The Great Physician is Ready to Help

Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you. All your allies have forgotten you; they care nothing for you …your guilt is so great and your sins so many … But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds, declares the Lord. Jeremiah 30:12-14,17

Before we hear the good news we must face the bad news. In this passage from Jeremiah, Israel is plainly told that even though her wound is fatal and that every accusation against her is justified, the Lord is going to bring restoration and health.

It has been a little over five years ago that a woman in Connecticut was viciously attacked by an enraged chimpanzee, leaving her bloodied, blind, and disfigured. Her story and the horrendous injuries she suffered shocked the nation.  Images of her ordeal still startle us. She was beyond hope but was rushed to the hospital and a 20 hour surgical marathon was performed by a remarkable  team of more than 30 doctors and nurses to give her a new face and a chance to live.

The horrifying truth about sin is that I am morally disfigured by it, and there is no hope for me. Our wounds are startling. But God has now undertaken to do what seems impossible, to make me whole again. Even now, if you could capture the condition of my soul on a photo, it probably would not impress you. But if you knew how really bad the wound of sin was, how awful the injuries of iniquity were, you would be amazed that I am even alive.

Paul describes our injured state in Titus 3:3-5, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another but when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.”

Whatever your injuries are, there is healing for you through Christ, our Great Physician. The church of Jesus Christ is ready for you. A remarkable team is waiting to care for you. They, too, know how ugly sin can be but have found healing in Christ’s forgiveness. If sin has injured you this week, rush yourself to Him, rush yourself into the nearest hospital of the saints so that you can get the gospel of Jesus Christ for your wounds, and the joy of the Holy Spirit in your heart. I praise God for His gospel and His church, a hospital for the saints, recovering sinners who are being made whole again through the grace of Jesus Christ!

 

 

 

How the Recognition of Privileged Texts in the Nineteenth-century Debate over the Bible and American Slavery Caused Me to Reconsider My View of Women’s Ordination.

The purpose of this revised article is to  explain to my friends, colleagues, and anyone else interested, why I left a denomination that does not permit the ordination of women and joined one that does. There is much more to say about the ordination of women than what follows, but this is a start. I began this awhile back as a series of short articles, but the flow was interrupted by a call to a new job in California and a cross-country move. I would now like to resume what I started, restating and completing what I began.

Background

My research on the Bible and the slavery controversy in the nineteenth-century was the major catalyst in my change of views regarding the role of women in church leadership.

My interest in the Bible and the American slavery controversy began in 1998, while I was the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Eugene, Oregon. A booklet circulating in the church and throughout other congregations in the Pacific Northwest had created a stir. Southern Slavery As It Was, published by Canon Press in 1996 was authored by two ministers, one of them a member of my own denomination at the time. At the time I was predisposed to believe that my own evangelical and Reformed view of the Bible was consistent with an antislavery position.  I came to realize that my training in hermeneutics  -acquired in my theologically conservative seminary training and applied for over fifteen years of preaching -did not lead to antislavery conclusions. The study of the biblical debate over American Slavery in the nineteenth century unsettled me. Proslavery evangelicals seemed to read and interpret the Bible using the same grammatical and historical tools I was taught to use.

Privileged Texts

In addition to their interpretation of New Testament texts, proslavery writers also found divine approval of slavery in the ancient stories of the patriarchs. No other text enjoyed more widespread appeal than Noah’s curse on Canaan (Genesis 9.25-26). Without going into a lot of detail, in the nineteenth century, Africans were assumed by most people to be Canaan’s descendants, and so the Genesis text was used to justify their enslavement. 

Many Americans during the nineteenth century, found in Genesis 9 the divine account of slavery’s origin and a warrant for all generations, prompting Theodore Dwight Weld’s famous comment that “this prophecy of Noah is the vade mecum of slaveholders, and they never venture abroad without it (Theodore Dwight Weld, The Bible Against Slavery, 46).” Vade mecum is Latin for “go with me,” used to describe a reference book or handbook that is carried at all times. Noah’s curse was an indispensable and privileged text that was kept close at hand in the proslavery argument.

My understanding of privileged texts was an “aha” moment for me with respect to women’s ordination. I began to see that arguments regarding the issue of women’s ordination did not simply reflect different interpretations of texts, but also involved valuing some texts over others. Some texts were deemed more important than others.

Exodus Text

Antislavery writers also drew from the Old Testament.  Eli Washington Caruthers – of particular interest to me as the subject of my dissertation- elevates Exodus 10.3 – Let my people go that they may serve me – giving it a kind of privileged status over all of the texts in the Bible that spoke about slavery. For Caruthers and other antislavery writers, the Exodus text was the most important text about slavery because God’s intervention in the history of the Hebrew people demonstrated divine disapproval of slavery and support for the abolition of slavery in all times and places.

