Sunday, April 22, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 1)

"The Ten Commandments" are among the most well-known passages of the Old Testament. Even those who do not attend church have at least a vague idea of what they contain. However, the most familiar passages are often encrusted with the thickest layers of distortion because of their long interpretive history. This is certainly the case with the Ten Commandments. How many of these myths have you believed?

Myth #1. The Ten Commandments embody a timeless, universal ethic. People often assume that because the Ten Commandments were written in stone, they apply to everyone throughout history, unlike the myriad of other specific laws in the Torah, which were intended for ancient Israel. But this line of thinking doesn't work. The Ten Commandments are prefaced with a clear statement of their specific audience: "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves" (Exodus 20:2). The commands contain language very specific to that ancient culture ("Do not covet your neighbor's ox"). And they are never communicated to Israel's neighbors. When the prophets pronounce judgment on Israel's neighbors, they are not measured against the Ten Commandments. Instead, they are measured against a standard of basic human decency. Are they arrogant jerks? Have they taken advantage of other nations' misfortune or been unduly violent? None of these assessments clearly arises from the Ten Commandments. To me the most striking example of the specific audience of the Ten Commandments is the "Name Command" (Exodus 20:7). See Myth #10, in part 2 of this series.

Myth #2. The Ten Commandments were Israel's way of earning salvation. No, no, no! I have often heard this mis-characterization of Old Testament law: "The Israelites had to earn their salvation, but we have grace because of Jesus." This could not be farther from the truth. God did not send Moses to Egypt to tell the people, "Hey, I can get you all out of here, I just need you to sign on the dotted line saying that you agree to keep all these commandments." No, the commandments were given after they were already rescued, showing them how to live in freedom. They are the conditions of ongoing freedom. "Do you want to remain free? Here's a recipe for success." They are also a gracious gift from a God who makes himself accessible and calls Israel his "treasured possession" (Exodus 19:5-6). The Israelites did not have a different means of salvation in the Old Testament. Reconciliation with God has always been available to those who respond to his grace by trusting his promise and accepting his means of forgiveness for sin. 

Myth #3. The Ten Commandments are a summary of Israel's laws. It would be more accurate to say that they are the seed or source of Israel's laws. Other instructions flesh out specific ways of living faithfully to what God commands, but they also contain other domains of instruction that do not relate directly to any of the Ten Commandments, such as agricultural laws, injunctions to care for widows and orphans, or instructions for Israel's future king.

Two Stone Tablets (Photo: C Imes)
Myth #4. The Ten Commandments are divided into two groups: laws that pertain to God and laws that pertain to others. This unfortunate misunderstanding goes back many centuries and is deeply entrenched. To cite just one example, the Heidelberg Catechism states:
Q. How are these commandments divided? 
A. Into two tables. The first has four commandments, teaching us how we ought to live in relation to God. The second has six commandments, teaching us what we owe our neighbor. (Q&A 93)
But this approach betrays an inadequate view of how covenants work. These "Ten Words" are the stipulations of the covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai (see Myth #5). In the covenant community, all of life is an expression of worship and loyalty to the God who has committed himself to these people. After David sins by lusting after his neighbor's wife, committing adultery with her, and then murdering her husband, he responds to the prophet Nathan's confrontation by saying, "I have sinned against the LORD." Later he prays to the LORD, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight" (Psalm 51:4a). Conversely, if just one Israelite rebels against the LORD, it puts the entire community at risk of God's judgment. An obvious example is Achan, who kept some of the plunder of Jericho in spite of God's clear instruction not to do so, resulting in Israel's defeat at Ai (Joshua 7). All ten of these commandments reflect a proper disposition toward God, and all ten affect the entire covenant community. By keeping them, the Israelites not only honored God, but also ensured that the community of faith could flourish. 

