A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (28) Love of money

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Last question!!!  Your useful chapter about money talks about love gone wrong, love for things instead of people, and the using of people to get things. In short, the sin of greed and acquisitiveness.

I was once watching TV in New York and Reverend Ike came on the TV and said the following: “our Scripture for today is from St. Paul ‘the lack of money is the root of all evil’.  After dismembering Paul’s actual words he then went on to say ‘if money is causing you problems and temptations, then send it to me, and I will relieve you of that temptation’ and so on. I remember well a little pamphlet my old prof at GCTS, Gordon Fee wrote called ‘The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel’.  What do you see as the cure for that disease, the cure for misdirected love???

PATRICK: Gordon Fee commenting on I Timothy 6 asks that given the strength of the warnings about the spiritual dangers of money

“Why would any Christian want to get rich?”

Riches are a temptation and trap that ensnare those that desire them. If that sounds odd to us maybe it’s because we are shaped by a culture where the pursuit of wealth is seen as a good thing and accumulating riches equal ‘success’.

There is a nest of issues here around the heart, misdirected love, destructive desires, greed and dissatisfaction – always wanting more. The Bible’s unvarnished diagnosis of this is idolatry – seeking purpose, fulfilment and security in money and the power it brings rather than in God.

Regarding a ‘cure’ – I guess the first step is diagnosis of the problem. And that needs courage by pastors and teachers, perhaps particularly within American Christianity which exists within probably one of the most acquisitive cultures that has existed in human history. When did you last hear a sermon about greed I wonder? Yet, as is often said, Scripture has far more to say about money than pretty well any other ethical issue.

Imagine if the church’s ‘default’ attitude to wealth was caution and warnings about its potentially toxic effects. That would be a huge shift and bring us back closer to the attitudes of Christians of the early church.

A second step is de-idolizing money through rightly-directed love. It’s fascinating how Paul’s ‘answer’ to the problem in 1 Timothy is not a list of rules – he goes for the heart. He has confidence the power of the gospel to transform hearts, minds and behaviour. Love of money is a spiritual problem. The ‘treatment’ is to find our security in the love of God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17b). To be people of contentment, hope, generosity and other-directed love. An acid test of where our security and hope really lies is how generous we are with temporary resources with which we have been entrusted. 

THAT’S ALL FOLKS., THANKS FOR ALL YOUR Answers.   

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (27) Marriage and singleness

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 248 you stress that Christian marriage is not a private relationship in which you have all your love concentrated and all your love needs met.  As you say, Paul sees marriage as exhibit A of the larger relationship Christ has with his body, his bride, the church. “The primary location for love is not the nuclear family but the community of the church.” I agree, but this is not what most people mean by a family church (that usually means a church that nurtures nuclear family units, or worse still a church run by a singular nuclear family). Help us to better understand how in an individualistic age we get across that the church is the primary family.

PATRICK:  I say to students sometimes that there’s a ‘weirdness’ to Christianity that we need to feel otherwise we’ve probably domesticated the gospel. I mean by that that Christianity is profoundly ‘out of step’ with many assumed norms of Western culture – and marriage is one example. Conservatives tend to idealise a 1960s version of the nuclear family – a phrase that probably conjures up in our minds images of 2 parents and 2.5 children living in a detached home on a suburban street. Conservatives tend to want to ‘recover’ this lost ideal as a way of promoting social stability. Western liberalism tends to prize love, sex and the option of marriage all belonging to the private domain of the individual lovers, regardless of gender.

It seems to me that Christian marriage challenges both social conservatism and radical individualism. While it is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, it is not a a private relationship.

In Ephesians 5 the couple’s love is to exist within the wider network of relationships that is the church (ekklēsia appears multiple times in this text). They are first and foremost members of Christ’s body called, like any other disciples, to love brothers and sisters across deep divides around religious and ethnic background, gender and social status. This relativises marriage – it is not an end in itself. It is not the place the couple’s love rules supreme and which might perhaps ‘overflow’ to others. It’s the other way around – as disciples they learn to love within the community and take that Christian love into marriage.

As Hauerwas says,

‘Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se.’ 

This means that Christian marriages ‘belong’ within community – they are to be ‘porous’ (places of hospitality and welcome) not impermeable (the self-sufficient nuclear family).

