Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Birthday, My Faith Story

Today is my birthday. So today I'm going to talk about my belief in God, where it comes from in my life. I don't like to use the word "testimony" because that word is so commonly used as if it were a sort of sales technique, giving a testimonial as to how well the Product - Christianity - worked for you so that others will try it. That's not the point of this at all. I simply want, on this day that's important to me, to express myself about this thing that's foundational to my own life. And that's all-- no strings attached.

My parents went to church when I was very young, but later they stopped and became agnostics. I don't have any memories of meeting God in a church context at all before the age of 15. What I do remember, though, as a young child, is feeling that invisible Hands were reaching down to me in love. I remember asking my mother if she had ever felt this, and she said yes. I remember her singing to me, simple songs like Away in a Manger and Jesus Loves Me. I remember the pure, simple faith in her eyes, her voice. There was no coercion, no law, no hierarchy in my mother’s faith-- just love.

When I was a little older, my mother became convinced by intellectual arguments against Christianity and left the faith for a while. Years, later, she returned again to her earlier faith. She told me when I was grown up that she had continued to feel God's presence throughout her agnostic years. Every once in a while she would feel in her heart as if God were saying, “You’re being silly, you know. I’m still here.” In the end she listened to her heart.

However, by the time I was 8 or 9, both my parents were agnostic, and I was following firmly in my parent's beliefs-- or lack thereof. This ended abruptly when we visited Carlsbad Caverns when I was about 11. Looking at those huge caverns, so beautiful, which were there and had been beautiful before any humans even knew they were there, I had the sudden overwhelming conviction that there had to be a God. I can't explain it intellectually, really. It's just that it seemed absurd to me that something so awesomely, overwhelmingly beautiful was unintentionally so. I just knew that Someone had to have planned it, and Someone had to have enjoyed its secret beauty long before humans ever knew it was there. But that's as far as things went. I felt that there had to be a God. Whether it was the god of any particular religion, I had no idea.

When I was 15 my older sister came into my room one afternoon and said, "I've been studying and looking into it-- and I'm convinced that Jesus had to be who he said he was."

Well, I didn't know what to think-- but that shook me. My sister was someone I trusted, had always trusted implicitly. If she had come to this conclusion, then it was a reasonable viewpoint-- it couldn't just be nonsense. I had to find out for myself if there was something in it.

So I agreed to go to church with her. And when the service was over, there was an invitation to come to the front and be prayed for. My sister grabbed my hand (I wasn't at all sure I wanted to go, but I followed her), and we went to the altar. . .

And there was a Presence there. Unmistakable, overwhelming-- and It simply was there, being Itself, and what was I going to do about it?

There wasn't really a question of, "are you the same Being who used to reach down to me with invisible hands?" I knew it was. And though the Presence used no words (I still don't receive words, just impressions or deep"knowings" that I have to translate into words)-- if I could have translated what the Presence was communicating, it would have been "I Am."

Which, after all, is what was communicated to Moses so long ago.

Not that I thought about that. I didn't know the Bible. But I had met this Being at an altar in a Christian church, upon considering the option that Jesus might be who he had said he was (that is, the Son of God.) This was the same Being I had met as a child, here in this church. But I have never, then or now, been the type to rush headlong into anything. So I walked away, thinking about it. I still had a lot of questions about God and Christianity.

A week later, on Easter Sunday, I was back in church again. As we sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” I felt the Presence again. I said, silently, to the Presence, “But I still have all these questions!” The very air seemed charged with fire as I felt God ask me, “Will you trust Me? Even with all your questions?”

“Yes,” I whispered. And my heart was changed. There are no words to describe what that felt like, except that I was set free of myself-- and somehow found my real self at the same time.

Weeks and months later, as I began to research and examine the questions I still had, I found answers that satisfied. Perhaps you would say that I was biased, at that point, towards theistic answers-- and I suppose that's true. But I found that the basics of Christianity could make sense to my mind and not just my heart.

It was only later that I was drawn into a coercive, law-based form of Christianity of hierarchy, control and submission. But when I finally freed myself of that, there was my old faith-- the faith of my mother, the invisible Hands of my childhood, the faith of my 15-year-old self -- waiting for me still.

So here I am, 48 years old today. Here we are, me and God. I doubt, from time to time-- as anyone must, who does not insulate themselves to never talk to anyone outside their faith community-- but I can no longer isolate myself that way. So I listen to everyone I can, as I would want to be listened to-- it is part of doing to others as I would have done to me. And sometimes when they see no sense in my faith, it shakes me. But still I am drawn to Christ like a moth to a flame. Still the beauty of Christ and Christ’s story sings in my deepest heart. In the end, I can no more deny it than I can deny my own soul.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ's Relationship with the Church? Conclusion

Part 1 of this three-part blog post refuted the idea that marriage is an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church. Part 2 showed that Christ’s glorification of the church to become “one flesh” with Him is the main point of Ephesians 21-33, and this was the illustration Paul had in mind to transform marriage as the world understood it then, into New Covenant marriage in Christ.

