Archive for the ‘Natural Church Life’ Category
Frank Viola’s post yesterday, Strange Fire: A Refutation – Part I, inspired me to take my dusty copy of John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos off the shelf.
On the inside of the back flap, at the bottom of a page filled with pencil scribbled references and comments, I found a note I made on the day I finished the book: “Excellent! I do believe, however, that God still speaks to the individual concerning personal matters, as well as spiritual matters – of course within the framework of scriptural revelation. 8 January 1993.”
These words took me down memory lane, and reminded me of the liberation I experienced whilst reading the book. I was a young Pentecostal pastor at the time, disturbed and confused by my denomination’s insistence that only those who speak in tongues can claim the “baptism in the Spirit.” For over a decade I had felt like the ugly duckling. I didn’t understand the emotional reactions, the laughing in the Spirit (the Toronto blessing started here in South Africa, believe it or not!), the falling over, the thunderous preaching, the seeming openness to everything prosperity and Word Faith, and so on.
I tried to, believe me, but I could not. I resonated with Watchman Nee, Brother Lawrence and Andrew Murray, but not with my own church’s doctrine.
Chapter 8 of the book changed it all for me. It showed me that the “doctrine of subsequence” had no basis in Biblical theology, and prepared me for my flight from everything Charismatic some years later. I realized the book was somewhat one-sided and perhaps a bit reactionary, but I felt that I could identify with so many of the excesses mentioned by MacArthur that it did not bother me.
I did, however, disagree with the view that God does not speak to individuals in any way other than through the Bible. But this did not bother me much. It represented a certain understanding of revelation, well represented across the Reformed landscape, and did not detract from the book’s weight.
MacArthur had opened a non-Charismatic world for me, and I appreciated him for that.
Some of my richest years in ministry followed my departure from my old denomination. I became a Baptist, a Cessationist, an aspiring 5 point Calvinist (I failed dismally in the end. See my previous post.), a collector of Banner of Truth books, and a lot of other interesting things.
I also drew a cartoon that I cherish to this day:
Then, seven years ago, I stepped out of my new denomination and entered the weird and wonderful world of simple, non-institutional Christianity. The people that I met here were such an inspiration to my spirituality that I (temporarily) decided to overlook those things that I had been fervently crusading against for many years. You guessed it: I ended up loving them more than my commitment to everything anti-Charismatic.
And, in spite of their non-cessationist tendencies, they did not seem nearly as weird as the ones I had run away from in the late nineties.
And so my worn out pendulum (did I mention that I grew up Dutch Reformed?) swung back and silently came to rest in a green meadow besides still waters. The last thing it ever said, before breathing its last, was a gentle “Blessed are the balanced.”
What strikes me about this adventure was that my last big theological shift (I am no longer a Cessationist, as you may have gathered) was heavily influenced by something that had been a non-factor up to that point: Relationships. I discovered, in the context of the true ekklesia, that it was okay to love someone passionately whilst disagreeing with some of his or her views. But I also discovered that it was okay to adjust some of your own views in order for this to happen.
This may sound heretical to some, and extremely dangerous. But trust me: It’s not. The good Lord has built his church in such way that it allows for great relationships between people with different opinions (my wife believes in the rapture), but with an inbuilt proviso that such differences do not compromise our common life in Christ.
This shapes our theology more than mere “understanding”, and means that the blessings of real fellowship between believers with different opinions can only occur where Jesus Christ is the true life of the church. This is no cliché, but the reality of a common birth, a common Father, a common inheritance, a common passion. I have still to meet someone who shares all of these things with me but who is theologically so haywire that I feel I cannot have fellowship with them.
Interestingly, I have found that when people do cross God’s doctrinal boundaries (for the lack of a better term), the magic of the relationship dissipates. True heretics make bad prayer partners. You do not need to review Grudem’s Systematic Theology to arrive at this conclusion. You FEEL it, and you do so because God is faithful and he loves his church.
If I had read Charismatic Chaos later on in life, I may not have given it the glowing Amazon review that I did way back then. I think it helped a lot of people in my situation, and I will always appreciate it for that. But nowadays I tend to view truth somewhat differently. I believe it is not merely shaped cognitively, but also (and especially) relationally. The way in which John deals with “The Charismatics” (as the book was originally called) does not do relational justice to many dear sincere brothers and sisters in the Lord who merely hold to a different pneumatology than the rest of us.
As I once explained it:
Christianity is a relationship, and it should be approached as one. As with any romance, you learn as you go along. The main ingredients are desire, passion, intimacy, time spent together, willingness to learn, willingness to submit to the interests of the other, and so on. As a most intimate encounter of the life of another, it is something that can never be transferred merely cognitively. “Knowing the Lord” cannot be taught, as Jeremiah stated explicitly in his description of the terms and conditions of the New Covenant. It must be caught.
A young couple experiencing their first kiss gains a different type of knowledge than a monk reading about the biological processes accompanying a first kiss. We get a glimpse of this knowledge in the Old Testament statement “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” This type of covenant knowing can only take place when the knower’s life is dissolved in the encountered life — when the two become one. It is a knowledge that transcends all mental processes, although the memory thereof is preserved mentally, and can be discussed mentally.
This means that such a discussion is only fruitful between those who can relate to the experience. It’s like saying “So that is what your first kiss was like. Let me tell you about mine!” Cognition is not ruled out, but it is subject to an encounter that brings with it a revelation.
And so Christianity is not blind mysticism, nor is it extra-Biblical. Rather, it is an experience that becomes increasingly informed through practice and discussion. Of course such information can find its way into poetry, and lend itself to analysis. But it always remains subject to a living encounter between the lover and the beloved.
True church life is the collective experience of the above, and the inevitable celebration associated with it. It is one new humanity encountering Christ. It is the bride meeting her Groom. It is covenant knowledge experienced communally. It is to feast on the tree of life and share the experience of resurrection and growth. It also happens to be an experience of oneness with one another that transcends mutuality by far.
What do you think?
As a part of the current series, which focuses on the way in which our preconceived ideas determine our perceptions (especially our theological ones), I would like to interrupt myself and ask a simple question:
What do you think of when you hear the word “disciple”?
If you are like most people the word will conjure up an ideal standard of Christian commitment. There are normal Christians, and then there are… disciples.
The conventional wisdom goes something like this: A disciple is one who has distinguished him or herself as wholly dedicated to the Lord. To become a disciple is the goal of Christianity, and discipleship is the means to get people there. We need to make disciples, not just converts. Once a person has attained to the status of a disciple he or she has fulfilled the intention of the great commission. A disciple is distinguished from a mere believer as the finished house is distinguished from its blueprint.
Does some of this sound familiar? Are you more or less in agreement with these statements? If so, you may have missed one of the central and most vital messages of the New Testament. By giving some special status to the term “disciple” you may very well have robbed yourself of the very thing that is intended by the word.
In the first place, the word has absolutely nothing to do with attaining to some spiritual level. Whilst it may have overtones of commitment and discipline (many people erroneously believe that the word disciple is a derivative of the word “discipline”), these have more to do with the actual meaning we have assigned to the word than the word itself.
The word disciple is a classic example of the confusion that arises when a Biblical word is not translated but transliterated, that is, the transcription of a word in one language into corresponding letters of another language without regard to the original meaning.
Disciple is a transliteration of the Latin “discipulus” which carries the same meaning as the Greek New Testament’s “Mathetes”, namely a “learner”, “student,” “pupil,” “apprentice,” or “adherent”. Of course none of these meanings are retained in the English word disciple.
Let us consider the implication of this for a moment. Don’t you think there is something slightly weird about a commandment to “go and make learners of all nations”? This would imply that people in a pre-evangelised state are not learners, and that the intention behind the so-called “Great Commission” is to turn them into ones.
But wait, it gets weirder. This would also imply that to become a disciple is not to live up to some level of commitment, but to be reduced to the level of one who needs guidance. It is to let go of preconceived notions and to open oneself up for receiving new information. To become a disciple is not to reach the end of the road, but to be placed at the beginning of it. It is not a destination, but a point of departure. It is not an accomplishment, but an emptying.
The Call to Learn
None of this should be surprising. The New Testament overflows with verses speaking about the necessity of learning:
• Repentance (metanoia in Greek, from meta and nous) means a “changing of the mind”.
• The transformation that follows repentance takes place through a “renewing of the mind” (Rom.12: 2).
• Spiritual warfare, according to Paul, has to do with breaking down strongholds, and such strongholds are defined as “arguments and opinions raised against the knowledge of God”. Paul further defines spiritual warfare as “taking thoughts captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
• In the same passage mentioned above, Satan is depicted as the one who leads people’s thoughts astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (11:2) and who “blinds the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4).
• The New Testament depicts unbelievers as having been given up to a “debased mind” (Rom.1: 28), as walking “in the futility of their minds” and as being “darkened in their understanding” (Eph. 4:18).
This explains why Christianity is a lifelong process of learning. The subject matter, of course, is nothing but Christ himself, in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”, providing the rich resource for reaching the “riches of full assurance and understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery” (Col. 2:2-3). We are “taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21). In fact, he IS the truth, John says (John 14:6), explaining his earlier statement that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The incarnation of the Word is the objective dynamic in this equation. The process of “learning” is the subjective dynamic. The one cannot exist without the other.
