Full but so empty; so confused with all I know

Convinced of Your love and plans, yet so unsure if it really matters that I am

Everything is so clear that I can’t even see

My heart, brimming with love as I despise everyone around me

Come into this Church that I hate and meet the groom of the hideous, breath-taking bride

Drowning in grace while suffocating in my sin. Clinging to faith, and searching for peace

Confident of my rights to lay them down… I am so right about being wrong

Clearly out of focus

When You have never been louder, speak so that I can hear

Stuck moving forward. A heart of stone layered between bruised flesh

Break down the walls to protect the vulnerable

Why? I need no answers because I know who You are. Have I met you before?

So tired of bursting with exuberance. Is this over? I can’t wait to start!

The mirror shows competence, but I have no idea what I am doing. Scared to be uncovered, to see what I already know is there

Two-faced

A paradox

 

Early in his writings, Paul authored Galatians, a book primarily dedicated to explaining to Jewish Christians that their uncircumcised Gentile brothers were not second class members of the church. Paul directly refutes this concept of hierarchy in Christian community in Galatians 3:28: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We can also observe this equality lived out in the structure of the early church leadership in Ephesus. Ephesus was a key city in the formation of the global church. Scripture gives us a great deal of information on the Ephesian church. It is highlighted in Acts 19 and 20, and three of the New Testament Epistles are written to encourage its growth (Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and 2 Timothy).

Using these biblical texts and the insights of ancient church historians, we can learn about the early history of the Christian community in that city. A close study of early church history reveals both the challenges faced by the Ephesian church at the time and a living example of church leadership devoid of manmade hierarchies…

Finish reading over at the Christians for Biblical Equality website.

 

** A dear friend of mine recently wrote asking me to explain how I came to an egalitarian reading of Ephesians 5. This was my (very long) attempt to walk point by point through the passage. I have to give major credit to Dr. Ron Pierce and Margaret Mowczko for their incredible scholarship on hermeneutics, context, and Greek. Their lectures and writings have been profoundly illuminating. **

First off,  before I start explaining my understanding of different biblical passages, it is imperative that you understand that when it comes to biblical interpretations, I try to follow a few commonly accepted hermeneutical principles. It’s worth explaining these before getting into Ephesians 5 because they frame where I am coming from and why I draw my conclusions the way that I do.

1) Never “cherry pick.” I think it is helpful to look at a single passage, but it’s important to always go back and look at the rest of the chapter, book, and Bible as a whole. If an interpretation contradicts other parts of Scripture, it is probably wrong. If it is awkward  or just stands alone as a solitary idea in Scripture, it is probably unwise to build an entire theology on it. The truth is that we can make the Bible support any position we have by picking isolated passages. The best way to avoid this is to make sure our understanding has support in the whole of Scripture.

2) Context is everything – historical, literary, cultural, placement in the canon etc. Whether a passage in the in the OT or NT matters. Whether a passage is a part of Song of Songs or Galatians or Daniel matters. Understanding the literary goal of a book is very important. (is it poetic, narrative, or instructional). I take literary context seriously, and I do not read Proverbs in the same way that I read Micah or James.

Additionally, the context of the history & culture of the setting and audience is important.  The meaning of Scripture is what the author intended it to mean, not necessarily how I understand it in 2015 as a female American. If we don’t understand the world in which a passage was written, we can easily misunderstand what the author was trying to communicate to the specific audience he was writing to. I also think this means that we have to be comfortable with some ambiguity when we cannot figure out what is being referenced to in certain passages. We don’t have all of the information available to us (ie the letters that Paul is replying to that describe a church’s particular problems).

3) Specific language is different than exclusive language. For example,  I might intend to speak to a room of boys and girls and say, “Boys, you need to be calm and listen up.” I would be making assumptions that little boys are more rowdy and in need of a reminder to listen, but I am not saying that the little girls in the room are excluded from my instructions. This is the exact same principle that allows us to apply Scripture to our lives when it was written for a certain audience.

4) Explicit language is clearer than perceived inferences or implications. In terms of the gender debate, if the text in Genesis says male and female were made in the image of God, this is explicit. It is clear and precise. But making a case for authority based on who was created first is an inference or implication that isn’t found in the text itself (this particular idea might find support in other passages, but you cannot use Genesis passage itself explicitly to show creation order is significant to authority).

5) Prescriptive language is clearer than descriptive language. Narratives are primarily descriptive: they tell the way things are. However, if God’s voice is heard interrupting the text saying, “This is the way things should be,” that is prescriptive. It’s shaky ground to use descriptive texts to make prescriptive assumptions. (Just because Noah built a boat, doesn’t mean that I should too.) This principle can be applied to non-narratives as well when the author is simply describing reality, but not necessarily prescribing that reality as a good or a God-ordained thing.

6) Using the language of Scripture makes an argument stronger.  We are wisest to use the language that Scripture uses. For example, in studying Genesis 1-5, the text says that male and female had dominion over the earth together. That is a pretty solid argument because that specific wording was used in Scripture. When studying Genesis we can confidently say that God intended for men and women to have dominion over the world together because that is exactly what Scripture says. However, the word “head” is not used in the Genesis account a single time in regard to the first man, so the argument that man was to be a head over woman is inherently weaker because that language doesn’t exist in the text.