This last part attempts to ask the question that might arise: “Maybe marriage isn’t an ‘illustration’ of Christ and the church, but isn’t marriage a type of Christ’s relationship with the church?”

Typology is a concept mentioned several times in the New Testament. According to the online Holman Bible Dictionary:

“Typology involves a correspondence, usually in one particular matter between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament with a person, event, or thing, in the New Testament. All elements except this one may be quite different, but the one element selected for comparison has a genuine similarity in the two different historical contexts. . . Typology, a comparison stressing one point of similarity, helps us see the New Testament person, event, or institution as the fulfillment of that which was only hinted at in the Old Testament.” [Emphasis in original]

As Holman states, when the word “type is used in the New Testament, it refers to one element of something in the Old Testament being a pattern for something in the New. Adam is a “type” of Christ-- but only in the sense that Adam was the one man through whom the curse of sin came, and Christ is the one Man through whom the gift of salvation came. But Adam is not like Christ in other respects-- in fact, it is the “not like” comparisons that are emphasized in Romans 5:14-16.

The New Testament does not actually call any of its own introduced concepts (such as Paul’s concept of New Covenant Christian marriage) “types” of anything else. However, if, in spite of this, perhaps there is some justification in seeing typology in Christian marriage-- for in verse 32 Paul does seem to use it as a pattern that hints at something else which will be the fulfillment. However, if marriage is a type, the hint will not be like the fulfillment in every respect, but in one, limited respect only. And the text itself will show us what is.

The marriage relationship is not like Christ’s relationship with the church in every sense. And the sense given by the text is not authority and subordination, but oneness. Marriage is like Christ and the church because both relationships become “one flesh” relationships. In other respects, marriage is not like Christ’s relationship with the church. Marriage is not like Christ redeeming from sin and the church being redeemed, or like the church worshiping and Christ receiving worship. I have heard husbands say they believed it was their job to cleanse their wives and present them before God as Christ does the church! But that is not the point of similarity given in the possible typology here.

Just because Christ is shown doing or being something for the church in the Ephesians 5:21-33 text, does not mean that husbands are to do or be the same thing for their wives. The text says that Christ is the church’s “Savior,“ but (thankfully) I have never heard a husband claim he could step into that role! But neither does the text say marriage is like Christ leading and the church following. Though the text does say wives are to submit (voluntarily yield), it says nothing about husbands (or Christ) leading. Instead, it talks about husbands (and Christ) loving. Husbands, like Christ, are understood to be in a position of authority-- but exercising that authority is simply not in view in this text. Just the opposite, in fact. Husbands are told to give themselves as Christ gave Himself-- and Christ gave Himself to crucifixion, laying down His power and authority. In light of this, it doesn't make sense to say that the husband-authority exercised in worldly marriages of Paul's day was somehow intended by God to continue for all time. Christian marriage in the New Covenant was not intended to be viewed in terms of authority, but in terms of laying down authority and raising up the one under authority.

So if there is any typology in Ephesians 5:21-33, it is the typology of “one flesh.” To map husbands to Christ in any way not given by the typology, is to go beyond the text and to risk husband-idolatry, placing husbands in the place of Christ in their wives’ lives. And to give the worldly authority of husbands in Paul’s day, to all husbands for all time, is to wrongly map the human to the divine.

To sum up, then:

Human marriage is not, and cannot be, an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church. Instead, Christ’s relationship with the church, as shown in the text, is the illustration for New-Covenant human marriage.

Our Western understanding of literary structure leads us to want to see the main point of Ephesians 5:21-33 as wives’ submission to husbands (because it is the first and last thing mentioned), followed by husbands loving wives-- and the rest as more or less mere commentary on those two points. But this is not how Paul intended it to be read. What he wanted was that the Christians in the church at Ephesus (and in the other churches to whom this letter would be circulated) should see their marriages as needing to imitate Christ’s descent from glory in order to raise up the church to glory. He wanted them to see that one-flesh unity between a husband who raised up his wife, and the wife who was raised up, was the goal of Christian marriage.

If in this sense marriage is a type, pointing to a fulfillment when Christ comes again, in His one-flesh unity with the church, then this, and nothing else, is the point of similarity of the typology.

There is no justification for stretching the text to make marriage either a type or an illustration of Christ’s authority over the church.

This passage is simply not about the marriage relationship being intended by God as an authority-subordinate relationship. That is the understanding of marriage that Paul had to work with in his audience’s minds-- but that’s not where he left it. Ephesians 5:21-33’s teaching on marriage is about changing that view of marriage to one of unity and love-- the kind of love that could transform the authority-subordinate nature of first-century Ephesian marriages, into what God desires for marriage in His New Covenant kingdom: oneness, companionship and mutuality. So when Christians insist on husband-authority in marriage, they are actually going in the opposite direction from where Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was trying to take the church.

This is not about either rejecting or accommodating modern culture. Christians tend to focus entirely too much on that. But the question is not, “what is the world doing now, so we can do the opposite, right or wrong?” The real question is, should we turn back to a first-century worldly understanding, or move forward into the New Creation kingdom of God?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ's Relationship with the Church? Part 2

In part 1 I showed that Ephesians 5:21-33 does not say marriage is an illustration of Christ and the church. It’s the other way around. This passage shows couples a specific picture of Christ and the church, to take as an illustration for marriage. What is that specific picture?

