On Women and Spiritual Leadership

There is a church of another denomination near where I live that has a man and woman co-pastoring. This is a relatively new development for that church, and there are a few individuals (possibly more) who are having difficulty accepting this situation.

A friend of mine approached me, and asked for some thoughts he could pass on to someone he knows within that church who is wrestling with the recent change in leadership.  Rather than submit to the “Outrage Culture” that grips even the Church when this subject is brought up, I decided to do some study and posit some thoughts rather than argue about this. The following is a rather lengthy letter I put together on the topic.

I decided to post this letter, as this topic has come up in multiple isolated conversations recently. Perhaps someone will find it interesting…

 

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My dear brother in Christ,

I was asked recently by a mutual friend to help clarify the Scripture’s teaching on whether or not women can serve as spiritual leaders within the home and within the Church. I was saddened by this question, though not because of your thoughts regarding this topic. I was saddened that this topic has been so neglected, yet simultaneously politicized, within the church that such a question would need to be asked at all. But, I am also grateful that you are wrestling with this subject. It is my hope that I can help bring some clarity, or – at best – supply a starting point for the direction of your searching.

Allow me to say that in my experience, beginning with the question, “What does the Bible say about…” is a precarious starting point. What is usually implied by this statement is that the Bible should be read without regard for careful study (such as neglecting historical context, translation challenges, what has been historically taught by the Church, and what speaks to human reason). Thus, the Scriptures are approached with the mindset of “whatever my translation of the Bible says, I will believe that.” In turn, this means that “whatever I think the Bible means, that is authoritative.”

It is true that the Holy Spirit illuminates our thinking and helps us to understand the truth communicated through God’s Word, but the Spirit does not act as a crutch for willful ignorance.

I am not suggesting that you have this mindset, but I say that only to preface that my response to the topic will include extra-Biblical insights. And, if we do disagree, it is not because one of us is reading the Bible and the other is not, but that our interpretations of the texts differ. The Holy Bible was not written with a study guide attached (alas!), so we are left to use our faculties to the best of our abilities to reach a conclusion.

John Wesley, the theological father of several groups of devout believers, taught that Scripture is best interpreted through the employment of Reason, Tradition, and Experience. I will follow his lead and employ those tools throughout our exploration of the Bible.

On the Role of Man and Woman as Spiritual Leaders

Genesis 1:27

I almost always draw attention to the semicolon in this verse. God created man (collective Ha-adam; mankind) in his image. Not just man (singular; a man), but mankind. The semicolon suggests that the division of clauses present communicate the same principle. In other words, it is men and women together who best reflect the image of God. It implies, then, that the best way to demonstrate and teach who God is (a sound working definition of a Christian Spiritual Leader, I feel), is not by one individual acting alone, but by multiple people – both men and women – working together.

Genesis 3:6

The woman eats the fruit first. This is clearly evident, and causes many to conclude that women are the spiritually weaker sex and thereby incapable of properly leading others (in most cases, specifically men) in the faith.  What is not often noted is that the man in this passage is with the woman the entire time – listening to the conversation between the woman and the serpent, watching the woman as she takes the fruit, and then subsequently eats it – all without saying a single word. He does not try to intervene in the least. In fact, he even receives the fruit from the woman and eats it himself. If the woman eating the fruit is demonstrative of her inability to lead well, then the man’s inaction demonstrates the same. They are equally at fault, and equally sinful.

Judges 4:1 – 5:13

To be sure, several women are spoken highly of in the Bible, but here we have an instance of one women – Deborah – who served as a judge of Israel. There is nothing in her story that implies she was a ‘lesser’ judge, nor that God was displeased with her serving as the leader of Israel (4:4). She leads the people and honors the Lord by doing so.

