reading between the lines: Christianity and gender

Christians are good (ie. bad) at saying they are biblical, especially when it comes to secondary matters of Christian faith and practice (ie. things other than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection). And saying one has the “biblical” answer for any particular topic is code for saying one has THE TRUTH on a particular topic.

Recent discussions on Christianity, gender, and the role of women in the church is a case in point. I’ve commented on this before: “Masculine Christianity.”

But neglected in pulling out the “biblical” trump-card is all the related factors and issues between the lines of whatever stated “truth” is given.

Richard Beck illustrates this well with a recent comment on gender and Christianity:
"the issue isn't really about gender, about if God has a "masculine" or "feminine" feel. The issue is about the use of power within the Kingdom. The discussion about gender is really just a cover for a powerplay, about who is in charge and who gets to call the shots. And as we've seen, Jesus is absolutely hostile to this sort of thing."
Beck does well to highlight the need for reading between the lines when it comes to our beliefs and practices as Christians. If you read between the lines, discussion on gender reveals a lot about power and influence. Saying something is biblical is not good enough when there are so many other factors involved.

I’ll use myself as an example. Personally, I find it easy to accept equal roles for men and women in all aspects of life. Christianity should have a God feel, not a gender feel. I think this is the biblical perspective on Christianity, and then applies to the roles of men and women.

Not the end of discussion, however...

I need to read between the lines. I need to recognize how my upbringing, church experience, and personality combine to make it very easy for me to accept this view of equality and freedom for all. I still believe I’m right, no doubt. And I also think others should accept my position. But reading between the lines, I realize how easy it is for me to accept my position. I need to be patient and understanding with others who don’t find it so easy, for whatever reason. Perhaps acknowledging our personal tendencies in the matter, whatever our opinion, can at the very least bring some mutual understanding to the often-contentious issue.

But there needs to be more too.

Reading between the lines needs to go beyond personal reflection, especially when personal convictions get implemented as universal truth, turning secondary issues into central tenets of belonging and faithfulness. Especially troubling are instances when such espoused universal truths (e.g. masculine Christianity) lead to unbiblical wielding of authority and power among the people of God, both in local and larger expressions. There are too many stories in Christian history – and sadly, in the present as well – where personalities and power grabs determine theology and church practice, all in the name of what’s “biblical.” Beyond mutual understanding, then, reading between the lines can also bring necessary correction and accountability before people go and do something stupid - and dare-I-say abusive - in the name of biblical truth.

The Apostle Paul’s words on humility sum the issue up well:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others (Rom. 12:3-5 NIV).
Read between your own lines. Read between the lines of others. Display humility and exercise “sober judgment.” And note, most importantly, we are all one!

science vs. faith

I don’t often wade into the arena of science and faith (I’m very unqualified in all things science), but I recently had a discussion on the subject that got me thinking about some important points.

First, any public discussion of science and faith is often framed as “science vs. God.” The starting point is competition, an assumption of incompatibility between the two spheres. No wonder there is incredulity towards each other! Starting in opposition, both sides just end up shouting louder and asserting themselves stronger without any meaningful dialogue around the possibility of science and faith. In this regard, both sides adopt a sort of fundamentalism:
“On the one hand, many theologians have misused the Bible to try and establish or disestablish a scientific theory in a most unscientific way. On the other hand, many scientists have misused a theory in science to try and discredit the Bible in a most unphilosophical way. Both hold onto their extraterritorial theories with a fanatical tenacity” (Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics).
Secondly, the discussion gets worse when the two sides attempt to answer each others questions. Take the origin of the world for example. Science can’t prove or disprove God as creator based on typical methods of observation. It’s a theological or philosophical argument, sure. But not science (sorry Richard Dawkins, but stick to biology!). Similarly, theologians can’t apply their beliefs for God as creator - a belief drawn from the Bible and logical reasoning - to, say, evolutionary scientific theory (sorry Intelligent Design theorists, but I’m not convinced!). Genesis 1-2 is not about biology! Both sides need to recognize this: let scientific method answer scientific questions and let theological inquiry answer theological questions.

With both disciplines doing what they do best, then it can be helpful to consider how they go together. Not to answer each others questions, but to enrich each others answers. Framing the topic as science and faith we move from an argument to a dialogue. Science and faith can “do their thing” without getting mired in unfruitful arguments that drone on and on. And as Christians, then, we don’t have to live in fear that science will somehow debunk or disprove our faith. It’s rather the opposite - science can enrich our faith and what we know about God and the world.


Click the link to watch a helpful video from Biologos that articulates well, I think, how we can bring together science and faith: "Evolutionary Creation"

Jesus loved to party!

Let’s be honest, Christians aren’t known for their partying. Whether it’s legalistic condemnation of card-playing and dancing or abstaining from all forms of alcohol (many times for good reasons), there is a perception that Christians can’t and don’t have any fun.