Please note that I am reading this passage in light of the principles of Bible interpretation I set forth in my previous blog post. We can’t understand what this passage means to us, until we understand what it is most likely to have meant to the original audience, as Paul intended it to be understood.

In order to see more clearly what the picture was that Paul was painting as an illustration, I’d like to look at this passage in light of its literary structure. Kenneth Bailey, research professor of the New Testament and scholar of Middle Eastern history and culture, uses the term “chiasm” to describe the repetitive kind of structure used in this passage. A chiastic literary structure can be viewed as a sort of sandwich, with repetitive parallel elements at the beginning and end as the pieces of bread, similar repetitive elements within those representing the condiments, and the meat-- the main point of the passage-- in the middle. This is a common Middle-Eastern literary style and is frequently used by New Testament writers, including Paul.*

The parallel ideas and phrases in this text are largely self-evident, when you're looking for them. What we tend to miss is what the original Middle-Eastern audience would have understood those parallelisms to be doing.

Since we in the West tend to put the main point of what we are trying to say at the beginning, or at end (or both) when we are writing, we can easily read a passage of Scripture without understanding what the main point was. We can read a passage like Ephesians 5:21-33 and see the main point as “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (if we start where most translations divide the text, in verse 22). But let’s look at the passage the way a first-century Middle Eastern would have read it-- with the parallelisms Paul appears to have intended (I’ll use the New American Standard Bible because it’s a close word-for-word translation which brings out the original structure, and I'll omit the words the NASB indicates aren‘t in the original text).

The color-codes here indicate a kind of outline, with each set of parallels the same color, and the central point, in the middle, it's own unique color:

And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ [introductory phrase that governs the whole passage from 5:22 through 6:9]
A Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord
B For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church
C He Himself the Savior of the body
D But as the church is subject to Christ, also the wives to their husbands in everything
E Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her
F That He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word
G That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory
F Having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she would be holy and blameless
E So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself
D For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also the church
C Because we are members of His body.
B1 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
B2 This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church
B1 Nevertheless, let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself
A And let the wife see that she respect her husband.

It’s important, of course, to keep in mind the world in which Paul and his audience lived. The structure of that world centered around the pater familias as the ruler and authority over an economic/familial unit-- the household, which consisted of the ruling patriarch, his wife, children and slaves. Paul doesn’t try to fight against the cultural structure, but counsels the Ephesian church on how Christian marriage can work within it.

The first and last lines (“A”) are the outer part of the sandwich-- the two pieces of bread, as it were. They are parallels about wives submitting to/respecting their husbands. Just inside each of these, top and bottom, are two parallel sections about husbands' head-body relationship to their wives, being compared to Christ’s head-body relationship to the church (“B”). I have set the bottom “B” section off a little to show that it is set up as a mini-chiasm within itself, elaborating on the theme of that one-flesh, head-body relationship, which harks back to the central point of the passage (shown in the center at “G”).

The two parallel “C” statements are the next layer in, and they are about Christ and the church’s head-body relationship. Note that Paul doesn’t speak of Christ as “Lord” here, but as “Savior.” It is what Christ does as Savior that makes this a head-body relationship. The head-body relationship is not defined in terms of Lordship and obedience. Christ is Lord of the church, of course-- but Paul is not talking about that here: he’s talking about Christ as Savior. This is not about what the head commands the body to do, but about what the head does for the body.

The two statements at “D” function as reasons why. These appear at first glance to be a departure from the clear parallelism of the rest of the pairs-- but what Paul seems to be doing here is matching two statements of fact, one relating to wives and one to husbands, which support what he is advising each to do.. At level “A,” wives are told to submit, or voluntarily yield-- but this statement at “D” is not a mere repetition, or even an expansion, of that idea. Instead, it is a reason why. The word “Submit” at level “A” was in the middle voice, denoting something someone does themselves, on their own initiative. But here at level “D,” the same word is in the passive voice, denoting a state of being. This is why the NASB renders it as “the wife is subject to” rather than “wives, submit to.“ Paul states that wives are subject to their husbands-- in first-century Ephesus, this was simply a fact, here stated as such. In the parallel "D," the fact being stated is that no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, and that Christ also treats the church as His own flesh. These paralleled facts set forth the reasons why wives are advised to yield and husbands are advised to love.

At level “E,” then, we see the instructions to husbands, tied into the example of Christ’s actions towards the church. The husbands were the ones with control in that society. Wives were not in a position to be able to make any substantive changes to turn marriage as it was understood, into marriage as God would have it in the church. It was husbands who had that power. So husbands are instructed to imitate Christ’s love for the church. But the picture/illustration given them is not one of authority/leadership, but of giving and sacrifice. Christ “gave Himself” for the church; that is, He was crucified for her, emptying Himself of His power and glory. Husbands’ imitation of this would not involve holding onto their society-given rights and powers, but emptying themselves of them.

