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.”

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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 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 Family and Church (Part 2)

I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!

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So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.

I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.

Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.

Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.

Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.

Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith[1]. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.

One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service[2] is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:

For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.

There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.

Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?

I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.

“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)

 

[1]. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
[2]. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!

 

On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda (Part 2)

Some of you probably noticed a few writing errors on my last post shortly after it was published (I know I did!). As I was going through and making some minor edits on misspelled words, I began to sift through it and add hyperlinks to various parts that I thought were relevant – parts where I thought, “you know, maybe someone wants to know more about what I just said. I’ll include hyperlinks to show where I’m getting my information.”

But then I encountered a problem… About 2/3rds the way through my last post, I began saying things like, “Read YouTube comments, and you’ll see the strong opposition to anyone who would seek to promote Christianity as a respectable religion in our culture’s Scientism-based ideology.” Here’s the problem I encountered: I couldn’t find a demonstration of this. Sure, as I looked through YouTube videos discussion religion/faith there were a few spots where things got a bit heated in the comments section. But, for every post I found that belittled Christianity I found another that belittled non-Christians. Overall, for all the vitriol that YouTube comments hold (“cesspools,” as some people describe them), there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong leaning one way or the other. In fact, there are some good conversations that take place, albeit rarely.

As I scoured the videos I watched in days-gone-by where I thought I was getting a hint of anti-Christianity, I soon began to question myself… Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda?

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I began to search the internet even more, looking beyond YouTube into Reddit, Facebook, and even 4Chan to see what kinds of anti-Christianity existed. What I found was that there certainly is an anti-Christian presence on these sites, but there is also a pro-Christian presence. In fact, most of the views held by both sides of the conversation tend to stay within their own circles, like different cliques of people sitting together in their own section of the bleachers during a school event; having their own in-house meeting while occasionally slinging mud at one another, but having no real engagement between the two.

Then, I began to think through my personal interactions with those I’ve met who are atheists and agnostics. Interestingly enough, I cannot recall one hostile conversation I’ve had with such people throughout my life. Maybe one or two heated discussions during my Middle and High School days between classmates, but even then it was more a conversation of exploration and testing than persecution-levels of animosity. And, in my adult years, I have actually been frustrated more by Christians than non-Christians (but this is probably due to my high exposure to Christians compared to the latter).

In fact, I recently attended my 10-year High School reunion. I admit I was a bit nervous about the fact that I am now a pastor, and wasn’t sure what to expect from my classmates if/when they discovered that fact. To my surprise, they were perfectly fine with it and a couple of them even opened up to me about their lives and some of what they are going through (this happens even with strangers – more often than you’d think). My being a Christian, and a pastor, actually allowed for genuine conversations rather than creating a hostile environment between people of different religious perspectives.

As I thought through this, I juxtaposed my personal experiences and ‘research’ with what I have been presented by Christian media. I grew up inundated with Left Behind ideas of a stark contrast between peace loving Christians and war mongering atheists who love to trip-up believers and knock them down as the inferior species. As I entered college, Christian media started to actually gain some real production value (they actually felt like movies instead of made-for-T.V. specials). Yet, for all the developments in technology, the underlying themes remained the same: Christians = good, atheists = bad; Christians = smart, unbelievers = stupid; Christians = victims, non-Christians = persecutors. You can imagine how such consistent messages can influence one’s perception of reality. And, that is exactly what propaganda is designed to do – influence one’s perception of reality.

I asked myself again: Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda? By assuming, without solid references to back it up, that Christians and Christianity are attacked and belittled, I was promoting these notions that Christians are a discriminated group worthy of pity and able to claim victimhood of near 1st century levels of persecution.

But is this true? Are Christians in America really being lambasted for their beliefs? Are we being persecuted for wanting to worship in relative safety or being open about our faith? I submit that we are not. Perhaps we can claim particular instances where it seems we have been mistreated for our faith, but a look beneath the surface of what is going on will show that most (if not all) of these instances rely almost entirely on our subjective interpretation of what is going on instead of what is actually going on. “SayGoodnightKevin” does a good job of going through some of these particular instances at the end of his review of ‘God’s Not Dead.’

We have been groomed to think we are the persecuted minority. We have been taught to see strangers as Christian haters, worthy of neither our engagement nor our love (though we may throw them a tract or two, because – you know – John 3:16). But what ultimately happens is we end up sitting in our own circle of friends, the “Christian Club,” in our own section of the bleachers. We become hopelessly unaware of what life is like outside of our own bubble and construct faulty understandings of reality, but do not challenge them because they empower us. Victim mentality does that.

Once that happens – once a victim mentality is established – then engagement ceases to matter. “They” hate us because of what we believe, and so there is no reason to mingle with the likes of them. “They” become the enemy, and should be proven they are in the wrong. “They” should be attacked in order to preserve our way of life and to protect our rights. Our way of life is, after all, the superior one.

And then Christianity becomes a hermit kingdom, with the Great Commission being reduced to a bumper sticker on the back of a rusted out Hummer in an abandoned lot somewhere in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.