Saturday, June 30, 2012

Thoughts of a Christian Centrist: On the Role of Government

Part of who I have become over the past 10-15 years has to do with questioning. I used to just follow the conservative Republican ideas that I thought good Christians were supposed to believe. But as I have questioned things, I have moved more and more into the center, and there, in recent years, I have stayed. Not that I’m really into politics—in fact, I’d rather avoid thinking about them much at all. But to keep some kind of intellectual integrity, and because I have responsibilities as a voting citizen (thank you, suffragettes!) I have had to decide where I stand in the polarized political climate we in the U.S. live in today.

Recently I bought and read Left, Right & Christ (Russell Media, 2011), in which a Christian Republican and a Christian Democrat each take chapters to address the pressing political issues of our time. The foundational issue was the role of government. I wasn’t really satisfied with the Christian Democrat’s response— she seemed to me to skirt all around the issue without ever addressing it head-on. But it turned out that the Christian Republican’s response was one I couldn’t agree with at all.

So here are my own thoughts on the role of government, from a Christian centrist’s perspective.

D.C. Innes, the Republican contributor in Left, Right & Christ, defines the role of government using just two short passages from the New Testament. 1 Peter 2:13-15 says that “governors [are] sent by him [the Lord] to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. And in Romans 13 we read that rulers carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers and approve those who do good. Innes concludes from this: “The task of government is simple and limited: punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. . . God appoints government for our benefit, but it is not to provide every good. It is only to prevent bad conduct with creditable threat and punish it. . . .” (pages 58-60).

 Based on this, Innes says only private charities should help the poor. As he puts it, “God’s purpose for civil government is that it provide an umbrella of protection for person and property that frees people to go about their business undisturbed, whether by neighbor or by government itself, providing for themselves, their neighbors, their community as a whole, and anyone whom they find in need.” As I read through the book, I realized that by “community as a whole,” Innes is not talking about people voting for local social projects such as homeless shelters or food banks. He was talking about every individual giving to the community as he or she sees fit—but local taxation for the benefit of the poor seemed just as anathema to Innes as federal taxation.

The problem here is that Innes is making these verses do much more than I think Peter or Paul ever intended. Looking at the context of each letter, neither apostle was in any sense writing a comprehensive theory of government. Paul's letter to the Romans is largely devoted to the theology of justification by faith. Chapters 12-15 answer the question, “how should we live in light of this gospel?” with a series of practical-living precepts for the young Christian church. Peter’s first letter is written to scattered believers in Christ living in pagan cities and is largely about how to hang onto the faith through persecution. Both letters advise Christians to be submissive to the governing authorities and mention the power of civil government to punish wrongdoers and give approval to those who do right. But neither of them says, implicitly or explicitly, that government is meant by God to be limited only to those two things. In fact, the New Testament, which focuses on the new creation in Christ and His kingdom, simply is not about rules for civil government in any sense at all. Proof-texting a complete theory of government from a few passages is not good exegesis.

If I as a Christian am going to come up with a theory of government, I will need to base it on principles: the principles of civil justice found in the Old Testament (remembering that we are not encouraged by Christ or the apostles to attempt to establish Moses’ civil law over any other nation), and the basic principles of justice, fair dealing and do-unto-othering found in the teachings of Christ and the apostles.

So what is the proper role of civil government? This question used to be answered by Christians in terms of the divine right of kings to rule. They used the same passages which are today used to declare such complete limits on government, to establish the full authority of the king over all the people in every area of life. But since I believe these passages were not actually intended to comprehensively enumerate governmental powers, what can I say about what makes a properly functioning government?

This is how I’d sum it up:

The proper role of government includes but is not limited to punishing wrongdoers and praising those who do right. In a very real sense (and especially in a modern representative democracy) government is the community as a whole, acting together— and there are things that a united community can accomplish which groups of individuals or businesses never can. Civil government’s power is in carrying out those tasks which private citizens or businesses cannot as successfully or efficiently do on their own.

Now, obviously this leaves a huge scope of areas where individuals or businesses can act more efficiently and successfully than the civil government can. Private enterprise, family life, individual pursuits and hobbies—in general, I would say that interference of civil government in these areas, except where wrongs are being perpetrated by one person or group upon another, often just stifles the creative thought and individual development of a free people.

On the other hand, when wrongs are being perpetrated by one person or group upon another, I do think the government needs to be able to intervene. Workplace safety standards, workers’ compensation laws, wage and hour protections, prohibition of child labor—all these things are important safeguards that prevent powerful employers from ruining the lives of employees for the sake of profit. (This is another whole topic in and of itself, though, and I’ll be writing more about it next week.)

But what about things that cannot be done very successfully or efficiently by private citizens? What about the building of roads, bridges, water and sewer systems to span large areas or even the whole nation so that everyone is equitably served? What about urban planning and development, so that we don’t end up living in cities of hodgepodge and confusion, with streets going every which way and with some people enjoying the benefits of infrastructure and some falling through the cracks? What about policies of justice for minority groups, so that they don’t get trampled on by the majority? What about the preservation of national resources like Yosemite and Yellowstone? And what about a basic social safety net that’s available to all, and not those who just happen to live where a church or non-profit charity happens to be operating?

I am not for a “nanny state.” A civil government that takes care of all of our needs, cradle to grave, will not encourage resourcefulness or the work ethic that Jesus and the apostles approved—and it also, by rendering private acts of charity obsolete, discourages the moral growth of each individual acting in personal love for the needy. But there has to be something in between nanny-statism and survival-of-the-fittest, social-Darwinist capitalism. Neither one, I think, are what the Spirit of Christ would lead us to.

