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I am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.
The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.
All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”
Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:
I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15
Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.
Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”
And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”
The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.
The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.
Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions
The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?
This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.
Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”
But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.
If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.
Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).
These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34
Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20
Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:
All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:
But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12
Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.
I dedicate this to Winston Ruiters, a carpenter I met yesterday. We spoke about God, cave paintings, my African ancestors and some other things.
Whilst thinking of Winston early this morning, I was reminded of another carpenter.
This man loved God more than any other human ever had. Yet he chose a carpentry shop instead of a religious seminary to prepare himself for God’s work.
This man had greater abilities to build a religious empire than all the world’s televangelists put together, yet he never took up an offering.
This man had greater stature than the Pope, yet he hated organised religion.
This man could assemble a crowd in seconds, yet he avoided them.
This man had more wisdom and knowledge than one can find in all the world’s libraries, yet he had no title or credentials.
This man could actually do the miracles that faith healers can only dream of, yet he rebuked those who wanted him to hold a miracle crusade.
This man had the ability to bring God into politics, yet he took Him out of it.
This man managed to attract the attention of the rich and famous, yet he chose to befriend the poor.
This man had the ability to save his life, yet he gave it as a ransom for many.
So I ask you, how can any human being not love this man?
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:21-23)
Nelson Mandela, the “father” of the country I live in, has died.
He died because he was a mere man. An extraordinary man, but a mere man.
As I watched the footage covering his life and death, I was reminded of the passage above. Have you noticed that the error of deifying a mortal was committed by the people and not by Herod? The passage never suggests that Herod thought of himself as a god. It was the people who committed the sin of idolatry.
Herod’s sin was not one of commission, but of omission. He failed to correct the people’s error.
The passage stands in stark contrast to a similar incident recorded in the book of Acts, but with a very different outcome:
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. (Acts 14:11-16)
Us humans have a long history of getting our gods and heroes mixed up. It’s a silly idea that was first suggested by a serpent, but we bought into it and allowed it to determine most of our religious development throughout the ages. Frazer’s The Golden Bough does an excellent job of documenting our follies in this regard, especially when it comes to those who rule over us. (See his Incarnate Human Gods to find out more about the elephant headed god Gunputty and Queen Victoria’s divinity. And please ignore his conclusions about Jesus Christ. Frazer is an excellent historian but a poor theologian.)
As Montaigne famously quipped: We do not know how to make a maggot, but we create gods by the dozens.
It is noteworthy that the passage from Acts never disputes Herod’s greatness. It was the origin of that greatness that was at stake. Similarly, Paul and Barnabas’ abilities were not downplayed. Rather, the passage directs the attention away from them and to God as the source of life and goodness.
This is the lesson, and we shall do well to take note of it in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s passing.
Was he a “great man”, according to human standards? Certainly. In fact, he was one of the greatest, and so shall he be remembered.
Did his greatness originate in himself? Certainly not, and we dare not remember him as though it did.
Perhaps you find it disturbing to imagine that Nelson Mandela was a mere mortal that was greatly gifted by God to do what he had done. Perhaps his accomplishments were slightly too “unspiritual” for you to draw such a conclusion. I mean, he did not even confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Why would God allow a man to be filled with power, wisdom and humility without bringing such a man to his knees and publicly declare Christ as Lord?
If you struggle with such questions (and many Christians do), then I wish to remind you of a passage from the Bible that deals with the “calling” of a man who did not worship God:
This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:1-7)
Cyrus II of Persia, like Herod, was known as “the great”. At the time of his reign he created the largest empire the world had ever seen, and his other accomplishments were numerous and legendary. His Biblical significance had to do with his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.
Put simply, Cyrus was raised up by God and made “great” to be an instrument for delivering God’s people from their captivity in Babylon. All his other feats were circumstantial to this one great purpose of his life.
Was it necessary for him to be a converted Jew in order to obey this calling? Not at all. God had a purpose with Cyrus and that purpose was fulfilled in and through Cyrus’ life. Cyrus was great because God made him great, and God made him great for God, not for Cyrus.
None of this should sound strange. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome (note that this was Rome) he wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-4). He goes on to call the authorities “God’s servants” and “agents”.