“F” and “G,” then, are the meat of the sandwich, with the juiciest part right in the middle. The illustration is given of Christ cleansing the church and making her holy and blameless. Why? So that “G” could happen-- the glorification of the church. What Christ does for the church, in this illustration that marriages are to emulate, is raise the church up to be glorious! How could husbands in that culture, understanding the chiastic structure and thus grasping Paul‘s true message, have understood anything other than that they were to raise their wives out of their lowly position into a glorious one?

The mini-chiasm at “B2,” then, must be understood as harking back to what Paul has just shown, and pointing forward into the future. Paul quotes Genesis 2:24, which comments on God’s bringing together of Adam and Eve, and then says he is actually talking about Christ and the church in a “great mystery.” What is a “mystery”? According to Ephesians 3:4-5, “mystery” refers to a divine secret which God reveals, or will reveal, through the Holy Spirit. The implication is that it is not something we can discover or figure out on our own, apart from God’s revelation.

But here’s the rub. The “mystery” here is the final, complete glorification of the church so that she becomes “one flesh” with the divine Son. This is something that has not yet taken place, but is going to take place when He returns, even as 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him just as He is.”

In this light, the idea that human marriage is meant to show or illustrate Christ and the church, falls apart. The Wedding Supper of the Lamb is still in the future. Christ and the church are not yet married! Is it possible to illustrate something that has not yet occurred or been revealed-- something that we cannot figure out by ourselves what it’s going to look like?

Human marriage cannot illustrate the divine-- but it can follow the divine picture as far as it has been revealed. What has been revealed in Ephesians 5:21-32 is that Christ has come down from His high position, given Himself for the church, and that He is now preparing her for glory-- the glory of being “one flesh” with Himself. And what following that illustration would look like to Paul’s original audience would be husbands coming down from their high position, to raise their wives up from their lowly position to a place of glorious unity.

You might now be thinking, “Ok, maybe marriage isn’t an ‘illustration’ of Christ and the church, but surely marriage is a type of Christ’s relationship with the church?”

Part 3 will discuss typology as it is used in the New Testament, and how, if it is in fact being used in Ephesians 5:21-33, I believe we should understand it.

*For a detailed explanation of the chiastic literary style, see Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, IVP Academic, pp. 13-16.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ's Relationship with the Church? Part 1

This idea is pervasive in evangelical Christianity today. The idea comes from Ephesians 5:21-33, where Paul speaks of Christian marriage. Christianity specifically states that God intended marriage to be an illustration of Christ and the church, and the New Living Translation even says so explicitly:

As the Scriptures say, "A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one." This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. Eph 5:31-32, NLT.

The web page goes on to explain that the way this works out is that husbands “illustrate” Christ’s leadership authority, as well as His self-sacrifice, while wives “illustrate” the church’s submission to Christ’s leadership authority. Is this what the Bible actually teaches?

I am not going to write today about the meaning of words like “head” in the text of Ephesians 5:21-33. I am not going to write about mutual submission as the controlling verse of this text. I have written about these things elsewhere, as have many others.

But this idea of marriage as a picture or illustration of Christ and the church is troubling, and needs to be carefully examined. If Paul is saying that marriages illustrate Christ’s authority over the church and the church’s obedience, this has serious implications. I have heard preachers say that when non-believers look at the leadership of husbands and the submission of wives, they will see the beauty of Christ’s relationship with the church and be drawn to Christianity. I have heard teachings that a marriage will only properly illustrate Christ’s relationship with the church when the husband steps fully into his leadership role and the wife responds to that in complete submission. Ideas of husbands and wives as best friends, companions and lovers tend to get lost in all this. Are Christian wives supposed to show the world a picture of human obedience, while their husbands are a picture of their Lord and God? Non-Christians are hardly drawn to Christianity by this picture-- they are often frankly disgusted. But this is certainly what this marriage-as-illustration teaching implies.

However, the original text of Ephesians 5:32 never uses the word “illustration” or any similar word. The more word-for-word translations translate that verse like this:

“This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” KJV

“This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.” NIV (1984)

“This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” NASB

What is being said here? Is marriage an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church? Or is something different, and much more profound, going on in these verses?

First of all, look at the direction in which the comparisons move. Christ and the church are not said to be “as” husbands and wives. It’s the other way around. Husbands and wives are “as” Christ and the church. If one relationship is being set up here as a picture or illustration to help us see the other relationship more clearly, it is Christ and the church who are the illustration, the picture for husbands and wives to follow-- not the other way around. Husbands and wives are to see more clearly what God meant marriage to be, by looking at a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church. But-- and this is important-- the passage doesn’t just say, “You husband and wives, try to generally imitate Christ and the church.” The illustration being given here is not general, but specific. Husbands and wives are to imitate this particular picture of Christ and the church.

So what is the picture? What is being illustrated?

That is the question that Part 2 will discuss.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Forgotten Women in Church History, Part 2: St. Lioba of Germany, 710-782 A.D.

Since Lioba was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, she isn’t exactly a “forgotten” woman in church history. However, when Benedict and Boniface, the great founders of holy orders in Europe, are spoken of, Lioba really ought to be mentioned along with them. Protestants in general, though most of us know of Benedict and Boniface, have rarely heard Lioba’s name.