The United States, as a society, has decided that our community values include no one having to live in shanty towns such as exist all over the third world, boxes of cardboard or corrugated metal without running water or adequate sanitation. We have decided that employees should not have to work 14-hour days or seven-day weeks, and that employers should not be allowed to hire children or to abandon employees who have been injured on the job. We have decided that certain of the most beautiful portions of our land should be set aside for the enjoyment of everyone, never to become factory sites or lines of stores and parking lots. All of these, if looked at in terms of economic freedom, restrict some people’s freedom regarding how much money it is possible to make. Should all of these social contracts, these whole-community values set forth in law, be abandoned in the name of economic freedom? Or should the human tendency to self-centeredness be given free reign—that anyone with enough money to do so, can freely do anything he or she wants to make a profit? Are we so afraid of any hint of what we call “the welfare state”?

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “You cannot ultimately help a man by doing for him what he could and should do for himself.” This makes sense to me. Safety nets should not trap people in the net. They should give people who are able to help themselves, the resources and the hand up needed so that they can help themselves. But those who cannot help themselves, as well as those who just need a hand up, need a safety net that extends under the whole nation, not just in those spots where private charities are in operation. This is something that the civil government can do more effectively than the private sector can—although, given the notorious inefficiency and red tape of civil government, balance through overlap with private charity where possible, is a definite plus.

D.C. Innes says on pages 75-76: “The Christian moral objection to the welfare state is . . . that it violates the eighth commandment [thou shalt not steal]. . . Thieves come in different forms. . . [T]he government’s power to secure property is also the power to take it away. When a mob uses government to pillage its more propertied neighbors, we call it progressive taxation, or redistribution of wealth. Sometimes we call it fairness. But it is theft all the same.”
My problem with that is that the principles of civil justice found in the Bible simply do not equate taxation for the benefit of the poor, with theft. In fact, unrestrained economic rights are foreign to the concept of civil government under the Law of Moses.

Of course, as I said earlier, we should not as Christians look at the government set up for Israel in the Pentateuch as a blueprint for all governments for all time. But we can glean certain basic principles from the Law regarding how a civil society should govern the treatment of one another. God, working with the people of that time and place, simply did not promote economy liberty over basic equity and fair-dealing. In economic dealings, as in other areas of life, the Law restrained the people from fully exercising their liberty, recognizing that the natural human bent towards selfishness and greed needed to be curbed.

The gleaning law in Leviticus 23:22 amounted to a tax on all landowners of a portion of their income, for the benefit of the poor. The Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:13 amounted to a redistribution of wealth every 50 years, so that each family could return to its own land and possessions—and so that the concentration of all the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few could never take place. One of the most foundational principles of the Bible is that all of humanity is sinful, and therefore cannot be trusted to simply do the right thing as long as you leave it alone. The Law included certain regulatory provisions to make sure that everyone in the society did the duty of the society to the poor among them. Though free-will giving was encouraged, it was not left up to free will alone. Israel was set up very early on (Exodus 18:25) on government by leaders over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. If a wealthy land-owner denied a poor person the right to glean in his field, the poor person could bring the matter before judges who would enforce the law.

Christian conservatives usually point out at this point that the mandatory giving in the Old Testament was from the well-off directly to the poor, without a government middle man. This is true—and this worked fine for a small, tribal, agriculture-based country in ancient times. But today our wealth is not held in fields for the poor to glean. Land is not held by tribal families so that a Jubilee would result in everyone knowing where to go home to. I don’t think we can get by in our day and age without monetary taxation and a distribution system. In many cases, government contracts with private companies might be the most efficient and best way to get the resources from those who have more than they need, to those who need them. In other cases, it can work better for government agencies to act as the middle man. But as far as I can see, there is nothing inherently evil in a government agency. The evil is in human nature when there is no restraint on power.

However, humans are also made in the image of God and are inexpressibly valuable to Him. When it comes to the value of every human being before God, political theory should not be allowed to override personhood. Jesus said, in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” He healed on the Sabbath because the individual standing in front of him in pain, mattered more than the perfect application of Sabbath policy. Should we be happy when conservative laws hold sway and government safety nets are eliminated, but the people who don’t manage to find a private charity are starving?

It seems to me to be common sense to say, “Hey, the poor need to be helped, by the best method possible, even if it doesn’t fit into your economic theories.” As a Christian, and as a citizen of a nation which has always had a strong ethic of care for the poor, that’s where I stand.

Even if many of my brothers and sisters think it un-Christian of me.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thoughts on Legalism

Legalism is often defined by Christians strictly in terms of whether a person is doing “works” to attain salvation or win God’s favor. As Paul said in Galatians 2:21, “I do not frustrate the grace of God, for if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” I know of no Christian who would argue that this is legalism.  But many Christians limit it to that.  They say that as long as your reason for following your particular group's rule or practice is not to earn God’s love but rather as a grateful response to His love for you ~ then it’s not legalism.  But after journeying through legalism and coming out the other side, I have come to disagree.

The New Testament teaches that legalism means more than seeking to be justified by works of the law. You can love Christ with all your heart, and you can believe that you are doing everything you do out of love for Jesus, and still be walking in legalism. In fact, a person’s very zeal to go the extra mile for God can make them especially vulnerable to legalistic practice. It’s very easy, when you want to serve God with your whole life, to listen to the myriad of voices in Christianity that say, “If you really love God with all your heart, you will do A, and B, and C. Those who don’t do these things aren’t really on fire for God.”

I know this from personal experience. When I was in college, as I have mentioned earlier, I was in a campus ministry group that became well-known for its coercive religious teachings. Our hearts were right, but many of our practices amounted to what Jesus called “binding heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and laying them on men’s shoulders.” (Matthew 23:5.)