This perspective gives space to recover a proper theology of celibacy and singleness as an equally (if not higher) calling than marriage – which is also a radical challenge to idolisation of the nuclear family.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (26) Marriage and submission

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN:  I like the way in your discussion of Ephes. 5.21ff. you point out how Paul is busily renovating the traditional patriarchal orientation of the extended family in his day, not merely baptizing that structure and calling it good.  The exposition of ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ is helpful, and it shows the direction Paul is pointing the family in.  I have a doctoral student who has done a detailed study of Paul’s use of isotes in all its occurrences in Greek literature in that period, and it always means equality, not fairness.

In other words Paul in Colossians is even saying, masters treat your slaves as your equals, and serve them as they serve you. Now this is just as revolutionary as Ephes. 5.21.  Unless you see Paul the pastor as starting with the existing household codes and then modifying them in light of the Gospel in a more equitable direction, you’ve missed the thrust of passages like Col. 3-4 and Ephes. 5-6.  Would you agree?  Paul is not trying to change society directly, but indirectly by changing what happens in the Christian home and house church meetings— right?

PATRICK: Right. I used the title ‘Subversive Love’ to describe what’s going on. It isn’t as if Paul is confronting Greco-Roman culture head-on, I don’t think that’s his primary motive. He’s working out the good news of the gospel within fledging Christian communities in relation to different sets of relationships that commonly appear in the household codes. But he must have been well aware that the implications were revolutionary. The way Christians are to relate to one another necessarily undermines the patriarchal and hierarchical structures of existing household codes. The new communities were to be characterised by mutual submission (5:21) – a profoundly Christian concept. Love, humility, service of others, dying to the self – these are all Christ-like characteristics that all believers are called to.

So when it comes to husbands and wives, it is not as though husbands are somehow exempt from Christian submission! There’s a long history of interpretation that tries hard to separate 5:21 (all submit to one another) and 5:22 (wives submit to husbands). Some Bibles even insert a heading after verse 21 that breaks up the text – which, as you know, is one long sentence in Greek from verses 18-23. Yes, wives are told to submit to husbands (and children / slaves to obey parents / masters), not the other way around. But this is best read not as some Pauline mandate for a timeless ‘gender role’. The apostle is recognising cultural realities of the household codes but subverting them as he calls believers to follow the way of Jesus in whatever social role they happen to find themselves in.

The irony of so much discussion of this text is that it is not really focused on changing the behaviour wives at all – but it IS focused on challenging the behaviour and attitudes of husbands. They are told four times in nine verses to love their wives.

That husbands were to love wives self-sacrificially turns Greco-Roman ideas of status and patronage on their head. He is to treat his wife as he has been treated by his own head (Christ). The husbands ‘headship’ takes the form of loving and caring for his wife as his own body. It’s a subversion of cultural expectations – he nurtures her. He is to treat her as he, the man with all the power and privilege, has been treated.

Unless we get this sense of radical subversion I don’t think we’ve heard this text. And this is where many complementarian readings miss Paul’s gospel edge. They end up reinforcing the very Greco-Roman cultural norms that Paul is busy subverting.

 

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (25)

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN:   Gal. 5.6 is a remarkable claim— the only thing that counts is faith working through love. Why should we not see this as typical hyperbole by Paul in a letter full of hyperbole (like ‘you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me!!!’)????

PATRICK: Yes, it’s remarkable and I liked it so much that I made it the strapline of the book. The danger of making it hyperbole is that it becomes too easy to downplay how what Paul says here is fully consistent with his pervasive theology of love – I’m thinking 1 Corinthians 13, or 1 Cor 16:14 ‘Do everything in love’, or how love fulfils the law in Galatians 5 and Romans 13:8-10, or walking in love in Ephesians, or Colossians 3:12, ‘And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity’.

 ‘Faith working through love’ has a sense of dynamic power, Paul knows nothing of faith that is not transformative and love in this sense is the goal and purpose of faith. In other words, I don’t think it is too strong to say that Paul sees love as God’s ultimate agenda for his people. This tends to get missed in hot debates about justification by faith. Paul’s passion in Galatians is not only to correct a false gospel but also to heal a community riven by division who were ‘biting and devouring one another’. It’s fruit of the Spirit, whose first characteristic is love, that is the only remedy to Galatian divisiveness. In this sense love is a ‘weapon’ in God’s war against the powers opposes to his good purposes. And if that’s the case, then yes absolutely – love is the only thing that counts.