Detail of Painting by Javi G
(Photo: C Imes)
Myth #5. The Ten Commandments did not all fit on one stone tablet. This may be the most popular misconception of all. The vast majority of artistic representations of Moses and the two tablets presume that he's holding "volume 1" and "volume 2." However, we know from the biblical text that the commands were written on both sides of the tablets: 

         “And Moses turned and he went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the [covenant] document (עֵדוּת) [were] in his hand, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on front and back.” (Exodus 32:15)
The words could easily fit on two sides of a single stone tablet, even if that tablet was not much larger than Moses' hand. So why make two? For the answer we must turn to other ancient Near Eastern treaty documents. What we find is that it was standard practice to make duplicate copies of a treaty document, etched in stone. One copy belonged to each party. Each copy was customarily placed in that community's most important temple, so that their respective gods could see the terms of the treaty and watch to ensure that they remained faithful. Here's a Hittite example from a treaty between Suppiluliuma and Shattiwaza:

“A duplicate of this tablet has been deposited before the sun-goddess of Arinna, because the sun-goddess of Arinna regulates kingship and queenship. In Mitanni land [a duplicate] has been deposited before Teshub, the lord of the [sanctuary] of Kahat. At regular [intervals] shall they read it in the presence of the king of the Mitanni land and in the presence of the sons of the Hurri country.” (Kitchen and Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant in the Ancient Near East, No. 56A)
In the case of Yahweh's covenant with Israel, there was only one temple (or tabernacle), and therefore Yahweh was the only deity who could ensure Israel's covenant faithfulness. Because there is no higher power who can hold Yahweh accountable, he ensured his own faithfulness as well.




I'll address 5 more myths about the Ten Commandments in my next post. In the meantime, if you're looking for a more in-depth discussion of these matters, you can read more in chapter 4 of my book, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue (Eisenbrauns, 2018). 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

David's Epic Fail

Prairie Chapel (Photo: Crystal Gillespie)
It's a story we've all heard before: David's notorious rendezvous with Bathsheba. But how well do we actually understand the dynamics of the narrative?

I was asked to preach on 2 Samuel 11-12 in chapel at Prairie College, and I soon found that my questions far outnumbered the answers.

  • Why is David not with his men in battle?
  • Why is he getting up in the evening?
  • Why can David see Bathsheba bathing?
  • Does Bathsheba want to be seen bathing?
  • Is it normal to bathe outside?
  • Is there indoor plumbing in Jerusalem during David's reign?
  • Is Bathsheba bathing at home or in a public pool?
  • How is a ritual bath different than a regular one?
  • Is her bath 7 days after the beginning of her period? or 7 days after it ended? (This determines whether she could have conceived during a one-night stand. See Leviticus 15:19 and 18:19)
  • How could David not know Bathsheba? She's married to one of his 30 mighty men, and the daughter of another mighty man.
  • How does she feel when David summons her?
  • Is David's primary motivation sexual or political?
  • When she sends words to David that she is pregnant, what does she hope David will do?
  • Does Uriah know what has taken place?
  • Is David trying to cover his guilt? or save face?
  • Why does David send Uriah a gift? Is this his way of buying Uriah's silence?
  • Is David trying to catch Uriah in a ritual infraction? Normally, David's men are prohibited from sexual intimacy during a military campaign (1 Sam 21:4-5; Deut 23:9-11).
  • Does David think that Uriah knows his wife his pregnant? or that he doesn't know?
  • Does Uriah guess the contents of the letter he brings to Joab?
However we answer these questions, what becomes crystal clear is that David thinks he has all the power. He is like a master chess player, shrewdly planning his moves so that his opponents are left with no way out. And who is his opponent? A member of his own team. It reminds me of another king of Israel who spent all his royal energy chasing a successful commander from his own army all through the wilderness. Doesn’t it? What has happened to David that he should become so much like Saul? Perhaps he feels Uriah is a threat. We’re not told. At the very least, Uriah stands in the way of what David wants. And David has come to believe that because he has power, he can have whatever he wants, when he wants it. Is David feeling like ‘less of a man’ because he’s not on the front lines fighting? Does this conquest of his neighbor’s wife and life restore his sense of power? If so, it shows us how twisted David’s thinking has become.

Let’s be clear: This is not about David’s sexual needs. He has 7 wives and multiple concubines by this point in the story. If he was “in the mood,” he had plenty of honorable options. David is living in a dream world of his own making, a world where he’s above the law and can have whatever he wants. To make matters worse, his men are on the front lines, far from the comforts of home and wife, fighting his battles. 

