Of her, not just in her

Of her, not just in her

On Mary and the womb of Christmas

For some Protestants, Advent may be about the only time we think of Mary—kneeling as she often is beside a plastic manger in our church Nativities.

Yet a chorus of evangelical scholars has argued recently (here and here) that a relative silence on Christ’s mother comes at the expense of Scripture, basic church tradition, and a proper view of women in the story of redemption.

Mary and Eve
Virgin Mary and Eve,
~Sr Grace Remington, OCSO.

After all, in the words of Lucy Peppiatt,

“Jesus is made of her, not just in her.”

MORE THAN MERE RECEPTACLE 

We might be conditioned to think of Mary more as a “receptacle” for carrying and birthing Christ, but not as one who actually supplied his humanity from her own body.

The early theologians who hammered out the doctrine of Christ, however, would have nothing of this viewpoint.

Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240) says it this way:

Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb. […] He had no reason for enclosing Himself [there] if He was to bear forth nothing from it.

To say that Christ’s humanity did NOT come from Mary might seem like a minor quibble, but to go down this road is to sever Jesus from the line of Israel and of Adam—and thus to cut the saving cord that ties him to us all.

Peppiatt goes on:

Mary is not only a receptacle of the Divine [Christ], she contributes [to the baby] from her own body. It is her blood that forms him, her food that nourishes him, her breasts that feed him.

When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to unite himself to a woman’s flesh.

When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born.

In the latest cover story for Christianity Today, Jennifer Powell McNutt and Amy Beverage Peeler speak of Mary as “the first Christian”—a prophet, proclaimer, and prototype of every Jesus-worshiper.

The entire Christian life is, in a way, mirrored by the experience of Mary. Each one of us—both male and female—are called to live in Christ and he in us. We are all expected to carry Christ at the core of our being—like Mary carried Christ in her womb—and to labor with him and for him.

The Gospel writers want us to understand how important Mary was, serving from the Annunciation to Pentecost as both God-bearer in her physical body and as gospel-bearer, a faithful witness and proclaimer to the work that God was accomplishing in our Lord Jesus Christ. Both her identities matter […].

LESS THAN CO-REDEMPTRIX

None of this means Mary should be viewed as a sinless “co-redemptrix” who functions as the heavenly “good cop” to God’s judgmental “bad one.” (This has been claimed.)

Nor does it imply that she was free from original sin and “full of grace” to dispense because of her excess merit. (This view is based on a mistranslation of “favored one” [κεχαριτωμενη] in Luke 1:28.)

CONCLUSION

What the prior argument does mean is that in avoiding potential excesses surrounding Mary, Protestants should be wary of throwing the “baby” (or rather, the baby’s mother!) out with the bathwater.

Christ was made “of her” not just “in her.”

So while Jesus is rightly the focus of the Christmas season, Mary’s brave Yes to God’s call provides a model for all believers.

 

 


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“Go home!”–A call to preach

“Go home!”–A call to preach

One of the biblical descriptions of Satan is that “He is filled with fury, because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12).

I thought of that tendency recently as I watched a viral video of a once-prominent Christian leader lashing out with glib mockery of a much-respected female Bible teacher (Beth Moore).

“Go home!” was the only thing he could think to say at the mention of her name.

Since the social media firestorm has already reached peak levels on “Christian Twitter,” I hesitate to add to the growing pile of words and opinions. That said… I do have a two brief thoughts.

ON RATCHETING IRRELEVANCE

First, it’s usually foolish (and sometimes sinful) to guess at people’s motives. I don’t know all the factors that drove this shrill and sexist outburst. But if I had to guess, one factor in many such ungracious soundbites is something I call “ratcheting irrelevance.” And it affects more than just aging preachers.

In my experience, there is often a correlation between waning influence and the need to “ratchet up” the rhetoric (insults, caricatures, and ALL CAPS TYPING) to avoid the ultimate damnation of a celebrity-obsessed culture: being forgotten.

In short, ratcheting irrelevance is being “filled with fury” (or at least sinful snark) because you know your “air-time is short.” But as with Lucifer, it’s both tragic and tacky, whatever your former status as “light-bearer.”

