The _____ captivity of the church

Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart

Freedom.

Religious freedom.

Freedom of speech.

It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.

The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.

We’re captives.

We’re political captives.

We’re economic captives.

We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.

We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.

But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).

We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.

Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.

Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.

Freedom.

Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’  empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.

We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.

But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.

If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).

There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:

“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”

The Babylonian captivity of Israel

When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.

They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.

They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.

There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…

 When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5

The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.

“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27

Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.

 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28

The first Babylonian captivity of the Church

The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:

The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6

This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…

“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18

For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.

Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.

An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.

When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:

Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54

This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.

… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7 

The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.

But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).

The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church

Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.

The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.

Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…

“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?

You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.

It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”

This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.

Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)

I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).

I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).

It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.

If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.

This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome)but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.

This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).

This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).

This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).

This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising

This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.

This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitary brains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.

This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’…  There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.

Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.

When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…

“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment,  “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”

In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.

“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”

22 Theses on the Australian Reformed Evangelical Scene and how we might continue reforming

lutherhammertime

On this day 499 years ago, the reformer Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. I don’t know why he chose a crass, commercialised American holiday to do this; especially because America as we know it hadn’t been invented yet, but he did.

Luther put forward his theses to invite debate from his colleagues within the church; a church he loved and served and wanted to see grow. This wasn’t an act of rebellion, though we’ve recast it that way since, because he certainly ended up being treated like a rebel; it was an attempt at reformation of the institution he loved.

Lots of protestants, especially reformed protestants, are trying to mark the 500th year in special ways, my senior pastor Steve Cree has had a crack on our church’s blog, in a post I think is provocative and worth reading.

I’m a Presbyterian Minister, which places me firmly in the Reformed Evangelical tradition; I’ve been deeply influenced by the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, by the ethos of the Sydney Anglican scene (largely through ministers trained at Moore College), and was educated at Queensland Theological College.

I’ve been reflecting on what got me to where I am, and what I’m thankful for when it comes to my heritage, but also on where I think things are going wrong for us as the church in Australia, and where we (these circles and how they’ve shaped me) might be contributing to that. I’m not trying to downplay God’s sovereignty in the mess we find ourselves in, but the church is not succeeding, broadly speaking, in reaching Australia, and even the reformed evangelical stream of the church which seems to record very modest growth while the liberal church shrinks is not growing at the same pace as the population. We need to ask some questions about what we’re doing wrong; and what we might do better; and so, channeling Luther, here are my theses on some of the issues. There are some institutions and churches already operating as counter-examples to the status quo and showing what a way forward might look like, so if you don’t think these apply to you, then maybe they don’t.

I’d love to hear yours… I’m also happy to defend any of these in the comments.

 

Thesis 1. We’ve made repentance more about turning from our sin than about turning to Jesus and his kingdom.

Thesis 2. In focusing on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (which is absolutely true), we’ve downplayed the other aspects of the Cross; the example, the victory, the establishment of the rule of Jesus and the peace he came to bring.

Thesis 3. We’ve tended to kill paradoxes in pursuit of clarity and pragmatic decisions rather than wrestling with them and living in tension and mystery.

Thesis 4. We’ve been confused about the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ and so have an anaemic doctrine of creation, and a poor theology of work…  especially when it comes to what ministry of the kingdom looks like; such that evangelism/proclamation has become the thing we push gifted Christians towards. As a quick example; I was president of our AFES group but not attending class and barely passing; we should push our university students to being excellent contributors in all sorts of industries; particularly, if Christians are going to be excluded from secular establishments (like health and education systems) we should be fostering resilient and imaginative entrepreneurs who will work for the good of their neighbours as a witness, but also be able to make a robust Christian case within a professional field).

Thesis 5. We’ve misunderstood worship and liturgy as being exclusively a Sunday thing; either about music or the sacraments; or not a Sunday thing at all but all of life; and both poles have involved reactive over-corrections against the other; and so we’ve downplayed idolatry and its significance.

Thesis 6. Our anthropology has been ‘head first’ so that we’ve bought into the modernist belief that education of the brain is the primary, even only, way to bring about sanctification; and our approach has been modernist so that we believe the way to bring about this change is via propositional truth and ‘getting the facts’.

Thesis 7. We’ve turned ‘scripture alone’ into ‘literacy alone’ and so excluded or marginalised those who are unable to read; or who don’t want to. Our churches tend to be white, or to assume that Christian culture looks like ‘white culture’ for people from other backgrounds, such that we’ve even created homogenous churches for other ethnicities.

Thesis 8. We’ve individualised salvation and so individualised the journey of the Christian life (think the Footprints poem, we should see our sandy beach as littered with the footprints of other people journeying with us and helping us through trials as God’s agents in our lives, and we should be that for each other).

Thesis 9. We haven’t been clear enough or persuasive enough about how to read and understand the Bible as centred on Jesus in a way that will help Christians engage with strange Old Testament passages and the way they are used in public debate by both Christians and non-Christians. We haven’t provided a robust enough safeguard against a hermeneutic of ‘feelings’…

Thesis 10. We have killed the priest as mediator when it comes to confession, but still see ‘preaching’ as a priestly function to the body, not on behalf of the body to the world. We also see preaching as a monologue by one very educated person.

Thesis 11. We see church as a Sunday gathering, and the gathering as being largely for believers and their edification, rather than being an opportunity for believers to love one another and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to their particular place, reflecting a community that exists all week.

Thesis 12. What we do when we gather, and the disciplines we call people to adopt during the week in pursuit of their spiritual growth tend to be the product of a particular personality type (often the modernist engineer type, usually the minister). We are suspicious of the emotions, and the imagination, and practices that are embodied or tactile (we’re suspicious of physical responses to music, but this also includes a view or practice of the sacraments that is sometimes totally devoid of significance, beauty or mystery). This leads to the danger that we are making disciples in our image, and making being part of the church, spirituality, and discipleship less plausible for people not like us.

Thesis 13. We’ve believed the plausibility of Christianity rests in good arguments rather than in loving community that imitates Christ (and makes good arguments). The love of Christians for one another is what makes the Gospel plausible.

Thesis 14. We are not very good listeners so fail to diagnose and engage with the problems of the world around us. We especially tend to mostly read people we already agree with who reinforce our views, rather than listening to other people who share our theological convictions from history, or globally, and assessing our practices in response.

Thesis 15. We don’t make very good media; and our use of new media seems to be geared towards reinforcing our circle, not growing it (which would arguably be more bracing for us).

Thesis 16. Our imaginations have largely failed us when it comes to public Christianity; we tend to see solutions to moral issues as being political, and have tended to play the political game on the basis of power and natural law arguments, rather than faithfully articulating our Gospel-soaked alternative in a way that positions the church as an alternative political reality to the world.

Thesis 17. We haven’t really grappled with what it looks like to be joyful optimists who trust in God’s sovereignty through our struggles; and so have failed to be adventurous.

Thesis 18. As a corollary to the last point; we’ve not yet charted a way forward where we actually function as exiles in the post-Christian wilderness, or fully grasped what it looks like to live in a pluralist and secular democracy. This relates in an interesting way to Thesis 16 as well.

