Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Fulfillment of the Law

Let me offer a Law-centric presentation of the Gospel--the Good News of God--that is something like the version I grew up to believe:
Through the Mosaic Law, God makes clear His unyielding standard of perfect righteousness. Because we're all fallen, none of us can meet this standard (Romans 3:23); we disobey the precepts of God's written code and commit treason against an infinitely good God, so therefore our crime and deserved punishment are infinite. The purpose of the law is to scream to us, "Sinner, sinner!" and heighten our guilt at our disobedience (Romans 5:20) so that we would be driven to receive Christ who saves us from our sinful inability to obey the law and the condemnation it brings. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, Christ takes our sin and condemnation upon Himself (Romans 8:3) and in return we receive His perfect righteousness from a life of full obedience to the Law, so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fully, impossibly fulfilled in us sinners (Romans 8:4). Our sin then no longer separates us from God and we are able to enjoy full fellowship with Him.
This narrative is (I believe) something very much like the version of the Gospel that is presented in many evangelical Christian circles all over the country and world. So before I start to criticize parts of it, let me make clear why I'm doing so. I'm not merely trying to be a smart aleck by painting my Christian brothers and sisters as fools. I'm not trying to make myself some kind of guru who has all the answers about the Gospel; that would be Jesus, not me. What I am trying to do here is to recognize the need for a constant, divine restlessness in our faith and how we express it.

Between our established "orthodox" doctrine, statements of faith, and monolithic works of theology, there is a great temptation for us to think we have some spiritual truth "figured out", especially when that truth is supposed to be as foundational as the message of how you get Saved, the Gospel. That is, we know "enough" of it to stop questioning it and proclaim and teach it as the Truth that every Christian needs to believe. We stop being restless about our doctrine and instead rest in it, content to leave it where it is, as if any of our finite words could fully capture the gloriously boundless revelation God has given us in His word. So with the Gospel presentation. We have taken a flawed definition of the Gospel, possibly like the one I gave above, and treated it as the Real Thing, thereby blinding ourselves to the hangups it might cause with people. If God's goal for His people really is perfection, then we always need to keep growing.

With that said, you may well be wondering: that's the Gospel; it's great! What could this lunatic possibly find wrong with it? I'd like to get at an assumption it makes by asking a question:

Does the Law primarily exist to produce perfect obedience to a certain set of commands, or to produce a certain kind of people? Or, more colloquially, does the Law primarily consist of do's and don'ts, or is it a blueprint for how God's redeemed people should be and live?

You may be thinking I'm making a false dichotomy; love for God has always been the greatest commandment (Deuteronomy 6:5. Matthew 22:37), and we love God by keeping His commandments (1 John 5:3). So there is no tension between obeying His commands and becoming the kind of people He wants us to be, is there? No, there isn't supposed to be--but that doesn't meant such tension can't exist. Sinful man will make a way! Even if our concern for obeying God is meant to be equivalent to our love for God, that doesn't stop anyone from elevating one over the other

I don't have any kind of reasoned, logical, Biblical argument to "prove" why the Law, as commonly referenced by the New Testament authors, is better thought of in terms of is mission to produce a "people of God" characterized by shalom, God's desire of peace, justice, and flourishing for His creation. Instead, I will simply try to show how it "just makes sense" by pointing out questions that the Law-as-commanded-action narrative raises but does not itself answer (at least to my satisfaction).

Jesus did not obey the letter of the Law. I'm honestly amazed people don't make a bigger deal of this fact. For example, in Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus' disciples, while walking through a grainfield on the Sabbath, pick and eat some of the heads of grain. The Pharisees (who I picture as deploying "minders" to observe Jesus 24/7 for unlawful behavior) point out that Jesus' disciples are breaking the Law--not by stealing grain, but by doing work ("harvesting" grain) on the Sabbath. And they're right! Jesus responds not to explain how their interpretation is wrong and they are really keeping the Sabbath as you might expect, but by giving other examples of legitimate breaks from the ceremonial laws. If the whole point of righteousness is to obey the Law, then this makes no sense and Jesus is just making excuses. The Pharisees knew the Law backwards and forwards; Jesus does not question their knowledge of the Law but appeals to a higher priority than obedience to the letter: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here."

Jesus and the apostles redefine or even change the ethical demands of the Law. For example, in Acts 10, Peter has a dream in which God presents him with a variety of animals (some of them "unclean" according to the Law) and tells him to "kill and eat". Let me make this unmistakably clear: God is telling Peter, a Jew, to disobey a commandment He previously gave the Jews (in Leviticus 11). His justification for this is not some exception or loophole that allows Peter to eat without breaking the commandment; God merely says, "What the Lord has made clean, do not call common." And yet Jesus said, ""Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18) If by "the Law" you mean (as the Pharisees did) the specific ethical imperatives given to the Jews that must be obeyed at all costs, this promise of Jesus is repeatedly shown to be false by passages like this. But if the ultimate purpose of the Law is not to get people to act and live in certain, divinely dictated ways but to transform them, then it's easy to see how Jesus fulfilled the Law instead of doing away with it.