How Does a Text Become or Remain  “Privileged”?

1. It Provides Clarity

For traditional Protestants who believe in the authority of Scripture as expressed by Paul in 2 Timothy 3.16-17, all Scripture is important: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness that the man of God may be fully equipped for every good work. Many questions of interpretation may be resolved when texts that are more clear help us interpret the less clear. As the Westminster Confession of Faith notes, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture … it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly (1.9). Beyond this general principle of interpretation established in the confession, my “discovery” was that there are usually texts in the course of debate that are championed by opposing sides, and which bring a singular clarity to the issue at hand for those who are dependent upon them.

2. It Possesses Continuing Relevance and Theological Application

But how do we know who is correct in arguments that are dependent upon privileged texts? What I have learned from the Bible and the American slavery debate is that a text so employed continues to demonstrate its importance and viability. If it does not, its privileged status and any arguments associated with it, are diminished.

In the case of Genesis 9 and the curse of Noah, the nineteenth century proslavery arguments elevating, and dependent upon it, could not be sustained. Significantly, their understanding of the text has generated no significant or meaningful theological posterity. The commitment of proslavery forces to the Genesis 9 text was a theological dead end for them and for the usefulness of the text. But, as I argue in my dissertation, the belief of Eli Caruthers and other antislavery writers in the supremacy of the Exodus text has been demonstrably borne out by the current theological literature. Who, today, can doubt the primacy of the Exodus text and the exodus story in the theology of Paul? Studies in Exodus continue to reveal its importance as it generates insights for the the issue of slavery, as well as our reading of other New Testament literature (e.g. Sylvia Keesmaat Paul and His Story: (Re)Interpreting the Exodus Tradition; John Byron Recent Research on Paul and Slavery; Richard Hays Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul).

Privileged Texts and the Ordination of Women

My research on the Bible and slavery led me to suspect that the controversy surrounding women’s ordination, like the American slavery debate, involved certain privileged texts, texts which are appealed to as especially clear or instructive on the issue at hand. In the debate surrounding the ordination of women, one text is especially privileged: 1 Timothy 2.11-12.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.1Timothy 2.11-12

The singular importance of this text for arguments against the ordination of women to pastoral ministry cannot be overstated. Douglas Moo’s comment that this text is “[o]ne important reason” for “certain permanent restrictions on the ministry of women” is surely an understatement (“What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? 1 Timothy 2:11-15”  Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper, Wayne Grudem, 179). Arguably, no other biblical text is cited as much nor could arguments against women holding office in the church be sustained with such certainty were it not for 1 Timothy 2.  To get a sense of the weight it carries, one need only turn to the biblical citation index of their favorite book on this issue to see the multiple times the text is cited. But should it be so privileged?

My purpose here is not to provide another exegetical treatment of 1Tim.2. What the words and grammar mean is very important, but many others, like Moo, have done this and, in addition to expressing their own views, they have interacted with and critiqued alternative interpretations along the way. The literature is readily available. For these reasons, instead of a full-blown investigation of the passage, I will limit my remarks to an observation about the larger context of this text and the important concessions that have already taken place among those who hold to what is often described as the “traditional view.”

First of all, I think the application of the passage is bound by the unique problems of Ephesus during Paul’s era. The larger setting of the text in 1Timothy 2 commands specific behavior that is culturally limited. Paul’s commands for men “to lift up holy hands in prayer (v.8)” and for women to not wear “gold or pearls or expensive clothes (v.9),” are limited to the cultural context or situation. For this reason, I think it is best to understand the entire passage of 8-15 as addressing particular circumstances, therefore not to be universally applied.

Secondly, if someone does want to assert that 1Timothy 2.11-12 is what Paul believed was applicable to all women of every place and era, one has to reconcile such a view with other things he teaches regarding women. Some of what he writes, at the very least, would seem to allow for the development of doctrine regarding women that would contradict a traditional view of 1Timothy 2. Arguably, as such texts continued to be considered and studied, they will demonstrate their viability and prove in the future to deserve greater privilege in the debate (e.g., Romans 16.3,7; Galatians 3.26-28; 1Cor.11.5).

Finally, I would like to point out two important  and recent concessions or revisions  in the traditional view of the text which, in my opinion, seriously undermine its privileged status in the debate. I believe these revisions are fatal to the traditional view in the future of Christianity.

