Paul and Gender (1) : a call for a serious discussion within Irish evangelicalism

Here’s notice of an important, carefully researched and very well written book.

It is by Cynthia Long Westfall, entitled Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.

Professor Craig Blomberg, who teaches with us in IBI on our MA Programme on a regular basis and is not a card-carrying egalitarian, says this about it,

“After the deluge of literature on gender roles in 9780801097942the Bible, can anyone add anything distinctive and persuasive to the discussion? Cynthia Long Westfall has demonstrated that the answer is a resounding yes. This is one of the most important books on the topic to appear in quite some time, and all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration. The approach does not replicate standard contemporary complementarian or egalitarian perspectives but charts a fresh course in light of first-century cultural history and informed linguistic and discourse analysis. A must-read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.”

Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

Westfall explores Paul and Gender through multiple angles:

1. Culture
2. Stereotypes
3. Creation
4. The Fall
5. Eschatology
6. The Body
7. Calling
8. Authority
9. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Conclusion

I’ve written a lot on ‘Women in Leadership’ on this blog over the years – this link takes you to many of those posts. This is probably the best book I’ve read.

Some seriouslys coming up: it takes the biblical text seriously, it takes Paul’s context and culture seriously, and it takes the factors that shape biblical interpretation seriously.  Note Craig’s two seriouslys:

all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration

it is a must read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.

My context is Ireland:  I would love to see Irish evangelicals take Craig’s two points seriously. I’m sketching why below.

  1. Evangelicals, if they are to live up to their name, need to be engaging with Westfall’s arguments

John Stott called evangelicals ‘Bible people and gospel people’. To live up to that description is to always be open to reformation and hearing the Bible speak afresh.

Please note what I am not saying. I’m not saying she must be agreed with. Nor am I saying that anyone who holds to male only leadership / preaching obviously lacks a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture or is obviously wrong. I am not saying that those who are not persuaded by Westfall are ‘un-evangelical’, lack a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture, or are mistaken.

I am simply appealing for a serious discussion and review of established interpretations and practice. For any pastor / church leader / denomination / network of churches to ignore the increasingly powerful and compelling challenges to old paradigms and to keep doing things this way because that’s ‘obviously the biblical way’ – is to fail to be evangelical enough.

To be consistently evangelical is to engage fairly and constructively with Westfall’s arguments and to face searching criticisms of traditional interpretations of Paul as being inadequate and inconsistent. Such has been the weight of significant evangelical scholarship on this issue over the last few decades, that those who hold to tradition and custom without rigorous self-critical engagement on how Paul is being interpreted are failing to be open to semper reformanda.

Evangelicals should, in theory, be the last people who resort to custom and tradition before considering serious biblical exegesis that challenges accepted paradigms. Isn’t that exactly what the Reformation was about?

I have no problem with churches and networks who have seriously thought about and had open transparent debates about this issue.

Networks like New Frontiers in the UK for example. While I don’t agree with people like Andrew Wilson’s innovative and (to me) unconvincing and arbitrary defence of teaching with a ‘big T’ (‘doctrinally definitive’ teaching, open to appropriately gifted male elders) and teaching with a ‘small t’ (‘quoting. explaining, applying Scripture’, open to invited people), you can’t say there hasn’t been a thorough and informed examination of questions of exegesis, hermeneutics, culture and gender. You also can’t say that there isn’t a real desire to explore every way possible to encourage and release women in ministry within parameters of how Scripture is understood. As Wilson says

I believe in women in leadership. Not many people don’t, to be honest: I don’t recall ever coming across a church where women don’t preach the gospel, or lead worship, or speak on Sundays, or disciple people, or run events, or train children, or lead areas of ministry, or serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team, or prophesy (and they do all of those things at the church I’m part of). I believe in women in ministry, the equality of men and women, and the importance of releasing women to be modern-day Phoebes, Priscillas, Junias, Marys, Lydias, Euodias, Syntyches, and so on.

