Wives, submit to your husbands (1)

A couple of rules of engagement with views different to yours are:

  1. Be fair. Represent the other accurately
  2. Engage with the best example of the other point of view, not a caricature or extremist position
  3. Look under the surface to their motive – what is their concern underlying their position? Assume the best of the other as much as you can.

It is easier to write this than to do of course. Don’t know about you but I fail regularly. But, the world, and the church, would be a much more civil place if we did.

This is a continuation of posts on Ephesians 5, this time specifically on wives and husbands and verse 23 in particular.

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.

9780851109633_1Over the last few weeks I’ve read a wide range of interpretations of this verse and wider passage (21-33). Probably one of the best articulations of a ‘traditional’ view of male ‘headship = leadership’ and female submission in marriage is John Stott in The Message of Ephesians which was originally written in 1977 as God’s New Society. So it dates back a long way. There have been forests of books since on this topic, but Stott is such a good writer and exegete that it remains, I think, hard to beat.

Like many others I grew up as a Christian reading Stott. He is a huge influence and I’ve nothing but admiration for him. He is one of the great figures of the 20th century church.

In this post, I’ll try simply to summarise his interpretation of the text and then add some questions and comments. And then in the next post I’ll put it in dialogue with a recent and widely praised book articulating a very different interpretation of the text – that of Cynthia Long Westfall (2016) Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.9780801097942

If you have read this far, you may be groaning, ‘texts like these have been gone over 100s of times!’

True, but I suspect that for many, on whatever side of the debates, practice is largely inherited and assumed. The issues need aired for each generation. And it is an interesting angle on biblical interpretation to compare and contrast two views separated by about 40 years and a lot of published words.

A bullet point summary of Stott:

  • Paul is exhorting wives to submit to authority (and children and slaves to obey) within the familiar structure of the Household Codes of the ancient world.
  • Christians ought to acknowledge how the church has often upheld a status quo of injustice rather than liberation from all forms of exploitation or oppression.
  • We cannot interpret Paul here as advocating some form of authoritative relationships that either go against what he teaches in the rest of Ephesians and his letters, or that goes against the teaching and example of Jesus.
  • Dignity and equality of all before God is a beginning point. Submission does not equal inferiority.
  • Husbands have a certain God-given role, wives another, within God’s ordering of society.
  • Authority is God-given. Since husbands have delegated authority, wives are to submit to it. Such submission is a humble recognition of the divine ordering of society.
  • Much care is needed not to overstate this teaching on authority. It is not unlimited, it does not mean unconditional obedience, submission to God comes first, it must never be used selfishly. Not once does Paul use the normal word for authority (exousia): “When Paul is describing the duties of husbands, parents and masters, in no case is it authority he tells them to exercise.” 219.  (PM: this is somewhat confusing – in the next sentence Stott affirms authority is in view, namely improper authority that should not be used)
  • The husband is to use his role for the good of his wife – to love and care for her.
  • Those with authority are responsible to God and to those under their care.
  • The husband being ‘head’ of the wife – his ‘headship’ – is defined in regard to 1 Cor 11:3-12 and 1 Tim. 2:11-13.
  • There, the refs to Genesis 2 and ‘headship’ is based on “his emphasis is on the order, mode and purpose of the creation of Eve”. Thus ‘headship’ is not culturally contextual, but based in creation. p. 221.
  • The sexes are distinct and complement one another: man has ‘a certain headship’ [PM: what does this mean?] and wives in ‘voluntary and joyful submission.’ p.222.
  • Stott roots this in psychology and physiology [a lot of the psychology sounds dated now]
  • The word ‘submission’ is loaded and needs to be ‘disinfected’ from associations of subjugation and subordination and subjection. How it is used in Eph 5 is how it should be understood
  • The characteristic of male headship is Christ’s example – defined as saviour. ‘the characteristic of this headship is not so much lordship as saviourhood.’ p. 225.
  • Just as the church submits to Christ, so the wife submits to the husband’s care. This will enrich her womanhood. p. 226.
  • The husband’s primary responsibility is to love his wife. Two analogies are given.
    • ‘As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. As Jesus perfects his bride, the church, so the husband ‘will give himself for her, in order that she may develop her full potential under God’. p.229
    • ‘Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies’. Stott sees an anti-climax from the heights of love just described, as a more ‘mundane’ command. Linked to the ‘golden rule’ of treating others like we would like to be treated.
  • ‘one flesh’ is an image of union. All believers are members of his body (v.30). ‘Thus he sees the marriage relationship as a beautiful model of the church’s union in and with Christ.’ p.231.
  • So the husband leads and loves, she submits and respects in ‘response to his love and her desire that he too will become what God intends him to be in his “leadership”.’ [PM note how leadership is in quote marks] p. 231.

