We don’t have a theodicy, yet.

We don’t have a theodicy, yet.

This last weekend brought the first in a four-week class I’m teaching at our church on “Critiques of Christianity.”

This session was on: “The Problem of Evil.”

And sadly, but appropriately, it came after yet another terrorist attack in England.

THE DANGER WITH APOLOGETICS

Terrorism aside, my worry with some “apologetics” is that Christians often approach objections to the faith with “girded loins” and “sword in hand.”

Indeed, one popular (and quite good) apologetics text even features a sword-fighter on the cover, slashing away at an unseen opponent.

To be fair, the illustration is rooted in a biblical call to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1.3) and “give a defense” for “the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15). And the Bible itself can speak of being armed with the “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6.17).

Still, the optics of “stab-n-slash” apologetics are (shall we say) not the best for winsome dialogue.

After all, few people change their minds because they lost an argument.

Which brings us to the problem of evil.

THEODICIES 

For some, the very fact that evil exists is seen as disproving an “all-good” and “all-powerful” God. The claim is quite familiar: If God were all-good, he would not want evil. And if God were all-powerful, he could prevent it.

In response, theists have crafted various “theodicies”—which give answers as to why an all-good and powerful God might nonetheless permit evil.

The most common theodicy is termed the “Greater Good Defense.”

In short, this argument says that perhaps some worthy goods can only be achieved with the presence, or at least the possibility, of evil.

Of course, this all sounds quite rational until one is blindsided—experientially—with a form of evil that is hardly academic:

A child facedown in a backyard pool.

A pedophilic camp counselor.

A cheating spouse.

Or perhaps even harder are those things that we (unfortunately) call “acts of God.” My colleague’s son was killed by a lightning strike.

And to amend the words of Ta-Nihisi Coates: “The [storm cloud] cannot be subpoenaed.” Just ask Job.

TWO ATTEMPTED ANSWERS

Nonetheless, the so-called “Greater Good defense” comes in two major forms: Appeals to divine glory, and appeals to human freedom.

  1. Glory Theodicies. 

In so-called “glory theodicies,” the greater good is the glory God receives as he contrasts, judges, and ultimately conquers evil.

From this perspective, God is seen as even more exalted, gracious, and holy when set against the dark backdrop of sin and death.

Unfortunately, in some forms (namely: divine determinism), this view also can impugn God’s good character.

After all, a determinist deity seems willing to ordain all manner of atrocities in pursuit of his renown. And what kind of god is that?

Hence, a second and more popular theodicy is called “The free will defense.”

  1. Free Will Theodicies.

The greater good here is not “free will,” but something more significant: the possibility of a genuine love relationships between God and humans.

As the story goes, “Love” requires freedom, and for creatures freedom means the possibility of pain.

In the view of C.S. Lewis:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.

And more extensively:

Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.

But there are issues here as well.

One objection is that the human will seems hardly “free” in many instances. Hence Scripture (e.g., Rom. 7) sometimes paints a picture of the will as being bound apart from God’s grace, and the work of the Holy Spirit

(Incidentally, both Calvin and Wesley agreed on this.).

Our liberty is limited in a thousand ways—by genetics, environment, and other actors.

Hence absolute freedom is a pipe dream. You’d have to be high to believe in it.

The options, then, are that humans either had free will and lost it. Or we retain some measure of it only by God’s grace and Spirit.

Either way, the free will defense (which I actually find quite helpful) still presents us with unanswered questions.

And that brings us to the title of this post.

WE DON’T HAVE A THEODICY, YET

The name of the class I’m teaching (“Critiques of Christianity”) is proudly stolen from one taught by one of my old seminary professors: Dr. Rick Lints.

And as I looked over my old handwritten notes, I found scribbled there this phrase:

“We don’t have a theodicy, yet.”

The point here is not that appeals to glory and freedom are useless, but that they do not fully crack the code of monstrous evil.

They too stand silent before Auschwitz.

And they too fall short when we encounter evil personally. As proof, even C.S. Lewis famously repudiated (if only briefly) his earlier theodicies when his wife Joy died of cancer.

Even he—the greatest “apologist” of the last two centuries—did not yet have an adequate theodicy.

As the Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance argued, evil cannot be rationally explained, because evil is not rational.  It exists contra ratio and contra Deum. 

After all, what is rational about the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London?

What is rational about the repeated decisions of, say, Anthony Weiner?

Come to think of it: What is rational about some my decisions?

For these and many other reasons, we don’t have an adequate theodicy.