1 Samuel 1:21-23

This is the first of several passages I found fascinating in my study. Throughout the Bible, it was the women who seemed to be more attentive to their spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of their children within the home. Much like today, where we generally see more women in our churches than men (and women tend to be more active within the church). It serves to personal experience and even the writings of Scripture that it is generally women who are the spiritual leaders within the home, rather than men.*

*this is certainly not ideal, and I am not making that case. It is merely an observation made by both human reason and Biblical accounts.*

Here, it was Hannah who prayed, and God heard her and blessed her. There is no mention of her husband’s spiritual nature, but in verses 21-23, we see Hannah determining the spiritual direction of their child and Elkanah submits to her decision. There is no negative recourse nor scolding of Elkanah; Hannah’s spiritual leadership of her household is honored.

Conclusion:

I am not attempting to say that women are more sensitive to the Spirit, nor more capable of being spiritual leaders. Instead, it seems reasonable to conclude that the role of “spiritual leader,” whether within the household or within the community, is a position shared by both sexes.

The aforementioned stories, although few, are not treated as exceptions to some rule about only men being the spiritual leader. There are no asterisks or clauses to indicate that God would have preferred a man to lead Israel, or that Elkanah would have been a stronger spiritual head. Instead, these women are included in the story of the people of God as equally capable even in the presence of equally capable men.

The Story of Christ and the Role of Women in The Church

Luke 1:26-56

I will confess that I may be reading too much into this passage, but I find it intriguing that the presence of the Messiah is noticed by the unborn and women before anyone else. If spiritual leadership requires a certain sensitivity to the Spirit of God, then it appears that women are quite capable of having such sensitivity. Even Elizabeth, whose husband served as a priest (certainly a man of strong faith), recognized Jesus as the Christ before he did. More emphatically, when Zachariah was confronted face-to-face by the Archangel Gabriel, he did not even believe his words.

Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 (esp. 10-18)

The Gospel (the Good News) is that Christ is risen!  Evangelism (from the Greek word meaning “Good News”), is the communication of the Truth that Jesus the Christ is alive! I can think of no higher role one has than to tell others about the risen savior.

We should note, then, that the first ones to carry the message of the risen savior were not men. Rather, the first evangelists were women. Admittedly, the gospel accounts do differ in who exactly was at the empty tomb, but they all clearly say that it was the women who told the disciples of the risen Lord.

I have heard the argument that the women were not actually being evangelists because the disciples already believed.  I find that unconvincing, personally, because it suggests that one can be a believer while simultaneously not believing in the resurrection of Christ (which the disciples rejected until the resurrected Christ revealed himself).

The New Testament and the Role of Women

At this point, it would be beneficial to admit that we should tread carefully when reading the New Testament. Even Paul makes references to his writing being from his own thoughts and not necessarily from the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:12 & 25). This makes it difficult sometimes to understand the meaning of certain passages because much of what is written is speaking out of a particular cultural context.

In my tradition, as well as most others, we distinguish between three types of text: Normative, Corrective, and Descriptive.

  • Normative texts are those whose message and meaning are universal: “I am the way, the Truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Luke 14:6). This is universally true, regardless of where we find ourselves in history or location.
  • Corrective texts are those that are only authoritative in certain instances. When Paul is discussing to the Corinthians that men should keep their heads shaved and women should wear head coverings, it should be evident that he is addressing a specific issue (in this case, the cultural understanding of human sexuality and reproduction. See Troy Martin’s article “A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering” for more on this).  Therefore, what Paul is teaching here should not be viewed as universally true.
  • Descriptive texts merely describe events, much like a narrator. They do not intent to communicate a lesson.

For many of the following passages, I imagine that some would disagree over what should be classified as “Normative” and “Corrective.” In fact, it is this reason that has led to such widespread disagreements regarding women in the Church and within the home.

Acts 2:17-18

Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit with power upon men and women. This passage is a quote from Joel, and it clearly mentions the Spirit of God being poured out on both men and women, sons and daughters.  Although it may be suggested that men and women are set up in a spiritual hierarchy, that view would need to assume that the Spirit is given unequally to men and women.  While it is true that the Holy Spirit gives us different gifts, the same Spirit lives and works within us all (1 Corinthians 12) and its power is not diminished nor inhibited based on sex.

1 Corinthians 7:1-16

Here, Paul makes a lengthy argument for an egalitarian view of marriage where each spouse submits to one another and neither one assumes a spiritually authoritarian role.

