Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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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.

Equal to Rule

Last week I was honoured to speak at a book launch for Trevor Morrow’s Equal to Rule: Leading the Jesus way. Why Men and Women are Equal to Serve in the Leadership in the Christian Church

Trevor is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Here’s the gist of what I said …

Thank you to Trevor and to Columba Press for the invitation to speak at this book launch – I am honoured to be asked and delighted to see Equal to Rule in print. I hope and pray that it is read widely, not only within its target audience of the PCI but across church communities in Ireland and further afield.

There is so much that I’d like to say when it comes to the issue of women in leadership and ministry within the church – and isn’t that a scary thing for an audience to hear from a speaker at the start of a talk?

  1. More than listening to me, the most profitable thing you can do is to get your hands on a copy of the book and read what Trevor has said in his inimitable and insightful way. I’m sure that the globe could be encompassed by the pages and pages of print that continue to be written about this issue. For over 20 years I’ve been engaged with, reading, writing, collecting books and articles and more recently blogging about this topic and it is not going away. The volume of material continues to grow. So what Trevor has accomplished in a mere 112 pages is quite a feat. His style is easy to follow and understand, yet beneath that surface is a deep knowledge of complex and hotly debated issues. In other words, something understood profoundly can be explained simply – and Trevor has that all too rare gift.

He covers much ground

  • Genesis – men and women in the image of God and the Fall
  • OT women – and their significance today
  • Jesus and his radically counter-cultural attitude to women
  • Paul and early church – equal ministry – the difficult texts
    • Marriage
    • Worship
    • Discipleship (Eph / 1 Tim 2)
    • Leadership (Spirit / gifts)
  • Practical steps in church life today
  • Men and women serving in a wide variety of gifts and ministries TOGETHER
  • Wise words about the need for men to act against the status quo – courage and how hard for women to change power structures
  • Unity in diversity as an eschatological foretaste – how the church now is to reflect equality and diversity between men and women as a foretaste of the kingdom to come … not obliteration of difference but strength in difference.

Trevor puts it this way,

“In the church men and women should be free to lead but never to the detriment of their manhood or womanhood. Instead, they will rule together in collegiality because men need women and women need men. This is how we truly express the image of God and say to the world – A new day is coming and this is how it’s going to be.”

 

  1. My second point is that I am not a woman.

This might (!) seem somewhat obvious, but it does have serious implications. I have no idea what it is like being a woman – despite being married to one for 24 years and having two late-teen grown up daughters. However hard I might try, I can’t understand the experiences, feelings and challenges of being a woman – not only biologically, but also what it is like to be excluded from leadership roles where I could use God-given gifts for serving the church ONLY on the basis of my gender, REGARDLESS of my ability, character, experience, training, mind, and heart.

For I’m going to cut to the chase, we need to be clear here. This might sound critical but there are important issues at stake. At heart the male-only leadership position essentially says women cannot hold certain leadership positions because the Bible says so. The argument goes that the sexes are equal but have complementary ‘roles’.

But the fatal flaw is that in normal complementary relationships roles can change (a student can become a teacher). But in male-only leadership, women can NEVER lead – her subordinate ‘role’ is given at birth and is fixed for good. Women, ONLY because they are women, are the subordinated sex for no other reason than gender. However much the male-only leadership view says otherwise (and I have read all the arguments), to put one sex in a permanently and divinely-sanctioned subordinate position to another speaks of inferiority to the ones permanently set over them.

Imagine a Christian white man in Apartheid SA saying to a fellow black believer “Brother, the Bible says we are truly equal, created in the image of God. We are to minister together in service of the Lord, and complement each other within the body of Christ. But your role must ALWAYS be subordinate to mine, I have authority over you. We may be equally intelligent and spiritual and experienced and gifted by the Spirit to lead – but you will never be able to do so because you are black, and the Bible says blacks are not be in positions of leadership. Please don’t question why, it is just because God says so.’ (this illustration is adapted from Kevin Giles)

What might the black man think? Perhaps ‘That sure sounds like a peculiar type of complementarity!’

The problem with ‘complementarianism’ is that it is not complementary there is NO role that women alone should do and men not do. It too conveniently enforces the status quo. Ultimately it appears arbitrary, without a rational basis.

This is why, ironically, Christian men need to speak out on behalf of women. The status quo favours men. Current power structures favour men. It is particularly difficult for women to challenge the status quo without being seen as self-promoting or power-hungry, and going against the very truth of the Word of God himself …

Again, I can only say I have no idea how this must feel.

John Stackhouse says this

“We men will not change until we want to change … We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed … Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.”

  1. This links paradoxically to a third point – that I look forward to the day when the ministry and giftedness of women should not need ‘defending’ – least of all by men. In a brilliant blog post the Baptist theologian Dr Steve Holmes of St Andrews University said this:

“I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Take Phoebe Palmer.

She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry.

25 000 people. Converted. Does that need defence? Really?

She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.

Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?

…..
And then there’s Catherine Booth. And Mary Dyer. And Catherine of Sienna. And Mother Julian. And Rose Clapham, all-but forgotten, whose first sermon, preached when she was 18, saw 700 miners converted to Christ.

Defend that? Why?

There’s a thousand stories like it. That I know. Ten thousand times ten thousand that have gone untold, no doubt.

And I think of women who I have the privilege to know, who I sit in awe of, some of whom graciously allow me to call them friends. If I could preach one tenth as powerfully or effectively as Ness Wilson, or Bev Murrill, or Miriam Swaffield, or if I had a tiny portion of the vision and capacity to inspire change of Cathy Madavan or Natalie Collins, or if I had some little echo of the pastoral wisdom and visible holiness of Pat Took or Ruth Goldbourne, or if I could even once in my life make something happen the way Wendy Beech-Ward or Ann Holt do every day – then I might think the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach was worth thinking about. [put in names of women you know]

As it is, no. I can’t defend their ministries. I am not worthy to

But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun.

And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea.

And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.”

  1. My final point is on how to disagree

Students frequently say to me as I teach theology and describe different views – what do you believe Patrick? And they sometimes accuse me of sitting on the fence when I don’t tell them. But as a teacher it is your job to get students to understand both sides of an argument. To be able truly to stand in someone else’s shoes and argue their case as well as or even better than they could themselves – even if you disagree with it profoundly.

That shows that you have taken the time truly to listen and understand the other – without constructing a straw man which you then demolish in a swift bout of self-righteous satisfaction!

There are a range of key areas of differences of interpretation on this issue which include:

–         Was male headship established at creation or did it enter the world as a consequence of the Fall?

–         What is the significance of women prophets in the OT – an exception or a role model?

–         How are we to interpret Jesus’ attitude and actions towards women in terms of roles in the church today?

–         Women witnesses of the resurrection – significance?

–         No male or female in Christ we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) – only a spiritual equality or implications for roles in the church as well?

–         Is male authority in church and marriage the biblical norm or a relationship of full mutuality and equality?

–         Is Paul setting up a creation-based permanent subordination of women to men, or addressing local issues in the church of his day?

–         Are male-female hierarchical relationships actually mirroring something of the relationships within the Godhead of Father-Son-Spirit?

I am concerned that there is an increasingly strident tone to the whole debate – both from ‘hard’ complementarians, especially in the USA and Australia, and from ‘hard’ egalitarians on the other side.

So, especially given this context, it is all the more important that, even if we hold strong views on this question (and you may have picked up that I am off the fence on this one) – we are all the more obligated to show grace and charity to fellow Christians with whom we disagree.

Trevor models grace and charity in his approach. This is not a polemical book. He does not misrepresent those who hold different views, he describes their positions accurately. He focuses on a positive biblical vision of men and women equal to rule. His emphasis is on what all Christians can agree on and how this issue has not historically been, or should become, an issue of division.  For this he is to be commended.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A confession about gender

I have a confession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why?’ I hear you cry!

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

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

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

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

Comments, as ever, welcome

Why I’m for Women in Leadership

An overview article I wrote a wee while ago. Some resources at the end. Comments welcome:

Why I’m for Women in Leadership

The debate about ‘women in leadership’ revolves around interpretation of texts like1Timothy 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 14:33-35; Ephesians 5:22-23 and some others. A key question is whether the Bible contains fixed hierarchical gender roles based on a ‘creation-order’ blueprint. With limited space I can’t begin to discuss the details and so I’ve included a list of representative resources on both sides at the end of this article if you’d like to read around it yourself.

‘Egalitarians’ and ‘complementarians’ (more on those words in a moment) can agree on quite a bit: men and women are different(!); they are equal, both created in the image of God; both sexes are gifted by the Spirit for ministry; and no-one, whether male or female, has any ‘right’ to leadership. Leadership is a gift and calling of God to a life of loving and serving others under the shadow of the cross. So while I’m disagreeing strongly with ‘complementarian’ views here, I do want first to emphasise that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord who are sincerely wanting to submit to and obey the teaching of Scripture. I also hope we can have an ongoing and civil discussion.

Clarity over words

Words are important in this debate. ‘Women in Leadership’ is more accurate than ‘Women in Ministry’ because the questions revolve around if and how can women lead. I prefer the word ‘mutualist’ to ‘egalitarian’, the latter being a word that implies competing rights being bargained over. ‘Complementarian’ is both a mouthful and misleading in the sense that it is a one-sided view where particular leadership roles are only open to men. There are no corresponding complementary ‘roles’ that are only open to women. So it is more historically and theologically accurate to call ‘complementarianism’ what it is; a recent word for a hierarchical view of men and women in leadership and in marriage.

‘The Spirit gives gifts to each one, just as he determines’

Egalitarians argue that hierarchy is part of the curse of Genesis 3, not a normative good pattern to follow. The overall thrust of Scripture is towards transcending patriarchy and effecting a restoration of unity and equality within the body of Christ; from creation and Fall to New Creation. Rather than perpetuate this fallen condition, the church should be reflecting the future hope of the New Creation in how men and women relate in the here and now.

You see this happening in the radically counter-cultural way that Jesus not only related to women but included them within the kingdom of God and called them to be his travelling disciples during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). This was unprecedented.

You see it in Luke-Acts and the remarkable outpouring of the long-awaited Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). No-where is there a hint that gifts are given according to gender, either in Luke or in Paul or Peter. The language is overwhelmingly inclusive to all the church, male and female.

Peter mentions the gift of ‘speaking the oracles of God’ (1 Peter 4:11). In Paul, the gifts in Ephesians 4:11 of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers and in Romans 12:3-8 which includes prophecy, teaching, exhortation and ruling are for everyone.

Similarly in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 the gifts include apostles, prophecy and teaching. This fits with the fact that Romans 16:7 says (despite extraordinary attempts to deny this) that Paul had at least one female apostle (Junia) who is outstanding as an apostle, not as a woman. Priscilla is a Bible teacher to a man; she is called Paul’s co-worker – a term used for those partnering with him in the ministry of the gospel which included proclamation and teaching (and included other women as well). Phoebe is a diakonos (probably ‘minister’) and prostatis (‘leader’ is more accurate than ‘helper’) in the church (Rom. 16:1-2).

Paul is a liberationist in the Spirit, but he is also a wise missionary. The texts in 1 Corinthians and in 1 Timothy are best understood as correcting local problems in worship and church order where women’s inappropriate behaviour had the potential to discredit the gospel. In other words, Paul adapts his instructions to the patriarchal culture of the Graeco-Roman world; he does not enforce permanent hierarchical male-female relationships within the new community of the Spirit, the body of Christ.

Problems with Complementarian practice

Just as Paul engaged with this question in cultural and missiological terms, so must Christians today. To enforce patriarchal hierarchy within the church in our Western culture is not only unnecessary, it misconstrues the liberating arc of the biblical narrative, has marginalised the God-given gifts of countless women causing much angst in the process, and damages the church’s witness to the inclusive nature of the gospel in the process.

To use a title of one of the late and great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce’s most famous books, Paul was an Apostle of the Free Spirit. The tragedy of ‘complementarianism’ is its focus on imposing universal law and artificial restrictions within the body of Christ. Near the end of his life Bruce commented that “I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah” (from Scot McKnight in the Blue Parakeet).

For example, I was talking with a woman recently who told me of her coming to faith as an adult. She’d had significant experience in business and held responsible leadership positions. She began attending a local evangelical church, full of enthusiasm to serve and thirsty to learn more of God and his Word. But after some time she found herself increasingly bewildered and surprised to be told she would never be able to do certain things since they were only open to men. Her confusion arose from a profound mismatch between her experience of the inclusive gospel followed by marginalisation and restrictions simply because of her gender. Outside the church she had freedom to use her abilities and gifts as a person regardless of gender. Inside the church, her gender became a barrier and obstacle to using her gifts and being herself.

Complementarian thinking also leads to all sorts of inconsistencies and distortions as a supposed biblical ‘blueprint’ is applied in practice within church life (and marriage). Some say we can’t really understand why God wants it this way but that’s just the way it is. Even though they admit the obvious fact that many women are outstanding Bible teachers and are gifted for leadership, they can’t exercise those gifts because God says so.

Claire Smith pretty well says this in a new complementarian book called God’s God Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women. She says ‘the ability to do something does not come with the right to do it.’ And so just because a woman is a gifted Bible teacher does not mean she should preach. This begs all sorts of questions. Is she gifted by the Spirit of God or not? If she is, is she only allowed to preach to women or is this not actually preaching? (Smith does not say). Neither does she say why this restriction should apply apart from it is what God’s word says. She adds that such a woman should not feel envious of others (men) who can use their gifts to preach and lead. So not only can she not preach (even though she is gifted), to want to do so puts her on the path to envy. No wonder woman are hurt and silenced by this sort of argument.

Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, try to root women’s limited roles in the very nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Men (as a sex) are made by God to be more predisposed to lead. Women (as a sex) are made by God to be followers and submissive to men. It is in this sense that John Piper talked recently and controversially of Christianity having a “masculine feel”. You can see the problem here. Despite complementarians affirmation of women’s ‘full equality before God’, it is logically impossible to affirm that a woman is at once spiritually and ontologically equal to a man and at the same time eternally subordinate within a faith that is innately ‘masculine’. It is more consistent to argue, as Augustine and some other Church Fathers did, that women have inferior roles because they are inferior!

Other inconsistencies of application are numerous. Some complementarians end up with detailed lists of what women can and cannot do. Professor Howard Marshall describes the complex dos and don’ts at the end of Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth as resembling Rabbinic Judaism. Some churches silence women altogether. Some have women who can preach occasionally (to do so regularly would confer too much ‘authority’ on her). Some women can teach and preach and plant churches – but as long as she is a missionary in a far-away place. Other churches insist on head-coverings for women and some (Susan Foh) argue for the church to regulate women’s length of hair! Some allow women elders as long as the ‘head pastor’ is male. Others have women on a leadership team but only male elders. Most allow women to teach impressionable boys (and girls) but draw the line at men. Anglicans have ordained women priests but many seem to have all sorts of problems with women bishops. Some don’t allow women to teach at mixed-gender theological colleges, others do. Some encourage women (like Claire Smith) to write books full of teaching that are read by men, others prohibit all teaching by women to groups of men in various contexts.  Complementarian practice is a mess.

Why I’m for women in leadership

Egalitarianism can be summed up as being ‘for whatever God’s Spirit grants women gifts to do.’  They believe that the biblical texts point to the equal place of women in all aspects of the new covenant community of the people of God. People, men or woman, are to be recognised by the church to positions of leadership according to giftedness bestowed by the Spirit who gives gifts to whosoever he chooses – men and women alike.

There are a number of reasons I’m on the egalitarian side of this issue.

The first is that I’m far more convinced by the biblical arguments around the relevant texts.

The second is the large numbers of serious evangelical Bible scholars and thinkers who are making good arguments for egalitarianism. I see this and give thanks as an example of semper reformanda – the ongoing reform and renewal of the church by the Spirit of God.

The third is that I believe the church and its mission is desperately impoverished without both male and female leadership.

The fourth comes from experience. It is incontestable that many Christian women are just as intelligent, gifted, godly, and mature as many Christian male leaders. I’ve lost count of the number of women students who have had all the necessary qualities for leadership and yet have had no encouragement or opportunity to express those gifts. There is something badly wrong with this situation.

It’s appropriate to give the last word to a woman, Cherith Fee Nordling,

Our human dignity, value, and status are no longer based on these distinctions and their privileged status in the old order … because in Christ these distinctions do not define human personhood or position. Privilege is given and exercised for the building up of the whole community, whether by men or by women. This does not entitle women to roles any more than it takes them away from men. All service is cruciform, all service is a gift to be given. (from The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology)

Patrick Mitchel

Some Resources

Lis Goddard & Clare Hendry, The Gender Agenda: discovering God’s plan for church leadership. IVP, 2010. This takes the form of an exchange of emails between two women debating either side of the argument. A readable ‘way in’ to the issues.

Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church. IVP USA, 2003. A very well written and researched book:  an egalitarian who agrees that the husband is head of his wife. Searching analysis and critique of Piper and Grudem.

Alan F Johnson (ed.), How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: compelling stories by prominent evangelicals. Zondervan, 2010. Personal stories of ‘conversion’ to an egalitarian perspective by people like John Stackhouse, Howard Marshall and many others.

Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (eds), Women, Ministry and the Gospel: exploring new paradigms. IVP Academic, 2007. Academic. Mixed views on a range of topics including a detailed egalitarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 by Howard Marshall and an interesting chapter by Henri Blocher on a way forward.

Claire Smith, God’s God Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, Matthias Media, 2012. A series of Bible study chapters on key texts from a complementarian perspective.

Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, Crossway, 2002. An exhaustive summary of strongly held complementarian arguments updating his and John Piper’s earlier book.

James Beck and Craig Blomberg, Two Views of Women in Ministry. Zondervan, 2001. Answer and response format between 4 contributors. Quite technical.

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, Zondervan, 2010. A popular retelling of how to read the Bible through an egalitarian lens.

R T France, Women in the Church’s Ministry: a test-case for biblical hermeneutics. Paternoster, 1995. A thoughtful and wise exegetical study by an outstanding NT scholar and gracious Christian, recently gone to be with the Lord (and a former teacher of mine).

Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: an exegetical and theological study of Paul’s letters. Zondervan, 2009. The fruit of a lifetime’s work. An indispensable textbook. Egalitarian.

Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: marriage and Women’s ministry in the letters of Paul. Hendrikson, 1992. Lively, readable and egalitarian from a well-known NT evangelical scholar.

For a host of resources on the Web see:

Christians for Biblical Equality http://www.cbeinternational.org/

Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood http://www.cbmw.org/

For a nice example of civil debate see these two self-critical pieces by Sarah Sumner and John Koessler criticising the weaknesses in their own side: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/27.40.html  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/28.41.html?paging=off

And if all this reading is too much like hard work, have a look at these short videos on women and the family and then women and the church by NT scholar Ben Witherington who has written and spoken extensively on this topic from an egalitarian perspective.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2M6HswlH3A

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5VQe_nuNJg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGVcAa9GwxA&feature=related

On stopping defending women in public ministry

Even if you don’t agree with him (and I do agree), you just gotta like Steve Holmes …    (see his blog for full article)

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Take Phoebe Palmer.

She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry.

25 000 people. Converted. Does that need defence? Really?

She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.

Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?

…..
And then there’s Catherine Booth. And Mary Dyer. And Catherine of Sienna. And Mother Julian. And Rose Clapham, all-but forgotten, whose first sermon, preached when she was 18, saw 700 miners converted to Christ.

Defend that? Why?

There’s a thousand stories like it. That I know. Ten thousand times ten thousand that have gone untold, no doubt.

And I think of women who I have the privilege to know, who I sit in awe of, some of whom graciously allow me to call them friends. If I could preach one tenth as powerfully or effectively as Ness Wilson, or Bev Murrill, or Miriam Swaffield, or if I had a tiny portion of the vision and capacity to inspire change of Cathy Madavan or Natalie Collins, or if I had some little echo of the pastoral wisdom and visible holiness of Pat Took or Ruth Goldbourne, or if I could even once in my life make something happen the way Wendy Beech-Ward or Ann Holt do every day – then I might think the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach was worth thinking about.

As it is, no. I can’t defend their ministries. I am not worthy to.

……

But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun.

And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea.

And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.

 

Book Review: The Message of Women

Derek and Dianne Tidball. The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender. IVP, 2012

A defining characteristic of evangelicalism is a conscious attempt to have both theology and praxis based on the Bible above all other sources of authority.This immediately means several things:

1. At heart evangelicals will always want to know what the Bible says. They study it, discuss it, try to understand it, interpret it and apply it. They are ‘Bible people’.

2. Interpretations over what is ‘the biblical’ view on any particular text or theme have enormous significance for conferring legitimacy.

3. And this means in turn that ‘biblical’ tends to be one of the most over-used words in the evangelical Christian dictionary.

So when it comes to an issue like women in leadership, what is ‘the’ biblical view assumes deciding weight. The slight problem for this is that it’s rather obvious that agreeing on what ‘the’ biblical view on a host of issues is not the straightforward process that many evangelicals seem to assume it is otherwise there would not be thousands of Protestant denominations (for example).

So to this book just published in the Bible Speaks Today (BST) Bible Themes series.

As with all the BST books the approach is primarily exegetical, with chapters on selected texts structured within four sections. It begins with ‘Foundations’ (Genesis 1-3 and Galatians 3:26-28). Section 2 is on ‘Women in the Old Covenant’ (including family women like Rebekkah; victimised women cut into pieces in Judges; leading women like Deborah; resolute women like Ruth; prophetic women like Huldah; the passionate woman of the Song of Songs; and the capable woman of Proverbs 31). Section three is ‘Women in the kingdom’ (including women in the life of Jesus; in the encounters of Jesus; in the teaching of Jesus; and women as disciples of Jesus). Part 4 is ‘Women in the new community’ (including women in action, in prayer, in worship, in marriage, in leadership and in widowhood).

The big picture that emerges is the Bible’s highly diverse ‘message’ of women. In other words, the authors consistently question the idea of ‘the biblical’ view of women in ministry and in work and family life. For example, they warn against drawing straight lines from women within the patriarchal OT context to women as modern ‘homemakers’. Rather, they propose, “What the many stories of wives and mothers in Scripture teach us is that God’s will does triumph through the different patterns that men and women may adopt for family life and in all the less-than-perfect rough and tumble of the ordinary, not textbook, lives.” (79)

This means that attempts to fit the role of women within family and church life into a preordained mould are doomed to fail. In the OT, the prophetic ministry of Miriam, Huldah and Deborah show that God spoke through women as well as men and that “never is the right of a woman to be a vehicle for a message from God questioned.” (123). The capable woman of Proverbs 31 ‘supports the view that to restrict women to narrow a narrow domestic role is not biblically justified.’ Rather, she offers ‘the balance of serving and responsibility; or leadership and compassion; of enterprise and trust; and of freedom and commitment.’ (146)

More varied portraits of women continue to be drawn in the NT. There is a sketch of women’s courage and deep affection for their Lord at the cross and as the first witnesses of the resurrection. The inclusion of women within the kingdom as disciples and as witnesses points to an alternative community to the male dominated culture of the time. There is a new order of relationships; of respect and dignity for women and full equality within the new creation which flows from Jesus’ own revolutionary attitude to, and teaching about, women which was without precedent in Judaism. He values, respects, befriends, disciples, encourages, inspires and accepts love from women. He never denigrates or makes any negative remarks about women. (184). They are entrusted with the message of the gospel, serve alongside men, become travelling messengers of the gospel, teachers, evangelists (196), witnesses, patronesses, missionaries and even apostle(s). There is no hint of any restriction of ministry under authority of men. It is a remarkably expansive role, but at the same time there is no idealisation of women 209. ‘Gender is not the primary issue, only commitment to Christ and the formation of a Christ-like character.’ (209).

When it comes to the familiar texts concerning women in leadership (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:26-40 and 1 Tim 2:11-15) the authors unpack the texts fully (and convincingly! 🙂 )  arriving at egalitarian conclusions that I won’t go into detail here lest you think I’ve got nothing else to write about on this blog. How they do this is a model of careful exegesis and gracious engagement with complementarian thinking without lapsing into stereotyping. If only this debate in general was characterised by such graciousness and respect. The big picture?

‘Today, Paul is likely to argue that a refusal to exercise leadership in the church is what brings the gospel into disrepute … we suspect he would be rejoicing at the many women who exercise their wonderful teaching and leadership gifts in the church, for the sake of the gospel and the glory of Christ.’ (267).

In regard to marriage, this couple discuss 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. The thrust of the argument here is that the NT contains twin tributaries of thought: one emphasises equality of women and men in marriage; the other a sense of respect for social order that is inherent in creation and new creation and which was imperfectly reflected in the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century. If Paul accepts the social structures concerning marriage of his day, he ‘invests that skeleton with an entirely new and counter-cultural body’. This creates a current of thought that has, over time, broken through the banks of patriarchialism. In other words, NT teaching on marriage emerged out of a particular context but is not tied to that context. What remains is an order ‘formed in the community of the new creation by mutual love, mutual submission, mutual deference and by giving up the will to power.’ (248)

So rather than ‘the biblical’ blueprint being taken from the text and applied woodenly to contemporary life what we have instead is a theological task of reading the issue through the storyline of the Bible.

‘We cannot find what would be recognised as a contemporary equality agenda ready-made in the Bible. The Bible must be read in its own context before we use it to address ours. But, our review of Scripture leads us to believe that very significant progress was made towards egalitarianism in the course of the unfolding story of redemption and that the signposts point us unmistakeably in that direction.’ (283).

PS. The 10 page bibliography is a super resource for anyone studying or reading around the issue of women in leadership – every major work I could think of is there in one place and a lot more besides. It is also right up to date.