Saturday, August 30, 2014

Matthew 18 and Spiritual Abuse

I have been asked a few times over the last several months to do a blog post on Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus teaches about what to do if a member of a Christian group is committing wrongs that are harmful enough that they cannot be overlooked.  Here's the text, from the 2011 NIV:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
The context of this verse is as part of one of Jesus' large teaching units in the gospel of Matthew.  He is here teaching about interpersonal relationships within the  "kingdom of heaven" [verse 1], which will include all who trust and follow Jesus.  He starts by stating that the greatest in the kingdom is as a little child, which, as I described in another blog post, meant letting go of earthly status and hierarchy. Then He goes on to warn against "despising" any of these "little ones-- those who believe in Me."  In other words, those who believe in Jesus should voluntarily become lowly and without status, like children ("little ones"), and their resulting vulnerability must not be taken advantage of or used to harm them. (For an excellent study of the whole chapter, see the Christian Resource Institute's study by Roger Hahn.)  He then talks about how valuable these "little ones" are to the Father, and how He will seek them if they stray.

It is at this point that verses 15-17 occur: just after the discussion of stumbling blocks put in the way of the "little ones."  The Christian group as a whole can choose to remove anyone who is causing grievous harm to one or more members of the group.  Jesus speaks in terms of "brothers and sisters" to indicate equality of status in the group.  He does not envisage the church as a hierarchy where leaders alone assume the power to excommunicate; an action as drastic as that should be done by the consensus of the whole group.

The rest of the teaching is about interpersonal forgiveness when brothers and sisters sin against one another.  Jesus speaks of the need to forgive "up to seventy times seven" times, and tells a parable whose point is that, since God has forgiven us so much, we ought also to forgive one another.  Taking this section together with verses 15-17 leads me to conclude that Jesus is differentiating between forgiveness (personal letting go of animosity) and reconciliation (restoring relationships).   To forgive someone up to seventy-times-seven times is one thing; to have them "listen to you" so that you have "won them over" is another.   The possibility of excommunication means that relationship is not to be restored when the person who has harmed you is unrepentant and unwilling to change-- even after being confronted with witnesses to the harm that was done.

The principles of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 are sound.  A group should have the power to disassociate itself from people who are causing serious harm to one or more members, and a graduated-step process seems the most appropriate way to deal with such people.  The problem is that these verses are so often misused, particularly by people in power to enable themselves to stay in power.  Here are some examples from around the blogosphere:

From Under Much Grace:
In many spiritually abusive groups, Matthew chapter 18, verses 15-19 is used like a static formula which is misapplied to manipulate and control others. Many misapply it as something appropriate for minor offenses instead of overt sin, as the consequences of the process can result in excommunication from that local church. A person can be offended by someone's behavior, but it may not necessarily constitute a sin, particularly not one that carries such heavy consequences. In aberrant Christian groups, the passage is used to rid the group of “problem,” nonconformist members (who are not sinning) and becomes a means by which clergy can micromanage if not threaten church members. (It is used to manipulate and control behavior.)

