Male and female

There is a patriarchal bias in Scripture and there is always a challenge as we read any portion of Scripture to grasp how we should respond. We can capture the Bible to our bias and use it to confirm our position, status and bias, or we can also seek to read it ‘against’ us as well as for us. That of course is very difficult to do with real integrity. The ultimate lens through which we have too view the various texts if Jesus, who is both the word of God and the revelation of the invisible God.

However much of a patriarchal bias appears at times in the Scriptures the first creation narrative does not seem to carry that bias.

So God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ (Gen. 1: 27, 28).

There is a temple theology undergirding the creation story. The whole of creation is a temple with the fitting final element placed at the heart of this ‘good’ temple – the image of the deity. Now we have a ‘very good’ situation. There is no carved image for this cosmic temple, but an image ‘made’ by God. That image cannot be expressed by a gender, but by humanity as a whole, or perhaps we could say humanity as intended.

We might wish to say that the image of God is equally revealed in the female as in the male but I suspect that is travelling in a too-Western and individualistic direction. I don’t think the gender distinction is really what is in mind here. Humanity is created and the language is probably a type of speech known as a ‘merism’. We use such phrases when we say ‘I searched high and low for…’ We do not mean we only looked in high places and only looked under other objects. We searched high, low and everything in between. Genesis begins with a merism by stating that God created the heavens and the earth – the whole of creation. Here then I also consider we have this type of speech: the focus is not on male or female as distinct but on humanity as a collective whole.

Humanity relating together is where the image of God is to be seen, and where those relationships are dysfunctional that image is tarnished and at the extreme simply is obliterated. Hence how we see others is so key.

Paul in his ‘freedom in Christ mantra’ refers to this Genesis text. He says

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28, emphasis added).

The language is both a direct quote from Genesis and also incredibly strong. He writes twice ‘neither… nor’ but when he comes to this gender element he changes the language to ‘nor… and’. The gender difference has no weight at all in Christ, being human is the point. With Jew and Gentile there is a difference regarding election – not to salvation but to purpose. Slave and free is as a result of economic and social inequalities. Humanity, regardless of gender is something we all have in common – hence all war is ultimately civil war. This shared humanity is something so close to all of us where we can respond.

In the three distinctions I suggest we could think creatively about the election being with a purpose of holding space for a just society. Israel was to be an elect people for the world, both as a sign to the world, not being as one of the nations, and as a gift for the world. Slave and free, where position and status determine identity cannot be present in a true expression of the kingdom of God. All of this is founded on the creation reality that there is NOT male and female in the sense of identity, role and status. One humanity in Christ as image of God.

Definitions are difficult, and stereotypical generalisations are often not helpful but restrictive. Maybe there are feminine characteristics that are more intrinsic to females, and masculine ones that are more intrinsic to males. Maybe. However, it is whenever truly human characteristics are manifested that the image of God becomes visible, and the outworking into creation can take place.

For sure that can never take place in the context of a patriarchy that limits ‘male and female’; it cannot take place where ‘male and female’ are demarcated so that the image of the divine cannot be seen. There is something so fundamental at stake.

Maybe we need to draw up what are feminine and what are masculine characteristics. Probably very helpful so that we can gain clear sight. However, theologically it is essential to discover what is truly human and what is not.

We know that when God is present something happens to our relationships, and if it does not we have to question what ‘god’ was present. The radical nature of the Genesis verses are that when humanity relates rightly God is present! The image of God is there, God is seen, his goodness is distributed. Moses looked to the desert and saw the glory of God. He looked to the dry dust. Dust animated by the breath of God is where glory is seen.

Leonardo da Vinci has a quote attributed to him:

An arch consists of two weaknesses which, leaning one against the other, make a strength.

Now that is a challenge. Lean in not with our strength but with our weakness. In Spain vs. Cataluña there is no leaning in but coming in opposition to each other, even to the extent that the phone is not being picked up until the other party backs down. The result is a lock up. The result is division, fighting and violence. What is clearly visible there on a macro scale so often though comes through at a micro-, at a personal interrelationship level.

Leaning in… leaning in in weakness. Leaning in in such a way that there is no male and female. That is a different version of ‘ruling’!