The hinge of the narrative is when God takes a page from David's playbook by sending Nathan to him. Nathan is shrewd enough to know that he must awaken David’s conscience before his rebuke will hit home. How does he awaken a king whose conscience has been lulled into delusional thinking? He tells a story. It works. In response, David unwittingly pronounces his own sentence. And Nathan goes for the jugular: “YOU are the man.”

David has a lot to say in the Psalms about those who accuse him falsely. But this time the accusation is painfully true. David has failed abysmally. David knows he is in the wrong. This is where his story becomes an example for us to follow. His response is just two words in Hebrew, “I have sinned against YHWH.” He offers no defense. No equivocation. He’s been caught in the act.

I can imagine the responses he might have given: But she shouldn’t have been naked where I could see her! But Uriah should have gone home to his wife and I wouldn’t have had to have him killed! But the Ammonites killed him, not me! David offers none of these excuses. He simply takes responsibility.

With every failure we stand at a crossroads. We can hedge and whine and deflect and give excuses, shifting the blame, or we can take responsibility, repent, and become reconciled to God.

David’s more lengthy confession is found in Psalm 51. This psalm is his cry for mercy. With no small irony, David asks God to bathe him: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” 

May each of us have the courage to face our failures, own our sin, and receive God's mercy.

You can listen to my entire message here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Four)

It's a small thing, writing these blog posts on racial injustice. It's no replacement for action, but action starts with awareness, and to that end I write. May these words nudge us toward greater awareness, and may our hands and feet follow.

-----

During this Holy Week, we reflect on the Cross, reminded of Jesus' suffering at the hands of an angry mob whose fervor was fueled by rumors and half-truths whispered in dark alleyways by those who clung with white knuckles to power they neither deserved nor used for the benefit of others. Jesus played scapegoat to their fear. He was made to pay for crimes he did not commit so others could walk free.

Photo: C Imes
James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree invites us to consider the dark side of America's not-so-distant past in light of the crossJesus' innocent death on the cross, with its trumped-up charges and false witnesses, is echoed again in America's shadowy history, where a sideways glance could get a man (or boy!) tortured and hanged without a fair trial -- if he was black. Cone's book holds the potential of awakening us to what we have missed.

In some yesterdays, lynching happened under the cover of darkness, with murderous faces obscured by white hoods. Community leaders by day -- elected officials, doctors, judges, businessmen, pastors even -- and the ghosts of white supremacy by night.

But in other yesterdays, lynching became a spectator sport, highly publicized and attended by young and old alike, who jeered as victims were openly burned, beaten, and hung, "crucified" outside of court without a trial. Gawkers brought picnic lunches. Wore their Sunday best. Bought postcards to send to those who missed the big event. Some lynchings drew massive crowds.
Julius Bloch, "The Lynching," 1933

The Emancipation Proclamation was a start, but it did not abolish the narratives that allowed slavery to flourish. Like water running downhill, when blocked, those narratives simply changed course, finding new and insidious ways to channel white fear and subjugate black Americans. Blacks could no longer be owned, but they were still not considered fully human. Blacks were beaten down in a thousand other ways. Curfews. Segregation. Discrimination. Abuse with impunity. They were denied services. They were prevented access to education, health care, the right to vote or hold office, the right to buy or rent housing. They were lynched.

Lynching outlasted slavery, gathering speed as it flowed downhill.
Lynching outlasted legalized segregation (though de facto segregation persists today).

Generations of Americans, especially in the South, viewed lynching as "an efficient and honorable act of justice" (5). Even children were tortured beyond recognition and lynched (65).

The Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930
Notice the crowds of men and women spectators.
Just as the end of slavery was not the end of racial injustice, so the decline of lynchings did not result in equality. Cone writes that in the early 1950s (my parents' lifetime!), "spectacle lynching was on the decline," but racial discrimination was merely brought indoors under the guise of the law, replacing white mobs with all-white juries, judges, and lawyers who "used the criminal justice system to intimidate, terrorize, and murder blacks" (49). We could expand this list to include law enforcement. Sundown towns persisted in some areas until the mid 70s.* Since then, our legal system has worn deep ruts in the business of sending young black men to jail. At the writing of this book, "one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court" (163). One third.