This from what is otherwise a very traditional approach to a male only elder / Teacher interpretation.

In contrast, in Ireland, apart from some isolated examples, I’m not hearing much vigorous informed debate. I’m not hearing of reassessment of established patterns of ministry, many of which appear purely cultural and have little thought-out rationale. I’m not hearing a passion and desire to explore every way possible to release women into ministry and use God-given gifts.

In fact more the opposite.

In much of the church it feels more like a culturally conservative holding on to the status quo as somehow clearly biblical against a perceived advance of ‘liberalism’ or ‘feminism’ rather than a serious open-minded discussion of the issues.

What I continue to hear from many women in different churches in Ireland is light years away from even what a  male-elder-only traditionalist like Wilson describes. Many women continue to have no opportunity to preach the gospel, speak on Sundays, serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team. Some are not even allowed to lead a Bible study in a mixed-gender setting.

I’d love to hear if I am wrong – but are there serious discussions happening reflecting a desire to release women into ministry as far as possible? Is this happening in Baptist circles, in many independent evangelical churches and networks, in Pentecostal networks, in many ethnic church networks etc?

Even within a denomination like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland of which I am a part, which decided to ordain women elders back in the 1926 and women ministers back in 1973, there has been a conservative retrenchment. In 1990, in response to a move by a minority resistant to the official position of the denomination, the Church’s Judicial Commission issued guidelines that allowed “Those with personal conscientious objections” not to participate in services of ordination of a woman. In effect the 1990 Guidelines have fatally undermined the Church’s own democratically endorsed official policy. They have given the green light for many churches to refuse to call a women minister and many male ministers to fail to support women candidates for ministry from within their churches. In that sort of climate, it is remarkable that there are any women ministers emerging at all – and there are only a very few. It does certainly not feel like a culture which wishes to explore every possible means to encourage and release women into ministry. This all in the absence of open transparent theological discussion of work like Westfall’s at formal church level (again glad to be corrected on this one if there has been).

Westfall argues that no interpretation of Paul and gender should be automatically privileged. At the end of the book she proposes this – and it is worth reading carefully for traditional assumptions and practices ARE guarded as a sacred citadel to be defended.

I exhort the evangelical community to make a crucial distinction between what a text is and what has been assumed about the text in the process of interpretation. I encourage evangelicals to then “trust the text.” Place the actual biblical text above the interpretations of the text and the theological constructions that have gained a dogmatic foothold among so many.

The traditional interpretations and understandings of the Pauline theology of gender should not be guarded as a citadel and treated as a privileged reading of the texts that must be incontrovertibly proved wrong with hard evidence before considering other options. Rather, they should be placed on equal ground with other viable interpretative options and treated with comparable suspicion because of the history of interpretation, not in spite of it. I invite serious scholars and students of the text to go through the discipline of carefully identifying the information, assumptions, and inferences that have been imported into the texts, extract them from the reading, and then read the texts again with hermeneutics that are consistent with the best practices for interpreting biblical texts and language in general. Seek to weigh the contexts in which the text is placed and consider how they affect interpretation. Utilize sophisticated tools to determine the meaning of words in a linguistically informed way, because that is a major arena in the argument. (314)

  1. This is a crucial topic

The second reason is related to the first. It is not only a question of taking the Bible seriously, it is also an issue with significant pastoral, theological and missional implications.

Too often I have heard from (male) leaders – whom I have great respect for – that women in leadership is simply not a priority issue. It is a ‘secondary matter’, historically and theologically a peripheral issue, far less important than evangelism, mission, preaching, discipleship etc.

I have also heard pragmatic responses. It is just too difficult and potentially divisive to risk rocking the boat by opening up this particular can of worms. It is an issue better left alone.

While these responses are understandable to a degree, they are inadequate. Blomberg is right – it is a crucial issue. It impacts half the body of Christ. Those unwilling to engage seriously with the weight of scholarship like Westfall’s need to consider the implications of being mistaken: to consider the impact on women in their church network; to consider implications for faithful obedience to God and his Word; to consider the unnecessary limits on the gifting and work of the Spirit within the body of Christ.