1 Corinthians 11:3

This passage is good practice for the mantra “understanding the particular in light of the whole.” The Bible is consistent in its teaching of the Faith. As such, when we come across discrepancies, we should exercise careful study.

Here, Paul is saying that the head of every woman is man just as the head of every man is Christ. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Paul is laying forth a spiritual hierarchy. However, that would flatly contradict what was stated earlier in chapter 7, as well as much of Paul’s other writings. I confess that this passage has me perplexed. I cannot confidently identify what Paul’s point is, here. Is he stating his observations – that men tend to be focused on Christ while women tend to be focused on their husbands? Or is he using this passage as a lead-in to what he is about to say about head coverings (referenced earlier)? I believe it is the latter, and I will refer to Martin’s article to gain some clarity on the subject.

1 Corinthians 14:34

Myself, and most all of my peers, recognize this as a “corrective” passage. Let’s be frank on this subject: women talk more than men do. It has been scientifically and anecdotally proven. I have been a part of many groups, and by and large it is women who tend to occupy the most time with talking.

We should not wrongfully assume that people throughout history were any different. Paul, in his other letters, sheds light on the fact that many women who attended church were not educated enough to teach, and many were prone to gossip and speaking ill of their husbands (it appears we haven’t changed much since Timothy and Titus).  Thus, Paul is most likely referring to issues he has heard of regarding women who would teach unintelligibly within the church or cause disorder via talking too much.

Fitting into the larger context of Paul’s message in this chapter, he seems more concerned with addressing an orderly style of worship (apparently the Corinthians had no solid worship structure), so this is probably an issue specific to their context.

Galatians 3:26-29

It would be difficult to suppose that Paul teaches a spiritual hierarchy within the Body of Christ when, here, he directly states that there is “neither male nor female” for “all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 5:21-33

Commonly referred to as the passage that overtly teaches the man’s superiority over the woman, this section actually begins in verse 21 with Paul stating “submit to one another.” He then goes on to illustrate what an equal submission looks like within marriage.

He does begin with the wives, needing to submit to their husbands. But, he then goes on to tell husbands that they ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “gave himself up for her.” If men are to be the spiritual leaders of the home, it is of a type in which he gives up his own life for his wife.

If one is to interpret this passage as the male taking a higher position of spiritual leadership, then it would be difficult indeed to reconcile that position with verse 31, where the two become one flesh. This harkens back to Genesis 1:27; it is not the man nor the woman who reflects the image of God the best, but man and woman together.

1 Timothy 2:11

I recommend what I wrote on 1 Corinthians 14, though I would point out that Paul tells Timothy in 5:14 that it is the women who manage the homes (not the men).

2 Timothy 1:4-5

As to women being spiritual leaders within the home, I want to recall what I wrote about 1 Samuel. Here, Paul refers directly to Timothy’s upbringing, and commends his mother and grandmother for the faith they had and passed on to Timothy. There is no mention of Timothy’s father or other male role models, but it was the women in Timothy’s family who appeared to have been the spiritual heads. Similar to my note after 1 Samuel, this is not treated as extraordinary.

Titus 2:3-5

Once again, I am been convinced that this is a Correctional passage. Paul is writing a personal letter to Titus, and he appears to be addressing a specific problem within that church; the women were slandering and drinking too much, not respecting their husbands nor taking care of their homes.

1 Peter 3:1-7

Peter does refer to wives as “the weaker partner,” but he does not indicate this as a spiritual weakness. Earlier in chapter 3, he illustrates how wives can win their husbands to the Lord by how they live (an argument he makes earlier in his letter for the whole church).

Conclusion

I hope this brief study serves as a help as you continue your journey. Although I admit my bias on the topic, I will readily confess that not everything in Scripture is abundantly clear and it was not my purpose to argue against a particular stance, but to communicate my standing on this topic.

I was once in a heated discussion over prospective leaders in our denomination. Some were arguing that we needed to have more women and non-white leaders in high positions because we needed people who “represented the diversity of the church.” I was utterly perplexed by this, because it is not the role of a spiritual leader to represent the people to Christ; it is the role of a spiritual leader to represent Christ to the people.