“YET”

But the next word is important also—“Yet.”

The hope of Christians is not that we will explain evil—but that we will “outlast it.”

Hence the Scriptures (and famously, the book of Job) offer no full answer to “Why bad things happen to good people.”

That’s a modern question, not a biblical one.

In Scripture, we learn only that God opposes evil, that he will one-day end it, and that he invites us to be part of the campaign—frail and faulty though we are.

Sword-less but well armed.

“Ocupado”

“Ocupado”

On Catholic Crosses, Welcoming a Son, and “Being Gangsta”

When I was five or six, I remember being allowed to visit the local Dollar General Store to spend “my very own money” on whatever I liked.

I selected a massive golden crucifix on a gaudy golden chain.

I was (and am) a Gangsta.

Upon showing the purchase to my parents, I was informed that I had made a slight mistake. This was a “Catholic” cross, as evidenced by the gold-plated Jesus hanging from it.

While we were cool with the Catholics, I was told that “Our crosses are empty.”

The point, for Protestants, is that Jesus is no longer on the cross—he’s risen—so we prefer our sacred death-devices to be unoccupied. Or for my Spanish readers: desocupado.

El Jesús del hospital

Fast-forward thirty years and I sit now inside a Catholic hospital where I will also be allowed to spend some of my “very own money”—but it’s been worth every penny.

Yesterday, we unexpectedly welcomed our fourth child (Theodore Brian) three weeks early.

Teddy

And right above my head, as I now type, there is another Catholic crucifix.

And somehow it seems fitting.

Yesterday, when Teddy was born, he was having some trouble breathing. While the doctors weren’t too worried, his respiration was far more rapid (that’s: rapido) than desirable. And to make matters worse, he could not go to Brianna’s room to in such a state.

So there I sat in the nursery—stripped to the waist so he could feel my skin—singing “Hush little baby” in front of a plate-glass window through which onlookers watched a topless professor who probably looked like a pasty primate trying to “nurse” a baby (*despite some gender confusion).

Mire mamá, un chimpancé blanco

Thankfully, Teddy is fine – but as I sit now under a suspended Christ, I am thankful for the Catholic crucifix. It is not necessarily better than its more triumphant counterpart, and in some ways it may occasionally be prone to fetished misconstrual.

But in some settings—like the hospital—it also seems more helpful.

By it I was vividly reminded that mine was not the only Son to struggle for breath in a world that is harsh and cruel compared to that from whence he came. And unlike mine, this other Son could not feel his Father’s presence, much less his skin.

Eloi, Eloi…, he screamed, and was not comforted. 

Señor Grünewald

Rewind five hundred years and a man named Matthias Grünewald sits painting an altarpiece for a monastery that doubled as a hospital.

891px-matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_the_crucifixion_-_wga10723
M. Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece

The location, Isenheim, in France, had been afflicted by a terrible plague that manifested in festering sores upon the skin.

Like Jesus, its survivors were forever scarred.matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_the_crucifixion_28detail29_-_wga10790

Famously, Grünewald infected Christ. He chose to paint the sores upon the Savior.

The message was clear. As the Book of Hebrews states: We do not have a High Priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our travails (Heb. 4.15). He knows. He’s been there.

He knows what it’s like to gasp for breath, to have a prayer go unanswered, to feel betrayed by friends, belittled by cynics, and beaten up by bullies. He was murdered naked in front of his own mother. And while the good news is that the cross is no longer ocupado, sometimes it helps to see—yes, actually see—the Catholic version.

Because while language is a gift, some images transcend translation.

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people.

But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement.

In the midst of such butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering Christians, and to investigate the whereabouts of his old mentor, Father Ferreira.

While Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, rumors swirl that he has now renounced his faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must know if this is true.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, Rodrigues is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The old priest has adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In his place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture would free them. His choice was their torture or his own “apostasy.”

Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that the Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

Indeed, this excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, as Rodrigues is faced with the terrible choice, he looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn down and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his cross, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christian to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


Available here.

 

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

When I was just a poor college student, I did things I’m not proud of.

Things – for money.

In a local apartment complex (dubbed “smurf village” for the bright blue paint), there was one particular residence that looked like all the others. Yet on the inside it was filled with recording equipment.

And there, on numerous occasions, I sang radio jingles for money.

Out of shame, I told no one. Thus my friends (if they noticed) probably thought that I had come into a very small inheritance – perhaps the life insurance policy for a departed hamster.

But eventually the truth came out.

