A confession about gender

I have a confession.

I don’t really ‘get’ Christian single sex get togethers – whether Women’s Conferences (admittedly have only been to these in drag) or Men’s Conferences (been to some, never really enjoyed them) or to a lesser degree, men’s or women’s ministry meetings of various sorts.

While you can’t make the NT a blueprint for every contemporary ministry model, it does seem to me that within the new covenant ministry of the Spirit, it is quite remarkable how ‘gender lite’ the NT is. (Not getting into details here of those most controversial of very occasional texts addressing specific gender related issues – see elsewhere.)

[I guess you could also say how remarkably ‘leader lite” the NT is, but that’s another discussion.]

By gender lite, I mean how indiscriminately most of it is written to and for all believers of whatever type. Men, women, young, old, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, And thinking about Galatians 3:28, it’s interesting that we sure wouldn’t organise separate ministries around slave/free or Jew/Gentile believers without an uproar but do for male/female – just sayin.

Yes, I can see how women especially network together wonderfully well, and can enjoy a relaxed freedom from ‘the male presence’ and can share and talk and pray and encourage eachother at a more intimate level than would be possible in mixed gender settings.

Yes, I can see how it makes sense to have ‘same interest’ groups within a church such as women’s groups or youth or aged etc. Where women and men facing similiar issues can become friends and journey together.

Yes, I can (and do) enjoy a cooked breakfast with a bunch of guys now and then and talk and share and pray (not sure whether much different with women there or not to be honest).

So I’m not anti-single sex ministries in a local church altogether. But I guess you could say I’m agnostic and a bit more suspicious of the single gender conferences.

‘Why?’ I hear you cry!

A suspicion that most of the time what goes on at these conferences could just as well be for the whole church. Stuff like general bible teaching on various themes of Christian discipleship that aren’t particular to men or women but are for any follower of Jesus. To separate on gender grounds for such teaching seems strange at best.

So I suspect that behind many men’s and women’s conferences is a particular theology of gender roles.  The most coherent rationale for men getting together seems to be to learn how to be real male leaders and visionaries and husbands and fathers and preachers etc … all the things women are not to be.

So what do the women get together at female conferences to do? Maybe some are about being good wives and mothers and being better equipped at being better leaders and speakers (to other women of course). Maybe if I’m especially suspicious, it is where gifted women have an outlet to teach and ‘preach’. I’m honestly not too sure. Please help me out.  For I was joking about going in drag.

So what about you? What do you think of women’s and men’s conferences / ministries’?

Comments, as ever, welcome

The Spirit, suffering, hope, lament, prayer and other things

A close friend, whom I love, is suffering right now – along with his family.

And isn’t it the case that the reality of suffering, especially of those we know, forces to the fore the question of how we think about suffering theologically? For how we respond to suffering reveals much of how we really think about God.

As a comparatively rich westerner, I’m conscious that it is all too easy to devalue that word to mean worries over job insecurity, a low bank balance or forgoing buying nice Christmas presents. Nor does it mean not being able to wear a cross around your neck at work.

No, I’m talking about the suffering caused by bombings of churches in Pakistan, the killing of Christians in Syria or imprisonment for your faith in China.

I’m also talking of the suffering of living with debilitating sickness, fighting long battles with cancer, losing yourself in mental illness or watching helplessly as a loved one dies and living with that grief every day.

At the huge risk of trivializing centuries of thinking about theodicy, suffering, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (this is only a blog post after all), I’ll hesitantly suggest that there are at least two distinct popular Christian tendencies to the ‘brute fact’ of human suffering.

1. A tendency towards fatalistic pessimism

Suffering is part and parcel of the fallen human condition. It’s actually pretty impossible to imagine life without suffering and pain and a provisionality that ends in death.

In the words of Qoheleth, suffering is only a matter of time: there will be a time to dance, but also a time to mourn; a time to laugh but also a time to weep.  You may, especially if you are wealthy, have all sorts of protective layers in place to insulate you from suffering for as long as possible, but those layers can be ripped away in an instant. Money has its limits.

Christians after all, follow a crucified Messiah, and should have fairly robust and realistic theologies of suffering.  To put it in flowery academic language, bad things happen to God’s people, just as much as the next person. There are no guarantees of special treatment.

Or perhaps, going back to bombs in Pakistan, bad things happen to Christians even more than the next person. For a lot of believers today (and throughout the history of the church) being a Christian is most definitely bad for your health.

Suffering, in this framework, is something not to be welcomed (you’d have to be a masochist to do that) but it is something to be faced and accepted and expected. Prayers here are more for strength to endure what comes, rather than urgent pleas for healing and removal of suffering. There is a tendency to fatalism and at times it gets close to seeing God as the author of all suffering.  Whatever happens is his will.