Among very litigious groups, the process is used to declare people non-Christian or never legitimate Christians so that they can be at liberty to violate a directive of the Apostle Paul who forbids Christians to sue other Christians, as it is found in a letter he wrote to the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). This practice of threatening to “de-Christianize” other professing Christians is actually common among those who follow patriarchy. This type of abuse of the passage has become popular enough that the saying that a person has been “Matthew Eighteened” has become somewhat commonplace among some Protestant Evangelical groups.
From Debra Bouey at Crossword Articles:
When Biblical apologists comment publicly on . . . aberrant, sometimes heretical, teachings, the principals involved, and their supporters, quickly and repeatedly raise the "Matthew 18 Argument", contending that the "brother" [or, as the case may be, "sister"] should have been approached privately, "according to Matthew 18".
Jesus's words here were not intended and should not be used as a general model for all conflict resolution. . . Matthew 18 instructs the church on how to deal with sin on an interpersonal level that is serious enough to remove an unrepentant member from fellowship. . .  Matthew 18 is not applicable for solving differences of opinion and other kinds of problems. 
From Slacktivist:
99 percent of the time, this is the way this passage is used and abused — as a cudgel to beat truth-tellers back into silence. How dare you expose my wrong-doing? Jesus commanded you to come to me privately, so that we could work this out just between the two of us. . .
From the Biblical Seminary Theology Blog:
Does this passage require that abuse victims forego reporting abuse to the authorities and to make a private confrontation of the perpetrator? Sadly, I have heard stories where not only were victims chastised for reporting abuse, but then made to go to the perpetrator and confess their sin of not following Matthew 18.
From Rachel Held Evans' Interview with Boz Tchividjian:
[T]his passage is used as a justification for 1) not reporting abuse disclosures to the civil authorities and 2) convincing sexual abuse victims to privately confront their perpetrators. Needless to say, this misinterpretation of Matthew 18 is hugely destructive on a number of fronts.
It's very important not to lift verses like Matthew 18:15-17 out of their historical context-- how they were meant to be understood and applied in their original setting, to their original audience. Jesus' words were meant to be understood in terms of a small counter-cultural group within an indifferent or even hostile surrounding culture.  Such a group had a much greater need to police its own members for things which today are crimes which should be handled by civil authorities.  Jesus also was not envisioning a church where power was concentrated in the hands of one or two people who would then be in a position to abuse their authority.  Neither was He setting forth some universal principle for conflict resolution to be applied in a blanket manner to all situations.  As Boz Tchividjian says later in the above-linked interview:
Matthew 18 is important for local church life, because Jesus commands us there how to deal with sin. But it is not the only passage in which Jesus tells us how to deal with sin. It must be properly synthesized with others that address the same subject directly and/or indirectly. It is critical to remember that all passages are regulated and interpreted by the balance of Scripture. . . [For instance,] on Romans 13, Jesus tells us through the Apostle Paul that believers are to be subject to the civil authorities.
I don't think that even in the early days when the civil authorities were mostly hostile, would the church have required a sexual abuse victim to privately confront a perpetrator.  1 Corinthians 5:1 seems to indicate a situation like this, where the man who "had his father's wife" appeared to be held solely responsible and the congregation was instructed to remove him from the fellowship.  Women had far less agency then than they have today in any event-- but there appears to have been no idea in Paul's mind that the woman should follow a Matthew 18 private confrontation.

In the authoritarian, spiritually abusive group I was part of in my earlier Christian life, the problem was not so much crimes that should have been handled by civil authorities, but the fact that confronting a leader with his sin would lead directly to leader-led discipline against the person who dared to complain.  Trying to discuss a wrong privately with an authoritarian leader is impossible-- it will immediately be turned around to be construed as your sin, not his.  As the above Slacktivist quote states, Matthew 18 thus becomes a way to keep the rank-and-file members from speaking out.

And of course, authoritarian leaders often also use Matthew 18 as if simply disagreeing with them-- about anything at all-- were sin.  And then once a person has been excommunicated using the Matthew 18 process, they can be treated as enemies and prosecuted or sued accordingly (as the above Under Much Grace article notes).

Finally, a person who speaks out publicly against spiritually abusive doctrines can be accused of not handling it biblically, by taking the disagreement to the person privately first. This has a way of simply shutting down all discussion.  But Jesus and the apostles themselves were actually quite vocal about publicly refuting doctrines and teachings they disagreed with.  Matthew 18 is not about doctrinal differences.

Other passages show situations which were not "Matthew 18" events.  In Acts 15:39 Paul and Barnabas had a "sharp disagreement" without handling it according to Jesus' Matthew 18 teaching, because His teaching simply did not apply to disagreements about who to travel with!  And when Paul found Peter, a fellow church leader, involved in public hypocrisy, Paul also rebuked him publicly (Galatians 2:11-14).  Paul doesn't seem to have expected any of the Gentiles who were being ostracized at the table, to confront Peter privately.  Jesus' Matthew 18 teachings apparently didn't apply there, either-- possibly because Peter's sin was not harmful enough that he needed to be asked to leave.  Or possibly because Peter's actions were in front of everybody, and so his correction needed to also be in front of everybody.  Or perhaps because Peter was an apostle, and Paul thought it best for another apostle to confront him.  Or all three.

It's never a good idea to isolate one set of verses from the rest of scripture and follow them slavishly as if they were universally applicable in every situation.  Particularly in ways that violate the good which the passage intended, and do harm the passage never contemplated.

In any event, Christians, and especially Christian leaders, need to be careful about using passages of scripture to their own advantage at the expense of others.  This is against every principle that Jesus taught-- and it's what most of His rebukes of the scribes and Pharisees were about.