Thesis 19. We tend to make change very difficult because we want to conserve our theological distinctives (the stuff the reformers fought for); but that means we’ve held on too tightly to practical things that aren’t working or aren’t right.

Thesis 20. We’ve been too interested in protecting our place in society and our political and social influence to be reaching those who society marginalises (our typically middle class, educated, whiteness is a result of many of the above points too).

Thesis 21. Our disenchanted view of the world; a product of many of the above; means we frame our lives in the world as something other than a fight against Satan and the idols and lies he uses to lure us away from God and to death; it also robs us of the practices and vocabulary that might see us doing something significant to fight against those for our sake and the sake of our neighbours. Instead, we treat life as a battle to think the right things.

Thesis 22. Our ownership of exclusive and expensive church schools that aren’t really preparing the next generation of Christians for engagement in a post-Christian world will be to our shame. The sort of education we provide should be accessible and excellent; fostering the imagination, training in virtue via example and the formation of habits, cultivating desires that run counter to our culture, helping people understand the world and a flourishing life in it (probably via the Liberal Arts), and teaching people to view life in Christ as an adventure. The schools that do this are too expensive, and the Christian schools that are cheap don’t do this.

 

Bonus 5. That I thought were equally, if not more important, than the above.

Thesis 23. We’ve somehow created church decision making processes that don’t really give 50% of the church an opportunity to be involved with the making of decisions as though authority rests in decision making of a bunch of priestly types. Particularly for the Presbyterians the decisions made in our ‘courts’ include a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with eldership even if eldership is what we think it is; that we think this is what the Bible has in view as the way leadership or gender roles play out in the church seems to me to be a total failure to imagine how the Gospel starts unravelling the impact of the curse on relationships between men and women; and a failure to re-capture the meaning of ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 as ‘necessary ally’ and to recognise the way God uses the spoken wisdom of women to leaders to help direct his plans in the world through the Bible (and the way Proverbs depicts wisdom as ‘lady wisdom’…).

Thesis 24.  We’ve imported worldly understandings of leadership and authority into the church; and into how we appoint and identify leaders; and what we expect from them.

Thesis 25. Our expectations of the clergy, and of ourselves as clergy, are unrealistic and reinforce a weird priestly view of ministry.

Thesis 26. As Christians we’ve bought into the trap of measuring success, or fruitfulness, by productivity and so doomed ourselves to being busy and perpetuating many of the problems facing our neighbours within the church.

Thesis 27. We’re inadequately prepared, theologically or practically, for dealing with the rise of mental health issues in part caused by life in the world as it now is; including, amongst other things the impacts of pornography, social media, and the changing pattern of media consumption that all fuel our culture’s rampant individualism, and create disconnection rather than connection between people.

Cicero and the Apostle Paul as social media pioneers

Tom Standage’s piece “How Luther Went Viral” from The Economist is one of the most important things I’ve read during my time at Queensland Theological College. It became a significant part of the thinking behind my Masters thesis. It was published a while back – but it was a foretaste of Standage’s forthcoming book about ancient social media – Writing on the Wall. Which I’m very much looking forward to reading.

Here’s 16 minutes on ancient social media from Tom Standage that is worth your time.

He defines social media – in order to avoid anachronistically reading web 2.0 platforms back into the past as:

Media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community.

He says the elements required for “social media” to flourish are:

  1. Literacy.
  2. Low cost of transmission.

He looks at Cicero, and he looks at Luther – two of the people I deal with in my project – but I think he misses the missing link between these two.

The Apostle Paul.

(note: other than the fact that there’s a direct link, because Luther was a big fan of Cicero – as, incidentally, was Augustine, he’s pretty popular with Christians who are serious about communication).

I think the Apostle Paul was also a practitioner of ancient social media.

UPDATE: Tom Standage tweeted me to let me know Paul is in his book… Which is another compelling reason to pre-order it.

There’s an article doing the rounds about Jesus being the original tweeter too – but I don’t think he had a monopoly on pithy statements of wisdom. Moses, Solomon, and plenty of people outside the Judeo-Christian tradition were speaking in soundbites before Jesus.

Anyway.

Standage provides a bit of a teaser for his book in a post on his blog that describes Cicero’s approach to promoting his books (this gets a mention in the video), where he suggests Cicero was a social media practitioner in the context of the Roman publishing industry.

He describes the reliance on social networks for books to be circulated, and printed… which I’ll suggest is interesting when one considers the form/genre the New Testament takes. Coming, as it does, in easily (and widely) copied written volumes, about 100 years after Cicero…

Here’s an interesting insight into the purpose of publishing in Rome.

The sign of a successful book was that booksellers would have copies of it made for sale to the public — something they would only do if they were sure people would buy them. Roman authors, then, wanted their books to be as widely copied by as many people as possible, and ideally wanted copies to end up being put on sale, even though the author himself would not benefit financially. Instead, Roman authors benefited from their books in other ways: they were a way to achieve fame, highlight or strengthen the author’s social connection with an influential patron, get a better job, and generally advance in Roman society. Roman publishing was all about social networking, and Roman books were a form of social media.

If the success of an ancient document is assessed based on the volume of copies of manuscripts circulating and the spread, and longevity of the social networking spreading them – then the New Testament texts, and the Christian community are incredible examples.

While I believe that this is divinely orchestrated, the “natural” explanation of this success – because I think God works through natural, human causes, by equipping people for tasks – is equally fascinating. I’d suggest that the Apostle Paul was every bit as effective when it came to social media as Cicero, and that the relatively egalitarian social structure of the early church and non-reliance on famous and educated patrons for works to spread removed some of the inhibiting factors at play in the late Roman Republic, such that the New Testament spread further, and faster, than Cicero’s works.

I’ve tried to make the case for a link between Paul and Cicero for a while – here, I’m just going to compare them…

Cicero: Communicator par excellence

Here’s a cool quote from Cicero, who Standage suggests is the father of social media, from the video above:

“You say my letter has been widely published: well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.”

Sharing and circulating has always been at the heart of social media – it’s not something Facebook discovered.

Here’s Standage’s justification for that suggestion (from the blog post linked above):

To modern eyes this all seems strangely familiar. Cicero was, to use today’s internet jargon, a participant in a “social media” system: that is, an environment in which people can publish, discuss, recommend and share items of interest within a group of friends and associates, passing noteworthy items from one social circle to another. The Romans did it with papyrus rolls and messengers; today hundreds of millions of people do the same things rather more quickly and easily using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other internet tools. The technologies involved are very different, but these two forms of social media, separated by two millennia, share many of the same underlying structures and dynamics: they are two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social connections, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source. This exchange of information allows discussion and debate to take place within a distributed community whose members may never meet each other in person.

The two-way thing is particularly interesting to me – there’s a guy, James Grunig, who’s the doyen of modern, ethical, public relations theory. His big thesis is that rather than being a one way information distribution thing, or an attempt to persuade or manipulate, public relations and communication should be “two-way,” and rather than being two way where the communicator adopts a posture of power and authority – it should be “symmetrical” – a genuine conversation, where your partner is treated as equal.