One evening, as the college basketball team drove through a lonely stretch of rural Kansas, across the radio airwaves, came my voice – singing the praises of a “Christian lifestyle store” in a tiny town called McPherson.

Somewhere a rooster crowed.

All kidding aside, the jingles were easy to produce because whatever the merchant—a Bible bookstore in Kansas, a tanning salon in Illinois—the music and the melody remained exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. This allowed the jingle producer (“Chuck”) to save both time and money when it came to composing and recording.

And most importantly, it ensured that I never had to learn new music.

THE GOSPEL IS NEW MUSIC

And that’s the trouble for Christians too.

All of us have a set of cultural assumptions that seem right and reasonable to us. These assumptions form the “soundtrack” of our lives, and they color everything from our politics to our parenting. Depending where you were born, your soundtrack may be different.

So while Scripture gives WORDS that are meant to tell us how to view the world, those words are easily lost amid the MUSIC of our tribe and our tradition.

It’s like trying to discern the lyrics to a “screamo” song when you’re used to Kenny Rogers.

The result, as one scholar observed, is that we look down the long well of history in search of Jesus, and in the water at the bottom we see a reflection of our own face. “That’s him!” we shout; “He looks and thinks a lot like me!”

Hence, we assume that Christ’s view on something is pretty much the same as whatever seems most “practical” or “reasonable” to us. Thank God. Or rather, thank us.

JESUS, THE IMPRACTICAL

But a quick read through the Gospels (with our music turned down even slightly) shows that Jesus is far from “practical” and “prudent” as we usually define those terms.

In fact, he says many things that don’t seem reasonable or “safe” at all.

A few examples, just from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
  • “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Elsewhere, in an even more radical passage (Mt. 25), Jesus claims that hellfire—yes, hellfire (see verse 41)—hinges upon whether or not one welcomes “him” in the form of poor and marginalized:

  • “I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least, you did for me (vss. 35–36).”

Despite interpretive nuances, all this demands an ethic of radical love that seems impractical in many cases. And to be honest, I don’t always like it.

I WAS A STRANGER

I thought about this recently as I read a predictable comment thread on Facebook.

A pastor friend (and former student) had written a heartfelt post lamenting the recent Presidential edict summarily banning refugees and Green Card holders from certain countries, even when they pass the current vetting process.

My friend’s post was not partisan or angry, but the first comment was invariably a rebuke from a fellow churchgoer.

The respondent appreciated the compassion, but just wanted to share that it really isn’t “safe” or “responsible” to allow in Muslim refugees. After all, they’re Muslims.

So just as we “lock our doors at night,” so too we should lock our borders to such refugees—it’s just safer that way.

In response to this “locked door” analogy, the Scriptures tend to tell stories of people opening them (even late at night) to help the vulnerable (Gen. 19; Luke 11). And on the two occasions that a door remains locked, we discover that the church has shut out Jesus himself (Rev. 3.20; Mt. 25.43). The analogy is flawless, except for the Bible.

IN FAIRNESS…

To be fair, I’m all for safety and secure borders. And I’m all for improving the vetting process (when possible) for the folks that we allow to immigrate. A concern for safety isn’t bad, and it can even be a way of “loving thy neighbor.”

But what many fail to see is how radical the WORDS of Scripture actually are on such matters. And I suspect the reason is that while we’re happy to let Jesus say some things, we’ve never let him change our MUSIC.

Hence, the background noise (whether liberal or conservative; Fox News or MSNBC), drowns out the gospel call to a different set of values.

To disagree with the radio station that aired one of my jingles, Jesus has never been “safe and fun for the whole family.” He got tortured to death. And so did his followers.

Radical love, not safety, has always been the mark of Christian character.

This may sound risky, and that’s because it is.

But to sign on to the Jesus movement means that Jesus picks the music.

And in this soundtrack, sacrificial love trumps “safety” as the highest virtue.


For one organization helping refugees, see here.

For one book that has shaped my thinking on this issue, see here.

For the burning / Unto Us

For the burning / Unto Us

For many, 2016 was a year for the burning.

There were lots of reasons really (see this fantastic post by Steve Holmes), but it was with some of those in mind that I chose to speak this year from Isaiah 9 for our church’s Christmas Eve service.

It is a text that emerges (quite literally) from “utter darkness” (8.22)

Yet it begins with a note of tenacious hope: “Nevertheless” (9.1).