Or consider the contrast between the seventh commandment, "You shall not commit adultery", and Jesus's teaching on adultery in Matthew 5:27-30. Using the commandment as a springboard, Jesus explains that it doesn't just mean the physical act of adultery--lusting after a woman is committing adultery with her in your heart. Wait, wait, wait! What kind of careful, historical-grammatical reading of Exodus 20 did Jesus use to draw that conclusion? Where was it in the original text? Well, Jesus is God, so He has the authority to add to previously given commands. But even so, wouldn't it at least have been nice to know for the Israelites and not given as a "Surprise!" thousands of years later? But again, if the point of the Law is not simply rote obedience but the creation of a people of shalom, then Jesus' teaching on adultery makes perfect sense. It doesn't even constitute a change to the commandment, only a clarification. I don't think there is supposed to be any distinction between the state of our heart and our acts of obedience to God. The Pharisees had made this distinction and become masters of it, so Jesus tried to remove it by showing the two to be synonymous.

The end goal: what does fulfilling the Law mean? In the narrative I gave at the start of this post, Jesus' fulfillment of the Law basically amounts to checking all the boxes it lays out because we couldn't be obedient enough to check them ourselves. This impossibly blank list of checkboxes is supposed to be the "legal demand" of the Law (Colossians 2:14): you need to check all the boxes by obeying each rule to be righteous, or Jesus needs to do it for you with His life of perfect righteousness substituted for your own. The problem with checking boxes is that it doesn't change you. If your goal is simply to "do" the requirements of the Law, understood as rules to be obeyed, you might be able to do it, but you'll be the same person as you were before but with a full checklist. Actually, you'll be a worse person--you'll be a Pharisee.

Let's stop this double-mindedness whereby we view the Law as this impossible heavy set of moral burdens that Jesus took on Himself because we couldn't carry them, as if something instituted by God could be reduced to an obstacle to salvation to be overcome. (Also, paradoxically, by God) What if the "righteous requirement" of the Law is understood to be not a requirement to do certain things, but to become a certain kind of person--a person remade in the image of Christ? What if the intent of the Law was always to produce and govern a society made up of this kind of people, and this purpose can finally, exclusively be fulfilled via Christ's life, death, and resurrection transforming us? The proof of this, for me, is not that I simply see that it is true but that by this understanding I can see more clearly the beauty and purpose of the Gospel of God.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On reading Kierkegaard: Information vs. Transformation

I've been reading Kierkegaard's Works of Love for the last few weeks. It's a slow read, but only because it is incredibly dense in the best possible way--a great book to bring on a backpacking expedition and read before sunrise by a mountain lake (speaking from experience). The blurb on the back says it is "the kind of book that will change your life", and so far I agree. Kierkegaard's meditations on the Biblical teaching about love and the distinctness of Christian love are equal parts beautiful, enlightening, and convicting. Dozens of quotes I've underlined could spark their own subsequent posts. Maybe they will.

What most impresses me about Kierkegaard is how he is able to take a short Bible passage--like Jesus' command to love your neighbor--and expound on it for dozens of pages, examining it from every angle and laying out its manifold meanings in a way that prevents any possibility of escape. It's a vivid proof-by-demonstration of how the word of God is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12), its meaning and applicability never confined to a few terse words on a page.

I think I'm unhealthily obsessed on this blog with thinking things that no one has thought before, or saying things that no one has ever said before. I take X common question or Y discussion in the Christian blogosphere and try to take a step or two back from everyone else, trying to nail that one crucial insight that no one thought of so the conversation will be transformed and everyone will fall silent and think I'm brilliant (or something like that). I'm never content to just "pick a side" on virtually anything, not without at least tweaking it first. At best this response-oriented approach is interesting and eye-opening; at worst, it is smug, denigrating, and utterly lacking in Christian love.

But Kierkegaard has been a poignant reminder that we really need is not new information at all, but inward transformation through the 2000-year-old message of Christianity. The words of the Bible don't help us if we keep them confined to neat theological systems out of a need for control via certainty and complete understanding; they must take root in us and grow into fruit we bear in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). Kierkegaard's meditations are like watching this growing process in action as he takes the simple words of Jesus and Paul pertaining to love and powerfully demonstrates how they are to pervade every corner of our lives. Excessively focusing on Christian truths merely as information can lead us to forget that they are supposed to be arrows that pierce our very souls. When that happens, I'm thankful for authors like Kierkegaard to remind me of the truth.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Women in Ministry: Not Just a Position Paper

The small-but-vibrant Christian subsection of Reddit recently had a fairly productive and interesting discussion on the role of women in ministry. For my part, I mostly played around with different ideas, acted as devil's advocate, and in general trolled people. It helped me to develop some lines I've thought I've been having about this increasingly-controversial topic.

The reason women in many churches and denominations don't have as many ministry roles open to them as men primarily goes back to three passages written by Paul (I should mention that Catholics also believe that the fact that the original 12 apostles were men is significant, and that the church therefore does not have the authority to appoint women to their role):
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:1-13)
Paul, in telling Timothy about the qualifications for being an elder or deacon (servant), seem to imply that they must be male.
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
So women are also not supposed to teach or hold authority over a man.
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35)
Women should not speak in church at all? Ouch.