“GO HOME!”—A CALL TO PREACH

Second, a word about the two most memorable words.

I once preached a sermon called “Go home!” based on Christ’s usage of the now-infamous phrase with the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5; Luke 8).

But when Jesus says it (and the irony makes me chuckle…), the “home” is not a literal household in which one may be barefoot and pregnant. And the phrase itself sounds vaguely like a call to preach! (*patriarchal gasp)

“Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

I like this better.

In fact, I’m halfway tempted to say that by accidentally quoting it, the grumpy guy in the video may have followed Caiaphas in unintentionally “prophesying” (*cessationist gasp) in response to yet another Individual whose preaching ministry has borne great fruit.

CONCLUSION

In the end, the move to embrace sinful and mean-spirited rhetoric in the face of feared irrelevance is a danger we must all confront:

  • on social media,
  • in the public square,
  • even in the family mini-van when “WHY IS NO ONE IS LISTENING!!? I SWEAR I’M GONNA DRIVE THIS THING OFF A CLIFF!!!” (*Not actually spoken by me this past weekend, but… pretty close).

For Christ-followers, our greatest fear is not irrelevance in a celebrity-obsessed culture. Rather, our greatest fear should be unfaithfulness to love God and neighbor as ourselves.

“Ratcheting irrelevance” is a thing.

But so is Christ’s call to “Go!” and just keep preaching, Sister.

 


For prior posts supporting both women (and men) in church leadership, I’ve written on the topic here, here, and here.

And for treatments of the topic from some leading Bible scholars, a good starting point is the multi-part series by my former classmate, Nijay Gupta. See also the work of Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington, and Lucy Peppiatt (just to name a few).


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The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

“There will be millstones.”

That was O. Alan Noble’s succinct summation of the Southern Baptist Commission’s recent report (here) on widespread sexual abuse within America’s largest Protestant denomination.

The findings were heartbreaking. Though I applaud the efforts to bring them to the light in order to elicit change (see here).

Still, the most damning reality in the run-up to this week’s SBC annual meeting was that much more energy seemed to be expended by certain leaders to keep women out of almost any form of leadership than to ensure that they be protected against abuse and cover-up.

The optics were, shall we say, not flattering.

NOT JUST AN “SBC” PROBLEM

It would be unfair, however, to see this as merely an SBC problem. And it would be downright sinful to congratulate ourselves (who reside in other traditions) for being superior: “Thank you Lord that I am not like those people… .”

Regardless of denomination, if you’ve seen one online argument over women in ministry, you’ve seen ‘em all.

At some point in the predictable “Inquisition by Gif,” at least one well-meaning (?) person will make the following two points:

  1. Many denominations that affirmed women in ministry went “Liberal” and experienced numerical decline.
  2. Ergo, affirming women in ministry leads to the package deal of “Liberalism” with all that it entails (Marxism, veganism, compulsory man-buns).

The first point has some basis in reality. The second is absurd even without my parenthetical silliness.

The problem starts, as with so many logical trip-ups, in the linkage of two ideas that confuses correlation with causation.

On the basis of this false connection, the conclusion follows that if the fundamentalist Twitter-verse allows someone like Beth Moore to give a Mother’s Day message at her local church, it’s only a matter of time (probably minutes) before a vegan, Marxist, SBC death-panel forces Al Mohler to don a man-bun and preach exclusively from Rob Bell books.

But he won’t, because: Bonhoeffer.

If this description quickly devolves into exaggerated nonsense that is precisely my point. It is both foolish and inaccurate to equate an affirmation of women in ministry with a drift toward the package deal of “Liberalism.”

“CONSERVING” THE SPIRIT-DRIVEN PARADIGM

One reason is that there are numerous arguments for women in leadership that proceed on the basis of a high view of Scripture.

Though I’m not a biblical scholar by trade, one might begin by noting these two videos by Ben Witherington (here and here), and the fantastic series of blog-posts by my former seminary schoolmate, the New Testament specialist, Nijay Gupta (here).

