No Fudges Allowed

Schoolyard justice can be harsh. Take for example the game of marbles. When shooting your marble, the rule was you keep your hand on the ground, and you only use your thumb to launch your marble. If you lift your hand, or if even if you keep your hand on the ground but use your arm to push your hand as you flick your thumb, you are “fudging” and that simply was not allowed. Justice might not be corporal, but it was certainly swift. Your opponent would call you out, and as there were always at least some spectators standing nearby, your crime would not go unnoticed. Punishment might simply be losing your turn, but in cases of repeat offenders, the possibility of excommunication from future contests was  very real.

In my last couple of posts I have challenged what is generally referred to as the “egalitarian” position regarding expanding the role of females in leadership positions in the assembled worship of the church. Some may think that I whole heartedly and unreservedly defend the “complementarian” view. They would be wrong. I wholeheartedly defend what I believe is the scriptural concept of male spiritual leadership, but what I see in many examples of “complementarianism” are nothing more than pure theological fudging. So, at the great risk of offending whatever few friends I have left, let me explain.

Let me begin by saying that much of what we have created in the form of our 21st century worship is wholly non-scriptural – not unscriptural in the sense that it rejects scriptural teaching – but it is simply not considered by Scripture. For example, there is no scriptural mandate for a single “song leader.” Not that a single song leader countermands Scripture, but you can search “book, chapter, and verse” for a long, long, time before you find one that mandates a single song leader. The manner in which we serve the emblems of the Lord’s Supper fits this category exactly, and is among the chief examples of “fudging” that I see in congregations of the Churches of Christ.

Over the course of our history we have come to view serving the Lord’s Supper as a form of male spiritual leadership. I really don’t know where that started, unless it is a faint memory of the necessity of having a priest preside over the Catholic Mass. In fact, early in the Restoration Movement it was common to have only an elder preside over the table – a clear echo of the liturgical necessity of having an ordained clergyman to administer the emblems. Never-the-less, we have traditionally considered “serving at the table” to be a male-only privilege. And this is where we have evolved ourselves into a huge problem.

Throughout my lifetime at least it has become a prima facie truth that no one is allowed to serve at the table unless that one is anatomically a male. But, not just any male, but a baptized male. That is where the requirements stopped. Be a male, be baptized, and you are good to go. The way this has played itself out in many situations is comical. I have seen 8 or 10 year olds “assume the mantle of leadership” as they struggle to carry a tray of little cups of grape juice without tripping over their oversized pants. It would be utterly facetious if we gave that same 8-10 year old any form of decision making power in the congregation, but as long as they are officially baptized, we can stick him up front to serve at the table, or say a prayer (memorized no doubt from all the stock prayers he has heard all his short life) or to “lead” singing (waiting to have someone from row 5 start the song while he stands there sweating profusely).

Same thing happens in regard to Bible classes. A woman is allowed to teach a mixed class of fourth graders, but let one little boy get baptized and “poof,” her ability to teach a “baptized male” evaporates and we have to call some hapless deacon in to finish teaching the class.

I call “fudging” in the most egregious sense!

Stated simply and without apology, those of us who proclaim to follow the text in regard to male spiritual leadership had better up our game, or else take our marbles and go home. This hypocritical practice of allowing some pre-teen child to exercise “male spiritual leadership” is just that – hypocrisy in the extreme. In this case I am in complete sympathy with young girls (and some women) who cry “fudgies” and wonder what in the world is so special about carrying a tray of grape juice.

Either participating in a visible form and function in a worship service is an aspect of male spiritual leadership, or it is not – there is no gray area or “sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.” I happen to think it is, and I have my reasons, but my main issue here is where we would NEVER give any form of actual leadership roles to a pre-teen male, and yet loudly squeal that serving at the Lord’s Table or leading a prayer or reading a Scripture is a form of “male spiritual leadership.”

If such public forms of service also qualify as “leadership,” then let us reserve those roles for genuine, adult, male leaders!