For example, this group forbid all music, television, movies or books that did not meet its high standards of spirituality, based largely upon verses like Psalms 101:3 – “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes.” Many of us went even further and threw our television sets away or burned our books and recordings. But does “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes” actually mean, “throw out your TV”? Or was the Psalmist describing how he expressed his devotion to God, in terms of where he put his focus? In fact, the Bible itself is full of all kinds of things that, if you applied the Psalm as we did, we shouldn’t have been reading about at all! Murders and rapes and warfare and adultery are all things that come “before our eyes” when we read the Scriptures. So is just reading about these things, or watching The Ten Commandments on TV, “setting” wickedness before our eyes?

In fact, my group was going way beyond what the Bible texts actually said, to impose on ourselves all kinds of restrictions and “oughts” and “shoulds” that weren’t really there. And then patting ourselves on the back and looking down on others for not measuring up to our standards.

So what is legalism, if it’s more than just seeking to earn God’s favor through works?

Colossians 2 and Galatians 4 both talk about legalism in terms of bondage to the “rudiments” or “elements” of the world, such as “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” All of these sorts of things, Colossians 2:20-22 says, are “ordinances of the world“ which are “to perish with the using.” Verse 23 goes on to say that such things “have indeed a shew of wisdom in will[ful] worship and humility, and neglecting of the body,” but are of no real spiritual use. Galatians 4:9 calls following the “elements” of the world “bondage,” and gives as an example (v. 10) the observance of “days, and months, and times, and years,” as if these observances were what following Christ were all about.

That word translated “rudiments” or “elements” in Colossians 2 and Galatians 4 is the Greek word “stoicheion,” which means “first things from which others. . . take their rise; an element, first principle.” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine, 1966 Ed., p. 22.) When used in conjunction with God‘s word, it refers to the first principles of God’s truth (Hebrews 5:12), but when used in conjunction with “the world,” the word usually means the basics of the physical nature of the earth or of the body. Legalism, then, means living in such a way as to be in bondage to physical, time-bound, earthly principles. These would include rules about eating and drinking, observing special days, and how we treat our bodies (especially, as Col. 2:23 says, neglectful or harsh treatment of our physical bodies as a way to show worship or humility). Jesus even said that marriage was of this physical world (Mark 12:25), and Paul said it’s easier to focus on spiritual things when you‘re not married (1 Cor. 7:7, 32-35) — so being focused on marriage and childbearing, as if these were what Christian living was about, could become bondage to earthly principles as well.

So even if you love Jesus, and consider all your physical, earthly actions as a way to show devotion to Christ, it is possible to still be legalistic. Colossians 2:20 says we should consider ourselves “dead with Christ” to earthly “rudiments,” considering them to be of lesser importance– because we are “complete in Him” according to verse 10. Christ is the “body” or substance of a reality of which earthly things are only a “shadow.” (v. 17), and we are therefore to “let no man judge you” regarding how we handle the rudiments or elements of the world (v. 16). Outward acts of devotion are not wrong; they can even be good– but they can also turn into bondage for us in the way we practice them.

Here are some characteristics of what I have come to recognize as legalistic practice:

1. Making something in the Bible about physical living on this earth, which is not set forth as a commandment, into a commandment. Ways of living that people practiced in the Bible become prescriptive rather than descriptive– we are all supposed to live our lives the same way they did in Bible times, because that’s the “biblical way.” Or we take something the Bible is silent about, and read that as a reason to consider that thing suspect. “The Scriptures speak only of parents training their own children, so sending them to school-- any school-- is at best a poor substitute for homeschooling.”

2. Taking a real or perceived commandment in the Bible to a level of restriction or obligation that goes beyond what the Bible actually gives. The Pharisees had a way of doing this with the law of Moses. The law said, “Don’t work on the Sabbath.” The Pharisees said, “Healing someone is work, and therefore you can’t heal someone on the Sabbath.” The law said, “Don’t eat what is unclean.” The Pharisees said, “You must follow the traditions of ceremonial hand washing in addition to not eating foods that the law calls unclean.” Jesus angered the Pharisees by refusing to follow these over-and-above rules. But some Christians take a verse in the Psalms like “children are a blessing,” and take that to mean that we should never restrict our family size– even when the mother's body is weak and worn out from constant pregnancies.   This comes very close to that neglectful or harsh treatment of our bodies in “bondage” to the “rudiments” that Colossians 2:23 warns against. (Note: 1 Corinthians 9:27, where Paul says, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection,” must be balanced with his warning against willed harsh treatment of the body in Colossians 2:23. In 1 Cor. 9, Paul is speaking of keeping himself free of fleshly self-indulgence, and likening this to the physical discipline of training for a race. This passage in no way commands us to ignore our bodies’ warning signs and push them beyond their limits when it is within our ability to protect them.  Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, after all, and we need to take good care of them.)

3. Setting a standard that, though it gives nominal freedom of choice (“this is only what God‘s speaking to me. You don‘t have to do it if God‘s not speaking it to you”), in every practical sense, effectively eliminates that freedom. “The Bible doesn’t actually command you to live like this, but if you really loved God with your whole heart, you would hear Him speak this to you, and you would come to the same convictions I hold.”  I have found that this kind of thinking is at the heart of coercive, spiritually abusive religion-- where religious guilt is used to manipulate and control.

4. Confusing the meaning of a text with the application of a text, and making that application universal. “Application” refers to how the meaning of a passage applies to our own personal lives in the here-and-now. Any one passage of Scripture can lead to a variety of personal applications, and no one application constitutes the meaning of a passage. This is what my religious group was doing with Psalm 101:3, when we treated the text as if it actually meant, “No TV, no non-religious books or music,” to be followed by any Christian who was serious about serving God– when in fact, we were choosing a certain sacrificial lifestyle as a means of applying the meaning of the text, and not very accurately at that!

