No Limits

Second Sunday After Pentecost

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Acts 2:17, quoting from Joel 2:28

During the most recent Southern Baptist Convention, a great deal of controversy arose when the popular (and very conservative) Christian Bible teacher Beth Moore mentioned that she would be giving the message on Mother’s Day at her home church. The objections came from those who think that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Timothy prohibit women from speaking in church. But there are other passages, like the Galatians passage that is part of today’s lectionary reading, that pretty clearly seem to say just the opposite. The Spirit blows wherever it pleases, and it pleases to flow to all sorts of people. It refuses to be confined to manmade boundaries. You can’t put limits on who God calls to speak God’s truth, any more than you can put limits on the Spirit.

I have to wonder why the men who came to this particular conclusion, out of everything in the Bible, chose to base their reasoning on these two verses, and seemingly ignore the many other places in the Bible where women do take leadership roles, including exercising authority over men and speaking for God. The stories of Deborah in the time of the Judges and of Huldah, advisor to King Josiah, are but two examples, and let’s not forget that the first witnesses to the Resurrection were women. Paul himself seems to offer contradictory advice, not only among his different letters, but sometimes even within the same letter. For example, in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women are not permitted to speak, but in chapter 11, he gives instructions for how women who speak should dress. Paul offers many other instructions on proper church behavior for both women and men which are widely ignored. Men should have short hair and women should have long hair. Men shouldn’t wear hats in church, but women should. Women shouldn’t wear makeup or jewelry.

The picture above is very interesting to me. It is one example of very early Christian art found in Italian catacombs, which date to the second and third centuries AD. A woman, thought to be Mary, stands with her arms raised in what is termed a “liturgical pose”, with the four gospels on either side of her. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that was probably even more true in pre-literate societies. It sure looks to me like she is assuming a leadership and instructional role. There’s also quite a few interesting stories of female leaders in extracanonical literature of the same time period. (more here)

I don’t see how any serious student of the Bible can long toe the current Southern Baptist line, and I am continually amazed by the theological contortions people will go through in order to harmonize contradictory instructions in order to make them apply across all time and space. (For example; one man suggested that it was okay for a woman to give the Sunday message if it was bookended by a man introducing her and giving concluding remarks after her message) Serious students of the Bible read the Bible enough to recognize “proof-texting” when it happens. Not only is it wrong to take verses out of their immediate context, they must be considered in relation to the culture that produced them and to the rest of the Bible. If you don’t consider context holistically, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say. There’s an old joke about one frustrated scholar explaining this by saying “read this (Judas went and hung himself) and now this (Go thou and do likewise)”

Baptists have it right when they encourage people to read the Bible regularly. I am amazed at the biblical ignorance that is seems to be epidemic today, and I am grateful that I grew up in a tradition that stressed continuing Bible study as important for all ages. Traditionally, Baptists also emphasize the importance of a personal experience with God, out of which grows the concept of the “priesthood of the believer”. Christians relate directly to God, without the need for another human to mediate that relationship. That means that we are able to interpret and apply the Bible for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as I read and consider the Bible, the whole Bible, in its cultural context, along with my own personal experience, I come to a very different conclusion about the proper role for women in the church.

I think that the proper role for women is to do whatever God has called them to do. And I think that those who would attempt to prevent women from answering that call are in a rather precarious position, for they oppose not women, but God.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. There is no superior gender, ethnicity, or social status as far as God is concerned. And that’s good news to me.

Timothy and Titus: Passing the Torch

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.

The letters to Timothy and Titus are known as the “pastoral epistles” because they are directed to church leaders rather than to entire congregations. Timothy and Titus were both protégés of Paul and accompanied him on several of his missionary journeys. If actually written by Paul (there is some dispute among Biblical scholars), 2 Timothy was likely the last letter Paul wrote, as apparently he had lost of all of his appeals to Caesar, and was awaiting execution. “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus serve as a bridge between the first generation of Christians and the next, a kind of “passing of the torch” if you will. Many of the original apostles had already died for their faith, and even the last survivors would not make it into the second century. Soon there would be no eyewitnesses left. If Christianity was to survive and thrive, it would be up to the next generation of spiritual leaders. Already distortions of the original gospel were beginning to creep into the churches. One of the earliest of these distortions was Gnosticism, which promoted a number of ideas that differed substantially from the gospel the Biblical writers proclaimed. Gnostic teachers held that there was a great deal of secret knowledge about spiritual matters that was only available to a select few. In addition to unsubstantiated speculation about the nature of Jesus that reminds me quite a bit of The Da Vinci Code, it often led to inappropriate behavior- extreme asceticism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other hand. Furthermore, more than a few of these false teachers took advantage of gullible people, both financially and sexually. Paul was quite concerned about the future of the church. Would the next generation of Christians build on his legacy, or demolish it? Soon it would be no longer up to him.

Paul warned Timothy and Titus to beware of false teachers who perseverated on myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith”.He advised that they “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Those words of advice are just as relevant now as they were then, and it makes me sad and angry because I think such distractions tend to have the effect of making faith look even more silly and pointless to those without it than they already think it is.  It’s easier and perhaps more entertaining to speculate about apocryphal passages in the Bible  than it is to wrestle with the personal implications of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s easier and perhaps more reassuring to pick parts of the Bible out and apply them to other people, than it is to think about the parts that imply that I might need to change myself.

In terms of human evolution, the invention of writing was a quantum leap forward. Knowledge could now be passed on from generation to generation without lossiness, making it easier for each generation to build on what the previous generation had learned. This principle could be applied to all kinds of learning, theological as well as technological. The Jewish exiles seemed to grasp this concept exceptionally well, which led most Jewish communities throughout history to place a high value on literacy.   I think that’s what Paul must have been thinking when he wrote his often-quoted words about the inspiration of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  Thoughts that are spoken may be misquoted or forgotten. Thoughts that are written down endure.

But I think this passage is often misunderstood and misapplied. Often only the first part of Paul’s sentence is quoted, “all scripture is inspired by God”, ignoring the phrases which follow and which I think are of critical importance. That mistaken truncation leads to the kind of thinking promoted by biblical inerrantists who insist that every word in the Bible is straight from God’s mind to the writer’s quill. I have a few problems with that. First of all, what does Paul mean by “all Scripture”? It’s hard to believe he was bold enough to be talking about his own letters as he was writing them: much less the gospels, which were written later: much, much less books like the letters of John and Revelation, which were written after Paul’s death. Second, what does he mean by “inspired” or “God-breathed”? Is that meant to be taken literally, or figuratively? Did God choose the exact words the writers used, as God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets with his own fingers? Or does Paul mean that, as we read and study and even wrestle with the Bible, God breathes life into it and we find that its words come alive and seem to speak directly to us?

For me, the most important part of Paul’s sentence is what comes after the “and” of the clause. God breathes life into Scriptures for a purpose. Scripture is “ useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” The Bible is not a history book, a science book, or even a rule book for the game of life. That isn’t its purpose. Its purpose is to serve as a catalyst for change, so that we open ourselves up to God, and allow him to begin the process of transformation into the kind of people we were created to be. We were created “in the image of God” to live in love with other human beings and in harmony with all creation. We messed up, and continue to do so. But God hasn’t given up on us.

And that’s good news to me.