Acadia Divinity College, Simpson Lecture Prayer Breakfast, at Manning Memorial Chapel
Tuesday, February 12, 2019.
Steve McMullin has invited me to offer thoughts for this years prayer breakfast. He told me to keep it “practical and inspiration.” I can tell you that after a big plate of bacon and eggs, I don’t really know what is going to come out of me. You might have to settle for vague and semi-coherent!
Someone asked what I was talking on for the prayer breakfast. I paused and looked at them: “Umm…I am going to talk about prayer.” Am I being unoriginal? I suppose I could have talked about the meaning of breakfast, but that probably would not have been as practical or inspirational.
There are many great passages on prayer, but I found myself drawn to these words in thinking about the subject this morning: 1 John 5:13-15 writes,
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Stated right at the end of the First Letter of John, like many epistles with powerful theological treatments at the beginning, the closer is often simple words of wisdom for everyday life. John begins his epistle with explaining how God is light and how Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. He treats difficult topics like apostasy and apostolic discernment. He gives his beautiful explanation of how God is love, but he reserves his final words of advice to remind his congregation about the necessities of prayer.
I think that is a fitting reminder for today as we listen to all the wisdom Dr. Theissen has to show us, all the sophisticated ways we can be more effective pastors and leaders, understanding our communities. There is so much data and effective strategy and wisdom to be learned here in these few days.
But lets just take a moment, as John does, to remind ourselves of the simple fundamentals: we need to pray. We need to ask God, what does this mean? How do we act on this? How do we follow Jesus? How is God’s Spirit addressing us? Where is God’s Spirit sending us?
For five years I served as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. It is a small aging church. Through my time there, it should be no surprise to you that I realized just how integral prayer was to pastoring.
It should also be no surprise during times of trying to do it all on my own or merely going about my day forgetting to centre myself in prayer that day, that it effected what I did negatively.
Of course the opposite was also true, the times where I was in deepest prayer, those were often the times that I saw God act. I am sure God was and is always acting, but it was prayer that helped me see it.
I would like to tell three stories of realizing the necessity of prayer in pastor. The first shows that God is a God that listens to us, comforts us, gives his presence as provision to us. The second shows that he invites us to partner with him in realizing his kingdom. And the final story shows us that God is faithful to meet small needs, that God also is capable of wonderful surprises that we are to expect.
He listens. He partners, and he even surprises.
1. God Listens
As you can imagine, pastoring a church with a number of elderly people meant I often made visitations to the nourishing home. One lady in our congregation had surgery, and was placed in long term care. As we visited her, one of the deacons of my church and I, she instructed us that we should visit the lady down the hall.
So, she phoned her, and the lady was up for us visiting. As we walked down the hall, I suspected this would be a difficult turn in an otherwise mundane pastoral visit.
We stepped into a room with this middle-aged lady. I tried not to stare. Bedridden, her limbs were terribly, inhumanly swollen. “Come in, don’t be alarmed,” she said with a beaming, bright smile. I was surprised. She was in wonderful spirits.
We inquired what her condition was. She had a rare lymphatic infection, that has left her bedridden, functionally paralyzed. Every day, day in and day out, she had to receive a steady drip of strong antibiotics. But also, steadily, day by day, the infection grew immune to the antibiotics. The very thing that was saving her, was also the very thing slowly killing her. Day by day the inflection slowly but surely was winning.
And yet, to my amazement, I have never met a happier person.
She proceeded to tell me that at the beginning, she was bitter and resentful. She prayed angrily that she would be healed, and of course, while she still does pray for that now, something changed in her disposition.
“What changed?” I asked.
“I realized that Jesus was enough. Everyday, I get to thank God for another day, and I know he is with me. He listens to me and is my friend. That is enough for me.”
She told me that she saw her condition as a calling to be Jesus’ presence here in the nursing home, to the nurses and other patients, who in her mind needed hope and healing more than her.
I think this helps us understand a bit of what John is saying when he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
This person knew the gift of eternal life. She knew the gift of his presence. While she still prayed for healing, that was enough.
Whenever I am tempted to ask, “Does prayer actually work?,” I am reminded of a quote that P. T. Forsyth once said, “The greatest answer to prayer is first and foremost prayer itself.”
Before we can fret about getting anything through prayer, we have to cherish the gift that prayer is. We have to cherish the fact that God is listening, that the first and greatest gift is eternal life, in how Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave.
In Jesus Christ, all our prayers are already answered. Jesus is enough.
2. God Partners
So why do we trouble God to ask for more? When we rest in Jesus we know we can because he is generous. When we know he is generous, we also confess that everything we have and are comes from him, so we ask in acknowledgement of him. We ask because we cannot do and be anything other than what God in his generosity gives. As God is at liberty to give in the abundance of his generosity, we ask because we know we are free in relationship to ask.
So, I am reminded that John tells us, “…that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” What is God’s will?
During my doctoral studies, I was the co-ordinator of a soul kitchen called the Gathering Spot at Walmer Road Baptist Church in Toronto, off of Blood and Bathurst if you know the area.
It was an odd job. I applied to it because it was near the University of Toronto, where I did my studies, and I really just needed the money, and I wanted something ministry related. I got more than I bargained for.
At that point in my faith, I was going through a disorienting time. Pastors can go through disorienting times. We don’t like to admit that to our congregations, but we do. As some of you know both my parents died while I was in seminary, and I was still processing that as I was trying to grasp my calling in ministry and in academia. Grief effects us all different, and looking back at that, I remember feeling for several years, numb inside
I don’t think I ever stopped praying or stopped believing in praying, but let me just say that it certainly just did not feel like prayer was doing much. Your soul just felt dried up inside.
Well, my perspective changed working at the Gathering Spot. It changed as I was surrounded one night a week, by people whose problems in life vastly exceeded my own.
I felt moved to pray, not sure what this whole prayer thing was anymore, but praying nevertheless because I cared about these people.
You see a scary underside of humanity, the realities of poverty, of the dehumanizing despair of homelessness. People would come off the streets and wanting a meal, needing services of various kinds.
My prayers took on a different fervour. Mostly because I wasn’t praying for me anymore.
I have learned that service moves us for prayer, and prayer moves us to service.
I remember one bitter cold night in January. We had a large crowd that night and the food went quick. But just as we were finishing, a guy showed up out of the cold. “Is there any more left? Sorry I had trouble finding this place.”
We scrounged up as much as we could. He ate quickly, and I sat with him. I heard a little bit of his story, about how he lost his job and so he was recently evicted from his apartment.
He had to leave because he wanted to get to the shelter before it got too late. But he asked me to pray for him. I did. “God please get him to a shelter.” I wanted to go with him, but I knew I had to stay there at the kitchen till closing. I also had to get the bus home to Bradford, or else I would be stuck too. I prayed with him and he left.
I thought of nothing else as I rode home on the bus that night. And I just kept praying.
I got home late, and I sat in my warm town house in Bradford, think and praying about him.
I heard the next morning that 30 people froze to death that night on the streets of Toronto.
I don’t think I ever prayed so passionately in my life that night, and the only thing I could resolve to do in the light of that is to say that if I see someone in need, and if I pray for their well being, we have to consider that perhaps God has moved us to pray for that person because he is moving us to do something for that person.
Why? Because as John says in the passage previous to ours this morning. God is love. God’s will is love. God is light and in him there is no darkness.
Mother Theresa once said God wills no one to be poor, it is our will that keeps others poor.
The question then is whether we will partner with God in obedience to his will, not ours.
I told you that story to tell you this one: Several years later, as I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury, we ran a community meal at one of the low-income residences a few blocks from the church. One person, a young guy came to our Christmas service. He just kind of look like he had a dark cloud over him.
Turns out that dark cloud was serve mental illness. One night, after giving a lecture at Thorneloe University, where I also taught, I came back home, ready to relax and get some sleep. I got a text from him. “Pastor, help me. I have been evicted. I went off my meds, and they kicked me out. It was stupid. I know. The shelter is full.”
I can tell you I was tempted to ignore that text. I was tempted to say, “Hope everything works out. I’m praying for you.” But I knew I just couldn’t live with myself if I did. So, I prayed, “God help me to help this man.”
So, I grabbed my coat, and met up with him at a Tim Hortons. We drove from Hotel to Hotel, trying to find something. I could tell he was taking his meds again, but he really was not in a good place still.
Hotel after hotel was either too expensive, or they took one look at him and made some excuse. I asked him whether he had any friends that he could couch surf for a few nights. He didn’t have any friends. No family in the area. Nothing.
It is the fundamental truth that many people are homeless well before they don’t have a roof over their head. People are homeless before they are houseless.
I thought to myself, “What if we don’t find anything? It is getting late. Should I just bring him back to my house to stay the night?” He really did not sound safe or in a good state of mind. In fact, he seriously turned to me and wondering, if he just went out and committed a small crime, he would at least get so stay in a prison where it is warm. He had been to jail as a young man, and I told he wasn’t going to take that way out.
Finally we found an inn above a small pub that was not too expensive, and we went with that. The next day, I was able to arrange a bus ticket for him to get to where he did have some folks that agreed to take him in.
As we pray, God partners. We partner with him, in conformity with his will, and he claims us as his own and uses us. St. Theresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses.
We pray for our prayers to be answered, and sometimes God can turn that back to us and commission us to be that answer.
If ever you pray to God, “God I pray someone would do something about crime or poverty or sickness or whatever.” Be prepared that that someone could be you.
3. God Surprises
I say God surprises because while that last point is true – God chooses to use us – so is the simple fact that God also goes beyond us.
God is powerful, but he chooses to partner with people. Humans are free and Christians are Christ’s hands and feet, but that does not mean God does not act. God acts in wonderful and surprising ways.
Notice I have described three ways God answers prayer: by giving comforting presence, by commission us to act out his will, and also acting beyond us. We would be wise to know that to say that God answers prayer is not too say that God is predictable. And that is why I say God surprises.
In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews.
He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him, and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank I would take them. This was my usually Tuesday noontime routine. The food bank was at the other end of the town and often the food bank packages were heavy, and often people had mobility issues. So, I put out a sign at one of the low income apartments that if anyone needed a ride, i would help. Word spread and there was about a dozen or so I would regularly meet up with.
I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car, and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered, could nevertheless hear an uplifting scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital, but after he got out, I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him.
I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me, and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed up. In a dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist.”
God surprised me that day. It is because what John says, “we know that he hears us.”
God listens, God partners, God surprises.
And of course, as God is faithful to save from sin, to give comforting presence, to commission for courageous service, and to show up in all sorts of unexpected ways, God is also, I fundamentally believe, there for you. He has not forgotten you or your family. God has not forsaken his pastors, his chaplains, or his church.
His will is love, life, and light, says John, pleasing and perfect. And we will know this as we ask, as we follow, as we wait on him – all by prayer. Can not do this any other way.
What are your needs? What are your church’s needs? What our your community’s needs? Are they small? Are they big? Do you sometimes think they are too big? Perhaps sometimes you think they are too small.
Whatever they are, John says, to pray for we have confidence in him.
Pray about it anyway. Pray boldly. Pray persistently. Pray to the point that you think you are praying foolishly and wildly, because then it is a very likely possibility that you are praying in line with God’s will for us all: the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Now, let’s turn to God in prayer…
Readings: Joshua 5:13-14; 1 Chronicles 22:7-9; Isaiah 2:1-4; Habakkuk 1:1-11; Matthew 5:9; Matthew 26:52.
In the spirit of these Scriptures, I want to reflect on the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
I admit, I dislike the poem “In Flanders Fields.” I don’t know if I am allowed to as a Canadian – it is after all our war poem – but I do. It is not that I think it is a bad poem. Its rhythm and rhyme is beautiful. It is easy to listen to. But aesthetics of form must bow the knee to higher values of judgment. In this case, the memory not of transient empires – Roman, British, American, or otherwise – but of the Christian people.
We remember our cultural memory with our scriptural memory.
The poem’s beauty is actually apart of the problem. It communicates with a certain saccharine flavor something that should taste bitter. Its form leaves us docile to its content. We prefer it to the bitter realism of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (which in my opinion is the war poem we should be reciting).
Have you ever bothered to think about this poem, In Flanders Field? For 27 years, I have heard, recited, and memorized this poem. It is only recently I thought about it.
I think I recited it through the lens of being a Canadian committed to our military being used in peacekeeping operations, which I think everyone else I know does too. But the question is what did the poem mean at the time it was written?
Most reflect on Remembrance Day nostalgic of World War II, the war that dethroned the madman, genocidal, tyrant Hitler. Canada’s involvement in this conflict was at least reasonable. However this poem was written during World War I. The two conflicts were very different.
John McCrae, its author, was a committed military man. His father was a soldier, so he was raised with a certain religious belief that it was a matter of duty to fight for the empire. He had volunteered in the British army in Africa in the Second Boer War. The Boer War was a war fought between the African Dutch settlers and the British for nothing but pride and profit. The British annexed the region from the Dutch Empire, leaving the settlers there armed for rebellion. So they sent in the military.