From these passages (also his section on head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 and his instructions for wives to submit to their husbands), people have labeled Paul as sexist, misogynist, and patriarchal. The question persists: if these passages make us uneasy but we're not willing to write Paul off as an ignorant chauvinist or simply call these sections (and maybe whatever else in the Bible rubs us the wrong way) interpolations by later scribes, what are we to do about his instructions about women? Well, there are plenty of commentaries and other writeups on this subject giving you whatever position you may want to hear, so I'm going to exegete these texts surprisingly little and instead focus on situating them in their greater context.

Some comparisons

Before I get into what I've been thinking, let me try to defuse a bit of the tension that tends to charge any discussion of women's roles in church. In our culture we tend to be very suspicious of "sexism"--the denigration of one sex (women) by another (men)--in all its forms. We demonize sexism and contrast it with an egalitarian view that says that aside from a few biological odds-and-ends, there are no essential differences between men and women in value, ability, or potential. Anything men can do, women can do. Anyone who dares to question the essential equality of men and women or hints at the existence of gender differences is branded a sexist and summarily written off. We insist that gender doesn't matter, but the more we do, the more it seems to matter more than ever.

Obviously this makes things difficult for "complementarian" Christians who seek to apply Paul's words about gender relations in today's world. Though I'm fairly sure Paul would have affirmed that men and women were of equal value in God's sight, he didn't seem to see any conflict between this and seeing limitations to womens' abilities (preaching, teaching, and holding roles of authority) and rights, as we do today. Paul seems to have held a "different-but-equal" view of men and women, one that just isn't fathomable to modern western cultures, so he becomes a sexist to us and we see no further reason to listen to him. Unlike Paul, we simply can't conceive of any way to affirm the equal value of men and women without treating them equally.

An analogy should greatly help this make more sense. Imagine, if you will, the abolishing of all children's ministry so that all children of every age join their parents in church. On top of the crying babies we're used to, you now get kids randomly spouting off the tops of their heads, and the older kids (assuming they aren't completely tuned out) frequently having to ask their parents what's going on. You hear of other churches in your denomination that are, of all things, having youth as young as 12 teaching and even leading adults. One church has a 15-year-old lead pastor. You sigh inwardly with relief a few weeks later as your denomination releases a carefully-worded statement specifying that these positions should be held by adults, additionally clarifying that for the sake of harmony children looking for explanations about the proceedings in church should wait until after the service to ask their parents about it.

This analogy applies in several ways. Jewish women did not worship together with the men (the temple in Jerusalem had a "court of women" which was the closest they could approach); suddenly, when they converted to Christianity, the men and women were worshipping together, just as if children suddenly started joining their parents in church. You can imagine the difficulties this might cause. Placing restrictions on childrens' privilages to lead and teach adults (or even pragmatic ones like asking them to keep silent in church) is totally reasonable, but does this mean we consider children inferior to adults? Of course not!

Obviously this analogy isn't perfect. Feminists might bristle at my comparing women to children. Of course there are big differences between adults and children in maturity, ability, and wisdom, differences which have no analog between men and women. But as unthinkable as it sounds to have children holding positions of church leadership, keep in mind that this would have been somewhat less unthinkable before the invention of the "teenager" as a separate stage of life when they came of age at, say, 13 and were then effectively considered adults. Today, teenagers don't need to fully "grow up" until after college, if not later. What I am asking is: could the belief in essential differences between men and women (like the belief in essential differences between teenagers and adults), at least in part, create those differences?

What is happening when we angrily write Paul off for his statements on gender is that we're ripping his statements out of their ancient context and examining them in our modern one. It's no surprise that they seem more than a bit bizarre when we do this. I think we usually fail to understand how uncontroversial and ingrained the patriarchal view of gender was in Paul's time. We think that if that stick-in-the-mud Paul hadn't been so backwards and sexist, the church could have been egalitarian from its earliest days. Stupid Paul! But if there really were differences between men and women in the new churches (albeit culturally conditioned rather than inherent), we can't blame church rules differentiating between men and women, as if getting rid of them would have solved everything. I have trouble believing that anyone accused Paul of sexism in his time, or that any women bristled at their being excluded from ministry. Let's stop judging the past by the standards of the present and try to understand what Paul was saying in its original context.

Some qualifications

The first thing to notice is that churches who seek to directly apply Paul's instructions and therefore disallow women from being pastors or elders or teaching men don't go far enough. Paul clearly says in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that they should not speak at all in church, for it is shameful for them to do so. I have yet to see a church that actually applies this verse rather than treating it as an artifact of Paul's culture.

Of more concern are instances of these teachings being violated in the New Testament. In sharp contrast to the subservient role Paul seems to assign them in these verses, women assume a variety of important roles in Jesus' ministry and in the early church. Much is made of the fact that all twelve of Jesus' disciples were male, but he had a smaller but equally devoted following of women, some of whom are the first to discover that Jesus' body is missing from His tomb. (Which is especially puzzling as the testimony of women was considered unreliable in those days) Paul asks that several women be greeted by name in Romans 16: Phoebe, "that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well", "Greet Prisca [Priscilla] and Aquila [her husband], my fellow workers in Christ Jesus", and Andronicus and Junia, who are "notable among the apostles". (Note: Junia's name is conjugated like a feminine noun, but we can't be sure that he/she is a woman) It's very hard to believe that these women could have become so significant in the early church if they never spoke in it.