If these scholars are correct, then Scripture provides both theological basis and real-world examples of women in leadership and ministry—including Deborah, Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and the daughters of Philip. And if this is so, then the “liberal revisionist position” is actually the refusal to “conserve” that Spirit-driven paradigm (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).

So let me be the first to say it (though with a touch of good-natured, imitative sarcasm):

“I’m really worried about the “liberal drift” of complementarianism.”

THE FALLACY OF UNNECESSARY BUNDLING

A further problem in the two points above is the false assumption that “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” are theological package deals that can be simply defined by our contemporary news-cycle.

Whenever this debate arises on social media, the assumption of the “Emojihadeen” seems to be that to care about “Progressive” causes (e.g., racial reconciliation, misogyny, sexual abuse) invariably means that one must not care about “Conservative” ones (e.g., abortion, religious liberty). This is nonsense.

I have spoken of it elsewhere as the fallacy of unnecessary “bundling,” since there are some issues for which our colloquial use of “Liberal” and “Conservative” are just not helpful.

Overall, Christians would do better to stick with biblical categories, as in whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).

CONCLUSION

None of my words  should be taken to imply that a biblical conclusion on women in ministry is either simple or uncontested. The so-called problem passages must be addressed.

Nor am I claiming that complementarians are always motivated by misogynistic drives. Some aren’t. And the SBC has some fantastic servant-leaders. It will not do, therefore, to replace one exaggerated ad hominem with another one.

My argument here is only to urge a “retiring” of the false assumption that affirming women in ministry signals a slide into “Liberalism.”

When we do that, we hazard tethering ourselves to Twitter feeds that may one day be “linked” inexorably to millstones.

 


 

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Priscilla versus John Piper

Priscilla versus John Piper

An Open Email from “Apollos of Alexandria”

Is it too much to wish that our departed saints might occasionally return to Earth in to “weigh in” on our contemporary issues?

Probably.

The heavenly commute can be a doozy.

Still, I found myself wishing this past week that “Priscilla” of the early church might come do for John Piper what she once did for another gifted but ill-informed male preacher.

Namely:

“[explain] to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18.26).

I speak specifically of Piper’s recent claim that women should NOT be allowed to serve as seminary professors.

A CAVEAT

Before adding yet more fuel this fire (after all, the Hebrew phrase for “Not helping” is pronounced Blogger), a brief caveat is in order:

I do not think that all so-called “complementarians” are the sexist trolls that they are sometimes painted as — many are just trying to be true to Scripture.

And I am thankful for John Piper’s ministry in certain ways.

His book Desiring God was a game-changer for me.  I respect that he holds true to his convictions even when he knows they are unpopular.  And I’ve greatly appreciated some of his statements on racial reconciliation and the need for evangelicals to proclaim the gospel over (say) partisan politics.

I don’t dislike Piper.

But I do disagree with what he said last week.

“I SUFFER NOT A WOMAN”

And while I understand his argument, I couldn’t help but note that it might come as a surprise to the greatest (male) preacher of the early church: Apollos of Alexandria.

As the book of Acts implies, Apollos received his “seminary education” partly from Priscilla, who took his gift for persuasive rhetoric and combined it with what he lacked: a more nuanced theology (Hmm…).

Could she not do that for someone else?

Say, a Baptist from Minnesota?

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Piper would listen to Priscilla.

After all, she is a woman.

Perhaps though it might be possible to get a letter through—or at least, an email. Not from Priscilla, but from the famous man that she helped train for ministry: Apollos.

Would Piper listen to him?

Thankfully, it just so happens that I’ve “found” just such an email.

And lest some doubt its authenticity, consider this:

  1. It resides on the same (non-existent) email server as all those Bible verses that say women can’t be seminary Profs.
  2. It came from an “AOL” account, so I know it’s from the first century.

Subject: RE: “I suffer not a woman”

Date: Friday, January 26, 2018 at 3:04 PM CST (Celestial Standard Time)

From: Apollos of Alexandria (Apollos_Creed777@aol.net)

To: John Piper

Attachments: The Book of Acts

 

Dear John,

Can I call you John?