I can hear the counter argument already – “but we are training these young men to be leaders when they grow up.” No, we are not. When we say that serving at the table, or leading a song, are actual forms of leadership, there is no “training” involved. They are in fact serving as leaders. The hypocrisy comes in when we acknowledge that they are not, in reality, in any way, shape, or form, a spiritual leader. They are (even teenagers) just little boys or young men who need spiritual leadership themselves, and sometimes in copious measure.

If, as you say, serving at the table or leading a song, or saying a prayer, is only “training,” then why not allow young girls to participate as soon as they are baptized? Do girls not need to learn to pray, to lead singing, to read Scripture, to serve? If the purpose is only to “train,” then the entire argument of “male spiritual leadership” goes out the window.

There is a passage of Scripture (remember Scripture?) that is profound to me in this regard. In Luke 2:41-52 we read the story of adolescent Jesus at the temple. We all know the story, Joseph and Mary head off back home thinking that Jesus is tucked in with the cousins somewhere, but at evening roll call he is nowhere to be found. So, they return to Jerusalem, and after what must have been an increasingly anxious and exhaustive search, they find Jesus holding court at the Temple. A brief (but, I am assuming an intense) conversation ensues, and once again the entourage heads back to Nazareth. This is all so familiar to those of us who read this story frequently. But it is v. 51 that stands out as singularly important to me in respect to my thoughts above. I quote from the ESV –

And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.

Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate, Emmanuel, “God with Us” as a 12 year old boy, capable of teaching the temple leaders, was submissive to both Joseph and Mary.

Is there a place for training young men to become leaders? Absolutely. And this holds true for older men who become disciples of Christ later in life. But we do not consider males (or females, for that matter) be be mature in any sense until they demonstrate some form of ability to handle responsibilities without significant assistance – such as serving in the military, getting married, or maybe stepping out of the house and starting their own business or providing for their own upkeep and schooling. I am in no way suggesting that we do not train, or properly equip, young men and women to serve Christ as responsible adults.

Lest I be completely misunderstood, I am not saying we throw out the idea of male spiritual leadership in such aspects as serving at the table, leading singing, wording public prayers and reading Scripture. As I said above, I do believe these to be leadership roles, and I believe there is ample scriptural and theological arguments to defend such a position. In regard to serving the emblems of the Lord’s supper, I also believe there is a completely better and more scriptural manner to do so that would remove this issue entirely, but that is the topic of another long and tedious post.

What I am saying, and believe emphatically, is that male spiritual leadership should be exercised by males who are old enough, and mature enough, and who are recognized as exhibiting sound, mature, spiritual leadership. In my opinion this includes, but would not be limited to, serving at the table (which, if we limit to males we obviously view as a leadership role), leading in the song service, reading Scripture in a public assembly, or going to God in public prayer.

In the quest to ascend by climbing lower,  there is no fudging allowed.

Follow-Up to My Last Post

I received some comments on my last post, and a very good question, so I feel it important to extend my thoughts just a little more here. For the background, see my thoughts here – 1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

First, a little history. Whatever a preacher (or author, or teacher) says or writes is largely autobiographical, and it is almost impossible to untangle what is original and what is borrowed. So, my thoughts on this topic are hugely influenced by my classes with Dr. Everett Ferguson, an article on the practice of male priests covering their heads written by Dr. Richard Oster, and more generically by my understanding on how to do exegesis and thus hermeneutics.

Regarding the last point, I think it is absolutely critical that when we approach the text of Scripture that we remove ourselves as much as possible from the text. I emphasize “as much as possible” because it is impossible to completely do so (as much as Alexander Campbell would disagree.) So, in regard to the topic at hand, one profound issue I have with those who argue for no, or very little, limitations on women exercising leadership roles in the worship assembly is that invariably they insert 21st century worship wars into Paul’s letters. That is a HUGE exegetical, and ultimately, hermeneutical mistake. For us, Paul’s letters are all about me, myself, us, our, and we. We read Paul’s letters as if we are looking in a mirror, and, lo and behold, all we can see is ourselves!