From there, I would like to leave this question: Is Christ represented better through the lives of men than of women?

I feel this is a good place to start. And wherever you land on this subject, brother, I pray God’s wisdom.

 

If it is of interest, I’ve copied what is written in my denomination’s Manual on the subject:

Ҧ 501. Theology of Women in Ministry. The Church of the Nazarene supports the right of women to use their God-given spiritual gifts within the church and affirms the historic right of women to be elected and appointed to places of leadership within the Church of the Nazarene, including the offices of both elder and deacon.

The purpose of Christ’s redemptive work is to set God’s creation free from the curse of the Fall. Those who are “in Christ” are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). In this redemptive community, no human being is to be regarded as inferior on the basis of social status, race, or gender (Galatians 3:26–28). Acknowledging the apparent paradox created by Paul’s instruction to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:11–12) and to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:33–34), we believe interpreting these passages as limiting the role of women in ministry presents serious conflicts with specific passages of scripture that commend female participation in spiritual leadership roles (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:17–18; 21:8–9; Romans 16:1, 3, 7; Philippians 4:2–3), and violates the spirit and practice of the Wesleyan-holiness tradition. Finally, it is incompatible with the character of God presented throughout Scripture, especially as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.”

On Emperors and Paper Houses

There’s something about fictional stories that I simply adore.

I think it’s the ability for a story to teach us about ourselves without feeling intentional. We’re far enough separated from that alternate reality that it’s not personal, but it still affects our thinking and feeling.

For example, you can tell a story about a young boy on a desert planet. A boy who farms moisture, and takes care of self-aware robots. A boy whose estranged father is an evil ruler who chokes people to death and cuts them in half, and whose sister is the princess of a planet that gets destroyed. A totally bizarre story!  And yet, we can feel connected to those characters.

I’ve been reading through the Dune series by Frank Herbert over the last couple years. (I highly encourage everyone to check them out.) I just finished the third book: God Emperor of Dune.  It has mazingly fleshed-out characters, but there was one in particular that sticks to my mind… Moneo.

Moneo was the second-hand man to the God-Emperor named Leto. He obeyed Leto without wavering, and invested decades of his life in the service of his master.  But he had one major character flaw that revealed itself time and time again… He was unable to question his beliefs.

It’s not that he was not allowed to question his beliefs in the God-Emperor (the ‘center’ of worship throughout the universe of these tales), but that he simply could not cognitively and emotionally handle his own suppressed doubts. Throughout the story, he encounters moments of dissonance; times when his ideas about the God-Emperor are challenged, and his mind begins to crumble as he scrambles for understanding – that all-too-elusive solid ground upon which his mind can stand.

Several characters in the story surpass Moneo in terms of their personal growth. His own daughter, for example, becomes the choice person for succession for the God-Emperor Leto as time goes on. Even the character who is expected to attempt an assassination of God-Emperor Leto is shown more favor as Moneo sinks into the background.

Many times, and especially towards the end of this entry of the series, God-Emperor Leto becomes frustrated with Moneo and his lack of mental/(spiritual?) flexibility. Moneo is so set in his thinking that he is unable to grasp the significance of his place, and his lackluster future is lamented by his ruler.

What is striking, however, is that Leto eventually reveals how much potential Moneo had; the intended purpose of his life, all the grandness that was laid out for him, and the majestic nature of Leto’s leadership.  And yet, he was so stuck in his rigid thinking that it wasn’t until his dying breath that he finally broke through his naïve shelter of paper walls and saw with clarity the true nature of his life and that of his master Leto.

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I find that Moneo is a good example of many believers. I, myself, remember living in paper houses. Following a rigid system of beliefs and a worldview that I neither understood nor cared to explore. I feared leaving those places – afraid that my life would crumble at the mere presence of an idea juxtaposed to what I believed to be true.

One of my greatest joys is seeing people leave paper houses. I remember those shining moments when someone is able to actually ask a real question; is able to truly reflect on their own notions of reality and challenge what they have thought to be true for so long. They take their first steps into a beautiful new world, full of danger – yes – but full of potential as well.