Or Philippians 4:2-3: "I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." Again, co-laborers with Paul in the gospel: hard to reconcile with not being allowed to speak in church.

An even stronger example is Acts 18, in which we are introduced to Priscilla and Aquila:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. ... After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. ... Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
So when Paul gets to Corinth, he meets Priscilla and Aquila, fellow Jewish converts and fellow tentmakers by day. They decide to join him in his ministry and travel with him. Then, in Ephesus, we meet Apollos, a charismatic if somewhat ignorant man who is corrected and assisted in his ministry by Priscilla and Aquila. Without twisting the text, we are naturally led to conclude that Priscilla, a woman, is teaching Apollos, a man.

You may object: "Just because someone does something in the Bible doesn't mean it's okay or we're supposed to imitate them. Just look at the Old Testament--Abraham pimps out his wife, Jacob takes two wives and two concubines, Solomon takes hundreds, Moses is a murderer... We should follow Paul's clear teaching, not anyone's actions except Jesus." Well, Jesus didn't let anyone except the Father teach or have authority over Him, but He did give women pretty prominent places in His company (or at least let them speak), so maybe Jesus isn't the best example here either. (If you say that, you're in trouble) But besides the incongruity with Jesus' example, notice the double standard this approach places on the text. Paul is supposed to have been so chock-full of inspiration from the Spirit that he was able to write the perfect, timeless will of God to be unquestioningly followed by the church universal 2,000 years later, but he turns a blind eye to this will being disobeyed by his companions. I don't think inspiration works like that.

I'm not simply trying to argue that the verses where women do appear to teach or have authority in the church "trump" the ones where Paul says they can't because I want them to. Scripture doesn't work that way. I am trying to show that even for Paul himself, the issue of gender in ministry was not as black-and-white as we construe his words today. That even though he justifies his instructions for women with an appeal to widespread tradition (as in 1 Corinthians 14) or the creation order (1 Timothy 2), they may not be as universal as we think. Though there wasn't room for discussion on what to take from Paul's instructions in the churches they were actually directed to, there certainly is today.

Some conclusions

In this issue especially, and in other matters of church practice, I find that discussions often go back to trying to figure out, from the limited Biblical data in Acts and the epistles, what exactly the "early" (first-century) church was doing so we can follow their example--because the infallible Bible came from the early church, so we can trust them. If we give weight to the texts that seem to portray women in leadership roles in the first-century church, then it's okay for us to allow women to preach and teach today. If we find these less-than-convincing and focus on Paul's instructions to the contrary, then only men should teach men, just as it's always been. But the early church is not the ultimate example for the modern church. That role can only belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), who must be our example just as He was theirs. If the inspiration to write scripture actually made the church perfect, then great, that's been the goal all along, so God never would have withdrawn it. But the church is not perfect yet, but is still being perfected (Ephesians 5:25-27).

And if Christ is my ultimate example, then right now I can't explain (to myself or others) from His example why women should be kept from ministry. Though I desire to take all of Paul's writing seriously, I don't see how to apply his teachings about women in ministry in a way that doesn't denigrate or patronize women, that is consistent with the love of Christ we're supposed to have for each other. In my finite capacity to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, I'd rather set aside the lesser command, asking God to move in my heart to make sense of it, and hold onto the greater.

I've really been enjoying listening through Renovatus Church's Both & sermon series, which is largely about Biblical interpretation. In my post on καρδια, I wrote about the first sermon in this series, which uses the example of Acts 15 where the apostles deliberate on whether to require Gentile Christians to obey the Jewish law. They eventually decide not to hold the Gentiles to a a law that they have not done well at keeping themselves, except for a quick list: "to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood." Pastor Jonathan Martin rightly points out that there is no way they could have reached this conclusion with the kind of scripture-only Biblical-grammatical hermeneutics we base doctrine on today: the only scripture they had at the time was the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), which did require Gentile converts to be circumcised and to obey the law. They do measure their Spirit-led experience against the text, but ultimately their decision is based on experience, not scripture. I see a possible parallel with our modern situation here.

As I mentioned in my last post on gender in the church, I come from a church background where I've seen women successfully participate in all levels of ministry. Both churches I grew up in (my "home church" and my mom's growing-up church that we would attend for holidays) have had woman pastors; in the latter case the church's only pastor for several years was a woman. Additionally, my mother has been ordained as an elder at my home church as it's navigating a long and difficult dispute with its denomination. In short, the only evidence I have heard that woman should not today lead in church ministry has been purely intellectual arguments directly from scripture, which has contrasted greatly with my actual experience in church. If Paul's command speaks to a universal reality of the sexes, I'd expect it to be affirmed, not denied, by experience.

The sermon in the Both & series I listened to most recently builds on this by looking at Genesis 32, where Jacob randomly wrestles with God and receives the new name Israel (which means "he wrestles with God"). Martin translates this into a metaphor for our own relationship with God and His word, which strongly resonates with me in how it captures the fact that loving God wholeheartedly is never easy. Looking back, I've learned the most from the Bible and grown the most when I've been wrestling with it actively rather than just soaking it up passively. The process of digging into the Bible in all its complexity and other-ness has been more transformative for me than getting a polished nugget of theological truth in the end.