And so Jesus says “learn from me” (Matt. 11:29), and Paul says “you have not so learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). Jesus Christ is our curriculum, and he has preserved the revelation of Himself in the Scriptures outside of us, his Spirit within us and his Body around us. And so we have no excuse not to “learn him”.
If you were given the knowledge above and then the assignment to formulate a “great commission” for the church (without any preconceived ideas) you may very well have written it exactly as it appears in Matthew’s gospel. Clearly the first step on the narrow road leading to life is to become a “learner”. This is no accomplishment or badge of distinction, but rather a painful and humbling “letting go” of personal convictions, opinions, paradigms and the like.
It is to embrace the poverty of spirit prescribed in the first line of the Sermon on the Mount. It is to aspire to the education of Christ, and to say with him “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 17:16). It is to stop being Martha and to become Mary. It is to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive from him.
If you have not first become a learner you cannot progress any further on the path of liberation from your own dearly held convictions that have put your thought life into bondage, that determine your emotions and ultimate dictate your actions. And so this point is essential for our exploration of the disunity that has plagued the church of Jesus Christ for so long. Stay posted…
Words, names and stereotyped expressions can deafen us to the voices of the things themselves, so that for the deaf the things have died – a personal and original relationship with them has become impossible. One can’t tell a thing to a person who knows the words, he is no longer receptive. Gerrit Kouwenaar
I have been thinking about this word “organic” lately. Some of us are planning a “Simply Organic” conference here in Bloemfontein for early 2013, and so the term has been on my mind more than usual.
It’s a nice word, I must admit. It works well. And that is where the problem is.
One of the cars that are most popular with hijackers in South Africa (our hijacking statistics have gone through the roof ages ago) is the Nissan 1400 “bakkie”, as it is called here.
The reason? It works unbelievably well. It does what it is supposed to do. It is simple, strong, cheap and reliable. It is popular. And so hijackers love it.
The same has happened to the term “organic”. It’s being wordjacked. It’s such a lekker word that everyone wants it, even those who haven’t paid the price for it. And so it is being grabbed and claimed all over. The result is that a very good word has now become somewhat overused and murky.
The name has taken the place of the thing itself, as oftentimes happens with descriptive words. To make matters worse, its meaning has become associated with some of its new owners, rather than with its own and original definition.
For a true understanding of a clichéd descriptive word, such as “organic”, two things are needed: Firstly, we need to rid ourselves of those things that block our perceptions to the real. We need to weed out the unfortunate associations that have taken our thoughts captive and blinded us. Secondly, we need to revisit the original word to ensure that we understand its own meaning.
The next few posts will be mainly concerned with the first exercise. It is a weeding experiment, and it is mostly birthed from a number of recent observations that have stirred up that old feeling of being invaded (some would say molested) so reminiscent of the type of Christianity that wants to turn someone else’s private and subjective experience (and interpretations) into doctrines and norms for the rest of us.
I don’t mind you walking on my holy ground, but please leave your shoes outside. They fit you and they have walked your journey. Bring yourself in here. That’s ok. But don’t impose your walk on me.
With that sorted out, let’s talk about those things that many of us are not, and that we will never be, even though we proudly associate ourselves with being “organic”. I will deal with them one by one in the next few posts.
Please note that these are not astute scholarly observations, but knee jerk responses from those of us whose desire it is to preserve our freedom in Christ. If you don’t agree with the list, just imagine that the heading reads “Simply Organic: Who are Some of Us?”
1. We are Not a Resistance Movement
Need I say more? We are not “against” or “anti”. We are “for”. To use another overused and now clichéd term: We are not reactive, we are pro-active.
Don’t take this for granted. Are you a Protestant? The moment you say “yes”, you have distinguished yourself as being “against” instead of “for.” You are a protester. That’s what your name means and that’s how subtle this whole business is. Your reason for being is derived from the fact that you are protesting against… uhm, what was it again?
Truth is, most Protestants cannot complete this sentence. If you are one of them, dust off that church history book and turn to October 1517. Then you’ll find out what your problem is, or rather who you have it with. And then you may also wonder what you will become once the problem is no longer around. (Or what you have already become, seeing that you have forgotten about your problem.)
That is the tricky thing with all resistance movements. The accomplishment of their goals signifies their demise, and so they usually need a new enemy to sustain their levels of commitment.
This is why our fervor may never arise from our anger or disgust with the religious establishment, or “institution”, or “system”, or whatever we may wish to call it. Too many organic folk feel a sense of camaraderie because they relate with one another’s hurts and the ecclesiastical abuses of the past.
Beware. Judas was a zealot and the man of perdition’s title begins with “anti” (Is there a hint somewhere in there that offense has been taken?).
We are FOR, not AGAINST.
Of course we resist. Of course we fight. But that is circumstantial to our main calling, namely to inherit a promised land and to be made into a kingdom. We do not allow the fight to get into our bloodstream. We are not mercenaries. We do not feed on the presence of our enemies.
In fact, we are not even angry.
Some of us were, I have to admit. But no more. We are moving on.
And so, for those who are foaming at the mouth because of what the institutional church has done to you: Welcome. But you are going to have to leave your offense outside.
Right there, next to your shoes.
(The next post will deal with the fact that we are not a celebrity cult, which means that no single person or party speaks for the rest of us.)
(Please note: I am interrupting the Ministers of the New Covenant series with a special post that has been on my heart for some time. Due to the nature of the post, I am making a specific request for comments and discussion. Also, if you are aware of anyone who may wish to contribute to the conversation, please forward the link. My sincere apologies for the botched version of this post that accidentally went out to all the subscribers. Please ignore. Blessings to all. Tobie)
He is the head of the body, the church. Col. 1:18
I’ve just finished reading Frank Viola’s Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church: An Open Letter.
As always, Frank makes some good points. And he does it in an extremely readable way. I like what he says, and I would certainly recommend his article to anyone interested in the debate.
Yet there may be more to this issue. As Frank writes in his conclusion: “Perhaps more rounds are needed, but this is all I have time for at the moment. Maybe someday I’ll try to redress the deficiencies. So please accept it in that vein: It’s a stab at something, not a finished product.”
So this led me to write and share what is on my heart.
The Unbelievable Importance of Head Covering
No, that’s not a typo. And please don’t stop reading. I know you are tempted to, but you should never give in to temptation. So stay with me. Just for a little while.
Head covering is important. Extremely important. More important than what we have ever even begun to realise. And yes, it is in the Bible. Black on white. As clear as the nose on your face.
There is no denying it. Not even for a second.
Does this mean that I think the ladies should have scarves handy during times of fellowship? Not necessarily. (Did I hear a sigh of relief?).
Form, Essence, Kisses and Feet
Perhaps an explanation will be in order. When something is important it does not mean that its form is immutable. For instance, brotherly love is an extremely important issue in Scripture. Paul feels so strongly about this that he commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss. Not once, but four times! (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Likewise, Peter tells his readers to greet one another with a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14).
How about that? The Bible speaks more about the necessity of kissing one another than it does about ninety percent of the things most Christians are happy to split churches over. To make matters worse, Augustine and other early Christian primary sources tell us that the holy kiss was a mouth to mouth affair and not, as is oftentimes assumed, mouth to cheek or cheek to cheek.
I once knew an elderly gentleman who took these verses extremely seriously. Before services he guarded the front door of the Pentecostal church I frequented like a lion guarding a fresh carcass. No one made it past him without receiving a sudden forceful kiss.
Imagine being slapped on the mouth with wet sandpaper. That’s what it felt like. Twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays.
The experience was neither holy nor very loving. In his sincere effort to preserve the form of brotherly love the elderly brother lost its essence. His actions had a reverse effect. Ironically, he would have been more faithful to Paul and Peter’s instructions if he hadn’t stuck to their formula. A big old bear hug (holy hug?) would have communicated far more love than one of his kisses.
And then… there is the issue of foot washing. Remember Jesus’ crystal clear command? “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 14-15).
Nothing ambiguous here. Yet there is a broad consensus amongst most Christians that you would probably be a far greater blessing to your neighbor if you washed his car instead of his feet.
The principle is simple. You cannot read the Bible without considering its cultural context. Frank has done a superb job clarifying this in his open letter, so I won’t elaborate on it. Suffice it to say that brotherly kisses and foot washing were as common in Jesus’ time as Google searches are in ours. And so they were ideally suitable as vehicles to communicate certain gospel truths.
Now here’s an interesting point. I have never heard a single person argue that Jesus commanded foot washing because pimps had dirty feet. Or that Peter and Paul’s obsession with kisses on the mouth sprouted from an earnest attempt to distinguish the early Christians from the cult of Basilius whose members kissed one another in the neck. Yet the issue of head covering has birthed some of the most outlandish eisegetical acrobatics ever.
Why? Because you do not need a frontal lobe the size of Einstein’s to figure out why kissing and foot washing were important to the early Christians. To conclude that there are more preferable methods by which we can greet and serve one another today does not require much thinking either. And so Christians don’t generally see a need to come up with all kinds of reasons to explain their seeming disregard of a Biblical imperative.
On the other hand, the symbolism behind Paul’s instructions regarding head covering has always been a fuzzy for most Christians. Oh, we understand that head covering for women was as much a part of the first century Christian experience as was kissing and foot washing. What we do not understand is the spiritual significance behind it. We get the form of the thing. It is the essence that befuddles us. And so it is very difficult to adapt the form whilst preserving the content.