 

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ imagery in The Great Divorce. The ghost-like people are new to the world of reality, and even their own feet cannot bend the blades of grass in this strange place. They walk on what feels like needles; they cannot lift even a single apple in this land. Strength comes with time, however, as they learn how to walk and their bodies become more solid.  So many visitors, however, abandon this world of reality as cruel and inhumane. They opt, instead, to return to the world of grey, where empty houses cannot even keep out the rain.

On Bricks and Sermons

I’ve always been into Legos. Ever since I can remember, I loved getting Lego sets for my birthday and Christmas. I had so much fun following the directions and constructing a new toy to play with. My imagination ran wild with all the adventures I could have with it. But, inevitably, I would deconstruct whatever I built and throw the pieces into a large bin with all the other pieces I’d accumulated.

The vast majority of my time spent with Legos consisted of creating new projects. Whether it was a space ship (I’d say this was 90% of what I built), a house, or a landscape, I was building something new. And this was the process I always went through – and still go through – when building something new:

  1. Dig through my entire Lego collection, setting aside every single piece I might want to use
  2. Build whatever I wanted from the pieces I had set aside
  3. Put the unused pieces in with the rest of my collection.

On any given project, no matter how large or small, I would only end up using – at most – 30% of all the pieces I originally set aside. When collecting those pieces, my imagination would go crazy with all the ideas I had… “I could use this piece if I wanted to make a kitchen-type room,” “What about this piece? Yeah, it could be a wing or something…,” “Every spaceship needs a grate over the mechanical segments,” and so-on.  In the end, however, the majority of my ideas would be scrapped.

I remember one time I was building a single-seater space ship (of course). I spent about an hour or so collecting all the parts I thought I could use. I probably had around 500 pieces in all by the end of it. My original idea kept changing, and the next hour was used for building exactly what I wanted. In fact, every time I think back to that project, I wish I wouldn’t have torn it apart because the set turned out perfectly.

All-in-all, it was only comprised of 100 pieces.  But man…. I loved that ship. It was just right!

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Being trained in ministry is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that my focus for being a pastor is more narrow, allowing me to better determine how to best used my time and energy in serving others. It also helped me in structuring sermons (probably my most consistent form of ministering to people).

But ministry training is also a curse. Probably the worst thing for a preacher to go through is listening to another preacher, because we have been trained in message preparation; Biblical hermeneutics, public speaking, presentation structure, ancient culture and language, and Christian theology. To be perfectly frank, one of my greatest struggles is attending other churches. It’s almost inevitable that something the preacher/speaker says is going to put me off; an anachronism, proof-texting, misappropriation of a text, exegetical fallacies, or something as silly as “the gain on his mic is set way too high.”  All of that is stuff I can look past, to a point, but I’ve noticed a larger issue that is happening in a lot of churches….

I typically develop a message the same way that I build with Legos: I start with a general idea, and then gather up all the pieces that I feel fit the best. I’ll jot down a story idea, point to other parts of the Bible, maybe a piece of philosophy or language, add in some backstory, a rabbit trail or two if it doesn’t distract from the message, and anything else that pops in my head.  Once that’s done, I strip everything down to what’s necessary to convey the truth of that Sunday’s Scripture reading.  Overall, I’d say that my weekly sermon is about 30% of what I’ve played with during preparation.

I can only imagine what my sermons would be like if I tried to add every “great idea” I had in preparation. I would have so many anecdotes, fluff information, and side-notes that the message would be way too long and convoluted, and ultimately people would leave thinking, “wait… what was the message?”  That’s what I see happening in a lot of churches, and even in people’s personal lives.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but there’s a growing atmosphere that consists of “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are nice; but what else?” Perhaps we’ve stumbled into it, or maybe it’s a response to people who don’t think the Gospel is dense enough, or it could be that we keep trying to outdo ourselves in our presentation. Whatever it is, I rarely meet people (outside of my local community, because our pastors are pretty awesome) who confront the Word on a regular basis. They confront exciting, emotional music; they watch a well-produced movie or a sketch at church; but the Word must have been left in the Pastor’s study.