BEN:  Paul speaks of Christ setting us free from something and for something. The problem, at least in my context is that Americans here this and think freedom means ‘free to do as I please’ whereas I assume Paul means something very different— freedom from sin and freedom to do as God pleases.  As you say ‘we are not set free to live for ourselves, but to love one another as Christ loved us.’ (p. 229).  How do we best get this idea across to an increasingly narcissistic  and selfy-oriented western culture???

PATRICK: Christian freedom is a paradox. Galatians 5 begins “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1) but Paul goes on to make clear that it is liberation is found, not in doing whatever we desire, but in serving one another humbly in love (Gal 5:13). Or as the NRSV translates it “but through love become slaves to one another.” The irony is that Paul has been pleading with then not to go back to a life of slavery, now he is commending it!

I guess a start would be to feel the offense of this paradox today in our teaching and preaching within a culture which prizes individual liberty and pursuit of the authentic self. Perhaps this is a particular challenge for the church in America, the home of ‘freedom’ and capitalism, where freedom is virtually worshipped as an end in itself. Self-made individuals neither need anything from others nor expect to be obligated to others. Capitalism fosters the belief that all we have belongs to us – including our possessions, our time, our bodies – and no-one has a right to tell us how to live. That’s a long way from “become slaves to each other in love”. If our preaching and teaching leaves Christians untroubled in a cocoon of wealth and self-sufficiency then it’s not doing its job!

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (21)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Let’s reflect a bit on John 15— vine and branches and remaining/abiding. I heard a good sermon about how branches are not called to be sucking the nutrients out of the vine. Rather the way the viticulture actually works is the vine forces its good sap into the branches. All the branches have to do is hang in there!!! That’s an interesting take on ‘abiding’ The title of the sermon (typically American!) was ‘We Are Not Called to be Sap Suckers!!’ Does this fit with your understanding of ‘abiding’? I note that love is a condition for abiding in Christ.

PATRICK: A memorable title for a sermon for sure. And it’s a good image which captures how the vine is the life force, it’s only by remaining connected to it that the disciples will bear fruit (John 15:2, 4–5, 8).

But I think there is more to it than passive ‘hanging in there’. To remain (abide) includes active obedience. John is crystal clear – “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” (15:10a). And those commands involve loving each other (15:12, 17). The foot-washing story in John 13 leads up to a new command “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (13:34).

That love can be commanded feels odd to us Westerners – doesn’t love have to be freely chosen between equals if it is to be authentic? But John has no problem at all linking love with faithful submission to authoritative commands. There is mystery and wonder here. John’s exalted Christology means that the only appropriate response for disciples to Jesus, the Logos and Son of God, is obedience to his commands. This isn’t obedience out of fear, but out of love for the Messiah who gives his life for his friends.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (20)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: As a Christian pacifist myself, I really resonated with what you say on pp. 172-73, affirming my fellow Methodist Stan Hauerwas’s repeated teachings on such things.

I agree that this is the clear thrust of much of the Sermon on the Mount, and the clear witness of the life of Paul who was converted from violence against the church, to the Gospel of non-violence for the sake of Christ. When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean love them to death by killing them!

Interestingly, Martin Luther King Jr. was finally convinced of this Gospel by reading E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi when he was in seminary. Jones was a Methodist missionary to India, and a graduate of Asbury college. Recently there was an excellent movie entitled Hacksaw Ridge, which told the story of a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist who served as a medic in the Pacific WWII, who was the first soldier to be allowed to serve in the U.S. Army without carrying or firing a gun. And he rescued many people in battle at Hacksaw Ridge, both friend and foe.

I used to think when I was younger that there’s no way I could serve in the military… but perhaps I could do that, and still serve my country without violating my conscience or the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Would you see this as plausible, or as an unhelpful compromise? After all, you could be said to be patching up soldiers so they can go back out and kill some more.

PATRICK: I really wanted to get over how enemy love is not confined to interpreting a line or two from the Sermon on the Mount. What tends to happen then is Jesus’ teaching is reinterpreted as hyperbolic or idealistic. Richard Hays has an excellent discussion in his classic book The Moral Vision of the New Testament of all the attempts made to soften Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. None of them are convincing.

Jesus’ teaching shapes that of the first Christians – Paul, Peter and the early church. The overwhelming historical evidence is how the pre-Constantinian early Christian movement repudiated killing in all forms – abortion, war and capital punishment. The shift after Constantine (Augustine especially) to legitimize ‘just’ violence in order to suppress heresy or expand Christendom was, in my opinion, a disaster to the witness of the church. Similarly in the 20th century for Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of ‘just war’.