Lioba was the cousin of Boniface. Boniface is best known for evangelizing Germany and establishing Benedictine monasteries there. Boniface also desired to establish Benedictine convents in Germany, and for that, he realized, he needed women missionaries. Lioba was the leader of five other holy women who went with Boniface to Germany.

Lioba’s given name was Thrutgeba; Lioba, which means “beloved,” was her surname. She was raised in Winborne Abbey under Abbess Tetta, and known from her youth for her love of study and her devotion to God. She went courageously as one of the only female missionaries of her time, knowing that some of the German rulers had become known for their “seduction” (ie., rape) of nuns.

Lioba was appointed abbess of Bischofsheim in Germany. Her position as abbess, according to Edith Deen, was “not merely that of a ruler, but of a teacher and expositor, and she became so learned in the Scriptures and so wise in counsel that bishops often discussed church matters with her.” Highly competent as a spiritual and practical leader, she was often visited by church leaders wishing for advice. mentions that she was the only woman allowed to enter male monasteries, in order to participate in consultations with church leaders on issues related to the rule of monasteries.

She loved to perform acts of service, hospitality and care for the poor. Her nuns loved her for her accessibility, patience, kindness and humility. Under her guidance, many of them also became leaders of convents of their own, their spread being called “one of the most powerful factors in the conversion of Germany.”

But Lioba was also a Christian mystic, known for her special connection with God and for the power of her prayers. Her prayers are credited with causing the cessation of a violent storm, after she was awakened by frightened villagers asking for her intercession. Tucker and Liefeld state, “It was this sense of charismatic authority-- a feeling of being personally chosen by God to carry out a special mission, that propelled Lioba on. Her success . . . was viewed as a direct result of her holiness and evidence of her ability to make direct contact with God in prayer.”

Kings and rulers, including Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and Pippin III, often desired Lioba to visit at their courts and sought her counsel. She was the only woman ever allowed to pray at Boniface’s monastery at Fulda, and she is buried there near his tomb.

Lioba’s spirituality and natural success as a leader, teacher and advisor, speak for themselves in answer to the question of supposed limitations placed by God on His female children. As far as men have been willing to permit, women like her, gifted in leadership, have served their Lord to the full extent of their powers.


Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), pp. 135-137.

Deen, Great Women of the Christian Faith, Harper & Row (1959), p. 307.

Mombu the Religion Forum: Devotion for September 28, St. Lioba’s Day

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Forgotten Women in Church History, Part 1: Marcella of Rome

This is part of a series which I will add to from time to time, about certain individuals whose names, had they only been male, might have been remembered alongside those of Jerome, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. What women have done in the history of the church, once their stories are told, raises some interesting questions about traditional views of women's place in God's kingdom.

The first is Marcella of Rome, circa 350 A.D., before Rome's fall.

Marcella was a well-educated daughter of a Roman senatorial family. Widowed after a marriage of only seven months, she embraced the monastic life. She and her mother formed a community of religious women in their home. When Jerome came to Rome in 382, she persuaded him to let her be his student, and even though he usually avoided women, he consented because of her devotion to God and her desire to learn and study.

What is most remarkable about Marcella was how she found a way to become a teacher of the Bible. Jerome was not known for favoring women; in fact, his translation of the Bible into Latin Vulgate deliberately upheld the patriarchy of his times, even at the expense of the original text. For instance, he removed the words “who was with her” from the story of the Temptation in the Garden, making it appear that Eve was alone when she took the forbidden fruit and that Adam in innocence took it from her later-- thus solidifying the view of woman as man’s “temptress” for centuries to come. And yet Jerome was apparently so impressed with the piety of Marcella that she became his near-constant companion, and the recipient of many letters when they were apart.

In Jerome’s Epistle, he makes the following amazing statements about Marcella:

“She never came without asking something about Scripture, nor did she immediately accept my explanation as satisfactory, but she proposed questions from the opposite viewpoint, not for the sake of being contentious, but so that, by asking, she might learn solutions for points she perceived could be raised in objection.”


“And because she was so discreet and knew about what the philosophers call . . . ‘how to behave appropriately,’ when she was thus questioned she used to reply as if what she said was not her own, even if the views were her own, but came either from me or from another man, in order to confess that about the matter she was teaching, she herself had been a pupil. For she knew the saying of the Apostle, “I do not, however, permit a woman to teach” (I Tim. 2:12) lest she seem to inflict an injury on the male sex and on those priests who were inquiring about obscure and doubtful points.” Emphasis mine.

In other words, despite Jerome’s view that God, through the Apostle Paul, had forbidden all women to ever teach men, his disciple Marcella (what else is it appropriate to call her?) became a teacher of men anyway, purely by virtue of not seeking that her teachings be known as her own, but giving the credit to Jerome! Can there be any doubt that the priests whom she taught benefited from her teachings? Jerome himself certainly did not doubt it; in fact, as his words above show, he tacitly accepted her acting as a teacher because of the efficacy of her teachings (and perhaps because of the increase to his own reputation?) even though he knew she was in fact teaching men from her own wisdom.