[Yes, I know such questions cut both ways – again my point is not to assume Westfall is obviously right, but to say that her arguments need serious engagement].

Men in positions of power need to consider seriously Jesus’ command to ‘do to others as you would have others do to you’. They need to try seriously to put themselves in a gifted woman’s position who feels a sincere call to leadership.

For example, at one point Westfall refers to John Piper talking about his ‘call’ to ministry.

A man’s personal call to the pastorate and other ministry is treated with due respect and seriousness in the seminaries. There is a reluctance to question or contradict a man’s sense of his own call …. John Piper serves as a an excellent paradigm for a call to the pastorate: He sensed a call to ministry … which he describes as “my heart almost bursting with longing.” Then, in 1980, he felt an irresistible call to preach. When a man negotiates his call to ministry, he utilizes emotions and experience in accordance with his faith and the grace that he is given.

However, the role of variety and experience in the realization of calling is either explicitly or effectively discounted for women. When a woman determines her call by the same model, using the same criteria, if she comes to the same conclusions as Piper, she is told that her navigational system is broken. (213-14)

Men need to try to imagine having your desire to pursue that call NOT being automatically welcomed, celebrated, affirmed and encouraged. They need to try seriously to imagine it automatically being treated as a problem, a form of mistaken ambition, an embarrassing awkward situation that hopefully will go away – all quite apart from your Christian maturity, gifting and desire to serve Jesus. I suspect all men just can’t really imagine what that feels like – however hard they may try.

At the very least, therefore, ‘to do to others’ means to sincerely, seriously, open-mindedly and compassionately engage with arguments like Westfall’s.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Grace reimagined: Paul and the Gift

img_20161104_225105Looking forward to preaching at MCC tomorrow. As a one off sermon rather than part of a series, it’s going to be about grace; connected to working through John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. Hopefully the sermon will not be a lecture on the book! Will be trying hard to earth it.

Prof Barclay was in Maynooth last year.

What would you say grace is?

Something like the unconditional love of God? Or God’s unmerited favour to sinners?

Far greater minds than mine have hailed this book as a masterpiece and one that will re-shape how grace is understood within Christian scholarship and the wider church (Have a read of the endorsements on the Eerdmann’s website above).

Having spent quite a bit of time researching and writing a book chapter ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus’ within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life this is an area I find fascinating.

Not so much on ‘Old’ versus ‘New’ (I don’t really have a dog in that fight), but how the discussion relates to mission, how the gospel is presented, the role of the Spirit (pneumatology), the place of Israel, the radical implications of who can be righteous before God (ecclesiology) and how (soteriology), the identity of Jesus (Christology) and how to read the Bible as a whole (narrative vs systematic) and how we understand the Christian life itself.

So a lot of things are tied up in understanding Paul.

So it is fantastically impressive to see John Barclay cut with a surgeon’s knife through over 40 years of contentious debate between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives. His operation is clinical (in the best sense), analytical, massively learned and compelling.

A huge issue that he brings out so well is that a lot of the confusions and disagreements about Paul, grace, justification and works, is that people are often working with different understandings of what grace actually is and how it works.

For example, many people say that grace is ‘free’ and ‘unconditional’. But what does unconditional actually mean in practice?

Does it mean that God’s saving grace in Christ is unconditional (it is not conditioned on anything we do or are)? OK. But is grace still free or unconditional after that?

Protestants have deep anxieties about subsequent ‘works’ being mixed up with grace and talk a lot about grace being ‘free’ if it is truly to be grace. Catholics generally don’t (they talk about an infused righteousness that can go up and down in the Christian life).

‘Old’ Perspective people are generally Reformed and have been dead set against some ‘New’ Perspective voices that seem (to them) to make works part of saving faith and so undermine grace.