A Bible used as a weapon against other human beings, is always a Bible misused.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Out This Week - Prayers for Ferguson & Racial Reconciliation

I have been following as closely as I can the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri after an 18-year-old boy named Mike Brown was shot to death by a police officer, even though his hands were raised in surrender, because he was black and the officer was white.

By Their Strange Fruit has details of the situation and important links to more information.  As I white person in a nearly all-white northern U.S. city, I haven't been quite sure what to say, but I find the advice from Janee Woods below very helpful:

Becoming a white ally to black people in the aftermath of the Michael Brown murder
A lot of white people aren’t speaking out publicly against the killing of Michael Brown because they don’t see a space for themselves to engage meaningfully in the conversation so that they can move to action against racism. It’s not so much that they have nothing to say but rather they don’t see an opportunity being opened up for them to say something or to do something that matters. Or they might not be sure what to say or how to do it. They might have a hard time seeing a role for themselves in the fight against racism because they aren’t racist, they don’t feel that racism affects them or their loved ones personally, they worry that talking about race and differences between cultures might make things worse, or they think they rarely see overt racism at play in their everyday lives. And, sometimes, they are afraid. There’s a real fear of saying the wrong thing even if the intention is pure, of being alienated socially and economically from other white people for standing in solidarity with black people, or of putting one’s self in harm’s way, whether the harm be physical or psychological. I’m not saying those aren’t valid fears but I am challenging white people to consider carefully whether failing to speak out or act because of those fears is justified when white silence and inaction mean the oppression and death of black people. 
Let’s talk about an active role for white people in the fight against racism because racism burdens all of us and is destroying our communities.
I am out of town camping with my family this week, and I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said anyway.  But my fervent prayer is that this incident will at last prove to be the turning point that will open the eyes of white people like myself across the country, to make real changes to halt the racism that's still going on in our nation.  I want to echo the apology at Beccyjoy to the family of Michael Brown, to the citizens of Ferguson and to people of color across the nation:
I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’ve had to be so loud to get our attention. I’m sorry that another beautiful boy had to die to make us notice that you are oppressed. I’m sorry that no one is listening. I’m sorry that no one believes your experiences. I’m sorry that this is still happening. I’m sorry for the ignorant, invalidating, and racist comments you’ve had to deal with on top of everything else. I’m sorry that I’ve turned a blind eye to your struggle. I hear you, I believe you, I stand with you for justice. You deserve way better.
I hope that "no one is listening" will change now; that we will listen, and pray, and try to effect change.  As Christina Cleveland says so eloquently:
 Can you see the suffering Christ in the oppressed, even the ones who aren’t responding perfectly to society’s oppression? Christ doesn’t just suffer for the innocent, the ones who don’t have the energy to fight back, or the ones who perfectly respond to injustice. He suffers for the ones who suffer now and sin in their suffering.
I pray that we will see the suffering Christ in the oppressed and stop judging them for not being perfectly patient under oppression we have never experienced ourselves (and thus have no idea how we would handle it).

I ask my readers who are Christians to agree in prayer with these voices:

Accidental Devotional
I began to hear that there was a distinct danger you face every day, if people just assume that you are dangerous because you are black and you are male. And I began to hear the stories of police brutality, of unnecessary aggression, of my sophomore boys being treated like criminals simply because of their bodies. . . 
I began to see that my skin granted me access to pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. I began to see how no one ever starts out aggressively toward me, because I am never seen as a threat. I began to understand that my students, my colleagues, my neighbors were not granted the same access, the same pass. . . 
I am praying the people of this country have softer hearts than mine. I am praying that we are broken over Mike Brown and that brokenness is only a beginning. I am praying we listen when we are told that this is only one of many. I am praying we hear when brown mothers tell us they fear for their babies’ lives. I am praying we do something when our eyes and ears are opened to injustice. I am praying we speak out, we reach out, we educate ourselves. I am praying we care.
Five Minute Friday
Black men have the monopoly on unarmed civilian murder by an officer of the law. It’s a fact. As a Christian, I look to my community to share the burden, the questions surrounding racism in America and how we can move forward. I’m trying to navigate this without being written off as another angry black woman. And I don’t want to be quietly spiritually shunned from all the online communities I love, for saying what you have to already know. 
I don’t have to tell you, do I? – Racism is real. . .
God you are greater, greater…
I sang softly, swaying back and forth wringing my hands. Eyes closed. . .
God wasn't upset with me for being angry. And He hadn’t asked me to be quiet. He took those keys with Holy Spirit force. Sometimes that’s what it takes. 
Please understand. 
Being Christian doesn’t exclude us from the conversation. We have to speak up. To be clear, I understand we aren’t all called to every conversation and maybe you won’t write about it, but standing in solidarity with a hashtag or sharing posts you’ve read that resonate with the spirit of Christ and reconciliation could be a beginning.