It’s also worth noting that the original languages are important to understand. We have translations, and sometimes the way that we understand a word – the connotations that have been developed over time in English – do not align as closely with the original language’s word. I don’t speak any biblical languages, so I am reliant on the scholarship of others, but this is something that I always try to understand when I study a passage. Were the words of this passage understood by the author in the same way that I understand them in English?

Okay, sorry about the loooong introduction, but I do think it is really important to be at the same starting point before I try to go further. I want to make sure you know what my assumptions are rather than having to back track later on.

So, I have chosen to address the verses you specified by slowly narrowing the focus. I start with a look at the book, then at the smaller section in which these verses are contained, and then the verses themselves.

Ephesians

Reading the whole book frames the verses in questions. Paul is essentially reminding the Ephesians of who they are because of Jesus. They have been called out, chosen and adopted as Christ’s own. In chapters 1 & 2, he reminds them about where they came from and what they were saved from. At the end of chapter 1, we see the first use of the body/head metaphor which describes Christ as head of all things  for the sake of the church. In other words, Christ is the source of provision, life, and growth of the church.

“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

Chapter 2:19-22 says, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens… and in him you too are being built together to be a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” And in 3:1, Paul almost gets to his point, “For this reason, I Paul…” but then gets sidetracked explaining his own story and his passion for the Ephesians before resuming his discourse in chapter 4. I believe 4: 4 is the point of the whole book, ” I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” The preceding verses are about why and the following ones are about how.

He continues with an appeal to unity (verses 2-4), explains that each are given unique gifts but those are also meant for unity (verses 11-13). In verse 15, we find the second mention of the body/head metaphor,

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Again we are all different pieces of a whole body of which Christ is the head, the source of provision for growth and maturity (building itself up in love toward maturity). It seems to me that the metaphor of Christ the head in this particular book so far is less about authority and more about Christ being the source of provision. Christ is obviously described as the authority of the church is in other passages (not making that statement, so don’t misunderstand me), but for the sake of THIS book, we need to understand how Paul is using the metaphor here.

Next, Paul reminds the Ephesians that they aren’t to be like the Gentile pagans with hardened hearts (17-19), rather they are to be as the new creations that they are (20-24). For the next chapter and half all the way to 6:9, Paul gets into specifics. He talks first about individual character issues (honesty, forgiveness, drunkenness, and greed). These are instructions for believers about how they are to be within themselves. Then Paul moves into relationships or how believers are to be in relation with others. Chapter 5 verse 21 marks the transition to this section.

Finally, Paul concludes the letter by reminding the Ephesians that their war is spiritual and so are their weapons and that they should stand firm.

 

Ephesians 5:21-6:9

Drawing things in a little more, we see that the passage in question is Paul’s specific instructions on how believers are to act in relationships, and verse 21 starts us off. It frames the entire section.

“Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ.”

There is a “one another” here, and everything that follows shows how “one another” plays out. If you are a wife, here is how you submit. If you are a husband, here is how you submit, if you are a child or a parent, or a slave or a master, here is how you are to submit.

This idea is further supported when you look at the original language. In verse 22, there is no verb in the Greek, it is actually a clause that connects with verse 21. A more literal reading of the verses would be “Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ, a wife to her own husband as to the Lord.” You cannot disconnect verse 21 from the rest of the verses in this section, and the Greek sentence structure makes that pretty conclusive.

What I see in all of the verses specific to spouses is a lot of love, respect, unity, and submission. What I don’t see is authority in the way that I hear it defined today, as a call to obedience for one and rule for the other. Certainly the idea of authority is not explicit in the way that I see explicit commands to submit to one another. Maybe you can make in inference about it, but you still have to contend with the explicit “submit to one another” that applies to husbands about their wives as much as to wives about their husbands.

It is significant to me this is different from what we see in the child/parent & slaves/masters passages that follow the wife/husband passages. In these verses, slaves and children are called explicitly to obey their masters and parents – something that a wife is never told to do in regards to her husband here or anywhere in Scripture. All 6 of these groups of people are to submit, but only 2 are actually told that obedience is a part of the submission. Parents are in authority over children, so the children are to obey. Masters are in authority over slaves, so slaves are to obey. It is significant that Paul leaves this explicit command out of his instructions to husbands and wives, ESPECIALLY in a patriarchical cultural context in which it would have been expected and appropriate because in a legal sense wives WERE under their husband’s authority. This is actually quite subversive and radical because the expectation would have been a similar treatment, “wives obey your husbands who are in authority over you.” The fact that he didn’t do this is a big red light begging the question “Why?”

Additionally, I think you have to take into account how Paul treats slavery. He never endorsed slavery here or elsewhere… but he also wasn’t trying to change the structure. He was teaching slaves how to function within the structure (this is true for every place in which slavery is discussed in the NT) while urging masters to rethink their positions as authority holders over other human beings. (Philemon is THE apologetic for anti-slavery though even still Paul never explicitly condemns it, rather he appealed to Philemon to treat Onesimus as an equal brother.) I think there is some similarity with how Paul dealt with marriage in that culture which was totally male-centered and in which wives had no legal power and no authority in the home or in society. We never see Paul expressly condemn patriarchy (or slavery), but the way in which he writes, the mandates that he gives, and the way he treats slaves (Onesimus) and women (Phoebe, Priscilla, Chloe, Junia, Nympha etc.) as co-leaders suggests a subversive perspective toward those cultural norms. If you want my perspective and wider biblical support of this particular idea, here is a link to the study I did on Galatians.