His other point that stuck out to me was that "Scripture exists not to give us information about God, but as sacred space for us to encounter God and to wrestle with God." In other words, if our primary goal is simply to somehow reconcile these writings of Paul into a correct "position" on the "issue" of women in ministry, we've missed the point. The Bible is not a book of answers to doctrinal questions, but the word of God that is supposed to confront us, speak to us, change us: "Getting the right answer will not get you anywhere in the things of will not transform you." This is almost forgotten in church debates like this when we seem to be shaking the Bible like a magic 8-ball until a clear, Official answer to our question floats to the surface.

What if God wants us to care about how we're using His word rather than just what we're using it to say? Ephesians 6:17 tells us that the Bible is the sword of the Spirit--but is it the sword that attacks unbelievers and your theological opponents, vindicating your correct beliefs and showing their manifold errors; or is it the sword that pierces "to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12)? The Bible is the sword of the Spirit to wield against our sinful hearts, not the sword of the theologians to wield against each other; we can't be the Holy Spirit to each other.

I've hopefully made it pretty clear that I don't want to bar women from any role in church ministry. But if the point of scripture is to encounter God, if it is the sword of the Spirit to pierce our own hearts, it becomes very important that I believe this with humility--both toward God and toward others. Toward God in that I take seriously the fact that this isn't what Paul instructs, and the question of how my view and Paul's can be different is not resolved or closed off to God by any means. Toward others in that I believe it is fully possible to faithfully disagree with me; of course churches (like my own, for instance) that have all-male leadership can manifest the character of God; anyone who holds a different view isn't automatically that much more of a faithless fool. This isn't being weak or wishy-washy or not "taking a stand on God's word"; it is holding loosely to every nonessential trapping of our lives so we never let go or lose sight of the One who is truly essential to us.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Millenials and the Church and All That

The Spark

Apparently I missed some kind of memo in the Christian blogosphere to react ASAP to Rachel Held Evans' piece for CNN, Why Millenials are Leaving the Church. I'm a bit worried that people are so sick of hearing everyone and their dog's responses to it that no one will want to read this, but I feel I have only just gotten enough of a "handle" on the situation to write coherently on it.

You've probably read the original post; if not, I encourage you to do so just to see what all the fuss is about. Evans, attempting to represent the "millenial" generation, tells of her explorations of the reasons so many millenials are turning away from the religion of their parents. Research by the Barna Group has found that fully 61% of today's young adults "had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying)". Barna points to six main reasons these young adults give for this disengagement:
  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Their experience of Christianity was shallow.
  3. They viewed the church as antagonistic to science.
  4. Churches' attitudes toward sexuality were simple, repressive, and judgmental.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity as the "one true faith".
  6. Hostility toward doubt and questions about faith.
This is hardly news. A few years ago the president of the Barna Group, David Kinnamen, published a book titled You Lost Me, focused on drawing conclusions from this data. (My pastor Cor has also hosted a discussion about it on his blog) It's an area of great concern for the evangelical church, with alarmists worrying that (evangelical) Christianity is just a generation from extinction.

Of course, everyone has their own reaction to this situation, and their desired ways to address it aren't always compatible. For her part, Evans speaks against the assumption churches facing declining youth membership often make that the way to bring the young people back is to make some style updates become "hipper" and "cooler"--get a rock band that plays praise music, serve lots of (good) coffee, have the pastors wear skinny jeans, get a cooler website, and so on. Surely that will bring the young people back to church, right!?

Wrong, Evans says. Instead, she identifies these kinds of responses as part of the problem, so lots of millennials are turning to more liturgical, traditional churches that concern themselves more with being authentic than with seeming "cool".
Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.
In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.
She explains that, like every generation, millennials come to church looking for Jesus, and if they don't find Him there, they tend  to leave. They care more about substance than style. She advises churches to sit down with millennials and learn more about they are looking for from church rather than deciding for them.


Once this post went up on CNN, the reactions and counter-reactions (and counter-counter-counter-reactions, or whatever this post is) began to fly. David Koyzis claims she misses the point of "high church traditions" by viewing them as stopping points for independently-minded spiritual seekers: "Held Evans appears to see Rome and Constantinople as little more than exotic ports of call for a disaffected generation whose members nevertheless retain their own spiritual autonomy. In all things, including spiritual, they [millenials] jealously guard their right to choose, and their criteria for doing so tend to be idiosyncratic at best." To be Catholic or orthodox, he says, means setting yourself under spiritual authority, whose teachings millennials who left church for some of the above six reasons might not like.
Indeed, attending Mass and living as a Catholic is a matter of obedience, not merely of soaking up a “high-church” atmosphere with ancient roots while continuing to live as one wishes and following whatever agenda seems most congenial to the sovereign self.
Ultimately, the same can be said, not only of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but of any church communion taking seriously the normative character of the Christian faith. The way of the cross is always one of obedience. To come to the church with an idiosyncratic checklist of demands is to take the church as church less than fully seriously.
Then Morgan Guyton responds to Koyzis, pointing out how funny it is that Koyzis, a reformed theologian, has somehow been called on to represent Catholicism and Orthodoxy as "a matter of obedience" when it is really so much more than that. He goes over his own weekly experiences with visiting a Catholic mass (Guyton is Methodist and so doesn't obey the authority of the Pope), which is the kind of "cafeteria" approach to spirituality that Koyzis is criticizing, and explains how this kind of "soft syncretism" is really a good thing.