A recent discussion on the life of Jesus, however, highlighted for me just how contrary this stereotype is. Jesus didn’t shy away from a good party. You could even say parties are a major part of the gospel.
Link
You see, the bulk of Luke 14-15 is set within the context or has the theme of parties:
  • Lessons at a dinner party - 14:1-14
  • Parable of the party - 14:15-24
  • Party over finding one lost sheep - 15:1-7
  • Party at finding one lost coin - 15:8-10
  • Party at the return of a son - 15:11-32
Jesus went to parties. Jesus talked about parties. Jesus loved to party!

One friend describes this section of Luke as lessons on “party etiquette.” The question isn’t if Christians should party. Jesus assumes partying. It’s how we party that matters.

And so Jesus talks about being a good party guest - one who doesn’t make excuses, or take the limelight, or get bitter when others seem to be having more fun. To be a good guest means just being at the party is good enough. Party attendance is a gift, not a right. The best party, according to Jesus’ party etiquette, is the gathering of the humble (notice: no talk of dancing, cards, or drinking!).

Jesus also talks about being a good party host. Parties aren’t for developing, maintaining, or improving one’s social status (sorry housewife reality TV shows!). Even Jesus knew the traps of social competition (e.g. “I did this for you, now you have to do this for me”). Jesus redefines a good party. Who is there still matters, but who is there is not who we’d expect. Hosts are to invite the stranger, the outcast, the poor, the sick, the lost. Being a good party host is more than being the life of the party - it’s about throwing a party that offers life.

It’s safe to say, Jesus loved to party. Again, we don't ask should we party, but how we party. The question, then, is this:

What’s your party etiquette?

"unusual" Anabaptism

This is my final post on Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist.

The last two chapters of Murray’s discussion of Anabaptism reveals great diversity in the history of the movement and in its present forms. When we’re honest, which Murray is, we also get a movement full of problems: legalism, selectivity, anti-intellectualism in the past and intellectualism in the present, separatism, quietism, and passivity to name a few (a lot!). Anabaptism has no claim to perfection.

So why the attraction to Anabaptism? Why the growing popularity?

Murray suggests that there is a depth to discipleship in Anabaptism that is well-suited to a world that no longer embraces the centrality of the Christian message. It's difficult being a Christian in the 21st Century. Anabaptism knows difficulty and faith commitment. Appeal isn’t found in the perfection of the movement but in an appealing - even if “unusual” - articulation of life and faith appropriate for this time and place in history. Murray contends:
The Anabaptist tradition offers a place of belonging and a source of inspiration for Christians today as we face the challenges of a post-Christendom culture, in which the long-dominant forms of institutional Christianity are declining and struggling. Whether or not we wish to be labeled “Anabaptist,” this marginalized tradition offers a place to stand and community from which to draw strength...Anabaptism is a “tradition whose time may have come” - not because it is unblemished or offers us all we need, but because it has a distinctive and unusual contribution to make.
Essentially, rather than compete with or assert within secular society - attempts to “sell” the Christian faith to the masses as “relevant” - Anabaptism offers a whole different paradigm, a wholly alternative way of life. This way of life, describes Murray, is a “spirituality of discipleship,” a personal journey of yieldedness to God and others as followers of Jesus.

With religious devotion no longer the cultural norm, Anabaptism simply says, “exactly!” Live with it. Defending the cultural relevance of Christianity isn’t our fight. And for many, they’ve fought too long and too hard. They’re exhausted. Christianity seems to be losing. And then they encounter Anabaptism and find themselves refreshed and encouraged (Murray quotes Brian McLaren, Tom Sine, and Gregory Boyd as examples of this sentiment). There is an appeal to this “unusual” tradition.

It’s doubtful Anabaptism will be for everyone. The problems and obscurity of the movement hinder broad acceptance. For many, it’s too alternative, too unusual. Yet as an Anabaptist myself, I’m encouraged by individuals like Stuart Murray, and movements like The Anabaptist Network. I'm encouraged not because of the growing consensus, but by the stories of faith and transformation that tell of God’s continued presence however “popular” Christianity was, is, or will be.

heavenly quotes

I'm preaching on heaven on Sunday - "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1).

Eugene Peterson, in his book Reversed Thunder, has some excellent quotes that summarize well what I tend to believe on this important, yet often misunderstood issue. Enjoy!

“Heaven...is the metaphor that tells us that there is far more here than meets the eye. Beyond and through what we see there is that which we cannot see, and which is, wondrously, not ‘out there’ but right here before and among us: God – his rule, his love, his judgment, his salvation, his mercy, his grace, his healing, his wisdom.”