This can lead to an emphasis on the cross; death, suffering and self-denial that is unattractive, life-denying and joyless. These are the guys who take the budgie’s swing out its cage on the Sabbath. If they aren’t going to have fun, then no-one else is either.

2.  A tendency towards naïve optimism

Christians are not only followers of a crucified Messiah but a resurrected Lord. They are also people of the empowering Spirit of God poured out at Pentecost. The Spirit is the gift of God to all who believe. He empowers for mission, guides, renews and freely gives his gifts for service. It is the Spirit who applies the victory of God in Christ: he brings life, unites believers with Christ, heals, gives eschatological hope and whose fruit is attractive and appealing – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In this sense, the Christian life is life lived to the full in the here and now; it’s the future kingdom life in the present.

But it’s possible to make so much of victory, power, triumph, future hope now, that it leaves little room for lament, failure, opposition and difficulty. Symptoms of this optimistic ‘super-spirituality’ might include things like the following:

– a taboo of talking and thinking about death. In the past, Dr Neill tells me, there were whole traditions of how to prepare to die well. Nowadays, our deaths are meekly handed over to doctors and omniscient medicine to deal with.

– the eclipse of wisdom tradition such as the Psalms of lament in our worship

– a theology of emotional comfort where our prayers are for the avoidance of trials, difficulties and pain because God is assumed to be someone who is both able and willing to ensure we don’t suffer or have unpleasant experiences.

– where Christian faith becomes a resource to enable me to live a happy life. I’m loved and accepted and OK as I am. So there is little reverence and fear of God and the word ‘holiness’ sounds terribly old fashioned.

3. A Paradox

Now, I don’t have a grand ‘third way’ that charts an obvious path between these two poles. They both have much truth. I simply suggest that they need each-other for there is a deep-rooted paradox to the Christian life.

The paradox is that that there is no incompatibility between having the Spirit and experiencing suffering. Jesus, God’s Son, was anointed with the Spirit and immediately embarks on a mission that involves opposition, violence and ultimately death. John the Baptist likewise. Stephen who is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ also is executed. Paul is led by and empowered by the Spirit but endures continual persecution, hardships, and finally in Rome the same fate as Jesus, John and Stephen. Seeing a pattern emerge?

The story of the church in Acts is of the triumph and victory of God. This includes dramatic healing and visible foretastes of the future kingdom of God in the present, but most often in and through suffering and weakness. The cross and Spirit are not in opposition to each other. It is the Spirit who enables and empowers believers to face suffering and persecution. And it is through that suffering that God’s power is evident to all. There is a privilege to suffer persecution and even death as Jesus did.

It seems then, that Christians are neither to be fatalistic pessimists nor naïve optimists. But are to be empowered and strengthened by the eschatological Spirit to face suffering with dignity and hope. They do not see God as the author of evil, they look forward with him to a world rid of suffering and death, disease and tears, violence and persecution – a world his Son has died to redeem. Suffering will not have the last word. It is precisely in the midst of suffering and weakness that God’s power is seen at work.

So how I am to pray for my friend and his family?

With tears. With urgency for healing. With lament at pain. With hope in the goodness and victory of God. Pray with me if you can.

Theology first, always

In our wee church we close the Sunday service each week by saying ‘the benediction’ to each other – not an eyes closed prayer by someone for everyone else, but an eyes-open head-turning blessing/prayer to one another within the community. ‘The benediction’ in question is Paul’s closing prayer for that most vexing group of Christians in Corinth, recorded in 2 Corinthians 13:14:

‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.’

The closer you look at this verse, the deeper it gets. What’s fascinating with so much NT theology is its ad hoc assumed nature that oozes out all over the place and this verse does a lot of oozing. What seems a nice closing blessed thought actually unveils much about Paul’s priorities for believers, the shape of his soteriology and his understanding of the identity of God himself.

1. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’:

Speaks of the immeasurable self-giving of the crucified Messiah of Israel. The good news is Christological – the historical Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah and victorious risen living Lord who has defeated death and sin (1 Cor 15:56-7). His grace is given on behalf of those who follow him as Lord. This grace is a present experienced reality, not a historical highlight, which brings the Christian into an undeserved and unimaginably blessed new status of peace with God (Rom 5:1-2).

2. ‘the love of God’:

The origin, foundation or beginning point of Paul’s soteriology is the character of God. It is God who loves extravagantly and at great cost. He loves us first, before we love him. It is his love that lies behind the great biblical story of redemption and climaxes in the phrase that ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). It is in love he adopts us as children through his Son (Eph 1:4-5).