The interesting thing is that Jerome also wrote a letter to a friend warning against false guides who learn from women what to teach men-- but the letter was not about Marcella’s teachings, but about the teachings of Melania the Elder, leader of a monastic community in Jerusalem, with whom he disagreed. Since Jerome based his restriction on women teaching on his understanding of Scripture, we can only conclude that the power of Marcella’s intellect and her clear ability to learn and convey her learning to others, caused Jerome to admit to a self-contradiction. In this area of God’s supposed absolute prohibition against women teaching men, he made an exception for Marcella, because he knew her personally, and, it appears, could see the hand of God upon her. His doctrine, in short, could not stand up to his practical experience, when he was not talking about women in general, but about one woman he had come to know and trust.

Marcella lived until the Sack of Rome and died at the hands of the Goths. Her last act in this world was to entreat her attackers to spare her companion Principia, which they did. Marcella died of her wounds a few days later, leaving all that she had to the poor.


Liefield and Tucker, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan (1987), pp. 117-118

Flood, Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages, Routledge (2011), p. 7

Epistolae: Women’s Biography

Dictionary of Christian Biography

Friday, October 7, 2011

Christian Male Identity

This post is an invitation to a conversation, because I don't have all the answers. If you've found this blog, I'd like to know what you think.

J.K. Gayle over at Aristotle's Feminist Subject has brought up the current fear among many Christians that the empowerment of women is emasculating men. He cites the new book by William J. Bennett (former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan and former Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush) called The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. Bennett appears to voice a concern I've read in several places on the Web, that women's social and economic gains are somehow leading to a male identity crisis.

My first reaction is to ask myself, why should it matter to men, ultimately, what women are doing? When Peter to said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" referring to Jesus' plans for John, Jesus answered, "What is that to you? You follow me." John 21:21-22. Shouldn't following Jesus be enough?

And yet as a follower of Jesus, I myself must not be selective in doing unto others as I would have them do unto me. What I would have done unto me is for my concerns to be taken seriously and listened to. So I must listen to my Christian brothers.

One thing I'm certain of. Men should not define themselves by whom they get to be in authority over. Is a man in slavery, beaten by a master, any less a man? Is a man interred in a concentration camp any less a man? So, even though the Christian Patriarchy movement seems to want to define men in terms of their "leadership" in the home, I cannot feel that a man must be in charge of someone else, in order to feel like a man.

Two Friars and a Fool, makes this point rather well. But the other thing they're saying also should be heard:

"Patriarchy is not masculinity. The two aren’t the same. But, apart from patriarchy, what is masculinity? The thing is, none of us know, because almost no one is thinking about it. Or worse the only people thinking about it are the ones who just want to push patriarchy in disguise... What is it to be a man, apart from either being part of patriarchy or being told how evil you are for being part of patriarchy? If I knew, I would tell you, but I don’t. I’d like to, though."

There is an interesting thing going on here. Women (except perhaps those embracing Christian Patriarchy), because we have traditionally been the "other" sex, tend to want to be viewed primarily as just people. We don't want to be defined by our sex, but by our humanity. But the question being asked here by men is, "what defines us as men?"

Traditionally, men have been the "default" sex. To be human has been viewed primarily in terms of being human as a male. The traditional name for humanity is "man." What humans do that makes them human has, through history, been seen in terms of what men do. Until recently, being a man meant just doing what men-- that is, people-- do. Working, resting, praying, having a family. Self-expressing through art or literature or craft or sport. Being in charge too-- but that was only part of it.

Now men are finding that the meaning of words have changed, as a concerted effort has been made in the last few generations to include women as part of the default of what "human" means. We no longer say, "man," we say, "humanity." And now many men seem to feel themselves at a loss. If "humanity" is no longer, by default, male humanity, what does it mean to be male, as opposed to being female? Particulary since women, who have always worked, rested, prayed and had families, just like men (only without being in charge, and with their self-expression largely suspected, suppressed and devalued), want to be defined mostly as just "people"? And maybe to get to be in charge sometimes too?

If you're a man, only you can be a father. And if you're a woman, only you can be a mother. And those are different things, and the differences are important. And there are physical differences, and hormonal differences. And they tend to affect the way we behave-- but not universally. There are always exceptions. And there are no good traits that are the exclusive province of one sex or the other. For Christians, Jesus is our example, and he modeled all good traits, all of what it means to be human. And Jesus was male, but was not afraid to describe himself as spreading wings like a mother hen and taking chicks under them!

Perhaps the answer is not to come up with a certain set of traits and call them "manhood," and another set of traits and call them "womanhood," whether the word "biblical" is attached to these terms or not. Perhaps men as well as women need to simply look to the humanity of Christ for an example of what being a human ought to be. If you're doing your best to be like Jesus, then you are a biblical man. You are also a biblical woman. Not because there are no differences. Males and females are different, and the differences should be celebrated. Christianity is not a religion that calls the spiritual good, and the physical bad. Our bodies are good, and they are part of who we are-- and our bodies are gendered.