Guyton asks, is it good evangelism to criticize people taking their first steps in the Christian faith for these reasons? "Rather than mining “millennial” consciousness for delegitimizing deconstructions that you can use to zing them for their unsophisticatedness, why not let God continue to use these superficial considerations as prevenient grace?" Are we being encouraging greeters or ridiculing gatekeepers of our own perceived spiritual purity when dealing with seekers? In the end, Guyton seems to agree with Evans' critiques and argues that we shouldn't criticize millennials who share her concerns and are looking for authentic religious experiences that bring them in touch with Jesus while moving past these sticking points, however they find them.

There are still more varied responses. Scot McKnight questions whether the "cataclysmic change" predicted by evangelicals based on the Barna Group data is real at all, or if this is part of millennials' life cycle and we can expect them to increasingly return to church as they get older. Anthony Bradley points to the United Methodist Church as the embodiment of Evans' vision for the church and (rather bewilderingly) wonders if she might be stealthily shilling for the UMC. Trevin Wax stands up for evangelicalism denying that the issues Evans points to are necessarily problems and saying they are caricatures of what following Jesus really should look like:
When I read the Gospels, I’m confronted by a Jesus who explodes our categories of righteousness and sin, repentance and forgiveness, and power and purity.
I meet a Jesus who doesn’t do away with the Law of the Old Testament, but ramps up the demands in order to lead us to Himself – the One who calls us to life-altering repentance and faith.
I see a King who makes utterly exclusive claims, and doesn’t seem to care who is offended.
I see a King who didn’t hold back anything from His people, and who expects His people to hold back nothing from Him.
He essentially deflects whatever blame Evans is directing toward the mistakes of the church, saying that the real issues with sexuality are found in our messed-up culture; that following Jesus is about putting His desires for us ahead of our desire for the church; that millennials are especially leaving the kinds of churches Evans describes because they soften the countercultural message of Jesus and avoid convicting people. Basically, he says millennials, not churches, are the ones who need to "step up".

Similarly, Brett McCracken calls Evans out on what he sees as allowing the young to dictate what the church should be, instead suggesting that millennials "just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?" (These would be fighting words were McCracken not a millennial himself) He questions the whole "adapt or die!" mentality that values the whims of today's young adults over the wisdom of older and more experienced Christians in deciding the direction of the church as "chronological snobbery". He compares the image-focused attitude of the church, obsessed with what people think of it and how it can please them better, with a typical junior high student. The gospel is the gospel, independently of whatever we want it to be at the moment.
As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me; basically, something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.
Finally, Jonathan Fitzgerald responds interestingly to both Evans and McCracken and tries to move beyond endless "conversation" to actually enacting solutions to the issues Evans raises by getting involved in our own churches rather than shopping around for a church that's already suits us perfectly. If Jesus is able to love His church with all its flaws, shouldn't we?

Yet Another Response

At 24, I fit squarely into the millennial generation as it is defined, unlike all the people I just cited except Brett McCracken and maybe Jonathan Fitzgerald. And yet I could barely be any less worthy to represent the nebulous, somewhat arbitrarily-chosen group of people designated by pollsters as "my generation". Wrapping up this whole category of people in the compact term "millennial" conveys the illusion that we are a coherent, neatly-defined group which we can converse about as a whole using sweeping generalizations. This is a mistaken notion. McCracken's description of millennials as a "#hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation" so completely fails to resemble me and many of my friends that I find it hilarious.

This is part of why I really appreciate Jonathan Fitzgerald's response, that we need action rather than conversation. It's not so much that actions speak louder than words; it's that actions, unlike words, are always concrete and contextualized, not hazy and nebulous. Millennials, like the rest of us, are individuals, not just a statistical demographic, whose relationship with these and other current issues in the church is unique and complex. Only once we start seeing them as individuals to be known rather than as members of predefined groups to be studied and concluded about can we be Christ to them, and they to us.

Besides that, I largely see the familiar liberal-Christian-versus-conservative-Christian argument being played out on the stage of the Barna Group data. Most everyone affirms the basic problem--fewer young people are attending church today than in years past--and rightly concludes that what the church needs, in the most general possible terms, is "more Jesus", but then disagreement arises over what, specifically, this is supposed to look like. More liberal Christians like Evans point to ways the church is pushing young people away that should be corrected; conservatives like McCracken are more likely to defend the church and either deny the problem or explain that the gospel is supposed to be offensive, so we shouldn't be surprised that people are turning from the church, which is supposed to represent Christ to them instead of pandering to their whims.