3. ‘and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’

God’s self-giving continues with the gift of his Spirit to believers. It is the Spirit who brings soteriological life. Those in Christ are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). The Spirit empowers that new life and produces his fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit pours God’s love into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) – a remarkable image of deep relationship with the living God. It is in the Spirit that believers are united into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). This is a fellowship of mutuality and service; the body of Christ / the temple of the Holy Spirit is where God dwells among his people. The gift of the Spirit gives eschatological joy and hope even in the midst of suffering and hardship since the future is already here in the present.

The Identity of God

One of the joys I have at IBI is to teach a course in both Christology and pneumatology (at least I enjoy teaching them, hope students do too!). This verse is by no means an isolated route into both Paul’s Christology and pneumatology and therefore his ‘theology proper’ – the nature of God himself.

The picture in the NT is of a radical shift or development in ‘pure theology’ (who God is) that revolves around both Christ and the Spirit. Paul’s prayer in 1 Cor 13:13 captures the way that Son, Father and Spirit are united in perfect harmony of activity and relationship. This is not worked out ontologically (that would come later in church history), but it is just one example among many of how the three ‘persons’ each have a complementary and intertwining role in salvation (what has been called ‘soteriological trinitarianism’). In this verse God, Father, Son and Spirit, are experienced as a triune reality. Salvation is the work of the one God (monotheism is maintained), effected by the distinct and cooperative ministry of Father, Son and Spirit.

You see this triunity in how the Spirit is the ‘Spirit of God’ (eg 1 Cor 2:10-12), and yet also the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (eg; Gal 4:4-6; Phil 1:19 etc). Jesus does not somehow ‘displace’ God, but shares in his function and role of ‘sending’ the Spirit (Acts 2 and elsewhere).

OK, how does this connect back to a church service with 60 people in an Irish secondary school double Maths classroom?

It’s a reminder of how profoundly and consistently Paul’s theology shapes his pastoral ministry and ours needs to do the same.

There is much written about the church; its failures and continual need for reform in a post-Christendom wilderness. And sure there is lots to write about.

But it seems to me that we need to be thoroughly Pauline in seeking reform. Heck, he faced power struggles, resistance to his leadership, incest, pride, prostitution, heresy, super-spirituality, judgementalism, and division – that all just in Corinth.

But he begins and ends in theology – in what is true in light of the gospel – and then moves on from that foundation to address the issues.

It can be easy to see the faults of a local church and especially a denominational institution. It can be easy to lapse into pragmatic ‘solutions’.

But it is into the reality of an imperfect and often weak church that we need to be praying and reminding each other of deep, true, rich, life-affirming good news: good news that Christians know the presence of the triune God, the community of self-giving love that is the Father, Son and Spirit. Good news of God’s saving grace in Christ; good news that the church is not just a random association of individuals but a fellowship where God’s very Spirit dwells.

Theology first. Always.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Irish and drink

My 15 yr old daughter got results this week for her Junior Certificate exams sat last June. Here is an accompanying letter with the results. Not from the school or the state examinations commission but from the police.

CCF13092013_00000I wonder if parents of 15 yr old children in other european countries or elsewhere get similiar nationally distributed letters from the legal arm of the state when results come out?

National angst over teenage binge drinking post Junior Cert is of course an annual past time.

Apparently Irish teenagers drink about the same amount as their european counterparts, but when they do drink they tend to binge. Cheap and available alcohol means you can get hammered on a budget.

It’s comfortable for us oldies to shake their heads and tut about the excesses of youth. But teenage drinking doesn’t happen in isolation. Alcohol is also the drug of choice for Irish adults and drinking to excess is a recreation (or addiction) of a significant proportion.

So it’s not only the occasional binge drinking of 15 yr olds that is a regular threat to law and order. It’s often the young who suffer – one survey puts it at about 10% of children are negatively affected by parental drinking.

I guess there are lots of complex reasons for Ireland’s long love affair with alcohol. The old idea that there was nothing else to be doing in an evening in the country but drink and socialise at your local doesn’t really carry these days.  And you can hardly say we aren’t educated about what alcohol does.

Peer pressure in a culture that equates alcohol with fun? Hedonism of a materialistic culture? Experiential consumerism – the high of excess? Nihilistic boredom with reality, with ourselves? Low cost drink? Other reasons?

But one thing stays true: drinking isn’t just the free autonomous individual going out to enjoy him or herself – to celebrate what they have ‘earned’ and ‘deserve’ after exam results or whatever. We are intrinsically social beings. What we do impacts others as well as ourselves.