 

Ephesians 5:21-33 (NIV)

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.

31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

 

First I want to look at what this passage is NOT saying explicitly. Then I will approach what it IS saying and take a look at some of the contextual pieces that help us understand the significance of those explicit statements.

What does this passage does NOT say.

These are all assumptions I’ve heard when approaching this text, but they are not explicit in the passage. While any of them may or may not be true, they cannot be taken from this particular text.

-that the husband has a divine mandate to exercise authority over his wife

– that the husband should give “servant leadership” to the wife/family

– that the husband should be the initiator and the wife should be the responder

– that the husband should make final decisions for the family (with or without the input of the wife)

– that the husband alone is responsible before the Lord for the family and for his wife

– that the husband should set the spiritual direction for the family

 

What the passage DOES say:

Verse 21/22- As mentioned previously, the entire section has to be framed by this introductory verse. There is no thought break between 21 & 22. They are the same sentence and all that comes after verse 21 is about submitting to one another.

Verse 23-24. I believe what Paul is saying is that the husband is the head of the wife because he WAS the source of provision for his wife in every way in that culture in which women could not have a legitimate job, or own property, or provide for themselves. However, as the one who was  culturally the source of protection and provision, he should fulfill that responsibility in the manner in which Christ is the head of the church… which Paul then shows as being a source of provision in a submissive manner, further extrapolating his “one another” statement in verse 21. Here is how I came to that conclusion:

The first thing in this thought is a statement of fact, “the husband is the head of the wife.” It does not say that the husband is supposed to be the head of the wife. This is a statement of the reality of the members of the church to whom Paul writes. The husbands WERE the legal and cultural heads of their wives. Women were totally reliant upon their husbands for pretty much everything. But this is a descriptive phrase not prescriptive like the later phrase “wives should submit to their husbands.” We have to be careful here not to make an assumption of prescription based on a descriptive statement. Perhaps the prescription follows, but that would need to be proved by what comes after it. (And I think that a prescription does follow but it modifies and explains Paul’s point of mutual submission.)

So what does it mean that the husband is the head of the wife like Christ is the head of the church? Is that a statement of authority, spiritual or otherwise? Going back to those hermeneutical principles, what matters is not what I think that metaphor means (what I think of when I read “head”), but what Paul intended when he wrote this letter.

Based on how this metaphor is used earlier in the passage, it seems to be about provision and care, about assisting in growth and maturity. The verse itself explains that Christ as the head is about him being the “Savior,” a concept of provision (Christ as Savior provides a way to God) not a concept of authority as it would have been if the verse said “of which he is the Lord.” Again that would have been consistent with the culture to have explained “head” in terms of authority, but he doesn’t. Instead Paul seems to be specifically talking about a different idea which is extrapolated in the following verses.

Adding to this idea is that in the culture of the time, the physical head was understood as the source of life for the body (lots of literary evidence to this), kind of like how we understand the heart in English. It is not an idea of authority, but rather the source from which the body grows.

Additionally, in ancient Greek kephale (head) never had the connotation of leader (that definition came much later in modern Greek), it exclusively meant “source” or “origin.” There were other words/metaphors that Paul could have chosen to describe the husband/wife relationship if he was trying to describe an authority structure, but kephale was not one of them. He could have used exousia (authority) which is the word he used in 1 Corinthians 7:4 passage on marriage (the only time this word is used in passage about marriage), but this also describes mutuality. “The wife does not have authority (exousia) of her own body but her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority (exousia) of his own body but his wife.” Both of these contextual explanations seem to be consistent with how Paul used the head metaphor in chapters 1 & 4. Head is a source or provision for life, not a statement of authority.

It’s as if Paul is saying, “Be submissive to one another… Husbands, you are the sources of provision of your wives in this society, but you are to be that source of provision as Christ is the source of ours, with nurture and care, submitting to her needs with the same care and concern as if they were your needs.”

Verse 25 – 30 –  These verses spell out exactly what it means for a husband to be a head as a Christ-like kind of head. Legally and culturally he has rights to authority over his wife, but I think this Paul calling him to lay down his rights, to lay down his very life, to treat her as an equal in Christ through his own submission – “one another.” This flies in the face of everything that was normal for husbands in that society. It is the radical nature of the Gospel both for the Ephesians then and for us now.

The passage describes a submissive attitude which is exactly what we would expect in light of verse 21. It’s a giving up for. It’s giving preference and giving priority for the sake of her growth. Giving yourself up for is the ultimate act of submission just as we saw from Christ when he gave himself up for the church sacrificially in submission to the Father. (What I think the head metaphor is all about in this book.) Again, this was NOT how husbands of this culture treated their legal wives. They did not treat them with the same deference as their own bodies, and they most certainly did not submit their own preferences under those of their wives for her sake.

This is a perfect parallel to Paul’s teaching to the church in Philippi (Phil 2:3-8):

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

 

Verses 31-32 – Again we have a statement of unity and mutuality, “one flesh” which again I think points back to “one another” in verse 21.

Verse 33 – No one has an argument that women should respect their husbands and husbands should love their wives. But I would also add that the hermeneutical principle of specific language means that women are also to love their husbands and men are to respect their wives. Specificity doesn’t mean exclusivity.