This war was fought for king and country, for honor and glory, or at least that is what every soldier is told, but the truth was the Second Boer War was about making sure the African gold mines kept their treasure going out of Africa and into British banks. The British Empire was convinced as the US empire is now that what it was doing was God ordained. As a Baptist, I have a big problem with that logic. Only the spiritual unity of God’s global church can claim to be God’s nation. This is a spiritual nation. Moreover, they forgot that God says even to his own people when it come to war, “I am on no one’s side.” Their empire became a religious system ensuring their way of life, their values, more importantly, their wealth and power. As Habakkuk said, “Their might is their god.”
In many ways, I welcome the secularization of Canada, if only because in doing so Christianity will not longer be reduced to some civil religion where our God is invoked as the guarantor of the status quo of this world, masked under the vocabulary of “peace and order.”
McCrae then served in World War I. This war, despite its global scale, was no less petty. Fueled by centuries of nationalism, racism, and childish competition over superiority, Europe was divided into two sets of political alliances. When the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian black ops group, called the “Black Hand,” the world was reduced to but Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The death of one man from a distant part of the world, spiraled into a global war that would claim the lives of somewhere between 15 and 65 million (only 9 million of these were combatants, the rest civilians): 65 million dead from one. What else can speak so efficiently to the depravity of the humanity’s collective heart? These are figures that would make Lamech blush.
It was during this conflict – this colossal failure of diplomacy and peacekeeping – that McCrae wrote his poem, “In Flanders Fields.” It was not written after the war, when people finally counted the death toll and resolved to stop doing war this way, but during it. He wrote it after the second battle in Ypre, near Flanders.
He wrote about the battle calling it a nightmare: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. […] And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
But that part did not make it into the poem. That spoke too harshly of war’s realities. When McCrae’s good friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed, McCrae performed a burial service for him, during which he noticed the poppies growing up around the graves. Later the next day he composed the poem in the back of an ambulance.
Notice what he did and did not write about.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
It seems that in this stanza McCrae communicates that the world is quite tranquil, ignorant of the carnage humans are inflicting on each other, and humans fight ignorant had the beauty of nature around them.
Nevertheless, the poem continues…
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The dead are described as not quite living. They “lived,” past tense, not are still living. They “loved and were loved,” past tense. Now they lie in Flanders fields. They are not in an afterlife, it sounds, just in some sort of restless nothingness. Their identities are nothing more than their crosses, their graves, the memorials of their war efforts.
Plato once said that only the dead see the end of war, but McCrae does not even give them that. The dead here in thus poem have not moved beyond war’s reality. They are trapped in it. They are not in the peace of Abraham’s bosom. They are in war’s midst still. And this is what their graves are saying.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I, and most of you probably also, always thought this poem referred to fight evil, but remember this was written about WWI, not WWII. No side in WWI was really the “evil side.” I always thought the foe referred to Hitler or some other truly evil political force. However, the British Empire was responsible for just as much tyranny as another empire, especially in India and Africa. How much of the conveniences we take for granted today – our clothing made in sweatshops, jewelry made of blood diamonds, the gas we drive our cars with taken from middle eastern lands – how much of this is the result of us failing to recognize that we have been the foe of those less fortunate in the developing world?
But the dead, the memory of the dead, beckon for new soldiers just to take up the “quarrel.” McCrae had the decency to call it that. But with whom? A nameless enemy: “The foe.” In war, our identity becomes reduced to the quintessential false dichotomy of war: “us” versus “them.” It is the lie that we are not all humans sharing the same planet, all beloved children of God. It is the lie that we are nothing like them: all our soldiers are valiant and chivalrous, while the enemy is evil incarnate. We deify our dead and demonized theirs. War asks, “Whose side are you on? You are either with us or against us.” God said to Joshua, “I am on no one’s side.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The prophets, questioning man’s infatuation with might, insisted not only on the immorality but also on the futility of war… [For the prophets] the most astonishing thing in the world is the perennial disregard for the impotence of force. What is the ultimate profit of all the arms, alliances, and victories? Destruction, agony, and death.”
It is this lens of violence that causes the “us versus them,” where Scripture pleads with us to see our common humanity in Christ. However, we don’t see it as a lens of violence and hate. We choose to believe its myths. We see it as honoring the dead, fighting for “freedom.” The dead – the pain of loss that happens in war – cry out to us, or so we wish they would. Their death must mean something. It cannot mean nothing. Therefore the war must be good and meaningful and productive. But that is rarely the case. WWI, for instance, was created purely by the arrogance of empires and European nationalism. To remember this war and most wars, “lest we forget,” lest we forget as Christians, is to remember war’s meaninglessness. It is too often senseless industrialized killing in the name of political pride.
While good Christian men and women served in this war, the fact that they did and that this war flatly contradicts principles of just war that Christians have held to for over a millennia and a half (since the formation of this tradition post-Constantine), means those well-intended individuals frankly served not realizing their faith had something to say to their consciences.
But that is not what McCrae’s poem talks about. The poem does not cry out longing for peace. It is not like the poetry of Isaiah that longs for the abolition of warfare. It beckons new soldiers to take of the quarrel with the nameless foe. It heaps guilt on them if they don’t: the dead will no rest until the foe is beaten. It implicitly says, “Will you dishonor the dead by refusing to take up arms?” It has a subtle tingle of vengeance to it.
It is with little wonder why the modern conscientious objector, the Baptist and Anabaptist pacifists, and the witnesses of the early church were all branded as traitors, ungrateful cowards, and enemies of the state all for refusing to take up arms and buy into their empires’ mythologies, the cults and cycles of violence.
That is what war often is: a cycle of violence. Notice that we are not told what the objective is of this quarrel in the poem, only that there is one and it needs to be perpetuated. And so it seeks to pass on the torch of war rather than preserve the innocence of the next generation. It is decidedly the very opposite of what David attempted to do for Solomon in order to build the temple of God. He stopped the cycle of violence.
Veteran war reporter for the New York Times Chris Hedges writes (and I admit a few of the stories and quotations are from his amazing little book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning) about this fundamental deception war creates, “The potency of the myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters.”
As this poem says, it encourages the next generation to hold it high, hold the “torch,” a symbol of the ideals that fuel war, high. Valorize it. I think this would have been more appropriate during WWII, but not, as a Christian, for WWI, and frankly not for the current wars in the middle east.
Now this is why I say this: What the lies of war do not tell its soldiers is what it does to the human mind. Its mythology of valor blinds the truth of its destruction. War creates its own culture that dehumanizes those who see it. Chris Hedges, a person who has seen more war than most soldiers, described the effects war had on himself and the soldiers. The effects were as dehumanizing as narcotics. Soldiers living constantly under the anxiety of possible death, shocked by war’s brutality, emotionally shut down. They fixate on the rush of violence similar to how an addict fixates on the next fix, in a self-destructive spiral. Some soldiers become addicted to their own mortality. Those who live by the sword end up dying by it.
This constant anxiety of death coupled with the training the average soldier undergoes to be desensitized to war causes a person devoid of the capacity of authentic human relationship. This does not happen in every case. There are lots of well-adjusted soldiers, but we should not deceive ourselves to say this is the norm.
I should point out that Canadian soldiers, according to a friend of mine that serves in the army, undergo constant counseling to minimize this effect. American soldiers receive none. And you will notice that the following figures are American ones.
Since soldiers are trained to be desensitized to violence, but often are plugging into very rigid structure of masculinity, which equates true masculinity with rank, power and the ability to carry out war without remorse. This has created a dangerous problem with entrance of women into the fighting forces as rape as become endemic. Over the last five years, a female soldier in the US Army is twenty times more likely to be raped by her own colleges than she is killed by an insurgent.
And like I said, because war always seeks to prop up our successes, our faults are often suppressed. The US department of defense estimates 20 thousand cases of sexual assault per year, but since accusations against fellow soldiers is dissuaded for the purpose of preserving the war effort, only about one thousand of these get formally reported. Of these, less than a tenth come to trial. The reason I bring this up is that too often the valor of war clouds attempt to see to it that it is just.
But the real damage to soldiers shows itself as the soldiers return home. Many come home with broken bodies – amputees – these ones will never be able to work again. Most soldiers come home with profound PTSD or shell shock. Returning after once they have been so heavily addicted to this rush of war, the sense of courage, purpose, and valor it gives, normal life becomes banal and meaningless. Left unchecked, it causes self-destructive behavior that often means the veteran can no longer function as a husband or as a father or as an employee. The wounds of war leave many of these individuals constantly reliving the anxiety of death to the point that they cannot be around people, let alone loved ones. Wars are factories of the fatherless, even if they do not claim the life of the soldier
While I often see the bumper sticker in the US, “support the troops” the truths of the conditions of war veterans is far from, especially in the US, 15% of all homeless in the US are mentally ill war vets. 1.4 million vets are living below the poverty line because of the emotional and physical toll of war and the inadequacy of war vet financial and medical support. The medical establishment just isn’t keeping up. The money is being spent sending more troops, not caring for the ones who have come back.
I had this illustrated to me when I coordinated a soup kitchen down in Toronto. I met several veterans who were living in low-income housing. I found out they were American vets, and I asked, “Why are you not in the US then?” The person I spoke to, a vet that developed schizophrenia – his family had left him, or he them, due to his mental illness that made him prone to snapping – remarked that the homeless in Canada are better supported than the war heroes of America. I felt sick to my stomach knowing that a good man who risked his life for his country – but more than that: his mind, his family, his dignity – was now living like this.
By the way, the 2012 military budget of the US is now 1.4 trillion dollars, only a pittance of that is spent on its vets.
So do not get me wrong here. I am not against soldiers who seek to make the world a better place. While it cannot be argued otherwise that the early Christians were pacifists based on the teachings of Jesus, there are some conflicts that we must enter in defense of innocent lives. World War II is a good example. All who hated war prayed for military intervention to stop the genocides in the Balkans. Rwanda desperately needed the western powers to intervene. But there was no money to be made there, so they didn’t. However, I will spare you a very long political rant and saying that no Christian can regard the current war policies of the United States to be in line with Christian teachings of just war. I am thankful that Canada has cultivated a more principled military tradition, but I am so wary of the seductions of war; as I tell people, the best way to think about a just war is by having your default settings to pacifism.
So, again, I am especially not against veterans who have to live with the toxic effects war has poisoned them with. But this respect for these men has lead me to one deep conviction: If we truly care about our soldiers, if we refuse to see them as soldiers, but rather as our children, friends, parents, human beings, if we refuse to see them as sacrifices that guarantee our way of life (as if our way of life is worth innocent lives!), if we truly support the troops, if we truly want to remember them – lest we forget – we will do everything possible to stop them from going to war. We will do everything possible to prevent war, to remember its dehumanizing cruelty, to engage in just politics and peacemaking, and denounce the seduction of nationalistic pride and the urgency of violence.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” says Milan Kundera.
As Christians we chose to remember something else other than that torch that the dead in John McCrae’s poem. Or at least, we might say we take up the “torch” in a different way McCrae probably intended it as Canadians and as Christians:
We remember God’s no to war and yes to peacemaking.
We remember that the weakness of the cross is stronger than the might of any army.
We remember the warnings of our prophets, that our might can become our idol, and we remember their vision of hope: a world without war, where weapons our recycled into farming equipment and we “unlearn” the ways of war.
We remember that our enemies are also God’s children, same as us.
We remember the God that died for his enemies.
Lest we forget.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” Luke 23:46
Jesus at the cross began by praying; here he also ends by praying.
These are often words spoken on people’s deathbeds and at funerals. They are profoundly comforting words. They comfort because they remind us of the sobering but reassuring truth. One day, whether unexpectedly or at the end of a long life, we will die. Our physical lives will end. All that we are, had, and hold on to will cease.
This is sobering because we realize the truth that we cannot save ourselves. We cannot preserve ourselves. We cannot control the very foundation of our lives. Millionaires have died in car accidents and cancer just like the rest of us.
We cannot take this world with us. Celebrities pass away and their fame eventually with them. You can be buried with your money, if that is your will, but that is not you anymore in that casket anymore than that money is useful. What we are and have, ultimately and finally, is not up to us. It is up to whatever or more importantly whoever lies thereafter.
This is why it is reassuring, even liberating. It reminds us that at the end of the day, whoever we are, it is all in God’s hands.
Here, God in Jesus Christ is modeling for us the very essence of faithfulness: trusting God in the last moment of life, at uncertain threshold of eternity.
One way or another our lives are in God’s hands, the question is what will God do with us?
As Jesus said these words, we was dying on a Roman execution cross for the crime of blasphemy, while sinless, he made himself a sacrifice for sin. He gave himself up for us. I would emphasize that he did so, completely. We do not have to fear death because Jesus faced that fear for us.
He had the promise that God is in him and the Father will resurrect him, however Jesus was fully divine and fully human: prone to doubt, prone to uncertainty, prone to anxiety and fear. You can imagine the question is his human, all too human, head: Will my Father be faithful? Will he come through? We have already meditating on his cry feeling forsaken.
So, the comfort of these words must also be kept side by side with the pain of the cross, the willingness of the cross. It is a willingness that seems to admit that Jesus was willing to not only die trusting the Father but also embrace the possibility of the ice-cold silence and darkness of death and hell.