It’s sad to admit that when I read a ‘Christian’ book, watch a Christian movie, or see a televangelist, I resign myself to the fact that I’m not going to encounter the Word; I’m going to encounter an abstract painting – just enough color and texture to be interesting, but contorted to the point of being indistinguishable.

There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the Gospel, because it’s been buried beneath a lot of “great ideas.” We dress it up, do some color correction, add cool effects, inject a bunch of memes to make it ‘relevant,’ and before too long Christ is left on the periphery of the real focus: a variety show.

Now, I’m not shouting “Heresy!” toward preachers, teachers, or speakers. If people are coming to know the Lord, I’m not going to heavily discount the work of a lot of churches out there. My point is this: Is the forgiveness of sins enough for us?  Is sanctification satisfying? Is resurrection, and life eternal, worthy of reflection?

Or do we even know what those mean anymore?

Maybe we threw them back into the bin, in favor of something else we want the Gospel to be.

On Pollution and Grace

There was once a vibrant oasis in the Western United States. Over time, with the introduction of harmful human activity, the oasis became polluted to the point that flora and fauna struggled to survive.

A local group, concerned about the rapid decline of that ecosystem, began to take steps towards repairing the damage that had been done. They removed large amounts of waste from that environment, quarantined a few areas around the lake, and put forth several measures to prevent further accumulation of harmful substances.

Over a short time, the oasis began to recover. Plant life began to recover, the ph balance of the water was improving, and the soil composition was getting back to what it needed to be. The nearby town began introducing new life into the ecosystem; fish and several plants to further improve the quality of the soil and water. However, there were still noticeable issues with the levels of pollution that were found.

Once again, the people involved in monitoring the situation saw improvements. This time, however, the improvements came slowly. They began doing water treatments to further cleanse the lake, and introduced soil treatments to remove even more pollutants that were found in the ground. Improvements still came, but noticeable differences were difficult to observe.

After some time, the people became frustrated with their progress. At several hundred thousand dollars spent, the nearby town was thoroughly invested in removing all pollutants from the oasis. But, the tests still showed the presence of pollution. Even though the current levels of harmful substances were a tiny fraction of what they once were, further measures were enacted to continue the purification process.

Aquifer rehabilitation, plant scrubbing, animal cleaning, numerous amounts of sprays, and chemical spreads were introduced. At this point, the economic cost was well into the millions of dollars and national finances were being used for the rehabilitation project.

As these methods were taking place, the situation – surprisingly – began to get worse. The levels of cleaning chemicals ended up killing most of the fish in the lake, as well as the plant life surrounding it. The town had to declare bankruptcy because of the inordinate level of costs it had undertaken. And, in a brief span of time, the oasis became a desert.

cost-benefit-analysis

I’ve heard this story used as a thought experiment for cost-benefit analysis in economics. I feel it works equally well in a social setting.

There is a nasty habit that has evolved in our midst; the tireless pursuit of perfection. Every possible negative instance is heavily scrutinized and swiftly punished. There can be no imperfection in our society; no room for error. Whenever a comment is made that is racist or sexist (or if it could be taken as such), a cleansing process must take place to eradicate it.

I have been concerned for a while that our culture is committing the same self-destructive process within our own social fabric. With these trends of racial reconciliation, gender equality, mutual tolerance, and open-mindedness becoming increasingly radical, I cannot help but wonder if our Western ideal of perfection is going to kill us.

Now, I am not in favor of racism, sexism, bigotry, or whatever other ideologies exist that elevate one type of person over another. However, I also feel that it is a problem to relentlessly pursue their eradication.

Let’s face the reality: people will be bigoted. Racism, sexism, closed-mindedness, xenophobia, and similar negative traits will exist wherever we go. It is good to recognize these realities and seek reconciliation, but we should also acknowledge that there comes a point where pursuing perfect justice will ultimately lead us to creating an environment in which we, ourselves, cannot even live. We will have cultivated an ecosystem that is so purified that no form of life can survive.