Stott then applies this passage with 5 reasons for wives to understand the nature of biblical submission. He confesses that

‘it surprises me how unpopular this passage is among many women.’ p. 232.

The five reasons are:

  1. Submission is for all. Verse 21 makes clear that if it is the wife’s duty to submit to her husband, ‘it is also the husband’s duty, as a member of God’s new society, to submit to his wife.’ ‘Submissiveness is to be mutual.’ p. 233
  2. The wife’s submission is to be given to a lover, not an ogre. Her submission functions in the context of his self-giving love.
  3. The husband is to love like Christ.
  4. A husband’s love, like Christ, sacrifices in order to serve.
  5. The wife’s submission is but another aspect of love.

On the last point, Stott comments that when you try to define ‘submission’ and ‘love’ you end up finding it very difficult to distinguish them. To submit is to give yourself up to someone. To love is to give yourself up for someone.

‘Thus “submission” and “love” are two aspects of the very same thing, namely that selfless self-giving which is the foundation of an enduring and growing marriage.’ p. 235

Comments

This remains one of the best examples of a traditional male ‘headship – leader’ interpretation because Stott is too good an exegete not to give a full-orbed analysis of the text.

Looking under the surface, his motive is to be obedient to what the Bible teaches. He goes to great lengths to clarify and modify any potential abuse of this text to control women.

But in doing so, and particularly in his five reasons to women to submit, some problems become apparent:

The notion of husband as leader is read into the text rather than out of it. Stott several times writes ‘leader’ and talks about ‘a certain headship’ indicating his awareness of how this is, at best, an implication which depends on a particular interpretation. A huge amount is built on an argument from silence – that the reference to the creation account somehow implies that Adam being created first leads to ‘headship’.

However irenic and well-articulated the final five reasons for wives to submit to husbands are, it is ironic that Stott’s main application is aimed at women.

The whole tenor of the passage is addressed to husbands – to help them reimagine what it is to be a Christian husband in a Greco-Roman world. Wives are pretty well assumed to do what wives do in that culture – if radically modified by the fact of mutual submission in verse 21. Yet so much interpretation of this text ends up being about wifely submission and defending the husband’s ‘authority’. There is something very askew in this ordering of application.

What actually in practice is being argued for? Where Stott has integrity is how he recognises that the text itself drastically qualifies normal notions of ‘leader’ and ‘authority’. As he says, submission and love become synonymous. Husband and wife submit to each other [this is strongly resisted by some later harder-line complementarians]. If this is the case, the whole idea of ‘leader’ and ‘headship’ becomes virtually meaningless in practice. It seems to me that this is why modern complementarian practice is reduced to arcane theoretical discussions of ‘who makes the final decision’ when husband and wife disagree. Really – is that what Paul has in mind?

Rather, might this not all point to the problem being one of insisting on a faulty notion of ‘headship’ that is just not there in the text? Despite Stott’s assertion (and it is an assertion) that ‘headship’ is rooted in creation and therefore transcends all cultures, it remains a conceptual leap that is highly debatable. Great caution should be exercised in building edifices on shaky foundations, especially when those edifices (in my humble opinion) have tended to disempower women.

The irony is that the thrust of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 is going a different direction.

 

Advertisements

Love not necessary for marriage?

ephesusReturning to Ephesians in this post – love and marriage in 5:21-33 to be more precise.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Subversive Then

Such a famous passage needs no introduction and I am not here going to get into ‘complementarian’ versus ‘egalitarian’ interpretations of the ‘roles’ of husband and wife.