But the problem my Christian brothers are expressing-- those who don't want to embrace patriarchy as part of the definition of manhood-- is not fully answered by saying, "Let's just all follow Jesus and not worry about it." One of the commenters on Two Friars and a Fool, Douglas Hagler, put it this way:

"I would say that I have been thoroughly taught to see masculinity as bad. Only recently have I begun to see the possibility of another view. That is, obviously, part of my motivation here. I guess I would also say that I have also been taught to see certain things as associated with masculinity - violence, domination, unconscious privilege, etc. - and that all of those things are negative things."

The problem also goes deeper than mere perception. There is also the fact that unconscious privilege is apparently now actively hurting men, particularly in education. MaryAnn Baenninger, in her article in The Chronicle: For Women on Campus, Access Doesn't Equal Success, notes that women are not really "winning" in the way William J. Bennett seems to fear-- but she also notes this:

"And while we were focusing on gaining access for girls and women, we neglected the needs of boys and men. We didn't plan well for the consequences of a society that taught one sex that it had to work harder to gain access, and the other sex that access was guaranteed. We find ourselves surprised each time we learn that the educational system is not serving boys and men as well as it might."

So though I disagree with the Christian Patriarchy movement as the right solution to the problem, I do not deny that there is a problem. Many men-- even egalitarian men-- feel a sense of disorientation. The traditional ways they have always acted are now associated with negative things such as domination and privilege-- even violence. Maybe it's not so much that men don't know who they are, as it is that they don't know how to act; they don't feel it's ok any more to just be themselves. And maybe it's not as easy for them, just living life, as it used to be.

Can we, their egalitarian Christian sisters, help them, without having to be ourselves forced into traditional, subordinate roles that we don't feel reflect the nature of the New Creation kingdom? Brothers, do you have input on how men can learn to be comfortable with themselves without returning to the patriarchy of the past?

If you have thoughts to share, please keep them respectful and accepting of others who may differ. Thanks!

Divine Right

This was posted as a guest post on a few other blogs, but I thought I'd post it here, too. It's an answer to those who say that we who want full, functional equality for women in the church and home (we call ourselves "egalitarians"), simply have a problem with authority. "Complementarian" is the term usually used for themselves by those who believe that women and men are equal in salvation before God, but that women must always be under male authority in the church and home.

What complementarians don’t seem to understand is that egalitarians don’t object to authority per se. What we object to is “divine right.” Most modern Christians have rejected the notion of divine right in all areas but this one. We no longer agree with, “Because I was born royal, I have divine right to rule this country,” or “Because I was born an aristocrat, I have divine right to govern the peasants on my land.” We certainly don’t agree any more with “Because I am white, I have divine right to be served by those of other races.” We also reject the corollary, which is “keep your place.” “Because you were born a peasant, it is not your place to govern the land,” or “Because you are of the servant class (or of a “lesser race,”), it is not your place to take jobs outside the serving sphere.”

Most Christians now would agree that there is no such thing as “divine right” – that God has established earthly authorities, but no one can say, “Because of my birth, it’s my divine right to be one of those authorities.” Except in this area. Christians say, “Because I was born male, I have a right to be in authority over my wife in the home,” and “Because you were born female, it is not your place to take leadership beside your husband in the home, or to take leadership in the church over men (“over your betters” is implied here, although we don’t use that term anymore).”

I might also add that in Paul’s day, the authority of the “pater familias” over his wife, children and slaves was one of the earthly authorities that had to be taken into account– and Paul’s words to the Ephesians reflect this understanding. That doesn’t mean that we, as 21st-century Christians, need to return to a husband-authority structure, especially when our own cultures have abandoned such structures; any more than we need to go back to serving a king or an emperor just because Paul said, “honor the king.”

I do agree that though God has established earthly authorities, God did not desire to do so in the church. Church leaders, yes – but not by “divine right.” Church authorities, no. Jesus said, “Not so among you.” I wish we would finally listen to Him.


PS. I wanted to add what Shirley Taylor at Baptist Women for Equality said today:

"What about the so-called difficult scriptures? You know what is difficult about those scriptures? The real difficulty in those scriptures is this: that we find it easier to believe that God made women inferior, than it is for us to believe that we have misinterpreted those scriptures."

I think she makes an excellent point.

Monday, October 3, 2011


This is the last of my introductory posts, which are about my foundations: what makes me who I am. They wouldn’t be complete unless I talked a little bit about the woods and mountains.

I was raised in the Rocky Mountains, in a house surrounded by pines. I live in the Pacific Northwest now, and I find its softer, greener mountains just as beautiful, in a different way. I love the beaches here too-- their grassy white dunes, and the trees that sometimes grow almost down to the sand. And I love the wetlands, with their cattails and cool, still waters, and the smaller trees that thrive with their roots wet nearly year-round. But it’s the mountain forests that call to me.

I remember my last visit to my favorite woods-- a mix of evergreen and leafy trees, with bark dust and needles, flowers and ferns, covering the rising ground. The air was warm that day, and heavy with the morning's rainfall, the sky a brilliant blue. I left my car and stepped under the trees. The forest, familiar but never quite expected, surrounded me like friendship. I placed a hand on a moss-covered trunk, feeling the rough, wet bark under my palm, my ears filled with birdsong and the humming of insects.