All this plays into a "rule for disagreement" I have, which is to try to understand the position you disagree with and make it make sense to you, rather than simply focusing on refuting it. Regardless of whatever vague demographic categories they are hidden behind, I don't doubt that the six issues raised by the Barna Group are serious ones worth our concern. Denying X current trend in church attendance among group Y does nothing to change this fact. Rather than denying that these things are problems or reaffirming that, say, the church is supposed to be concerned with sex or the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, conservatives need to honestly ask themselves, "Could these things really be problems somehow, with Millenials or others? Could I be part of those problems?"

Meanwhile, liberal-leaning Christians (with whom I increasingly identify) need to take seriously the possibility that they are expecting the church to conform to their own wishes and preferences (which may or may not be right, but definitely aren't perfect) rather than to the image of Christ. And this is where I see the value of Jonathan Fitzgerald's words, challenging myself more than others. It's far easier to point out the faults and areas of improvement we see in others than to work on our own (see Matthew 7:1-6). Assuming that the movement of young people away from the church is a problem, assigning responsibility for it to the church or to them won't help; only by shouldering it ourselves while trusting God to be enough can we begin to change it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

"Anger at" and "Anger for"

The Biblical Data on Anger

How many sermons have you heard about how to get angry? How many books have you read on the subject? (This is a rhetorical question; if anyone actually has heard any sermons or read any books on how to get angry, let me know) In my experience as a Christian, anger has always been presented as something to be avoided, as a manifestation of sin from which Jesus cleanses us. Paul has plenty of words against anger, especially in his "sin lists":
For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish--that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Corinthians 12:20)
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:19-23)
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:21-32)
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. (2 Timothy 2:8)
Or James:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.(James 1:19-20)
Clearly anger isn't a good idea for the children of God. It's one of the "works of the flesh" opposed to the fruits of the Spirit; it destroys Christian fellowship; it stifles the love we're supposed to resemble Christ by. I could write a lengthy post about how anger has twisted God's image in the church, but Morgan Guyton has already written a better one.

Well, that's all great, except Jesus got angry a few times.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:1-5)
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city. (Mark 11:15-19)
Also, the Greek word for anger, οργη, also translates to "wrath", which we're promised plenty of
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:9)
What is going on here? Is getting angry "okay" or not? How can Jesus do it if Paul prohibited it? The answer (as you may expect if you frequent my blog) is complicated! Let's look at the two examples of Jesus getting angry in more detail.

In the first passage, Mark 3:1-5, Jesus meets a man with a deformed hand. As He is preparing to heal the man, He notices people watching Him to see if they'll get a chance to condemn Him for healing someone on the Sabbath. He just made His intentions regarding the Sabbath very clear a few verses ago: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." In other words, the Sabbath is supposed to be a gift for Israel to enjoy, not a burden to make their lives onerous or a "gotcha" by which to condemn people. When no one is willing to recognize what should be obvious to them, that it's okay to heal someone on the Sabbath, He gets angry.

In the second, Jesus kind of goes on a rampage through the temple in Jerusalem driving out the money-changers and pigeon-sellers. Commentaries are helpful for providing context here. Jewish males had to pay a yearly "temple tax", but the temple had its own currency and onsite money-changers would exchange between the currencies--for a markup. Meanwhile others would sell "approved" sacrificial animals like pigeons, again for a nice profit. (Kind of like movie theatres and sports venues getting to charge you more for snacks) This capitalistic chaos would all take place in the court of the Gentiles, the only place where people from non-Jewish nations could come to worship at the temple. Hence Jesus saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

What is the common thread in both of these instances? Jesus is getting angry at people twisting or perverting the words of God (the laws about the Sabbath or the rules of temple worship) and destroying shalom, God's persistent desire for peace, justice and human flourishing. (This also applies to all the times He gets huffy at the Pharisees, who took God's laws which were supposed to be blessings and turned them into heavy burdens that they made people carry) Making an intuitive leap, I would more generally say that Jesus gets angry at sin.

"Anger at" vs. "Anger for"

In combination with Paul's writing about avoiding anger, we start to see a difference between "good" anger (as modeled by Jesus) and "bad" anger (as warned against by Paul). It is righteous, just anger; jealous anger--jealous for God's people and their redemption from sin to shalom. Paul warns against selfish, sinful anger at people; Jesus models righteous anger for people. "Anger at" is self-focused and intended to harm; "anger for" is others-focused and intended to protect and redeem. "Anger at" comes from a desire to be right, to have your way, or to put down those you dislike; "anger for" is rooted in love for God and for the people He loves.

This is, in my view, a better response than just saying, "God is allowed to be angry at sin because He's perfectly holy, but we're not supposed to imitate Him in this because we're not like Him. We're supposed to pay attention to the log in our own eye, not the dust in our neighbor's eye (Matthew 7:3)." By learning to see multiple shades of anger, we can move past this dissonant picture of sanctification where we're supposed to become just like Jesus except X, Y, and Z, about which He effectively says "do as I say, not as I do". Becoming more like Jesus means getting angry at sin, for sinners just like He did.

I just saw an example of this in my small group last night when we went over Jonah 4. Jonah has just preached a message of impending doom to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, at which they immediately repented and avoided destruction. But Jonah isn't happy but angry at this development; he reveals that the reason he initially ran from God's call to prophesy to Ninevah was because he was afraid this would happen. (4:2) So Jonah gets angry, "angry enough to die" (4:9). God asks him twice, "do you do well to be angry?"