Legalism is not just thinking you can be justified or earn God’s favor with your works. It’s living in terms of elemental physical principles instead of spiritual freedom. It’s imposing those terms on both yourself and others, in order to (as Galatians 3:2 puts it) “be made perfect by the flesh.” It’s thinking you can become part of God’s extra-special people (“God’s Green Berets,” my religious group used to say) by choosing a "sold-out" lifestyle. There were all kinds of things we did– all kinds of sacrifices we made– not to earn favor or salvation, but to be (and show ourselves off as) more holy.

I know that Jesus said that if we love Him we will keep His commandments. But He also said, “Learn what that meaneth: I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13.) He was talking about living life in terms of what is within instead of what is external– a heart of mercy and love taking precedence over outward acts of “holiness.” What I have come to understand-- the hard way-- is that it's mercy within that God considers the most holy. Outward acts are not wrong– but I've learned to keep them in their proper place and not enter into bondage to them. I've learned not treat them as if they were the substance of Christian life. That means holding mercy in my heart both for myself and for others. 

When we as Christians do that, our “moderation will be known to all” (Phil 4:5), and we will not bind heavy burdens and lay them on anyone’s shoulders to carry.

Not even our own.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Does the Bible Teach Male Headship? Conclusion

We have looked at the question of male headship in light of the Bible’s overarching Great Story, and we have examined Ephesians Chapter 5 in light of ancient cultural understandings and original word meanings. Now we turn to some of the other passages and the questions they raise.

For instance, 1 Peter 3 says that Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord, and that Christian women are to imitate her.  But what are they really being asked to imitate, and why? 

Let’s look more closely at this Scripture in light of its context in 1 Peter. The First Epistle of Peter was written to scattered believers living in pagan societies in northern Asia Minor. The main subject of the letter is how these Christians are to live in these societies, enduring persecution when necessary, but also doing their best to present themselves as good citizens in a surrounding culture which viewed them with suspicion. To this end, Peter tells them in Chapter 2, verse 12 to be “having your conversation [behavior] honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works which they shall behold, glorify God . . .” With this in mind, Peter goes on in verse 13 to tell them to “Submit yourselves to every ordinance [institution] of man for the Lord’s sake,: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors. . .” Immediately following this, Peter goes into his own household code. 

The difference to keep in mind between Peter’s household code and Paul’s code in Ephesians, is that while Paul’s code delineates how believers are to relate to one another “in Christ,” this code in Peter’s Epistle focuses primarily on how believers are to relate to non-Christians. Peter’s overarching premise is that Christians are to submit to every human institution of authority. He goes directly from talking about how to relate to kings and governors, to talking about how Christian slaves relate to masters (particularly non-Christian ones) and then to how Christian wives relate to husbands (particularly non-Christian ones), and so on. What Peter is actually implying, therefore, is that the authority of masters in slavery, and the authority of husbands (especially of the pater familias in the pagan household structure) are human institutions. Marriage, as marriage, was instituted by God in Genesis 2:23-24, but the patriarchal family structure in which men had authority over wives and slaves, was a human institution. Male government of the household, just like slavery, is not divinely ordained, but is human and therefore cultural and temporal. Peter was dealing with life as it had to be lived then and there. Neither he nor Paul spoke about the ancient household structures as if they were part of a divine, timeless order that was never to pass away. 

Sarah’s obedience to Abraham, then, must be viewed in light of this understanding. In 1 Pet. 3:1 Peter speaks to the wives in his intended audience with the word “hupotasso” (“submit,“ here translated “be in subjection”), which we examined in Part 2, and not “hupakouo“ (“obey”). He then speaks in verse 5 of how “in the old time” women of God would trust Him as they lived within the social constraints of their time. Sarah is held up an example of this in verse 6. Does it say, "and you are her children if you obey your husbands and call them lord"?  No.  It says, "And you are her children if you do what is right, without being frightened by any fear."  (Emphasis added.)

Christian women in the situation of being married to non-believing husbands in a society where husbands have the power, are to imitate Sarah’s trust in God and quietness of spirit in not fearing for the future. For Sarah, that meant obeying Abraham and calling him lord, as was appropriate in her culture.  Peter is certainly not advocating that the women of his own day return to the cultural structures of Abraham’s time! But he knows they have to live within the culture structures that surround them.  He approaches all of this under the umbrella of Christian submission to temporal human institutions, with the understanding (1 Pet. 2:15-16) “that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” Peter is telling his readers that the true divine order is freedom– in Christ they are free, but that it is important that they curtail their freedom as necessary to not give offense to the world in which they live. 

Another passage is 1 Corinthians 11.  It does say that the man is the "head of" the woman.  Many translations go on to say that she should wear “a sign of authority on her head” to indicate her husband's headship.  Again, we have to look at the original language and the context of these verses, within the historical setting and within the letter itself, to be sure we aren't misunderstanding them. 

 In The Bible and the Nature of Woman I spoke about how the context of this passage is how the church at Corinth was to deal with the human tradition of head-coverings, in an honor-shame culture where what each person did reflected positively or negatively on those the culture associated them with. Looking at the verses as they hold together contextually, then, we see that this opening: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. . .” (1 Cor. 11:3) is followed by a discussion of how what men and women do with the physical heads on their bodies, affects the reputation (dishonor vs. glory) of the one Paul refers to as their “head” in verse 3. He then continues:

“For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for [the sake of] the woman, but the woman for [the sake of] the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.” (1 Cor. 11:8-12.) 