In some ways the gospel is contained in this word. “Nevertheless.” It is a denial of denial and a refusal to paper over the ugly side of life.  Still it also displays a ruthless trust that, in spite of everything, as Sam Cooke sang: “a change is gonna come”

Thus the text goes on:

Every warrior’s boot used in battle

and every garment rolled in blood

will be destined for burning,

will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

While I’m not much of a poet, I wanted to translate this promise into the imagery of the 21st century. So here goes:


Unto Us:

Every missile silo, armed and ready

Every bloody sword, oncology ward;

Every shantytown and hospital gown will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every divorce attorney and hospice gurney;

Every crutch, every cane, every bit of pain will be destined for the burning.

Every condolence letter and prisoner’s fetter;

Every funeral home and graveyard stone will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every addict’s craving and politician’s raving

Every surprise pink slip, every medicated IV drip will be destined for the burning

Every lonely dark and bullying remark will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every bombed-out playground in Aleppo

every body-bag, outpost Restrepo

…Boston, Baghdad, Berlin—every percussive echo, will be heard no more.

“For unto us a child is born, and unto us a Son is given

And the Government will be upon his shoulders.”


 

My good friend Josh Wright asked me if he could adapt this for a song and you can hear it here.

 

Winking at the Devil

Winking at the Devil

Every story needs a villain.

And in much of the Christian tradition, that character is unquestionably the devil.

In recent days, I’ve been focusing my energy on a non-blog-related project: a book on the atonement. And the present chapter has to do with Satan.  This sounds like a strange topic for the Christmas season. Yet the Scriptures connect it explicitly with Christ’s coming.  As 1 John writes:

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3.8).

Yet while belief in God is quite common throughout our culture, belief in Satan does not rank nearly so highly.

As the late Walter Wink put it, the demonic is “the drunk uncle of the twentieth century.” We keep them out of sight.  And we don’t talk about them at dinner parties.  As he goes on:

Nothing commends Satan to the modern mind. [He is] a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity.

As evidence, a recent Barna survey indicated that around half of American Christians do not believe in the devil as a living being. Rather, they tend to see him as a mere symbol for profound evil.

REVIVING “OLD SCRATCH”

In response to this, Richard Beck, in his new book Reviving Old Scratch, describes the modern experience somewhat like the plotline from an episode of “Scooby Doo.”

STAGE ONE: At the beginning of every episode, whatever evil that had transpired was blamed on some sort of ghost or goblin. The supernatural was everywhere! And it was up to no good. Beck calls this Stage One, or the period of “enchantment.”

STAGE TWO: Yet after some investigation by Scooby and the gang, it was invariably discovered that the “ghost” was really “Old man Cringle” with a fog machine, a bed sheet, and some fancy voice modulation. Beck calls this Stage Two: the age of “disenchantment.” And as he argues, it has much to commend it. After all, science has shown that many ancient superstitions were just that.

STAGE THREE: Yet in Stage Three (not included in the Scooby Doo episodes), Beck argues that we need a kind of “re-enchantment” if we want to account fully for the pervasive nature of evil in this world. In his view, this is not a simple return to a belief in a demon behind every bush. But nor is it the peculiarly modern (white, wealthy, and western) superstition of full-fledged naturalism.

TWO DANGERS

In his own way, C.S. Lewis proposed something similar. As he wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

The unhealthy interest is encountered in various forms. One is the tendency we all have to demonize our opponents, detecting whiffs of sulfur in their presence. Case in point:

hitler

Or as Beck writes:

            We always smell sulfur around those we want to kill.

A second form of unhealthy interest comes when Christians use Satan as an excuse to cover their own faults.

Along these lines, I recall once being in a meeting in which serious allegations (and serious evidence!) were brought forth regarding misconduct. When confronted, one leader responded that “This is just Satan getting angry because we’re doing such good work!”

Sometimes sulfur masks our own scent.

Thirdly, Satan can be wrongly used as a tool to terrify people into compliance, as seen in the Christian cottage industry that springs up around Halloween to scare the “heck” out of unsuspecting sinners as they wander through a warehouse version of the afterlife.

Such moves confuse a love of Jesus with fear of torture.

Finally, an excessive interest in “the devils” can lead to a dualism that puts God and Satan on (almost) the same level. This is not the biblical portrait. For as Luther wrote of Satan–and perhaps enacted by hurling his ink well at the devil–“one little word shell fell him.”

LOVE IS AN EXORCISM

Yet while “excessive interest” carries pitfalls, unbelief does too.

It does nothing to stop the march of minions. For as Wink notes: Disbelief in Satan did little to prevent him running roughshod across corporate boardrooms and bloodstained battlefields throughout modernity.