A great egalitarian Scripture

I will from time to time look at a few of the wonderful Scriptures that overwhelmingly convince me that status by gender is not something the Gospel entertains. Of course as always how we read Scripture is an issue for we can read it to almost defend whatever view we wish. Maybe if I get round to it I will also look at that. But for an opener there are two verses that record for us an interchange between Jesus and a woman that are simply mind-blowing (Luke 11: 27, 28). They follow on from some pretty hot teaching and activity by Jesus, demonstrating wisdom, understanding and the delivering power of God in a way that had not been seen before. In that context the woman says:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

Jesus responds immediately. He does not need to wait to consider what she said. We read

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

In this very short exchange comes an amazing contrast of world views. A world view that was common to the day and the starkly contrasting world view of Jesus as far as the status of women was concerned. The woman holds to the dominant world view of her day concerning the gender difference, and she articulates, without realising it, what the culture has taught her about as far as significance was concerned. She is so impacted by what she sees, hears and experiences when encountering Jesus directly that from deep inside something spills out.

It spills out, almost involuntarily, because the very act of speaking (shouting?) out as she did in public was not something that her world view supported. The impact of Jesus provoked her in that moment to act beyond what she believed was even appropriate. Her speech even confronted her own views!

Her world told her that her gender had a status that could increase with every break she might get in life:

She would start as the daughter of, growing up her status might increase if she was not single. So singleness was the base level. If however she could be married – be the wife of someone – she would go to the next level. Married but childless? That was not something she could live with easily. So to bear a child was the next level… and if the child was a male an even higher status was hers. That was as high as anyone could ever hope for, but on this day when she encountered Jesus she realised there was one higher step: imagine giving birth to a rabbi who lived, taught and behaved as Jesus did.

Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.

The contrasting view is the one Jesus came back at her with and in a few words turned her world upside down. Status is not based on gender, it is the same for women and for men. It is simply becoming who we were meant to be. There is no higher blessing, perhaps I might even suggest no higher glory.

Pause for a moment. Being the mother of Jesus is not the highest calling for a woman. Mary is blessed, but…

The Gospel is crazy. It does not put us down but pulls us all up. Unless of course we take a superior attitude then it seriously does pull us down. There are not many attitudes that God actively opposes but pride, arrogance, superiority? The Gospel has always been good news for the marginalised. And it will not appear as good news to those who do not make way for others to discover who they are and express who they are. Freedom to discover and to express rather than restrictions and blockages will always be the bias of the good news that Jesus brought.

Equipped to serve…

With all my great abilities (!!!), or with a mediocre level of ability, I have over many years been involved in helping teach on courses that seek to equip people. Most of that was aimed toward helping people be more effective in evangelism or in taking responsibility within the (local) church. I have always enjoyed that and think a few people have also benefited. Thankfully this has not just involved helping develop skills but also in highlighting life issues and attitudes as being vital.

In this current stream of posts, writing about ekklesia it seems to me that there has to be a shift to helping equip people to serve the ekklesia, the body of people called to enable the world to find her right alignment. This is not to negate the need for all of us to be better equipped to share our faith or to hone pastoral and other skills, but once we consider that the setting for our faith to be outworked is the world, any element of training will be differently focused. Probably one aspect that will develop in these coming years will be networks of training that are not simply focused as previously, but on the implications of the ekklesia in the world. This is certainly one aspect we see for Spain.

Training people for ekklesia! That opens a wide scope and is so challenging. Many of the practical skills will be honed in the traditional settings, and in – sorry for the language as it is desperately shorthand – secular settings. But surely a commitment to Jesus should mean there are specifically Christian aspects to be developed.

We sat yesterday in an hour’s political gathering that had a focus on the environment. Two contributions stood out. One speaker named those who are (or were) prominently involved in politics within Spain and who are directors of, or financed by, the energy sector (gas, oil, electricity etc). The extent of the list was mind-blowing. Into a debate on climate change one realised just how ‘bought’ are the policy makers. Even where such politicians are not involved so much of their financial support comes from those sectors. (An aside – the reason we perceive that no coalition could be formed here in Spain and we are headed back to the electorate is that the banks stated directly who they would accept. This was both undeliverable and blocked all obvious other coalitions.) The speaker went on to say that democracy’s voice has to temper the economic world, or if not then that (economic) world will temper the voice of democracy, indeed it will all-but silence that voice. The other speaker that made an impact on me said in all the push for change in this crisis area of climate that if we ever resort to violence and move away from love that the means will never achieve the desired end, indeed it will block the path to the desired outcome.

I was deeply moved with the insights. (Interestingly as we sat there, listening and praying, we both saw behind one of the speakers an angel with him. This person is soft in heart, has been grossly maligned and professes to be an atheist… challenging paradigms, but we have to discover afresh who God is standing behind.) Those insights were so right on… and the challenge is that anyone following Jesus should be able to give those perspectives. Challenging as it leaves one thinking maybe there is no need for the ekklesia, with the voice of Jesus being so clearly heard… Or the bigger challenge of how different would a follower of Jesus be in those settings? We might have to learn some new language but as carriers of heaven there has to be something unique. The need is there to help followers of Jesus understand that they do carry something different, something beyond street-level enhanced wisdom. Equipping carriers of heaven to be an effective part of ekklesia.