The war or drugs continues to apprehend, convict, and incarcerate black men at a far higher rate than white men, although the use and sale of drugs is about equal among whites. And the uneven application of the death penalty illustrates that we have a long way to go to ensure that our justice system is truly just. Consider these statistics, cited by the Death Penalty Information Center:
• Jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. (Prof. K. Beckett, Univ. of Washington, 2014).
• In Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. (Pierce & Radelet, Louisiana Law Review, 2011). 
• A study in California found that those convicted of killing whites were more than 3 times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than 4 times more likely as those convicted of killing Latinos. (Pierce & Radelet, Santa Clara Law Review, 2005). 
• A comprehensive study of the death penalty in North Carolina found that the odds of receiving a death sentence rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white. (Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah, University of North Carolina, 2001).
These are hard facts to swallow, especially when you look at the dates of these studies. We're no longer talking about the decades before we were born. We're talking about now. Bryan Stevenson offers a plethora of other recent examples in his book Just Mercy, which I'll unpack in my next post in this series. The focus of this post is to highlight Cone's work connecting the cross and the lynching tree, and to suggest that the narratives of white superiority under which slavery and then lynching became part of our American past have not yet been fully replaced. They have simply found other means of expression.

------

*Have you ever heard of a "sundown town"? The concept dates back to the early days after the Civil War. These are towns in which a black person was risking his life if he was caught there after dark. According to Cone, "whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness. Unemployed blacks passing through an area with no white man to vouch for them could easily find themselves on a prison chain gang or swinging from a lynching tree" (12). However, sundown towns were not just a feature of the deep South. DuPage County, IL, home of Wheaton and Downers Grove, is likely to have been a sundown county. Oregon City, Oregon, was a sundown town. In 1926, the only black resident of Oregon City, a business owner, was threatened with lynching and run out of town. In 1980, none of Oregon City's 14,000+ residents was black. By 2000, only 150 blacks lived in Oregon City, though the population had swelled to over 25,000. In Grants Pass and Medford, Oregon, "sundown" signs were not removed until the late 60s or early 70s, in spite of the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

This is par for the course in Oregon, a state which outlawed slavery in 1844, but also banned African Americans residents altogether. The laws excluding blacks were not repealed until 1927. Laws against interracial marriage were not repealed until 1951.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Naming My Champions

Another tribute -- this one to the many men who have shared the platform with me over the years.

Meet Our Champions: August Konkel, Dan Block, and Rick Hess
with Jen Jones and me at the IBR Emerging Scholars Session
in Boston, November 2017
As a society, we’re at an important crossroads where women and men who have been victimized are speaking out against the abuse of power. I commend their courage. I am grateful for their message. With each one, I cry out for the end of abuse, assault, and harassment. But the danger with momentum like this is that we begin to wonder if any man in power can be trusted, if any are “on our team.” In the wake of these gut-wrenching stories, I cannot help but feel profound gratitude for the influential men who have treated me with dignity, shared their platform, given me leadership opportunities, and mentored me well. So while in France, women are “naming their pig,” I thought I’d name a few of my champions — those who have spurred me on and opened doors of opportunity.

My high school pastor was the first. In 1993 I returned from a summer youth mission trip to Panama all fired up. But re-entry was difficult. I had glimpsed something worth dying for and I didn’t want to return to life-as-normal. At the time our family was attending a cozy Foursquare church in Denver, Colorado. Pastor Jim Hammond had the wisdom to harness my fervor by putting me to work in an official capacity. At 16 years of age, I’m sure I was the youngest volunteer “missions coordinator” our church had ever seen. I began presenting monthly missions updates during the Sunday morning service, telling about needs and opportunities around the world. Pastor Jim generously shared his microphone and his platform with a young woman who had no credentials and very little life experience. I don’t know if my words-from-up-front inspired anyone else, but they galvanized me for a life of service, helping me bridge the gap from my mountaintop experience overseas to life back home.

