How “the days are evil” is a lousy excuse

The other day, Joel J. Miller offered some helpful insight into what he calls the “most highlighted verse” in the Bible, Philippians 4:6.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

The problem, he observed, is that highlighting and reading this verse in isolation yields a rather different meaning than the one Paul intended. Arbitrarily placed verse divisions, none of which were original to Paul or the other biblical authors, have conditioned us to ignore the surrounding context. In this case, the immediately preceding statement: “The Lord is near.”

Which, it turns out, was Paul’s whole reason for not being anxious in the first place.

Severed from its original context, Philippians 4:6 sounds more like a self-help guide to stress management than what it truly is: an affirmation that God is presently at work doing away with all cause for anxiety.

But this isn’t the only example of how reading one verse at a time can cause us to hear something different from what Scripture is really trying to say.

—//—

We do not experience God in ways that take us out of this world, but we experience him in ways that root us even more deeply in this world.

I came across this quote the other day while reading The Compassion Quest, a great new book by a friend named Trystan Owain Hughes.

This idea, that our relationship with God is rooted in this world, flies in the face of how some of us — especially those of us who grew up in the evangelical subculture — are accustomed to thinking.

This world is not for experiencing God. This world is for “just passing through” on the way to God. This world is overdue for judgment, burning, destruction.

We don’t wait for God to meet us here. We wait for him to evacuate us from here.

Right?

After all, “the days are evil.” Just like Paul said in Ephesians 5:16.

I hear this verse (half a verse, actually) quoted a lot. Often with an air of resignation. As a rationale for why the world doesn’t turn the way some Christians wish it did, for why it doesn’t always cater to their expectations.

The days are evil.

So what’s the point in bothering with this world?

None, right?

As it happens, that’s the precise opposite of what Paul argues in the passage we now know as Ephesians 5. Here’s the fuller quote:

Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

“Making the most of every opportunity” can also be translated as “redeeming the time.”

Redeem. As in, buy back. Reclaim. Make good again.

Time. As in, this present age. Otherwise known as “the days.” Yes… the same days that are “evil.”

The days are evil is not an excuse for resignation, abandonment, or escapism. It’s not an invitation to retreat into some religious bubble… or to check out, sit back, and wait for the apocalypse to commence. It’s an invitation to engage, connect, restore, rebuild. The days are evil is why Paul admonished his readers to make themselves useful.

“Sure, the days are evil. So do something about it. Redeem them. Make them good again.”

—//—

Near the end of Genesis, there’s a story about a man named Joseph who was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Through a series of unlikely events, Joseph wound up in Egypt, where he was elevated to the rank of second-in-command, just as famine struck the entire region.

Everyone turned to Egypt for food, including Joseph’s brothers. After a somewhat tense reunion, the brothers worried that Joseph would seek his revenge. But Joseph assured them there would be no reprisal. What his brothers meant for evil, Joseph explained, God had used for good.

I think Genesis 50 is a picture of what Paul describes in Ephesians 5. But notice how bringing good from evil isn’t God’s responsibility alone. It’s ours. We have a part to play in the story. We’re meant to be God’s agents for bringing good into this world. We are his best plan for “redeeming the time.”

The days of Joseph’s brothers were evil. They were marked by jealousy, betrayal, oppression, and violence. But with God’s help, Joseph redeemed them, “making the most of every opportunity.” In the end, Joseph redeemed not just “the time” but his own family, rescuing them from starvation and slavery.

We too are called to redeem the time. Checking out early isn’t an option. Writing off this world as a lost cause isn’t an option. To do so is to read only half the verse and miss the whole point.

Woman thou art silenced: a second look at the “worst verse in the Bible”

When the satirical Christian website Ship of Fools asked readers to submit nominations for “worst verse in the Bible” a few years back, there was a clear winner, beating out passages on genocide, dismemberment, and all manner of inscripturated unpleasantries. It was this:

I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Timothy 2:12, NIV)

For many complementarians, 1 Timothy 2:12 is the Discussion Killer. The Trump Card. It’s the clobber text that beats up all the other clobber texts and takes their lunch money.

Paul couldn’t have put it any more clearly.

But before we all wave the white flag and pull the plug on #Mutuality2012, let’s remember something. The name of Paul’s letter was not “Mandatory Instructions for All Churches Everywhere to Follow till the End of Time.” Paul set his sights a bit lower than that. Namely, on counseling a young pastor who was at the end of his rope.

Paul had sent Timothy to take the reins of the church in Ephesus — a church Paul had started. It was not an easy task.

Theater at Ephesus

I visited Ephesus in 2005 as part of a study tour retracing the spread of early Christianity in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). What I learned there put an entirely new perspective on the “worst verse in the Bible.”