We have to move beyond some old discussions. There are crises on almost all sides, with thankfully the climate crisis getting some front page space. We might as believers have been known for being pro-life, sometimes known for campaigning outside clinics, but the climate issue? To be pro-life is to look to the future so we cannot ignore it. To ignore it and claim to be pro-life seems every so empty. We drove to Madrid a few days ago and to see in spite of the levels of rain a few weeks ago that in October the land is parched (hence photo of Spain’s crisis attached to this post). Water, water everywhere (climate change flooding)… but increasingly for more people, but not a drop to drink.

Gayle and I are full of (self-examining) questions at this time. We are no experts. Here are a few of our musings (OK our confusions):

Where does change come from?

We are opposed to the idea that as the top 3% influence society so we need Christian people to get to the top of the mountain. Yet we carry some written words for those in the public eye who we believe God has placed there. Are we also believing the top 3% are the ones to be addressed?

We try to approach this with, the person who gives a cup of cold water is key to change the world. Change takes place through the smallest of acts. Yet there are those with influence for change, but if they seek to impose change top-down and do not flow from love they will not have contributed redemptively to the future. It is not simply structural change that is needed but a heart shift.

The early ekklesia is a challenge. Not many important, wealthy, wise etc. And chosen not to become the wealthy and wise but to bring to nothing that which is. (Now where did I put that Bible that told me my faith was a private thing that I can keep locked up in the world of my own spirituality. Better find it quick as the one I have now is causing me a lot of trouble.)

Are we too embedded in the system?

How does one look to see a shift in the economics of this world? Can it be done by buying in to the safety net of what do we do when we retire? Does wisdom (dependence on pension schemes) mean we are simply filled with hot air? In the scheme of white middle class we are not well set up, and having made the choices we have made our joint incomes are now 1/4 of what they were before our move to continental Europe… But in the big world of 7+billion we are maybe totally guilty as charged. Following Jesus is not a hobby, nor are prayers for global shifts ever without personal implication, yet I suspect that many current disciples are contributing to a future of greater inequalities as they put away their monthly contribution and are going to leave their offspring some serious resources. I don’t know if that is wisdom or building on sand. What we do know is we cannot answer for others, that we live in a world that is not clean… but we have to make sure that our actions, plans, hopes and securities line up with our prayers.

Are we contributing members of the ekklesia?

Are we effective, the measurement of which is not to be made by who we are but what happens around us. Life for the NT believer was measured by the presence of the life of the Risen Lord who became a ‘life-giving Spirit’. Life by NT definitions is measured by what happens through us. Is Spain different because we live here? One can have a house but a home in a place is very different. A home is a place where God is present and when s/he is present there are some very clear evidences.

Have we been able to make space for others to rise? We have certainly seen too many aspects go in the wrong direction to pat ourselves on the back too much!

Being an effective part of the body of Christ will make a difference to the world we live in. We seek to do that as we did yesterday, sit and pray. It is unlikely that an atheist is going to shift the spiritual powers that need curtailing, so at least we can do that for someone like him, who is better trained than we are and talks hope for the future. Then there is that family who we gave keys to our apartment so they can use it when they wish. If we want keys to Spain surely the least we can do is give them keys to here? Or is this to be our private property… in a land with many crises in housing.

Are we effective in helping those who do follow Jesus align themselves to the call to be witnesses to the Easter event and heralds of the coming parousia? I spent many good years with a focus on helping people align to be effective members of the local expression, and to evangelise so that expression might grow. But the future has to be increasingly provoking people to be witnesses so that the presence of Jesus might increase within the world. For all of us we will need to respond to the challenge of enabling people align to ekklesia, that body of people who self-consciously have taken on responsibility for the future of the world.

I just hope our musings / confusions, along with a few faltering steps, as we have tried to self-consciously align to ekklesia is taking some responsibility for the future of the world.

A final (or further) piece

It is great being the author of a blog as one always has the final word to say, although I cannot quite claim to have ‘great and unmatched wisdom’, though I am obviously working on that. Yes the gentleman who suggested that was one of his many attributes has set the bar high. So pulling back, momentarily, from self-inflated opinion I will modify the title to be a ‘further’ (and certainly not a ‘final’) piece on the ekklesia.

I appreciated the comments on the two articles and of course I am coming strongly from a perspective, hopefully not denying the validity of other perspectives. There are two ways in which sociology approaches healthy groups. They are either at the ‘community’ end of the spectrum or at the ‘movement’ end. Community is centred in on being there for each other, to enable one another, movement is focused on purpose beyond the community. Both are visible in Scripture. There are enough ‘one another’ Scriptures related to followers of Christ to see that perspective is a strong one. (‘Love one another’; ‘admonish one another’; encourage one another’; etc.) Most Christian communities that I know that carry this emphasis also strongly desire to change their environment. Movements have something in common among themselves – they hold to a common world-view that is not shared by the wider world and are seeking to change the wider world based on their world-view. The Civil Rights movement can act as an example. Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I have a dream’ is one example of what they shared in common that was not realised in the wider world that they were a part of. Their aim was to change the world-view and practise of the wider society.

Writing about ekklesia with its background both as the Hebrew of being called to listen to God then act in the light of that instruction, and the Graeco-Roman background of the legislative assembly I was pushing the ‘movement’ understanding of being together. That is my bias. I was also pushing that as a push back against a common approach that only accepts one expression (‘local’) as church. I am not advocating independence nor that another form is how it should be done. We need one another, one size does not fit all, and most of us recognise that many others who are followers of Christ are responding to the claims of the Gospel better and more faithfully than we are.

The challenge that we all face is being faithful in our context. Maybe we all find ourselves in settings that are ‘sub-church’! Now there is an adjective that might be very applicable. I find the thought of what on earth was Paul up to in planting and nurturing ekklesias within the one-world government system of Rome fascinating.

I suggest Jesus, and no one else could have done this, opened the door for Peter (as representative not in his unique right) to give shape to what an ekklesia would be within the Jewish world. That is one window on ekklesia but it is the world of pre-70AD and also of pre-Gentile mission. It is really the expression of ekklesia beyond that that should provoke our thinking deeper. Peter opened the door to Paul, in that he was the first, and reluctantly at that, to go beyond the Jewish world to the Gentiles. The Gentiles (us lot) was Paul’s first century mission field. The context was not of a covenant-people but of the world, and as already mentioned an all-but one-world government world.

It is interesting that the term ‘synagogue’ is rarely used for the Christian communities of the New Testament. That expression was developed in Babylon, and I wonder if it was something of a compromise in order to survive that then became the accepted norm. Paul uses the term ekklesia which would have been strongly understood to be political, and confrontational to the system.

There is good research that shows that many forms of church enable people to grow to a level of faith, but then by default place a ceiling over people going further. We also know of many lone-rangers who seem to get detached from the core of the faith.

As I look at the wider world we are in crisis. We could see the collapse of so much, or the coming together in alliances that provide the platform for dictators. Into that context I cannot help but believe Paul’s Gospel is so relevant. And yes, I do think he is pushing the movement end of the spectrum, while strongly recognising how much we need one another.

So thanks for the comments – provocative and clarifying. But not quite ready to suggest the photo I have attached is the image of the church. It is a photo of a very impressive building in Rome and worth a visit!

What on earth are we to do?

The photo is of a piece of art in Palma de Mallorca. A replica of the original created by Dennis Oppenheim, and called the ‘Device to Root Out Evil’. The original was objected to due to its choice of a church being turned upside down, but what better image to use? I certainly do not consider it to be sacrilegious but highly appropriate.

The sculptor chooses a very traditional shape for the building and with the spire driven into the ground it speaks volumes. The top becoming the bottom and the building not simply sitting on the land but into the land.

Paul might not have recognised the traditional shape but I think he might well have approved of the overall image. In Imperialism there is always a very clear ‘top’ or ‘centre’. From there all is shaped and controlled. Promises are made, with the clear framework that where there is compliance there will be reward, though the real beneficiaries are located at the centre. Other centres can develop, but they remain subservient to the main centre. Such centres only have carefully delegated monitored authority, certainly no authority is distributed. In the Imperial world of Rome there can be other ‘kings’ but Rome will remain the ‘city that rules over the kings of the earth’ and Caesar will continue unchallenged as ‘king of kings’.

The language of the NT Gospel is unmistakably political. Caesar is not only not acknowledged as ‘lord’ but Jesus is proclaimed as ‘Lord of lords and king of kings’. This is not because the Jesus message is a mirror of Rome’s, but rather Rome is being exposed as a pathetic parody of the real. The same words are used but the effecting of the reality is perverted by Rome with peace no longer coming through the life laid down, but through lives taken; the power overcomes, and if necessary through violence, rather than a submission to the violent powers. At the heart the contrast is of power enforced and of love extended.

The evil to be rooted out is indeed deep in the soil. It is an evil that enslaves one and all to a system, and the evil is so pervasive it is personified in Paul’s writings as ‘sin’ (singular) or in Revelation it manifests as a beast or beasts in union. An alternative structure, but one that is mirrored on the Babylonian top-down will not root out evil. Such a structure will eventually be used by evil as and when it proves helpful to do so, as it will not bring about a shift to the deep evil embedded in the soil. The church can never therefore be a comfortable bed-partner to the status quo, the subversive nature of it has to be present.

I propose then that Paul was crazy – truly crazy! He went to a place that already had an ekklesia, whose purpose was to serve the Imperial centre of Rome, and he went there with a conflicting message concerning the kingdom of God (basileia being the Greek word for kingdom, the same word equally used by Rome of her own ’empire’). On first hearing he must have sounded as a political insurrectionist whose time on earth was going to be limited. Yet there was some strange elements to the message. There was a ‘religious’ tone to it, and at the centre was a dead Jew whom Paul proclaimed was not simply ‘alive’ but risen from the dead.

His message was certainly political, but it could not be pressed into serving a particular wing (‘party’). What was clear was the message did not serve the status quo, for he was declaring that all hierarchies were not recognised ‘in Christ’. Not surprisingly the result was that ‘not many wise, not many noble’ were those who responded to the message! This irrelevant group should have been no threat to Rome’s order, and yet amazingly there were riots. Riots inspired by Jews were expected, for if Jesus was Lord he was not the one accursed of God but his name was now the only name through which salvation would come. (Acts 4:12 – ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ The ‘we’ both linguistically and contextually are Jews. No other name – not even the name of Abraham!) Jews reacting could be predicted, but a riot inspired by silversmiths (Acts 19)? This shows the extent of the impact (and understanding of the implications) of his message.

To narrow the work of Paul down to one element, such as he is creating a political movement, would be to be in error, but to avoid the obvious implication of the central political sound would be (in my perspective) to shift where the core of his message was.

Complex, complex, complex! To simply take the teachings of Jesus, the understanding of Paul’s Gospel and to proclaim them as shaping a new politic would not do justice to his Gospel, but to ignore that would be criminal!

We probably cannot give a simple answer to what on earth was Paul doing, but we cannot ignore his context of a one world government complete with its 666 mark of the beast; nor can we diminish his passion for a whole inhabited world (oikomene) to have opportunity to hear the message of hope.

It is very difficult to add the word ‘para’ to what followers of Christ are involved in, if they are motivated by something of this political (small ‘p’) vision and purpose. It is also quite difficult to give the word ekklesia to any group of those who want to use the term ekklesia in a way that only legitimises themselves.

We live at the end of the Christendom era. The apostolic calling is very strong whenever there is a shift. Perhaps we are in what will be viewed as the biggest shift in the civilisation of humanity. We might never know what on earth Paul was doing, but we will certainly have to figure out between us all what on earth are we to do. If it does not carry a political element with a vision for a transformed society it will be very hard to show that our message is faithful to the one Paul received from heaven.

The apostolic of every generation or situation have to rework the application of the Gospel without ever changing the Gospel itself. If we want to be faithful we will have to renounce hierarchy, be personally upended and immersed in the soil. Could there be a people who are called to root out evil? Could that be possible? If not, could there be a crazy gang who rose up (and went down deep) who were committed to a seriously thought out attempt to do so?

Only one legal adjective

It is genuinely difficult to know what was going on inside the mind of someone like Paul in the NT times. We are not living in that culture, and there has been so much development in church tradition since then. I often ask myself a question along the lines of ‘what on earth was Paul seeking to do as he travelled across the Roman Empire?’ We can answer it with planting, encouraging and seeking to keep on track the various ‘in Christ’ communities. But for what purpose and what did he hope might be accomplished by his focused activity?

I open with that because often, and certainly so in Protestant circles, the adjective ‘local’ has been added to the word ‘ekklesia’ which seems to make that expression legitimate… and, by default (or design) all other expressions as illegitimate. To some other expressions the adjective ‘para’ has been added, thus accepting that they have some relationship to church, but are certainly not the real thing.

The new church movement is what shaped me with a belief that the church was built on a foundation laid by apostles and prophets. The ongoing work of the church was to evangelise a locality, plant new LOCAL expressions that carried the same DNA, and enable people to grow in Christ. And I thank God for the many lives that have been impacted through that work.

However, the adjective ‘local’ is questionable. I can certainly find the understanding of the church in the locality (‘saints in Corinth’, for example), and the use of the word ‘church’ across a region (Acts 9: 31).

Maybe tradition means that the word local is the one word that legitimates but I challenge that. In challenging that I am not questioning the validity of a local expression, but I am seeking to push beyond that to legitimise other expressions, that have often been delegitimised through the addition of such adjectives as ‘para’, or worse ‘not proper’ church.

It seems that the word ‘ekklesia’ has two underlying backgrounds. It was an everyday Greek word, being the regular assembly where those who qualified could give their vote on the issues facing the community / city. This local assemnbly had been pioneered in Athens at least 600-700 years before Paul. A solidly agreed description of the ekklesia was that it was

The regular opportunity for all male citizens of Athens to speak their minds and exercise their votes regarding the government of their city. It was the most central and most definitive institution of the Athenian Democracy.

By the NT era this assembly was something well established across the Graeco-Roman world. It was open to males over a certain age and those free. Paul’s mantra of ‘neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female’ is radical not only in the light of Jewish but also Graeco-Roman restrictions.

We see this use of the word ‘ekklesia’ with this meaning when the town clerk responds to the riot in Ephesus with ‘If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly (ekklesia, Acts 19:39).

The radical nature of Paul’s language into the culture of the day was that of using the term ekklesia for what he was involved in planting. Each city already had an ekklesia before he arrived! Just a little provocative.

The other background is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures and again in Acts we can see how it is used when we read that Moses

was in the assembly (ekklesia) in the wilderness (Acts 7:38).

This word, ekklesia, is normally used in the LXX (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures widely used in the NT era) when the underlying Hebrew word was not simply ‘people’ (edah) but a word used when the context was of people being called to listen to God and to act in response. The word ekklesia normally translates the Hebrew word ‘qahal’, which seems to be related to the word for voice. It is a purposeful word, referring to a people on a mission.

Unless we suggest that Jesus’ use of the word ‘ekklesia’ in Matthew 18:17 are words written back into the mouth of Jesus by the writer, then he seemed to suggest that the travelling companions were indeed church… and certainly not ‘local’.

If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church (ekklesia); and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Back to Paul… So what was he up to?

Simply profound

Ever find something hard to understand – or is it only me? I was once told that truth is both simple and yet profound. Sometimes though getting hold of what someone is saying / writing is not always so easy. Words used, and wait for it, the ‘presuppositional pool’ might mean we don’t quite get it. In this post I am going to recommend a video and a post from two important contributors in the realm of theology and its application.

I am grateful for Roger Mitchell’s work and also for having the privilege to dialogue with him so (I think) I have some grasp on his important writings. In his introduction to the video that appears below he writes:

If you find me hard to read as some do, although by no means all, then this talk will help hugely!! As an activist I find it s much easier to make sense at a popular level when I’m in context hands on. Here I am!

There is so much meat in the talk and his explanation of why he pursued his PhD is very clear. He came at it with three questions:

  • why do the rich and powerful always end up at the top?
  • why is it the same way in the church?
  • and why has the church actively supported / endorsed and strengthened that scenario?

Let the ‘ouch’ of those three questions sink in and then here is the link to the video:

The second post I suggest that is more than worth a read is one by Andrew Perriman. The opening paragraph reads:

Here I want to try and answer some questions sent to me by someone who grew up in the “reformed, fundamental, SBC” tradition but has spent the best part of the last year deconstructing his faith “down to nothing.” He has been reading the work of historically-minded interpreters like Pete Enns and NTWright, but has been having a hard time finding a way forward. His faith is sinking. “I currently don’t see any reason to be a Christian or to continue in the Christian way.”

Sinking faith feeling

I do not find and agreement with the perspective that Christendom is the fulfilment of the hope that God is acknowledged as Lord of the nations, so on that I do not go along with Andrew, but his writings and his insistence on the narrative shaping theology is invaluable. This post I reference above will help enormously in understanding this.

Render to Caesar

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21).

A nice neat verse to keep my spiritual life and my relationship to the powers separate. Be a good boy and just do whatever the powers ask because the two are ever so separate.

Really?

The context for the ‘render to Caesar / God’ reply is toward the climax of the ministry of Jesus. It is centred in occupied Jerusalem and the compromised Temple. The revolutionary has come to town. He has made his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey coinciding and contrasting with the military parade coming in from the west (see: https://3generations.eu/posts/2017/03/provocative-or-what/). The whole city was in turmoil as ‘the prophet from Galilee’ had arrived (Matt. 21:10, 11). Soon after this he makes the very dramatic (and deeply prophetic) act of turning over tables in the Temple, calling for it to be a house of prayer for the nations.

So the scene is set. Tension is high. How dangerous is he? What kind of revolution is he likely to spark? What will be the event that provokes the start of something that will be hard to stop?

The Pharisees with Herodians look to trap him. He is being set up to lose. They pose the question about the legality (from the Torah point of view) of paying taxes to Rome. Pay taxes (the Herodian view) and how ineffective Jesus will appear. He will be seen as lacking courage and selling out. However, refuse to pay taxes and he can be arrested on the grounds of sedition.

Jesus first asks for a coin. They produce the coin, and he deliberately asks them about the image and title on the coin. These ‘holy’ questioners are able to produce a coin with an image on it that is an affront to their own religion, even blasphemous. The image is of Tiberius and the wording is ‘high priest’, ‘son of the divine Augustus’.

In that world the coin (or any such article) belonged to the person whose image appeared on it. The coin therefore was Caesar’s – or so he claimed. Here they (religious Jews) are with pagan coinage, image and titles proclaiming the Imperial myth. ‘Give it back, have nothing to do with that system’ is certainly how Jesus’ response can be understood. (We might well argue though without money we cannot buy and sell… and we might wish to object in one less that 667 ways!). Further you (Jews), as a sign to the world, are image bearers, you bear the image of God (as do all humans). Indeed the whole world belongs to God. The coin belongs to Caesar – that is his claim – but you belong to God. So there is a simple transaction that is to take place. (Caesar’s claim was also false – thus complicating the response required.)

The question started at the wrong end. If the second part is not worked out in totality how can the first part ever be answered? In the light of 100% to God now what are you going to do with the first part, the demand for taxes by Caesar?

There is probably another aspect underneath the passage, a strong allusion to 1 Maccabees 2:29-41 where the dying Mattathias says to his sons:

Judas Maccabaeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally around you all who observe the law, and avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law.

The result of ‘paying back the Gentile in full’ was the armed revolt, the Greeks were defeated, the Temple cleansed and a royal dynasty that lasted 100 years was established.

The instruction was to ‘give back to the Gentiles what they deserve’, and do it within the boundaries of zealous observation of the law.

The texts and the events of the Maccabean period were well known as part of the context in which the people understood the Roman occupation. In the light of that Jesus response is not a clever division of state over here and faith over there – one public and one private. His answer is revolutionary. Give back to Caesar what he deserves. Pick up arms as per the former rebellion against the powers? Maybe some understood it as that.

In the context of being an image bearer how do we respond to the state? The state is not ordained from above. All powers are relative, none can command absolute obedience.

Allegiance to Jesus? Revolution with Jesus.

Reconciliation – how?

The second question that Johnson’s article presented was how we answer the question of how is a person reconciled to God. Through the atoning work of Christ on the cross being the answer.

Good answer… and the ‘sub-‘answers?

Well they can really vary. He died for all and all means all and all are saved / reconciled. He died just for the elect, those predestined by God. He atoned for sin in the sense of paying for our debts… he appeased God… and so the answers go on.

So given that I am responding to the article and so cannot be put outside the box as unorthodox here are a few pointers as to where I am at.

  • A first and very important point for me is that God did not need to be reconciled to humanity. The issues are not on his side! He was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. There is no sense of God being appeased, his ‘wrath’ is not some sort of mega-anger!
  • The death of Jesus is for all, not for a few. Fully understanding how his death accomplishes this might finally evade us, evidenced by the variety of metaphors used in Scripture. In some way his death is for Israel, he is their representative, so that the curse if broken off them. The chosen people then are all those who are in Messiah – first the remnant of (natural) Israel who respond to Jesus and those grafted in of Gentile disciples. This does have implications for who are ‘the chosen people’. Messiah is chosen and all in him are chosen. The death of Jesus makes a difference to all previous divisions. There is literally a new humanity whose task is to prepare the materials for the new creation.
  • All those who by faith receive this Jesus as Lord are part of that redeemed community. Those who knowingly reject this Jesus (and not simply a Jesus presented to them theologically) are lost.
  • The warnings of Hebrews are not theoretical as there has to be a continuance in the faith. Those who persevere to the end will be saved.
  • Getting ‘saved’ has been reduced to a prayer and a pronouncement that the person who has said that prayer is now ‘born again’ (using a phrase that Jesus only used once!). Salvation in Scripture is far more than being safe. It is about moving from one dimension to another, living out what is seen – living as though there is already a new creation.
  • There should be clear evidence of reconciliation. The ‘sinner’s prayer’ might be a good starting point. It is certainly a very bad end point. The evidence of reconciliation has to affect every aspect that the falls damaged. This includes human inter-relationships, care for the creation (‘mother earth’ is not too big a heresy – humanity came from the earth, but creation is not divine, nor was my mother!). We are rightly appalled at the appeal for abortion on demand, yet the way we are happy to pollute the planet and rob future generations of life seems OK. That is not how it should be.
  • Will all be reconciled to God? Will there be those who lose their salvation? We’ll find out one day.

I am convinced that there will be some major surprises when this creation is transformed by the appearance of Christ. Surprised how far the death of Jesus reached and to who. No one will have made it there through their own self-effort. Even for those who ‘fear God and do what is right’ in every nation (regardless of faith) will make it because of the death of Jesus.

A narrative going somewhere

How do we read Scripture? Many decades ago I came across an early lecture by NT Wright where he suggested that the authority of Scripture lay in its narrative. This probably should not surprise us, after all so much of Scripture is narrative. It is certainly not laid out as a systematic theology. Even the books of the law are mainly narratival, and where we have laws they are in the context of being given to a people on a journey.

An aside: the image is of Derek Flood’s book ‘Disarming Scripture’. I am not covering the material he covers here and it is more than worth a read. He says we can have an approach that is a blind obedience to what we read or a faithful questioning. He suggests that the Bible itself demands the latter, and in approaching the violent texts of Scripture shows how both Paul and Jesus selectively quote passages and ‘delete’ parts. I suggest this is not a cop out and challenges us to read, ‘be read’ and place Jesus at the centre of all things.

The narrative takes us from Creation to New Creation. It travels through a series of ‘falls’, the calling of Israel, the failure of Israel, the beginnings of a faithful remnant as marked by the baptism of John, centring in on the baptism of the only true human / remnant of Israel (Jesus). It is inevitable that once he is baptised John must decrease, the one who was the ‘greatest born of women’ prior to that watershed, for from then on the least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than John. The watershed is marked and huge. The NT, and indeed Jesus himself does not give us the option of being faithful to the narrative of Scripture by equalising all things. With Jesus there is a seismic shift. This is why he has to be the lens that Scripture is read through and critiqued, and in that sense parts of it ‘rejected’.

From Incarnation through resurrection and outpoured Spirit the narrative follows those who have responded to the ‘Gospel’ and are collectively known as the body of Christ: those caught in the in-between, already having received the firstfruits of the Spirit but not yet living totally out that fullness, nor living in the fullness of what is yet to come. A new humanity on a journey, a narrative pushing for a fitting end, with a new heaven and new earth (a merism for all of creation being renewed).

Now when I read Scripture I kind of have that overview. Texts that come from an earlier part of the story are from that part of the story. They might not be relevant as is for me today. How to treat slaves might not be what I need, but there might be principles there that apply in the ‘chapter’ of the story that I am living in. Not harvesting to the full extent of the field might or might not be a good principal in an agricultural society, but surely the ‘deliberately not maximising profits’ and making sure that we make it easy for those who need to get something of ours even though they have not worked for it, could well make those earlier instructions to continue have relevance in our current chapter.

I am not so interested in was there an historical Adam (I don’t think so), or where was the Garden of Eden. I could even on a certain day be convinced that the devil does not exist (in the sense of a personal devil) – though whether he does or not I am committed to cast out demons and seek to confront demonic powers where I see them! It is quite easy being an agnostic on such things when there is a conviction that God is the author and he will be the finisher of the story that we are living within. On some issues I am not ‘orthodox’. In spite of living for two years in the Tarshish where Jonah was headed for, I think it is a made up story. But one with such a point. And a narrative worth referring to as if were ‘true’, for the (point of the) story is so true. Nineveh never took three days to cross, but always our Ninevehs take 3 days to cross (https://3generations.eu/posts/2018/04/the-third-day/)

I could go on with other examples. And with great joy I realise I could be quite wrong on some of my readings. What seems more important to me is that there should be growing evidence that Jesus, the God-human, is reflected in who I am, what I say, and how I act. To continue that journey I will need to go back to Scripture, read and re-read the various parts of the narrative, regardless of what ‘chapter’ they are of the story. I will have to let those texts ‘read’ me, while I keep an eye on where God is taking it all. To a New Jerusalem that can only come from another dimension, but can only be assembled from the acts of kindness and love carried out in this dimension.

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