All of this discussion is in terms of where men and women come from; i.e., their source or origin. “The man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man” means “the man is not from the woman, but the woman from the man.” This is clearly a reference back to Genesis, in which the woman was brought forth from the man’s side. But Paul balances this is verses 11-12 by saying that neither man nor woman is independent of the other. Just as the woman came from the man (in creation), now the man comes from the woman (in childbirth). The pivotal statement is “But all things of God.” God is the ultimate Source of both man and woman. This context leads to understanding the word “head” (“kephale”) in verse 3 as carrying its metaphorical meaning “source or origin.” 

It is quite theologically sound, and logical in this context, for Paul to be saying, “The source/origin of every man is Christ [Paul’s theology, as expressed in Colossians 1:16-18, is that all things were made by Christ, who is “the head of the body, the church.”], and the source/origin of the woman is the man [Eve being taken out of Adam’s side], and the source/origin of Christ is God [Christ being the Messiah, sent by God, and also the “image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15].” 

The head covering, or lack thereof, of the man or the woman is seen as a reflection on his or her “source.” In Jewish culture a man wore a covering on his head while praying as a sign of humility. The head covering showed that because of sin, he needed a barrier between himself and the presence of God. But in the Greek city of Corinth, men did not wear head coverings in worship and probably viewed the Jewish custom as strange. Paul, therefore, needed to address this issue in the church at Corinth, which would have had both Jewish and Gentile members. (John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women pp. 80-83.) 

Paul’s response was as follows. The purpose of the Jewish head covering was to show awareness of sin. But Christ has atoned for sin, and there is no need for any barrier between a man and God. Therefore (v. 4), for a man to wear a covering on his head while in public prayer or prophesying, was a dishonor to Christ, his “head.” But since bareheadedness was viewed as promiscuity in a woman, for a woman not to wear a covering was a dishonor to the man in her life (either her husband or her father) as representatives of “man” in general– woman’s “head” (v. 5). But Paul adds one additional statement here. The woman is the “glory” — the source of good reputation– for the man. She also is saved by Christ; she is no more subject to a barrier between herself and God than the man is. Further, it was for the man’s sake– because of his need– that she was created. Because of all this, Paul says, a woman “ought” to have “power on her head.” He also adds that this is “because of the angels.” 

Many translations add the words “a sign of,” here, translating the verse “The woman ought to have a sign of authority [meaning a man’s authority] on her head, because of the angels.” But the purpose of a head covering was to show modesty and thus preserve a woman’s husband or father’s honor. Paul is not saying that the head covering was also a sign of her husband or father’s authority, for it was not. The words “a sign of” are simply not present in the original text– and the King James Version rightly omits them. The word “power” there is the Greek word “exousia,” which (as was stated in The Bible and the Nature of Woman) means personal authority. Whenever it is used, it refers to the authority of the person being spoken of– not to some second person under whose authority he or she is. What the original Greek actually says is, “A woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.” 

It is not completely certain what the reference to angels means here, but earlier in the same letter (1 Cor. 6:3) Paul does say, “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” He is speaking of all believers, male and female, being given the right to judge the world one day. A female believer, just as much as a male, will one day be given judging authority even over angels. In light of this, should a woman not have authority over her own head? The word “exousia” — “authority”– included personal power and the right to do as one pleased. Women, as Paul set the situation up, were in a sort of dilemma. If they covered their heads, they could have been seen as indicating the necessity of a barrier because of sin, between themselves and God, thus dishonoring Christ. But if they didn’t cover their heads, they could be seen as dishonoring their husbands or fathers. In light of this, Paul says, a woman “ought to” be able to choose for herself. 

Paul then turns to the whole congregation in verse 13. “Judge for yourselves,” he says. “Is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?” After speaking of what would seem “natural” in the culture in the area of long vs. short hair for men and women, he concludes, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Paul may be saying that the apostles, and the other churches, have no specific, universal custom regarding head coverings, so there is no point in being “contentious“ about it. Or he may be saying that the apostles and the other churches have no custom of women going uncovered, so since the Corinthian congregation is likely to view it as unseemly for a woman to pray uncovered, it would be best for her to cover– but with the understanding that ideally, she “ought” to have the power to decide for herself. 

In any event, this passage is not about male authority over females, but about how, in an honor-shame culture, head-coverings were a way to convey either honor or dishonor to those viewed as one’s origins. And Paul makes it clear that the most important origin is God, Who is the Source of men and women alike. 

In conclusion, what we see in the New Testament is a set of Jewish, Greek and Roman patriarchal cultures into which the Kingdom of God is dropped like a stone into a pond, causing ripples that would eventually reshape the pond entirely. The church has had a tendency to mistake the cultures for the Kingdom-- but the Kingdom is, as Jesus put it, “not of this world.” The social structure of the family of God is not like those of the world. It is characterized by mutuality rather than hierarchy, by service rather than by rule– and all of those who are redeemed to God out of every kindred, tongue and people and nation are “kings and priests.” (Rev. 4:9-10). The man of the house has no special priesthood, kingship or authority in God’s kingdom, but rather, if he wants to enter therein, he must become as a little child (Matthew 18:3-4). 

And as for being “head of the house”? "Kephale," the word for "head," was simply not a word used in conjunction with houses– but Jesus used the word “oikodespotes,” “master of the house,” to connote this idea in, for example, Matthew 10:35 and Luke 13:25. However, Paul uses it in verb form in 1 Timothy 5:14, as a command to women. Younger widows, he says, are to marry and “oikodespoteo,” or “rule the house.” Being head of the house, it seems, is not exclusively a man’s job-- and it certainly wasn't in those cultures, where, as I have indicated earlier, the home was considered the woman's special domain. 