In Paul’s day, Ephesus was a leading city of the Roman Empire. Half a million people lived there. That number swelled for two weeks every year, when a giant festival was held to honor the city’s patron deity: Artemis.

Artemis was the goddess of fertility, among other things. All her priests were women and, as N.T. Wright observes, “they ruled the show and kept the men in their place.”

Artemis’ temple was said to be founded by the Amazons, an ancient group of female warriors who had little use for men, apart from the occasional hookup in order to procreate.

Yup, that’s her.

According to the Artemis legend, women were created first. Women were inherently superior. Women called the shots. Artemis was mainly concerned with the welfare of women, which is why she promised to protect them in childbearing — no mean feat in a world where 1 in 3 women may have died giving birth.

Men who wished to serve the goddess were free to do so… well, I say “free.” Actually, the cost was quite steep. In exchange for the honor of service, Artemis quite literally demanded their manhood.

The late New Testament scholar Catherine Clark Kroeger described the initiation process as follows (with thanks to Alex Haiken for the link):

Males voluntarily castrated themselves and assumed women’s garments. A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele [a closely related deity]. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress. He is considered to have exchanged his sexual identity and to have become a she-priest.

No doubt many of the female converts in Ephesus came straight from the Artemis cult. Can you imagine the difficulty they would’ve had learning to accept men in the group as their equals? Not unlike like the difficulty some men have today accepting women as their equals.

Before long, tensions would have boiled over. Church gatherings would have descended into anarchy as some of the women boasted that they were created first and should call all the shots. Timothy would have reached the end of his rope trying to hold this fledgling church together.

And so his mentor, the apostle Paul, wrote a letter. Two thousand years later, we cannot hope to understand Paul’s advice without spending a little time in Ephesus.

Paul was trying to correct a specific situation run amuck. And so he prohibited Ephesian women from taking the reins of the Ephesian church, from usurping Timothy’s authority (as Paul’s duly appointed surrogate), and from lording it over their brothers in Christ — many of whom had known nothing but subjugation their entire lives.

Understanding Ephesus even helps explain Paul’s otherwise bizarre reference to childbearing, which turns out to be a slap in the face to Artemis:

But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:15)

To insist today that women are inherently subordinate to men — and on that basis to make 1 Timothy 2:12 a universal prohibition against women in leadership — is to commit the same sin Paul was so adamantly against. Only, this time the shoe is on the other foot.

Paul didn’t want women lording it over men, as Artemis had taught them to do. Nor would he have wanted men lording it over women — not if he really believed his own words when he told the Galatians that there is no “male and female” in Christ’s church.

If Paul were addressing a complementarian church today, where it was taught that women are intrinsically subordinate to men, he may very well have written something like this:

I do not permit a man to teach or have authority over a woman; he must be quiet. For Eve was formed last, making her the pinnacle of creation. And Eve was not the one who was told to stay away from the forbidden tree; it was the man who was told and should have known better.

Sometimes harsh words are needed to correct an imbalance of power. But in the long run, the only real solution is (you guessed it)…

Mutuality.

5th-century Church of the Virgin Mary, Ephesus

Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 2)

The first crack in the complementarian wall came during seminary. I wasn’t entirely expecting this, since my school was at least nominally complementarian.

But one New Testament professor had an incurable habit of getting on his soapbox whenever he felt someone was “abusing the Bible,” as he called it. And one of his favorite soapboxes had to do with an apparent inconsistency in Paul’s logic concerning women:

  • In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul commands women to “remain silent in the churches.” This is one of a handful of texts often sited in support of the complementarian view, which says women are to be subject to men in the church and at home.
  • Yet in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul basically gives the women of Corinth a dress code to follow when prophesying in church. A prophet was basically someone who gave advice on God’s behalf. Kind of hard to imagine women doing that with their mouths shut.

So we’re forced to entertain a few possibilities:

1. “Silent” doesn’t mean what we think it does. A bit of a stretch, especially for a word (Greek, sigao) that carries a strong sense of telling someone to “shut up.” (See, for example, Luke 18:39.)

2. Paul was being inconsistent — or someone tampered with his letter after the fact. Authorship is a hotly contested issue for many books in the Bible, but 1 Corinthians isn’t one of them. There is, however, some evidence the statement in chapter 14 was added later. But for the sake of argument, let’s say Paul was responsible for the whole letter, including the bit where he tells women to shut up. It’s hard to imagine someone of Paul’s intelligence contradicting himself so badly in the space of a relatively short letter.

3. Paul was being sarcastic. (This was my NT professor’s theory.) One of Paul’s favorite tactics in 1 Corinthians was to quote something his readers were fond of saying to justify their behavior — like, “I have the right to do anything” — and then refute it. What makes it tricky is that Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation, so deciding when Paul is quoting something is a matter of interpretation. But if Paul was sarcastically quoting the Corinthians when he said, “Women are to remain silent,” this would go a long way toward making sense of his next statement: “Or did the word of God originate with you?” Which was basically his way of saying, “Who do you think you are?”