Cicero wasn’t just an orator par excellence, or a social media user par excellence – he was a public relations strategist par excellence – except he lost. And was executed by his opponents. But he was only executed because he was noticed, heard, and understood – he just happened to be speaking against the move from Republic to Empire.

Here’s a bit more from Standage…

“By the end of the first century BC a more formal way to announce and promote a new book, called the recitatio, had established itself. This was a launch party at which a book (or excerpts from it) were read to an invited audience, either by the author or by a skilled slave known as a lector. Once the reading was over, a presentation copy of the book would be given to the dedicatee, and other less fancy copies would be made available to the author’s friends and associates. The work was then considered to have been published, in the sense that it had been formally released by its author for reading, copying and circulation. At that point the book was on its own and would either spread — or not, depending on whether the author had succeeded in generating sufficient buzz.”

James Grunig, incidentally, had this to say about social media and symmetrical communication in a Q&A on a PR blog, before Facebook became the global behemoth it now is, back in 2008…

I believe the new media are perfect for practicing the two-way symmetrical model. I think it would be difficult to practice any of the other models effectively with the new media. Unfortunately, I’m afraid a lot of public relations practitioners try to practice these other models with cyber media.

Historically, whenever a new medium is invented people use it in the same way that they used the existing media. So, for example, when television was invented journalists tended to use it like radio by simply televising someone reading the news rather than using pictures.

With today’s new cyber media, public relations practitioners first used it like they used publications—as a means of dumping information on the public (following either the press agentry or public information model). With the advent of Web 2.0, however, practitioners seem to be adopting a dialogical model by listening to publics, discussing problems and issues with them, and interpreting their organization’s actions and behaviours to publics.

Effective communication through “social media” isn’t about dumping information on people and running away. Not now – and not for Cicero.

Effective communication through “social media” has, since Cicero, been about getting the conversation happening to spread your message further, growing its influence.

For Cicero, this meant propagating the values of the Republic through his books. His version of the Republic. His virtues. His understanding of the ideal Roman, the ideal orator, the ideal statesman, the ideal state… which are (largely) the focus of his publications.

Cicero’s books – and I’ve read quite a few of them – are packed with ideas. They were a sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, rear guard defence of Republican values. They were pointed social commentary, offering a strong alternative vision for the shape of Rome.

And while I’m a big fan of Cicero, and a big fan of a lot of his principles in the face of the Empire – his integrity, the value he places on democracy and his semi-egalitarian desire to see people rise on merit, not limited by birth, his championing of oratorical substance over style (though style was pretty important), even his faux-stoic Roman virtues – one often feels that his writing functions to underline his fundamental thesis – Rome and Roman society should revolve around people exactly like him…

That’s between the lines of all his treaties on the ideal orator – where he never names himself as the ideal, but always hints at it, while encouraging people to find worthy orators to imitate. In many ways I’d like to be like Cicero, especially in how I communicate.

But, in many ways, I’d rather be like Paul. Who I think takes Cicero’s approach to new heights.

Now. Lets compare the pair.

Paul: A more excellent Communicator

Brand Jesus has lasted almost 2,000 years. The message has circulated, and been propagated with a pretty incredible degree of accuracy since it was first written down – and a huge part of the message was written by Paul. Even if you’re a “minimalist” type who doesn’t think Paul wrote some of the stuff attributed to him. These arguments usually rely on assuming Paul was incapable of employing more than one written style, or voice, an objection that is baseless if he is actually a trained communicator.

In any case, the popular criticism that Christianity was invented by Paul contains a kernel of truth. If not for Paul, then Christianity wouldn’t have circulated the way it did, reaching the heights of influence it has, lasting the length of time it has. Paul is, by any modern measure, a master communicator.

While there’s heaps of New Testament scholarship out there that writes off Paul’s rhetorical or oratorical abilities on the basis of one self-deprecating verse about his speaking in 2 Corinthians (which I think can be nicely explained as part of a connection with Cicero), when it comes to communication excellence Paul the publisher is closely related to Paul the speaker. This is equally true for Cicero. His speeches and books work together to present his message – they feed into one another. This relationship is tightened, and formalised, when one considers volumes that contain speeches by each communicator – for Cicero, there are plenty of extant copies of his speeches, for Paul, there’s Luke’s description of his modus operandi, and summarised content, in the Book of Acts.

I think Acts indicates that Paul gets “social”… here are a couple of quick examples… when establishing an audience for his message, Paul always heads to places where discussion is happening, like in Athens (Acts 17). Where he starts in the marketplace, where Luke says:

“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”

That’s where you go to start a conversation. If you get the social media thing.

His longer term strategy – in places he stays for a while – is to converse in the same location, presumably with the same audience. So when he hits Ephesus (Acts 19)…

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of TyrannusThis went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”

That’s a lot of people. It’s a pretty big network of relationships.

He also writes to the church in this town – an epistle – Ephesians – that most scholars believe was to be read out to the church, but also to be duplicated, kept in the community, and circulated further afield. The evidence – manuscript evidence, and historical evidence, suggests this happened.

He maintains this network of relationships – with a bit of a driveby catch up with the Ephesian elders as he bypasses Ephesus on his way back to Jerusalem (Acts 20).

His words in that meeting are interesting because they support the view that Paul was a “social media” practitioner, who used relationships to drive the circulation of his message such that Luke says the whole town and region heard it.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

Paul’s approach is all about authentic relationships. And conversation.

You could mount an interesting comparison between Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and any of Cicero’s works on virtues, or being a citizen. Citizenship of God’s kingdom is pretty high on his agenda – but Paul, in Ephesians, also intentionally democratises the spread of his message. That’s where it lands.

All the Ephesians, not just Paul, have a role to play in spreading this message. Owning it. Not just endorsing it.

Which is a particularly cutting edge use of social media – Cicero might have relied on endorsements and patronage – but Paul deliberately encourages every person in his network to transmit their own version of his message, through their words and lives.

Here are some bits from the letter to the Ephesians, chapters 4 and 5, that reveal, I think, part of this strategy… First, in terms of developing social networks that last…

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Second, encouraging this network to participate in communicating – in part through ethos (another thing Paul and Cicero have in common) – the message of Jesus in a multimedia way… he keeps referring to sensory inputs beyond hearing speech, and reading that communicate something… and again, he encourages people to participate in the process.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God

… Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He expands on the communication side of things a bit more in his letters to the Corinthians, which I think are more deliberately focused on questions of communication (amongst other issues)… But finally, the way he closes the letter (Ephesians 6) reveals two things – his understanding of his message, and his role as messenger, and the importance he places on an ongoing friendship and partnership in this expanding network…

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.

The repetition in that last part is emphatic. The strength of Paul’s social media model depends on feeling connected, socially. This has a spiritual aspect for Christians, but in sociological terms it proved quite effective as a communication tool, and still proves to be the case today.

We’ve seen that just this week – with the shocking and horrific bombing of a church in Pakistan, churches from across the globe – including in Australia – are communicating with those on the ground in Pakistan with a spirit of brotherhood, in a giant social network. This time with the modern convenience of social media.