Paul was addressing first century religious (and in the case of the Corinthian letters, Roman and Greek religious) practices as they impacted the first century church. That is where we have to start, and where Paul’s instructions (inspired by the Holy Spirit, no less) intersect with today’s culture, we can draw appropriate conclusions. Where that culture diverges from our culture we have to be very careful that we do not impose our culture on Paul (or Peter or James or even Jesus!) – questions and answers that they never intended.

So, with that said, let us return to 1 Corinthians 11, 14, and 1 Timothy 2 (and, just for giggles and grins, let’s add 1 Peter 3:1-6). If you read 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and remove from your interpretation any apostolic reference to 21st century worship wars, what do you see? Paul wants the Corinthians to maintain a certain set of “traditions” he handed down to them – seemingly related to authority and submission. His first (and I would argue, primary) subject is the proper decorum for men who go before God in prayer. A reader pointed out that Paul does, in fact, spend more time addressing women in these verses, and I agree. But mere volume does not equal significance. Let me illustrate with another text.

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the parable of the “prodigal son.” The overwhelming majority of the parable revolves around a younger son and the relationship with his father. The older son only gets a few verses at the end of the parable, but I would argue that the real “point” of the parable was aimed at the Pharisees, who clearly stood in the position of the unforgiving and self-righteous older son. The repentance of the younger son, and the forgiveness of the father dominate, but the unanswered question of the parable is, “are you ‘older sons’ going to welcome the repentant younger son back into fellowship?” No-one could argue with genuine repentance or parental grace – but forgiveness from one who has been faithful? Ouch.

So, if I am correct (and that is a big “if”), Paul has his sights set squarely on the men who, accustomed to praying with their heads covered with a shawl or cowl, continued to do so following their conversion to Christ. Paul nowhere addresses the where or the when of the prayer, he simply reminds them that, in the new kingdom, men do not pray with their heads covered! To Paul, that was a sign of disrespect to their authority – Christ and God. Women, on the other hand, did pray with their heads covered – not the least of which was their long hair. Once again, the when or the where was not in Paul’s mind. Paul knew women prayed – by themselves, with their children, with other women – that was proper and good. Paul may use more words in relation to the females, but he never takes his eyes off of the men. [As I mentioned above, I borrow this point from Drs. Ferguson and Oster. I wish I could direct you to the article by Dr. Oster, but my books and files are buried in a storage unit, and I simply do not have access to them.]

Now, here is where my training and experience influences my interpretation. Beginning in v. 17 (and repeated a number of times), Paul shifts his attention to the public gathering of the assembled church. There is a shift, a change of emphasis, a new focus in Paul’s eyes. Paul addresses a number of Corinthian problems – the abuse of the Lord’s supper, the confusion of multiple prophets speaking, and the use (or abuse, the question is still open in my mind) of the miraculous gift of “speaking in tongues.” At the very end of that topic, Paul gives his instruction that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” Unfortunately for us, he leaves that instruction rather bare, but it clearly is in relation to the confusion and improper decorum of the Corinthian assembly.

If 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 provided us with the only comments on the question under discussion, we might be safe to say that the question remains open, and perhaps Paul’s accommodating position in Romans 14 might be important here. But, Paul does give additional instruction regarding male and female “authority” roles in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Once again, Paul is not addressing 21st century “worship wars,” so let’s be careful lest we look into that theological mirror again. Paul’s emphasis (once again beginning with the male) is that prayers be genuine, without anger or malice. The women are to dress with proper decorum. Then, Paul specifically mentions that women are not to exercise authority over men, either in teaching or, as I said in my last post, through prayer (Paul’s immediate context). This is where I see that prayer is an authoritative speech according to the apostle. I could be wrong here – have been in the past and will be in the future, but lest I sound like a broken record, I can only do exegesis as I have been taught, not as I have not been taught.

If you have followed me so far, thank you. Now for my main issue with the so called “egalitarians,” those who argue for full (or perhaps expanded) roles of leadership for females in the worship service. If you hold the egalitarian position, Paul has utterly contradicted himself in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 compared to 1 Corinthians 11. At this point you have to decide which is controlling – Paul’s so called “universal” teaching in 1 Cor. 11, or the “limited” or “correcting the one-off, aberrant behavior” of 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Those who hold that 1 Cor. 11 is the true, proper, and Spirit-inspired teaching have to diminish 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 by either removing 1 Cor. 14 completely (i.e., Gordon Fee), or by so minimizing those texts that they ultimately become meaningless to any situation beyond Corinth (or Ephesus) in the first century. I simply cannot go there. Once we  start eliminating Paul’s instructions because they do not “fit” our paradigm, where do we stop? Are Paul’s instructions regarding sexual perversity in chapter 5 also simply a rejection of a cultural taboo that is no longer valid? Are Paul’s instructions regarding division in the church (chapters 1-4) simply to be ignored because they are directed to Apollos, Peter (Cephas) and Paul? What of Paul’s instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper, or even his teaching regarding the resurrection?

And, just one final piece of evidence. Many argue that Paul reveals his chauvinism here – that he took Jesus’s egalitarianism and stood it on its ear. Okay, well, then what of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6? Peter nowhere mentions the assembly, so his words touch this issue only tangentially – but it is this tangential connection that I find so compelling. Peter’s focus is on the submission of the wife to the husband (also mentioned by Paul), and ties this Christian behavior to the behavior of Godly women throughout history. For Peter, apparently, a woman usurping the authority of her husband would be a violation of Christian behavior. My point is that Peter confirms my understanding of Paul’s overall consistency, and therefore that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 must be seen in a generic sense, and not in the specific situation of the assembled congregation.

Once again, I could be wrong here in any – or all – of my conclusions. I can only work with my understanding of how to do exegesis. I have been wrong before, and will undoubtedly be wrong in the future. But, as Martin Luther so famously said, here I stand until I am proven wrong. I sincerely believe that many hold to an erroneous position because of a number of false assumptions. There is the assumption that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 pertains to the assembled worship assembly. According to how I was taught to read Scripture, that assumption cannot be defended. Once again, I can only read, and therefore teach, as I have been taught. Then, there is the subsequent, but necessary, assumption that 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 are therefore only speaking to one-off, aberrant situations that no longer have any validity for the church of Christ. There is further an assumption that the apostolic teaching regarding authority and submission was bound only to the first century, and that any subsequent culture is free to define (or re-define) roles regarding gender any way that is predominant in that culture.

I don’t want to open another can of worms (okay, maybe I do), but just a question – if we are free to define roles of authority regarding sex and gender if we can discover, and eliminate, Paul’s first century cultural biases, then how can we argue against any of the issues of homosexuality, bi-sexuality, poly-amorous relationships, and gender fluidity so prevalent in our culture today? If there are no inherent significant differences between male and female, and if there are no spiritually significant connections to those differences, then who is to argue that there is any limitations as to sexual behavior, or even sexual identity?

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if our culture’s headlong rush into sexual dysphoria has taught me anything, it’s that our understanding of God’s original plan for mankind is found in Genesis 1:27, and if we rupture that relationship we have nothing of any value to stand on.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and let us all ascend by climbing lower.

1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

Regular readers of this post have noticed that I have been very quiet recently – unusually so. Well, I’m still alive, although I have taken to being more introspective lately. Alas, all good things must come to an end, so once again I pick up pen and paper (okay, keyboard and pixels).

I was reminded once again via various social media that unfounded assumptions can make mincemeat of our theology. The subject du jour was the role(s) that the apostle Paul either limits or allows for females in the worship service. The argument that followed included two assumptions – both of which are almost universally accepted – that have no textual support and even make the apostle contradict himself within just a few chapters of his letter. I will try to keep this as short and sweet as I can, and if you are a regular reader here my conclusions will come as no surprise, but I will share this once again for those who are struggling with this question. [By the way, my argument is not with any person per se, it is with the assumptions that are repeated, without evidence, and taken as prima facie truths. I believe those who accept these assumptions to be sincere and devout lovers of truth, but in this instance, also to be incorrect.]

False Assumption #1 – Paul allows, even advocates, for women praying in the public worship assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

No, he does not. That is just false. I say that nicely, but that is just a false assumption that has no textual basis. Let’s look at that passage.

