decay. We groan and wait in hope. We lament and hope.

Divine grace empowers hopeful waiting even as we groan for wholeness, for shalom.

Pentecost: Renewal (Restoration) of Israel

March 22, 2023

Texts: Acts 1:6-8; 2:16-21, 37-41

Days 56-58 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

The prophet Joel promised Israel, who at the time was suffering a great national tragedy, a time when God would restore its fortunes. They would never again be same and all who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Joel 2:25-3:1).

Peter announced in Acts 2, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). Whatever was happening on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 was a moment to which Joel pointed. It was the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

The question the disciples asked in Acts 1:6-8 about the time when God would restore Israel was not a bad question. They were, however, too anxious about the timing. Jesus told them to wait, and the Spirit would come. When the Spirit came, the restoration of Israel began.

Just as Joel foretold, God poured out the Spirit upon Israel through the newly enthroned Messiah. This pouring, however, was not limited to an individual or even to a specific group. Rather, it was poured out on “all flesh,” including Jew and Gentile, women and men, and enslaved and free. On that day, the Spirit testified to the reality of the kingdom secured at the right hand of God by the resurrected Jesus.

Just as God had gathered Israel at Mount Sinai, so now God gathered renewed Israel at Mount Zion. Through repentance and baptism, they became a newly gathered people who would continue the mission of Israel as a light to the nations. And they would inherit the promise God made to Abraham–experienced through the gift of the Spirit—to continue and purse that mission by scattering missional communities devoted to Jesus across the world.

Resurrected and Enthroned Lord: Filling the Earth with New Creatures

March 15, 2023

Texts: Luke 24:30-35; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 1:20-23; Galatians 6:14-16

Days 52-55 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

We can only imagine the despair of the disciples in the crushing darkness of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The Christian calendar calls it “Holy Saturday.”

We can only imagine the joy of the disciples on the morning of the third day. The Christian calendar calls it “Easter.”

The movement from despair to joy is typified in the table at Emmaus. There Jesus revealed himself to two disciples; they experienced an epiphany that transformed mourning into dancing. They ran to join other disciples in Jerusalem, and together they celebrated at table with the risen Lord.

In Luke, it was at that table that Jesus commissioned them while in Matthew it was in Galilee. The commissioning brings the whole story of Israel to a climactic moment as the disciples are scattered throughout the world to fill it with the glory of God through making disciples among all the nations.

This old agenda (filling the earth with the glory of God) is renewed because the Messiah has ascended to the throne of David as the Lord of creation. This is new creation, and Jesus reigns as both Lord and Messiah.

New creation is inaugurated by the enthronement of the slaughtered but risen Lord. New creation has begun. As disciples scatter across the world, through the gospel God shines the light of new creation out of the darkness into the hearts of people who become new creatures.

A new age has dawned in the resurrection and enthronement of Jesus, who is both Lord and Christ.