I realize it may sound informal, but when you’ve been on a first name basis with “Paul,” you mostly drop the honorifics.

I’ll get right to it; I think you know why I am writing.

While I respect your attempt to be faithful to those passages that might seem to prohibit women from the full usage of their Spirit-given gifts, you know full well that there are other (well-supported) readings of those texts (see here, here, here).

My goal though, John, is not to swap proof-texts (of which I have my own…).

Instead, it is merely to recount my story, because as you will see—WE HAVE MANY THINGS IN COMMON:

  1. Like you, I was highly educated: While you got your PhD in Germany (Meine Glückwünsche!), I was trained in Alexandria. No biggie, but our old “school library” was way more famous.
  2. Like you, I was steeped in a patriarchal culture: If people think you value “male headship,” they should have seen me in my day! (That is, before I met a certain female teacher.)
  3. Like you, I became a gifted preacher—with scores of loyal “fan boys.” I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been called the greatest preacher of the early church. And while YouTube wasn’t there in the first-century, I’m confident that my “followers” rivaled yours in zealotry. Almost. (See 1 Cor. 3: “I follow Apollos…”).
  4. Like you, I brought my baggage with me to the task of biblical interpretation: We all do. So while you moderns often think you’re obeying the “literal” and “plain sense” word of Scripture, the reality is (sometimes) more complicated.
  5. And like you, I had not fully grasped the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit. As you know from the book of Acts (see attached), my great shortcoming was that I “knew only the baptism of John.”

Despite my gifting and my influence, I had not yet fully realized the change that happened as God’s Spirit was poured out “on all flesh” (Acts 2.17).

On all flesh, John.

In Acts 2, it specifically, it says that “sons and daughters,” “men and womenwill join the ranks of God’s prophets. (Have you not read of the daughters of Philip? Have you not heard of Phoebe’s role as a the first interpreter of Romans? Have you not heard of Junia, the apostle?)

To be blunt, my friend, I fear that in this sense (though not in others), you too “know only the baptism of John.”

Which brings me to Priscilla.

PROFESSOR” PRISCILLA

Let me remind you about her:

She was a Gentile, high-born, and well-educated.

She was a member of the Roman nobility, and better schooled than most all women of the period. (Picture: Lady Mary from Downton Abbey. You know you watched it, John).

Yet she married a Jew, who was a former slave.

It was not only an interracial marriage, but also a union across classes.

“Aquila” wasn’t even his real name.

As ancient records show, it was likely the name of her family—which he took on through marriage

Did you catch that John? He took her name. (I know!!!)

Their marriage showed the full extent to which the Spirit transformed boundaries between race and class and (yes) gender!

The couple was, of course, from Rome—but they moved East as refugees when Claudius expelled the Jews.

Since Priscilla wasn’t Jewish, she could have stayed amongst her family, wealth, and privilege. But she didn’t. Talk about mutual, voluntary submission!

It was around that time that I met them.

As you can relate, I had come into the local “pulpits” with a heady mix of knowledge, boldness, and a penchant for robust debate (Sound familiar?).

But there was one thing I lacked—a fuller understanding of the Spirit’s work.

Ironically, given my great learning and my patriarchal background, it took a female “seminary Prof” to teach that to me.

As a fellow Jew, “Aquila” also helped. (I don’t want to discount his role!) But as you might guess, it was Priscilla who had the academic pedigree to explain to me “the way of God more adequately.”

Their union was a parable for what the New Covenant looks like.

God brings together different races, classes, AND GENDERS for the work of training and equipping Christian ministers.

Actuality implies possibility, John.

And the fact that God used this gifted and well-educated woman to train me shows that he can do it for others—even you.

In fact, to deny this (fittingly, on account of your own name!) is to prefer only “The baptism of John.”

 

Sincerely,

Apollos of Alexandria

 


For a related post, see “The Other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter” (here).

Note: Evidence on the family background of Priscilla and Aquila was taken from Reta Halteman Finger, Roman House Churches Today for Today, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

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.”