First, Paul addresses how men are to pray, not where, but how – with their heads uncovered. Paul only addresses females obliquely. Men are to pray with their heads uncovered, contra the standard practice (shown in many drawings of that era) of priests of various religions praying with a shawl, or cowl, over their heads. Women are only mentioned as a foil – women do pray with their heads covered (not the least of which with their hair), but men are not supposed to. No mention of where women are said to pray. But why should Paul specify something when the location is not his point? He simply mentions that women pray with their heads covered – when they pray by themselves, with their children, in female prayer groups. Where men pray, or where women pray, is simply not in Paul’s frame of reference.

But, let’s keep reading: v. 17 “…when you come together…” V. 18, “…when you come together as a church…” V. 20 “When you come together…” V. 33, “…when you come together…” 14:23 “…the whole church comes together…” 14:26, “…when you come together…” There is a emphatic (and, in my opinion, unmistakeable) disjunction between Paul’s previous discussion (once again, directed mainly at the men and the how) and his next point of emphasis, the common, joint assembly of the church (the when and the where). It is in of that discussion that Paul issues his now infamous teaching that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” So, whatever Paul had in mind in 11:1-16, it is beyond argument that what he says in 14:33-34 is in regard to a public, common assembly of the church. Which leads me to false assumption #2.

False assumption #2 – having given women permission (and maybe even encouragement) to pray in public in 11:1-16, Paul had to correct an aberrant, one-off situation to which he directed his attention in 14:33-34, namely, a woman (or number of women) who were disrupting a worship assembly by challenging their husbands (gasp!) by asking inappropriate questions.

Well, if you make one false assumption, why not get even more creative with the second? There is simply no contextual evidence to support this assumption! Why would Paul only constrain wives? Are unmarried women not capable of disrupting a service? And, where is there any indiction that the issue is domineering wives?

As I see it, the error is that if you hold to false assumption #1, you have to come up with a scenario that absolves Paul from blatantly contradicting himself in 14:33-34, and even more specifically in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. So, there are a number of options. One is that you simply remove 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 from the text (following Gordon Fee in his commentary on 1 Corinthians). That is a little radical for some, so they simply concoct a situation that Paul was addressing to his Corinthian brethren, but one that is limited by both time and culture, and has no bearing on the modern church. The fatal problem with that solution is that it is, once again, based upon the false assumption that Paul grants females permission to speak authoritatively (and, yes, I am suggesting that public prayer is an authoritative act) in the public worship assembly. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I flatly reject that assumption.

If we remove the false assumption that Paul grants, even promotes, women speaking authoritatively in the worship service in 11:1-16, then we have removed the supposed contradiction in 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2. Paul remains remarkably consistent, and there is no need to invent an imaginary scenario that he supposedly (and invoking self-contradiction) corrects later in the book.

Tangentially, this discussion also raises the question of just how authoritative is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for today’s church. I sat in a lecture by one of the finest Greek scholars ever to teach in a university associated with the Churches of Christ, and I heard him argue that, (to the best of my memory, these words are not verbatim) “because Paul was addressing an aberrant situation in the congregation in Corinth in the first century, we cannot take his words as being binding on the church today.”

Huh? What exactly in the letters to the Corinthians are not aberrant situations for which we are to learn eternal truths? I don’t get it, and yes, I am disagreeing with a world-renowned Greek scholar here. But that is the belief (either conscious or unconscious) of many preachers and church members alike. In other words, if it doesn’t gore our ox, then it is Scripture. If it does gore our ox, well, it was just meant for the first century church and thank goodness we have moved on from there.

Thanks for obliging me for my perfectionist little rant, but this is really a burr under my saddle.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Cycle of Accepting and Promoting a False Teaching

Some while back I posted an article about the triviality of Sunday School answers The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers” I want to expand a little on that thesis today.