If you are looking for a historic example of a deeply spiritual human government, please skip Rome. If ever a government embodied the spirit of the Antichrist, Rome was it. Yet they were there because God established them, and he did so for his own purposes.
So why on earth would God raise up a “great” man at the southern tip of Africa to guide a country through democratic elections and prohibit a bloody civil war? To tell you the honest truth, I don’t think anyone has a clue. Maybe one day we will know, but I do not believe that we do at the moment. My best guess is that it is either because of past prayers or future plans that God may have for this country. Or perhaps a bit of both. But I cannot say for certain, and I don’t believe anybody else can.
You may suggest that it was to deliver the oppressed masses, but I don’t think that was the only reason. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place”, Jesus said to Pilate.
God is not in the business of freedom fighting. He is not on the side of the ANC, or, for that matter, on the side of any government. He has established them for his own purposes, but that says no more about his affections for them than it does about his feelings for Rome during the time of their governance.
Of course God is on the side of the oppressed. But his delivery of them is much greater and more inclusive than what we have seen in South Africa. South Africa is not quite the Kingdom of God, and it will never be. Furthermore, many oppressed worldwide will remain oppressed until the coming of Christ. That does not mean that we should be apathetic about their lot, but simply that we should not confuse our humanitarian efforts with the sum total of God’s agenda.
Nelson Mandela was great because God made him great, and he did so for his own purposes. If anyone should get the glory, praise and honour for Mandela’s greatness, then it is God.
Let us not fall into the same error as the crowd in Herod’s day. Let us give praise where praise is due.
And let us not fall into Herod’s error and be quiet about the crowd’s error.
So where is the elephant? (If you think I’ve lost my mind, you may wish to refer to the previous post.)
To answer this, look at the picture on the left.
Do you see the Dalmatian? If not, take another look. If you still cannot see it, scroll down to the end of this post and look at the same picture, this time with the contours connected. Then return here. The dog should now emerge from the black blobs.
Once you “see” the Dalmatian you are confirming something that has both fascinated and puzzled scholars for a very long time, namely the human brain’s propensity to deceive its owner.
Why am I saying this? For the simple reason that THERE IS NO DALMATIAN in the picture. At least not according to the normal accepted definition of a pictorial representation of an animal. The contours of the dog are illusory, which explains why some of you had to have a kick start before you could see it.
So what do you see then if not an actual Dalmatian? You are in fact seeing an image that is inferred by your brain based on all its prior experiences with Dalmatians that were real. Your exposure to certain objective connections in time and space created neural pathways in your grey matter that now cause those very connections to be made when you see a mere few clues associated with them.
Compare the following two pictures:
Would anyone say that the lines in the left picture represent a bird? Surely not. Yet most people immediately see a bird in the picture on the right. Why? The lines in the two pictures are exactly the same, but in the picture on the right they are arranged in such a way that they recall the form of a bird that is stored in your mind.
This habit of the human brain may be fascinating, but it is hardly innocent. If you look at the picture below you will understand why:
This is not a bird. It is a face of a man, drawn on the lines of the “bird” above. By connecting them in a way that does not conform to the strong associations of a little feathered creature in our minds, a completely different picture emerges. If I were to say a moment ago that the “bird picture” represented the face of a man you would have thought that I was a bit confused. Yet I would have been no more wrong or right than those who said it was a bird. I simply chose to connect the lines according to a different association.
Examples of these mind tricks abound. There is a triangle in the picture below, right? Wrong. There is no triangle. It is inferred based on a game your brain started playing when you first picked up those little red blocks in kindergarten.
Instead of seeing a triangle I much prefer to see 3 angry Pac-Men attacking one of those little critters from the beloved eighties arcade game. Why not? It’s much more fun than a triangle that is not even there.
(If you struggle to make the interfering triangle disappear, squint and focus on the top Pac-Man until the black in the picture becomes dominant over the white. The triangle will vanish and you will see a completely different picture.)
We will get back to our elusive elephant in a moment, but before we do so, let us consider another way in which our brains employ the very mechanism above to make sense of bits-and-pieces information and turn them into cohesive wholes.
You may not be aware of it, but when you recall past experiences you are also joining dots. The human memory does not retrieve an entire file associated with an event in the same way that a clerk would retrieve a law office file containing all the information associated with a case. Rather, it dips into the file and selects the highlights of the event. “Highlights” typically include the beginning of the event, the end, and any extraordinary or emotionally high-impact occurrences in between.
This leaves us with the job of connecting the bits by filling in the blanks. As with the picture of the “bird” above, we tend to do so in the way that seems most obvious to us. The result is that we oftentimes reconstruct our memories according to our own biases and preferences instead of the way in which the actual events took place. We impose an “idea” of sorts on the bits of information our brains feed us, and in the process we become poor witnesses and excellent storytellers.
One of the best examples of the “connection” phenomenon is the illusion of motion that is created by looking at a movie. A series of separate pictures played at a certain speed on a projector causes the stationary images to disappear and to be replaced with a lifelike rendition of the events that were filmed. Few people actually pause to think how strange this is when they watch a movie. They don’t realise that they are, in fact, witnessing a powerful demonstration of the mind’s determination to connect loose bits of information into a cohesive and sensible whole.
The Principle of Gestalt
The habit of relying on some or other “big picture” in order to make sense of the information presented to us pretty much dominates our lives, and has been noted by scholars for centuries.
The line of study that is most commonly associated with these principles is known as “Gestalt theory” or “Gestalt psychology”, the German school of psychology that traces its origin to the early twentieth century and to the work of the Czech-born psychologist Max Wertheimer.
Gestalt is a German word for pattern, form or shape and is employed in the English language to refer to the concept of wholeness, especially in the sense that it is used in the Gestalt motto: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.
What distinguished the Gestalt school of psychology from its counterparts at the time was its insistence that perception is not a passive apprehension and mental storage of observable details, but an active and dynamic process of seeking some sort of order, pattern or form of which the details would only be a part.
As Wertheimer put it in the introductory sentence of one his famous papers: “I stand at the window and see a house, trees, sky. Theoretically I might say there were 327 brightnesses and nuances of colour. Do I have “327″? No. I have sky, house, and trees.”
The Sum, the Parts and the Elephant
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see how the predominant “gestalt” or “big picture” held by your mind can actually obliterate the intended message of a single bit of information.
Which finally brings us to our elephant (phew). The six men in Saxe’s poem each made the same mistake. They allowed a strong existing association to impose itself on their sensory experiences and so provide the illusion of a final understanding. Their existing insights, valid as they were, caused their exegesis to be “interrupted” and turned them into heretics.
Interrupted theologians are all around us, and it is not difficult to see why. The moment the brain detects a suitable pattern from its storehouse for making sense of the bits of information presented to it, it sees no need for further exploration. Needless to say, this illusion of a final insight is the breeding ground for heresy.
I may make myself unpopular here, but it is my firm conviction that Confucius’ tormentors (See previous post) all suffer from this malady. By allowing themselves the luxury of a preferred theological gestalt (a “pet doctrine” in plain English), they have shaped the entire gospel into a form that resonates deeply with them but that is in fact a caricature of the real thing.
This issue is so huge that I will address it in a separate post. I intend citing examples from the most popular of current theological streams, and I am hoping for some insightful discussion.
Until we do so, take some time and consider the following verses in light of the above:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. Matthew 6:22-23
To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. Titus 1:15
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. Proverbs 18:2
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17
(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.
One of the best definitions of humility that I have ever heard comes from the pen of William Law. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less”, Law said.
Along the same lines, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody… He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Law and Lewis are spot-on. As I’ve pointed out in this column before, a regular ingredient of pride is a sense of accomplishment. And so it is in fact impossible to pursue humility and find it, for the sense of accomplishment at the end of the journey will destroy it.
To understand this, we merely need to remind ourselves of Soren Kierkegaard’s legendary words: “God always creates out of nothing, which means that before he can use something he first reduces it to nothing.”
Theologians speak much of God’s ability to create “ex nihilo” (Latin for “out of nothing”), but Kierkegaard underlines the importance of “ad nihilo” (“towards nothing”, the etymological roots of our English word “annihilate).
Herein lies the secret to Christian humility: Only God can create out of nothing, and only God can reduce to nothing. Human beings can engineer the work of the cross no more than they can fabricate the resurrection. Both the letter of the law that kills and the Spirit that gives life come from God.
And so humility is not to be found by looking for it. Rather, it is the natural outcome of looking away from ourselves and to Jesus Christ.
Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. John 12:31
One of the central themes of the Bible (many say it is the central theme) is the coming of God’s kingdom. Christians oftentimes appreciate the idea but fail to identify themselves fully with it. The reason is not hard to find: In the past few centuries monarchies worldwide have been replaced by republics. Hereditary rule is a foreign concept in democracies, and so the ancient idea of serving under a king from a royal bloodline has mostly become an alien one. Hence the widely held view that the British Monarchy is outdated and should be abolished.
But this does not mean that the message of the Bible should become diluted in our understanding. It simply means that we should grasp it at the level where we currently make sense of political liberation and rule.
The footage on our television screens this past week, of the celebrations in the streets of Tripoli, provides us with just such a glimpse. It represents the effect of very good news, namely that an evil and corrupt ruler has fallen and that a legitimate government is about to be set up. And so the people are rejoicing as a result of their liberation. It is a parable of the gospel, of the coming of a kingdom, which is why the joy is so infectious.
There is a danger, however. The scenes of Tripoli are not unlike those that greeted Jesus Christ as he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. The Hebrew cry “Hosanna” is not a synonym for “Hallelujah”, as many believe, but means “please save” or “save now”, implying a fervent plea for national liberation from Roman domination. This was the expectation, and when Christ failed to provide it he was rejected as the Messiah. Within days the hosannas were replaced with another cry: “Crucify him!”
Jesus knew better. The evil dictator was not Caeser, but Satan – the “prince of this world.” And Christ’s liberation was not national, but universal.The streets of Jerusalem and Tripoli provides us with a picture, but that is all it is. A shadow, a type, signifying that which is to come.
But there’s another parable in there, one that that we dare not miss. People are celebrating victory because the evil regime is something of the past. In the words of the Bible, the house is being plundered because the strong man has been bound. We saw the plundering of Gadhafi’s mansions on CNN. The once mighty ruler has been disarmed and has now become a public spectacle, to use another line from the New Testament. Yet, in spite of all this, the shooting continues and good people are still dying. Is there a contradiction in there? Not at all. In the words of Revelation 12, the dragon has lost the war and has been cast out of heaven, yet he has a season on the run before his final destruction. This is his last opportunity to inflict as much damage as possible.
Examples of this interim phase between victory and final redemption abound. On April 24, 1945, Soviet armies surrounded Berlin. It was the beginning of the end of World War II. In the ensuing week German resistance collapsed and on the afternoon of 30 April the desperate Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. The war in Europe, for all practical purposes, was over.
However, in early May people were still being tortured and killed in many of the concentration camps. Some camps, like Auschwitz, had been liberated. Others, like Stutthof, were not. Knowing that their time was short, frantic Nazis organised mass exterminations of prisoners before becoming prisoners themselves. The war was over, but for tens of thousands of men, women and children the maltreatment continued exactly as it did before.
The last days of the concentration camps provide Christians with a powerful metaphor for understanding their pain and suffering in this world: Victory and final redemption are oftentimes separated by a gap, with victory becoming a theoretical reality before it becomes a practical one, a belief before it becomes an experience. In the concentration camps victory was no more than a rumour, and the only benefit thereof was the light of faith and hope that was ignited by believing it.
This is the way the Bible authors spoke of salvation. They realized that Christ had conquered the enemy and that his Kingdom had come, yet they knew that the full benefits of the victory would only be experienced at his visible return.
This is the current state of Libya, and so we are reminded that it is quite possible for a kingdom to have arrived without having been set up. This is also the current state of the church. We have arrived, yet we haven’t. No contradiction there.
To misunderstand this is to expose yourself to a sniper’s bullet. The various versions of triumphalism, currently doing the rounds in many churches, do exactly that. If you believe you should be perfectly healed, holy, prosperous and so on, you make yourself extremely vulnerable to a deep disillusionment that has absolutely nothing to do with God’s inability to deliver on his promises and everything with your misunderstanding of the lesson above.
Let us learn from the streets of Tripoli.
(This is an expanded version of two columns that have previously appeared in Bloemnews)