Understanding this fear perhaps explains why he pleaded that this cup may pass, sweating out drops of blood. “But not my will but yours be done,” he prayed. And so again, into your hands, I commend my spirit, as into your hands, all our spirits. It is always in God’s hands, not ours.
Just as he says this, Jesus breathes his last. Jesus dies. The Son of God died. God was found in death. God bound himself to the fate of death. God of infinite joy and life came into the finite space of wretched mortality.
When we think we are sinful and unclean, when we suspect that in our final breath we will disappear in judgment before an exacting God of judgment, we must remember that God died our death penalty. God entered our mortality. God became a rotten corpse, the very object of the consequences of sin, the very object of uncleanliness according to the law. The incarnation was complete, completed in the act of perfect atonement.
No piece of artwork shows this better than Holbein’s the Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb from 1520. Holbein depicts the remnants of the crucifixion on Jesus’ boy: the mangled, pieced, blacked hands, the stretched tortured body, the limp and lifeless face.
At the cross that mission was accomplished. Sin, death, corruption was defeated, but it was through Christ’ willingness to die.
Luke’s gospel reads, “Having said that, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there or this spectacle had saw what had happened, the returned home and lamented.”
Matthew records that at that very moment, the curtain of the temple, the divide between God and man, was torn asunder.
If God is in Jesus Christ, he will not leave Christ to rot in the grave. And the Father didn’t. He rose to new life on the third day. God is love and hope and healing. As we are in Christ, we have the hope that, as everything is in God’s hands, one way or another, we can rest assured they are in good hands, the hands that are mighty to save us.
Father, we pray recognizing the cost of the cross. We pray trying to understand its pain and shame. We will never understand its full weight, but give us enough understanding to receive it into our hearts. We pray that we would not just hear about the work Christ did, but receive it. We pray would not just look upon the cross, but take it up ourselves. That is taking up the life the cross demands of us, the love it embodies, the truth is sacrificed for. Do not let us leave this place without our heart changed with a new commitment to living out the way of our Lord Christ. Thank-you for your justice, mercy, and love. Thank-you that your cross comes with the promise of the resurrection. Amen.
“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26)
While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.
Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”
Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.
But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young. We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.
This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.
Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”
John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”
As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.
We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.
Can we look to Jesus like John did?
Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.
In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.
But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?
The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.
To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.
Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.
When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.
And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?
It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.
It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.
It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.
May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.
May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.
“Truly, I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)
Our world is a world that has closed itself off from the transcendent. We have bought into the discourses of science that tells us the immediately tangible is all there is, everything else is suspected as superstition.
Do not get me wrong, science has earned its place in the world, and many need to listen to its voice more. Science has offered enormous explanatory power for our worldview. In the great feuds between scriptural literalism and science, science will usually win. We have found the sun does not revolve around the earth, that the earth is much older than chronicled, that rain comes from weather systems, illness from poor hygiene, etc.
The world has pushed God out of its purview. God has been viewed as too burdensome a notion to trust.
The events of the primordial church fade into the distance of history. History, itself, seems to crocked a path to see providence. Divine intervention seems like misconstrued co-incidence. Many of the great political advances have been done despite religious influences.
We immerse ourselves in the comforting hum of media noise. Talk of God becomes as rare as genuine conversation itself. Hearing from God becomes as rare as genuine listening itself. An atheism falls over us because we feel the blunt force of divine absence.
Our daily lives, even for many Christians, are often practically atheist. Church becomes an cumbersome ritual. Work is more important than worship. Singing praise to God does not feed a family. Prayer and Scripture reading get sidelined to more relaxing practices: Television, sports, etc. So, we say to ourselves, why bother believe?
However, we deceive ourselves into thinking the modern world was the first to discover doubt, as if doubt was an invention by the same brilliance that discovered flight, electricity, or the theory of relativity. Yet, doubt is not a modern novelty.
The cross was a scary time for Jesus and his followers. The cosmos, let alone their little band of disciples, hung in the balance. The circumstances had become so chancy that most of the disciples deserted Jesus: belief in this man as the messiah was simply too insecure at that moment. Peter initially drew his weapon to defend his lord, but upon realization that violence was not going to resolve the conflict between Christ and the priests, upon seeing his master taken rather than fighting back, unleashing the kingdom of power that he was expecting him to unleash, Peter himself turned to deny Christ, three times in fact. Other disciples deserted him far sooner, unfortunately.
Thus, there Christ hung, condemned, and by all accounts at that very moment, defeated and disproved. Jesus as messiah was no longer a tenable conviction anymore. He did not seem to be bringing in a new kingdom, as prophesied. He did not defeat the Roman occupation, as prophesied. Far from! There he was pathetic, disheveled, beaten into irrevocable submission to the powers he should have pulverized with legions of the faithful, perhaps having even angel armies come to assist. Thus, Pilate, either out of mockery to the Jewish people or out of some deep seated pious guilt over killing a truly innocent man, wrote “King of the Jews” and hung it over Jesus’ head.
If one was to look for a reason to believe in Christ at that moment, one would have looked in vain. The man on the cross was exposed many times over as just a man, flesh and blood, ashes and dust, rejected by his people, betrayed by his closest followers and friends, accused of blasphemy by his own religion’s authorities, tortured and in the midst of his execution by his people’s most hated enemies, the most idolatrous power in existence, hanging there, slowly bleeding out, slowly succumbing to his wounds, to thirst, and to death.
Atheism’s objections pale in comparison to the scandal of Good Friday.
As onlookers mocked and jeered, even a man, a wretched thief, dying the same death as Christ next to him, felt no solidarity with the co-condemned, no compassion for his neighbor in this death, only cynicism and despair. Even the thief on Jesus’ one side mocked him.
At this moment, there seems to be no good reason to trust Jesus. Jesus hung there, discredited.
Would you have believed that Jesus was the messiah then? I know I probably would not have. Sadly, that is because I am a “reasonable” person.
More sadly, is that the only reasonable people in this story are monsters: Judas, who calculates how to profit from Jesus’ arrest; the Pharisees, who have the foresight to plan against possible agitators; the Romans, who brilliantly invented means of rebellion suppression.
And yet, in this moment of darkness and doubt, despair and destruction, one person believed! One person dared to see something more. One person had faith. The other thief, what tradition refers to as the “penitent thief,” dying at Jesus’ side. He believed. He had nothing left to hold back. He could have mocked like the other thief, but he didn’t.
We know next to nothing about this person. The Gospels left him unnamed. Having no hope left in this world, he still says to the other thief, “Do you not fear God? You are under the same punishment.” He admits that his punishment is just, yet Christ’s is not. Christ is innocent and he is not.
At the very end of his life, he is moved with humility and honesty.
But his confession is more radical than that. If one was worried about self-preservation, they would have petitioned far more prestigious powers than a dying messiah.
When no one else believed in Jesus, this man did. And so he simply requests that Jesus would remember him when he comes into his kingdom. He, in the darkness moment of his life, in the darkness moment in history, chose to trust the kingdom is still coming.
This man had perhaps the greatest faith in all history, and yet we do not know his name! But God does. God is not dead because God did not stay dead.
Jesus did promise to remember him. In fact, this man, in his final moments of life, was given the most definitive assurance anyone had before the resurrection: Jesus turned to the man and said, “Today, I truly tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”
Sadly, it is only when we realize that our lives stand on the edge of oblivion that we can feel assured that our lives are in the hands of something more absolute than what this world offers.
Help us to have even just a fraction of the faith this man had.
We complain about our lot in life, yet we are unwilling to admit our faults.
We so often mock and mistrust your salvation. When we do that, we must acknowledge that our punishment, like his is just.
But we must also cling to the hope of your kingdom of forgiveness.
Remember us Lord Jesus, as you remembered him.
May your kingdom come.
Here I will further demonstrate with an analytic argument that patriarchy in theory is incoherent and cannot prevent abuse.
Patriarchy, as I have previously argued, is the denial of the gift of the Spirit for all who are one in Christ (which I have argued elsewhere in regards to Galatians 3:28). Under this basis, patriarchy is the denial that a woman could have the gift of the Spirit in leadership (apostolic or general), teaching, prophesy, etc. whether in the church, society, or marriage.
Patriarchy is the position that holds to an inherent hierarchy within the male-female relationship where men have a position of authority or leadership by the merit of their gender, which usually is applied to a marriage (where the man has the power of decision in some way) and church leadership (where men only can be pastors), but also to other aspects of society in general (some argue against women holding any position of authority). However, for purposes of this paper, the marriage example will be used as the normative referent, since it is the male-female relationship at is most basic (where a congregation of pastor-congregants involve relationships not just of a man and women) and it is abuse in marriage that is most distressing.
I find this term is a pretty muddy term because some will argue that Christian marriage and church leadership is by the gift of the Spirit, therefore a man leads, either as husband or pastor/elder, by that gift where a secular marriage or institution does not have this grace. Christian patriarchy is in theory something that only good Christians can do. In other arguments, since gender is apart of the creational design, in principle all marriages and all institutions should naturally work best under this scheme. In this account Christian patriarchy is something that is natural and therefore should work for all. However, Galatians 3:28, forbids the idea that a man would get a gift the Spirit (i.e. leadership) that a woman could not. This leaves the basis of leadership and authority in the realm of the natural. This should grant us some level of demystification. If it is based on natural and rational order, it should be accountable to natural principles of reason.
Thus, I will now argue that Christian patriarchy is incoherent by the fact that it cannot offer an accurate description of its own criteria of success. I will also then argue that it is condemnable by the fact of its inability in principle to restrain oppression and abuse of women. That sounds strong. After all there are so many good husbands, fathers, marriages, pastors, churches, etc. that hold to this. That is fine. This is why we should qualified this and say its inability in principle not reality. In reality there are lots of good marriages that display patriarchy, however, we are analyzing the natural logic of that conviction. To this we will return to the second assertion that argues patriarchy examples of success do not offer the criteria necessary to understand that success. What I mean by that is that patriarchy in successful Christian marriage, is one where there is a practiced intimacy, equality, and mutual accountability, which actually implies the opposite of any hard version of patriarchy.
1. The Incoherence of Patriarchy
Christian patriarchy cannot sustain the assertion that it is good that a man can have a role by the merit of him merely being a man over a woman. It has to argue this assertion by saying he has to be a good man and a capable leader, but cannot sustain that every man is good and capable. This slides the criterion of authority and leadership from a criterion of gender essentialism to pragmatism: a man does not have authority because he is a man, but because has the ability to do so and the character to do so well.
If this is the case, patriarchy has already failed on two fronts. The first is that if a man does not have good leadership and good character he should therefore be disqualified from leadership on principle. There is no basis by which a woman must listen to a man of incompetent judgment, unsound mind, or questionable character (as we will see, the insistence otherwise, therefore, creates the inability for patriarchy to prevent abuse).
The second is that if it is actually on the basis of skill and character (or the gift of the Spirit) that leadership is based, then if a woman manifests these qualities (as we have argued previously in regards to Gal. 3:28), there is no objection in principle that she could in fact lead and the man should in fact submit.
A patriarchalist is then left with three very uncomfortable options: (1) Resort back to arguing that leadership is in fact based on gender without character and ability. This option is incapably of offering criteria that could prevent abuse. (2) Deny that any woman does have naturally the skill and character capable of leading. This option leads the patriarchialist into bigotry. Good female leaders, whether in the church, marriage, or society are ignored, or worse, explained as if they are abnormal women. This option is left explaining away any good preacher, politician, business owner, or administrator that is a woman. As I said, nothing short of calling this bigotry will do because the vast amount of life data one has to explain away virtually makes this position on par with insisting that the earth is flat. So, we come to the final option: (3) Admit that a patriarchalist holds a double standard, either principled inequality or even intentional repression. Inequality is seen in either allowing a man to do something that a woman could do, and overt repression is seen in any act of actively preventing a woman to do something a man is privileged with. If it is the third option, they are left with having to deal with Galatians 3:28 again: the Spirit does not discriminate in regards to the gift of the Spirit on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or wealth. Therefore, theological patriarchialism is left without foundation. Fideism offers no shield to the accusation of the double standard. If a woman is in fact capable of leading there is no position of these three that does not result in a type of authoritarianism (the wrong use of power) or ignorance (refusal to be informed).
Again those are strong words, and I shall qualify: the traditional marriages that we know and respect are ones where the man has the character and skill in leadership, which the woman is content to trust. In other words, while it is undeniable that our gender does affect our relationships and positions, the notion that masculinity as such is the prime criterion of leadership has been exposed as inaccurate. A male leader will inevitably lead in some kind of “male” way, but that is nothing more than a tautology. A female leader will inevitably lead in a “female” way as well. We express ourselves with gender, but gender is not the deciding factor. If woman can in fact possess the qualities of leadership and skill in using authority, gender is incidental.
The opposite scenario (authority without character) offers the falsification criterion required to prove my original point: If we can agree that the logic of even patriarchy of good character is incoherent, (it always requires the ability and character to lead, which is not restricted to gender on the basis of experience or theology) it attests to the fact that patriarchy as such is potentially abusive. The potential outcome is why a logic of egalitarianism is the preferable and in fact necessary one for any successful display of Christian leadership.