This means that we are hard pressed to come up with explanations as to why it is no longer necessary to take 1 Corinthians 11 seriously. Our theological confusion prohibits us to find a suitable contemporary alternative or corresponding symbol for whatever the point was that Paul was making, and so we simply wish the whole thing away. But we dare not do so without reason, and so we come up with novel rationalisations that transmogrify themselves into ecclesiastical myths before too long.
You have heard that Corinth’s ladies of the night had the strange habit of shaving their heads, haven’t you? And that this is the reason why Paul said that a woman without head covering might just as well go ahead and rid herself of her locks?
This information has proven to be a relief for many who have struggled with the issue, and the reason is obvious. If we can prove that the reference to the shaved head was merely a Corinthian issue, then it becomes much easier to suggest that the head covering was as well, for the two are clearly inextricably linked in Paul’s mind: “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.”
Yet the historical evidence backing the prostitute theory is flimsy, to say the least. Most contemporary commentaries that take this line simply quote from other (usually slightly less contemporary) commentaries. Understandably so, for real historical evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, a brief survey of the subject in question reveals that there are many versions of this idea (as is the case with most urban legends), with some of them quite contradictory.
Still, it is easier to overlook these facts than to live with the implications of accepting that Paul was perhaps making a deep and spiritually profound point. And so we resort to shoddy exegesis to override our cognitive dissonance. We would rather trivialise Paul than revert to a tradition that would make us the laughing stock of the evangelical world.
But would God really put us in such a predicament? I doubt it.
Why We are Confused
Perhaps this is a good opportunity to allow Paul to speak for himself. (When last have you read this passage attentively?).
Note that I have digressed from the conventional numbering of the verses and divided the passage into six paragraphs. Each is followed by a commentary:
1. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.
Need I say more?
2. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Here, I believe, lies the key. Note that Paul is expressing a wish. He wants us to realise that there is a divine order. The man stands under the headship of God and Christ. The woman does so too, but she also stands under the headship of the man. She has “two heads” whilst the man only has one (for the purposes of this discussion I shall refer to Christ and God as a single “head”.)
Now here we need to note something. Even though women regularly wore head covering in the world of Jesus and Paul, there was no unanimity as to what exactly was symbolized by it. A quick glance at the literature of the period makes that abundantly clear. Furthermore, men regularly also wore head covering, and they were oftentimes expected to do so when praying. We cannot therefore assume that Paul was reinforcing a well-known and generally accepted understanding of the meaning of head covering in this passage.
Also, take into account that the so-called ”ancient world” might seem like a homogenous society from our point of view, but that it certainly was not. In this regard I highly recommend Josh Spiers online article “A Spontaneous Post About ‘The Bible Days”.” It is a concise but helpful commentary on the glib way in which we use the term, and a profitable read for anyone interested in the debate (or in the Bible, for that matter).
The point is that we find ourselves on very shaky ground when we attempt to explain what Paul “really meant” in this passage by appealing to the cultural peculiarities of one Roman city in 1st century Greece. To make matters worse, in this case we are speaking about a single cultural peculiarity.
Do we really think that a trivial and insignificant temporary measure would have found its way into the majesty of what we know as First Corinthians? Do we really think Paul would have introduced it with the two sentences above and concluded it with the statement in paragraph 6 of our text (verse 16) if that were the case?
Lastly, even if it can be irrefutably proven that some damsels of ill repute shaved their hair in Corinth, how do we know that this was the inspiration behind Paul’s comment? Have we never heard of circumstantial evidence?
Allowing Scripture to Interpret Itself
What would happen if we forget about trying to find some cultural cause behind Paul’s statements and rather look for an explanation in the passage itself? What would happen if we assumed that Paul was in fact interpreting the symbolism behind head covering not from an existing cultural understanding but from a whole new vantage point, namely the hitherto unheard of order of authority above? Does that not make more sense, especially in light of the fact that he starts this sentence with “I want you to know that…”?
I believe it does. I also believe that the passage pretty much interprets itself when we take Paul’s three levels of authority as a paradigm for unlocking the mystery.
But before we consider this, let us look at the third paragraph:
3. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
The important words in this passage are “just as though”. A woman’s uncovered head during prayer or prophecy is so similar to a shaved head that she might as well go right ahead and shave her hair off.
Now why might that be? If we disregard the prostitute theory, and limit ourselves to the text, the explanation is embarrassingly obvious. It follows in the fourth and fifth paragraphs:
4. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
5. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
Note the last sentence: “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” This sentence has proven so befuddling to some commentators that they concluded that the entire covering issue is resolved if a woman has long hair. The long hair is thus seen as the covering spoken of in paragraph 3.
But this is not what the text says. Paul says that the absence of a head covering is “just as though her head were shaved.” He likens the two by saying that they are similar, not that they are one and the same thing. Long hair is not “the” head covering”, but “a” head covering”. And herein lies the key to Paul’s “just as though” statement. If a woman does not honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 3, then neither should she honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 5. Disregarding the one is exactly the same as disregarding the other. That is how great the similarity is!
This raises a question: How is a head covering made of fabric “similar” to the natural head covering of hair? Obviously they both “cover” the head of the woman, but what does this mean?
The answer, as I have pointed out, lies in Paul’s introductory statement regarding God’s order of authority. Let us look at it again:
Do you see that the woman has “two heads”? Now note that Paul defines a head covering as “a sign of authority” in paragraph 4. Authority is a rather abstract concept, and so it needs to be signified, which is what a visible covering is all about. And herein lies the key:
2 Heads = 2 Authorities = 2 Signs of authority = 2 Coverings.
A woman has two heads under whose protection and covering she finds herself, and so two symbols are required to distinguish between the two. The covering of fabric (COF) represents one of these, and the covering of hair (COH) the other. It is, I believe, as simple as that.
Which is Which?
This raises another question: “Which is which?”
One way of answering this is to look at Paul’s instructions regarding the COF. This covering becomes operational when a woman prays or prophesies, that is, when she speaks directly to God or when God speaks directly through her. Clearly she finds herself directly under the authority of God in both cases, and so we can safely assume that the COF is a sign of God’s authority.
On the other hand, Paul forbids the women in Corinth to speak in the assembly and instructs them to “ask their husbands at home” if they desire to learn (1 Cor. 14:34-35). This type of speaking is clearly distinguished from chapter 11’s admissible ministry of prayer and prophesy (assuming that Paul was referring to the assembly of believers in paragraphs 3 to 5 above), and herein the woman is to respect the authority of her husband.
We can thus safely assume that the COH is a sign of the husband’s authority. This is the “natural” state of affairs and explains why women worldwide are generally associated with having long hair. Nature itself has provided the female species with a “sign of authority” on their heads, signifying the universal truth that “the head of the woman is man”. Men need no such sign, and so their hair is designed to thin and fall out. This explains why it is a “disgrace” for a man to have long hair.
These observations are vital. But there is actually a much simpler way to get to the same answer. We merely need to compare Paul’s levels of authority with the physical order in which the coverings appear on the woman to find it:
The answer is the same as the one above, and the message is clear: A woman wearing a head covering is a living, walking, talking representation of God’s order of authority. When she ministers she does so under the covering of one who covers both her and her husband. Her ministry is never an independent one. It is not done apart from her husband, but rather under the authority of one who is greater than both her and her husband.
This is the meaning of the sentence “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (Par 5 of our text). When a woman ministers she remains under her head, but for the duration of her ministry her head is covered by the greater head of God and Christ. As the symbols clearly communicate: She still has her hair, but it is not seen. Rather, God’s authority is seen. And so her ministry is legitimised and sanctioned by the calling and gifting of God. She is “in the Lord”, and yet she is not “independent of man”.
This explains why a woman who does not acknowledge the symbolism of the COF might just as well be consistent and deny the symbolism of the COH. If she does not want to indicate God’s authority during times of prayer or prophecy, then neither should she indicate het husband’s authority during the rest of the time. She might just as well shave her head. Denying one symbol of authority is tantamount to denying the other.
The Mystery of Ephesians 5
The symbolism makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining one of the greatest doctrines of Scripture, namely Paul’s “great mystery” of Ephesians 5.
The picture of the man leaving his father’s house to cleave to his wife is really a picture of Christ and the church, Paul says. So is the ensuing marriage relationship. Wives should submit to their husbands in everything as the church submits to Christ, and husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride. The church is the “wife of the Lamb”, we read in Revelation 19. Similarly, the wife is the body of the husband as the church is the body of Christ. They are “one flesh”. The woman “came from man” and were “created for man” (par 4 of our text). They came from “one flesh” (She is “flesh of my flesh”, Adam said in Genesis 2:23) and were separated with the express purpose of becoming “one flesh” again (They shall “become one flesh”, God said in Genesis 2:24).
Why was the separation necessary? Even though the woman was “in the man” in the beginning, a relationship between them was impossible. He was regarded as being “alone”, which was “not good” (Gen. 2:18). The only suitable helpmeet, it turned out, was one that had not been “formed out of the ground” (2:19) but from Adam’s own bone and flesh. The woman had to come “from man” in order to be suitable “for man”.