Therefore, let us not, in the name of being “biblical,” continue to perpetuate ancient authority structures that are not part of God’s Kingdom and are unbecoming to brothers and sisters in His family. Male authority was a human institution, and now that male authority has passed away as an institution in our modern society, Christians are under no further obligation to live under it. As Peter and Paul both said, in God’s family we are free.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, in college I became involved with Maranatha Campus Ministries, which at that time was a shepherding-Dominionist college church movement. Maranatha no longer exists, but some of the tactics it used to keep members in line fell under the definition of spiritual abuse. My blog has been included in the Spiritual Abuse Survivors' Blogs Network. I am honored to be included, and from time to time I will be addressing this topic, and my experiences of it, in more detail.

The bloggers in this network each have their own life journey as they work through this issue in their pasts. Some have remained Christians, some have not. But they all deserve to be heard and listened closely to, because they all have wisdom to share-- and the dynamics of spiritual abuse affect all of us in one way or another. As John Donne said,

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

This is my invitation to everyone to read and learn more about spiritual abuse and those of us who have been through it and come out the other side. After all, we're all in this life together.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Does the Bible Teach Male Headship? Part 2

Part 1 of this series showed how the covenant community of the church fits into the Bible’s Great Story as a redeemed spiritual family– a family in which all Christians are brothers and sisters and God is our Father– let’s begin now to examine some of the passages that refer to men as “head.” Now I want to look at the cultural assumptions that would have been shared between a writer of a New Testament Epistle and the original audience, in order to see how the message might have been heard differently by them than it sounds to us today. Hand-in-hand with this, we must look carefully at what the original audience would have understood the Greek word translated as “head” to actually mean.

Beginning, then, with the most frequently cited “headship” passage, Ephesians 5:21-22:

“Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body.”

In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul’s big theme is who the church is “in Christ.” The first three chapters are about the church’s salvation, adoption, spiritual position and unity. In the fourth and fifth chapters he goes on to speak of how unity is to be maintained in the way individual members relate to one another. It is into this context that he places the section on how members of individual households are to relate to one another. This type of teaching has come to be known as a “household code.” The passage on husbands and wives is part of this code. (See Michael Kruse, “Household of God” online series, "Household: The Household Code.")

What we may not understand, reading this from our own cultural understanding, is that the original Greco-Roman audience would already have been very familiar with household codes. Household codes were very common at the time, and were based on the first household code of its kind, set forth by Arisotle in the 4th century BC. Selections from Aristotle’s household code read as follows:

“And now that it is clear what are the component parts of the state, we have first of all to discuss household management; for every state is composed of households. Household management falls into departments corresponding to the parts of which the household in its turn is composed; and the household in its perfect form consists of slaves and freemen. The investigation of everything should begin with its smallest parts, and the primary and smallest parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children; we ought therefore to examine the proper constitution and character of each of these three relationships, I mean that of mastership, that of marriage, and thirdly the progenitive relationship.” (Aristotle, Politics, 1253b)

“Further, the relation of male to female is one of superior to inferior, and ruler to ruled. And it must be the same way for all human beings” (Politics, 1254a32-b16).

“For the male, unless, I suppose, he is constituted contrary to nature, is fitter to command than the female, and the elder and mature is fitter to command than the younger and immature” (Politics, 1259b1-4).

“. . . By nature most things are ruling and ruled. The free person rules the slave, the male the female, the man the child, but they do so differently. All have the parts of the soul, but they have them differently: the slave is wholly lacking in the capacity to deliberate; the female has it, but it lacks authority; the child has it, but it is incomplete.” (Politics, 1260a5-14)

This, then, is the kind of household code Paul’s audience was expecting to hear. The code was expressed in terms of the rulership of the male head of household. Slaves, females and children were spoken of only in terms of being ruled; they were not addressed personally. The pater familias himself was Aristotle’s intended audience, and the pater familias was the intended audience of later Greek and Roman household codes based on Aristotle‘s originals. Men were told how to manage their wives, children, slaves and wealth for the good of society. Slaves, women and children were simply to be ruled.

Further, as John Temple Bristow points out in his book What Paul Really Said About Women, “Aristotle laid a lasting philosophical foundation for the notion that females are inferior to males. . . . Centuries later, church leaders who themselves were a product of Greek culture and education, interpreted Paul’s writings from the perspective of Aristotelian philosophy, even to the point of assuming that when Paul spoke of the husband as being head of the wife, he was simply restating Aristotle. . . .” (pp. 6-7).

But was Paul actually simply restating Aristotelian ideas? Looking at what Paul’s code actually says in Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, what he says would actually have been startling for his original readers to hear. Paul never tells husbands, masters and fathers to “rule” their households. Instead, he uses words like “love . . . as Christ gave himself,” “nourish and cherish” to husbands. To fathers he uses words like “provoke not to wrath.“ And he tells masters to “forbear threatening, knowing that your Master also is in heaven.” Then servants, children and wives are addressed directly, and are asked to give respect and submission to the master, husband and father “as unto the Lord,” — in other words, that they understand that they are not simply the objects of rule, but are being asked to make a choice to serve, as a service to Christ. Further, though Paul uses the word “obey” to both slaves and children, he never tells wives to obey their husbands. (The Greek word for “obey” is “hupakouo,” which is a word never used in the New Testament as a command to wives. Even in Titus 2:5, the word “obedient” there is actually the Greek word “hupotasso,” which is the same word translated “submit” in Ephesians 5:21-22, and which means voluntary yielding. “Hupotasso,” according to Ephesians 5:21, is something all believers are to do to one another.)

In short, what Paul is really doing is standing the Aristotelian household codes on their heads. He is deliberately undermining the authority structure where the pater familias ruled all, by telling him to act in an entirely different manner. And he is treating wives, slaves and even children as individuals able to make choices and determinations of their own (note that “children” here would have been understood by the original audience to mean grown children as well as minors).