I think Paul’s fairly consistent references to his fellow workers, and to people he has close relationships with in the towns receiving his letters is further evidence that they function, much the same way as Cicero’s books. These are indicative of some of the relationships Paul must have relied upon to spread his books. Priscilla and Aquila would be a great example – geographically mobile, they pop up in Corinth and Rome, they could well have been responsible for taking copies of Paul’s letters from church to church, and they would’ve had access to new letters Paul was writing in the times they were together with him… Even though both men ended up dying for their convictions, Paul’s social media campaign has been much more effective than Cicero’s. If we accept Standage’s definition:

Media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community.

Chances are people today are much more familiar with Paul’s work than Cicero’s – even outside the church.

This is probably, in part, because death was part of the package for Paul – as he promoted a crucified king, while Cicero’s horrible death simply served to highlight the death of that which he stood for. The values of the Republic.

This has implications for Paul’s approach to “public relations” – where Cicero adopts something like Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model, or something slightly manipulatively asymmetrical such that he uses his contacts to grow his influence through the appearance of conversation – Paul, as a follower of the “suffering servant” adopts a deliberately asymmetrical approach where he isn’t interested in his own power and influence so much as how we can serve and encourage his ‘public’ while he’s in chains, as a status-renouncing embodiment of the gospel.

Interestingly, and as a final tangent, of sorts regarding the parallel between Paul and Cicero – Cicero published widely, articulating his vision of the ideal theological system, ideal political system, ideal person, ideal virtues, ideal orator and statesman – often championing his own life, which embodied his message, Paul did the same – articulating a theological position – Christianity as the globally significant fulfilment of Judaism, a political system – the ethics of living in this world as a citizen of heaven, an anthropology with Jesus held out as the ideal person, the ‘virtues’ of a life led by the Holy Spirit, and he spends a significant amount of energy defining what it looks like to be an orator of the cross – such that Jesus is the example – but his example can be followed by anybody, not just somebody of Paul’s incredible gifts and abilities.

That, at the end of the day, is the biggest difference between Paul and Cicero as communicators.

Paul isn’t his own ideal. He’s not self-promoting. He’s not seeking his own power and influence. He’s not climbing the social ladder – if anything he’s climbing down it. He’s promoting Jesus.

Hearing her voice: teaching, preaching, and a complementarian ethos

If you haven’t been following along on the interwebs, a hornets nest has been kicked and then ignited with the release of three Zondervan e-books about women and preaching, and whether or not they should do it.

I’ve read one of these, Hearing Her Voice, by John Dickson, the following review should come with the same caveats I included when I reviewed Promoting the Gospel: the best kept secret of Christian mission – I think John Dickson is excellent, I love his published body of work, and have found him helpful at just about every step of the way on my journey from Christian kid to theological student.

In this book we get more of Dickson’s very solid hermeneutical model applied to a pretty tricky question, and particularly applied to a verse that creates quite a few difficulties for the modern church. Seriously, he is, I think, the model of what being a careful interpreter of Scripture looks like, there’s a great para in the book that outlines his approach to using history as a tool for exegesis, and I commend it to you.

I was going to include quotes from the book – but this post is already almost 6,000 words long.

The question at the heart of this book – well, there are two questions, I think – and perhaps three – is what is “teaching?” Is preaching teaching? And if not, can women preach in church?

What’s not up for grabs for Dickson is the real strength of his work – he’s big on the authority of Scripture, big on consistently reading and exegeting it with the original readers and meaning in mind, and big on the principle that while male and female are equal in God’s sight, we are different.

I feel like I should throw in a few disclaimers at the start so you know where I’m coming from…

  • I’m aware of the dangers of being a “privileged” and unoppressed class speaking out on this issue – a white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant voice in this debate needs to be pretty mindful of his cultural background and relative freedom to make proclamations that appear to come at a cost to others. (UPDATE: If you’re reading this post in the present day, post 2014, I’m also a guy who occupies a pulpit — even more ‘privilege’ to account for in this conversation).
  • I love the concept of a priesthood of all believers – it goes without saying that this includes men and women – I think it’s biblical, I think we’re all called to be on mission together, and equipped by God to serve as part of the body of believers as we serve and love one another and try to reach people together.
  • I think there are lots of women who are gifted preachers, teachers, and evangelists. I don’t see any gender specific traits that make being able to show someone else that Jesus is the Christ a particularly male act. This isn’t an “innate” issue, or a “masculinity” issue, men are not innately more competent in this area than women.
  • I’m also a complementarian – I think our different genders are a good and necessary part of what it means to be human. I think we’re different but equal.
  • I agree that there are lots of roles open to women that we’ve essentially closed because we’re scared of transgressing in this area – including prophecy, exhortation, partnering as “gospel workers,” etc.
  • I think the gender stuff at the fall is pretty interesting, and is certainly something Paul has in mind in this verse. While this is pretty absent in Dickson’s book, it is something Mike Bird, who wrote a second book in the series, spends some time considering – but I haven’t read that yet.
  • I’m wary about tossing out 2,000 years of church tradition, particularly the interpretive traditions from people who took the Bible seriously – though I’m also aware that all interpreters are fallible, and texts, and interpretations of those texts are the product of different cultures. I’m interested in a tendency, beyond Dickson’s book, to pit current movements of the Spirit through female preachers against historic movements, through tradition. I’m also pretty sure the Spirit of God is able to speak, and point to Jesus, through all sorts of wrong things we might, as humans, adopt. Our fallibility has never been an obstacle to the Spirit moving people to faith.
  • I’ll also presuppose that how we do church – including who preaches – is part of our ethos, so that the decision about who preaches is, in part, a decision we make about our presentation of the gospel.

What is a sermon? Teaching? Exhortation? Preaching?

I have some reservations about how Dickson approaches the Greek language (and how others do too) – but this is probably because they are experts at Greek and I am not. I think word studies have some merit, but I think assume too much about the deliberation that goes into the use of particular words, rather than paying heed to the vibe of a paragraph, or whole letter. I think words often have a broad semantic range that overlaps with other words, and you kind of use those ranges together to create new concepts – Dickson thinks this happens with “teaching” and “authority” in the verse in question… So I don’t really like arguments based on word studies – and most of my response won’t really engage with the question of whether or not “teaching” or in the Greek, didaskein, is a technical word for a particular act, or a general word for the passing on of knowledge – this is where the debate is being fought out on the interwebs by Lionel Windsor, and Dickson himself (in a great model of how you can disagree with people without calling their character into question…

Like I say – I’m not an expert on Greek, and don’t pretend to be, and I’m fairly sure that words can also be used technically to mean very narrow things – but I do think literary context guides interpretation… and I think one of the concerns of Paul’s letter to Timothy is to help Timothy, and the church, think rightly about questions of pastoral leadership – including the establishment of a role that seems to be for men and includes carrying the responsibility of preaching and teaching, within the church.

I don’t think Dickson necessarily disagrees with this approach to language – though his treatment of “teaching” here is very similar to his treatment of “evangelism” in Promoting the Gospel. He allows for general  use of words, while suggesting we need to pay heed to the technical meanings that may have been in operation in the first century.