Authority can be defined as the power to make decisions, give direction, or have control over something, and to control something is to exert force to direct or restrain. If a man, empowered by the ideology of patriarchy, is set up as an authority in a marriage or an institution, there is now the potential that power can be utilized without a moral or even rational criterion. As we already established, if male-authority is based on skill and character, then that is not patriarchy, it has pragmatic criteria. If authority is actually based on skill and character, than a woman can lead if she displays these skills and character. In fact, as we just demonstrated, with regards to the gift of the Spirit, there is no basis for discrimination.
However, if authority is wielded on the basis of male gender (thus, truly patriarchial) the decision need therefore not be a good decision; the direction need not be a good direction; and the exertion of power need not be a good exertion of power. The obliged response by the female is submission, trusting that any decision by virtue none other than it was a decision by a male is worthy of trust.
This makes things complicated. I have heard some patriarchal Christian valorize this kind of blind submission, and in fact, many resort to this defends in order to dismiss the existence of good female leaders (option 2 above). They would resort to a fideism of trusting in the order of male-authority/female-submission despite the perceived impracticality of it and examples to the contrary. Again, this option fails by its lack of theological basis (if the Word of God in Galatians has anything to say about it) and is therefore a retreat not into the mystery of faith but into the perpetuation of the irrational.
However, most Christian patriarchialists will oppose this fideist notion and qualify that women have to a degree of liberty to inquire and even challenge an unfit decision by a male authority. This, ironically, falls back into the logic of egalitarianism. The criteria to evaluate the validity of a decision, the right to challenge the validity of a bad decision, and the power to refuse to submit to a decision by an authority once it has been made, all imply that authority and leadership is not validated by positional authority alone, but rather by the degree of skill and character an authority or leader has. Again, the criterion is pragmatic not gender based, and therefore any gender that displays these qualities may lead. Any relationship that permits the freedom to question a decision, the freedom to apply a set of criteria to evaluate a decision rationally (and not accept it on merit of positional authority), and the freedom to even refuse a decision if it is incorrect rather than be compelled to submit to it, implies that the relation operates within the parameters of equality: mutual accountability, mutual submission, not hierarchy. If it claims differently, as many do, the description of the relationship is inaccurate and even disingenuous to the reality of the practiced relationship.
In fact, no successful Christian example can be offered in which a man can wield power and authority, well or not, without the woman also allowing him to, implying she exerts her own power and authority over him, if only to relinquish it and empower him. Authority is reflexive. In a marriage, his exertion of power actually is dependent on his legitimating power of his wife’s consent, approval, and ongoing accountability. This is not patriarchy, however. This is egalitarianism that expresses itself in mutually agreed upon traditional roles. The site of authority is equally in each person together, but the execution and operation of power is entrusted to one on behalf of both. However, as I insist, there can be no defeater offered for what a couple cannot agree for the opposite.
2. Complementarianism and the Possibility of Abuse
Some will note that I have only used the term “patriarchy” which some might found offense to their position because it sounds harsh. They would prefer the term “complementarian.” My intent in using patriarchy is because it is more basis to what I take issue at: gender hierarchy, not the notion of similarities within a gender and differences between genders. Some will insist that they are “complementarians” not patriarchialists offering something similar to the description given in the last paragraph, but less objectionable.
Complimentarianism in this case might be essentially the dual thesis that men, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to lead or have authority, and women, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to submit. This position insists on the need for men to exercise power and authority well (whether as a husband or a pastor, etc.) and a woman (whether a wife or congregant) to submit well. Both together are understood as forming the basis of a successful male-female relationship.
This is more nuanced than patriarchy, but essentially it is just as incoherent. While it offers a more holistic account of how power is applied (i.e. rarely one-sidedly), the notion that a man must lead well and a woman must submit well does not prevent the slippage from a positional criterion of power to a pragmatic one that we just talked about. A man can lead (and a woman submit) only if he actually has the skill and character to do so, and therefore, if the woman possesses these qualities, there is no reason why a man then in turn should learn to submit to her or pray and ask God for help in doing so.
However, I will argue that complementarianism is just as bad and in some cases actually worse. While complementarianism recognizes the dual notion of the relationship, patriarchy is overt in placing the emphasis on male power and control. In patriarchy then the onus is, typically, on the power yielded by the man. Complementarianism is in many ways identical to patriarchy, but when unsuccessful, creates the possibility of female scapegoats. The marriage failed, so one could complain, due to lack of complementarity, not the deficient use of male-power. In other words, the person that refused to fulfill their role is to blame. While it could be the man in refusing to take responsibility, the possibility is offered that it is in fact the woman’s fault for refusing to submit since that is her role. This could create the situation where that a man in merely asserting power on the basis of his gender is deemed virtuous, even though in other regards he is not a supportive husband, but a woman who defies his orders is deemed immoral for failing to uphold her role. This creates a potentially terrible situation: Her displeasure and defiance to the authoritarian nature of her husband’s authority therefore become her fault, purely because she expresses her displeasure and defiance of it.
What is worse is that if authority implies the application of power, if position is legitimated by gender without character, and if decisions can be implemented apart from the ongoing consent and accountability of an egalitarian logic, the result is something that is indistinguishable from abuse. What happens when a wife refuses to submit to her husband? There are two outcomes. The first collapses positional authority into mutual-accountability: the man explains himself and offers compelling reasons for the decision. This implies the logic of egalitarianism as the execution of leadership is based on the pragmatics of ability and character with accountability and equality.
So, the worse outcome is where patriarchy becomes dangerous, which will serve as my closing cautionary example. If the woman refuses to submit, she is in defiance of the order of the relationship, legitimated purely on the basis of gender. In fact, I would point out that if the relationship does not qualify the criteria of accountability for decision to be challenged, all disagreement could potentially be understood as defiance. Rather than accept negotiation or accountability, the failure to maintain this order could be seen as requiring the application of simply more force.
Here is where the possibility of abuse in patriarchy cannot be prevented in theory and is, in fact, bolstered by bad theological analogies. Obviously this does not mean self-espoused complementarians are all abusive, but I have already accounted for why that is not the case, and it is because the relationship is in fact disingenuous about its own pragmatics. However, I will maintain the potentiality in principle.
If a man can wield power and authority purely on he basis of gender and a woman called to submit, if the power is truly positional then power can be wielded without the legitimation of another, without a woman’s approval or accountability. This implies then that he is at liberty to exercise power against her will.
There is dangerous analogous logic that can reinforce the abusive nature of this power. Power relationships often imply the use of force. After all, bosses can fire bad employees. Police can imprison deviant citizens. A teacher can expel a student. A parent can, in traditional understanding, spank a child.
While it is not our project to exegete 1 Corinthians 11, a misapplication of its logic would be thus: God is head of Christ; Christ is head of man; and man is head of the woman. Apply the logic to divine headship over humanity, as some do, to marriage, and it starts to get scary: a very coherent set of logic in its own right is thus offered for the use of force by a man over a woman for the purpose of carrying out the decision. If God is head over humanity and can exercise power regardless of the consent of people and if the male is the head of the female as God is the head over humanity, then the man can analogously wield power regardless of the opposition of the woman. He may think he can do so even to punish her for her own good as God does to humans. The fact that God is morally perfect and people are not can get ignored. The man, if he thinks he is in the right, is now able to exercise the force of punishment against the woman’s will. It us under these schemes that we see examples of “domestic discipline” and abuse perpetrated by Christian fundamentalists. Patriarchy, if it gravitates to this level of theological analogy, can delude itself into laying claim to God’s infallibility and wrath for its own.
This may all sound very extreme and quite offensive to a complementarian or gentle Christian patriarchialist. Thankfully, most who hold this position out of Christian conviction object strongly to the use of force. However, this is the challenge of convictional consistency: What restrains the use of force as a virtue that comes from patriarchial values or an unadmitted egalitarian one? If complementarianism promotes power over women, how is force that much different? As I said, many complementarians are in actuality egalitarians first, who together mutually consent to traditional roles. However, if the logic that God is an authority with the capacity to use force is analogous to the male power in the patriarchy, the refusal to use disciplinary force is actually disconnected within the linear implications of the logic. This is why patriarchy, as such, cannot prevent its own abuse.
It is for this reason that Bible believing, Spirit-loving, reason-using, and justice-promoting Christians should seek to reform any form of patriarchy. This does not mean demeaning well-intentioned marriages and churches, but it does mean taking seriously the task of clarifying Christian convictions (as we have done here) and promoting the most coherent theology of authority and gender. The most probable exegesis and the most coherent account of relationships is one that works within the bounds of egalitarianism. Patriarchy, as I have shown, in its purest theoretical form, cannot offer a compelling logic to prevent abuse.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:26-29
The other day I was told by a complementarian (a person who upholds that there is a hierarchy between men and women as taught by Scripture) that if I believed that women could be ordained, I no longer believed in the authority of Christ over the church. I supposed by this person’s logic and theology of a chain of authority, if he was correct, this is true. However, I don’t think complementarianism is the best exegetical account of the whole of the Scriptures, and so, here is my gentle push back on what is at stake if complementarians refuse a woman in her ministry gifting. It is my intent, as my deliberately provocative title suggests, to demonstrate that Galatians 3:28, within the context of the argument of Galatians and implicit within the same logic of justification by faith, cannot support patriarchy in the church, especially if leadership is by the gift of the Spirit. As a religious axiom about the gift of the Spirit, it promotes the equalized distribution of all spiritual authority without prejudice. If authority in Christian marriage and church is based on the Spirit, this Scripture supports an egalitarian understanding of both.
Understanding Paul’s Concerns
In doing so, I want to chart a middle ground between what I see as the “civil rights activist Paul” and the “complementarian Paul” readings. Both try to fit a circle into a square hole. Notice also, that this is not “conservative version of Paul” versus the “liberal Paul.” There are biblical conservatives that espouse egalitarianism (such as myself), meanwhile, there are complementarians who are such probably for no other reason than their culture has caused them to read scripture thus.
In the context of Galatians, Paul is not concerned with a modern grammar of woman’s rights. It would be wrong headed to translate his world into ours, making him into a modern feminist. All benefit to society is enacted indirectly through the practices of the church, within its narrative self-understanding, not political advocacy directly through a universal set of principles. He is concerned with making sure all recognize what the Spirit has done. Paul is concerned about emancipation and gender equality, but his way of going about it is focused firstly on life in the Spirit in the church community. He is not a civil rights activist. He is not political. He has very little confidence in the justice of the Roman government. His concern is for equality in the life of the church as a witness to the world. So, Paul is primarily concerned about spiritual equality in the church (as opposed to political equality that bypasses the church), but that in turn has very real practical consequences. For him, there can be no ultimate dichotomy or between spiritual value and practical role and no discrimination of the gifts
In Galatians, Paul is concerned with Judaizers imposing the requirement of circumcision on Gentile Christians in order for them to be considered full members of God’s family (4:5), Abraham’s offspring/heirs (3:7) and recipients of the covenantal blessing/inheritance (3:19). This context, as it applies to gender, implies inequality as Paul is equalizing Jews and Gentiles.
Paul sees those advocating circumcision as acting out of discontinuity with the acts of the Spirit. The expectation does not match what they are seeing. In compelling circumcision and austere obedience to the law (the former being a metonym for the later), Paul worries that this is simply disingenuous to the event of Christ’s grace on all who believe and therefore detrimental to anyone that buys into it. It becomes “another gospel” (1:6) as it falls into a paradigm of meritorious obedience, which is an unsustainable perfectionism (3:11-12): the law cannot produce justification because those who seek justification by the law are obliged to keep all of it for that to work, which obviously no one can.
Also, imposing circumcision on Gentiles seems unloving (5:6), especially if it is unnecessary. You can imagine how the Gentile men would not appreciate having to cut a piece of their genitalia off in order to appease the unnecessary demands of a religious faction! It would be painful, humiliating, and potentially unsafe (although Paul does not explicitly mention these factors). The act of which implies ethnic superiority, and inequality as well as religious hypocrisy in Paul’s mind as it treats Gentiles by a double standard that even Peter did not follow. Gentiles were being treated as inherently impure, warranting the circumcision faction and Peter refusing to sit with the uncircumcised in table fellowship (2:12), and therefore they are expected to “act like Jews” (2:14) in order to be acceptable.
However, the work of Christ undoes the basis of superiority here. Paul argues that Christ, who died on a tree, took on the cursedness of those separated from God, existing outside the law and covenant, and in so doing redeemed those under the curse (3:13-14). Any blessed/curse, clean/impure distinction is therefore absorbed in Christ. Paul’s logic presupposes quite a bit in 3:14, but it implies that Jesus is the Son of God (2:20) as well as the offspring of Abraham par excellence (3:16) and by dying on the cross, the Gentiles now have the inheritance and blessing of Abraham as if they too are his offspring. The inheritance is the gift of the Spirit (3:14). This gift of the Spirit, making possible new relationship, occurs by trusting the work of Christ alone – justification by faith – not by meritorious obedience. Since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, God’s Son, those who have the Spirit, are therefore also God’s children, able to cry out as Christ did, “Abba! Father!” (4:6). Paul’s argument then has an experiential base: he has witnessed uncircumcised Gentiles, who do not uphold the entire law, be granted the gift of the Spirit purely because they trusted Jesus, and so, he continues to encourage the Galatians to stick with this paradigm.