Paul does not seek to overthrow the authority structures of the culture in which the Ephesian church found itself. But what he does do is teach those in the family of God, a new way of relating to one another “in Christ.” The expected rule of the pater familias over his wife, children and slaves is reset within a paradigm of mutual submission and is re-focused on Christlike humility, love and nurturing rather than control, and on laying down his life rather than taking charge. God’s family is a new kind of family in which we are all brothers and sisters. The highest in society must change the way they relate to the lowest, while the lowest must not take advantage of their new status and disrespect those who are socially higher. All are to voluntarily yield and defer to one another as servants, just as Jesus also said in John 13:12-14.

So what did Paul mean, exactly, when he said the husband was the “head of” the wife? Notice that Paul says the husband is “head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church.” Therefore, the husband cannot be “head” of the wife in any way that goes beyond the way in which Christ is “head” of the church.

Notice that Christ as “head” of the church is used within a metaphor where the church is also the “body” of Christ. What Paul is talking about, then, is a metaphorical picture of a head and a body, which together are one being. It is how Christ and the church relate to one another as “head and body” that must inform us as to how husbands and wives are intended to one another within that same metaphor. The question, then, is “How is the head-body relationship between Christ and the church defined in the Epistle to the Ephesians?”

One mistake that is easy to make is to impose metaphorical meanings of “head” as we use it in English onto the original Greek metaphor. We think of the “head” as the house of the brain, which is the control center of the body. To us, “head” often means “authority” or “leader.” But in the ancient Hebrew and Greek way of thinking, it was the heart that housed the intellect, will and emotions, and “head” had a different connotation. The main metaphorical meanings given to the word “head” (“kephale” in ancient Greek) were: 1) that which is prominent or in a pre-eminent position; and 2) source or origin. The physical head’s relation to the physical body was seen as the source of energy and growth. Authority or leadership, while commonly associated with people who were “heads” in terms of pre-eminence or prominence of social position, was not actually a primary meaning of the word “head” as it was used in Paul’s day. (See Michael Kruse, “Household of God” online series, "Synopsis of the Head Metaphor in the New Testament." )

“Head” of the church, therefore, would simply not have been seen by the original Ephesians readers as synonymous with “Lord” of the church. Neither would “head” of the wife have meant “lord” of the wife. Though Christ certainly is Lord of the church, He is also Savior, redeemer, sanctifier, recipient of worship, and Master of the church. But Paul deliberately limits husband’s role towards the wife, to being the “head.” Husbands are not to appropriate to themselves any of Christ’s other roles, or seek to become as Christ to their wives. This would be idolatry, and to the extent churches today encourage married couples in such a practice, they are teaching idolatry.

But if you look closely at how Christ and the church are shown in that “head-body” description, there is not one place in Ephesians where this metaphor includes Christ exercising authority over the church. Instead, Christ as “head” is shown in two functions.

First, in Ephesians 1, we see Christ as the catalyst for our adoption as “sons.” Paul speaks of how Christ was raised from the dead and placed “far above all principality, and power, and might and dominion” with “all things under his feet.“ Christ is here said to be “head over all things to (or “for the sake of”) the church, which is his body.” (Eph. 1:21-22). But an important distinction is being made. The church is NOT among the things named as being under Christ’s feet. Instead she is spoken of as being raised up with Christ and “seated together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:6.) Christ is seated in the heavenly realms “above” all rule and principality and authority and power– and the church is seated up there with Him. The Greek word “kephale” (head) here seems to have its Greek metaphorical meaning of “prominent/preeminent one.” But the church as Christ’s body is pictured, not under that preeminence, but in an organic oneness withChrist in His preeminence. Christ’s relationship to the church as “head” to “body” is here shown not as a relationship where the high position of Christ is exercised over the church, but one where the high position of Christ is exercised on behalf of the church while she sits with Him on high.

A pater familias, accustomed to a high and prominent position, and keeping Chapter 1 in mind as he read on through Chapter 5, would have understood that as “head” in Chapter 5, he was expected to “give himself” for his wife as Christ did for the church, with the result that the church was raised up to be glorious (Eph 5:25-27). Laying down his prominence of place in regards to his wife, and raising his wife up to be beside him in oneness, and exercising his social position on her behalf and for her good, is part of what it meant for a husband to be “head” to his wife as ‘body” in Ephesians 5.

The other place where the head-body metaphor is used for Christ and the church is in Chapter 4. Here Paul says, “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together. . . maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” Here the “head” is clearly seen as the source of growth and energy for the “body.” A pater familias, keeping this in mind as he read Chapter 5, would understand that as “head” in this sense, he was to “nourish and cherish” his wife as his own body (Eph 5:29).

But nothing about “leading” or “having authority over” the church or the wife is mentioned as part of the “head to body” relationship anywhere in the Epistle to the Ephesians. Nowhere is Christ as “head“ spoken of in terms of “leading” or “ruling” the church. Nowhere is the husband told to “lead” his wife or “rule” his household. And to the original audience, which was expecting to hear such words, the absence of any such words would have shouted.

What is the result? Paul was trying to grow an infant religious movement, which meant not fighting existing authority structures– but if within the body of Christ, Christians in positions of authority did not act on that authority, but laid down their privilege and served, and where those in subordinate positions did not passively resist or actively rebel, but willingly gave their best and served, it would all end up in a kind of functional equality, existing in Christian households in an age where the concept of “equal rights” as we now know them, did not yet exist. Paul’s teachings on Christian relationships would, if followed, undermine ancient societal norms from within, eventually resulting in more just, equitable social structures in cultures influenced by these teachings.

Christians reading the Scriptures this way in the last century began to crusade against the institution of slavery, understanding that Paul’s intent was never to perpetuate social injustice in the name of being “biblical.” Why, then, does the church perpetrate male dominance over females in the name of being “biblical”? Isn’t what we are actually perpetuating, the results of the Fall and not the power of the Resurrection?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rachel Held Evans: "One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality"

I am a bit late announcing this, but this week I am participating in Rachel Held Evans' week of blog posts on women's equality in the church and home, known as One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality.