Maybe part of our relationship with alcohol is its illusion of freedom. And yet it’s hard to connect liberty with lying unconcious and half-dressed in a city street gutter.

One of my favourite verses in the Bible is Galatians 5:1 ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ Sure Paul hadn’t drink in mind, but there are many forms of slavery. The beauty of the gospel is that the Spirit sets people free. Free not for self-indulgence and to hell with others, but free to love, free to serve.

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.  (Gal 5:13)

Neglected Spirit?

A saying attributed to Dorothy Sayers (don’t have the ref)

“There are those who would worship the Father, Son and the Virgin Mary; those who believe in the Father, Son and the Holy Scriptures; those who found their faith on the Father, the Son and the Holy Church; and there are those who seem to derive their spiritual power from the Father, the Son and the Minister!”

Assuming there is some truth to what she says, a question then is, ‘Why?’

Why is the Spirit neglected?

Why is it so easy to ‘replace’ the Spirit with someone or something else?

Theological reasons? Historical? Spiritual? Others come to mind?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Israel through a Christological lens (3)

BethlehemSo, does the church ‘replace’ Israel?

The charge of ‘replacement theology’ is a heavily loaded one. It is frequently equated with anti-Semitism, It is seen as denying God’s covenant(s) with Israel (especially regarding Israel’s ‘divine gift’ of the land which is assumed to be permanent) and therefore being sub-biblical at best. It is seen as arrogant (Christians better than Jews) and so on.

Sometimes ‘replacement’ theology is equated with ‘supersessionism’. The tricky bit here is that these terms need definition. Rikk Watts has a very good article on ‘Israel and Salvation’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Evangelical Theology. In it he describes Gabriel Fackre’s systematisation of at least 5 forms of supersessionism and 8 forms of anti-supersessionist theology. I’m not going to go into all them here – save to say that it’s misleading to throw terms like ‘replacement’ around without defining what it is you are talking about.

I don’t believe in ‘replacement’ theology. I do believe in ‘fulfilment’ theology. Here’s why:

The church does not ‘replace’ Israel as if ‘that story is a dead-end and now here’s a new one’. The entire NT is incomprehensible without the story of Israel. Jesus completes or fulfils that story – he is the one about whom the whole story revolves. As sketched  in the last post, themes of exodus, Messiah, Torah, land, temple, Spirit, people of God – all find deep continuity and fulfilment in the ‘Christ event’.

It is those who are ‘in Christ’ who are children of Abraham. Believers in Jesus are adopted as God’s children through the Spirit of God (Galatians; Romans). This is a reconstituted Israel – made up of anyone who abides in Jesus (to use John’s language this time). It is crystal clear that it is not sufficient to belong to Israel or to be Torah-obedient. it was not enough for Paul – it is the New covenant which surpasses the Old for it brings life (2 Cor. 3:7-17). The vital thing here is to ‘turn to the Lord’.

The language for the NT people of God is significant. The church (ekklesia) is in continuity with the qahal – the community of Israel. The outpouring of the Spirit to the Gentiles is seen as a fulfilment of the promise to Abraham and to Jacob that all nations would be blessed. Paul explicitly calls the church ‘the Israel of God’ in Gal. 6:16.  There is no longer any significant spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile (Rom 10:2; Gal 3:28, whole of Ephesians) – they retain their identity and culture within the one body, but the spiritual significance of being Jewish is radically relativised. No where is this more clear than in Paul’s radical statement that

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” (Gal 6:15).

This theme of fulfilment is seen in how OT covenants find their completion in Jesus (the Christological lens). Exodus; Abrahamic; Davidic covenants are all fulfilled in Jesus. He enacts a new exodus; those in him are children of Abraham; he is the anointed king. And when it comes to Passover, the gospel testimony is startling: Jesus enacts a new Passover, offering his own body and blood to bring forgiveness in and through his death (and victorious resurrection).

And these theme of fulfilment is seen in relation to the land itself – just as it has been for Temple and Torah and people of God. The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem is of a cosmic place of reconciliation where believers from all tribes and tongues and nations enter in. Just as the physical Temple is decentered and fulfilled in Jesus himself (and indeed Jesus announces impending judgement on the temple), so the land is ‘decentered’. No longer are God’s people tied to the land, but are formed from all nations through the life-giving Spirit, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and bears fruit all over the world (Col 1:6).