What is needed, Wink suggests, is a kind of exorcism, though not the kind from horror movies.  In his words:

The march across the Selma bridge by black civil rights advocates was an act of exorcism. It exposed the demon of racism, stripping away the screen of legality and custom for the entire world to see.

What’s more:

The best “exorcism” of all is accepting love. It is finally love, love alone, that heals the demonic. “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, “who at the last minute turn into princesses that are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave?”

CONCLUSION

In the end, Wink’s work (and even the above quote) shows forth certain faults. In particular, he demythologizes far more than I would, and his views on Christ, creation, and atonement are hardly biblical in certain respects.

Nonetheless, he did do the academy a great service by restarting the conversation on evil powers, and by showing how spirituality interlocks with political, psychological, and social forces of all kinds.

If you’re interested in reading more, try the following:

  • Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers.(here)
    • An academic work, but very readable with vivid prose and applications.
  • Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. (here)
    • An easy-to-read popularizing of some of Wink’s ideas.

The other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter

The other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter

“Sexist.”

For many moderns, this is a fitting description of the apostle Paul.

After all, there are a couple of famous passages in Paul’s letters that have been taken as forbidding women from positions of leadership and teaching in the church.

In fact, such texts are more complex than they appear.

And as folks like Ben Witherington have argued (here), they need not be seen as barring women from church leadership and preaching.

Thus my own tradition (The Wesleyan Church) has long affirmed both men and women in ministry, while also maintaining a high view Scripture.  And I am proud of that.

To arrive at this conclusion, however, one must deal not just with the so-called “problem passages” (e.g., 1 Cor. 14; 1 Tim. 2), but also with the real life women who were used by God and affirmed even by the likes of Paul himself (that supposed chauvinist!).

As just one example, there is Phoebe of Cenchreae.

I add her un-hooked-on-phonics town of origin to distinguish her from the more famous Phoebe—the one from Friends (see here).

phoebe
“If you want to receive emails about my upcoming shows, please give me money so I can buy a computer.” ~Phoebe Buffay

OUR SISTER PHOEBE

The other Phoebe—the one from Cenchreae—was tasked with delivering what may be the most influential letter ever written: Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

We meet her in chapter 16.

Here, she appears alongside two other female leaders. First, there is Priscilla, who helped to teach the orator Apollos about the way of Jesus. And second, there is Junia, who (according to the best translations) is called an “apostle” in her own right.

But my interest in Phoebe.

As Paul writes:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a diakonos of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me (Rom. 16.1-2).

While it was always assumed that Phoebe was the one to take this letter  to Rome—probably tucked inside a heavy cloak, aboard an ancient ship—the discovery of a 9th century manuscript (Codex Angelicus) now adds further confirmation to this belief.

THE FIRST INTERPRETER?

And the delivery was no menial assignment.

As N.T. Wrights states:

The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. [Thus] the first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained traveling businesswoman.

While some such terms (“ordained”) may be anachronistic, imagine a possible scenario:

After a dangerous journey, Phoebe arrives in the world’s most famous city.

Her hope is to bring gospel unity to a fractured church, divided along ethnic lines. And once there, she proceeds to shuttle between the various house-churches to get Paul’s message out.

Here, in living rooms and upper balconies, Phoebe reads the letter—start to finish—and fields questions on the parts that (still today!) are difficult.  Questions like:

Phoebe, what does Paul mean by “dikaiosune Theou”!?

Phoebe, what does it mean when it says: “God gave them up”!?

Phoebe, how exactly will “all Israel be saved”? And why is Paul so cryptic!?

Phoebe, is the apostle an Arminian or a Calvinist!? *sarcasm

With such possibilities in mind, Michael Bird asks the following in his new Romans commentary:

Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?

And for some 3rd century support, Origen of Alexandria states this of Chapter 16 as a whole:

This passage teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostles’ authority … . Not only that—they ought to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways and by their good services deserved the praise even of the apostle.

CONCLUSION 

In the end, it is possible that Phoebe did little more than hand off the letter, and then return to Corinth.  After all, Romans 16 is hardly sufficient to develop a full theology of women in ministry.

And to be fair, many complementarians have attempted to read the Scriptures faithfully as well.  Not all who disagree with me on this are—to quote the movie Little Rascals—“He-man-woman-haters.” (Some are.  But not all.)

Regardless of one’ position on that question, however, all Christians can be thankful for the brave and crucial service of “our sister Phoebe.”