Shalom In the City
I can’t do anything tangible with these hands, but raise them high. Lord, we are restless for change and anxious for hope. We are witnesses of injustice. We are the women at the foot of the cross, empower us to stay through the torment so that we can be present to bind up wounds and then—see resurrection. 
I raise my hands to God who out of his great love for his children heard their cries and carved a path towards justice when there seemed to be no way. Make a way in Ferguson, MO, Lord. Make a way and drown the Enemy of your peace in your waves of Justice.
Today, I raise my hands because the truth is Black Lives Matter and black kids don’t have to be college-bound for their deaths to be tragic. I raise my hands for the truth that Jesus identified with the poor, broken, marginalized, and ignored. I raise my hands because Jesus is our Truth and he will make us free.
God bless all of you.  See you next week.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Sola Scriptura"?

"Sola scriptura" is the Protestant doctrine of "scripture alone."  Here is a portion of the definition from
Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian. The Bible is complete, authoritative, and true. . . Sola scriptura was the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. . . The only way to know for sure what God expects of us is to stay true to what we know He has revealed—the Bible. We can know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that Scripture is true, authoritative, and reliable. The same cannot be said of tradition. 
The Word of God is the only authority for the Christian faith. Traditions are valid only when they are based on Scripture and are in full agreement with Scripture. Traditions that contradict the Bible are not of God and are not a valid aspect of the Christian faith. Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible. The essence of sola scriptura is basing your spiritual life on the Bible alone and rejecting any tradition or teaching that is not in full agreement with the Bible.
"Sola scriptura" encapsulates Protestant principles regarding church tradition-- and though historically this has generally referred to Roman Catholic tradition, it can refer to any church tradition. As a Protestant, I support the concept that church traditions-- even Protestant ones!-- should be tested in terms of whether they are supported by Scripture.  But the assumptions underlying this Protestant principle sometimes go completely unexamined, with the result that "sola scriptura" can potentially become a virtually incoherent teaching that is used to support authoritarian and spiritually abusive church practices.

Notice the statement in the quote above: "Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible." The unexamined assumption here is that subjectivity actually can be avoided-- that the Bible provides a method for examining church teachings and practices with a completely objective standard.

The problem is that we read the Bible as finite humans, and though we as Christians trust that God is the source and foundation of objective truth, we are not God and not capable of fully understanding God, nor can we fully step outside our own subjectivity.  The doctrine of sola scriptura sometimes leads us to assume that we can, as N. T. Wright puts it, "read the Bible straight":
There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply na├»ve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying.
 The fact is that "scriptura" by its very nature is a book that people read, so it cannot stand "sola" -- alone and isolated from the humans who read it.  Every time we read the Bible, we are seeing it through the windows of our own experience, and understanding it according to our own reasoning. And this practically always encompasses at least some church tradition regarding how to understand the text.  So sola scriptura, instead of giving us an objective means for judging the legitimacy of church tradition, ends up merely giving us the illusion of objectivity, while we fail to notice or examine the church traditions and other underlying factors which affect the way we understand the Bible texts.

That doesn't mean there's anything necessarily wrong with those traditional readings.  The consensus of a faith community on the meaning of a text is one check-and-balance against wild and erroneous readings that an individual might come up with on their own.  But faith communities are also human, and some traditional readings uphold human bastions of power and/or reflect human prejudices.  Protestantism arose because Christians like Martin Luther began to question and challenge the existing bastions of power-- but Protestantism itself soon adopted its own traditions and power structures.  Sometimes we Protestants fail to understand the extent to which our sola scriptura doctrine is informed by Protestant interpretative traditions.

And then there's this.  When we say, as does, that "Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian," we have to face the fact that "scripture alone" has simply failed to yield one self-evident and incontrovertible meaning for each of its texts.  The reason is, of course, that scripture simply does not stand alone, but must be read and interpreted.  This doesn't mean that each interpretation of scripture is equally valid-- some methods of interpretation are more likely to yield truer results in terms of both the original human and the divine intent.  But always, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we see "through a glass, darkly."  We can't prove the human author's intent and we can't always fully grasp the divine intent.  So our reliance on sola scriptura as the rule for our faith and practice turns out not to actually be reliance on an objective and certain standard.