I am still wresting with this line of thinking, and am curious to see where the logical end of it lies. I feel very strongly, though, that instead of asking ourselves, “How can we get rid of these social ills?” we should begin asking, “Can we show grace in the midst of human imperfections?” Following the direction of the general philosophy of our culture, the answer to the latter question is quickly becoming “no.” In such an environment, no one will be able to survive.

Integrating this line of thinking into the Church, we should not be surprised by those who say, “I am not good enough to be a Christian.”  The more we pursue our idea of perfection (whether we are talking about politics, theology, or whatever else), the more it will come at the cost of our own humanity. We won’t be able to live in the world we’ve created. We would do well to walk with humility in these times, especially since we are wading through a growing paradox of increasing legalism and the simultaneous extension of self-sovereignty.

On Death and Glass

I once cleaned windows for a dead man.

I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when it happened. And it still grips me, even today…

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Several years ago, I was working for Brad’s Window Cleaning out of Rockford (best company I’ve ever worked for, so I am unashamedly promoting them!).  One day, we had a cleaning job for a cottage by a lake. Nothing unusual about this job; a quick exterior power washing and in/out window cleaning. Since I was the crew leader for window cleaning, I headed inside the house to begin my work.

I was greeted by a kind woman, probably in her late 60s, and later met her husband who was sitting in a recliner in front of their television. I don’t remember their names, but the impression of their personalities is engraved on my memory.

It was a lovely cottage. A brightly toned, open living room facing the lake to the East, with large peak windows that needed a ladder to reach. There was a set of French doors that led to a deck, so the whole room filled with natural light.

As with most homes by a lake, most of the window cleaning was done in one or two rooms that face the scenery. So, as I was expecting, I spent the vast majority of my time in that living room – moving my ladder around, handing screens, and moving furniture.

I got to know their family quite well, even though I don’t remember all the details. They had a recently married son who did business somewhere in the South. I believe they also had a daughter who was rather successful in her field. This couple were proud parents, and they expressed interest in getting to know me as I cleaned the dust off their sills.

The television was on most of the time, and the sound was a dull white noise to us. I recall it being Fox News, and the story of the hour was a natural disaster or political upheaval in a foreign country. Something like that.

The main thing I remember was that the conversation between us was cordial and inviting.  I actually missed them as I went to other parts of the house to finish my work.

The following year, I pulled up to their cottage in our work van, and felt excitement at doing this job once again (we had some customers who were… less than exciting to work for. But some customers were a blast to have!).  I was by myself this time, as it was a small enough job that didn’t justify more than one cleaner. I will never forget being invited in and walking into that living room; that sacred space.

This time, however, the recliner was empty. I asked, “Where is your husband?”

“He passed away.”

I remember just standing there, staring at the chair. I so clearly remembered our conversation a year earlier while he sat there, and I was dumbstruck that he would never be there again.

I don’t think I ever paid so much attention to detail as I spent that afternoon working quietly around her house. I even cleaned up the dead spiders and bug carcasses that fell on the ground as I cleaned the garage windows (If you’ve never had to clean a garage window, consider yourself blessed by God. They’re the worst!).

Sometimes, while I’m cleaning windows, I still remember those moments. I learned, then, that even minuscule tasks can be significant. Ever since that day, window cleaning was no longer my job. Window cleaning became my ministry.

On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

Chaos_Monster_and_Sun_God

Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.

On Writing and Not Writing

A while ago, I noticed that there was a subtle shift in my life. It happened shortly after I moved to Gagetown to begin pastoring the Nazarene church here.  I didn’t expect for this change to occur. In fact, I expected my life to shift in the opposite direction. Regardless of what I expected or didn’t expect, the reality of this change is still something that shocks me…

I stopped writing.

Blank notepad and pencil

I do write Bible studies for our Sunday Night study time and the Youth Groups studies, and I write sermons.  But, I stopped writing here; on my blog.  That strikes me as unusual, especially given that I see many pastors regularly publish their thoughts and reflections (many times, this is done by people I know who never seemed too interested in writing before).  Of all the ways that I, as a pastor, can reflect and play with ideas, I thought that my blog would be the perfect place to do so.

I was wrong.