The first concession regards the numerous exceptions, allowances, special circumstances, etc., that are now practiced by evangelicals nearly everywhere but which are plainly contrary to the traditional view of the text. A typical evangelical interpretation of these verses usually involves a thorough explanation of the words and grammar. But once this is accomplished a more nuanced interpretation or application is usually recommended, one that is not so hard-lined as the traditional view of the text sounds. Fortunately, these more nuanced interpretations are friendlier to evangelicals like Elisabeth Elliot and others, allowing for a host of exceptions and circumstances and possibilities for women to teach and/or exercise authority. But these nuanced readings leave us with a very different impression than the Apostle’s words originally conveyed in the traditional view. Women cannot teach men in the church, but an occasional lecture might be okay, or maybe on the mission field, or perhaps if they are not elevated at a podium in front of the congregation but instead behind a lectern in the fellowship hall, etc. Those holding to the traditional view probably know that such allowances mark a significant departure from evangelicals of the nineteenth century or even those of just a mere twenty-five or thirty years ago.

Certainly the church fathers- from whom we have largely acquired the traditional view of 1Timothy2 – would never have allowed such concessions as we have today. For the most part, they believed in the inferiority of women and upheld an interpretation of the text that was not so accommodating. John Chrysostom spoke for many when he asserted that women, collectively, were weak and fickle and that the Apostle Paul in this verse and others like it wanted men to have preeminence in every way over women. Augustine’s comment on Genesis 2 was typical of the church fathers: he couldn’t really think of any reason for the creation of woman as man’s helper, except, perhaps, for procreation. Traditionalists today hold to a view that is a only a shadow of what the traditional view once was.

The other revision or concession which practically goes unnoticed in the traditional view is the narrowing of the text’s application to the church. Evangelicals who hold to the traditional view often point out that it is only in the church that women must be restricted and not have authority over men. Most evangelicals today who hold to the traditional view believe that outside of the church, in other situations or spheres of life, a woman may have authority over a man. As you might deduce from the statements above by Chrysostom and Augustine, that isn’t what the traditional view used to mean! It is important to understand that the church fathers, like many evangelicals today, believed that the text was founded upon a principle of creation. In their thinking and those who follow their logic, the basis of a woman not having authority over a man is founded upon the order of creation as they believe it is being explained in the text. Adam came first the text says, then Eve, etc.

Here is the problem with this argument from creation and the concession or allowance that is being made nowadays: Let’s assume a universal restriction on women having authority over men is being asserted by Paul in the text. Let’s also assume that the basis of his restriction is a principle he believes is drawn from the order of creation. If these things are true then what is the reasoning that allows us to limit the restriction to the church? If it is wrong in principle for a woman to have authority over a man, how can there be allowance for ignoring such an important principle in our larger society? If the principle is from creation, then isn’t it valid, by extension, for all of society?  If Paul is establishing a role relationship for the church, isn’t that role relationship valid for all institutions and circumstances? Shouldn’t those who believe a principle of creation limits women in the church, be concerned about a woman sitting on the Supreme Court and exercising authority over men?   I cannot think of another example of Christian teaching that we understand as rooted in creation but think is only applicable to the church and not all of society.  But evangelicals have redrawn the interpretive line in the sand to allow for their daughters to have successful careers as executives, jurists, and professors, but not as ministers or teachers in the church.

For those who have privileged 1Timothy 2.11-12, the text has universal meaning for the church and women for all time. Rather than understanding verses 11-12 of the passage as situationally and culturally limited – as nearly everything else the Apostle says throughout the chapter is usually understood – this text has been singularly exalted to a position of universal application for all times and places. Just as Noah’s curse on Canaan in Genesis 9.25 functioned for American slavery, so 1Timothy 2.11-12 is the vade mecum for the argument against women’s ordination. It is the indispensable text.  Nowadays, of course, no one would allow for Noah’s curse on Canaan to be a justification for the enslavement of a race. We can be glad that in the case of the slavery controversy, other texts began to rise in importance that seemed to resonate more with God’s redemptive plan and thus the status of Genesis 9.25 diminished over the years.  I envision a similar fate for the privileged status of 1 Timothy 2.11-12 in the debate over the role of women in the church.

Big News !

I am a little behind these days with my postings, and I’ll probably continue to be behind for awhile. Some great news has come our way that has set off a flurry of activity. Exactly two weeks ago, I received a phone call that I had been hoping and praying would come. Early in June, my wife and I had gone to Los Angeles to interview for a pastoral position in a wonderful and vibrant church. The phone call was from a representative of the congregation’s committee letting me know they wanted us. We are praising God for the opportunity to join with his people in Los Angeles in the service of our Savior! The house is littered with boxes and wrapping paper. Just yesterday we received news that our application for a rental house has gone through. We have a list with a thousand things to do before we can head out of North Carolina for California, but we are trusting in the Lord’s care for all of it. We just need to get packed and go!