Ultimately, we have to rely on the Spirit of God to "guide us into all truth (John 16:13)."  But though Jesus said, "Your word is truth (John 17:17)," He also said earlier in the same passage that He is the truth (John 14:6)-- and we know from John 1:1 that He is also the word!  As I have said in another post, God seems to place much more priority on our trusting Him than on whether we are right about what a given passage of scripture means.  I don't get the impression that the Holy Spirit is particularly threatened by how many different understandings of Bible passages there are.  The truth He guides us into is apparently something much bigger than being right about what this or that scripture says.

The real problem comes when a particular church group uses sola scriptura to uphold their particular reading of the Bible as if that reading and the divine intent were one and the same. Protestant churches that do this are actually setting themselves up as a new magisterium with the power to dictate to their members how to believe and practice.  "Sola scriptura" can come to mean, "Disregard your own experience and reason, and ignore your gut instincts about right and wrong-- they are not to be trusted.  Only the Bible (and by that we actually mean 'what we have decided the Bible says') is to be trusted."  Claiming that the scripture is "clear" and that anyone who questions it is rebelling against God, they actually raise themselves up to the place of God in the lives of their followers.

I believe we do need to take the Bible very seriously and to do our best to understand it the way God would have us understand it.  But we need to do this with humility and with the knowledge that the center of Christianity is the Person of Christ-- that the Bible points us to Him, not the other way around.

"Sola scriptura" without that understanding is simply bibliolatry-- idolatry of the Bible. And it's dangerous.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Forgotten Women in Church History: Amanda Smith
Amanda Smith (1837-1915) was an African-American evangelist and missionary of remarkable spiritual power, affiliated with the Wesleyan Holiness movement of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Amanda Smith's entire autobiography is available online here. She was born in Maryland to slave parents, but her father was enabled by his relatively kind masters to purchase the family's freedom.  Their new home in Pennsylvania became a station on the Underground Railroad.

Amanda's first husband was a Union soldier who was killed in the Civil War.  Her second husband was a deacon through whom she converted to Christianity. Four of her five children died before reaching adulthood; only one daughter, Mazie, survived.

Smith became active in the Holiness movement and followed Phoebe Palmer's doctrine of "entire sanctification," seeking a direct religious experience of God's love and grace.  She received this experience in 1868, accompanied by a beautiful revelation:
And when they sang these words, "Whose blood now cleanseth," O what a wave of glory swept over my soul! . . . I don't know just how I looked, but I felt so wonderfully strange, yet I felt glorious. One of the good official brethren at the door said, as I was passing out, "Well, auntie, how did you like that sermon?" but I could not speak; if I had, I should have shouted, but I simply nodded my head. Just as I put my foot on the top step I seemed to feel a hand, the touch of which I cannot describe. It seemed to press me gently on the top of my head, and I felt something part and roll down and cover me like a great cloak! I felt it distinctly; it was done in a moment, and O what a mighty peace and power took possession of me! I started up Green street. . . .