In this sense the woman is the “glory” of man. Her existence speaks of her origin, and so glorifies it, just as the man is depicted as being the “glory and image of God” in the same paragraph. She once was covered by man, but then uncovered to be covered again, albeit in a glorious form the second time around. The man is to cover her as Christ covers the church. He is to love and protect her with his very life, just as Christ did.
Throughout all of the above, the mystery is revealed. The church, who was chosen “in Him, before the foundation of the world” in Ephesians’ first chapter, is presented “to Himself glorious” in Ephesians’ fifth chapter.
The refrain of Ephesians, of course, is the term “in Him.” The church is born from the spirit, not the flesh. She has her origin in Jesus Christ Himself. She was taken out of Him, as it were, in order to become one with Him. She is both “from Him” and “for Him”. She was uncovered for the express purpose of being covered “in Him” yet again.
It is for this reason that the issue of “covering” is no small one, as pointed out at the beginning of this article.
Man Born from Woman…
The beauty of this story concluded with an interesting remark. Note again the sentence in paragraph 5: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
Even though the woman was taken out of the man, the man in his present state cannot exist without the woman. He is “born” from her, even as Jesus Christ was “born from woman” (Gal. 4:4). This reveals the remarkable place of the woman in God’s eternal purpose. It also provides the most probable explanation as to why God has created the hair of a woman as a symbol of the man as her “covering.” Even though she is covered and protected by it, it is something that miraculously traces its origin to her own body, that begins within it, comes out of it and grows to ultimately cover it.
She births her own hair, to put it differently.
Women and Ministry
As mentioned earlier, the symbolism of the two “coverings” makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining that which is symbolised by marriage. The authority of a woman’s husband is never removed during her ministry, but rather subjected to an even higher authority, namely one who “covers” both the woman and the man.
Clearly this is the issue underlying Paul’s statements about women and ministry. In writing to Timothy, he says: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
The order of creation, which has as its purpose the revelation of Christ and the church, must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. That is Paul’s main concern. The mystery of marriage is now revealed, and so the headship of Christ and submission of the church must be consistently modeled in the relationship between men and women throughout the churches. This may explain why the passage is concluded with the following sentence:
6. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
This has nothing to do with sexism, discrimination or cultural peculiarities, but with God’s eternal purpose in Jesus Christ. Just as God has called some to be apostles and others to be evangelists, he has assigned different ministries to the sexes as far as headship and submission are concerned. Women are created as the “weaker partner” (1 Pet. 3:7), a fact that is so evident and indisputable that we do not even need a spiritual voice like Peter’s to inform us of it. The Wimbledon finals can do that. (Note: Some commentators seem to have found this statement offensive. What I meant was that the physical biological differences between the sexes are so obvious that women and men compete in different categories throughout the world of sports.)
The biological peculiarities of a woman’s physical strength and hair, and even the temperamental peculiarities that have given rise to books about the sexes and the planets, all testify to the fact that she has a very specific calling regarding God’s great declaration of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church. The mother of all grand narratives needs to be proclaimed, and for that to happen the actors and the script must be in place. The woman has been given very specific lines in this drama, and it was the scriptwriter’s prerogative to do so.
And so, when it comes to issues of leadership and authority, the woman’s calling is not to lead but to submit “as the church submits to Christ”. This submission is so much a part of her calling that it should even be evident during those times when God uses a woman powerfully in the assembly of the saints. Hence Paul’s extremely practical, albeit it novel interpretation and application of the well-known tradition of head covering.
The principle is clear: A woman’s exclusive calling regarding the above was never intended to inhibit her ministry. Rather, it was to define it according to the overriding message of the Bible. God’s eternal passion is for his bride, and he has chosen the woman as the glorious portrayal of her. This is not to inhibit her ministry, but to expand it beyond anything imaginable.
A Contemporary Corresponding Symbol?
This brings us to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Once we understand the essence portrayed by a now culturally defunct symbol, such as brotherly love communicated through holy kisses, how do we find a contemporary corresponding symbol, such as the “holy hug”?
Is there a present-day symbol that can do for us what head covering did for the early Christians?
To answer this, let us consider some of the practical implications of head covering during a Corinthian church service. The moment a woman covered her head it would have been an indication to men and angels that she was about to minister ”in the Lord”. She was not going against Paul who did not allow women to speak in church and she was not dishonouring her husband. Her head covering was a “sign of authority”, pretty much like a policeman’s uniform that represents the authority of the state. As such she would immediately have an audience, and no one would wonder what she was about to do or why.
Whilst part of this arrangement clearly expresses the timeless symbolism associated with head covering, it would appear that another part does not. In Corinth, it seems, the head covering doubled as a measure to maintain some sort of order during the assembly of the saints, according to first century standards. This included the enforcement of culturally excepted norms regarding the way in which women were expected to behave in public. It may also include Paul’s instruction regarding a specific problematic situation in Corinth.
The obvious way to do this was to apply the principle of head covering as a measure. Paul was not acting outside of his apostolic jurisdiction and he was not using God’s word as some sort of a weapon. Rather, he was merely applying a spiritual principle to regulate a meeting in accordance with culturally accepted norms, or to address a problem specific to the church in Corinth.
But we live in different times, and in our day and age it is not improper for women to speak in public meetings. And so there is no need to regulate their speaking or to inhibit them in the same way that Paul did, and certainly no need to use some or other symbol in doing so.
Yet this does not mean that the symbol of head covering can go the way of the Dinosaurs. This fact has been missed by many expositors of the passage. As we have seen, head covering represents infinitely more than a temporary and circumstantial application to regulate the order of a service according to culturally accepted norms. To reduce it to such a level is to miss Paul’s point altogether and to make the baby part of the bath water.
For example, Jesus’ words “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” contain a timeless principle applied in a specific cultural setting. Christians today need not be concerned with looking for Caesar, but that does not mean that they don’t have to pay their taxes. Similarly, a woman’s ministry is still subject to the high calling of reflecting the church’s position as the bride of the groom, and in this sense the symbolism of head covering remains relevant.
So how do we substitute that? How we transfer the timeless truth of Paul’s teaching to the church of today?
To be honest, I don’t think we can or should. At least not by using some or other material substitute, ritual or ceremony. If we agree that it is not advisable to reinstitute a Corinthian type of head covering, then we are left with the bare essence of Paul’s teaching, and that should be enough. We are to view and accept this matter in faith, and apply the principle without the benefit of its form.
Most of us no longer wash the feet of the saints with water and soap, but we adhere to the timeless principle underlying it through random acts of loving service. In the same way, the picture of Christ and his bride must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. This will do justice to Paul’s teaching.
Of course there is a practical implication here. And certainly some discussion is called for, which is what I hope to stir up with this post. What does “submission” look like when the saints gather in the 21st century? If we believe this to be a timeless, non-negotiable principle that must be modeled at all times for the sake of revealing the mystery of Ephesians 5, how do we do it? How does it impact on the public ministry of the sexes?
Remember that we are not arguing here for or against the principle of submission. My request for comments is based on a very definite hypothesis: The submission of a woman to her husband has absolutely nothing to do with the cultural peculiarities of the “Bible times” or the ungodly suppression of women, the latter being a conclusion that is so obvious in my mind that I do not even wish to touch on it. Rather, God has ordained it for the purpose of revealing the grand narrative of the ages in and though the single institution that pretty much makes the world go around: The relationship between a man and a woman, especially as it culminates in marriage.
If this is really the issue, and if Paul’s instructions on head covering was a vital teaching to illustrate and enforce this, how does it impact on the way we meet today? Does it restrict a woman’s public ministry in any way? If so, how? Is Paul’s practical instructions to Timothy, regarding women and teaching, still valid today? Are their forms of ministry that are incompatible with the calling of reflecting the position of the submissive “bride”?
I have some thoughts on this, such as that the “elders who rule” were men for this very reason, and that they should remain so in our day and age. But mostly, I would like to hear what you think, and I would especially like to hear from my sisters in Christ. I believe the above interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 provides a perspective that calls for a new type of discussion, one that is free from the typical politics that have plagued these debates in the past.
I suspect we have lost sight of the main issue. If so, it would be refreshing to explore this topic yet again with the main issue back in its place.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
It has been almost five years now since a group of us started meeting weekly in a house in one of the suburbs of Bloemfontein.
We have never had a name or the need for one. In fact, we have been highly suspicious of church names since the outset (See related blog posts here and here).
Recently I decided to do a blog for our fellowship, and so I was faced with the dilemma of a name. There was only one that I could truly embrace, that accurately reflected what I had come to learn and believe about the glorious church of Jesus Christ over the past 3 decades of my life: The church’s name is… The Church.
Of course I mean “Church” in the sense of the Biblical “Ekklesia”, that is, the “Assembly” or “Gathered Community”. I certainly do not mean it in any one of the other ways sources like Webster define it, such as “a building for public Christian worship”, or “a religious service in such a building”, or “a Christian denomination”.
Some of us appear to have a need to read more into this word than what the New Testament means by it. The error is quite understandable. Apart from the words that we use on this planet to speak about the Godhead, it is the single richest word in existence. Of course such a word calls for scrutiny and exploration. Of course it seeks an expression that will truly reveal its essence. Of course it calls for all kinds of synonyms.
But in doing so we need to go deeper, not wider. Such a word can never be expanded. It has to be expounded. And you are not doing so if you use adjectives like “First”, “St. John” or “Shekinah”. Even “Covenant” and “Grace” do more to detract from the glory of this word than add to it. If you choose to highlight one attribute associated with the Ekklesia you inevitably make the others fade into the background. Church names, like idols, have the habit of turning on you in the end.