“The biblical story began, quite logically, with a beginning. Now it draws to an end, note quite so logically, also with a beginning...the story that has creation for its first word, has creation for its last word: “The end is where we start from” (quoting T.S. Eliot).

“The gospel does not begin with matter and then gradually get refined into spirit. The revelation of God does not begin with a material universe and a flesh and blood Jesus and then, working itself up through the grades, finally graduate into ether and angels and ideas.”

“Heaven is not what we wait for until the rapture or where we go when we die, but what is barely out of the range of our senses, but brought to our senses by St. John’s visions. We are now able to look upon events around us not as a hopeless morass of pagan deception and human misery, but as the birth pangs of a new creation and beckoning to participate in God’s remaking of God’s creation.”

“Many people want to go to heaven the way they want to go Florida – they think the weather will be an improvement and the people decent. But the biblical heaven is not a nice environment far removed from the stress of hard city life. It is the invasion of the city by the City. We enter heaven not by escaping what we don’t like, but by the sanctification of the place in which God has placed us.”

“Heaven is not simply a dream to retreat to when things get messy and inhospitable on earth. Heaven is not fantasy. We have access to heaven now: it is the invisibility in which we are immersed, and that is developing into visibility, and that one day will be thoroughly visible.”


I've written about heaven before, in my series, "Heaven: Out of this World?"


gospel as God's people

This post is a reflection on a seminar I recently attended entitled, “Centrality of the Gospel” featuring Greg Gilbert.

I recently heard pastor and author Greg Gilbert - author of What is the Gospel? - state that the gospel must start with the cross. Let me rephrase that: the gospel is the cross (e.g. “Christ and him crucified” - 1 Cor. 2:2). More specifically, for Gilbert, the cross is shorthand for saying Jesus has died in our place, absorbing God’s wrath upon himself and securing our forgiveness when we respond in faith as sinners deserving death. “Penal substitutionary atonement” is the technical term. Everything else in theology and Christian living (e.g. Kingdom of God, discipleship, new life, etc...) flows out of this part of the biblical narrative - bonus material to the gospel. The term Gilbert used for this type of gospel was “gateway,” describing the cross as the door through which we experience everything else in Christianity. The cross is our “gateway” to participate with God in everything else the Christian life entails.

Now, on one level, this is fine. Jesus is our substitute. Absolutely. Although I’m hesitant to say Jesus is our substitute in the very narrow way Gilbert does (ie. penal substitution). But I agree, the substitutionary death of Jesus is very important.

But is it the gospel? Is Christ’s salvific death as a “gateway” to our individual journey of life with God the gospel? Is the cross first about personal salvation, with the biblical concept of the people of God coming later (i.e. personal salvation is a “gateway” to being part of the people of God).

But is that the order in the Biblical account?

Through the cross did Jesus come to save individual sinners, which then led to a faithful people? Or through the cross did Jesus create a faithful people from in which individual sinners are saved?

In the Old Testament, God indeed calls individuals. But such calling always has the express purpose of creating (Abraham) and sustaining (Moses, prophets) the faithfulness of the people of God - Israel. It’s always about the people.

In the New Testament, Jesus also calls individuals. But note what he calls them to: “follow me...”). But why? Because he is their king. And a king is only king with...a people. Jesus continues God’s plan of creating and sustaining a faithful people. The book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament describe this peoples’ journey as Jesus’ followers - the people of God, the new Israel, the bride of Christ, the church. Again, it’s always about the people.

It’s no secret that the people of God (OT, NT, church history) have continually failed to live up to their original calling to “be a blessing to all nations” (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8). Ever since the first account of humanity (Adam and Eve), sin and death has been pervasive and unavoidable. God’s faithful people are routinely unfaithful. We know it in the Bible. We know it in history. Dare we say we know it in our personal lives. We (individuals and the community of God’s people) are sinners.

What, then, is the “good news” for our predicament? God keeps calling his people. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus’ overcame sin and death to reign as king in the world. “I will be with you until the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20) is not a future promise for personal eternal security, but a promise that we have a gracious king who has overcome our inability to get things right on our own - a king who will lead his people each day into new life.

The gospel, then, is not simply a transaction between me and God, with Jesus as the payment - a cosmic declaration of my forgiveness. The gospel is the biblical story of God continuing to call a people to faithfulness (e.g. Mk. 1:15). And Jesus as the risen king makes that call possible. Personal salvation is an extension of the good news of God’s work in the world through a people, not the other way around. The gospel is bigger than any individual. In a me-centered world the last thing we need is more of me. You and me - all of us! - need a people, a community, a kingdom in the best sense. And this is God’s intention. This is the gospel!

Praise be to God!


For this response, I had in mind another seminar I recently attended with Scot McKnight (yes, pastors attend a lot of seminars!), which I've reflected on here.

spiritual disciplines

For many, Lent is a time of fasting - a time to focus in on spiritual disciplines as a part of one’s journey with Jesus. It’s a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter - resurrection!