After my high school graduation, the congregation sent me off to Bible college with their enthusiastic blessing. My freshman year was everything I hoped it would be and more. I grew spiritually and academically. Critical for my development was a course taught by Professor Ray Lubeck, “Understanding Worldviews.” I came home that summer bursting to share what I had learned. Our generous pastor again shared his platform, this time by inviting me to teach an adult Sunday school class on worldviews. Then my pastor did something that still stuns me: he required all the church elders to attend. And he and his wife came, too. 


With Dan Block after I successfully defended my
doctoral dissertation in April 2016 
You can read the rest of my story over at The Well. My champions have been too many to name in one article. I'm so grateful for all who have shared the platform with me.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My Tribute: Snapshots of Billy Graham

At Billy Graham's funeral yesterday, his daughter Ruth said this: "One thing I've learned this week is that everyone has a Billy Graham story."

I am no exception. Mine is a series of snapshots that double as a memoir.

Billy Graham at Mile High Stadium
(Photo: AP/Aaron E. Tomlinson)
5th grade. Mile High Stadium, Denver, 1987. I sat beside my Dad in the choir section and listened to Graham preach to thousands. I remember that I wanted to go forward in response to the altar call and Dad wouldn't let me. It's true, I had already been a Christian for more than a handful of years, and I had prayed the sinner's prayer with regularity. Dad said the altar call was for those who were responding for the first time. I remember thinking that by responding, we'd be letting the world know that this Jesus was worth following publicly, that this Jesus made it worth getting lost in a stadium. I wanted those going forward to know it was a decision worth making, and that they were not alone.

High school. Babysitting. I was totally absorbed in a televised crusade. In the corner of the screen was a woman interpreting Graham's message into sign language. By this point I knew some sign language, and I was trying to follow along. Trying, that is, until the little boy I was supposed to be watching said, "Carmen, look!" While I was absorbed in the crusade he had become a pirate, complete with a permanent-black-marker patch colored in around his eye. I gasped, but soon learned that permanent marker can be scrubbed off skin if you do it right away. After that I focused on what I was being paid to do.

College. Dating. I will never forget my shock when my boyfriend (not Danny) said, "Who's Billy Graham?" Was it possible to come into adulthood in the 90's without knowing him? It was, apparently, though I couldn't imagine how.

Billy Graham Library, 2008
Missions Training. We flew into Charlotte, NC from Portland, OR, stunned to see Bible verses adorning the concourses. Stunned again to see that the main street leaving the airport was Billy Graham Parkway. Welcome to the Bible Belt! Later, after 2 1/2 years of ministry in the Philippines with SIM, we were transferred to Charlotte. It felt odd to be missionaries in a city with a street named Billy Graham. In 2007, the Billy Graham Library opened, a museum where one could experience his years of ministry and hear the gospel message. If you watched Graham's funeral, you saw its iconic barn in the background. We visited several times, but I most remember going with my grandparents, because after the tour we scoured the archives to find evidence that Graham had preached in the Netherlands when my Oma was a young woman, just after WW2. We found no record, but she remembers.

Seminary. Gordon-Conwell. Billy Graham co-founded my school -- the same Graham who said if he had it all to do over again, he'd study more. He spoke so frequently that there was little time for learning. I wonder which impact will prove greater in the long run -- the millions who "met Jesus" after hearing his simple gospel message or the thousands who have been and are still being deeply trained for pastoral and academic ministries in the seminary he started? Deep and wide, deep and wide, there's a fountain flowing deep and wide . . .

Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College (Photo: C Imes)
Graduate School. Wheaton College. My classes were held in the Billy Graham Center, just a few floors above the Billy Graham Museum. I defended my dissertation on the fourth floor. Graham and I are both alumni of this flagship of evangelicalism. He once said, "The years that Ruth and I spent at Wheaton College were among the most important of our lives." Mine, too.

Publishing. The magazine I find most consistently thoughtful and substantive for a general audience is Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Billy Graham. Within hours of his death, a special commemorative issue went to press. While his preaching was simple, the magazine is not. Deep and wide . . .

Prairie College. Our school President and his wife were invited to attend the funeral yesterday. My colleague, Ron Nickel, Professor of Digital Media, was head photographer for the event, which was also live-streamed on our campus. Graham's influence reaches even to our little school on the Alberta prairies. We are linked by a common purpose: the ministry of the gospel.