There are great synonyms in Scriptures for the Ekklesia, such as “the wife of the Lamb”, “temple”, “body” and so on. These will take you deeper, not wider, and they should be reserved for that purpose. There are others, too, and even if you manage to fit all of them on the sign outside your building, they will still mean nothing to the casual observer. To truly understand something of the church’s nature requires the best part of a lifetime, which means you can save yourself the trouble of trying to provide a synopsis by cramming a selection of her attributes into a name.
There is no name more beautiful to me than my wife’s, for it represents to me all that she is. She need not be called The First Glorious Revien Beautiful Wife Mother Lover of the Cedars of Lebanon (yes, she descends from there), for I know her to be all those things. I may whisper them to her, but I have no need to see them printed in her passport. This knowledge is reserved for those who are close to her.
Less is more, we often say, and this is truer about the name of the church than most anything else. Writers know that one of the golden rules of their trade is to never overstate the obvious. In fact, you should hardly ever state anything that your readers can figure out for themselves. Don’t preempt the mystery. Don’t rob them from the exhilaration of the quest and the glow of discovery. Refrain from the temptation to mediate the revelation. Trust God’s Spirit to decode their parables.
And so we adopted the only naming convention that we can find in the Bible. We called ourselves “The Church in Bloemfontein”, followed by the street address of the house where we meet. We make it very clear on our blog that the name does not belong to us but to the body of Christ in Bloemfontein, that we are not the only church in Bloemfontein and certainly not more officially so than any other one of the local churches. The only distinction is the address, which is part of our name for the sake of maintaining the principle of locality.
We’re challenging others who meet like us to do the same, although we certainly won’t split hairs about it.
What do you think?
And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Luke 9:52-56
There is much talk nowadays about doing “simple church”, and many of us are rejoicing about this. I remember a time when any such allusions were regarded as insubordinate, extreme and even heretical. But the times… well, you know the Bob Dylan song.
There’s just one problem: Shifts of this magnitude stir up lots of discussion, and, in the process, provide platforms for the disenchanted. And so we find ourselves with a new type of ally, namely those who have joined our ranks because they believe that they share a common enemy with us: The institutional church. There is a great danger here, and that is what I wish to address in this article.
For starters: Everybody knows (ok, should know) that sharing an adversary is a dangerous basis for unity. The euphoria of swopping trench tales eventually wears off, leaving us with an awkward alliance that we may not know how to escape from. For those of us who shared the actual trenches the illusion of camaraderie and the inevitable nostalgia is even greater.
Remember the episode where Frasier and his old buddy Woody Boyd spent a delightful evening catching up and exchanging stories from the old days? Frasier is tricked into thinking that the experience is authentic and indicative of a real and lasting friendship, and suggests a follow-up lunch at a Mexican diner the next day. But the thrill has evaporated, and afterwards Frasier is forced to admit that he no longer enjoys spending time with Woody. The reason? They have nothing in common except a few old stories. Frasier then faces the problem of communicating this to Woody without hurting his feelings. Whilst contemplating his dilemma he has to endure several more strained visits.
The episode is hilarious and tragic at the same time. It illustrates all too clearly what happens when people team up for the wrong reasons, and wrong reasons there are many. Nostalgia is one of them, especially the kind that comes from having bandaged one another’s wounds.
The Illusion of Assault
There is a way to escape the inevitable breakup, but it comes at a price. When people unite on the basis of a common enemy they can always sustain the cozy we-feeling by preserving the consensus that they are, in fact, still under attack. The illusion of assault, we can call it. It is a strategy that is employed, usually outside of awareness, when the benefits of coping with an assault begin to outweigh the ones associated with the cessation of the assault. Preserving buddyhood is a great reason for allowing your mind to treat you so treacherously, but there are, in fact, a myriad of reasons for keeping your enemies alive.
Take, for instance, the phenomenon of combat neurosis or, as it is oftentimes called, “shell shock”. The soldier who returns from war, but dives under a table and draws his gun every time a vehicle backfires in the street, feels more secure expecting to be attacked than he does enjoying the safety of his hometown. It is in his interest to hold on to the illusion that the battle is far from over as he cannot imagine himself without the comfort of the coping mechanisms acquired during the experience that almost cost him his life. Without a threat these nifty survival tactics become dispensable, hence the illusion of assault. It is not unheard of to miss the smell of Napalm in the morning.
Victims of abuse oftentimes do the same. Instead of assessing those around them realistically they prefer to see them as extensions of their abusers, even sabotaging relationships and invoking conflict to prove the point. Or they find themselves attracted to partners who display the very tendencies they have fled from in previous disastrous relationships.
There is a security in knowing how to protect oneself. There is also an addictive element to the relief and elation that comes from surviving a harrowing ordeal, and so it is not difficult to understand why some survivors develop a psychological need to be exposed to further assault.
Having said this, let me add that post-traumatic stress disorder is a much more complex phenomenon than that which I have described above. It is not my aim to minimize the severe challenges faced by survivors of war and abuse. Rather, it is too create a parable by borrowing an element associated with the psychology of defense and survival.
When the Struggle Becomes an End in Itself
In my own home country of South Africa we are currently seeing an even purer display of the illusion of assault than those mentioned above. The struggle against Apartheid is something of the past, yet a number of prominent contemporary activists insist on singing the old struggle songs and shouting rhetoric such as “Kill the Boer, kill the farmer” at their political gatherings, and this they do at the obvious dismay of thousands of farmers who have to cope with an epidemic of farm murders that have swept the country in recent years.
Why? There are a number of reasons, but an important one is that struggles such as the South African one brings with them a lot more than the prospect of political liberation. They also bring brotherhood, sacrifice, martyrdom, clandestine meetings, hope, anticipation, exhilaration, adoration of the saints in exile and prison, and so on. Heck, who would want to trade that for the non-eventfulness of serving under a democratically elected government, especially if the streets are crime ridden and you are jobless? And so the illusion of assault is employed to preserve the spirit of the struggle and to keep up the hope of a better tomorrow. But this can only happen when the old enemy is caricaturized as a current threat that has to be resisted. Even though the Boer and farmer no longer pose the same threat to the oppressed masses as they did decades ago, the controversial slogans suggest that they do.
Again, I am not denying that a people’s liberation involves much more than a democratic election, or that it takes a lot of time and effort to mend the effects of past injustices. What I am suggesting is that it is inappropriate to do so with a spirit of militancy that belonged to a period that many would describe as a war.
The Curse of Apologetics
This brings me back to the topic under discussion: The church of Jesus Christ, especially as she is busy emerging worldwide. There is a rising global awareness that the best adjectives to describe her are ones like “organic”, “simple” and “relational”. Whilst the new Christianity is by no means a homogenous movement with a uniform agenda or belief system, it is certainly true that an increasing number of fellowships are discovering that all efforts to escape institutionalism are doomed unless they lead to, and find their culmination in Jesus Christ. And so the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ are coming back into focus in many churches worldwide, so much so that one can only ascribe it to the gracious work of the Holy Spirit.
Many of the people involved in these fellowships, and even leading them, have never seen the insides of a theological seminary. This is no tragedy as their peculiar focus on Jesus Christ, prayer and the Scriptures more than compensates for their lack of theological training. Like Peter and John, the fact that they are common and uneducated is irrelevant as it is clear that they are companions of Christ.
It is clear, then, that the emergence of this radiant bride calls for a new type of reflection. Theologies that were constructed to assist us with the business of institutionalism will only work up to a point for her, and sometimes they won’t work at all (My seminary textbook on liturgical processes during the Pentecostal church service is a case in point). This is true for each one of the classical theological disciplines, but it is especially true in the field of apologetics.
Why? For two reason. Firstly, Apologetics is the one discipline that depends heavily on an enemy for its existence. The name says it all. Derived from the Greek apologia, which means to “speak in defense”, it is known as the “discipline of defending a position”. Think about this for a moment. We have a ministry of defense right in our theological backyard. But also think about the implications. If the business of defense produces fringe benefits, as we have seen, it places us in a precarious position. The church is by no means immune to the illusion of assault. Our best witness is history itself.
Secondly, our vulnerability in this regard is not merely circumstantial to Christianity’s sad history of division and institutionalism. It is causal. To say so is not to radically oversimplify an extremely complex issue. Rather, the observation is based on the nature of Christianity itself. What distinguishes Christianity from other ideologies and religions is the way in which it addresses itself to the issues of retaliation and revenge, and this includes defense.
Christianity could just as well be called the art of response. Get this wrong, and the whole thing falls apart. But more about this a little later.
Revolting for Christ
The most famous incident in church history of “speaking in defense” took place on 31 October 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in the university town of Wittenberg, protesting the selling of indulgences. To this day Protestants worldwide celebrate “Reformation Day” as an annual religious holiday. In many German states and even some countries, such as Slovenia and Chile, it is a national holiday. In fact, the very word Protestant was birthed during the events that flowed out of Luther’s protest. Derived from the Latin protestari, it means to publicly declare or protest.
This already raises a red flag. To call oneself a “Protestant” is to adopt a religious tag that speaks of resistance and defense. You are a “protester”, which makes one wonder what you will be if there is nothing left to protest against (Oops, I need an enemy to preserve my identity…). Of course not many Protestants reflect on this obvious logic, but that is indeed the implication. The word “Reformation” suffers from the same disease. It suggests a course of corrective action, a response to something gone wrong. But what if there is nothing left to reform? Yet the term is almost consecrated in some circles, as though the true church was born in 16th century Germany.
This, of course, is sheer nonsense. The Protestant Reformation, or “Revolt”, as it is often known, was a legitimate and necessary response to a sick movement that masqueraded as the church of Jesus Christ. But that is all it was. It did not usher in a new golden era of revolution that was intended to last until the second coming. Neither did it add a spice to the business of doing church that had been missing up to that point. Yet that is the message that is often conveyed.
Confusing Form for Content
The error is understandable. The Reformation created a subculture that introduced a multitude of people to the realities of grace, the accessibility of Scripture, the priesthood of the believer (well, up to a certain point) and so on. Can you blame anyone for wanting to fiercely protect a discovery of this magnitude? Of course not. The problem arises when the form of the thing is confused with its content, when the rediscovered realities of Christ is thought to be somehow connected with the idea of the Reformation, or with Luther, or with the distinctive Calvinistic theology that emerged out of the soil of protest against Rome.
To make this connection is to bestow divinity on things that are finite, which happens to sound chillingly similar to a textbook definition of idolatry. The problem with idols is that they are lifeless, and that their novelty wears off before you can say totem pole. And so idol worshippers are forever pressed to come up with gimmicky ad-ons to keep their dopamine levels at bay. This explains why so many religions eventually go the route of sex, drugs, rock and roll and human sacrifice. It also explains why so much of contemporary Christianity is… contemporary. But most of all it explains why so many of us religious people have a deep psychological need for an enemy. As we will see in a moment, defense is a religion in and of itself. Nothing raises dopamine like a good fight, and so, of all the religious gimmicks in the world, this one comes out on top. Add it to the most mundane of all sects and you will soon have a revival on your hands.
The problem with the Reformation, however, is bigger than the mere burden of keeping its stowaways alive. It’s also bigger than the accompanying temptation to employ the illusion of assault in order to do so. The problem with the Reformation is that it was birthed out of a reaction to begin with. The idea of assault was not an afterthought, or a mere fine method to put some sparkle back into a revival that had fizzled out. No, it was a reality, and a very real one at that, right from the first thud of Martin’s hammer on the Castle Church’s door. And so the dynamics associated with defense and survival provided momentum to the whole Reformational adventure from the word “GO!”
The result was more damaging than we realise, not only for those who associated themselves with the Reformation but for the whole of Protestantism (there’s the word again), and that includes you and I. The glorious liberties of grace and all its accompaniments came to be associated with the Reformers and their theology, as we have noted. But worse than that, this entire unnecessary association merged itself with the idea of defense. To think of grace, faith and the Scriptures was to think of Luther, and to think of Luther was to think of a God-inspired revolt. Freeze Luther’s frame and the background will freeze with it. There you’ll see a Pope who is the Antichrist and a few heretics smoldering at the stake. Naturally, for you cannot sustain the spirit of the revolt apart from its enemies. And so you’ll need the Pope to remain the Antichrist and the heretics to remain on the grill for your reformation to remain a reformation.
This game gets really involved. Watch carefully and you will see something else in the background. You will see your fellow protesters who were fighting for the cause, and you will wonder about those who are absent. You will especially wonder about their spirituality, or the lack of it. They do not participate in your revolt and so they are not to be seen in your frame. They are not fighting your war, and so they are not allies and certainly not comrades. They do not speak the language that you speak. They do not understand where the real threat is and nothing about the solution. Oh, they are welcome to enlist, but they must first come for a briefing. A rather intense one. And what if they are unwilling? Or if they drop out during basic training? Well, as the Scriptures say, those who are not for us are against us (Jesus did say that somewhere, didn’t he?). Point is: In your mind those who do not share in the form of things will appear to be missing out on their essence. You have confused the two, remember?
There have been millions of Christians throughout the centuries who discovered the Scriptures without Luther, God’s sovereignty apart from Calvin and absolute grace without predestination. That is not a problem, and it should not be one. There is no need to enlist these believers as co-apologists for our cause by baptizing them in the rhetoric that have become so indistinguishable (in our minds) from the actual issues. If they have the Scriptures and the Spirit of Christ they already are that. They don’t need the buzzwords and insignia as proof.
And just in case Reformed Christians think I’m picking on them, there are millions of Christians who have discovered holiness apart from Wesley, the gifts of the Spirit apart from Pentecostalism, the locality of the church apart from Watchman Nee and, believe it or not, water without the Baptists. Must these souls be briefed in order to obtain the fullness of their discovery? By now you should know the answer.
But there is another angle to all of this, and here it gets really ugly.
The other day I found myself staring at a picture of the legendary M4 Sherman tank. These impenetrable pieces of armour were used extensively during World War II, and contributed greatly to the Allied forces’ victory.
There was only one problem. The one in my picture could not drive, or shoot, or even withstand the smallest piece of shrapnel. It was inflatable, you see. A big piece of nothing filled with hot air, ready to pop at the slightest scuffle, good for nothing except perhaps a children’s party.
Not quite. These dummy tanks were just as important during the war as the real Shermans. Examples abound, but one stands out: The legendary landings of the Allied forces at the beaches of Normandy was preceded by a deception operation, codenamed Operation Fortitude, during which the illusion was created that the main invasion of France would occur in Scandinavia and the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. To accomplish this, inflatable rubber tanks and other military decoys were strategically deployed where German intelligence could spot them. Hitler fell for the deception and prepared his Panzer units accordingly. In fact, he was so convinced by the facade that he initially mistook the actual invasion at Normandy as a diversionary tactic. The operation succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.
Dummy tanks represent everything that real armour is not. They cannot harm or shield anyone, and they are easy to destroy. Yet they are formidable and indispensable weapons of war. Is there a contradiction in there somewhere? Not at all. The first thing you want to do with expensive military equipment in a war zone is to conceal it. And the best way to conceal it is to create the illusion that it, and your troops, are somewhere else. It is one of the oldest tricks in the book, which is why the enemy of Christendom uses it so effectively. A fake enemy leads to a fake defense, diverting the troops from the real enemy.
Here we are touching on a question that may have been lingering in the back of your mind since you started reading this article, especially if the idea of laying down your weapons makes you feel uncomfortably vulnerable: Does the illusion of assault imply that the church no longer has enemies, is not under attack and need not be vigilant? Of course not. It simply means that we run the risk of seeing them where they are not. And once that happens we become extremely vulnerable to a second, greater error, namely not seeing them where they are. We have become fixated with dummy tanks, and the real ones are loading their guns while our backs are turned to them. The illusion of assault is more than a silly waste of time. It is Satan’s most effective diversionary tactic.
The Primacy Effect
Let me illustrate by asking you a simple question. When I say the word “devil”, what image pops into your mind? Perhaps, like me, you will see Hot Stuff, the mischievous little red devil with his diaper, pointed tail and pitchfork. The reason why this particular slide imposes itself on me every time I hear the word is that it was the first one ever presented to me, and you know what they say about first impressions (or the “primacy effect”, if you are a cognitive psychologist).
But there is a problem with my picture. Trace its origin and you are not going to end up in the pages of the Bible, but in the fertile mind of legendary Harvey Comics illustrator Warren Kremer. The problem with Kremer’s creation, and other similar classic Harvey Comics titles, such as Casper the friendly Ghost, Spooky and Wendy the Good Little Witch, is not that they expose innocent children to the horrible world of devils, spirits and witches, as concerned parents oftentimes fear, but that they introduce children to a world that has absolutely nothing to do with any of these things. And so, by having received a substitute, our kids become blinded to the real. Note that the substitute does not need to be evil, and that it can even be cute, for the real evil is to be found in the diversionary tactic.
We may convince ourselves that we have not been conned, but most of us simply think further along the same lines until we come up with an image of Satan that looks like the cover of Uriah Heep’s 1982 album Abominog. Look carefully and you’ll see that it’s still Hot Stuff, the red horned devil with the pointy ears. You are now an adult, but you are still looking at the dummy, not the real thing. And you are, most probably, protecting yourself and your children against the dummy, not against the real thing. To protect them from Satanism is to keep them away from the tattooed kids with their black clothes and heavy metal music, not from the influence of their Uncle Bill who is an elder and also a racist. Uncle Bill may very well be the embodiment of evil, in the same class as the religious leaders to whom Christ said “you are of your father the devil”, but you are oblivious as your definition of evil has already been taken. Like Hitler, you are so enamored by inflatable Shermans that you have withdrawn all your troops from the place where the attack is actually going to take place. Sad to say, you are going to lose the war…
On a Positive Note
All is not lost. Earlier I mentioned that Christianity could just as well be called the art of response, and in closing I would like to elaborate on this. Our salvation and deliverance is to be found in this single insight. Taken to its logical conclusion it will protect us from the illusion of assault and from all the decoys of the enemy.
Christ modeled the art of response through his death on a cross, a death that he could easily have avoided by using the most basic of defense strategies. Yet he did not, and by commanding us to take up our crosses and follow him, he commands us to respond to our enemies in a very particular way – as he did to his. Not retaliatory, but gracefully. Grace is more than being forgiven. It is to respond in love when no such love has been earned. It is to love your enemies, to pray for those who persecute you and turn the other cheek. This is the example of Christ, and we are commanded to follow in his steps.
Note the words of Peter, as well as the implication that this most fundamental tenet of our faith has on our defense of it:
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly… Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing… But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.
At the heart of Christianity lies the art of defense, that is, responding to those who threaten, intimidate and even attack you. The illusion of assault, more than anything else, brings with it the potential to interfere with this process. It provides the enemy access to the nerve center of your faith.
The Serpent’s Promise
Perhaps some illumination is necessary at this point. The Christian’s duty not to retaliate does not mean that there is no retaliation. It simply means that the retaliation does not come from the Christian. Why? Because it comes from God. Retaliation is God’s prerogative, not ours. As we read in the letter to the Romans:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The message is clear. When we “repay” we are trespassing on God’s territory. To take vengeance is to play God. Whatever we wish to accomplish through the law of tit-for-tat, God says he will accomplish in his own manner. To interfere with this process is a form of unrighteous self-exaltation.
Think about this for a moment. At the heart of the first sin, and every single sin that issued forth from it, lies a single motive: To be like God. This was Satan’s sin, and it was Adam’s. Adam identified himself with the satanic nature through his endeavor to be like God. Christ, the last Adam, did exactly the opposite. As we read in the letter to the Philippians, he “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” His obedience masterfully illustrates the reversal of the curse associated with stolen godhood.
With the satanic temptation came a promise: You shall surely not die. This statement was no coincidence, nor a mere refutation of God’s statement that disobedience would cause death, the aim being to dispel any hesitance, fear or doubt on the humans’ side. Rather, the serpent’s second statement elaborates on his first one. These words describe the very essence of divinity: Eternal life. This was the coveted reward associated with Satan’s offer to “be like God.” Become like God and live forever. Become like God and preserve your life.
Here we finally uncover the reason behind the universal need for defense. The almost addictive quality associated with the act of defense, the heady feeling of oneness with co-defenders, the magic atmosphere of the aftermath; all of these can be explained in five words: You shall surely not die. Most importantly, the fanatic religious zeal that so often accompanies the act of defense is explained by these words. In the final analysis, defense is a spiritual exercise, a religion. As in the case of virtually all religions, its aim is immortality.
All of this would have been quite acceptable, were it not for the fact that those five words were never uttered by God. They came from Satan, which tells us something about the true nature of defense. This does not mean that the quest for immortality is inherently flawed, or that those who seek it are evil. Not at all. It simply means that immortality was never intended to be our problem. We were never meant to carry the burden of preserving our lives.
Let’s think about that for a moment. The essence of divinity is eternal life, as we noticed a moment ago. This life is in God alone. It exists in him, not as a quality that he has, but as the essence of who he is. That is what makes God God. And so Satan’s promises, that we shall “be like God” and “surely not die”, are one and the same promise.
The point is that we were not placed on this planet to seek eternal life, and the reason has just been stated. Eternal life does not exist apart from God, and so it cannot be pursued as a thing in itself. Seeking eternal life without seeking God is like trying to be full without eating. It is really an extremely futile exercise. The only possible way out of the dilemma is to play God, and while that may be nice as a game, it is a waste of time as a means to immortality. We are not gods. We are life receivers. We need the Deity to breath into our nostrils. Without receiving life from God we are mere dust. That is where we come from and that is where we will return.
That’s rather a depressing conclusion, and so the effort to make Satan’s words believable has dominated the history of the human race. I do not need to prove this point. More able commentators have already done so. The one work that stands out in this regard is the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. Ironically, Becker did not write as a Christian or to confirm the Christian thesis. It is an unbiased and objective assessment of humanity’s greatest predicament and their obsessive efforts to escape from it, and herein is its authority. Becker offers no real answers, which is the way it should be. There are no answers, except the maxim that God is life and that immortality can only be found in him. He is our defense, and once we realize this we can lay down our arms. That is the point. When we do defend our faith it is a very different type of defense to the one that is associated with the will to survive. It is the defense spoken of by Peter and Christ. It does not have victory as its aim, but service.
The church has been deceived in this area time and again throughout her history. In the name of defense she has become the harlot, not the bride, with her cup filled with the blood of the saints. Christ’s prophecy that “an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God” has seen fulfillments ad nauseam. The exhilaration of the battle never had anything to do with God to begin with. It was and is purely psychological. To win is to be number one, and to be number one is to survive, to be immortal, to become one with your fellow survivors. Ever wondered why you feel so strangely alive each time your favourite team scores a goal?
It is a sad fact, but one that we may not deny. Our church history is oftentimes nothing but the history of our collective combat neurosis. In South Africa we use the word “bossies” (Afrikaans for “bushes”), derived from the Angolan “Bush War” of the eighties and nineties and referring to the soldiers who came back home with a strange look in the eye. Like many of these men, we end up abusing our own family. Like them, we have left the war, but the war has not left us. We only feel alive when we fight, and so that is what we do, justifying it under the banner of “defending the faith”.
It is for this reason that we need to rethink this issue. The Bride of Christ, as she is busy emerging worldwide, has no share in any of this, and that is why we need no allies in our ranks who are there because they are angry or because they think we share a common enemy with them. No, the bride is not interested. She does not join the crusades. She does not lead the inquisition. She does not approve of Michael Servetus’ murder. She does not declare drowning the third baptism and “the best antidote to Anabaptism.” She does not experience any schadenfreude when she learns that a money-hungry televangelist’s marriage is falling apart. She does none of this.
Contemporary examples of the above abound, and they are too many to mention. But I’ll give you just one. I am not a particularly great fan of Benny Hinn, for a number of reasons. But one of them is not his belief that there are nine people in the Trinity. Even though he actually preached this during a sermon in October 1990, he later recanted. Yet the internet is full of websites using his initial statement as evidence that he is a heretic, without any reference to his retraction. There is one term for this: False testimony. It is a sin and it should be repented from. Christ’s bride has no part in this either.
She does none of the above and she has no part in any of the thousands of atrocities that have falsely been committed in her name. No, she follows her Lord and Husband who prayed with his last breath for his persecutors. She does this, because she has learned from him that to lose your life is to save it.
Do we want to be part of her? Then this is the lesson we must learn.
PS: The picture of the tank fooled you, didn’t it?
The little front wave ran up on the sand
and frothed there, wildly elated
“I am the tide,” said the little front wave
“And the waves before me are dated!”
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was fashionable to accuse evangelicals in the West of having holier-than-thou attitudes. The charge was intended to convey condemnation, not praise, and was sometimes deserved (when religious arrogance and spiritual pride were referred to) and other times not (when serious efforts at sanctification caused the offense). Whatever the case, it seems that those days are disappearing. A more accurate description of current evangelical attitudes would be “trendier-than-thou”. “Hipness” is now seen as a greater spiritual accomplishment than holiness, and to be cool is better than to be consecrated.
As Society goes, so goes the church…
Theological shifts of this magnitude do not take place in a vacuum, of course. Evangelicals have seen a number of them over the past few decades, and almost without exception they have occurred as a result of mind shifts in the secular environment. “As society goes, so goes the church,” observes Michael Horton in Made in America, his landmark book on modern American evangelicalism. We could add “As the American church goes, so goes the church in South Africa”, which is why Horton’s book should be read by every serious evangelical in our country, and especially by ministers and seminary students.
Horton is not the only author of note who has documented the Christian church’s history of tagging behind the world like a little brother following in the gang’s footsteps. In the late sixties Francis Schaeffer wrote The God Who Is There and Escape From Reason, showing us how trends in secular philosophy have shaped and reshaped theological thinking over the centuries. Neil Postman famously pointed out in Amusing Ourselves To Death how the “Age of Show Business” replaced the “Age of Exposition” toward the end of the nineteenth century, and how this transition influenced the Protestant concept of the worship service. Dan McConnell’s A Different Gospel exposed the modern Word Faith Movement by revealing that its initiators were merely aping the early mind-over-matter gurus and founders of what became the positive thinking movement, and that they have never had a theological leg to stand on.
And so it goes on. The materialistic eighties gave us the prosperity movement, the emancipation movement preceded the drive to allow women into the ministry and the homosexual hot potato landed in the lap of the church after the world had grown tired of passing it around.
The Drive to be Relevant: Spiritual or Carnal?
When we look at these examples our understanding of how worldliness operates in the church is broadened, but we also begin to see through a modern myth, namely the belief that the current obsession amongst evangelicals to be relevant for their target audience is a spiritual one. As in each of the cases mentioned above, the roots of this particular new fashion are undeniably secular and carnal, and have been well documented not by hysterical critics of the church growth movement, but by astute scholars like Marshall MacLuhan, Christopher Lasch, Neil Postman and others. When we study the works of these men it becomes glaringly obvious that the origins of the new Christianity can be traced not to the teaching of Christ and the apostles, but to the marketing revolution of the previous century that gave us modern advertising and the dreaded television commercial. This was when the customer became king, when product research became market research and, as Postman has pointed out, when advertising oriented business away from making products of value towards making consumers feel valuable.
In church terms we could say that the audience became sovereign, an ecclesiastical paradigm shift of gigantic proportions clearly articulated by the World Council of Churches’ pronouncement in 1966: “The world must set the agenda for the church.” The world has been more than happy to do this, and so was birthed the notion that the gospel must be packaged differently for each segment and subculture of society according to their particular preferences. This has led to a fascination with terms such as Generation X, Boomers, Busters and so on. Each generation needs to be studied, understood and approached differently, we are told, or the gospel won’t have any effect on them.
And so we find ourselves with a philosophy of ministry that changes as often as its temperamental audience, with the average minister finding it impossible to keep up. Naturally, we also find ourselves with a new kind of ministerial elite, for those who do manage to keep up are the new pundits, cutting-edge possessors of information needed by the rest of us to do ministry effectively.
A Subtle Substitution at a High Price
Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Screwtape’s devious advice to his understudy, Wormwood: “If they must be Christians, let them be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart.” It seems that Wormwood has been busy lately.
We could join the world and bow before the god of novelty, yes. We could confess that newer is better and spend our ministerial lives feverishly chasing after each trend, fashion and new wave. But when we do this, let us remind ourselves that what is deemed most relevant in theology is often moldy in a few days, as Thomas Oden has wisely cautioned. And let us not forget Dean Inge’s chilling warning: He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower.
Centuries ago, Vincent of Lérins expressed the standard of Christian orthodoxy as “that which has been believed everywhere and always by everyone.” His words remind us that the gospel is ageless and exalted above the tides of change in this world. It has never been fashionable, and it cannot go out of fashion. Like its Author, it is the same yesterday, today and forever.
(This article was first published in Baptists Today)
One of the first things a person has to do when rethinking the idea of “church” is to seriously reconsider what the Bible means when it speaks about “elders”. The two concepts are intertwined and inseparable, and so there are as many views on eldership as there are on church.
This is a huge topic and I can only touch on it here, but I believe that a few basic principles can make the world of difference in how we approach this subject. The same applies to a myriad of other fuzzy church issues, and so my aim is not only to make a remark or two about the issue of recognising an elder but to suggest where one should start when thinking about such issues.
Two Vital Distinctions
Where does one start? I often say to people that early Christians had two things that we do not have in our day and age, and I believe it is vital that we see this before attempting to shift from an institutionalised form of Christianity to a natural one (which happens to be what this blog is all about):
1. Early Christians did not have any books or how-to-manuals manuals on doing “organic church”. This makes sense if you consider what the term “organic” or “natural” means. Fish do not need to earn degrees in ocean population at the Oceanographic Institute, as some of us are finally figuring out, but neither do they need lectures on organic fish life. What they need is the nature of a fish.
2. Early Christians did not have two thousand years of church tradition to contend with. Their church experience began at point zero, and so it could not be anything but natural. Their collective dedication to prayer, teaching, fellowship and the breaking of bread was a spontaneous manifestation of the Christ life within. They were not following a liturgical pattern and they were not trying to regain something they had lost. They were just BEING. We, on the other hand, have some serious unlearning to do before we can start our race. We are like a group of marathon runners on a lost bus steered by a drunken driver in the back streets of a city we do not know. The race has begun, but we are not there. To do what we are called and equipped to do is simply not possible. Of course, we can rationalize our predicament: We can put on our running shoes, convince ourselves that we are moving in the right direction and even rejoice at the speed we are traveling with (no runner can equal this!). On the other hand, we can rise up, curse the driver, force the bus to a standstill, get out, vow to never set foot on another bus and start walking or jogging (bound together by the camaraderie forged by our harrowing experience). Either way, we are not where we are supposed to be and we have not even begun to do what we are supposed to do.
There is much to be said about this, but that is not what I want to do here. The point that I want to make is that we, 2000 years down the line, need to first find our way back to the starting point of our race before we can start with it (no rocket science here!). This is our challenge, and from such a vantage point we may very well argue that we require a type of training that was unnecessary in the early church. I suspect that this is the very reason why someone like Frank Viola wrote Pagan Christianity before he wrote Reimagining Church and Finding Organic Church. The fish have been taught that they are scuba divers, and so, unlike their great ancestors, they need training (un-training?) to come to terms with their own identity.
Once we grasp this, it becomes much easier to approach thorny issues such as eldership. If the first challenge is to rid ourselves of traditional ideas, than that is what we must do. If I close my eyes and think of the word “elder”, the first image that appears in my mind is one from my early childhood. I see a group of somber men, dressed in black suits and white ties, sitting in reserved pews in a front section of the traditional Reformed church my family and I attended. It is now decades later, but that picture still imposes itself on me and seeks to define what eldership is all about. And so I start my quest with a severe handicap.
Clearly I need to let go of this image before I can start my journey of discovering Biblical eldership. To try and erase such a powerful memory is futile, and so the best I can do is to stop believing in it as a legitimate portrayal of eldership. (This is no small task. If you struggle to question your own dearly held convictions, I highly recommend that you read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It is the best work I have read on the subject of challenging one’s own assumptions and opinions.) Once I have managed to do this I need to find my way to the starting point – to the place where the first Christians were when the race began. Only then can I begin my journey.
Back to Point Zero…
If you could travel back to first century Palestine and ask someone to do the exercise above (close your eyes, think of the word “elder”…), what image would come to his/her mind? The closest we can come to actually doing this is to find a contemporary culture that resembles the one in which the church was birthed. Like flies in amber, such cultures do exist in and around Palestine, frozen in time and unaffected by the events that have marked 2000 years of history in the “West”. It was in such a culture that the author J. van der Ploeg once asked an interesting question. In his own words:
In 1947, I asked an Arab priest from Beisan in Palestine, who was well-acquainted with the Arab nomads or semi-nomads, how one became an ‘elder’ of the tribe. He replied that he was not able to say, for there are no rules or laws to determine it. It seems that when a man reached the point where people often ask his counsel and he has the moral authority such as elders have, he is admitted by common, often tacit, consent into their ‘college’. So there is tacit admission into the group of elders, no nomination, nor application of a rule according to which one becomes an ‘elder’. The qualification is a man’s moral authority. It is my clear impression that a person became an elder in Israel in the same way, and this explains why our texts say little of it. (J. van der Ploeg, ‘Les Anciens dans l’Ancien testament, p190-191)
I suspect that this piece of information provides more insight into the question of electing church leadership than the majority of current books on the topic. It is not difficult to imagine how someone with the above understanding of eldership would have thought about a gathering of believers overseen by a group of elders. It is not difficult to conclude that that is exactly how the early church thought about eldership.
I have mentioned that there is much more to be said about the topic than this. My main aim is to provide a basic framework for reconsidering our presuppositions and getting back to Biblical ones; to think “naturally” again. We have to be guided by Scripture, but our premise must first be correct. The issue of eldership is but one example. There are many more.
…they shall call his name Immanuel which means, God with us. Matthew 1:23
It is ironic that some of Christendom’s greatest efforts to proclaim and exhibit God’s presence on earth have frequently caused exactly the opposite. God is usually obscured, rather than revealed, to the very degree that our religious attire, architecture, titles, music and language become strange and otherworldly. We then portray him not as “with us” but as distant, elusive and incomprehensible.
Our habit of speaking “Christianese” is a prime example. Like medieval ecclesiastical Latin, many of the terms that Christians use in everyday language is completely incomprehensible to people outside the church. Sadly, due to the fact that a number of Biblical Greek words were not translated into English but transliterated (the transcription of a word in one language into corresponding letters of another language without regard to the original meaning), Christians possess a distinct vocabulary that is gobbledygook to outsiders.
Consider the sentence: “A bishop and an apostle went to the church to speak to a pastor and a few deacons.” This sentence is not only unintelligible to a person untrained in religious language, but is also interpreted completely differently by people from different denominations. It is noteworthy that these terms had no religious connotation in the original Greek, but were everyday terms used to convey obvious meanings. And so a Greek simpleton in the first century would have understood the above sentence as “The supervisor and the delegate went to the gathering to speak to a herdsman and a few servants.”
The difference in meaning between the two sentences is astounding. The former is ambiguous whilst the latter portrays Christianity as a practical, functional, down-to-earth faith that calls for personal involvement.
God does not speak Christianese. He speaks in a way that we can all understand.
(Bloemnews 18 February 2011)
For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5
According to an old saying one should never judge a book by its cover. Whilst this is true, one should also not ignore the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages that a book cover may convey. Sleazy magazines, for instance, can usually be judged by their covers.
With this in mind I cannot help but wonder about the fairly recent trend of putting full blown pictures of Christian authors on the covers of their books. If the aim of a book is to exalt Jesus Christ and him alone, why do I have to stare at the face of the author every time I pick up the book? Can you imagine Paul having his face painted on the scroll that contained the epistle to the Romans? Neither can I!
Reading James Chen’s transcribed talks in the remarkable little book The Passing of the Torch recently, I came across an interesting first-hand account that strengthened my misgivings. Chen, who was a friend of the well-known Chinese Christian Watchman Nee, said the following during one of his talks: “If Watchman Nee were here and if he heard me mentioning his name, he would be very unhappy. I feel I am saying too much about him. He never wanted anyone to exalt Watchman Nee more than Christ. He felt very deeply that his name should never take up even a little bit of the attention due the name of Jesus Christ. The Christians and the churches all over China, although they respected Watchman Nee, seldom mentioned his name – but they exalted Christ. Brother Watchman Nee was not our head, but Jesus Christ was our Head.”
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
(Bloemnuus 10 December 2010)