E P Sanders, who kicked off the whole debate in 1977, talked about Judaism as a religion of ‘Covenantal Nomism’ – Jews were already ‘in’ the Covenant by grace. All of Judaism, he said, was a ‘religion of grace’ and therefore Jews had the task of ‘staying in’ by keeping the Torah. And the implication was that Christianity worked much the same way.

But this challenged ‘Old Perspective’ ideas that went back to Luther and in some ways all the way to Augustine. Namely, that Paul’s solution of grace was in contrast to Jewish legalism. The gospel of grace was an answer to legalism (self-righteousness).

Today, the dominant way evangelicals talk about grace and the gospel is in terms of liberation from self-righteousness (trying to save ourselves). This is good news to be sure, but was Paul talking about grace as salvation from legalism?

Barclay’s book is so important for a number of reasons: he is a world class scholar on Paul. He also has done years of research into gift in the Greco-Roman world and also has discussed in detail the ‘history of grace’ – through people like Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Sanders and modern scholarship.

Barclay’s brilliant move is to offer an original and creative 6 fold matrix for defining what grace actually is and how it works within the realm of gift. This then becomes his analytical tool for seeing how grace is being understood and used by Paul and also by those theologians through history.

Reading through his extensive conclusions I found myself nodding in agreement and having plenty of ‘Ah Ha’ moments when something vague became crystal clear. He has a terrific gift of his own for writing clearly and logically. In doing so he has forged, not a middle way between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives, but a way that helps to bring out the best insights of both into a fresh and convincing understanding of grace.

But that’s not all. Paul’s theology of grace is worked out in mission to Gentiles. Barclay sees how Luther’s reconfiguration of grace, while departing from Paul in significant ways, was still a brilliant re-application of grace in the context of Medieval Catholicism. As we think about grace today, we also need to be thinking about how it applies missionally – and he finishes the book with insightful ideas for grace in our contemporary Western world (one or two of which I will be nicking tomorrow).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

A vote for Trump is reckless irresponsibility

If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.

There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.

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Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.

He may be right. He also says this:

In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.

They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.

Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.

And Prof Stackhouse adds

Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.

They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.

Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.

I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.

It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.

John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might –  show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.

What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.

The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.

I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.

Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.

But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.

And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.

That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.

The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

You are what you love 7: an elegant, attractive polemical post-evangelical-low-church manifesto that doesn’t persuade

9781587433801We left Jamie Smith last time delivering a rocket at contemporary American youth ministry.  His alternative to expressivist extrovert entertainment is to go back to the future – to formative practices rooted in the historic worship of the church. Namely:

  1. Enfold youth within a congregation committed to historic Christian worship and multigenerational gathering. There is no difference, young and old are formed by “the ordinary means of grace offered in the Word and at the Table” (152). He quotes Christian Smith’s 2005 study of how critical it is for discipleship of young people to have a network of non-parental adults who know and care about them.
  2. Invite young people into formative disciplines “as rhythms of the Spirit”. To see formative worship practices as the heart of discipleship.
  3. To reject entertainment for service – that unites all in a common outward focused service of others. (He rightly comments how the entertainment model, often at high level and high cost provision of services to young people – are actually often segregationist, dividing people across socio-economic, class and even race lines.

We’re not at the end of the book – and there is one more post on great stuff about teaching – but I’m going to jump ahead with some overall critique.

I find myself with complex reactions to this book.

One the one hand …

First, I’ve loved and find myself drawn to and in very substantial agreement with most of what he is saying. It is largely ‘where I am at’. He says it elegantly and persuasively. Again and again what he says rings true to life. Such as :

that discipleship is about the heart first; about the richness and freedom of the liturgy; the need for formative worship; that so much of our teaching remains abstract and rational; embedding ourselves daily in the Great Tradition of the church; being part of the church catholic; intentionally building in habits that run counter to the secular liturgies of pervasive consumerism; of the immeasurable value of multi-generational worship; of the thinness and superficiality of evangelical entertainment ministries; that we are formed primarily by habits and spirituality at home; that there is a hunger and thirst among many evangelicals I know (and I include myself) for a deeper, historically and theologically shaped spirituality than they currently experience …..