The path curved over a low hill. I stood at the top, feeling the presence of the trees. I passed through a grassy oak savannah, and then back under the pines, which gathered thick and dark around me. I shivered a little with pure pleasure as a squirrel ran across a branch over my head, and I turned back towards my car.

The woods are where I belong: the place I lived before I could talk; the place I called home before I even knew the word for home. I have not been able to live there for years, but the forest, to me, is the most real place on earth.

Every day I drive to the office, spending the hours with phones and fax machines and endless paper. Every evening I return to the four walls of my house, to television sets and video games and kids asking for help with homework. But when I can find time to return to the forest, when I take a deep breath of moist woodland air and feel the bark dust beneath my feet-- it is then that I think, "This is real life. This was here before I came and will be here when I'm gone.” My life falls into perspective in the shadow of the pines, in the silence that breathes behind the hills.

Whenever I’m troubled, or stressed, it’s under the trees that I find my center again. The forest is where I find it easiest to find God. And I find it impossible to doubt God there. The forest is where all my doubts and fears disappear in the quiet.

I love my husband, and my kids, and my work, and my life. But in the very deepest, innermost place of my being, the woods grow endlessly. And my Father walks among them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Bible and "Plain Sense" Reading

Over the last few years, as I have written about Bible interpretation on the Internet, I have focused on the historical-cultural approach: that we can’t understand what the Bible means to us, until we understand what it meant to the original audience, as the message was intended by the original writer. And I frequently get this question, in one form or another:

But shouldn’t the Bible be accessible to everyone? Shouldn’t everyone be able to read the “plain sense” of the words and get God’s message from them? How can the Bible, if it’s God’s word, be the sort of book that you need help to understand?

As part of my first few posts, giving the background and foundational understandings under which I operate, I’d like to offer this:

Part of the Protestant viewpoint is that the layperson can and should read the Bible for herself-- but that is not really the same as saying teachers aren't necessary. The original Protestant doctrine is called “the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture.” “Perspicuity” is an old word meaning “able to be perceived and understood.”

Here’s the doctrine as conceived by the early Protestant reformers:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)

The original doctrine states that the Bible is clear enough regarding matters of eternal salvation, that anyone can, by reading diligently, understand how to be saved. However, this understanding of perspicuity has changed in the last hundred years or so, such that nowadays people think there’s something wrong with the idea that we might need scholarly research to help us understand the Bible. This is particularly true in the individualistic cultures of the Western world. But Jesus and Paul and Peter taught from an understanding of individual and community in balance-- individual faith lived out within the church community. I don’t think any of the New Testament authors would have agreed with, or even understood, a mentality that any individual should be able to read and understand everything in the Bible alone, through the eyes of only his or her own experience and knowledge. The New Testament talks a lot about sitting under teachers to gain from their education and scholarship.

In any event, the idea that the Bible is supposed to be so timeless that anyone in any age or culture can read what seems to them like the plain sense of it, without misunderstanding and without needing any teaching or explanation, goes against even what the Bible says about itself. Just about every book in the Bible emphasizes right at the beginning, that it is a message by a certain person, to a certain group of people, at a certain time in history. For instance: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ. . . To all who are in Rome.” Romans 1:1-7. Or “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah. . . And in the days of Jeroboam, the son of Joash, king of Israel.” Hosea 1:1. I believe those "street signs" are there for a reason-- to tell us that the message was never meant to be understood a-historically or a-culturally. And the further removed we are from the time of the actual writing, the more scholarship we need to help us understand.

Does it necessarily follow that for the Scriptures to be inspired by God, they cannot have been messages to certain people in certain times and places, or that we shouldn't need scholarship and research, shared through community, to understand their full sense? Or is it perhaps that God values human experience through all of history, and doesn't want each age to feel no need of the wisdom that came before it?

Traditional church interpretations, based on the writings of early church scholars, do help-- but after the fall of Jerusalem, when the church lost contact with its Jewish roots, it increasingly interpreted the Scriptures through Greco-Roman viewpoints. These tended at times to obscure more than they illuminated. But today’s resources for understanding of the original history and cultures of the Scriptures are shedding more light than ever on authorial intent. We need to make use of the resources given us today, just as the man in Jesus’ parable of the ten talents (Matt. 25:14-30) expected his servants to make use of the resources he gave them.

If you believe the Scriptures are inspired, then it makes the most sense to say that it is each original message, as understood by the original audience, that is inspired-- not what it may seem to be to us, thousands of years and half the globe away. Salvation is one matter: it has to do with the relationship of humans to the eternal God, and is therefore timeless and understandable in any age. But much of the Bible has to do with the way humans relate to one another, and this is inextricably bound up with human history and culture.

It’s important to find out what the original, inspired message was. Otherwise we risk turning the cultures of the Bible into sacred cultures-- and dragging Christians unnecessarily and unfairly, back to the first century in the way they must relate to one another.