He spends significant time making the case that “teaching” isn’t directly transferrable to what we do in the pulpit of a modern church each Sunday – and his argument seems to have some merit. I don’t think preaching is the teaching, in the technical sense, that Dickson identifies. So I’m almost happy to cede his whole argument, on one level – if the Sunday sermon is exhortation, as he suggests, or prophecy as the Puritans suggest, and not teaching (as Lionel Windsor suggests it is) – then I think he’s right – women should be able to exhort, prophecy, and do all the things that Paul specifically or implicitly allows, and even all the things he doesn’t forbid.

Anyway – here’s the passage in question, with a bit of context. From 1 Timothy 2…

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In 1 Timothy 3, when he’s establishing the qualifications of a deacon, and an overseer he gives a set of ethos heavy principles, like being “above reproach” – which presumably has something to do with not undermining his leadership of others, and “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” It is assumed in these verses that the person in question is a man – building off his argument in chapter 2.

In 1 Timothy 5 it appears he assumes these elders will be the people doing the “preaching and teaching”…

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Then, in 2 Timothy 4, he kind of spells out what Timothy is called to do, under the umbrella of “preaching”…

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teachingFor the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced by the way Dickson groups “teaching” and “authority” into one command, rather than two separate but related commands based on the same Old Testament/created order principle… and I think there’s another reason, an ethos reason, when it comes to how we persuade people about the message of the gospel that means we should think carefully about how we use, or emphasise, gender and authority in church gatherings… which I’ll get to below. Somewhere. I think what is done from the pulpit is an act of authority – and listening is an act of submission.

Where I think Windsor is right to go (but slightly wrong in where he lands – I think), and where I think Dickson is wrong – is on what the sermon actually is. In sum, Windsor thinks it’s teaching, and Dickson sells teaching short, Dickson thinks the sermon is exhortation, or something analogous to that – and thus thinks women can give sermons.

What Preaching is not…

I’d argue, along with Dickson, that preaching is not teaching, we’ve hastily drawn an analogous line from the Bible’s use of teaching to our modern equivalent, and that’s come at a cost.

  • Preaching is not simply teaching – though it may involve the transmission of information from someone with knowledge to someone without.
  • Preaching is not strictly exhortation though it may encourage.
  • Preaching is not simply prophecy, though it may speak God’s word to people at a particular time… though in a sense a good sermon is all of these things. 

This is one of the areas I think Dickson’s argument breaks down – you don’t have to look much past Paul to find someone who exercises more than one of the “offices” of word ministry that Dickson seems to suggest are in operation… Paul also suggests all of these things are part of Timothy’s job as a preacher (2 Tim 4).

It’s quite possible that there’ll be an overlap of different styles of speaking in any particular speech, much as there was in just about any form of first century oratory. Where Cicero, in Brutus, bags out some orators for being too specialised in one area, because the idea was that public speakers could adopt a wide range of styles, from the boring didactic history lecture, to the witty declamation of an opponent on the election trail.

What a sermon (preaching) is…

Preaching is preaching. It has a New Testament equivalent – and an Old Testament equivalent. It has a Greek word – kerusso – which had a pre-existing technical meaning, and a meaning that developed through Christian usage, and it appears to be something like being a herald and proclaiming good news, with authority.

I’d argue that if one:

then our sermons are not “teaching” in the sense identified by Dickson – but “preaching”… in the sense that the word is used throughout the New Testament.

Our sermons should point people to Jesus and the kingdom of God, attempt to persuade people to accept the message, and declare that, Jesus is Lord – This essentially does nothing for the gender question but move the goalposts, so the question is not “can women teach?” but “can women preach?” – so Dickson’s insights, while useful, are potentially irrelevant to the question.

I would say that I think preaching is an act of authority – but the ultimate authority rests in the same person it rests in when Jesus is challenged about the authority behind his preaching – God and his Christ. When we preach faithfully we are simply pointing to the authority of Jesus. The way authority is exercised over the church is ultimately in the preaching of the word (and the faithful passing on of the apostolic traditions) as they relate to Jesus, not the appointment of humans who have particular gifts in particular areas. We judge a preacher’s authority on their adherence to the divine logos, Christ-made-flesh and Christ-crucified — the message of the Bible, not on their particular ability as a speaker. And I want to make the case below that we should ultimately profoundly be assessing a preacher on their ethos — their willingness to have the truth of this logos shape who they are and how they preach. I want to make the case that this isn’t a new way of thinking about what preaching is – first from the Reformers, and then, after a little ethos excursus from the New Testament (though the order should be reversed – the NT stuff is pretty long).

Preaching in the Reformed world

Both Luther and Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.5) put a pretty high value on preaching , if preaching involved the gospel – so much that preaching was more important than the sacraments in terms of constituting Christ’s presence in the gathering of the body – this was a big deal in a time where people were killed over what they thought happened at communion.

Calvin says:

“We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.”

Both (Luther Large Catechism (PDF, p 72), Calvin Institutes 4.1.1, 4)  saw the church as the “mother” of believers – responsible, ordinarily and under God, for giving birth to new believers and nurturing the faith of existing believers – and it did this, for both groups, in the same way – by preaching the gospel of Jesus. Not legalism. Not morals. Not ethics. Not just words of encouragement. But the gospel.

The gospel will have necessary implications for our morality and ethics – and it will necessarily be encouraging as we consider that the creator of the universe sent his son to earth to buy us, for a relationship, to make us his children. But our sermons that do all these things do these things because they first declare the truths of the gospel, and these things are part of the persuasive case the gospel makes for those who hear it.

The preaching of the gospel is one of the “marks of the church” for Reformed people.

The Westminster Confession of Faith essentially follows both Calvin and Luther on this point – it says the church is responsible for the “gathering and perfecting of saints” (WCF VII, XXV), and that the preaching of the word is one of the two marks of the church (along with the administration of the sacraments).

“And particular Churches, which are members thereof [the universal, visible, church], are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

In XV the Confession says ministers are to preach: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ,” and in XXI it says faithful preaching is part of worship. This preaching is conducted by these “ministers of the gospel”…

I like this quote from Calvin that Justin Taylor shared last week:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Biblical, expository, sermons will point people to Jesus Christ in a way that declares his kingdom has come at the cross. It is preaching, not teaching.

An argument from “authority” – an ethos consideration

I think a case can be made that Paul’s prohibition on women exercising authority in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to what is going on in the gathering, and works a bit with the similar prohibition in 1 Corinthians, to establish a principle, rooted in creation and the fall, for what happens when the church meets and the gospel is preached… as an authoritative act.

But even if that case is weak – I wonder if there’s an ethos driven, cross-shaped, argument for women letting men preach, if sermons are preaching, and preaching is an act of persuasion where both pathos and ethos are as relevant as what we say… even if they are more gifted than their male counterparts, which is surely often the case.