Somehow I always had a fear of white people—that is, I was not afraid of them in the sense of doing me harm, or anything of that kind— but a kind of fear because they were white, and were there, and I was black and was here! But that morning on Green street, as I stood on my feet trembling, I heard these words distinctly. They seemed to come from the northeast corner of the church, slowly, but clearly: "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." (Galatians 3:28.) I never understood that text before. But now the Holy Ghost had made it clear to me. And as I looked at white people that I had always seemed to be afraid of, now they looked so small. The great mountain had become a mole-hill. "Therefore, if the Son shall make you free, then are you free, indeed."
This brief article summarizes Smith's life after this experience:
Following her second husband's death in 1869, Smith began preaching in churches and at Holiness camp meetings in New York and New Jersey, becoming a popular speaker to both black and white audiences during the 1870s. Although she was not ordained or financially supported by the AME Church or any other organization, she became the first black woman to work as an international evangelist in 1878. She served for twelve years in England, Ireland, Scotland, India, and various African countries. 
In 1892, Amanda Smith returned to the United States and settled in Chicago where she continued preaching. In 1899, Smith opened a home for black orphans, later called the Amanda Smith Industrial School for Girls in Harvey, Illinois. She wrote a monthly newspaper, the Helper, which augmented her fundraising efforts for the school, and published her autobiography in 1893. She retired to Sebring, Florida in 1912, and died in March 1915.
Bishop J. M. Thoburn of India, wrote in his introduction to Amanda Smith's autobiography about his first encounter with her:
Something like a hallowed glow seemed to rest upon the dark face before me, and I felt in a second that she was possessed of a rare degree of spiritual power.  That invisible something which we are accustomed to call power, and which is never possessed by any Christian believer except as one of the fruits of the indwelling Spirit of God, was hers in a marked degree. . . 
Her homely illustrations, her quaint expressions, her warmhearted appeals, all possess the supreme merit of being so many vehicles for conveying the living truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the hearts of those who are fortunate enough to hear her. . . 
The novelty of a colored woman from America, who had in her childhood been a slave, appearing before an audience in Calcutta, was sufficient to attract attention, but this alone would not account for the popularity which she enjoyed throughout her whole stay in our city. 
She was fiercely attacked by narrow minded persons in the daily papers, and elsewhere, but opposition only seemed to add to her power. 
During the seventeen years that I have lived in Calcutta, I have known many famous strangers to visit the city, some of whom attracted large audiences, but I have never known anyone who could draw and hold so large an audience as Mrs. Smith.
Like Jerena Lee before her, Amanda Smith felt the call to preach despite the African Methodist's church's general policy against it.  But she raised the money herself and began her preaching ministry independently, with remarkable results:
There was a large congregation. The gallery was full, and every part of the house was packed. I stood up trembling. The cold chills ran over me. My heart seemed to stand still. Oh, it was a night. But the Lord gave me great liberty in speaking. After I had talked a little while the cold chills stopped, my heart began to beat naturally and all fear was gone, and I seemed to lose sight of everybody and everything but my responsibility to God and my duty to the people. . .

[The next] Thursday night was the regular prayer meeting night. Brother Cooper said I was there, and would preach Thursday night. He was going to give me a chance to preach, and he wanted all the people to come out. . .

The church was packed and crowded. I began my talk from the chapter given, with great trembling. I had gone on but a little ways when I felt the spirit of the Lord come upon me mightily. Oh! how He helped me. My soul was free. . . [W]hen I asked for persons to come to the altar, it was filled in a little while from the gallery and all parts of the house.

A revival broke out, and spread for twenty miles around. Oh! what a time it was. It went from the colored people to the white people. Sometimes we would go into the church at seven o'clock in the evening. I could not preach. The whole lower floor would be covered with seekers— old men, young men, old women, young women, boys and girls. Oh! glory to God! How He put His seal on this first work to encourage my heart and establish my faith, that He indeed had chosen, and ordained and sent me.
Amanda went on to travel as an independent missionary for many years. The Women's Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary's article A Method for Empowering Women notes that "Smith’s preaching fueled the holiness revival begun by Palmer." Like Palmer, Amanda Smith was never formally ordained. But she believed that God Himself had ordained her-- and if "ordain" means "make someone a minister," it appears she was right.  In any event, from all appearances the Holy Spirit really didn't care what the church's policies were about women ministering to men, or black people calling for white people's repentance and conversion-- or what anyone thought of Smith's race or sex.

A 1989 Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy's article Empowered Foremothers speaks of the ministries of women like Phoebe Palmer, Jerena Lee and Amanda Smith:
The authority or command of the Holy Spirit superseded any command by mere man. The Biblical injunction of Acts 5:29 to obey God rather than man became the basis for Wesleyan/Holiness women to challenge the authority of those who attempted to prevent them from preaching. Employing this verse, Palmer explicitly challenged male ecclesiastical authority: "Where church order is at variance with divine order, it were better to obey God than man." . . .

Women asserted their autonomy as they claimed their allegiance to God rather than to men. The belief that women ultimately had to answer to God for their actions opened the way for women to challenge attempts to restrict their religious activities. A comment by the compiler of Phoebe Palmer's letters illustrates the implications of this conviction: "It is always right to obey the Holy Spirit's command, and if that is laid upon a woman to preach the Gospel, then it is right for her to do so. . . .
The Louisville Presbyterian article cited above expands on this by noting how such devotion to God can be empowering to women, particularly when personal religious experience is brought into play:
The opening for women’s leadership and the expression of women’s faith and gifts that Methodism provided arose from a theology that acknowledged the significance of personal experience as one avenue to knowledge of God’s will. By crediting experience, discernment, and a perception of the movement of the Holy Spirit in immediate circumstances, it became possible to weigh this evidence in balance with isolated texts of Scripture that seemed to prohibit women’s preaching or authoritative participation in church life, to come to new conclusions, and to challenge scholastic objections. These women’s practice then further generated persuasive experience of women’s callings in their listeners.
The fact is that the Bible has far more to say to women than the words in a few apparently restrictive texts.  The Bible reflects the callings of many women in texts like Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 1:11 and Philippians 4:2.  The Bible also points beyond itself to the personal empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all Christ's followers, as demonstrated by the pouring out of the Spirit "on all flesh," male and female alike, in Acts 2.