Imitators of God!

Be imitators of God as dear children, and walk in love, as Christ also has loved us… Ephesians 5.1-2

When I was just a little boy, my friends and I thought it would be fun to try to fly like Superman. We chose a nearby clay pit – a huge commercial digging site – for our attempt. The pit was about the size of a football field and roughly twenty to thirty feet deep. We took turns jumping off a ridge, yelling, a few feet from the bottom with our arms in front of us, and usually landing on all fours in the bull dozed clay. We did this a few times, climbing a little higher each time, Finally we had jumped off from the last available ridge in the cliff’s side and only the top of the pit was left. It was way up there. There was a discussion about who was going to try it. Somehow through the skillful negotiations that I was frequently involved in as a young boy, but for which I had not yet acquired much skill, my friends convinced me that I was the one who should go, and up to the top I went. Safely at the bottom, they shouted and coaxed me forward. I yelled and jumped and landed hard face down. I rolled over and I couldn’t breath because the breath had been knocked out of me, there was nothing I could do until I was able to breathe again. Finally, when I could breathe again, I was able to get up and laugh about it.

In this verse the Apostle Paul refers to us as “dearly loved children” dependent on the breath of God’s Spirit given to us in our Christian birth – that new and spiritual and second birth – without his Spirit we can do nothing of what he calls us to do. We know from the Genesis account of Adam and Eve that at the beginning of history, in an act of rebellion and coaxed by the devil, all of humanity, figuratively speaking, jumped off a cliff. We can’t laugh it off. The fall left us completely and morally ruined, disfigured in sin and without a hope (Rom.5.12-21). In Ephesians 2 we are told apart from him “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” Apart from him we can only “follow the ways of the world” and are “children of wrath” ( 2:1-3). But our new birth in Christ gives us his Spirit – despite all temptation and manner of discouragement and suffering and our ongoing struggle with the reality of sin – with his Spirit we can both imitate him and creatively and joyfully live with one another in this world.

We imitate God and live this way because we are his children. And here is seen the critical and important difference between Christianity and mere morality: Morality is about being good for its own sake. Christians, however, are not called to be good simply for the sake of goodness. We are God’s children! This is about us belonging to him. Related to him. That is why we are to live this way. Notice the text, we are not just his children, we are his dear children. He loves you, you are dear to his heart. We are called to a child-like and willing assumption of Christ’s behavior and manner in this world. We are called to be imitators of God. We are in the world but without its impurity. We have been called to “walk” in love, because this is Christ’s way. The Christian faith does not call us to do something that is impossible such as flying like a bird. But we are called to walk, a means of advancing in our faith, step by step as we are taught by the Word and Spirit of God how to love and so every act of love towards one another becomes a step in the right direction.

A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 3)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

What does it mean to “perish”? Generally, the term describes destruction instead of preservation. For example, in 1Cor. 1.18-19 “perishing” is the opposite of “being saved.”In the context of John, the term also implies to be forever excluded from any relationship with God. The Jews believed their relationship with God was assured because they were Jewish, but in the verses leading up to John 3.16, Jesus tells Nicodemus no can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again and no can enter the kingdom of of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. As mentioned previously, as an important member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was familiar with the terms or concepts used by Jesus in John 3. For example, the Talmud, a central text for Rabbinic Judaism, describes a convert to Judaism as a “newborn infant (b. Yeb 22a, 62a, 48b; y. Bk 3:3 vii)”The Talmud was produced later than the gospel of John, but depends on oral teaching and tradition reaching back to ancient Judaism with which Nicodemus was probably very familiar.

The importance and role of water would also be familiar to a Pharisee like Nicodemus. Earlier in John 1, the Pharisees had asked John the Baptist about his practice of baptism. The baptism of someone entering Judaism from non-Jewish society was commonplace, but the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus’ words implied that Nicodemus and the Pharisees needed real repentance and baptism for themselves. Jesus’ words make it clear that outward conformity to Jewish rituals and beliefs had no weight on the eternal scales. Eternal life could never depend on conformity to any of these things. Instead, it depended on one’s recognition of Jesus as the Son of God.