Graham's passing prompts all of us to look back and remember. What is your Billy Graham story? It also prompts us to consider how we can carry on his legacy. Yesterday his daughter Ann Graham Lotz so eloquently pledged to devote herself to the work of sharing the good news of Jesus.

Billy Graham Center at Night (Photo: C Imes)
Graham is most known for his preaching to millions. He took the simple gospel message far and wide. But these snapshots point to another dimension of his ministry: the founding of institutions that will have a lasting impact by going deep. I carry on his legacy by teaching Bible classes in a Christian college, training others to serve wherever the need is greatest, and by investing in the institutional health of my school. I carry on his legacy when I have occasion to preach. I carry on his legacy by writing for Christian publishers. I carry on his legacy by investing financially in mission work. By teaching, speaking, writing, and giving, I hope to carry on what Graham started: a ministry of the gospel that is both deep and wide.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Three)

Is racial injustice really a problem today? Or has the problem been exaggerated?

In my first two posts, I introduced the series and told of my chance meeting with John M. Perkins. A few examples from his book, Let Justice Roll Down, might help to set the stage for understanding racial tensions today.

Mississippi Department of Education
Statistics from the year preceding
Brown vs. Board of Education
-Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down, 86 
In my parents' lifetime, the "separate but equal" school system in Mississippi just prior to the famous Brown vs. Board of Education distributed funds in a way predicated on racial discrimination. Someone somewhere determined that black students "required" less money to educate, so black schools were allocated less than white schools in the same district. Although roughly half of the students in Mississippi were black, only a fifth of the transportation money was spent on getting them to school. Their teachers' salaries were only about 75% of what white teachers made. And almost three times more money was spent on instruction in white schools. (Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down, 86-87).

This is not our distant past. These statistics mean that a black man my Dad's age grew up using inferior textbooks, learning from teachers who were not fairly compensated, and likely walking long distances to school. He grew up hearing the strong message that he was not as valuable, not worth the investment, that he need not have any aspirations beyond manual labor. As a nation we failed these boys and girls and their parents, teachers, and communities. The men and women alive today who were educated in the 50s are still living with the repercussions of their most formative years. They have not forgotten. But have we?

John Perkins himself was unjustly imprisoned in 1969 for trying to help diffuse a tense public situation and again in 1970 for peacefully demonstrating in Mendenhall, Mississippi. He and his friends were beaten bloody and tortured by drunk police officers before being released, though they had done nothing wrong. He explains,
"After I was beaten by white policemen, I began to see things a little more clearly. I was able to see the needs of white people and what racism was doing to them. You see, I had gotten set to the fact that the sickness of racism had affected the black community in a way that kept them from functioning as a healthy community. A lot of our people were sick -- affected by generations of slavery, oppression and exploitation -- psychologically destroyed. But I had never thought much before about how all that had affected whites -- how they had been affected by racism, by attitudes of racial superiority, by unjust lifestyles and behavior." (166)
Most troubling of all was the effect racism had on white churches. Visiting a white church as a black man could get you thrown out by the police. Perkins laments:
"The most systematic haters are ministers and Sunday school teachers. In fact, most of the outstanding killings and murderings of blacks in the South have had white ministers involved in them. This was true even of the killing and secret burying of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964." (164) 
Not all white ministers were racists. Indeed, those who spoke out against racial injustice were themselves mistreated. Rev. James Spencer, a white Presbyterian minister, helped with initial efforts to start Bible classes in Perkins' community, but quit under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan (93-94).

Another white pastor, Dr. Odenwald, slowly started preaching about God's love for everyone, gently questioning whether the attitudes of the white community toward blacks was consistent with biblical teaching. His messages met with great resistance from his congregation. Under the strain, Dr. Odenwald ended his own life (96-97).

Such a legacy of injustice does not evaporate overnight. If we want to understand the tensions in our world today, it helps to know the history.