 

In summary, I think this passage leads clearly to the idea that we are called to submit to one another. That is explicit. The bigger question that I think you are asking is “does this passage indicate that there is inherent authority of the husband?” Husbandly authority is not explicit, and one would have to build that entire idea on the word “head.”

As I look at what “head” meant culturally and linguistically (provision and source of life for the body) and how Paul uses the metaphor in the rest of the book (source and provision of growth and life), I cannot see where there is implied authority either. Paul seemed to be recognizing the societal statuses of husbands and wives and explicitly calling men not to a more godly authority over their wives, but to a complete giving up of authority because the Gospel means unity and that no one member has priority over another.

(This is a bit of an odd blog post, but I want to make sure to save this for personal reference in the future. I’ve had a great time this last month reading straight through Galatians a number of times. Below is a running commentary I wrote while reading through it. It’s best read with an open copy of Galatians. If you want to just skip down to my application points, they are about 2/3 down the post.)

 

Running Commentary:

In his very first epistle in Scripture, Paul writes to the predominantly Gentile churches of Galatia because he is disturbed by the fact that they are turning away from the truth to a “different way that pretends to be the Good News” but isn’t at all. So what is the Good News and what is the different way that they are following? Is it the obvious that they are replacing the sufficient work of Christ for salvation for a new idea? Is this about who has access to salvation or is there something else going on?

Paul gives his testimony about how for the first 3 years after his conversion he lived mostly isolated from the Body of Christ, learning from the Holy Spirit. For another 14 years, he ministered to Gentiles, and at the end of this period, he went to Jerusalem to share the message that he had been preaching to the Gentiles with the Jewish believers to see if they were in agreement with it. The reason he sought to do this was because false believers were working to take away the freedom in Christ that Paul was preaching.

The leaders in Jerusalem, specifically James and Peter, had no problem with Paul’s message and encouraged him and Barnabas to continue with their work. However, Paul found it necessary to confront Peter’s hypocrisy. Peter, out of fear, rejected eating with uncircumcised Gentile believers in the presence of Jewish believers. His actions led several others, including Barnabas, to do the same. Paul described Peter’s actions of rejecting uncircumcised Gentile believers as “not following the truth of the Gospel message.” It is significant to note the this “truth of the Gospel message” had nothing to do with the question of whether or not the Gentiles were brothers in the faith. That was completely embraced. The “truth of the Gospel message” was that the Jewish believers were not to treat these Gentile believers any differently by not associating with them nor were they to require the Gentile brothers to become as Jews by following the law, specifically the law of circumcision (a distinct form of Jewish identity marking). Paul reminded Peter that he as well as Paul himself were made right by faith in Christ and not obedience to the law.

Then Paul points out the crux of the entire letter, “But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ, and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! Rather I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.” It is this rebuilding of the torn down law that is the “different way that pretends to be the Good News,” and Paul calls it sin.  In essence, Paul is saying that faith in Christ means new rules apply, and if we try to reconstruct rules based on previous law, we are in sin.

Next, Paul launches into an argument about faith, human effort, and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is given because of faith, not obedience. This is true now, even as it was for Abraham. Those who depend on salvation by the law are cursed by the breaking of even a single law, but Christ’s work on the cross rescued us from the curse by taking the need for complete law obedience upon himself. Jesus was everything that the law demanded in a way that no one else has been or will be, and our faith in him transfers his righteousness onto us. This was the fulfillment of his promise to Abraham.

So why did God give the law at all if no one, not even Abraham could keep it? “It was given alongside the promise [of Christ] to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised, [Jesus].” There is no conflict between the law and faith because faith has abolished the law. It no longer exists.

It is faith that changes the categories previously required by the law. Before Christ, the law kept people in “protective custody.” The law was designed to guard people from sin and to keep their eyes focused on God. “Now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.”

This applies to everyone. The laws that surrounded society have been abolished in the Body of Christ which is united because of mutual faith. It’s like putting on a new set of clothes. Regardless of whether you came to Christ as a Jew, a Gentile, a slave, a free person, a female, or a male, the rules are different. The law has been nullified for everyone, and the barriers between members of the Body have been abolished. Jews are to treat Gentile believers with the same regard as other Jewish believers. Free citizen are to treat believing slaves with the same regard as other believing free men. Men are to treat female believers with the same regard as other male believers.

Before the time of faith, we were really all slaves. But Christ, because he was subject to the law, was able to purchase our freedom so that we all now live as children and heirs of God. For example, before the Gentiles learned the way of faith, they were slaves to gods that don’t even exist. They had their own prescriptions to follow. But when God found them, he freed them. Why on earth would they want to be enslaved again? Paul pleads with the Galatians to live in freedom from these things. He, a Jew who has a much better reason to follow the law because of his ethic identity, has become free from the law.  In the manner of Isaac, the free woman’s son, we are born of the Spirit. Our son-ship is not produced by human effort as was the slave woman’s son.

Paul’s general appeal is that the Galatians “make sure [they] stay free and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” In particular, the way that the Galatians were being pressured to be enslaved by the law was through circumcision.

Paul asserts that by submitting to circumcision, the Gentile Galatians must obey every bit of the Mosaic law. But by doing that, they are attempting to make themselves right with God through the law and have thus cut themselves off from the grace of God through Christ.

However, those of faith know that there is no benefit in the law. What is important is faith expressing itself in love. Paul reminds them, “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead use your freedom to serve one another in love.”