It is always good for me to be reminded that my status with God is not dependent on my outward conformity. Like Augustus Toplady says in his great hymn, “Rock of Ages”, Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling! If we are going to hold on to the cross, we must first let go of any claim we have. Only when our hands and our hearts are emptied of our own merit, only then are we able to fully grasp the salvation found in the God’s One and Only. Even though elements of John 3 might indicate that Nicodemus did not really understand, perhaps he was beginning to get it. The unpredictable and powerful Holy Spirit may have begun blowing new life into him. Later on, in the aftermath of Jesus’ death, he emerges again from the shadows to assist in helping with the Lord’s burial (John 19.39).

What does it mean to perish? It does not mean merely to die. Nor does it mean annihilation or to cease to exist. It means to experience futility and the complete loss of all that makes existence worthwhile. It is the state of existence in which humanity presently exists. We are alive in a state of existence described in the Bible as dead in our sins (Ephesians 2.1).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son give us an insight into the meaning of “perish.” Notice how the father describes his son in Luke 15.24- …this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. The term used for “lost” in the Luke passage is the same term we translate as “perish” in John 3.16. Here it is rendered “perish” because apart from believing in God’s only son, we are truly “lost” – even a son of Israel, like Nicodemus, regardless of what he thought, was lost. Like Nicodemus, apart from the grace shown to us in Christ we are lost and perishing people, a world of prodigal sons and daughters ready to satisfy the deepest hunger of our souls with the pig slop of a world far away from our Father and the feast awaiting our return.

A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 2)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish…

This passage is found near the conclusion of a larger conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that is recorded in John 3. Nicodemus comes at night and begins by complimenting Jesus – we know you are teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him (John 3.2).  Jesus ignores the praise because he understands the real intention of Nicodemus’ comment.   Nicodemus came to him speaking generally about the miracles, but hidden beneath was a personal interest in the Messianic kingdom and his own place in it.  Here was a man who was thinking deeply about himself, wondering how he, himself, might enter into God’s kingdom.  This is why Jesus replies, “ I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again … I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” As a Pharisee, Nicodemus probably understood that Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) needed to be “born again,” but it staggered his mind to think that something similar had to happen to himself, a Jew. The Jewish ceremony for a Gentile entering Judaism  proclaimed the individual “like a child born new.”  Jesus is saying in effect, Jews like yourself must realize that your pedigree and lineage are irrelevant in the sight of God. You must treat yourselves the same way you treat Gentiles who want to become Jews. You insist that they renounce their past, be circumcised and be ceremonially washed in water. But you are farther from the Kingdom of God than you think a Gentile is from Judaism. You, yourself, must be ‘born again’.”  Nicodemus wonders, Wasn’t he a child of Abraham by virtue of his Jewish mother? How could he become any more Jewish than he was through his mother? He was bewildered by Jesus’ instruction but he was beginning to understand now.

Nicodemus was a man who had a lot going for himself. He was a man of the Pharisees, a highly venerated and noble strain of Judaism who had refused to compromise their religion. It seems, though, that he was dissatisfied by what he was he was hearing about Jesus and so he resolved to look into things for himself. Perhaps his example is a useful lesson for us. When we are dissatisfied with what the world tells us about Jesus and we want to listen to him for ourselves, that is a very helpful and hopeful state of mind to be in!

A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 1)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

What must we believe? …whoever believes in him. It is not “whoever believes in whatever.” We are called to believe in the One and Only, Jesus Christ.  The One begotten by God, not some idea  “begotten” by us or made up in our minds.  The term “begotten” or “one and only” distinguishes him from anything else, any other idea, or any other creature in all of creation. He was not created by God. He was “begotten” and therefore the same in substance and being, eternally of and from the Father – “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1.3).” As a Christian, I do not simply believe that Jesus is one possibility among many, but the One and Only. God has completely and only shown us himself in Jesus Christ. To know Jesus is to actually know God.

What world did God love? God so loved the world.  He has loved this world, our world, completely,  just as it is. The term used is “kosmos.” This term is not used  in the Bible to describe the world that is to come, but this world just as it is. This is the world, as we know it and experience it, all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly – spinning around helpless and hopeless.  It is the term that describes the world estranged from its Creator in all the darkness and dreariness of sin. The use of this term to describe the world hints at the unconditional nature of God’s love. Neither the world nor we need to be changed or made presentable to solicit his love. Not only we, but the world can sing- just as I am …

Why the past tense? God so loved the world. Why does the Bible describe the love of God this way? Why not the present tense – “God loves the world”? Because not only has God completely shown us himself, but he has completely shown us his love. In 1John 4.7-11 we read, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. In Romans 8.37 Paul says of all that life and death can throw at us …in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. We should dwell on this for a moment. The point of the past tense seems to be that God has fully proven his love, and nothing remains for him to do in this regard.  There is absolutely nothing more for him to show or do with regards to the reality of his love, and so there should be no doubt about it!