This overcoming of cursedness and uncleanliness implies a powerful social revolution in Paul’s thought through the work of Christ. We miss it because we expect him to argue on the basis of civil rights. Women were often restricted because of the uncleaniness associated with their gender. For example, Lev. 12:1-5 states that a woman who has given birth to a boy is ritually unclean for 7 days. If the baby is a girl, the mother is unclean for 14 days. Male babies, therefore the male gender, was considered more clean than then female babies. Women had to go into seclusion during their menstruation cycle, because they were unclean (Lev. 15). Thus, women were restricted in worship. Second Chronicles 36:23 states that women were not allowed in the sacred space of the temple as they has their own space, considered the least sacred.
Thus, given that women were treated as as less pure in the ancient world, the notion that Christ bore the curse of the law and that true impurity is wrong doing (Matt. 15:11) would have opened up unprecedented liberty in Jewish culture.
Some might press the notion that Galatians is only about spiritual equality, so let’s explore it further. Here we see that all are given the Spirit through faith in Christ, which has very practical consequences. Paul is advocating what we might call “pneumatic equality.” Paul does not mention what the nature of the gift of the Spirit does beyond causing adoption and spiritual fruit. Nevertheless, Gal. 3:28 insists that whatever the gift of the Spirit is, the gift is given indiscriminate of ethnicity, economic status, or gender. Whatever the gift of the Spirit entails, it is applied indiscriminately for “you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the argument for equality that this passage implies. If one had something or another could not have something on these premises, the result is inequality.
To be clear, Paul only talks about the gift of the Spirit in general principle, but the principle is strictly egalitarian. Complementarians can only at best downplay the importance of the principle, silencing it with other scriptures that sound more complementarian. Thus, if the gift of the Spirit implies all the gifts listed elsewhere in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11, which include the gift of apostles, prophets/prophecy, teachers/teaching, leadership, administration, etc.), the criteria of their distribution should be, by this principle here, indiscriminate of gender as it would be of race and income inequality. It implies that if a Jew can speak in tongues so can a Gentile, if a free person can be a prophet, so can a slave, if a man can have apostolic gifting, so can a woman. Anything less amounts to the denial of the promised inheritance for some.
Thus, it should not surprise us that the Spirit has been so indiscriminate, even in the Old Testament. There we see Deborah, a prophet and judge over all Israel, despite the qualifications a judge in Exodus 18 stating “men who…” (which would form the paradigm of reading the elder descriptions that refer to “a man who…” in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 as generic, inclusive, or non-absolute). Also we see the formidable prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22: 14-20), who has the God-given authority to rebuke the king himself. We see Philip’s daughters, who are prophetesses (Acts. 21:8-9). There is also Priscilla, who seems to be an apostolic co-worker with Paul along with her husband (cf. Acts 18: 24-26; Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19); Chloe, whoever she is, seems to have authority in the church of Corinth such that her people report to Paul (1 Cor. 1:11); Phoebe, who seems to be a deacon of Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1) come to give the church in Rome direction; Nympha, who has a church meeting in her house, which strongly insinuates she lead that church (Col. 4:15); Junia, “prominent among the apostles,” which suggests that she is an apostle in the fullest sense of the word (Rom. 16:7); and finally, Euodia and Syntyche, who are listed as leaders along side Clement, which again, suggests apostolic authority (Phil. 4:2-3). If the implications of these passages are correct, this further corroborates the notion that the Spirit does not show favoritism if bestowing the gifts.
Does Justification By Faith Imply Egalitarianism?
Indeed, anything less than an egalitarian application of the gifts of the Spirit would imply legalism. Gentiles, by faith in Christ, are not obliged to follow rules that no longer function, that detract from the work of Christ (which circumcision did), that do not fulfill the law of love (5:6; 5:14) or do not manifest the fruit of the Spirit (5:22). Where there is the fruit of the Spirit, “there is no law against these” (5:23). Conforming to any laws, whether biblical or not, that do not meet these criteria is problematic. If the Gentile believer took on circumcision, such an act would be an act of inequality, reinforcing the superiority of the Jewish ethnicity before God that God has abolished in Christ. Jews and Gentiles have the same access and unity to Christ. Similarly, denying a slave or a woman the Spirit’s gift to preach or to teach, would be in some way saying that they have less of Christ in them than in a free male, implying almost that their submission and slavery was meritorious obedience. Is a complementarian comfortable saying that not all are truly “one” in Christ by faith? This is what the logic implies.
In fact, to take up circumcision as a meritorious action, functionally becoming a Jew in order to be an heir of the covenant, this action seems to imply slavery: “We are children, not of a slave but of a free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (4:31-5:1). Gentiles, who have the Spirit by faith, have everything the Jewish believers have. Gentiles are able to relate to God unburdened by their previous estrangement from God; they are given the same status, namely, children of God and they are given the same inheritance, namely, the Spirit.
Interestingly enough, that argument could be made, albeit provocatively, that since justification by faith and the gift of the Spirit is linked in Galatians and the gift of the Spirit is for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, if a person imposed laws of gender on a woman that denied her what the Spirit gave to her through her faith in Christ, that person can be understood to be implicitly denying justification by faith in the same way a Judaizer would be denying justification by faith in imposing circumcision on a Gentile. All are one in Christ.
The Preference of Liberty
This sets an applicable pattern: liberty is preferable to slavery, yet liberty is not to be valorized outside the work of the gospel. This has a very real application for gender. Submission is not virtuous if it does not function, and such submission, especially imposed submission by other Christians, implies inequality in Christ’s unity with humans. It implies slavery. Laws that do not function, should not be followed if they are not loving, do not produce spiritual fruit, or promote the notion that the Spirit is prejudiced. Under these principles, gender and economic equality becomes a secondary concern of all who seek the Holy Spirit to be made more evident in creation.
This does not mean a person who is not given the gift of teaching, for instance, should feel that God is unfair in giving another that gift. What this is saying is that on principle these gifts are given indiscriminate of race, economic status, or gender, and so, not withheld on that basis. There are different roles in marriage, society, and church, the point is that the distribution of these roles cannot be on the basis just described. While we all may be called to serve and submit on mission for Christ, refusing Spirit-given liberty for another, imposing submission, is slavery. Men can be leaders if they have the character, but then again, so can women. A man can be called to be a pastor, if he has the qualities, but then again, so can a woman, if she is qualified. In principle then, a woman could be given any gift of the Spirit just as much as a man could (or Jew, Gentile, slave or free person), but that does not mean every person gets that gift. Men will be called to listen and submit to their wives (“submit one to another out of reverence to Christ” Eph. 5:21), a man must submit to a gifted female teacher as in the case of Huldah and the King (2 Kings 22: 14-20) or Apollos and Priscilla (Acts 18:28). Thus, we see no basis in Gal. 3:28 that any gift of the Spirit is restricted to a gender. To be clear, this does not take offense at the notion that some are called to have authority while others are called merely to submit and trust that authority. The problem lies with any attempt, especially by Christians, to restrict a gift the Spirit sees as open to all, particularly on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or economic status. It does not take offense at the call of some to be enslaved, but see the unnecessary imposition of submission on another.
This clarifies the rhetoric often used by the complementarian that women are spiritually equal, but functionally different. There is no problem in stating some are called to different things, while others are not. Some are called to more difficult lives than others. A person, who feels that it is there vocation to be an accountant for God, will be functionally very different than the person called to be a missionary in the undeveloped world. However, if we used the example of slavery and segregation in the United States, the problem is then the church limits the liberty of others, imposing a supposedly God-sanctioned social order that prevents some to pursue a Spirit-given vocation to a position of authority.
Is Slavery a Defeater?
One could object that if Paul did not abolish slavery, the application of the spiritual equality that equalized Jew and Gentile, removing the requirement of circumcision, cannot be fully applied to gender equality.
What the Gospel in Galatians does imply is the notion that all people are God’s children, thus able to cry out “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6-7) and are heirs of the inheritance. This in a very practical sense meant the elimination of social separation between Jews and Gentiles in table fellowship (Gal. 2:11-14), but also in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 mean the equalization of access to food at the Lord’s Supper. This equality was lived out in the community of goods, where believers sold all individual property and live as if a single household (Acts 4:32). It was a scandal if a member of a church had much and another was in need.
With regards to slaves, while Paul did not seek a full and potentially destructive and violent emancipation, he did insist that all members of a church, whether slave or free, were considered family. If a slave was considered the family of a master, the implication is that freedom would be sought for the slave along with all other facets of general well being. It would be despicable that a person would own a family member as a slave. Thus, we see in Philemon, Paul plead (not force, we should note) that Philemon free Onesimus as the runaway slave (a criminal offense) is “no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
Some are called to endure suffering and subjection for the sake of the Gospel, including wives (1 Peter 3:1-6) and slaves (1 Cor. 7:21), however, this subjection is for the purpose of witness vocation. Slaves in Christ are free, and the free in Christ are slaves (1 Cor. 7:22). In the case of a slave, Paul recommends not being obsessed with emancipation, continuing on in the state that the person is in. However, Paul clearly expresses the preference that a person must not become enslaved: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.” Again, witness is more important than emancipation for Paul, just as martyrdom is a greater witness than a long and comfortable life. Paul does not easily fit the profile of a social revolutionary. He is an evangelist that sees slavery, hardship and even martyrdom as opportunities to show Christ. However, is social inequality of little significance to Paul? No. Freedom was preferable to slavery.
Again, Paul was not a social revolutionary primarily, but the Gospel does imply liberation. The Gospel implies social progress, but the Gospel does not seek self-assertion let alone violent emancipation to cause progress. Social progress is not the Gospel, salvation to sinners by the free gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ is. However, the social progress and liberation is a byproduct of redemption as it seeks to remove all barriers to authentic vocation and all effects of sin.
As this relates to gender, the notion that Christians would seek to enshrine and perpetuate limits on women in the home, church, and society, would be going against this principle that Paul offers. Again, Paul is not a human rights activist, and we need to draw close to his logic. He is advocating that the Holy Spirit does not discriminate with regards to the spiritual gifts, some of which imply leadership authority. Refusing to recognized that the Spirit could call a woman to lead, for instance, in the church, is tantamount to limiting the work of the Spirit and perpetuating a requirement of submission that falls back into legalism, subjection to the law.
By analyzing the logic of Galatians 3:28 in the context of the epistle, we see that it offers the principle that the Spirit does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, economic status, or gender in regards to the Spirit’s gift, the inheritance of Abraham. Justification by faith implies a type of egalitarianism. Refusing a gifted woman preacher in the church is analogous to imposing circumcision on a Gentile. It is a similar type of legalism. Thus, I offer the provocative push back to some complementarian polemics against egalitarianism, where complementarianism denies justification by faith (which I offer not because I actually think complementarians deny justification by faith, but to point out what the logic implies). While I have worked against the notion that Paul can be absorbed into the caricature of a modern civil rights activist, this does not dismiss the fact that Paul would not allow any inequality in his churches. Refusing to recognize that a woman could have a gift of preaching, prophesy, teaching, administration, or even apostolic leadership is to go against the Galatians principle here.
This is a reflection I wrote back in 2011, when my first son, Rowan, was born. It is, as I call it, a “theo-poetic” reflection, as I could not help but think about the grandness of this event as connected with faith in God.
Some would question whether fatherhood is a valid impetus for religious reflection. What do the two have to do with each other? I am of the opinion that even an atheist, when gripped with the beauty of life’s greatest moments ultimately resort to religious-like vocabulary: words of transcendence like “sublime” or even, “sacred.” There is a reason why the Hebrew prophets were not scientists or philosophers – those who think the mysteries of life can be objectified, scrutinized, and exhausted, those that naively hold that thought begins in doubt and ends in certainty rather than beginning and ending in wonder. Rather, all of the prophets were poets.
Many know their fathers as appearing cold and silent, perpetually poker-faced. After my son was born, my wife turned to me wondering why I did not cry at the sight of my son. I said that I did not know. I almost felt ashamed that I did not. Could I be that emotionless? However, as I reflect on this, and many of the powerful moments of my life, I have found that there are, for me, moments so profound that their magnitude invokes such a complex polyphony of emotions, our bodies do not know how to express one where our minds are wrestling with many. It is not that men are emotionless or emotionally shallow (as some have said), it is, I think, that sometimes we are so complicated, no one expression of emotion does justice. Thus, we appear reductionistically simple.