A willingness to submit is part of the testimony of the gospel of the cross – as is a willingness to sacrificially not use our gifts for the sake of others… I’d argue Paul is essentially doing this in Corinth when he avoids using his full rhetorical prowess, that he demonstrates in Acts, in order to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” as he teaches them, knowing what he does about their culture and context – and the sinful desires they have to place value in their abilities or flashy man made idols. I reckon its possible that gender equality is a bit of an idol in our culture – I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing, idols are good things turned into ultimate things… but I wonder if a refusal to give in to cultural pressure on the gender front, voluntarily, might be a hugely important part of our testimony.

This is where a little bit of trepidation kicks in on my part – because I recognise that I’m a guy telling gifted women they can’t do what they’re gifted to do.

But, I think it’s possible that If we believe that:

  • genders are different, but that people are equal in value,
  • that the gospel does away with inequalities that people might establish on the basis of differences (Gal 3:28),
  • that submission isn’t a statement of inequality, this is where some smart egalitarians like Miroslav Volf depart, but it must be true because if we believe that the Trinity is made up of three parties who are equally God, we need to be able to say that Jesus can submit to the father without calling this equality into question (in academic terms this is a question of whether you can have functional subordination alongside ontological equality, I think the answer has to be yes, if the submission is voluntary, an act of love, offered without coercion),

then we should be able to sacrificially let men do the preaching… even if there are women out there who are better equipped to do the job… because this is part of our testimony, and our act of testifying – to the sacrifice of Jesus, for his church – just as it is in marriage (Ephesians 5).

The act of preaching is an act of authority – but this authority isn’t establishing an inequality – and if it does create such an inequality, then questions have to be asked about whether or not the guy is doing his job – just like in a marriage. Because a cruciform preacher who humbly uses the gifts God has given to build up the church and point people to Jesus through the persuasive preaching of the gospel won’t, if logos, pathos, and ethos stack up, be in a position to create any inequality except the inequality created by considering everybody else better than yourself…

Our value to God isn’t caught up in our ability to serve him – with the gifts that he has given us, nor is our testimony – I would argue our testimony is caught up in our ability to live cross-shaped lives where we imitate Jesus, who despite having all authority and abilities in his grasp, and being equipped to do otherwise gave himself up for us, as an example, here’s Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, anyparticipation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselvesLet each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersHave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps the way we testify to our unity, our like mindedness, and avoid promoting our gifts, interests, and selves, is to be prepared to not do things we could do, as part of our testimony to Jesus, and to the creator who sent him, and made men and women different.

Communicating why we’re doing this, and valuing, affirming, and giving avenues for gifted women to be effective members of the body and servants of the mission of God is obviously pretty tricky – and one of the great strengths of Dickson’s work is that it’s motivated by exactly this concern.

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Some things I like about Luther: Bon Vivant, Raconteur, Font Snob

I just finished an essay about Luther’s life, with a particular emphasis on his use of the 16th century’s equivalent of social media – the propaganda pamphlet. It was fun. I read a couple of biographies (including this one). He was a pretty cool guy. Here’s some stuff I think is worth sharing.

On Typography

“I cannot say how sorry and disgusted I am with the printing. I wish I had sent nothing in German, because they print it so poorly, carelessly, and confusedly, to say nothing of bad types and paper. John the printer is always the same old Johnny. Please do not let him print any of my German Homilies, but return them for me to send elsewhere. What is the use of my working so hard if the errors in the printed books give occasion to other publishers to make them still worse ? I would not sin so against the gospels and epistles ; better let them remain hidden than bring them out in such form. Therefore I send you nothing now, although I have a good deal of manuscript ready. I shall forward no more until I learn that these sordid mercenaries care less for their profits than for the public. Such printers seem to think : “It is enough for me to get the money; let the readers lookout for the matter.”

On the Toilet

One of Luther’s biographers says:

“It is strange, and yet certain, that this revelation (justification by faith alone) was vouchsafed to him in the privy of the Black Cloister, situated in the little tower overlooking the town walls… It is simpler, however, to recollect only that Luther was a busy man, with little leisure for private meditation, and that the rule enjoined spiritual reflection at these times. In telling the story of the monk who prayed while sitting on the stool, and had a controversy with the devil about the propriety of so doing, Luther probably referred to his own practice. It must naturally have seemed odd to him at the time, however, that such a revelation should come on such an occasion…”

On the Pope’s Hat

Luther didn’t like the pope much. This is some guys relieving themselves in his hat.

On beards and being incognito
At one point, when the emperor declared him an outlaw, Luther was “kidnapped” by some friends and hidden in a castle. He grew a beard. When some bad stuff was going down in his home town he travelled back there as a spy, in disguise.

Later, when he was heading home after his castle exile ended, he went to a pub and had this conversation with two guys who rocked up while he was there. At least this is how he tells the story.

Luther – Good evening, friends. Draw nearer and have a drink to warm you up. I see you are Swiss ; from what part do you come and whither are you going ?

Kessler – We come from St. Gall, sir, and we are going to Wittenberg.

Luther – To Wittenberg ? Well, you will find good compatriots of yours there, the brothers Jerome and Augustine Schurf.

Kessler – We have letters to them. Can you tell us, sir, whether Luther is now at Wittenberg, or where he may be ?

Luther – I have authentic information that he is not at Wittenberg, but that he will soon return. But Philip Melanchthon is there to teach Greek, and Aurogallus to teach you Hebrew, both of which languages you should study if you wish to understand the Bible.

Kessler – Thank God that Luther will soon be back ; if God grant us life we will not rest until we see and hear that man. For it is on account of him that we are going there. We have heard that he wishes to overturn the priesthood and the mass, and as our parents have brought us up to be priests, we want to hear what he can tell us and on what authority he acts.

Luther – Where have you studied formerly ?

Kessler – At Basel.

Luther – How goes it as Basel? Is Erasmus there and what is he doing?

Kessler – Erasmus is there, sir, but what he does no man knows, for he keeps it a secret. (Aside to his companion as Luther takes a drink) I never knew a knight before who used so much Latin, nor one who understood Greek and Hebrew as this one seems to.

Luther – Friends, what do they think of Luther in Switzerland ?

Kessler – There are various opinions there, sir, as everywhere. Some cannot extol him enough, and thank God for having revealed truth and discovered error by him ; others, especially the clergy, condemn him as an intolerable heretic.

Luther – One might expect as much from the preachers

Spengler – (Raising book which he sees is a Hebrew Psalter) I would give a finger to understand this tongue.

Luther – You must work hard to learn it. I also am learning it, and practise some every day.

(It is getting dark. Host bustles up, lights more candles, stops before
table.)

Host – I overheard you, gentlemen, talking of Luther. Pity you were not all here two days ago ; he was here then at this table, sitting right there (points).

Spengler – If this cursed weather had not hindered us we should have been here then and should have seen him. Is it not a pity ?

Kessler – At least we ought to be thankful that we are in the same house that he was and at the very table where he sat. (Host laughs, goes toward door ; when out of sight of Luther turns and beckons Kessler, who rises anxiously thinking that he has done something amiss and goes to host.)

Host – (aside to Kessler) Now that I see that you really want to hear and see Luther, I may tell you that the man at your table is he.

Kessler – You’re just gulling me because you think I want to see Luther.