Second, he has rightly identified a very real problem. I remember posting a good while ago about the documented struggles of people to maintain spiritual growth within evangelical churches. This book is very much in that territory. Smith is right to point to a crisis in evangelical spirituality. His argument that such evangelicals desperately need to find real sustaining depth within ancient liturgical traditions is I think persuasive.

BUT on the other hand ..

Even as I have enjoyed the book, learnt lots, will continue to value much of what is in it (especially about us being affective worshippers) … I have three major problems with the book.

First, I am afraid  it is effectively sectarian in a reverse sort of way. By this I mean that Jamie Smith’s disenchantment with much of low church non-liturgical non-denominational evangelicals results in a very erudite, imaginative and heartfelt manifesto to leave that world behind. He’s effectively writing that sector of the church off.

More than once he states that if you want formative worship find a liturgical community. It is basically a call to leave low-church worship and find a community that is practicing the historic Christian liturgy and the church calendar; ideally in a building that is in keeping with ancient Christian tradition.

In other words, this is a polemical “post-evangelical-low-church” manifesto.

Within our context in Ireland it would take the form of a call to Anglicanism or Catholicism. Methodism perhaps? But Presbyterians don’t do liturgy much if at all, independent evangelicals neither, nor Baptists nor charismatics nor Pentecostals. Most in fact, rightly or wrongly, are intentionally never going to go there …

It brings to mind John Stott and Martyn Lloyd Jones’ head-to-head back in the late 1960s (I’ve read about this in books I hasten to add) … L-Jones was all for evangelical purity and leave the ‘compromised’ historic denominations behind if you want to be a ‘true’ evangelical. Stott, the Anglican, rejected this saying evangelical teaching and worship can be found within and without the historic churches. They parted ways on that one.

Smith, for me, is taking the Lloyd-Jones line in reverse. Now this is a very interesting reflection of where evangelicalism is at, but it is still a sectarian move. Just as ‘pure’ low-church worship has run away from ‘dead liturgy’, here is Smith extolling liturgy and criticising the dead-end of non-liturgical worship.

Second, the book is not attempting to build bridges, or to suggest reform of low-church worship. His “all or nothing” approach is unfortunate.

Third, there is something unconvincing about the appeal to the power of liturgy within a historically embedded community. Too much weight is put on it here. It simply has not sustained authentic Christian discipleship within many historic churches. They sadly have often been lacking life, love, passion, heart, mission, and concern for the poor. There is more at play here than Smith allows.

Theologically – and ironically for a book on love – I think he does not give the presence of love within the community in the power of the Spirit a prominent enough role. In other words, where there is the Spirit at work, love will be evident. A church may have hit-or-miss worship, flimsy teaching, haphazard discipleship etc … but if there is a deep love for God, an outward focused love for others – the poor, the wider community, love across boundaries – then there is life, mission, and an embodied witness to the presence of God

Does not love cover a multitude  of sins?

So, for all my personal attraction to the forms of Christian life that Smith espouses (I guess I’m a closet Anglican charismatic anabaptist if there can be such a thing), I’d take that flawed Christian community over one that has all the liturgical depth you like but little heart-love for God and others …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

The value of (self) doubt (3) : Leadership, Paul, Control and Manipulation

Some final musings on how strongly held beliefs can become destructive narratives of power and control and how self-doubt is not only healthy but intrinsic to Christian spirituality.

This post will focus on Paul and leadership.

A while back I had dinner with someone who said he’d virtually given up reading Paul. He still loved and read the Bible but he’d gone off the apostle. The main reason, I think, was years and years of experience of evangelical obsession with Paul – in preaching, teaching, atonement theory, models of mission etc etc to the neglect and exclusion of Jesus (!) and the gospels, of OT wisdom, and of other voices in general within Scripture.