For this reason the Christian scriptures were not written as pure historical reports, logical propositions, and empirical data – objective yet dry, stale, and irrelevant – but rather as narratives, poetry, proverbs, and epistles – subjective, personal, and thus, real and relevant. Poetry is the enemy of science, as science accuses poetry of un-realism, yet it is poetry that seems to come to grip with what reality is for the human experience more than science. In French, the same word is shared for an account of history and a story, l’histoire, as it is understood that in order to communicate the flavor of life’s memories accurately, one must ironically use the metaphor, forsaking the demands of the factual in order to fulfill it and employing the rich meanings found typically in fiction. The wondrous thing about poetic reflection is that it is the attempt to wrestle into words the things that matter most to us, yet render us silent and speechless.
It is a strange wordless feeling becoming a father. Watching my wife’s pregnancy was just that: watching, a position that intrinsically predisposes a father to a sense of aloofness. Another’s pregnancy, for all its power to produce the sense of maternity, is no process to prepare for one’s own paternity: no inherent connection is formed between father and fetus, no nesting instinct clicks on automatically. A guy does not spend his childhood unwittingly rehearsing for childcare with his toys and their many nursery related accessories. Compared to the astounding ability to produce life from within oneself, to shift seamlessly and intrinsically into a parental-consciousness, men are left feeling as the “weaker sex.” Fatherhood, at least in its initial impulse, far from its place in perceived male headship, subverts the great chains of social hierarchy – hierarchy with all its promise of strength and security – that we as men wish to remain unthreatened.
I take Meagan in to be induced on the evening of Good Friday. We stay the night for observation. I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep: part anticipation part the stiff hospital chair-bed-thing is not actually suitable for sleeping.
Then the labor happens in the morning, Easter Saturday, April 23. Trumpets from heaven might have well of blasted: all the signs were there, all of it expected, however, an urgency sweeps over you that makes you feel you were never ready for what is to come. All preparations feel illusory and inadequate. It is the eschaton of my life, as I know it.
Moments become eternal as memory fragments into snap-shots that somehow also bleed together like a long exposure photograph: At the hospital, Cervidil administered, epidural, lunch from the Hospital’s Subway, contractions set in, the movie Ben-Hur plays in the background, cervix is fully dilated and ready to push. I look at my watch, its 4:25. Ben-Hur is at the chariot race scene. I hold Meagan’s hand. I hold her leg. Meagan’s mother, on the other side, does the same. Breathe. Push. Pause. Breathe. Push. Pause. I see the head.
I am not going to lie, it is gross. Life in it’s most raw forms, we often find disgusting; without all our prim and proper adornments to shield ourselves from the overwhelmingly messy purity that life is, we find it scary before we can properly appreciate it as sacred.
A haze of helplessness, ignorance, and anxiety from watching my wife have contractions, have pain, have labor, have something I have never witnessed before and can never understand, leaves me unsure of what is going on, what I should be doing, what I could even do at all. Men are supposed to “fix things.” I don’t know what to do. I say, “Good job,” as if I am the expert, as if I am not feeling awkwardly pathetic.
It all comes to the pivotal moment I see the little body and the loud cries begin. The sur-reality of labor splits sunder by the sharpness of the in-breaking reality of delivery. Adventus at 4:57.
The image behind the shadowy ultra-sound phantasms and amorphous movements within the belly manifests itself for the first time in one tiny distinct form: the crying naked body of a tiny baby boy. The tohu-wa-bohu of childlessness break by the bara of conception, that leads to the badal and miqveh of pregnancy, and culminates in the final barak of birth.
I give my wife a kiss, no longer simply between two lovers, but from the father to the mother of our child. A mature love is affirmed, love that culminated in new live, a new journey: our family. I hold my wife, my wife holds the baby, the baby holds my hand. Bone of my bone holding flesh of my flesh: we are three, yet, in love, we are one.
We named him Rowan Albert Boersma, Albert after my dad, John Albert Boersma. However, I was so tired after the birth that when I called my family to tell them the news, I told them the wrong name! It was the most pleasant point of exhaustion, I’ve ever felt!
I take my son in my arms and I look at him, and he opens his eyes and stares at me. Some refer to a religious experience as an “I-Thou” encounter, the finite “I” encountering God’s absolute “Thou.” The presence of the infinite being produces a sense of being infinitesimal, under the weight of the wonder of that which is Wholly Other. To hold my son for the first time is an similarly unspeakable feeling, apophatic yet oddly inverse: I feel like the thou, staring down at this being that is in my “image and likeness,” this person that is utterly dependent on my providence: so small, so fragile, so vulnerable, so innocent, but above all else, just so. With all that I am, I pronounce blessing on this being: I see him as “very good.” His finger reaches out and touches my finger in Michelangelo-esque sublimity.
As I sense myself as the Thou, the child becomes the I. And thus, I see myself in something other than me. In doing so, eye to eye, I sees I, self-hood is seen in another and otherness in self, an infinite reciprocal circle of identity and alterity. A type of self-transcendence occurs. The I-Thou reverses as I stand before a new tiny Thou. All senses of deity, the feeling of being bigger than you have ever been, paradoxically permeates with the sense of being smaller than you ever have been, feeling the full weight of fatherhood, the magnitude of responsibility, and the fear of innumerable potentialities of failure. The future in all its awesome potentiality presents itself, simultaneously dazzling as dangerous.
In holding that child for the first time, with the instantaneous love, you feel that you are more sure about what is right in the world than ever before, yet at the same time the most unsure. With love, an kenotic agape occurs as someone other than yourself becomes the measure of your essence. As you love this little someone, you see yourself in them, and your own idenity as a loving person becomes bound to them, covenantally. You bind your self-hood to something other than yourself, freely allowing yourself to be taken hostage to this someone that you know has the uncontrollable judgment to pronounce you a success or a failure in your task of loving, in your ability to be loving. The certainty in love appears also as the greatest risk. For those that define masculinity as a man’s self-sufficiency, power, and ability, fatherhood appears as a threat-to more than a fulfillment-of manhood.
Is this what God felt like as he beheld Adam? Is this what the Father felt as he looked down upon Christ lying in a manger? Through the divine tzimtzum, is this the risk of God’s essence as love entails as he constantly proclaims to his children, those other than himself yet from himself? Is this the mystery of God’s promise and proclamation to all humans, when he says, “I am love; I created you from love; I love you; I will always love you”? Is it in the finite response of gratitude for God’s love that God’s infinity is realized? Did God, as a being whose supreme ontological predicate is love, risk his very deity in the act of creating humans? It is only when every “knee bows and tongue confesses” the Spirit’s love, Christ’s lordship, and the Father’s paternity that God will truly be “all in all.” The marvel of God’s sovereignty is his willful vulnerability.
How can God be vulnerable? In Greek mythology, Cronus the Titan devours his children so that none can challenge his sovereignty. Zeus the all powerful, Cronus’ son, slays his father, only to become an absent uncaring father himself to myriads of bastard children of the women he seduced. He, the “father” of all gods, is a god that intervenes to win wars for his subjects – wielding the symbol of his power: the lighting bolt – only for the profit of more temples, more worship, more reputation, more fear of his might. The gods of the Greeks were defined as timeless, impassible, unchangeable, omnipotent and omniscient. And because of this, the Greeks logically concluded, in all their metaphysical sophistication, that the gods do not care about us. They must not care, or else they would not be gods! To care is to be weak. This is what the world conceives of as divinity: power and control.
Some wonder why an infinite deity would choose to identify himself as gendered and allow himself to be named by his people as “our father” (although there are many parts of scripture, I should point out, where God is depicted as motherly too), yet everywhere in our world we see absent fathers – people, perhaps, afraid of the risk of love – broken homes, abandonment, even abuse. And yet in our darkest moments something, someone, beyond all our experience, beyond all notions of how the world is, pierces the veil of despair and shines through in glorious consolation: God as love appears as the one that never abandons, always keeps his promises, always protects, is always proud, is always daring to love.
The God who identifies himself with the stories retold by the community that claims their brother is Christ is a God that we profess does nothing like what a god is expected to do: he comes into history, changes himself into a sacrifice, suffers with us, becomes weak and helpless choosing powerlessness over violence, chooses compassion over wrath, and even is said to have become the very thing God is not: the misery of sin and death. Though the vile yet beautiful cross – the symbol of the Christian God’s awesome ability – all this was done to say to all the fatherless: to all victims those crying out for rescuing, to all the abandoned that will never understand themselves as being worthy of a father’s proud smile. All this to say to all people: you have a father! Daddy loves you. He is proud of you. He will rescue you. He is never going to leave you.
Indeed, no psychological projection, no philosophical system, no misguided mythology constructed by human minds could invent the notion that a God would choose to use masculine language to define his magnificent characteristics yet fundamentally in his very essence, in his very being and becoming, be something so unbecoming of the impassible power and sovereign invulnerability of our notion of “male” deity, that is, the unfathomable and ineffable reality that God is love.
Hearing my crying child, holding him for the first time, and not knowing what to do to end the crying is an absolutely terrifying experience. Something so small renders someone so much older, bigger, and more capable that itself, ultimately incapable: omnipotence dissolves into omni-incompetence. However, he calms down and sleeps sweetly, and I pause to take in the strange soothing fragrance of a new born baby at peace on my chest, his soft head against my cheek. We both rest, I in pride and Rowan in purity. I think to myself that this is how God must have felt on the seventh day. Shalom, the peace that all existence strives for, engulfs us.
I use the blue musical teddy bear to comfort him, the same one my father used to comfort me. Now I understand what my parents felt, and I regret every moment that I ever took their love for granted. My father has passed away, my mother also, yet I am here. I say, “Daddy is here. Daddy is never going to leave you.” A generation passes, a generation comes, and yet in the flux of life’s frailty, for all its uncertainty, love is what remains eternally and assuredly the same. Death is no competitor to the renewing power of life through love. The “risk” of becoming a father, love’s risk of being inadequate, vulnerable, and the potentially a failure, in turn, is then what becomes illusory, dissolving into epiphany, as love’s jeopardy becomes life’s victory, as love demonstrates itself as the essence of immortality, as love demonstrates that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, never ends and never fails.”
“One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: I will send you the Holy Spirit who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon. For He willed to make them Christians, not astronomers.”
– Saint Augustine, regarding Genesis chapter one
Many of my fellow believers are creationists, who hold that Genesis chapter one should be read as teaching a doctrine of how the world was scientifically made. While I respect the sincere faith of these believers, some are even in my church, I also see many Christians, myself included, encountering significant faith crises, because of the assumptions of that perspective. Many creationists see it as the opposite: that evolution will erode and destroy one’s faith. For me and many other Christ-followers, it simply hasn’t. For me, it is mostly because I found that Genesis one should not be made to comment on the scientific composition of the universe. Here is a reflection on why I think Genesis one is best understood as offering a theological narrative: timeless truths about God and creation delivered in a culturally bound way.
There are some very good reasons not to take Genesis one as offering a scientific description of the creation of the world. Not doing so, I think, is the most consistent way to interpret it. This is because there are pre-modern notions about the cosmos that these text assumes. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if we do take it as a historical description of the material origins of us and the cosmos, if we make that the truth of this text, we force the text to contradict itself, reducing a literalistic strategy to absurdity.
So, the following eight exegetical points attempt to point out the problems of a creationist approach. Because the text assumes a geo-centric cosmology, it cannot be used to support creationism which does not hold to these details. I am doing this without offering a full positive doctrine of creation (which is another argument that I will give later). However, trust me, I do think Genesis one is God’s Word and that the universe is God’s creation. But it is God’s Word in proper literary context, understanding the cultural climate it was written in. I believe in creation. I believe that Genesis one teaches us about creation. I just don’t believe in “creationism” as an idea that tries to extract science into this narrative or things all of the aspects of these narrative are applicable today.
As I said, my argument is an reducio ad absurdum. Creationism, by its own uneven exegesis (or more accurately is consistent neglect of what the text literally says), is an interpretation that collapses into self-contradiction necessitating a different interpretation, a reconsideration of interpretive principles. So here are the eight interconnected arguments or features:
Creation from Water?
The opening verses describe the heavens and earth as “formless and void” yet the spirit of God hovers over the waters of the deep. Before everything else is created, there is water. Before there is time, planets, stars, there is water. That seems odd. Why is that? Is water the eternal, primal sub-atomic substance in which all things were constructed? Does this passage, as some suggest, contradict creation ex nihilo, the notion that God created the world out of nothing? No.
Water was a symbol of nothingness. The Mediterranean Sea was thought to be an “abyss.” Why? If a sailor sank into the depths of the sea, they would disappear into what would seem like bottomless black nothingness, a void. Beginning with water is a metaphorical way of saying the world was “formless” and “void,” and so, God created the world out of nothing.
Notice right off the bat then that choosing to see metaphor rather than concrete descriptions makes the images in the text make way more sense. It makes them much more meaningful. It has a better interpretive fit.
Earth then Universe?
Next we see that the creation of the earth precedes the creation of the very universe it is supposed to be situated in. This should tip us off that this is not a scientific description. In fact, we commit violence to the text by reading out modern assumptions into it. By all accounts the Sun is older than the earth, and the earth (as well as the moon) all formed because they were in orbit around the Sun.