People of faith live by the leading of the Holy Spirit who gives us spiritual desires that are contrary to our natural sinful desires. Those that are directed by the Spirit are no longer under obligation to follow the law. They don’t need the law as a guardian because they have the Holy Spirit as their guardian. The Holy Spirit’s leading produces the fruit of the spirit.

If another believer is overcome by sin, those led by the spirit should gently and humbly lead them back to the right path by sharing one another’s burdens. There is no one so important that they are not supposed to help a fellow believer. There is no one more important than another in the Body of Christ.

In the end, Paul asserts that those who are trying to force the Galatians to be circumcised do it out of pride and out of fear that rejecting the law for grace will lead them to be persecuted. But what is ridiculous is that even they do not follow the whole law themselves. Paul’s final appeal is that “It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation.”

 

Points of Application:

Galatians is not about salvation being accessible to everyone. There is never any question in the book whether or not Gentiles can become believers. That question was settled even before Paul came on the scene when Peter led Cornelius and his household to faith. The question that Paul is addressing in Galatians is how should the Body of Christ be structured. Are there divisions or hierarchies? Are Gentile believers second class citizens in the Church because they have not been circumcised? If so, should they be compelled to circumcision in order to raise their status?

Paul points to other relationships between believers to show that status doesn’t have to change. First he points to slaves who were a part of that society’s structure. In Philemon, we know that while Paul urges the slave owner, Philemon, to change Onesemus’ status to that of a free person, even if Philemon does not change Onesemus’ status he is called to consider him as a “beloved brother” (Phil 1:16).

The next set of relationships Paul points to is between genders. Since slaves can be freed, this is an even more conclusive argument that Paul rejects the notion that a believer must change his status before participating fully in the community of the Body of Christ. A woman obviously cannot change her status as female, yet even so there is no distinction between her and her brothers. There is to be no hierarchy between women and men in the community, just as there is to be no hierarchy between slaves and free people or Jews and Gentiles.

The book of Galatians is Paul’s apologetic about why Gentiles do not need to become like Jews to participate fully in the faith. They come as Gentiles, they serve the body as Gentiles with no subservience to Jewish members of the body. However, the implications for this book reach far beyond the questions of circumcision and following the Mosaic law. I believe that Paul’s descriptions in Galatians flatten the structure of the New Testament church. It is at the core an appeal to the priesthood of all believers. The church is to be led by all believers according to the gifts granted to them and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Through Galatians we are given the mandate to reject every man-made reason for hierarchy. We cannot extend favor to one ethnicity or to a favored culture or to those who are educated or to those who are wealthy or to those who are male or to those who are old or to those with high status in society.

In the Kingdom of God there is not a hierarchy. Jesus bids all to come as they are and to experience what it is for the lowly to be lifted and the proud to be humbled. Even for those whose earthly life is subservient – slaves and women – within the body of Christ, they are elevated to equal status with those whom they serve. This is the radical nature of the cross; this is the upside down kingdom Christ inaugurated.

“So Christ has truly set us free. Make sure you stay free. God is the one who called you to freedom. You have been called to live in freedom, my brother and sisters. Use your freedom to serve one another, and beware of destroying one another.”

What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation… these are the “new people” of God that Paul describes. The “new people” of Christ is not a group of law-abiding, free, Jewish men as many were trying to insist. No, the “new people” are law-abiding, free Jewish men… along with slaves, uncircumcised, and women. As one body, there is no ranking. As one royal priesthood, there is no authority other than Christ’s.

“We are not at war with flesh and blood, but we are at war for flesh and blood.”

My friend Laura wrote this from Thailand where she and her team are in the thick of rescuing children from sexual slavery. There is so much power and truth in this little sentence, and it continues to haunt me.

Sometimes I forget that we are not at war WITH flesh and blood. The pimps, the complicit police, the structures that deny victims justice… Sometimes I want to do battle with them, shrieking and clawing until people listen and things start to change. My heart hardens against sexual predators and lawmakers who prioritize politics over people, and then I know I have lost my way. While there must still be consequences for injustice and abuse, the war is not against people. They are like me: broken and victims themselves of abuse, fear, pride, and sin. They are not the enemy.

Sometimes I forget that we are at war FOR flesh and blood. People get minimized into issues, and ethics are violated for the sake of the cause. Sometimes I can’t see the one in the thousands and thousands. I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and become paralyzed to do anything at all. But when I remember that this war is for real people, the one matters and the small way I can contribute is significant.

What is beginning to be clear to me is that this is how Jesus approaches us too. He is not war with us. No matter how evil we act or how rebelliously we remain in our sin, his wrath isn’t pointed at us. His wrath is directed at the evil one bent on destroying us from within and without. Likewise, Christ is at war for us. He does not rest as he seeks to rescue individual people from despair and hopelessness. He never loses sight of the one in the crowd of humanity, and he stoops to reveal himself in smallest ways so that we will each know him intimately and personally.

To become like Jesus means seeing the world through his eyes. My natural inclination is to war against individuals for a cause. Jesus is teaching me to war against evil for the sake of individual people. I still find myself more often stumbling than walking upright, but at least I am learning to see the goal.

As a parent of four sons, I’ve learned that I have to approach each of my kids in a unique way. While my goals for them are fairly identical, the journey leading them there is not. What will teach or comfort one boy can have no effect on his brother. They are individuals, and being a good parent requires treating them as such. I think God parents us in the same way.