Host – No, it is positively he, but don’t let on that you know him. (Kessler returns to table, where Luther has begun to read again.)

Kessler – (whispering to his companion) The host tells me this man is Luther.

Spengler – What on earth? Perhaps he said “Hutten”; the two names sound alike, and he certainly looks more like a knight than a monk.

(Enter two merchants, who take off their cloaks. One of them lays
a book on the table.)

Luther – May I ask, friend, what you are reading ?

Merchant – Doctor Luther’s sermons, just out ; have you not seen them?

Luther – I shall soon, at any rate.

Host – Sit down, gentlemen, sit down ; it is supper-time now.

Luther – Come here, gentlemen ; I will stand treat. (The merchants sit down and supper is served.) These are bad times, gentlemen. I heard only recently of the princes and lords assembling at Nuremberg to settle the religious question and remedy the grievances of the German nation. What do they do ? Nothing but waste their time in tournaments and all kinds of wicked diversions. They ought to pray earnestly to God. Fine princes they are ! Let us hope that our children and posterity will be less poisoned by papal errors and more given to the truth than their parents, in whom error is so firmly implanted that it is hard to root out.

First Merchant – I am a plain, blunt man, look you, who understand little of this business, but I say to myself, as far as I can see, Luther must be either an angel from heaven or a devil from hell. I would give ten gulden to have the chance to confess to him ; I believe he could give me good counsel for my conscience. (The merchants get up and go out to feed their horses.)

Host – (to students) You owe me nothing ; Luther has paid it all.

Kessler – Thank you, sir, shall I say Hutten ?

Luther – No, I am not he ; (to host) I am made a noble to-night, for these Switzers take me for Ulrich von Hutten.

Host – You are not Hutten, but Martin Luther.

Luther – (laughing) They think I am Hutten ; you that I am Luther; soon I’ll be Prester John. (Raising his glass) Friends, I drink your health (putting down his glass), but wait a moment; host, bring us a measure of wine ; the beer is not so good for me, as I am more accustomed to wine. (They drink.)

Luther – (rising to say good-night and offering them his hand) When you get to Wittenberg, remember me to Jerome Schurf.

Kessler – Whom shall we remember, sir ?

Luther – Say only that he that will soon come sends his greetings.
(Exit.)

I fart in your general direction: Luther and the Pope

I’m writing an essay at the moment about Luther. This explains the relative paucity of posts this week, and other essays are to blame for the last two weeks’ relative absence.

I’m going to look at Luther’s approach to communication throughout his life. And in the process of my research I came across this pamphlet that Luther distributed during the Reformation. In 1545, in his Depiction of the Papacy


Image Credit: Wikifiles

The Latin reads:

“The Pope speaks: Our sentences are to be feared, even if unjust. Response: Be damned! Behold, o furious race, our bared buttocks. Here, Pope, is my ‘belvedere'”

Getting in touch with your inner Luther

I’m currently working on an essay on the Reformation. When I say currently, I mean for the last four hours I’ve been finishing my reading with just a few more articles. No seriously. Just a few more. And on Tuesday I’ll write my thoughts into something cohesive, which will then be submitted by Friday.

That’s the plan.

Anyway. I’ve been enjoying reading some of the polemics written around the period of the Reformation. And while I probably owe much of my theological heritage to John Calvin, as a Presbyterian, I find Luther resonates a bit better with my personality, as a young hot-head blogger.

Anyway. The Luther Insult Generator has been doing the rounds online. Its popularity led to a server change, and thus a change in web address. So. Update your bookmarks. Snot-nose.

 

Ten thoughts on the subject of sin

Simone wrote about a post church conversation last night (in real life) that was a continuation of a couple of posts from Simone and Kutz (part one), (part two). I’ve spent today trying to articulate my position on sin. It’s not like Simone’s (looking to the new creation to resolve sinful desires) nor is it like Kutz’s (looking to the original created order to salvage the good thing that sin twists). I don’t tend to analyse my sin. I find that can be pretty crippling.

Here are some of my thoughts about sin in list form…

  1. I think sin, by definition, is our expression of autonomy. It’s our rejection of God’s rule. It’s disobedience. It’s not meeting God’s standards. I think the last one is the key – if we do something that doesn’t meet God’s perfect and holy standards – as he as described them to us – then we have “sinned”.
  2. I think there are different values to different sins – I know some have interpreted passages to suggest that all sins are equal. I think all sins are equally deserving of condemnation – but I don’t think all sins are equal in badness. There are sins with external victims – these sins require an extra level of repentance because you should, I think, repent to the victim as well as to God, and there are sins that are essentially internal matters for you and God to deal with. Let me give an example, when you commit some form of idolatry, putting something else in God’s position – you are wronging God, but no necessarily other people. But when you murder someone you not only commit an act of disobedience to God, you not only commit an act that effects the victim, you commit an act that has multiple effects for the victims family – you cause them to sin as well – they will no doubt feel malice, they will probably curse God for letting you take their father, husband, or son (or mother, wife, or daughter). You rob these people of a significant other. Some actions carry with them many sins, others do not. All sin is worthy of death and judgment when God, the holy, holy, holy God sits in judgment and judges by his holy, holy, holy standards. The accumulated sin of a lifetime is a pretty massive barrier between us and God.
  3. I think the language of conflict between our new nature and our sinful nature, our flesh and the spirit, our slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness, are all Biblical analogies for the same internal struggle that occurs, and will continue to occur, until the new creation. We’ll never – no matter how mature we become – rid ourselves fully of the taint of sin. Which I think even spreads to our good, righteous and obedient actions.
  4. I think trying to determine whether an action is “sinful” or “Godly” in and of itself is almost a complete waste of time. A conversation sprang up about whether being drunk is a sin the other day. I think it is. I think eating fatty food is probably a sin. I think drinking instant coffee is a sin. I pretty much think that everything we do, stemming from our sinful nature, is a sin. We can eat fatty food for God’s glory, but I tend to think if we’re not eating it specifically for his glory, but rather for our own purposes, then that’s an expression of our autonomy. I’d pretty much say that I think everything we do is tainted by sin. Even the good stuff… even the God stuff. I think this is part of the battle between our sinful natures and our new spirit enhanced natures.
  5. I think it is more helpful to think of sin in terms of nature than actions. Sinful actions are those things we do that are born out of our sinful nature. The Bible certainly spells out that certain actions are sins. Both sins of comission and omission.
  6. Almost all “Godly” actions can be sinful. I’m thinking of the way Jesus talks to the rich young ruler – even keeping the rules isn’t enough. We’re sinful by nature, and we never meet God’s holy standards. We can not possibly do so. We’re wired to sin. I think sinful actions are actions born out of our sinful nature – and I think Godly actions are actions born out of the spirit working within us (and those “good” actions performed by non-Christians are as a result of God’s spirit working throughout humanity in the guise of common grace).
  7. I think even when we are obedient to God we are obedient in an incomplete way – I think this is the picture we see with Israel and its inability to ever meet God’s standards completely. It’s important that we, as God’s people, seek to be obedient. Even if we know we’ll do it generally, but not specifically.
  8. When confronted with a decision our job is to try to discern the obedient, or most obedient option. Some decisions will in fact be decisions between two equally tainted options. An extreme example would be a choice between lying to save the life of one’s child (or an innocent) or giving them up and becoming complicit to whatever happens as a result of your taking the moral high ground. Life is full of impossible decisions, because everything is tainted by sin.
  9. Sin sucks. I hate its effect on the world, on relationships between people, and on myself. I don’t wallow in my sin because I realise it has been paid for in full. I realise it’s inevitable. And I realise we’ve got a job to do. So I’d rather just get on with that job. Without distractions. Without paralysis by analysis. My job is to try to be obedient to God wherever possible – and I think the point at which this obedience is most important is the Great Commission. I think any Godly living is Godly living for the purpose of winning the lost, more than for the sake of redeeming myself (either bringing myself closer to the pre-fall or new creation versions of me).
  10. Because I see sin as an inevitable product of our sinful nature I’m not keeping score as though God is Santa Claus. I’m not wracked with guilt. My debt has been paid. While I am pursuing holy living, maturity and ongoing “sanctification” (though I think technically sanctification is part of the package with justification that occurs at salvation) I don’t do this by dwelling so much on the times I miss the mark, I do this by getting on with the job. I love Luther’s “sin boldly” quote from a letter to a guy named Melanchthon (included below). This translation is slightly different to the one I’d originally heard.