A creationist might retort and say that God held these things in place until the solar system was created, but then natural history is being portrayed as intentionally deceptive. However, the text does not say anything about such a process nor would it even be suggesting it as it is speaking to a non-scientific world. Often I find creationists doing these kinds of ad hoc interpretations in order to save their theology. What ends up happening is that creationist invent miracles that the text does not describe to make the simple narrative make sense by their interpretive assumptions. A good rule of thumb is that if you have to invent miracles in order for interpretations to make sense, you are probably reading into the text with the wrong approach.
Light/Day before Sun?
Light and darkness as well as night and day are placed before the sun and moon, by which light, time and day are generated and measured. Even the ancient people understood that light only comes from the sun and moon (remember, they did not have electricity). Yet the sun was often worshiped, so we see the sun’s importance relegated to a later day in creation. It is no longer the primary act of creation or its pinnacle. Light, the source of all the earth’s nourishment, the symbol of moral goodness, comes directly from God. Time and day, the forces that structure reality, again, are not controlled by a solar deity, but proceed directly from God. The sun, not even named, is demoted to merely being a sign for the seasons. The “seasons” are the times of the worship festivals. So, instead of being a god, it is merely a sign for the people of God to know when to worship the true God! Thus, we see that the creation days are most meaningful when we see them as a rhetorical strategy for countering pagan mythology.
Blue Sky Made of Water?
God divides the waters above to form the sky and the waters below to form the seas. The sky is described as being made out of water in the text. Again, I am amazed that creationists skip right over this. We know that the sky is not made out of water, but rather it is blue due to the fact that light rays going through the atmosphere show up blue, and the sea is blue because it reflects the blue of the sky. The sky is not blue because it is made of water. Again, this is a pre-modern description of the universe, not a scientific one.
I have heard some creations say that before the flood there was an expanse of water above the clouds that came down for the flood, since the text says it had not rained until then. There are problems with this. The biggest problem is that the “expanse” of water is not described as coming down at this time. In fact, the author that wrote at the time of Psalm 148:4 implores the “waters above the skies” to worship God. So, it is still there. Also, the expanse is not merely water held in the sky. It is literally thought to be a hard dome, which we will see in the next point…
Sky is a Hard Dome?
The sky is thought to be a hard “dome” (also translated “vault” or “expanse” or “firmament”). In the ancient cosmology the sky was made of water, separated by a dome-like wall. Creations oddly dismiss this detail, saying that it is no longer there because the waters came down in the flood. However, this neglects firstly that the dome is still around in Psalm 150:1 when the people of God are invited to praise him in this dome. The dome is a permanent fixture of the cosmos in the ancient mindset. Second, what is being described here is literally a hard dome, not a miraculously held up expanse of water. This dome has “flood gates” by which waters flood down (cf. Gen. 7:11). This dome is hard enough for God to “stretch out the heavens like a tent” over top and lay “the beams of his upper chambers on their waters” (Ps. 104:2-3). Isaiah 40:22 describes the heavens not like a spherical atmosphere, but as a “canopy” or “tent” on the flat earth. The flat earth rests on pillars. “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I who keep its pillars steady” says God in Ps. 75:3. One cannot escape that the ancient people thought of the world like a building, with a dome over top and pillars below (cf. Ps. 104:5). For all their talk about reading the Bible plainly, creationist ironically read these passages as figurative.
Creation is a Building?
Expanding the last point, the sun and moon are described as embedded in this dome like lamps in a ceiling, “lights in the dome…God set them in the dome of the sky” (Gen. 1:1, 17). Experientially, we can look up and see that the sun and moon appear to be in front of the blue of the sky and it is no surprise that the ancient people literally thought this. They thought that the sun and moon were embedded in the dome of the sky, like lamps in a ceiling.
Instead of the earth moving around the sun, the ancient people saw the earth as a flat immovable building. Earth is described like a flat “circle,” not a sphere (Isaiah 40:22). God in Psalm 104:5 “set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Job 9:6 says God “shakes the earth…its pillars tremble.”
The sun and moon are described as revolving around earth’s building, not the earth around the sun. Ecclesiastes poetically describes this: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises” (Ecc. 1:8).
A creationist might respond by saying these are merely a metaphor. To which, I would say that is an ironic strategy for defending an otherwise literalistic interpretation! In other words, that’s my point! Bracketing parts of the text as metaphor to preserve reading the rest of the passage as a scientific description is a sad, self-defeating strategy. Why not be consistent and read the whole description as pre-modern poetic description? That makes more sense.
The fifth day mentions the creation of the great “sea monsters” (v. 21). This is often glossed as something less offensive to our modern ears, reading something like “sea creatures.” However the word in Hebrew is tannim, which literally means “dragons” or “monsters.” The Bible was written in a time when people assumed these things existed. For instance the Book of Job reports the Leviathan and Behemoth as massive mythological forces of evil and chaos, but assumes they are real: “as I made you [Job] I made it [Behemoth]” (Job 40: 15). Isaiah 27:1 refers to Leviathan as the “dragon of the Sea.” Psalm 74:14 mentions that Leviathan has many heads like a hydra. Creationists have tried to say that these refer to the dinosaurs before the flood. Dinosaurs certainly do resemble dragons, but these passages refer to these beasts as presently existing at the time of writing, well after the time that the flood supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs.
The Bible also mentions creatures like Rahab (Job 9:13; also called Lilith, cf. Isa. 34:13), not to be confused by the prostitute that helped the spies in Canaan. Rahab is described as a dragon-like enemy of God that God defeats: “Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?” (Isa. 51:9). Rabbinic commentators describe her as a vampire-like woman. Job 26:12 describes God striker her down like he rebukes the Sea, the Sea (capital “S”) being a symbol for cosmic forces of chaos and nothingness in Job. Similarly, Psalm 89:9-10 refers to God conquering the chaos of the Sea, slaying Rahab and the enemies of God, Rahab being a kind of symbol for chaos and evil.
Why does the Bible include this stuff? It is because the ancient people thought they were real and the Bible is trying to comfort them by entering their cultural standpoint, assuring that God is more powerful than any evil they can imagine. What is more comforting? If the Bible said, “Those things don’t exist, silly” or “Whatever evil you can imagine, God is greater than that.” The Bible tends to choose the later strategy.
Different Creation Order from Genesis Two?
Notice in comparison to Genesis two that Genesis one reports the order and events of creation differently. Thus, if they are read as strictly historical accounts rather than literary-theological accounts, they are contradictory. It seems like Israel has two creation accounts that were quite different that the writer of Genesis knowingly put next to each other because both story’s teachings are true. They are both inspired stories. First, while in chapter one creation occurred in a week-long process, in chapter two it is in a day: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (2:4). Now, “in the day” can mean a period of time, but in this context it does not seem to. This refers to Genesis two, where, as we will see, a new creation story is being presented, which does not use a creation week. Its events are presented undifferentiated by days. Thus, it seems that “day” could mean a week-long period, there are no creation days in Genesis two for it to correspond to.
Second, there is a different creation mode. Genesis one creates by divine word alone. Genesis two uses the imagery of a fountain (perhaps the river of life alluded to Rev. 22:1-2) springing forth and covering the earth (decidedly different from water being the beginning substance that is pushed back in chapter one). From there, God “formed out the ground” man, plants, animals, and birds. Chapter two describes creation not by word instantaneously but like a potter forming clay, then breathing life into it. In Genesis one God is a poet; in Genesis two, God is an artisan.
Third, there is a different order to the two creation stories. In chapter one, the order of creation goes birds and fish on day five, then on day six animals first and then male and female created simultaneously that same day. Day five: birds fish; day six: animals then humans, male and female. In chapter two the order goes as follows: the man, then vegetation comes up (v. 9 – where it is already made in the first account), then animals and birds are formed (v. 19), then the woman from Adam’s rib. It is an often neglected detail that in the second creation account God creates the man first, and it is only after he states that it is not good for the man to be alone that he then creates animals and birds, who are not suited for him, and only after that realization, the woman is formed.
Verse 19 sees the creation of every animal as a consequent act to realize Adam is alone: “So then out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air…” Creationists inject alternative meanings to say that God had already made the animals and birds, but the passage describes a subsequent and consecutive event. In fact, it is similar to most verses in this chapter that begins with what is called a waw consecutive (the Hebrew word for “and then”), which is the engine of Hebrew narrative (literally every sentence in a narrative will begin with a waw, “and then,” but most translations edit them out).
Again, if you read them as historical accounts, you force the passages to contradict themselves. If you try to use the passage to support creationism, you are glossing over a lot of details to make it work. If you read them like they intend to be read, as theological narratives, something closer to a parable, then you will have no problem seeing these different orders as incidental to the enduring theological truth of the passage.
What should we do with this? Is Genesis a Myth?
Is Genesis a myth or is it history? The Bible never uses the term myth to describes its contents. In fact 2 Peter 1:16 is quite condemning of the category. So, many are troubled to hear that the creation myths around and before Israel had similarities to Genesis one. In Genesis chapter one, we see what can best be described as an “inspired story” or a “counter-myth.” This is a story that resembles myths that proceeded it, told using the form of story that ancient people used to explain their world, but uses that medium to present truth that counters pagan ways of thinking about God.
Is it purely fictional then? Didn’t ancient Israelites think it was factually true? Creationists are right to think that the writer of Genesis one probably did think the universe was created in six 24 hour periods 6000 years ago. However, it assumes the geo-centric cosmology of culture as well. The text does assume a cultural history that the ancient people assumed, but is crafted through the covenant relationship with God to present us with redemptive truths that speak beyond the ancient assumptions.
The idea that Genesis one has pre-modern qualities or assumes a history that we do not hold to today, does not disprove its enduring theological worth. Far from, it shows its incarnational beauty. God worked from within the ancient culture. We as responsible interpreters need to be discerning about what is cultural and what is timeless. We do this by discerning the context of the text in its historical context and as it has been reflected upon by Christians for 2000 years.
Are we condemned to disbelief about God as a creator, creating the world out of nothing because of these prescientific descriptions? No. It should be no scandal that God used people where they were at to communicate his Word. The notion that God was trying to teach physics and astronomy to a pre-scientific people implies that that Bible is true because it is a science text book and not a book about a God that comes into our world. In fact, people who want to read the Bible as offering a culture-less statement of timeless principles often have a very docetic view: a Word from God without human flesh. It makes way more sense that, just as Jesus stepped into human (Jewish!) flesh, God stepped into a world that thought in terms of story to offer redemptive truth using the media of the culture. Just as Jesus assumes that the mustard seed is the smallest seed (which was the ancient assumption) to teach as about the power of faith, so also Genesis assumes a geocentric universe to communicate God. The meaning of faith is not damaged by the mustard seed not actually being the smallest seed nor is creation disproved by astronomy. So, the fact that God used ancient means of communicating theology should not bother us. In fact, it is a comfort: God uses imperfect authors to write his perfect Word just as he uses us imperfect people to be his Body. He uses our cultural thoughts to communicate his perfect thoughts.
This passage is offered in the form or medium of a nonscientific counter-myth or origin story (which is how the ancient people thought), yet its enduring message or substance is that God is creator and nothing else is, the creation is good, life-giving ordered, and beautiful, and humans are made in God’s image, designed to inherent dignity and to find themselves in his love, etc.
What we have to keep in mind is that God has communicated something enduring in something culturally-bound. This is called the form/substance distinction that Baptist interpreters (such as E. Y. Mullins and Walter Connor) have suggested for over a century. Does the Bible assume a hard domed universe? Yes. Does it assume a 6000 year old cosmos? Yes. Does it assume a geo-centric universe? Yes. Does it assume the existence of dragons? Yes. Does the Bible implore us to believe these things now in order to believe God is a creator? No. Those things are incidental.
We might also call this the medium/message distinction. The form or medium of this passage is prescientific counter-myth, an event of creation that is dated somewhere around 4004 B.C. involving a domed universe and all that, which are details that the ancient people assumed to be true. However, the substance or enduring message of the text is more than that. It is teaching the following:
- God is creator of all that exists, creates out of nothing, and therefore, is greater than all the forces of chaos in our world.
- God is beyond creation, and so, nothing in creation is to be treated as god, and therefore, humans ought not to be enslaved to the worship of finite things.
- Creation is made by divine decree, and therefore is ordered, good and life-giving.
- Creation is designed for peace, worship and Sabbath.
- All humans, not just kings, high priests, or warlords but all people, male and female, rich and poor, are made in God’s image, deserving the dignity and rights God’s children deserve.
- All humans are designed to act like God, emulating his “likeness” of goodness and love.
- People have a responsibility to be stewards of the environment, not to destroy it or waste the precious gift we have been given, but to care for it.
- Reading Scripture through the entire canon, we know that Genesis one is true because it points to Christ. Christ is the logos of God, bringing creation into being (John 1). Christ is the truth of creation, and the truth of creation points forward not backward: Christ is the light shining in the darkness and is ushering a new creation in our midst. The power of Genesis one has not merely happened but is happening as we look to the transformation that Gospel is enacting.
All of that is still true and simply does not depend on whether a creation event happened six thousand years ago.
There are, of course, more truths in the text, and these can be discerned with wisdom, in the community of the faithful, gathered to listen to how the Spirit will use the Scriptures to speak to us.
You can hold to evolution and that universe is billions of years old and that Genesis is God’s Word. Why? For the same reason we trust the Gospel today: God has meet us where we are at.
The Gospel is good news for women. Scripture opens up liberty for all people, particularly women, and particularly with a liberty to follow God’s calling in the world. The church is to be the site where women are most heard and most valued, and thus should also be given opportunity to lead, not being held back. Here we will go through all the women leaders of the Bible. The amount may surprise you.
Often those that would restrict the Spirit will cite a handful of proof texts in the New Testament as universal commands and patterns for gender in the church, rather than situation-specific commands to promote order in disorderly churches. As we go through all these examples, we begin to see an inductive necessity for seeing those proof texts as contextual. The narrative of Scripture simply does not conform to rigid gender patterns.
Judges 4:4: Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was judge over Israel at this time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.
Notice a few things: Debroah is a prophet, a true prophet. You can only become a prophet if God picks you. A prophet is someone, if they are authentic, who communicates messages from God to the people. This might be something more intuitive like how a pastor can preach prophetically from God’s Word yet has not heard the direct audible voice of God. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in many ways a contemporary prophet in that regard. However in its most common form in the Old Testament, a prophet hears directly from God. Jeremiah describes hearing God and penning what he heard (Jer. 36:2). While authentic prophecy has to be discerned by God’s people (1 Cor. 14:26-33), a prophet is the highest religious authority for God’s people, higher than elders, higher than priests, higher than the king. As we will see, there were a lot of female prophets.
Deborah was a judge. She held court over all Israel. She was a judicial-political figure over all of Israel, all the people of God, and they were okay with that. What is even more interesting about that is that the qualifications of judges, given in Exodus 18, states that judges must be “men who fear God.” Apparently God and God’s people saw the description of “men” to be generic and inclusive. They did not have a problem with a women leading God’s people, provided she had the calling and ability. It was less common, yes, but it was not forbidden, even in a patriarchal culture. Fast forward to the New Testament and we see something analogous: in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 an overseer or bishop is described as a being male, using only masculine pronouns. These function as the New Testament equivalent of judges for the community. So, if the qualifications of judges in the Old Testament uses male pronouns as does the New Testament office, yet in the Old Testament there is a judge installed that is female and this is permissible, it stands to reason that the male description in the New Testament is inclusive also. The Bible, in its culture, had not problem saying a woman is the right “man” for the job.
Deborah was also a military leader. This story in Judges continues on to describe how an evil warlord Sisera attacks Israel. Barak, a male judge, refuses to fight Sisera unless Deborah comes with him. While he places a lot of confidence in her, Barak is also being a big coward. Deborah agrees to come and fight (despite war not being a female gender role of the time) and she prophetically declares that God will use a woman to shame and defeat Sisera. While Deborah commands the army and defeats Sisera, Sisera runs and hides in a tent where a woman named Jael kills him by stabbing him with a tent peg while he was sleeping, which is a very humiliating way to die. The story of Deborah shows that God can choose women to lead God’s people in all areas (military, religious, and government) and in fact, God chooses women to shame the brutality of some men. After all, he chooses the (supposedly) weak to shame the (supposedly) strong (1 Cor. 1:27).
II Kings 22: 14-20 (cf. II Chr. 34: 22-28): Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter. She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’ So they took her answer back to the king.
While there is other accounts of women prophets such as Miriam (Ex. 15:20-21), Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), or Anna (Luke 2:36), these are mentioned in passing. Huldah provides an interesting case. Here Josiah, a good king, discovers the Book of the Law, forgotten in the temple. He sends his officials to Huldah to see if this will prevent the immanent judgment of God against Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:1-13). They go to Huldah, while Huldah comforts Josiah (she says the judgment will not occur during his life) she also blasts him, rather irreverently: “Tell that man who sent you this…” Why so feisty? Rabbinical commentators point out that Jeremiah was around prophesying coming judgment, it would have made more sense to talk to him. However, the king is going to a female prophet, perhaps to push or manipulate her into saying something for his benefit. Huldah has none of it, and she definitely takes him down a notch.
So notice what is going on here: This indicates that a women, by her religious calling, has more authority than God’s anointed king. King Josiah goes to her to get approval, and Huldah rebukes him. Huldah was a sharp, feisty, and formidable prophet of God.
This is what the empowering Word of God does.
Now, onto the New Testament…
Acts 21:8-9: On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.
The Book of Acts begins with Peter excited that a new age is here, prophesied by Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your son and daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17 cf. Joel 2:28). As evidence of this, mentioned in passing, Acts records an evangelist named Philip, who has four daughters who prophesy. Again, while true prophesy had to be discerned, prophets were the highest religious authority in the church next to the apostles, but above teachers: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…” (1 Cor. 12:29, cf. Eph. 2:20; 4:11).
This is important. Prophets are listed by Paul as higher ranking than teachers. Yet, in 1 Tim. 2, he bars women from teaching, and in 1 Cor. 14, the interpolation there prevents women from speaking (probably during a very specific time in service). This should be a red flag notifying us that 1 Tim. 2 and 1 Cor. 14 are situational, not universal. Prophets were teachers and they taught in the assembly. Moses gave the law as a prophet and teacher, the two being one and the same. You cannot prophecy without teaching, but you can teach without prophesy. Prophesy is similar but superior.
Prophesy was done in the church by women. How do we know? Look at the context of one of the most infamous “headship” passages, 1 Cor. 11, which actually insists on head coverings to show authority when women prophesy. The head covering seems to be a cultural expression that Paul is using to maintain some sense of decorum, as indicated by the often mistranslated statement at the end: if anyone is contentious on this “it is only a custom” v. 16). But make no mistake: whatever one’s view of the male-female relationship and the coverings of 1 Cor. 11, this passage shows that the covering actually shows the authority of a woman (not the submission!) when she prophecies in a church (v. 10)! All things considered, there is no reason why a woman cannot give the sermon on a Sunday. Preaching is not a action restricted to an office. It is the gift of the Spirit.
Philip’s daughters may have been his back-up preaching team in his evangelistic work. Whatever this means, you know that guy was a proud parent. The text makes a point of saying that they are unmarried, which means they very likely are young women also. Perhaps this was Luke’s (the author of Acts) way of saying “and fellas, they are single,” or it reiterates that these women were good at what they did, despite their youth. They were not discriminated against because of their gender, demeaned as too delicate for ministry.
Priscilla with her Husband, Aquila
Acts 18: 24-26: Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.
Aquila was a Jewish Christian and exile from Italy (Acts 18:1-2). He and his wife are mentioned several times (Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). This indicates that this couple got around, and they did a lot of work for the Gospel. They were very likely traveling apostles. Here in Acts 18, we see this husband and wife team instructing a gifted teacher named Apollos, who apparently was discipled under John, knew Jesus, but was missing a few things. At any rate, the text makes a point that both Aquila and Priscilla took aside him and taught him. This should not be assumed to be just a quick chat, but rather hours of reasoning through Scriptures. It also should not be assumed that Priscilla sat there quietly leaving the men to talk. The text makes a point that both of them taught Apollos seemingly as equals.
1 Cor. 1:11: For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.
This is an implicit example, but strongly suggestive nevertheless. Who is Chloe? Some want to write her off as just a concerned congregant, and she may be. However, Chloe has people under her. They report to her, and in turn, she has sent these people to report to Paul, regarding the spiritual affairs of the church of Corinth. She is apparently well known to the church as she needs no introduction like “Chloe, the wife of [someone more important that you know].” So we know that she is well known to the church, has people under her, and reports to Paul regarding the religious matters of the church. This sounds like a pastor or even a bishop/overseer of sorts.
Colossians 4:15: Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
The early church had not formal buildings to meet in. So, often people would meet in homes. It was the norm that the person that owed the house usually was the leader of that house church. This is similar to small groups and house churches today. Thus, Nympha very likely was a sort of house church pastor.
Romans 16: 1: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Some translations will say, “Phoebe, a servant of the church of…” in the sense of a beloved volunteer. That is possible, but unlikely. The word “deacon” is male, and just as Huldah and Deborah were described as “prophets” not “prophetesses,” the use of the male word was done to imply title and authority. Also, Paul uses the word “deacon” to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25), which may indicate the importance of Phoebe’s work. The fact that she is of another church coming here also speaks to her having representative authority. She has been called in as a specialist to help the church in Rome.
Paul tells the church to “give her any help she may need from you” which means he is giving her authority that the church needs to follow. Paul offers a reason why and it is because she has been the “benefactor of many.” Notice something that is often missed: “benefactor” is a bad translation. The Greek word is prostatis. The prostatis may have been a title used in the early church for those who lead worship and communion in a church service, or a general position of leadership in the church. In fact, the verb form of prostatis, proistēmi, is used to describe the act of church leadership (Rom 12:8; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17) and household management (1 Tim 3:4, 5, 12), most notably used to describe the gift of leadership in Romans. 12:8, the home context where Phoebe is mentioned: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” So, Paul states something like this, “Listen to Phoebe, she has lead ministry for many, including me. She good at what she does. Do what she tells you to do.”
Romans 16:7: Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
I have seen a lot of prejudiced translations intentionally mistranslate this passage to downplay Junia. For instance some translations say, “Junias… famous to the apostles.” However, there a lots of reasons why that translation does not work. First the oldest manuscripts we have say “Junia.” The manuscript that renders this word “Junias” has been demonstrated to be flawed. As scholars looked at the rest of the manuscript, it shows that it accidentally records several other female names as male. However, the biggest problem with this is that “Junias” is not a name in the Greco-Roman world. The root word for “Junia” means something feminine, so there are no known male versions known in the Roman world to corroborate and warrant it being translated as a male name.
Also, the translation “famous to the apostles” is grammatically less sound than “among.” “Among” in this case is usually used to indicate that something is apart of something, like saying, “This hockey player is respected among his or her team mates.” Practically speaking, mentioning that Junia is merely famous to other apostles other than Paul does not rhetorically make much sense. Why would Paul bother pointing out how famous two people are among other apostles other than himself? It does not make much sense. It makes more sense that he is speaking of them as excellent apostles.
Others have tried to render them as famous “messengers” (which is what “apostle” meant in Greek), however, Paul seems to reserve the word for a person who has similar authority and role to himself (although not as important as the 12 Apostles). Junia is not the first century version of a FedEx girl. For Paul, apostles, when mentioned, are never messengers, as seen in the case of Epaphroditus in Phil. 2:25: “I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus – my brother, co-worker, fellow soldier, your messenger/apostle and minister to my need.” Paul says Junia and Andronicus both endured prison with him. This means they – both of them – were doing similar work to him. So, the more likely translation is that these two people – probably an apostolic couple like Aquila and his wife, Priscilla – were prominent among the apostles, who are their colleagues. Junia, as far as we can infer then, was an apostle, having authority to proclaim the gospel, teach disciples, start churches, etc., all for which she was imprisoned, and so, apparently she was outstanding at what she did.
Euodia and Syntyche
Phil. 4:2-3: I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Euodia and Syntyche are apparently having an argument and Paul wants them to resolve their differences for the sake of church ministry. They are described as Paul’s “co-workers,” at his “side” (connoting equality). Paul refers to Epaphroditus as a fellow “co-worker,” and he is also described as an “apostle” (Phil. 2:25). “Co-worker” is a description Paul uses to describe his fellow apostles often: Timothy (1 Thes. 3:2), Titus (2 Cor. 8:23), Justus (Col. 4:11), Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3), Urbanus (Rom. 16:9), and in general (cf. 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1). Euodia and Synteche are listed here along with a man named Clement for the “cause of the Gospel.” We know that Clement may have been the same Clement that went on to become overseer of the church in Rome, so these women are being described as being among an important group: the apostles.
Many people cite, for example, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as a command that limits women in the church today: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” They take this to be a unilateral teaching that Paul applied in all his churches, representing the universal position for the church today. However, a good question to ask is why are these particular women in Ephesus so forcefully being barred from teaching? There are good reasons for that. We should also ask whether this lines up with what we see elsewhere in Scripture. Paul obviously would have been aware of Deborah and her position. When we see many other instances where women did in fact exercise high degrees of authority in the biblical narrative, we should do the work of good interpretation and consider that contextual factors might be in play in what Paul teaches. What Paul did to establish order in the church that Timothy oversaw might not be suitable today to further the ministry of the gospel.
While much good can be said about traditional gender roles, marriages, families, etc., my sense of the matter is that we cannot turn gender roles into gender limits, much less gender stereotypes. While we must respect our differences as men and women, these are to be done within the framework of equal worth, equal opportunity, equal distribution of work, all in order to love each other better and to follow God’s calling for each of our lives.
So, does the Bible have women leaders in it? Yep. It explicitly has apostles, judges, prophets, deacons, and while not mentioned by title, it also has teachers, pastors, and possibly, bishops. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17), and as Peter describes it in Acts, this is evidence that a new age is dawning, where the Spirit is being poured out on “all flesh” (cf. Joel 2:28), where the curse of patriarchy upon the daughters of Eve is being lifted (Gen. 3:16), where a new age of equality is here in which there is no longer “Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).