I guess it’s like tiring eventually of listening to the same singer all the time – I mean sometimes I even have to take a break from St Bob on car journeys between Dublin and Belfast and listen to someone else – just for a while.

Paul can be seen as beyond criticism alright, especially within Protestant evangelicalism. After all, isn’t Paul the man who is the ‘worst of sinners’ (1 Tim 1:15); who lived a life of selfless sacrifice for the gospel; who called his flocks to imitate his example? Who is a model of pastoral leadership, exponent of justification by faith and theologian par excellence?

And, along these lines, in the last post I mentioned the pre-conversion Paul as a ‘no-doubter’ who wished to eradicate the heretical early Jesus movement but was transformed by his experience of God’s grace.

For these reasons Paul tends to put up on a pedestal of perfection, as virtually free of human weakness or frailty or less than 100% pure motives.

So it can be a bit of surprise when someone says they’ve had enough of Paul. Or a bit threatening when you start to read other takes on Paul that are, shall we say, less than adulatory.

Far from being someone who modelled a benevolent leadership style of service and loving persuasion, Paul, some argue, was manipulative, controlling and power-hungry.

I’m riffing here from a fascinating article I came across by Marion Carson, who taught (wonderfully well) with us at IBI for a while, in Themelios 30.3 ‘For Now We Live: a study of Paul’s Pastoral Leadership in 1 Thessalonians’.

Critics (such as Elisabeth Castelli, Stephen Moore and Graham Shaw) take a Foucaultian position on Paul. Look underneath the surface and what you find is a grab for power; a desire to control others via a narrative of subtle manipulation.

So, in 1 Thessalonians, underneath the surface story of Paul’s love and concern for the church; his encouragement to persevere under pressure and affliction just as he himself had done, and just as the Lord Jesus had done so that they might endure suffering and go forward in perseverance and hope, the critics see an alternative reality.

Paul’s converts are to imitate (mimesis) him; they can never be his equal. They should do as he does. This, the critics allege, is a power-play that squashes difference, makes recipients passive and benefits the one in power who tells others how to behave. Moreover, this is all God’s will so they have little or no space to question this hierarchical power structure.

This is fascinating and significant stuff. It gets to the heart of ‘What actually is genuinely Christian leadership?’

Is leadership and a passionate committment to gospel truth inevitably going to trump both other’s views and their good?

Marion argues that while power relationships in the ancient world were hierarchical within a highly stratified social context, what you actually get with Paul is a subversive view of power and leadership.

Most times when Paul talks about imitating him it is a call to suffer and to support himself through hard work. He rejoices when others also become sources of imitation. His desire is Christ-likeness not Paul likeness.

And as Marion comments, a key test of other-focused leadership is trust and transparency. He does not micro-manage or control. His instructions are consistently to care for the weak and poor – the very people an oppressive leader will see as a waste of time and resources. He encourages the Thessalonians to gain the respect of outsiders and integrate within Graeco-Roman culture. This is not the strategy of someone obsessed with tight control or secrecy.

I like to think of it this way: is Christian leadership impervious or porous?IMG_6551

Hard like flint, controlling others and dismissing them contemptuously if they do not follow? (thinking John Mitchel here).

Or porous like pumice stone, willing to absorb difference of opinion and work for other’s good?

All this is not to say that Paul is somehow above strategies and politics – he spend considerable energy defending the divine authority of his calling and mission.

Any leader has to be politically astute, wise, at times effusive in praise and at times warning of disaster. He / she has to have a good sense of people – but this is different from being impervious to other’s thoughts and feelings and oppressive in forcing on them his own agendas.

For, as Marion concludes, good leadership is about mutuality – the leader can only lead with the consent aIMG_6550nd support of those he /she is leading. Each one needs the other.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Faith, effort, works and the Protestant psyche

IMG_4489Last Sunday was the annual Maynooth 10K run. Yours truly participated, although ‘run’ is probably a generous description of my progress around the course.