How do these Sunday School answers get started, and, particularly troubling, how do incorrect Sunday School answers get started and promoted? I think the cycle goes something like this: a person hears or reads something that was said or written by someone they have no reason to doubt, and may even trust sincerely. Thus, whatever is said or written is accepted wholesale, with no questions asked. Then, they share what they see or have heard. Maybe they see or hear it again from another source, and maybe the particular group they are in accepts the teaching with open arms (ears). The cycle then becomes self-repeating.

Last night I was party to a discussion about a conclusion that I personally disagree with, but do not consider it to be of such importance as a salvation issue or a fellowship issue. I just cannot accept it, based on my education and on my exegesis of the relevant texts. What I found interesting as I sat (kind of like that fly on the wall) was that there was virtually universal acceptance of the teaching in question. As the class progressed, and after about 40 minutes or so of discussion, a later portion of the text was read which at the very least called the earlier assumptions into question (and, in my very humble opinion, flatly rejected those assumptions). At this point the class had basically two options: they could revisit their earlier conclusions, or they could attempt to somehow massage the later verses so that those verses could fit the earlier (again, imho) incorrect conclusion. They strove mightily to accomplish the second, while blissfully ignoring that their earlier conclusion might have been wrong, and so they might need to revisit the meaning of the first section of the passage.

It was a fascinating example of group-think, and how we will move mountains to justify a position we initially hold, rather than stop to consider we might be wrong to begin with, and therefore need to “start over from scratch” to correct an invalid conclusion.

Regarding the passage in question, I am absolutely convinced of the correctness of my conclusion. The class members are equally convinced of the correctness of their position. The thing is, the two positions are diametrically opposed, and cannot in any way, shape, or form, be harmonized. One of us (or perhaps both?) are clearly wrong. Who is to judge?

I’m not going to pontificate here – as I said, based on the context, and on other relevant passages, and on related theological issues, I will hold firmly to my conclusion until someone can convince me based on solid exegetical methods that I am wrong. As I said earlier, I do not hold the two interpretations to be a salvation issue – although I would hasten to add that the “other” interpretation does come with some very serious theological baggage attached.

I do not write this to condemn, but only to identify a systemic and profoundly human problem – How do we correctly identify this cycle of accepting and promoting a shallow “Sunday School Answer” so that we can challenge it, and reject it when necessary?

Well, at the risk of redundancy and beating a dead horse – we do so by standing under Scripture, not above it, and by ascending by climbing lower.

Cherry-Picking and Proof-Texting Favorite Scriptures

I saw something the other day that kind of ruffled my feathers. It was another one of those appeals to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV translation) Now, I know nothing of the person who made the appeal, or the setting. But, I just wonder, was the appeal made in context – and did the speaker have the entirety of Jeremiah in mind as he made the appeal?

You see, very, very rarely will anyone include v. 10 in the quotation of v. 11 – “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Note the sequence – you are going to be led captive into an exile in a place you think is absolutely godless and degenerate -and you are going to have to stay there for 70 years while I punish you for your misbehavior. Then, I will bring you back because I know of the plans I have for you . . .”

In the entire pantheon of misquoted, cherry-picked and proof-texted Scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 has to rate in the top 10, maybe the top 5, and maybe even higher.

The prophecies of Jeremiah are rife with warnings that would limit, or even supersede, 29:11. I wonder, for example, if the speaker who so proudly appealed to 29:11 has ever read, or considered, 18:5-11,

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and deeds.”

I know this may just be me, but all of the trite little memes and what-not that you see on social media quoting Jer. 29:11 get really old, especially if you know the story of Jeremiah, and the impassioned pleas that God made through the prophet that were utterly ignored by the leadership, and most of the population, of Jerusalem. Yes, Jer. 29:11 is a wonderful and grace-filled promise. But – taken in context – it is just the silver lining to a very dark and destructive cloud. I am just not at all certain that those who teach this verse so glibly really understand the depth of the verse.

This is just one more example of my almost never-ending mantra – we have to stand under Scripture, not over it, and we have to humbly submit ourselves to the entirety of the meaning of a passage for us to “rightly divide” the truth intended by the Holy Spirit.

Let us continually strive to climb higher by ascending lower.

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.