Recently, I have been studying through the Old Testament and am enjoying some of the details of the stories of the faith heroes I’ve known about my whole life. In particular, I am noticing the differences in how God interacted with different people. For example, with Joshua God is consistently steady and encouraging – “be strong and courageous!” With Moses, however, God sometimes seems… harsh. Knowing that God is unchanging, I think the differences are actually in the two men. God revealed specific parts of his personality to them because those aspects were what needed to be emphasized in order for them to truly know him.

In Deuteronomy 31, God tells Moses in the abrupt way that he often used with him that it was time to head up to the mountain to die. He told Moses, “After you are gone, these people will begin to worship foreign gods… they will abandon me and break my covenant…Terrible trouble will come down on them.” As I read this section, I felt really bad for Moses. How cruel! This man had given decades of faithful service to God with the goal of leading the nation of Israel into becoming a faithful people of God. Obviously he didn’t do it perfectly, but he had done it well. And it seemed that God was honoring him by telling him that ultimately his entire life’s work would be a complete failure. Wouldn’t letting the man die in peaceful ignorance be the more loving thing to do?

I mulled over this, thinking about all I had observed about Moses and his relationship with God. I asked God to help me understand why he would be (what seemed to me) so heartless. What I came to realize was that God was meeting Moses’ most important need by revealing what was coming.

Moses, from infancy a prince, never lacked confidence even as he struggled to understand his own identity as an Israelite raised by Egyptians. The snippets of his life in the Old Testament show a hot-headed man that mellowed, though there are moments in his life that show that he continued to struggle with self-importance. Who else demanded to see God’s glory or argued with God or even told God to scrap his plans if he wasn’t going to do things a certain way (see Exodus 32 & 33)? Moses’ resume was impressive: prince of Egypt, educated, multi-lingual, a leader of a nation of people who defeated the most powerful empire around, a judge, the mouthpiece of God, a witness and participant of some of the most incredible miracles we have record of. But none of these things was who Moses was, and I believe at the end of his life, God wanted to make sure that he knew it.

In the end, what mattered was not that Moses was successful. What mattered was that he was faithful. He was consistent (though not perfect) in his obedience to each next step that God laid before him. At the end of his life, God wanted to make it very clear that it was his faith and not his exploits that counted. God was much more concerned with who he was than what he accomplished.

As I realized this, I was so touched by the kindness of God to give Moses the bad news that his goals would never actually be achieved. I loved that after delivering that information, he assigned him one last task of writing down the words of a song and teaching it to Israel so that it would be evidence against them when they rebelled. In essence, God was saying, “There will be no productive end to this assignment. The people will rebel despite what you have done. Yet, I am asking you to be faithful to me without expectation that it will have any effect on Israel’s faithfulness.” In this final act of obedience before his death, Moses followed God’s instructions without any hope that what he was doing would matter – the complete opposite of his previous earthly experience. All Moses had in his last assignment was the knowledge that his God had given him instructions and that was enough. At the end of his life, Moses’ final lesson was crystal clarity that God loved him for who he was and not for his life’s impact.

I am admittedly performance driven. I have high expectations for myself and for God and for what God can do with my life. And sometimes I probably approach God with entirely too much familiarity and arrogance. Like Moses, I am the kind of kid that God has to be hard-handed with to help me understand his love and acceptance of me has nothing to do with what I can offer back to him. I cannot honestly say that I would definitely be faithful to God if all hope of having an impact was gone. But if Moses can get there, maybe I can too.

 

 

I love the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership (Joshua 3:1-4:24). I like it more than the account of the previous generation’s crossing of the Red Sea because they were not making a desperate escape attempt but engaging in risky pursuit of God’s purposes for their nation. They could have stayed safely where they were on the edge of Canaan, but they were willing to blindly wade into the unknown with only the character and word of God to rely on. All they knew was that Joshua had assured them that, “God would do great wonders among them” that very day, and that was enough.

The priests in this story had one of the most intriguing jobs of all. They were to carry the Ark of the Covenant, essentially the presence of God, on their shoulders as they waded into the Jordan River. The waters did not recede until they entered the river. As these priests stood there with the weight of the Ark on their shoulders, the entire nation passed before them on dry land to the other side. Even then, however, their job was not over. They were to remain standing and holding as twelve representatives came back into the riverbed to gather the twelve stones needed to build a memorial on the other side of the Jordan River. Then they were to remain as Joshua built a second memorial in the middle of the river. Only after this work was done and everyone else was safely on the other side were the priests to carry the Ark out of the Jordan River and into Canaan. As soon as they reached the safety of high ground, the river returned not just to normal depth but to an overflow state.

The priests in this story encourage me because they are the silent leaders and empowerers of Israel. As a leader, there is so much in their example that I need to learn and emulate.

To begin with, the priests were the first to go into a risky situation simply believing that the God who said “go” would take care of the details – even though the situation obviously required a miracle. Nothing less is required of me. It can be overwhelming and terrifying to wade into a situation that is literally over my head and even potentially disastrous. But God’s direction always comes with provision. To hesitate because I cannot yet see the details derails my own testimony and deprives the people that I lead of theirs as well.

Secondly, the priests equip the Israelites for their own task. It would have been exhausting to stand up for as long as it must have taken for an entire nation to walk by and then for the thirteen men to return to move rocks around and out of the riverbed to create the memorial altars. But the priests were not merely standing around waiting (and praying that God would continue to faithfully hold back those waters!). They were carrying the Ark of the Covenant on their backs. The Ark has been estimated to have weighed around 565 pounds (256 kilos)! This was no small bit of effort. This must have taken everything they had to endure until the work was done. Likewise leading can be exhausting. There are times when the people we lead simply need us to endure and to sacrifice for their success. Loving and competent leaders sacrifice of themselves in order to equip and empower others.

In my opinion, the greatest blessing the priests experienced was the front-row view of God’s movement around them. It was risky and brave and exhausting to do what they did, but they SAW it! They were there when the water that was splashing their ankle was drawn back. They saw the faces of the Israelites change from uncertainty to delight when they each experienced the power and provision of God. They saw the stones being moved and were the only ones other than Joshua to fully see the memorial that was built in the riverbed because it was soon covered with water, an invisible but remaining symbol of what God had done that day. As I get older, I too am discovering that the most exciting and rewarding part of leading is seeing God be who he is for others. Being in the unique position to identify his movement around me in the lives of others is one of the greatest gifts in my life.

Finally, the efforts of the priests ended not in recognition for their efforts and courage but in worship of God. It was through the priests that God held the water back and gave Israel the chance to cross the river safely and build memorials. However, when Joshua instructed Israel about how they were to remember that day, the pivotal role the priests played was not even mentioned. They were only to remember that God  had powerfully moved that day so that the nations of the earth and Israel would know and fear Him. There is an enormous temptation for leaders to use their positions to accrue fame and power. We are human, and to put it simply, we like to be recognized for our efforts and roles. Ironically, we would often much prefer for others to say, “Look at what God did through her” rather simply than “Look at what God did.” I respect these priests who were more interested in who God was and what he did than how they were able to participate. Leaders have to learn to fade back into the background in order to emphasize who is behind any of the successes that we might have. This is truly the most significant thing we can do with our positions.

May our lives be like the priests in this account. May we bravely follow God into the unknown and ridiculous, enduring and sacrificing gladly to equip others for the work God has set before them enjoying our view of God’s work but always remembering that only He is the hero.

 

We act as though we seek you, God. We seem eager to know Your ways as if we were a nation that does right and has not forsaken You. We ask for justice for ourselves and seem eager for You to come near us. We ask You why You don’t seem to notice how we’ve humbled ourselves and lived our faith in our daily lives.

Yet in our daily faith, we really do as we please and exploit others from our position of power. We end up fighting and abusing others in our wickedness.

We cannot continue this kind of faith and expect to be heard by You for this is not the kind of faith You have chosen – it is only false humility and grieving over what we want and do not have.

The kind of faith that You have chosen is really the loosening of the chains of injustice and the undoing of the chords of oppression. It is sharing our food with the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless. It is clothing the naked and refusing to turn from them as if they were our own family.

Only then will our light be genuine. It will be a light that breaks out like the light at dawn, and we will find that  our own healing has come with it. And with our healing, the righteousness of Your Son. Only then will our own cries be heard by You, and You will come to our aid with Your own presence.

If we do away with oppression, with casting the blame, and with hateful words – if we spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry and work tirelessly to meet the needs of the oppressed, only then will Your light show through us as bright as the midday sun.

For people like this, the Lord will provide guidance, satisfy their needs, and give them necessary strength. These people will be like well watered gardens. They will rebuild what has been broken and return to the foundation of truth. They will be known as repairers and restorers.

If we keep from rejecting Your ways and doing as we please – if instead we delight in Your holiness and honor Your authority by not going our own way in what we do and say, only then will we find our joy and our inheritance.

The Lord has spoken.

Taken from Isaiah 58:2-14

Have you ever wondered about the nasty narratives in biblical book of Judges like the story of Japhthah’s daughter who became a child sacrifice in order to fulfill her father’s rash battle vow? Or what about the one in Judges 19 – 21 that begins with the concubine who is gang raped until dead and ends in the pillaging of Jabesh-Gilead for virgin girls. Why is that grisly story in there?

The point of the book of Judges is to show that Israel was in need of a king. When “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” because there was no leadership, the entire nation suffered – most significantly the marginalized, in this case the women and children in a patriarchal society. Judges begins with a child being sold as a bride (bad), puts the story of Japhthah’s daughter in the middle (worse), and ends with the horror story of the torture and murder of one woman followed by the murder of hundreds of women (can’t really get any more awful) in order to contrast these stories with the change that a king brings. Reading Judges makes one long for a someone to come in and make right what is so obviously wrong and getting worse.

Next in the chronology is the book of 1 Samuel which tells the story of Israel’s first king, Saul. Did you know that every major detail in these stories of women and girls has a mirror image in Saul’s life?  The king’s story is the inversion of the stories in Judges.

For example

1) As Japhthah made a stupid vow that required him to sacrifice his daughter, Saul did the same with his son, but refused to carry out the vow.

2) Just as the concubine was dismembered and pieces of her were sent to the 12 tribes to call Israel into unity against wickedness, Saul dismembered an ox and sent the 12 pieces out with an identical message.

3) Jabesh – Gilead was the city of Benjamin that did not respond to the concubine’s husband’s message and was thus pillaged. Jabesh – Gilead was the city that Saul rescued after gathering the tribes with the ox message.

4) Saul was a Benjaminite, the tribe from which the rapists originated.

5) Saul was from Gibeah and established his court there. This was the place where the concubine was raped.

6) Saul was crowned at Mispah which was the city where the concubine’s husband called the 12 tribes to rally.

7) In the concubine story, 600 men hid at the Rock of Rimmon which mirrors Saul’s battle against the Philistines that began with 600 Israelite soldiers camped out under a rimmon (pomegranate) tree.

Judges ends with the reminder that without a king, everyone did was right in their own eyes, and the results were catastrophic as the most vulnerable in society became disposable property. The context of these stories is fascinating (here is the link to the incredible book that is enlightening me), but as I reflected on this new point of view I realized that nothing has changed. Without a King, everyone still does what is right in their own eyes, and our world becomes this bloody, hateful mess that it is. The ones that suffer the most are still the vulnerable. Looking at the news stories of Gaza, ISIS, the protests in Missouri, the Ebola crisis, and the terror in the Ukraine, I can’t help but think that perhaps we are in the New Testament version of Judges. We need our King to rule and reign in our lives, or we will remain in a hopeless spiral down that continues to treat women and children, the poor, the marginalized, and the minorities as expendable to the appetites of selfishness.

Of the concubine’s story, Frymer-Kensky writes, “Saul’s campaign comes out very well in comparison to this story, and it is the most likely that the story is subtly hinting what might have happened here had Saul been king.” I wonder what might happen here if Christ actually reigned in our lives with the authority that he is supposed to have – if we stopped doing what was right in our own eyes, but considered what He says is right. I wonder what it would mean for the broken ones that Jesus says are the closest to his heart. I wonder what it would mean for me. I wonder what it would mean for you. What would it mean if we stopped calling Jesus “king” with our mouths and started living like it was actually true?

women

(This piece comes from an online dialogue I participated in with a group of mothers struggling to figure out how to be a happy mother and if motherhood meant that we must put ourselves aside for the sake of our children “for a season” or if there is another, healthier approach. In the last couple of years, this is the exact question I have had to answer for myself. This is what I have come to believe.)

Becoming a mother is a disruption like no other. Most of us are unprepared for what it will cost us. I know I was. A wise, older woman once told me that when we have children, we lose control of our lives for two years. I’ve found that she is correct in that there is a huge change in life after the kids hit toddlerhood. The fog lifts, and you begin to rediscover yourself. What’s more, things feel less overwhelming because you are (usually) sleeping better and are not so much at the beck and call of an adorable tyrant. So in that sense, motherhood does get less time-consuming, and there is more time to invest in other things besides being a mom as time goes on.

On the other hand, while I understand the language of “it’s a season,” I think it can actually be damaging. I know too many women who lived in “it’s a season” for so long that they lost their ability to follow their passions, pursue their callings, and invest in what God had for them outside of their families. That is tragic. I think it is imperative that women figure out what God has made them for and what they love, whether a vocational or a side activity, and work to find a way to make that a part of their lives. For example, a mom could take a weekly  photography class or hire a mother’s helper one afternoon a week in order to work on a writing/sewing/running/whatever-it-is project that invigorates her and brings her joy. She could go to justice conferences if that is her thing, or have a regular time to volunteer without a baby on her hip. She could take a business class or enroll part-time in culinary school. The possibilities are endless really. As her kids get older, a mom who has taken time to develop her passions and discover her calling will find herself ready and willing to engage in them more fully because she has not lost her identity in Mommy. Mommy is not all that we are.

I understand that some women love motherhood and are simply created to do it very, very well. If that is you, bring other kids into your life. Is there a single mom who could use your mothering so that she can provide financially for her kids? Could you be a part of your church youth group staff? Are there community development opportunities that would allow you to mother other children in your neighborhood and be a positive influence in their lives? Having the “gift of motherhood” is incredible and honorable, and it should be used not just to bless your family, but also the Body and the hurting world.

If you are like me, you do NOT have this gift and find motherhood life-draining and not life-giving. Please understand, I adore my kids and really enjoy them (most of the time), but motherhood takes a ton of my energy and to do it well, it takes a lot of self-discipline and methodical decision making. Mothering isn’t natural for me like it is for some of my gift-of-motherhood possessing friends. So if you are like me, you cannot let motherhood be your only calling – not even “for a season.” You will dry up emotionally and spiritually and become useless to your family, to yourself, and to the Kingdom. Women in this position feel stuck; they feel like something huge is missing in their lives; they feel like they cannot measure up. It’s about much more than having a bad day with the kids, it’s a call from God’s heart to yours that you are ignoring part of what he has made you for. Instead buying the lie that you aren’t enough to do it all, realize that taking time do the things that God created you to do will actually make you a better mom in the present, and it will teach your children how important it is to pursue their callings regardless of the technical challenges of doing so at different times of life. And it will revive your tired soul in a way that you cannot possibly anticipate. When we are doing ALL that we are created to do, we become fully alive and our very best selves.

Whatever your passion, dedicate some amount of time whether an evening every week or a morning every month, to further discovering and practicing what God has made you for. If that is mothering, awesome. The world needs women who identify this as their gift and walk powerfully in that calling in their homes and communities. If it is something else, do not be afraid to take steps toward that calling even “in this season.”