In Acts 15 the earliest church council yielded to the Holy Spirit's power released on Cornelius's household in Acts 10, as superseding the apparently clear Bible texts requiring circumcision for Gentile converts.  The Spirit's power on Amanda Smith to preach and lead evangelistic church services despite her sex, was apparently just as incontrovertible to most of those who witnessed it in her day.

Smith's final project on returning home from her missionary work, was to establish in 1899 the first orphanage for black children in Illinois, according to this excerpt from Illinois Heritage Magazine 1998:
When Amanda Smith decided to establish the orphanage after finishing her book, it is obvious that she had seen and known the effects of discrimination and was willing to discuss and deal with issues of what we would now call racist practices. Because of her multiple involvements in church and temperance organizations, she was no doubt well aware of both the growing discrimination and segregation in urban areas and also the needs of black children. . . It seemed clear in the face of continuing and growing discrimination that, not only in the South, but throughout the country, the mutual aid tradition within African American communities was necessary in caring for the elderly, the disabled and others in need, including orphans.
 Perhaps in this way Smith was comforted for the four babies she had birthed and lost before they could grow up.  But one thing is clear: she lived the faith she preached, caring for "the least of these" long after her preaching ministry was over.

Amanda Smith's life and ministry is not widely taught in Christian churches today.  Outside the Methodist tradition, I doubt that many Christians have even heard of her.   But her voice speaks to us from 121 years ago, reminding us that religious restrictions on the ministry of women have never been uniformly enforced in Christianity as a whole:
There were then [when she first felt God's call] but few of our ministers that were favorable to women's preaching or taking any part, I mean in a public way; but, thank God, there always were a few men that dared to stand by woman's liberty in this, if God called her. . . but it is different now. We have women deaconesses, and leaders, and women in all departments of church work. May God in mercy save us from the formalism of the day, and bring us back to the old time spirituality and power of the fathers and mothers. I often feel as I look over the past and compare it with the present, to say: "Lord, save, or we perish."
 When it comes to women in ministry, it seems to me that the movement of the Holy Spirit towards freedom and empowerment struggles constantly with traditional forces of restriction and control.  But in the end the Holy Spirit cannot be denied.  So I'll add my voice to Amanda Smith's from 1893, pleading for spirituality and power over formalism and restrictive rules:

"Lord, save, or we perish."

And in the end, save us He will.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Seeking the God Beyond God

Blogger PerfectNumber recently wrote a post called Could He Really Accept Me As I Am? I Mean, REALLY ACCEPT.  Using a hypothetical "other" voice, she speaks as if she were calling herself back to a kind of understanding of Jesus, God and Christianity that she can no longer accept: 
Perfect Number, he accepts you as you are, and he will guide you and give you time and help you to change into a "good Christian." 
He'll take you back to the way you were before, forgiving all this straying, all this questioning and the blasphemous things I've said on my blog. 
Yes, he accepts you as you are, even though you don't believe in purity, and you don't oppose gay rights, and you *gasp* have even been deceived into thinking abortion might sometimes be okay. 
It's okay, Perfect Number. Come back to Jesus. 
And I fear that's the deal. And that's why I don't want to come back to [that version of] Jesus.  I won't give him everything. I don't surrender. Obedience to God is not the highest thing in my life. 
You guys, I want love to be the highest thing.
And life. And freedom. 
And no matter what Jesus says, I won't go along with anything that is, as far as I can tell, incompatible with love and life and freedom. [Emphases in original.]
And then there's the story Vyckie Garrison of No Longer Quivering once told.  This was on an old message board that is now defunct, so I can't share the link, but in the "Quiverfull" movement, women are often burdened with the requirement to eschew all birth control regardless of whether their own health, or even their lives, are in danger.  Vyckie tells the story of a husband who loved his wife enough to refuse to go along with this:
"I had a friend who was bedridden with every pregnancy and each time it was worse ~ not life-threatening, but just really miserable. After the 6th, her husband asserted his "authority" over her ~ and had a vasectomy. He refused to put his wife through that any more.