It isn’t a question of whether Christians are to be violent in certain situations, Jesus calls disciples to be non-violent full stop. Of course this seems crazy, but that’s the point – enemy love is the good itself. It’s the window to life in the upside-down kingdom. I saw Hacksaw Ridge in Dublin a couple of years ago and read up on the story of Desmond Doss on which it was based. While I don’t think I could sign up for the military, his was an inspiring example of how Christian non-violence requires considerable bravery.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (19)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 163 you say “if marketing is all about identifying and satisfying customer needs, Jesus does a terrible job at ‘selling’ a life of discipleship within the Kingdom of God. He pulls no punches, sweetens no pill. Rather it seems as if he is trying to make it as difficult as possible for the listeners to follow him.” This sounds like the exact opposite of the prosperity Gospel to me. It seems many people don’t want a costly discipleship. They want a gift of salvation, and then freedom to live the life of conspicuous consumption— and God bless our standard of living. John Wesley preached a powerful sermon entitled ‘On the Use of Money’. In the second half of the 18th century Wesleyan Revival it was the second most preached sermon by him, after Justification by Faith’. In that former sermon he said you should make all you can by honorable and ethical means, save all you can, and then give all you can (while living a simple life style). He says if you only do the first do but don’t give all you can, you may be a living person, but you are a dead Christian. One wonders how many Christians today John would see as ‘almost’ rather than ‘altogether’ Christians. What does de-enculturation look like in your setting?

PATRICK: That quote is referring to Luke 6 and particularly Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies in vv27-36. Jesus catalogues what disciples should consider blessings: nice attractive things like poverty, hunger, weeping and being hated. And then goes on say love those who hate you and mistreat you – without expecting to get anything back. A few questions back Ben you said you were amazed that any Gentiles believed Paul’s gospel of a crucified Messiah – it was illogical and counter-cultural. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that we need to feel that same amazement and discomfort today concerning what it is to be a Christian. If absent then it’s a sign that we have probably domesticated the gospel and Jesus’ call to costly discipleship.

We were talking in theology class this week about the weirdness of Christianity. Tidy, conventional, conservative and easy it is not! The more we try to make the gospel undemanding and comfortable in order to attract Western consumers, the less like Jesus we sound. This is where the recent apocalyptic turn in NT studies is on to something important – there is something profoundly disruptive about God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. De-enculturation has to be about recapturing the shocking unreasonableness of the Christian life in a culture that prizes wealth, comfort, pleasure, security and individual autonomy.

BEN: I like the quote from my friend Darrell Bock on p. 165 about how unnatural and abnormal it is to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. As he says, it is the opposite of all natural instincts, and requires divine love to make it happen. Tolerating the enemy is one thing, blessing them and loving them is another. As you point out, such love of enemies makes no rational or financial sense, as there is no guarantee it will be fulfilled. How you treat your enemies will reveal what sort of God you believe in (p. 168). I agree with this. We have a God who not merely loves his enemies, in the person of his Son he died for them! We are to emulate God’s own conduct. Can you unpack this for us a bit.

PATRICK: I like the comparison of a mirror and a window. Are we (the Church) a mirror to this broken and divided world, reflecting back its hatreds and injustices? Or are we windows, through whom the world can catch a glimpse of another reality – a kingdom of love, grace and forgiveness? This is why we are called to enemy love – not to ‘win’ them over or even expect peace to break out (it most likely will not) – but because this is how God loves. Love is itself the goal.

There is no ‘rulebook’ and everyone is different, but in the book I tell the story of a friend (name changed) who was sexually abused by her brother when she was a young girl. She’d grown up and moved on with her life as best she could, despite deep damage done to her inner being. She was in her 30s and had become a believer when the past came to public light. Suddenly she was confronted with the pain she’d long buried, this time as a Christian. What did it mean to love her enemy? To cut a long story short, eventually she began to pray for him and this unlocked compassion for his lostness. It was a long process but she can say today that she loves him and has forgiven him. Forgiveness has released her from decades of bitterness and hurt. Such love has no guarantee of a ‘return’ – her brother remains estranged. He hasn’t faced up to what he did. But she felt her calling was to love her enemy and that’s what she’s done.