To that end I have submitted several of the most popular/most often read posts here to Rachel's synchroblog.  I  highly recommend reading her blog posts for this week!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Does the Bible Teach Male Headship? Part 1

This is is the first of a three-part series that was originally posted at the Take Heart Project.  

Many Christians say the Bible teaches that the man is the head of the woman and that the husband is the head of the house, the instrument of God for directing the family, and God's designated final authority for decision-making on behalf of the couple and their children.  I believe that these ideas come from a combination of tradition and proof-texting, which is a method of Bible interpretation that lifts certain verses out of their literal and historical context, reading them as if they were a memo from the Boss left on our desks yesterday rather than part of the Great Story of creation, fall and redemption-- which was meant to be read according to the original human writer's God-inspired, intended message, as it would have been understood by the original audience.

But if we look at male headship in the Bible according to these principles of interpretation, how well does it stand up?  In my last post on the nature of woman, we saw how the male and female humans were equal at Creation, and what the Fall did to their relationship.  What does the redemption that comes through Jesus Christ do to the relationship between males and females, husbands and wives?

Galatians 3:26-4:7 is one of Paul’s great statements about the nature of the New Covenant community brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection.

“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Now I say: That the heir,, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all. . . Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. . . Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”

As I discussed in an earlier post on this passage, many Christians say Paul was only talking about spiritual salvation-- that he meant only that people of all races and both sexes can become part of God’s family, but that men still are to have the roles of authority in the church and home. But look again at the last part of this section of Scripture: “that ye might receive the adoption of sons. . . and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” That phrase, “adoption of sons,” was a special legal term in the original Greek, referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir.. Adopted male heirs had the same status as freeborn male sons, with all the privileges and benefits that sons enjoyed in that culture.

Paul is saying that “in Christ” Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freemen, males and females, all have full and equal status as adopted freeborn “sons” in the family of God. It was not Paul’s intention that a freeborn Jew, after reading this passage, would feel able to tell a Gentile or a slave, “There, you get to be saved just like us; now be content with that, because positions of leadership in God’s family belong only to freeborn Jews.” Such flesh-based distinctions are part of the “elements of the world,” (Gal. 4:3), and these “elements” are not part of God’s covenant community in Christ. And according to the same passage, this applies to “male and female” distinctions too.

Now there is no doubt that in the cultures and times in which the New Testament was written, the man was certainly the head of his household and in authority over his wife, children and slaves. The Romans had a special term for that, “pater familias,” which referred to the patriarchal powers of a free, adult male over his household. The question that has to be asked is whether that “pater familias” household structure was God’s plan and will for all Christian households for all time, or whether it was simply a product of those ancient cultures. Remember that the apostles, in their writing of the Epistles, did not consider it the mission of the infant church to try to change the established authority structures of those times and cultures. Instead, the young church was to work within those structures to spread a spiritual message that changed believers from within, resulting in their being “in the world, but not of it.” (John 17:15-16.) Therefore, it is a mistake to read a passage that advises Christians to live within certain social structures, as a divine endorsement of those structures–unless the Scriptures clearly and explicitly refer to a particular social structure as part of God’s divine plan.

In analyzing any passage in the Bible, the important thing to keep in mind is this. Every passage fits somewhere into the Great Story. The passage we just looked at, Galatians 3:26-4:7, fits in as a statement of the fundamental nature of the covenant community which was born through Christ’s redemption. The passages we will examine next, fit into the Story as instructions or advice for practical living for that community.

Statements about the practical living of a group of people must be read in light of statements about the fundamental nature of that people– not the other way around. If the fundamental nature of the church is that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all adopted sons in God’s family, then we must look at the practical-living passages through the lenses of that understanding. Biblical instructions for practical Christian living, if read in ways that deny or contradict what it means to be God’s redeemed community in Christ, are probably misunderstandings of what the New Testament writers intended to say.

Unfortunately, in the case of male-female relations, these misunderstandings are so long-standing that they have come to considered the normative way to read these passages, with other readings automatically suspect. “We must not capitulate to feminist modern culture and re-interpret Scripture against 2000 years of church history!” is the cry. But what if the traditional understanding of biblical texts regarding male-female relations is in fact a long-standing “capitulation” to ancient cultures that became mixed into Christian understandings of the New Testament writings?

In other words, do the Scriptures say that it’s God’s divine plan for men to have authority over women, or husbands over wives– or did the original audience share the assumption with the writer that males were over females, and husbands over wives, as part of the culture? And did that cultural understanding then somehow become mistaken for God’s will for all time?

In light of Galatians 3:26-4:7, it certainly looks as if God’s plan for His kingdom was not about hierarchy and male rule, but about all believers having equal status in one great spiritual family in which God alone has the power of the “pater familias.” In fact, Jesus Himself spoke in these terms when He was told His earthly mother and brothers wanted to speak to him, and He said, “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

The Book of Romans also sets forth the principle that we are all siblings in one big spiritual family: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. . . ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, ’Abba, Father.’” (Romans 8:14-15). In fact, this kind of terminology appears everywhere throughout the New Testament, and “brethren” (which is a gender-inclusive word in the original Greek meaning “brothers and sisters”) is the most common way the authors of the Epistles addressed the churches.  

[Note: my earlier series, "The Bible and Human Authority," which begins here, addresses these issues in more detail].

In light of the New Creation Kingdom and our equality within it as brothers and sisters, then-- the upcoming Parts 2 and 3 will examine some of the passages that refer to what is commonly called “male headship.”