As I was thinking about this last night, I realized why I haven’t written on here in over a year: it’s because I’m a pastor.  I don’t say that as an excuse, nor am I saying it to make anyone in my church feel guilty.  I say it because it’s a matter of fact.

When I write things on here, they are the result of personal study and reflection. I write the things that are going on in my head and heart. Honestly, over the last few months I have really wanted to write about what I’m learning through studying Job, Genesis, and the study of eschatology in scripture.  However, when I sit down to put my thoughts into words, I simply can’t go through with it.

I have found that much of my thoughts revolve around conversations. In talking with people in my church, I tap into new areas of exploration.  I learn more about myself, those around me, and what it means to be a pastor and a Christian. Through these conversations, I ask questions I haven’t asked before, I confront doubts I’ve never faced, and I come to realizations that I’ve never expected.  And that is the heart of why I don’t write.

Almost everything I have thought of writing about are products of personal interactions. They are the result of someone opening their heart to me in the foyer after church, or an ongoing conversation that develops a new chapter every week, or they stem from a discussion that grew out of grief or personal struggles.

What would it be, then, if I took those moments and reduced them to tools in order to publish something? Could I be trusted to maintain confidentiality if anyone I talk with could have their private thoughts put on display just so I could make a point? Certainly, as we all know, I rarely use names or reference specific instances that we could point to and say, “I know exactly what/who Ben is talking about!”  But the person whose conversation is critiqued, or analyzed, or – at the very least – mentioned, would know.

How would I feel if I were reading someone’s blog and ran across a reference to an interaction the author and I had? I’m not so sure I could trust the author anymore, knowing that anything I share with him/her could be used as a writing device for others to see. There would be the constant threat that our private conversations could be reduced to public tools.

I have tried to explore ways of writing that separate me from my pastoral context.  Perhaps if I wrote in a more mechanical manner, it would be easier to avoid bringing my church into the conversation and causing unnecessary collateral damage.  Maybe I could simply quote authors and develop a synthetic framework within which I could explore the applications of my own thinking.

I have tried that, actually. But, I can’t do that. I cannot separate myself from my context. Every time I sit down to write, I impulsively seek out ways of how what I’m thinking/learning/studying could be applied in a pastoral way; “How can these ideas help the people in my church to grow in their relationship with the Lord?” And when I ask those questions, I inevitably bring in specific instances. Suddenly, the writing becomes far less mechanical, and far more intimate.

I begin writing about so-and-so’s personal loss or struggle. I type up the victories that what’s-his-face has experienced. In the blink of an eye (rather, the click of a keyboard), those personal interactions becomes mechanisms for writing. They are no longer the personal complexities, full of emotion and intricacies. They are reduced to a single instance, and the individual behind them is reduced to a 1-dimensional character – created to serve a purpose in a parasitic dialogue; having all of their uniqueness sucked out of them so I can write a conclusion.

Even if I were to remove those personal conversations, I cannot help but wrestle against one of the greatest challenges in writing: “It’s rarely what you say that should concern you, but what people hear.” It’s possible that my conclusions on interpreting Daniel’s visions or interpreting Genesis 1-3 could cause unnecessary chaffing between myself and my people.

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not against conflict. Conflict, in and of itself, is amoral. I enjoy conflict of ideas and perspectives, because it helps bring to light things we may have not noticed before. It forces us to confront our own weaknesses and brings us to new levels of understanding. However, my concern with the impersonal medium of writing is that I could unintentionally push someone away.  For those in my church, or connected to my church, my writing could cause alarm and even make them uncomfortable to be around me. In that case, it would be better to have not written at all.

I know that may sound incredibly overdramatic.  Maybe it’s even a horrible way to think about writing as a pastor. But that’s how it is when I [try to] write. I truly would like to write on this blog again like I used to, but I’m not convinced that is the most pastoral thing I could do. More than not, I actually see it working against my role as a pastor.

Before I became a pastor, it never occurred to me that such would be the case.

 

Maybe I’ll start writing more regularly again. Maybe I’ll find a niche way of writing that avoids the potential pitfalls that I’m concerned about. Or maybe I’ll just say, “Screw it!” and write whatever comes to mind. Time will tell.