The worst part of the run for a total running amateur like me was between kilometres 4 and 7. Up to 4km, no great problem. After 7km the course turned through the gates of the magnificent Carton House Estate and it felt like a (long) home straight back to the town. But between 4 and 7 was a dead zone of feeling increasingly knackered yet with a long way to go.

As I gasped, red-faced, the road felt a lonely place, even if surrounded by lots of other runners. I guess that is where the evening training runs kicked in. My simple goal was to finish without stopping in under an hour – achieved, just.

High speed motion capture
High speed motion capture

Each runner had their own race to run and personal goals to aim for – whether the guys trying to win or slow-coaches like me plodding on behind. But whatever sort of runner you are, no-one else can run a race for you. No-one else can do the training. No-one else can force you to keep going when it would much easier to stop.

And this got me thinking about individual effort and the Christian life (anything to take my mind off how I felt!)

1) The cost of discipleship

As I understand it, the ‘cost of discipleship’ is a summons to voluntary self-giving of one’s life to God out of thankfulness and worship. It does not take the form of coerced obedience but rather is inspired by God’s own self-giving love.

The depth of that discipleship will depend, to a significant amount, on the degree to which someone has experienced and appreciates the extraordinary depth of the redeeming love of God.

The shape of that life is imitation of Jesus, the risen and reigning Lord who washes his followers’ feet. The ultimate purpose of the Christian life is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8.29).

And while we don’t run alone and need the encouragement of other runners alongside us, the Christian life can’t be lived vicariously.

To live such a life day by day requires large doses of determination, personal responsibility and perseverance.

2) The necessity of effort and works

In other words, there is no contradiction in the Christian life between grace and effort; between an experience of unconditional love and a response of disciplined obedience.

Historically, Protestants have had a hard time reconciling salvation by the grace of God alone with the necessity of ongoing determined effort to live the Christian life in such a manner as to produce good works.

Instinctively in the Protestant psyche is a logical jump that goes something like this: – if we are justified by faith alone apart from works and salvation is all of God’s grace, then our ‘works’ are ‘secondary’ and, strictly speaking, therefore ‘unnecessary’ for salvation. Our effort and subsequent ‘works’ may be good in and of themselves, but they can’t and don’t ‘contribute’ to our salvation because that is completely God’s work not ours.

The problem with this sort of logical jump is that it doesn’t do justice to what the Bible actually says about faith, effort and good works.

Take Paul for example; in all his letters he demonstrates an overriding central concern for the moral development and transformation of the believers under his care.

To the troubling Galatians he says

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!”

In 1 Cor.7:19 he says

‘circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping God’s commandments is everything.’

For Paul, moral effort, obedience, perseverance and good works are integral to God’s saving agenda for his people.

Living the Christian life, like running a race, requires effort and that effort actually gets you somewhere. It results in visible ‘works’ that are actual ‘hard evidence’ of an internal newness of life.

For Paul, such works and obedience are both expected and necessary. They are not an optional and secondary ‘add on’ but are intrinsic to God’s work of salvation (Phil 2:12).

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”.

This is why he (and other NT writers) teaches quite unambiguously that future judgement will be according to works (e.g. Rom 2:6, 13 and elsewhere).

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”

13 “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

Such works require effort, intention, active obedience and discipline. The NT knows nothing of ‘cheap grace’ that leaves people with little or no motive or desire for living a life pleasing to God.

But here’s the key thing – and where the parallel with the lonely slog of the runner begins to break down. The effort of living the Christian life does not consist of a solitary autonomous individual trying harder to be better. The problem with that image is that God is left out of the picture altogether.

Instead, the consistent message of the NT is that a Christian is someone who has, by grace, been united to Christ through the Spirit, the ‘empowering presence of God’. It is out of this living union with Christ that the Spirit enables believers to live a transformed life. Good works are the result of the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit’s presence in someone’s life.