4. Paul’s feelings about women in the church are more complex than we realize — more nuanced, depending on the specific context he’s addressing. Which would explain why he can heartily greet female apostles in one letter and prohibit women from teaching altogether in another.

With option #4 in mind, it’s worth considering N.T. Wright’s explanation of 1 Corinthians 14. It was common in many ancient churches for the men and women to sit apart. Women, not having access to formal education in the first century, would be at a disadvantage — especially if the service was conducted in a more formal or classical style of language. So eventually, the women would get bored and start talking among themselves.

Wright imagines the scene like this:

The level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, ‘Will the women please be quiet!’, whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet; and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home.

Whatever we make of 1 Corinthians 14, it’s not a simple matter of saying, “Let’s just go back to what the Bible says about women and the church.” Because the Bible says lots of different things about women and the church. And not everything the Bible has to say on the matter is universally applicable.

Simply put, the Bible didn’t set out to be a book about gender roles. So you should never trust someone who tells you, “It’s quite clear the Bible teaches women should XYZ…”

It’s not.

Part 3 of this series can be found here

Election in the Old Testament, part 3

In the Old Testament, God kicked off his redemptive plan by forming a covenant nation called Israel. The nation as a whole was a chosen instrument, predestined by God.

But each person had a choice to make. If you were born into the covenant, there were dozens of ways you could opt out — that is, be “cut off.” If you were born outside the chosen nation, there was nothing but your own pride to keep you from joining it.

Which leads to another important point about predestination in the Old Testament: it’s always for the benefit of others — i.e. the not-predestined. This idea is woven into the very first promise God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Notice the promised blessing is unlimited in scope. Anyone who blesses God’s people (and by extension, God himself) will be blessed by God in return. And notice that God’s action comes in response to human action.

Yes, God is orchestrating redemptive history. Yes, he alone initiates salvation. But he does so in a way that leaves room for us to play a meaningful part.

The promise ends with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the whole reason for God’s covenant with Abraham. God is not raising up a chosen nation for its own sake, as if to carve out a tiny portion of the human race for himself. He intends to use this nation as a vehicle to bring salvation to the entire world.

After the exodus, God established his covenant with the whole nation at Mount Sinai, calling them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). A priest is a human conduit for grace. Someone who not only points the way to God, but helps others walk the path.

In other words, the Israelites were not predestined to be “saved” for their own sake. They were predestined to be priests. They were predestined to draw others to God — or as Isaiah puts it, to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42, 49).

In the New Testament, we see the same connection between predestination and priestly proclamation. Paul refers at one point to his “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (Romans 15). Elsewhere, Peter writes to the church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession [all of which is predestination language], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Predestination is never an end unto itself. We are not predestined to be members of a club, we are predestined to be ambassadors and priests, proclaiming the good news to others so they in turn can be predestined to do the same.

Calvinism views predestination as a means by which God narrows the scope of his redemptive agenda, applying its benefits to a select few. But in the Old Testament, predestination works in reverse, gradually expanding the circle to include more and more people — with the end goal of blessing “all peoples on earth.”

Thwarting God?

If God orchestrates every detail of history, if he decided in advance all who would and wouldn’t be saved, and if his sovereign will cannot be thwarted under any circumstances — then what should we make of the following statement from Luke’s gospel?

All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

Members of the Jewish religious establishment are generally depicted as the baddies in the gospel story. With few exceptions (namely, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), they resist Jesus at every turn. But according to Luke, their resistance wasn’t what God had in mind. God had other plans for them.

You could argue this is a case of “double perspectives,” to borrow a phrase from John Piper. That, on one level, God wants the Pharisees to be saved, much in the same way he wants everyone to be saved. But this desire on God’s part amounts to little more than vague wishing, since it has no impact on the outcome. Meanwhile, on another level, God has sovereignly predestined the Pharisees to be the antagonistic reprobates they are.

But before you appeal to the “double perspectives” argument, take a closer look at the phrase “God’s purpose” (Greek, ten boulen tou theo). In the New Testament, the word boule is used exclusively in reference to God’s sovereign will — what he has decreed or decided should happen.

For example, Peter claims in Acts that Jesus was crucified because God’s “power and will [boule] had decided beforehand” that it should happen. Piper uses this very text to argue for meticulous sovereignty.

In Ephesians 1, Paul writes, “We were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose [boule] of his will.”

So it would seem from Luke that God’s sovereign will — which predestines people and orchestrates history — can be resisted in some cases. What should we make of this?