So we see that Jonah and God had different purposes for Jonah's prophetic message to Ninevah. Jonah was "angry at" the Ninevites and hoped that they wouldn't repent and would be destroyed. But God is, if anything, "angry for" the city of Ninevah and its people, so He wants to redeem them and is glad to relent from destroying them. Jonah saw the Ninevites as "those people"; God saw them as His people, alienated from Him as they were. It got me wondering, who are "those people" to us? Who, if we went to heaven and saw them there, would we get angry at God over?

This helps us to see how God can be so full of wrath, even in the Jonah story. Shalom is God's desire for His creation: every part at peace, with justice rolling like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream (Amos 5:24). God's wrath can be thought of as frustration that this vision is not yet realized, and indeed that some created beings (that is, us) actively resist that vision and work to defeat it, maybe for their whole lives--we sin. Yet simply wiping us all out would be equally fatal to shalom (which we're supposed to be there to enjoy) as allowing us to continue sinning, as we see in the story of Noah. God's mission is positive (the ultimate fulfillment of shalom), not negative (the destruction of sin). God loves us as His children, created image-bearers, and intended enjoyers of shalom, yet He is grieved and angry when we reject these roles. God's wrath, when it happens, is an expression of this anger from a protective parent--not simply that of a child who doesn't get his way or an OCD neat-freak who can't tolerate any contamination of sin. God's wrath is primarily "anger for" His glory, for His kingdom, for us, for shalom, not "anger at" sin. His love and desire for these things is foundational, not His hatred for sin.

A deficiency of anger

I was inspired to write this post after reading a recent post by Rachel Held Evans about her struggle with anger. She also describes how God's anger arises from His love:
Throughout Scripture we encounter a God is angered by injustice and the neglect of the poor. Jesus expressed anger at those who exploited the poor and vulnerable, who harmed children, and who “shut the door to the Kingdom in people’s faces” through religious legalism and exclusion. As N.T. Wright has said, “To deny God’s wrath is, at bottom, to deny God’s love. When God sees humans being enslaved… if God doesn’t hate it, he is not a loving God.” 
We are right to be angered by inequity and injustice, whether inflicted upon ourselves or on other people. And we have to be very careful of telling other people—particularly those in the process of healing— when they ought to be angry, when they ought to forgive, or when they ought to “move on.”
With this in mind, she describes the limitations to the role anger should play in our faith, and her own difficulties staying within these limits and setting aside her need to "win" over others by being right.
I’ve been thinking lately that the hardest part of fundamentalism for me to leave behind is the part that equates rightness with righteousness, the part that makes "winning" the goal. 
Because I like winning arguments. 
No, I LOVE winning arguments. 
No, if I could marry winning arguments and cuddle with winning arguments every night while we watched ’30 Rock’ reruns together, I probably would. 
And yet I feel God’s presence most profoundly when I give up—not on making the argument, but on winning it. I know God’s love with more certainty, not when I’ve proven it, but when I’ve experienced it and when I’ve extended it. I find the most peace when like Dallas Willard I “practice the discipline of not having to have the last word.” 
It’s possible, I suppose, to win an argument and lose your soul.
Lastly, I thought this sentence was brilliant:
After all, the words Jesus promises at the end of this journey aren’t “Congratulations! You were right!” The words Jesus promises at the end of this journey are, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
As I was reading her thoughts about how we can't stay angry, I realized how little they seemed to apply to me. Anger is an unstable equilibrium for me. I don't like staying angry, especially against people. By nature, I don't hold grudges against people or consider them my "enemy". Especially since my humbling journey through doubt, I find it increasingly hard to care about winning arguments. Fortunately, by now I've learned enough about my relative uniqueness to not assume I'm "off the hook" because the sin issues people make a big deal of don't sound familiar to me. I started to think that instead of Evans' anger issues, I might have a different problem.

My default response when something would make me angry is to constructively redirect that anger into looking for ways to blame myself and subsequently "fix" whatever in myself is making me susceptible to the stress. Basically, I've realized that it's much easier to solve problems by changing myself than by changing the world. This has the effect of making me very good at taking responsibility for my "stuff", learning from my experience and mostly avoiding a victim mentality toward my problems in life. Also, it occasionally backfires when I get sick of myself or don't think I can change.

Unfortunately, another implication of this way of dealing with anger and stress is that the easiest way to "solve" stressors that I can't redirect in this way, that pertain to me only loosely or not at all is to simply ignore them. Better to save my care for things that are closer to me. This attitude is completely opposed to the righteous "anger for" I described above. It gets angry only for itself, no one else, and is just as "un-Christian" a treatment of anger as the domineering one that is seen as more of a problem.

Everyone processes anger differently. Maybe you fit Evans' profile (too much anger), or maybe mine (too little), or maybe you have your own problems living Paul's exhortation to "anger for". I don't want to try to enumerate all the ways people can fall short of it (because that's impossible), but rather to hold up the example we're called to strive for--a jealous, righteous anger at sin in ourselves and the world, for God's people and the shalom He earnestly desires for them.

Stay angry, my friends.