Take Ephesians 2:10 for how God is the initiator and empowerer; a changed life flowing from union ‘in Christ’.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Or to finish Philippians 2:12 with 2:13; individuals work out their own salvation but it is

“God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”

It’s that tension of the Christian ‘race’ that I was wrestling with between kilometres 4 and 7. God elects, saves, redeems and empowers. But each Christian is called to obedience and moral effort. No-one else can decide to keep ‘working out your salvation’ or pressing on to the future prize promised in Christ. No-one else can make those daily moral choices that each of us face. No-one else can resist temptations that only you or I experience. No-one else can doggedly persevere when the going gets hostile and discouraging.

In other words, how much progress a Christian makes in ‘running the race’ of the Christian life is still, to a significant degree, up to the effort, discipline, passion and focus of the individual believer. The Spirit may regenerate and empower a believer to live the Christian life but he does not control or manipulate. God is deeply and essentially non-coercive.

The Christian may be saved by grace but still has individual responsibility in living a life of faith and good works that are both necessary for salvation and are the basis of future judgement.

That’s a message that I suspect tends to get glossed over in a lot of evangelical Protestantism. What do you think?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage? (5) An LGBT perspective

Who_Owns_MarriageKirsty Park tells a bit of her story in her commentary on her father’s book.

She grew up gay within evangelical churches and is absolutely convinced that

“the church is complete denial about the extent of the damage it has caused LGBT people worldwide.”

She recounts how she experienced years of people sharing their opinions with her before someone took the time to actually ask her about her experience and how she felt.

She talks of how LGBT experience of rejection by parents means they are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and have higher risks of depression, illegal drug use, and HIV/AIDS infection. And she argues that evangelical attitudes towards gay people are informed by prejudice.

She contrasts Christian attitudes towards homosexuality (a level of disgust, ignorance and sometimes fear) over against attitudes to sex outside marriage or divorce (which she says are Iargely accepted realities by evangelicals with no campaign to change the law to reflect Christian morality on these issues.).

Her heartfelt appeal is similar to Richard Carson’s – take time to really listen and understand.

On the political issue of the referendum, Kirsty is candid in why she wants to marry her partner.

Her reasons for wanting to be married are honest: ‘marriage’ is a powerful word associated with social approval and acceptance. Change in the law is sought as a means of LGBT people having equal access to the social capital that comes with marriage.

She sees marriage not primarily about legal rights but as a quasi-religious ceremony that gives a context for celebration; a rite of passage that publicly affirms the couple. Without the word ‘marriage’ “there is no custom or expectation and no social capital behind the word.” She wouldn’t exactly be excited to hang a banner on the car saying ‘Just Civil Partnershiped’.

She locates marriage as primarily personal and romantic rather than legal and institutional.

Her argument is that Christians are absolutely free to believe that homosexual relationships are sinful and to encourage same-sex attracted believers to pursue a life of celibacy. This is in effect is church business.

But, she argues, Christians can’t have it both ways: the state and Christian views of marriage are drifting further and further apart. Already heterosexual marriage is a long way from Christian ideals as living together, divorce and breakdown stats show.

Christians can still believe in and practice Christian marriage.

“Christians own Christian marriage, and may happily continue to do so. However, Christians can never own the marriages of those who don’t choose to have a Christian marriage, so why attempt to do so in some situations and not in others? Why care when it involves LGBT people but not when it involves heterosexuals?” (65)

Kirsty’s story is moving and real. I don’t know but I guess telling it in a book edited by her father, a pastor and the Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, was a tricky and courageous path to negotiate.

Both her contribution and Richard Carson’s do invite a further conversation between the LGBT community and evangelical Christians. As I tried to say in my own contribution, love must at the very least mean learning to listen well and there is much listening to be done.

However, I’d want to disentangle the personal experience of exclusion from the argument for same-sex marriage. In a final post on this subject I’ll try to explain why I don’ think that same-sex marriage is the right solution to LGBT marginalisation and exclusion.

Comments, as ever, welcome.