I remember feeling so jealous ~ I couldn't imagine having a such a decisive husband who was willing to take the responsibility to say, "No more" himself ~ and I was really impressed when he told me, "It may not be the right thing scripturally ~ but if God has a problem with it, He can take it up with me. I will not do that to my wife again." Wow ~ a god-fearing man willing to take on the Lord in defense of his wife. That's love like I have rarely seen."
While I disagree in general with husbands "asserting authority" over their wives, in this case I can't help but see the husband as doing the most loving thing he could in a no-win situation. But I have to ask: what kind of a god is this, that an ordinary human man can so easily outdo him in love and compassion? A deity who would insist on "the right thing scripturally" to the real harm of its followers-- who cares more about rigid rules than about people?

Jesus said in Luke 10:27 that the whole law is encapsulated in this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . and your neighbor as yourself."  And then when asked "who is my neighbor?" He told the story of the Good Samaritan, the hated outcast who treated a member of the story-hearers' own people with care and compassion.  So the question is, if our enemy is our neighbor, how can our spouse not be our neighbor?  Surely despite whatever this Quiverfull couple's church said, the husband could not have been disobeying God if he loved his wife as himself?

And if "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and if "the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32), then how could Perfect Number be going against Jesus if she's prioritizing love and life and freedom?*  And why should obedience to God be the highest thing in her life if it's not obedience to love?  If we're not obeying love, are we obeying God at all?

The way I see it, if we find we want to be, and can be, morally better than our conception of God, then what we're following isn't God. According to St. Anselm, God is "That than which nothing higher can be conceived." If we can easily conceive of a better, a morally higher God, then our god is too small-- it's only a caricature of God. The better, higher version is closer to the God we're really searching for, the One we should be seeking.

James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix defines the common phrase "God Beyond God":
This is the very ancient idea that, beyond any sort of anthropomorphic deity that we may think of and tell stories about, there must be an even greater reality that transcends our ability to comprehend and describe.
The Christian idea of God has always been an idea of transcendence, of an Entity beyond human conception, but which makes Itself known to humanity using ideas we can understand.
There are a number of places in the Bible where, despite the fact that the writers' human understanding of God was limited (as ours is too), the idea of a "God beyond God" shines through.
  • God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM"; and He said, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Exodus 3:14. 
  • For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9. 
  • He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. . . . 1 Timothy 6:15-16. 
  • The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things. . . . Acts 17:24-25.
If we mistake God's accommodation of God's Self to our limited understanding, for the real God, then we are re-making God in our own image and ascribing to God our own limitations.  We make God into what Joe Hinman on his blog The Religious A Priori calls "just a big guy in the sky."

The result is that we can then end up with a god which is little more than a big stick used to enforce religious control.  Rules get prioritized over people, and obedience to those rules gets mistaken for devotion.  And then when someone protests and tries to seek a more transcendent idea of God, their very seeking is construed as rebellion and disobedience!

To this, some might respond that what looks like love to us sinful humans isn't really love, or that God is holy just as much as God is love, so have to mix our love with hatred of sin.  To this I would reply that love is holy-- because sin is that which hurts ourselves or others, and love will always oppose people hurting themselves or other people.  And anyway, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 shows what love is:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
To bring the familiar words into clearer focus, let's paraphrase the verses using opposites:
Love is never impatient; love is never cruel.  Love is pleased when others do well, love draws attention to the accomplishments of others, love is humble.  Love honors others and seeks their good.  Love stays calm and supportive; love is only angered by the giving of real harm.  Love keeps memories of the joys and triumphs of others.  Love never abandons, never becomes judgmental, never sees the worst in people, and doesn't view loved ones with disappointment or cynicism.  Love never gives up on you.  Love goes on and on. 
Anything counter to this kind of love is not holiness.  And any version of God that is impatient, cruel or any of these other things isn't holy either.

So I say if we're going to seek God, let's keep seeking the God beyond God.  No matter what anyone else says.

*Note:  I know that taking snippets of verses like this can look like proof-texting, which means lifting pieces of scripture out of context to make it say whatever you want.  But I believe that the snippets I'm quoting do bring across the meaning I am intending to convey here, when they are taken in context.