Far more interesting is how, in these verses and throughout the letter in general, Paul (and I do think Paul wrote Ephesians) is engaged in an audacious act of subversion.

Basically he is instructing believers in the Ephesus region to live to a different story to that of their world. That sounds all very nice but what does it mean? Very briefly, at least this:

live by a different power. They are filled with the Spirit, not the powers of this dark world (6:12)

to a different ethic, as children of light not of darkness (5:3-14)

walking in love (5:2), not in futility and greed (4:17-19) as the surrounding pagan world walks

in eschatological hope: putting off the old and putting on the new (4:22-23)

imitating their Lord, showing forgiveness and compassion and so building unity rather than division (4:29-32); self-sacrifically serving each other as their Lord gave himself up for them (5:2)

And this theme radical counter-cultural living continues right on into the famous ‘household code’ of 5:22-6:9.

We get so distracted with our modern obsessions about ‘individual roles’ that we can miss the wider story of what is going on here in the apostle’s instructions to 6 groups of believers: wives/husbands, children/parents and slaves/masters.

The reality of the culture is assumed – this is the world they lived in. A world of hierarchy, power and status. A culture of patrons and clients, of rulers and ruled. But that world, so apparently ‘given’ and ‘normal’ and powerful, is being shaken to the core.

Do you see how?

It is Paul’s very act of writing that puts the ‘writing on the wall’ for the power structures of the Greco-Roman world. He addresses personally every one of those 6 categories on the same basis. Whether a wife or husband, child or parent, slave or master, they are to live primarily as disciples of the risen Christ – ‘as to the Lord’.

Do you see the implications?

Now, their primary identity is not the social group in which they happen to find themselves. It is in their joint union of being in Christ. They belong to Christ and to each other in a revolutionised set of relationships that we call the Church.

for we are members of his body

Power, status, hierarchy, patronage, honour and birthrights are radically relativised. A new world has arrived. The old world would eventually crumble, as the social and political implications of the gospel eroded it from within.

This new community is to be marked by virtues and attitudes common to every member.

All are to walk in love and imitate their Lord (5:2)

All are to live pure lives (5:3ff)

All are to live to please their Lord (5:10)

All are to submit to each other (5:21)

Subversive Now – the example of love and marriage

If to be a Christian is to live in community with others ‘as to the Lord’ before all else, this has deeply radical implications today just as much as it did in the first century.

Where the Ephesians lived within a world of highly stratified boundaries that were rarely crossed, we live in a world where the individual is king or queen.

And perhaps nowhere is the ‘freedom’ of the autonomous individual challenged more than in being accountable first and foremost to others in that community of the church.

Take the example of love and marriage today. In our culture there are few things more private that our love lives. Romantic love is idolised. The two lovers find themselves in each other. Nothing should stand in their way of true happiness. Love trumps all.

Their primary identity is in their relationship. Other things like church involvement may follow, but is secondary to their love and to any children that follow along. It is family first.

But this is a modern example of living to the story of our culture rather than to the story of the gospel. Rather, Christians are ‘members of his body’. No identity, even marriage, comes first.

Even more subversive, this means that marriage is not private but public – it belongs to and within the community of faith. It is within the body that husband and wife learn to live out their marriage and their faith.

And even more heretical yet, this means that privatised individual love between a couple is not the primary ‘location’ for Christian love to flourish. Love between the couple sure helps, but the primary location for Christian love is the community of the church. Whoever we are, – whether we are in positions of weakness or privilege: wives or husbands, young or old, slaves or masters – we are all commanded to ‘walk in love’.

And this is why the paterfamilias, the husband with all the authority and power within Greco-Roman culture, is commanded four times to love his wife. It is his status within the culture that is being most subverted by the radical social implications of the gospel. He is being told to live to a different story – not one of assumed rights to be served but one marked by self-giving love for others supposedly less ‘worthy’ then he – like his wife.

The ever quotable Stanley Hauerwas puts it like this,

The church makes possible a context where people love one another. Love is not necessary to marriage, and the only reason why Christians love one another – even in marriage – is because Christians are obligated to love one another. Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se. You don’t learn about the kind of love that Christians are called to in the family and then apply it to the church. You learn about that kind of love from the church and then try to find out how it may be applied in the family.

Comments, as ever, welcome

 

Ephesians: a love letter

Working through Ephesians at the moment when time allows. It is an immensely rich letter and it is a privilege and pleasure to spend time in it. I know it’s a question of ‘Well you would say that wouldn’t you?’ but the Bible is really rather amazing. Here’s this ancient text, getting on for 2000 years old, written to an obscure minority within a great Empire and it is just bursting with power, creativity, freshness and compelling good news.

It is also beautifully written, with layer after layer of careful thought and structured chiastic patterns, all arranged to draw the reader into the compelling argument of the letter.

There are lots of excellent commentaries on Ephesians. Some of the ones that I have found most helpful are:

John Stott. The Message of Ephesians. 1991. A classic Stottian masterpiece.

Clinton Arnold. Ephesians. 2010. ZECNT. Very good.

Frank Thielman. Ephesians. 2010. BECNT. Excellent.

Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians. NIV Application Commentary. 1996. Extremely readable and well researched. Gotta admire the name.

Harold W. Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. 2002. Baker Academic.. Heavyweight and more technical.

Heil EphesiansBut for sheer originality and freshness, nothing has surpassed John Paul Heil, Ephesians: Empowerment to Walk in Love for the Unity of All in Christ. (SBL. 2007).

The title says it all. What Heil does so persuasively is to argue that the essential theme of Ephesians is love. But on either ‘side’ of that core theme are ‘power’ and ‘unity’.

POWER

Heil argues that the Epistle not only talks about power a lot, but as it was read orally, the reading in itself would be powerfully transformative.

God demonstrated his great power in raising Christ from the dead, a power now available to believers (1:19-20).

Heil puts it this way,

The very experience of listening to the Letter’s elaborate and ornate language of power and grace communicated by the way of the oral patterns of its chiastically arranged units not only persuades but empowers the audience to the conduct envisioned for it by Paul. (p.2)

Here’s an idea – why not try reading the letter out loud to yourself or a group and see how that goes …

TO WALK IN LOVE

‘Walk’ appears at critical junctures in the letter (2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15). Like modern English, it carries a sense of a ‘way of life’. We talk of ‘walking the walk’. A key command, which shapes all that comes after it is 5:2.

Walk in love, as also Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

‘In love’ (en agapē) is a recurrent phrase – see 1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2. It carries the sense of a dynamic domain of love, a sort of fusion of God’s love poured out for us in Christ which empowers believers’ love for God and for one another. The verb ‘love’ (agapaō) occurs even more often. Love is beginning, middle and end in Ephesians.

Just consider the closing verses of the letter to see the overwhelming emphasis on love.

Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. 6:23-24

UNITY

The empowering by God (and the Spirit is a major theme here), associated with ‘walking in love’, leads to a profound and deep unity in Christ.

There is the cosmic unity of all things being united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10). This finds its fulfillment in the marvellous verses of 4:15-16 where believers are united together in Christ and with each other.

… speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. 4:15-16.

Power, Love, Unity – Ephesians in a nutshell.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS Update. I meant to say that the NIV, in my humble opinion, does a poor job in communicating the importance of  walk (peripateō) in the letter. For example, 5:2 is translated ‘and live a life of love’. This is a real loss. It loses the contrast between the Christian walk of 5:2 and the command in 4:17 not to walk as the Gentiles do (the NIV translates this ‘that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do’). Commands to ‘walk’ are significant in the letter but you would not know it reading the NIV. The ESV is actually much better here.

 

 

Love’s hard calling: rejoicing in the truth

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It is also one of the most troubling. It is one particular aspect of the difficult and demanding nature of love that I want to focus on in this post. First, a wee bit of context.

When read at weddings verses 1-13 are often sentimentalised. ‘Love’ is abstracted to be a ‘lovely’ description of the loving couple in a day celebrating their love. The fact that ‘God’ does not appear in verses 1-13 makes it a particularly suitable text for this type of abstraction. ‘Love’ is everyone’s property. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in love.

The same goes for funerals. Prime Minister Tony Blair read these verses at Diana’s funeral in 1997. Now, I admit I find it hard to take Blair at face value in anything he says. But his overly-dramatic performance that day seems a good example of how ‘love’ in death is easily abstracted to become a sort of eschatological hope – that which ‘lives on’ after us when we are dead. Again, this hope is universal since everyone can love.

But 1 Corinthians is anything but abstract; it is highly specific. Paul writes to a church riven by division, bad theology, pride, arrogance, immoral behaviour and misplaced priorities over gifts.

So, as we read these verses they have a hard edge; there is nothing soft and fluffy about them. There are 7 positive descriptions of what love does and 8 negatives ones. A verb is used in every case – love is seen in what it does.

Love Rejoices in the Truth

Let’s take one example of a positive: love … rejoices with the truth (6b). It sits in opposition to love does not delight in evil.

The verb has a sense of ‘joyfully celebrates’ or ‘acclaims’ truth’ At first reading this sounds lovely does it not? But think about the implications for a moment.

In his NIGTC Commentary on First Corinthians Anthony Thiselton argues the emphasis here is not so much on ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ (eg the truth of the gospel) as on relationship. Love rejoices in truth that protects, fosters and strengthens relationship, even at cost to ourselves.

There can be powerful reasons NOT to rejoice in the truth.

Take two current examples in the Christian world

(1) The Church of England

Last week the Church of England published a ‘report into a report’; namely a review of their own first investigation into how allegations of abuse had been handled by the Church. The independent review found that the first report has been ‘botched’ and that negative aspects were downplayed in order to protect the reputational character of the Church.

(2) Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church

This story has been unfolding for some time and appears to be in the process of coming to a head. You can read about the details fully in a recent post by Scot McKnight (who was a member of Willow for many years). Serious allegations against Hybels had surfaced some years ago and had not been dealt with openly then. When more women came forward, the reaction was denial, calling the women liars and failing to implement a robust external investigation.

Now, at last, and only after enormous criticism and widespread concern both within and outside Willow, the elders and the two senior leaders have issued public apologies and promised to seek the truth.

The cost of rejoicing in the Truth

Both these stories are bad news and good news. They begin with the bad news of damaging behaviour. That was compounded by an instinctive reaction to hide the truth, or at least give a partial version of the truth in order to protect the institution in question. But the good news is that both are moving, at last, towards full disclosure.

In both cases, there were powerful motives NOT to rejoice in the truth:

  • money (at all sorts of levels: potential court cases, to book sales and huge ministry budgets at stake etc)
  • reputation and the deep cost of admitting ‘we got it wrong’ (and in Willow, protection of a deeply loved and charismatic leader like Hybels)
  • power – and the threat of a loss of that power
  • God (perhaps persuading ourselves that God needs protection – that the truth will damage the church, the gospel and good kingdom work)

I mention these cases because they are current and in the (very) public domain. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it is to have a healthy scepticism over how institutions tend to act to protect themselves – and that, sadly, is true of churches as well.

The tough calling of love is NOT to act in our own self-interest but in the interests of others, especially when there is a cost to ‘us’.

In both cases, love meant first seeking the good of those damaged and hurt rather than using manipulation, obfuscation or obstruction to hide the full truth and protect ourselves.

That’s why 1 Corinthians 13 is anything but a mushy feel-good ‘ode to love’, but is, rather, a very troubling and difficult text.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

What do you hope for?: why Christianity is eschatology and why it matters

If one scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri raises questions of what it means to die well, another asks a profoundly important question.

It comes in one of the very rare tender moments when Mildred, planting tubs of flowers under the billboards looks up to see a deer standing quietly in front of her.

3 billboards deer

Normally guarded and combative, Mildred softens and shares her heart with the deer. She wonders aloud ..

Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not.

In one sentence we have:

  • the reality of evil (the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter)
  • the posited non-existence of God
  • the meaninglessness of existence if God is a fictional idea
  • a consequential absence of justice where evil goes unpunished

This little soliloquy faces head on a problem all of us face in one way or another – whether Christian or not. How to make sense of the reality of the world we live in?

A world about which, in these days of global communication, we know too much. The suffering of the planet fills our screens on a daily basis. This is a world where, as NT scholar Richard Hays puts it,

history continues its grinding litany of human atrocities, and we see no compelling evidence that God is answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).

One response is to agree with Mildred’s question and face the implications head-on. So what if the universe is bleak, cold and empty? So what if there is no transcendent and good God? So what if notions of fairness and justice are fantasies? So what if nothing we do, for good or ill, has any enduring consequence beyond this life? Just get on with life as best you can. Find meaning where you can – whether in hedonism, materialism, relationships, power, experiences etc

Mildred’s question is a very 21st Century one. The 20th did a very good job of destroying centuries of Enlightenment optimism about human progress and the power of reason.  World wars, the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the Cold War and an exploding world population competing for scarce resources sort of does that to utopian progressivism.

Add to that developments in the 21st Century of a mounting ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, neo-liberal fueled economic crashes, and the development of artificial intelligence where robots may soon threaten millions of jobs – and you have the seeds of a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-progressivism that does not hope for the future to be better than the present.

As with Mildred’s first sentence – we are on our own and making a mess of things. And that is not a very comforting thought.

All this makes her second sentence all the more interesting.

‘I hope not’.

Now those three words are perhaps vague wish-fulfillment, but they express a longing for hope beyond the injustices and pain of this world.

What might a pastor have said to Mildred if sitting beside her, surrounded by the flowers planted in memory of her daughter? (and what follows is not a suggested counselling conversation!)

First, perhaps that she is exactly right. Dale Allison, a NT scholar, puts it this way,

… Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying … If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Second, here is exactly where Christianity says ‘Yes, there is hope’. And this hope speaks into the realities of suffering and death. It is not a vague hope that things will get better. It is grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Richard Hays, says this

The church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about suffering and death. The New Testament’s vision of a final resurrection of the dead enables us to tell the truth about the present, including its tragedies and injustices, without sentimental sugar-coating, without cynicism or despair. It allows us to name suffering and death as real and evil, but not final.

Christian hope is not ‘going to heaven when I die’, but a realistic hope that faces death head-on. Hays again – this time about Paul in Thessalonians

The striking thing is that Paul does not seek to comfort the grieving bereaved Thessalonians by telling them that their loved ones are already in heaven with Jesus. He acknowledges that the dead are dead and buried. The apocalyptic hope is that in the resurrection they will be reunited with the living in the new world brought into being at Christ’s return. These are the words with which Christians are to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18). These same considerations apply on a larger scale to Christian theology’s reflection about the terrible tragedies that violent human cultures bring upon the world. In the face of mass murders, non-apocalyptic theology is singularly trivial and helpless.

In other words, Christianity is eschatology. It is nothing without the future hope of resurrection, of God’s justice being done and that one day death, pain and grief will be swallowed up in a glorious new creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-4).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] The Allison and Hays quotes are taken from Richard Hays, ‘”Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” New Testament Eschatology at the turn of the Millennium.’ Modern Theology 16:1 January 2000

Have we lost touch with the foolishness of Christianity?

Last weekend I had the privilege of being the speaker at a Christian Universities of Ireland (CUI) weekend down in Castledaly Manor, near Athlone. A great bunch to work with – thanks Louise, Peter, Helen, Neus and Grace and the rest of the team – and students!

The theme was ‘Fools Talk’ and there were 4 talks:

  1. God’s Foolish Choices
  2. God’s Foolish Method
  3. The foolishness of the Christian Life
  4. The foolishness of Christian Hope.

Preparing and delivering these talks was hugely enjoyable – and in doing so it hit afresh just how ‘other’ and unexpectedly strange the story of the Christian faith is.

Put another way, the shift from OT to NT, from old covenant to new covenant, from John the Baptist and the preceding OT prophetic tradition to Jesus the crucified Messiah represents a profound and radical disruption within the biblical narrative.

Or yet another way – there are a variety of helpful diagrams that outline the entire biblical narrative. Take this one, adapted from Tim Chester’s little book Creation to New Creation:

story

I developed my own diagram of Paul’s narrative thought in a chapter within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life. It tried to capture both continuity and discontinuity between Saul and Paul, between Judaism and Christianity.

Such diagrams are great at showing how there is one unfolding, coherent narrative – and how crucial it is for any authentically Christian theology and Christian ethics to work out from that overarching narrative.

But here’s the thing that struck me with new force last weekend. They make it appear that the narrative is ‘easy’ and obvious, flowing in one smooth direction – the story unfolding in a logical sequence that participants would have recognised.

Far from it.

At just about EVERY point, the disruption or ‘plot twist’ caused by Jesus is so unexpected and radical, that the story takes an almost unrecognizable new direction. It is only with a lot of re-reading of the original narrative (OT) that you can begin to see the links. They are there, but it took extraordinary events for the first Christians to have their eyes opened to those links (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2 for example).

In saying this, I am shifting from a strong emphasis on ‘one unfolding narrative’ to at least somewhat towards a more apocalyptic reading of the NT as a shocking divine incursion into human history.

For example, just consider the depth of the disjunctures below:

Picture2However, you understand the reconfiguring of ISRAEL, the inclusion of Gentile sinners is no small plot development in the story; it is a paradigm shift of mind-numbing proportions.

So too is the relativisation of the TEMPLE in the NT to where Jew & Gentile believers form the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.

As is the fulfilment of the TORAH through life in the Spirit and the irrelevance of covenant markers like circumcision.

All this even before we begin considering the deepest disjunctures in the story so far – a theology of atonement centered on a CRUCIFIED MESSIAH.

And, most remarkable of all, the story now brings into focus a new understanding of GOD himself – the eternal Son of God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the risen Lord who takes on YHWH’s titles and roles; and the Spirit of God now given as a gift to all who have faith in the Son.

What other major disjunctures would you add?

Here are some more.

LAND – the story of the promised land hits another radical disjuncture in the NT. Most Christians see the narrative trajectory of land coming to an end with the global constitution of the people of God by the Spirit.

Then there is the small matter of the RESURRECTION of the Messiah – an utterly unexpected event, on top of his utterly unexpected crucifixion.

And to this we could add ESCHATOLOGY – the surprise new ending to the narrative of the parousia of the Messiah and Lord, who will act as judge and dwell with God in the new creation (Rev 21-22).

And then you have completely foolish stuff like loving your enemies and following Jesus AND Paul’s gospel of non-violence.

It is no wonder, is it not, that one of Paul’s favourite words for what God had done in Christ was MYSTERY that had been hidden from everyone?  Consider these verses:

… we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. (1 Cor 2: 7)

All this raises a challenge for being Christian today does it not?:

– if Christianity is pervasively and shockingly ‘Other’

– if the gospel is a Mystery that was completely hidden from view

– if God is the author of that mystery who does things no-one sees coming

Then how is it that so much of our Western Christianity seems well – so unmysterious? Unsurprising? Un-shocking? 

Where much church life is pretty conventional, predictable, ‘normal’ and fairly easily adapted to 21st Western culture?

Where ‘being Christian’ tends not to involve that radical a disjuncture with the dominant values of the Western world?

And does ‘renewal’ then involve recapturing something of the ‘Otherness’ and surprising power of the Christian story in a way that disrupts comfortable assumptions?

Any suggestions or resources for going about this welcome!

 

Desiring more of God (1) are you a restorationist?

In IBI, we had a good discussion today in a class I’m teaching on different views of baptism in the Holy Spirit. The framework for the course is this:

The Spirit and the Christian Life

  1. Introduction: the neglected Spirit?
  2. The promise of the Spirit: The Spirit in the Old Testament
  3. The Person of the Spirit
  4. Jesus, the Kingdom of God and the Spirit 
  5. The Spirit and Mission
  6. The Eschatological Spirit
  7. The Spirit and the new covenant community (Baptism in the Spirit 1 Cor 12:12-27)
  8. The Spirit and the Christian life 1: beginnings
  9. The Spirit and the Christian life 2: the Spirit versus the Flesh
  10. The Spirit and the Christian life 3: Fruit
  11. The Gifts of the Spirit
  12. The Holy Spirit and modern church life: issues; challenges; hopes; conclusions

We were at no.7 today. We aim to make links to ‘head, heart and hands’ in reading, lectures and discussion. A couple of key question that cropped up today – and will again I am sure – are along these lines:

What experience of the Spirit should Christians ‘expect’ or ‘seek’ as possible / normal?

 What is our ‘role’ in seeking more of the Spirit?

I’ll take the first question as the focus for this post and come to the second one in the next post.

What would be your answer to the first question? What are the signs of the presence of the Spirit in a church? How would you describe the out working of the Spirit’s presence in your church experience? Is there a desire for more of God or is the Spirit rarely talked about or taught about?

How the first question has been answered historically has been critical in multiple spiritual reform movements within Christianity – whether Montanism in the 2nd Century AD or Charles Wesley’s doctrine of perfection or Pentecostalism’s search for NT restorationism, or Keswick ‘Higher Life’ theology or varieties of Charismatic renewal and so on.

And, of course, Reformed theology has its own answer to that question as to what a spiritually mature and healthy church looks like. It tends not to be radical or subversive to a long-established post-Reformation status quo – indeed it tends to be extremely cautious about such questions because they can be destabilising and divisive. It also tends to develop reasons for why it is unrealistic or undesirable to desire or wish to imitate the charismatic experience of the first Christians.

Those that answer question 1 with a sense of dissatisfaction in the current status quo will begin to pray, search and long for some form of spiritual renewal. They will want to see reform of current attitudes and practices that seem spiritually anaemic and lifeless. (I’m not saying such desires are not present in more established Reformed communities).

This is a restorationist impulse – a desire to have more of God’s Spirit. It’s typically born from a desire to recapture something of the life of the Spirit within the NT Church as described particularly by Luke (in Acts especially) and by Paul.

While at times an unholy mess, for example, the Corinthian church still exudes a vibrant presence of the Spirit. This is not just about the presence of charismata such as tongues and prophecy but by Paul’s pervasive assumption that the church will know and experience the visible tangible empowering presence of God among his (often sinful and divided) people.

Nor is a restorationist impulse limited to just desiring particular gifts of the Spirit. It is much more a search for an experience of and an empowering by the Spirit for all of life.

In this sense I am a restorationist – because it seems clear that it is this sort of experience that Paul (and Luke and John) take to be the Christian ‘norm’. And it is not clear (to me) that this ‘norm’ should not be expected or hoped for or prayed for today.

We might summarise the role of the Spirit in the NT along these (brief) lines: In the NT it is the one Spirit received by any believer at conversion who:

  • Empowers for mission
  • Grants wisdom and reveals God’s will
  • Reveals the cross and leads to conversion
  • Who communicates the power and presence of God
  • Who leads people to new life of sonship and faith
  • Who gives gifts as he wills

9780801047923Or as Max Turner puts in his terrific book The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts the Christian life in the NT is characterised by an encounter with the dynamic and transforming presence of God himself.

I love his phrase that the Christian life is ‘essentially charismatic in nature’. How often do you hear that in your church?

“We conclude that for each of our three major witnesses, [Luke, Paul and John] the gift of the Spirit to believers affords the whole experiential dimension of the Christian life, which is essentially charismatic in nature. The gift is granted in the complex of conversion-initiation. The prototypical activities of the “Spirit of Prophecy” which believers receive – revelation, wisdom and understanding, and invasive speech – together enable the dynamic and transforming presence of God in and through the community. These charismata operate at individual and corporate levels, enabling a life-giving, joyful, understanding of (and ability to apply) the gospel, impelling and enabling different services to others in the church, and driving and empowering the mission to proclaim the good news.” 

Comments, as ever, welcome.