What does all this mean today?

i. There is ONE covenant and ONE new humanity in Christ, made up of Jews and Gentiles, equal recipients of grace, first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles (who are graciously grafted into that one story).

ii. Torah is fulfilled through faith in Christ and a life in the Spirit. This is not replacement – but God acting to bring forgiveness and new life and holiness to the world beyond Israel as he had always promised to do.

iii. God has not abandoned Israel (Rom 11:2-6). Theirs is the original story; theirs is the Messiah. Paul longs that they would recognise him as such (Rom 11:13) – and that many will come to saving faith in the future (Rom 11:26-7). The paradox is that God has used Israel’s rejection of her Messiah  to bring the gospel to the nations.

iv. ‘Israel’ is redefined in the NT through the life, teaching and saving work of Jesus the Messiah. There is one unfolding story of God’s redemptive action in history. What has changed is that Gentiles are now welcomed in to that story and do not have to become Jews to be part of it. If the identity of the people of God in the OT was Torah and circumcision (and,  very importantly, faith in and love for God), now the identity of the people of God is faith in Christ, love of God, a life of holiness empowered by the Spirit, baptism into Christ, and the new covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper.

v. The idea that the modern secular nation-state of Israel is in some way a literal fulfillment of God’s promises to OT Israel is a fatally flawed hermeneutic that sits in flat contradiction to the consistent witness of the New Testament. For that reason alone it should be seriously questioned.

vi. Saying this is not anti-Semitic, or anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian or pro-Islamic! To claim that it is is just a form of spiritual bullying. There are other political and pragmatic and moral arguments that can be better made for the right of Israel to exist in peace. Just don’t distort the Bible to bolster those modern political positions when it does not. It’s bad theology on all sorts of levels.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Israel through a Christological lens (2)

BethlehemOK, what follows is a theological sketch.

‘Israel’ needs definition: I’m here talking about God’s elect people, his promise to Abraham and his choosing of Jacob and his descendants and their identity and calling to be his holy people, faithful to the covenant and Torah.

When we come to consider the identity of ‘Israel’ today, we must do so through a Christological lens. For this is how the NT is written – it is fundamentally a theological reflection on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in light of Israel’s story as told in her scriptures.

Jesus is Israel’s Messiah; the king who announces and demonstrates in power the that the kingdom of God has come; his healing of the sick, raising of the dead, purifying lepers and casting out of demons are all signs that the eschatological rule of God is here in the present. Jesus is the anointed Son of God, the fulfilment of all the hopes of Israel. He alone brings forgiveness and salvation.

Jesus re-enacts exodus around himself; the baptism – Spirit- temptations narrative highlights that he is God’s beloved Son are all strong echoes of Exodus:  (passing through water followed by 40 days in the desert). Jesus chooses 12 disciples; he reforms or reconstitutes Israel around himself. He is even the fulfilment of the Torah – obedience to God is measured in faithful response to his teaching. He is the one with the authority to reinterpret and apply the Torah (Mt 5-7). For John he is the eternal Logos.

Jesus explicitly announces judgement on the Temple. It would be replaced by worship centered on the resurrected Lord (1 Cor 8:6). He is one greater than the Temple (Mt 12:6). John tells of Jesus who is the temple (Jn 2:19-21). Luke records in Acts 7 how the significance of the Temple is relativised in light of the coming of the Righteous One; “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”. And in the eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, the temple is not a building but the presence of God and the Lamb.

The exalted Christology of the NT reinforces the picture of Jesus, the Lord, the one greater than Solomon, greater than David, the very presence of God himself having come to his Temple in the holy city. He comes a suffering servant, to die for the world.  The entire book of Hebrews is a Christological reflection on how Jesus far surpasses anything or anyone that has come before  – including priesthood, temple sacrifices, prophets like Moses and the tabernacle.

In his resurrection, Jesus is the vindicated Son of God. It is the risen Lord who sends the Spirit, fulfilling the hope of the OT prophets like Joel. It is through faith in Jesus that the gift of the life-giving Spirit is received. Life comes in him, not through the Torah. A new community of the Spirit is formed in Christ – a community, the household of God, that stands in continuity with Israel. Those in Christ are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17)  – whether Jew or Gentile it does not matter. It is the Spirit-filled community which is the temple of the living God (2 Cor 6:16).

Israel is reconstituted around the Messiah; Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slave and free are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Food laws are relativised (Mk 7:19). In other words, the boundary markers of Israel are redrawn and widened. Paul’s writings grapple with this theme in depth. Those in Christ are children of Abraham and heirs of the promise. The Torah is good but could not give life: its very purpose is fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah. Its commands are kept by life in the Spirit (Rom 8:4).

So it’s clear that there are deep themes of both continuity and discontinuity from old to new covenant; issues revolving around the relationships between Israel, Torah, land, Temple, church; Spirit, Messiah.

How do you put those relationships together?

Your answer to that question will shape how you see (among other things) the status of modern day Israel.

Comments, as ever, welcome