My aim in this series is modest. I'm writing to people like myself who have grown up in mostly white neighborhoods and who can't readily produce first-hand examples of racial injustice. Reading a few books and citing a few examples will not solve the world's problems. But it will help us to take a longer view on race relations, to become more aware of how the same community can be experienced in such vastly disparate ways. I hope we'll get a sense of what it's like living in someone else's skin. I hope we'll be bothered by these stories, and more aware of ways that "the system" benefits us at the expense of others. Most of all, I hope that blog posts like this one will foster our Christian commitment to living out the gospel in practical ways.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

What John Piper Said . . .

. . . has sent shockwaves through the blogosphere, the twittersphere, and every other sphere. My Facebook feed has been punctuated by alarm, by groaning, by reasoned responses, and by all-out debate. Did you miss it? You can listen here.

But I am not surprised.

John Piper has been saying it long and loud in a myriad of ways. In his universe, where Christianity is essentially masculine and God has appointed only men to leadership both inside and outside the church, and has appointed women to the joyful task of following, it is only logical that women should not be seminary professors. He clarifies,
"Just to be clear, the issue is not whether women should attend seminary in one of its programs and get the best biblical grounding possible. The issue is whether women should be models, mentors, and teachers for those preparing for a role that is biblically designed for spiritual men." 
In other words, women can attend seminary, but since seminaries are designed for training men for pastoral ministry, all the professors should be men. He goes on to say,
"If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded? I don’t think that works."
I appreciate Piper's logical consistency. But is he right? All three of his premises deserve comment.

1. Is Christianity Essentially Masculine?

I can't get away from passages that compare Yahweh to a nursing mother (Isa 45:19) or say that God has given birth (Deut 32:18). Notice how fluidly the prophet moves between masculine and feminine imagery for God in Isaiah 42:13-14. Even Jesus compares himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks (Matt 23:27). These are metaphors, of course, so they don't make God female any more than speaking of him using masculine pronouns makes him male. But even Paul is not above using feminine metaphors for his own ministry! See 1 Thess 2:7. Why, then, must Piper privilege masculine modes of talking about the spiritual life? Are the passages that use feminine imagery for the life of faith somehow less accurate? I think not.

2. Is It Unbiblical to Have Women Pastors?

I used to think so. Thanks to male college and seminary professors who patiently showed me the biblical and theological case for women in pastoral ministry, I changed my mind. I feel no need to reproduce here the excellent arguments for why women can teach and preach in the church and can exercise their pastoral and leadership gifts. A good starting place is Alice Mathews' new book, Gender Roles and the People of God. She deals with all the key passages well. You might also appreciate the autobiographical approach of How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership. For those of you who are getting nervous, consider this: To conclude that women can teach and preach does not necessitate the abandonment of conservative exegesis. I teach at a 95-year-old Canadian institution that has been unabashedly conservative since it's founding, but which has also had women teaching Bible to men since 1923.

3. Should Women Be Seminary Professors?

This question follows closely on the heels of the previous one. If women may serve in church leadership, or at least as teachers, then my answer is yes. Michael Bird has made a good case for why women in seminary need women professors, as role models, as advocates, as encouragers. He has listened well to the women in his circles, and I am grateful. But he left something crucial unsaid:

Men need women as seminary professors, too.

Women are not the only students who benefit from having female professors (in seminary or at any level). Male students benefit. Male colleagues benefit. I believe it is critically important for men to hear a women's perspective in the classroom. Having an intelligent woman at the podium calls into question the ill-formed assumptions of students -- both male and female -- who might have thought that anything and everything worth knowing about comes from men. Young male pastors who meet brilliant and articulate women in seminary will be far less likely to overlook them in their churches. They will be far more likely to encourage young women to cultivate their gifts of leadership and invest in education.

Several years ago I watched a powerful documentary that argued this thesis: if we want to break the cycle of poverty, the key is to educate women. In developing nations all over the world, the education of women is a game changer. Educated women make sure their own children -- both sons and daughters -- know how to read. Sons of educated mothers don't fall prey to the lie that women are only useful in the kitchen or in the bedroom. The same is true in seminary.

It seems to me that having female professors goes a long way toward breaking a cycle of gender disparity in church leadership. Not only does it model for female students that female leadership is possible (which in itself is critically important), but it models this for men as well.