But why? Why do all sorts of acts to symbolize our journeying with Christ - to symbolize our life as God’s people?

There can be a tendency to equate spiritual disciplines with, well, spiritual things. We pray to connect with God in our spirits. We fast to remind ourselves of our dependence on God for all things. We gather for worship as communities to be reminded of our unity around the One who calls us his “chosen people” (Col 3:12). All these things are worthy and beneficial for our faith.

But framed this way we can equate spirituality with interior disposition. We disengage the world to engage God. But this ends up spiritualizing spirituality. We neglect the wholeness of spirituality as God’s image-bearing people. And by image-bearing, I’m not talking about some intangible stamp of divine DNA within us that glows brighter the more “spiritual” we are in our actions. No, as made in God’s image our spiritual disciplines are intended to re-orient our focus towards living out our image-bearing role. As Psalm 8 reflects, we are crowned with glory and honor, a little lower than angels (v. 5). But keep reading. Humans are made this way why? To rule - to lead - over the works of God’s hands (v. 6). We are intended to be God’s image-bearers in the world.

It’s not surprising that people have often questioned the validity of spiritual disciplines, the observance of Lent being one example. Lent can easily become overly ritualistic with little or no connection to one’s personal journey as a Jesus-follower. Or as I state above, it can become overly disengaged from life. Or it can even become a formulaic process to somehow secure God’s favor. Spiritual disciplines become all about us. And we see this in the Bible:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’ (Is. 58:3).

God’s people call out to basically say, “Look at us God! Have favor on because we fasted!” If we’re honest, I think we can relate: “40 days of spiritual discipline in Lenten observance, of course God will bless me!”

But again, we need to keep reading:

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD? (Is. 58:3-5)

The point is clear: spiritual disciplines - fasting in this case - are not an end in and of themselves. One hour of committed prayer is pointless if there are twenty-three hours of committed selfishness. Spiritual disciplines are not a therapeutic exercise to make us feel better inside. Spiritual disciplines are intended to make us better people in the world.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. (Is. 58:6-9)

Withdrawal from society or escape to find your “inner-self” is not the point. Spiritual disciplines, such as those around Lent, by their very nature point outward. The “Glory of the Lord” - God’s blessing on us - leads to a transformed life of love for others, especially the broken, hurting, hungry, and poor among us - “the least of these” as Jesus taught (Mt. 25:40).

As Jesus followers, then, spirituality is an active, disciplined life of loving others. Times such as Lent remind us who we are in Jesus, but always for the purpose of engaging deeper in the world around us.

"getting off the bandwagon"

Today I point you to an article I've written for the MB Herald: "Getting Off the Bandwagon: The Missional Church as Paradigm - Not Trendy Program". Here's an excerpt:

What exactly is the missional church? Is it about tweaking ministry programs? Is it simply a more tasteful synonym for evangelism in our sensitive post-Christian, anti-evangelical culture? Is it a fad? Is it being on a mission, not just doing missions? Google “missional” and you realize just how diverse the concept really is.

Have we become too comfortable and familiar with the term “missional” without actually adopting the overall concept? Or, put more plainly, are we as good at being missional as we are talking about being missional?

Read more...


My basic intention behind the article is for Christians to be intentional in all that we do. We need to know what we say (e.g. "Missional") and know why we say it - lest our words and actions just become a random collection of incoherent attempts of following Jesus.

Dave-ism

Away on vacation this week, I’m re-posting some of my earliest posts that still help frame how I explore faith, community and culture in my life and here on my blog. It's interesting to go back and see where I was and where I am now...

This post is from November, 2006 - “Dave-ism”:

It's a common tendency in North America to choose faith or truth on the basis of personal preference. One of my professors, John Stackhouse, has a blog post on this subject: "Spirituality: Informal, implicit, invisible..." Stackhouse refers to this phenomenon as “do-it-yourself religion.” In the smorgasbord of religion choice is left up to the individual where any sort of faith experience is completely separate from organized religion. Hence the motto, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” Stackhouse is simply describing the modern context in which faith is practiced.

This type of customized personal faith leads to what Stackhouse calls “Sheila-ism.” Basically, religion and spirituality becomes a mere reflection of personal choice and experience. All you have to do is take your name and insert it in front of “ism.” Truth, meaning, and even God, end up being a reflection of oneself. While I understand this is likely a reaction against traditional religion where choice was often left to an elite few and then imposed upon society, I wonder if we have swung too far in the other direction? I wonder if an understanding of reality and faith that is completely personal (e.g. "Dave-ism") will bring sustained meaning and understanding to my life? I'm not so sure.
...

The question of whether or not my life and faith is simply a “Dave-ism” is a helpful challenge to myself, and perhaps you as well…