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

On Work

This is a long post. Be warned.

Discussion on Simone’s blog has evolved in an interesting direction. And one I’ve been meaning to write about for some time – or at least since the “Ministry Matters” day the Walkers held a few weeks ago.

The debate about the value of secular work vs vocational ministry puzzles me.

Before I begin I want to say that I affirm the value of secular work – in most cases. So long as the job is in some way about “bringing order to creation” I see it as being of some merit. But to suggest that God is as glorified in secular work as he is in “ministry work” just seems odd.

It’s odd because I think the Bible’s pretty clear that one is more valuable than the other, that there are rewards for ministry (including anything that serves and builds up the Kingdom of God) that don’t exist for those who diligently work in their vocation.

The very fact that we get so little information about Jesus’ pre-ministry vocation in the Bible but so much about his ministry and preaching would suggest there’s a difference in value. But that’s a fairly long bow to draw…

I brought up the distinction between the two types of work in the comments on Simone’s post about rewriting song words – because I think it’s right for artists to be protective of their secular work – that which earns them their living, but I think the standard is different for those who are in ministry. I think their aim is to glorify God and serve the body of believers with their gifts.

I don’t think using gifts – for example a gift of communication – for your job is the same as using them for the spread of the kingdom. Luther and Calvin both affirm the value of secular work – and the value of using God given gifts in secular work – but you can affirm this without putting it on par with ministry.

My understanding of what both Calvin and Luther have to say about work is that it’s a valuable activity and should be tackled with gusto. They see work as a means to create or restore order – and again, I’d argue that for the Christian this is most likely to be expressed through the ministry of the gospel – whether by preaching, or teaching, or hospitality, or acts of service – than through secular work (I’m not saying this has no value – just less).

Overt glorification will always win out over intrinsic glorification – both in value and effect.

Full time ministry is a special calling – with special responsibilities, special rewards and special consequences for doing the wrong thing.

There’s also a hierachy within the context of ministry (where preaching and teaching is considered more valuable than other gifts – see below for the passage this idea comes from).

Let me back up my thinking with some Bible verses (which I’ll copy directly from my comment on Simone’s blog…). Obviously the “Great Comission” means that “making disciples” is the fundamental priority of all Christians. And lets face it – nobody is converted without some input from the word of God.Actions alone aren’t enough. They are important though.

1 Corinthians 3 is where I’d be drawing most of my thinking from with regards to the greater heavenly valuation of ministry.

Verse 8 implies a reward directly linked to ministry.

8 The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.

Verse 9 implies that Paul is specifically talking about ministry…

9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Verses 10 through 15 seem to be linking the heavenly outcomes for those in ministry with the quality (not quite the word I’m looking for) of their work…

“10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”

I contend this isn’t talking about the vocational cleaning of toilets – though that be done well and to God’s glory.

I don’t think you can form a doctrine of work solely from the exhortation in Colossians 3:17…

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Then 1 Timothy 5 suggests gospel workers are worthy of double honour…

“17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” 19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”

Then you’d have to consider Ephesians 4 – which suggests acts of service are a gift, but I don’t think it equates exercising them in the secular context with exercising them in order to serve the body of believers…

“11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

And finally, 1 Corinthians 12. The whole chapter is relevant. It starts off by establishing that while gifts are different they all come from God – but then the chapter only really deals with gifts that serve the body – again, not equating secular work with serving the body of believers.

“4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” And the last few verses seem to establish a hierachy – and exhort us to desire the “greater gifts”… “28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But eagerly desire the greater gifts.”

That’s my thinking anyway. And I’ve spent enough time on this. I have work to do.

Luther: A hippy?

Some people see eschatology as a dirty word thanks to the Left Behind mob – and I’ve always been pretty wary of people who define themselves by their views on “end times” – but here’s a second post tagged eschatology in two days. There was a comment on my post about how your eschatology shapes your actions that is worth sharing with everybody.

Joanna – who based on her email address I assume used to be a Richardson – but that’s a guess… pointed to a famous quote attributed to Luther:

“Interestingly, Martin Luther – who certainly agreed with you that preaching the gospel was an urgent task in the light of the return of Jesus – when asked what he would do today if he knew the world was ending tomorrow, answered ‘I would plant a tree.’ Was he a man with a poor eschatology, or just a strong theology of creation? Or both, do you think?”

From what I can gather – the quote, more accurately rendered is:

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

I’m not about to throw stones at Luther’s eschatology, that would be profound arrogance on my part. I am curious as to why he would answer the question that way – so I’m doing some research. At the outset I’d posit that either he really enjoyed gardening, or he thought that guessing games concerning the end of the world were pointless and that we should go on living life regardless, others speculate that Luther’s vision of the New Creation features a redeemed version of the current one, and a tree would be a part of that…

There are a few seemingly reputable sites that cast some doubt on whether or not he actually said this at all… but it turns out he did enjoy gardening.

From my initial googling, Option 2 seems to be the favoured interpretation around the online traps.

However, there are others who run with it more literally, like those planning the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses… who plan to plant 500 trees in the Luthergarden as a visual celebration.

Then there’s the TreeLink mob who claim Luther as a tree-planting champion

Personally, and this is probably again shaped by my “bias” – and the weight of Luther’s teachings regarding the importance of evangelism against this one quote of dubious origins – I think if he did say it he was probably emphasising the fact that “nobody knows the time and place” so we shouldn’t live as though each day should be our last – but should go on living in readiness. Which, given the weight of Luther’s teachings and the picture we have of the life he lived would involve bold proclamation of the word as a priority.

Some poor souls who run a repository of “spiritual quotes” attributed this one to Martin Luther King Jr.

Incidentally my favourite Luther quote for a long time was this:

Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ.