Tag Archives: women in ministry

Does the Bible Teach That Women Should Never Wear Braided Hair or Jewelry?

Hairstyling among Rome’s cultural elite, during the mid-1st century.

Many readers of the Bible are puzzled, or even embarrassed, by a statement made by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy, that suggests that women should never wear braided hair, or jewelry. But is this flat prohibition against the wearing of braided hair or jewelry something that the Bible actually proscribes? Let us take a closer look, reading Scripture in context.

In 1 Timothy 2:8-10 we read:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” (ESV).

A similar passage comes from the words of Peter, at 1 Peter 3:3-4. At first glance, the negative, specific references to “braided hair” and “gold or pearls” would appear that the Apostles Paul and Peter sound like legalists at best, or even, misogynists at worst!

When we read puzzling passages like this, it is important to look at what the whole of Scripture teaches on the matter, and not focus on one or two isolated verses. Since both Paul and Peter were Jewish, and looked to their Hebrew Scriptures, as their written authority, it might help to look at what the Old Testament has to say about the wearing of jewelry, etc.

There are occasions when the Old Testament takes a negative view towards the wearing of jewelry, but such instances are within the context of accenting a woman’s sexual attractiveness for the purposes of manipulation, as when the wicked queen Jezebel “painted her eyes and adorned her head,” when Jehu came to confront her of her sin (2 Kings 9:30).

However, the Old Testament does not dismiss the wearing of jewelry outright:

Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold
    is a wise reprover to a listening ear.
 (Proverbs 25:12 ESV).

Here in Proverbs, jewelry has a positive value, being directly compared to the situation when someone gives wise counsel or correction to someone else, and that someone else receives such counsel or correction willingly.

When the Song of Solomon extolls the beauty of a woman, such beauty is positively related to the value of jewelry:

How beautiful are your feet in sandals,
    O noble daughter!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
    the work of a master hand.
 (Song of Solomon 7:1 ESV).

As Jews, both Paul and Peter would have taken similar views towards the wearing of jewelry. They would have accepted the modest display of jewelry as perfectly acceptable, but would find the extravagant display of jewelry to be inappropriate and inconsistent with the godly behavior of a Christian woman.

Focusing on the 1 Timothy passage, carefully notice how the Apostle Paul specifically finds a modest level of jewelry wearing to be wholly appropriate: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel.” Rather, Paul is contending against the flaunting of a woman’s beauty, by the excessive use of make up and jewelry, as this would distract others from seeing the real, inward beauty of a Christian woman, her “godliness.”

It is important not to confuse the principle of modesty, with respect to jewelry wearing, with the specific cultural application in Paul’s first century, Roman empire context. For example, some might be troubled by Paul’s restriction regarding the wearing of “braided hair.” So, does Paul really have some type of weird hangup regarding “braided hair?”

Again, a careful reading of the text shows that it is the combination of “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,” not “braided hair” by itself. The inclusion of “costly attire” should be evidence that there is a big difference between a modest set of ear rings, versus showing up at church with a $25,000 necklace, combined with some over-the-top hairstyling.

New Testament scholar Steven Baugh notes that by the mid-first-century, “women’s hairstyles had developed into elaborate curls, braids, high wigs, pins, and hair ornaments that were quickly copied by the well-to-do throughout the empire.” The historical evidence shows that wealthy women were following the same fashionable trends of the Roman cultural elite, as a means of flaunting their wealth. Paul would have been consistently applying the Scriptural principle of modest dress, by condemning such flaunting of wealth, in Timothy’s church in Ephesus. The flaunting of wealth inevitably shames those believers, who do not possess great wealth, the type of messaging that the Apostle Paul strongly sought to discourage. Baugh concludes: “Today, it is the equivalent of warning Christians away from imitating styles set by promiscuous pop singers or actresses. How one dresses can convey rebellious or ungodly messages whether intended or not.1

Remember this, too: The focus should be on how we ourselves understand what makes someone beautiful. This is not an excuse to cast a condescending eye on others.

Far from being a psychologically prudish hangup, on the part of the Apostle Paul, Paul’s instructions to Timothy, advocating the modesty of women’s external appearance, is a specific application of a timeless Scripture principle. Should Christians today be embarrassed by what Scripture says here? Absolutely not. While a 21st century Christian might apply the principle differently, according to the fashions of our day, the principle remains the same. The Bible consistently seeks to accentuate the inward beauty of a believer, while warning against the display of external extravagance, designed to shame others or to be inappropriately sexually provocative.2

Notes:

1. Steven Baugh, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century,” p. 54-55, in Women and the Church, 3rd Edition

2. For more detail, please consult chapter 36, of David A. Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions, on “Women Should Not Wear Jewelry,” p. 210-214.. 


Do We Still Have Apostles Today, in the Church?

Did the gift of “apostleship” cease by the end 1st century? The answer is yes… and no. But I need to unpack this to explain.

We know that there were apostles running around the Roman Empire, during the 1st century, when the New Testament was written. Folks like the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle James come to mind, right away. But what about today? Are there still apostles? Well, it all comes down to what the New Testament means by the term “apostle.”

“Apostles” versus “apostles”??

The Greek word apostolos is used a number of times within the New Testament. The term generally means “one sent as a messenger.”  This more generic sense of “messenger,” “representative,” or “envoy” is found in 2 Corinthians 8:23. But it also has a more specific sense, that of being one of the divinely appointed founders of the Christian church. That latter, more specific sense, most probably refers to those who had seen the Risen Christ, and who were charged by Jesus Himself to authoritatively articulate the message of the Gospel, to that first century world. Think of the original twelve disciples, minus Judas (Acts 1:2, 1:26), as well as Paul, based on his encounter with the Risen Jesus, on the road to Damascus.

A lot of Christians are very leery about acknowledging the presence of “apostles” in 21st century Christianity, and for a very good reason. The “big” apostles, like Paul, Peter, and James were accepted as being authorized to write the books of the New Testament. Only such apostles, or those who lived within that early apostolic circle, were recognized as legitimate writers of Holy Scripture. For example, Mark was not among the group of the named “big” apostles, but he knew Peter, who is the primary source for how we got the Gospel of Mark. Likewise, Luke moved around in that same, original apostolic circle, and thereby wrote the Gospel that bears his name, as well as Acts.

But we do not have writers of Scripture today. Contrary to what folks like the Mormons believe, there is no case to be made that there are to be any extra revealed books of the Bible, aside from what we already have in the Old and New Testaments. So, when you hear about movements like the New Apostolic Reformation, or other movements, commonly associated with some varieties of Pentecostalism, most evangelical Christians today are correct to cast a skeptical eye on such claims of apostleship. In this sense, there are no, capital “A” Apostles running around our churches today.

There are cases where Paul gives us some examples of capital “A” Apostles in the early church. For example, he includes himself in 1 Corinthians 15:9. There is also James, the brother of Jesus, who is called an apostle in Galatians 1:19, who was also the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the author of one our books in the New Testament.

However, the New Testament does indicate that there were others in New Testament, who were described as apostles, but who lack that special sense of designated authority. For example, the Apostle Paul had several traveling companions or co-workers who were called “apostles,” either explicitly, or perhaps implied. Barnabas is explicitly mentioned as being one (Acts 14:14). Then there is Epaphroditus, who is called a “messenger” in Philippians 2:25, which is the same Greek word for “apostle.” Likewise, there are those like Apollos, Silas, and Timothy who served right alongside Paul in his ministry.

Yet we have no reason to believe any of these Christians ever had a post-Resurrection encounter with Jesus, in the same manner like Paul or Peter did. Then we have the case of a notable woman, Junia, who was considered “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7 NIV), according to Paul. Paul even names two other women Euodia and Syntyche, as co-workers, contending along Paul’s side, “in the cause of the Gospel” (Philippians 4:2-3). So, were all of these people, men and women alike, apostles?

At the very least, you could say that all of these co-workers of Paul, male and female, were what we would call today “church-planters,” which is consistent with the practice continued today, by many churches, to “send out” missionaries to go plant churches, as “messengers” of the Gospel, which is consistent with how the New Testament uses that Greek term, apostolos. In other words, they were little-a “apostles,” as opposed to being big-A “Apostles,” like Paul.

The argument from Scripture, therefore, indicates that we no longer have big-A “Apostles” today in the church. However, this should not be construed to rule out the existence of small-a “apostles.”

Surely, some will be concerned that the line between Apostle and apostle could become blurred, some twenty centuries after the New Testament was written. No one can write Scripture today. No one can supersede folks like the Apostle Paul, and claim the mantle of their authority. But most Christians I know surely acknowledge the presence of many, many gifted church planters today, who have been sent out as messengers, for the sake of spreading the Gospel, just as you read about them in the New Testament.

Simply put, you can not plant churches without church planters. Church planters exercise the gift of being “apostles,” in that they are sent out by Christian communities as messengers of the Gospel.

Therefore, some might feel more comfortable with speaking of such “lower case a” apostles as being “church planters” instead, in order to avoid confusion. In my mind, that is just quibbling with words, but I get the point. A distinction needs to be made. So be it. If refusing to call anyone today an “apostle” causes you grief, then go right ahead and come up with your own word. But the principle should be clear. In addition to the heavyweights, like Paul and Peter, the church of the New Testament had “lower case a” apostles, who were sent out to plant churches, built on the message of the Gospel. We still have those in that second category of “apostles” today.

Insight Into Yet Another, Thorny Issue That Divides the Church?

As a parallel, this distinction might help those who struggle with the whole question of having women preach or teach, in the local church. Many understand the Apostle Paul to say that women should not serve as teachers in the church, particularly where there are men present, according to 1 Timothy 2:12. Paul goes on to explain what he means by this in 1 Timothy 3, in describing the qualification for “overseers,” whom Paul calls “elders” in Acts 20.

But this directive of Paul’s should also be considered along with yet another directive of Paul, whereby men and women are to teach and admonish one another, in the local church, according to Colossians 3:16. In Colossians, Paul is specifically addressing his message to both men and women, and there is nothing that indicates that this message was limited to that particular church, in that particular time (Colossians 3:15-19). That all believers, including men and women, are encouraged to teach one another, is an idea that has universal scope and application.

The first type of “Teaching,” commonly associated with the authority of elders, or overseers, refers to the work of guarding against the infiltration of false doctrine, into the local church. This ties into the concept of “big-A” Apostleship, as the primary task of “big-T” Teachers ; that is, the elders of the church, is to make sure that the doctrine being propagated in the local church is in alignment with what was laid down by those first century “big-A” Apostles, who are responsible for our New Testament. As I have argued elsewhere, I would call this big-T “Teaching.”

The second type of “teaching,” such as is in the leading of Bible studies, giving an exhortation in a corporate worship service, under the supervision of the elders of the church, does not necessarily bear with it the sense of authority, generally attributed to elders. But it does recognize that there are specific gifts of teaching, that the Holy Spirit can give to men and women, that can be used under the oversight function of local church elders.

Some may object to the language of calling women as “teachers,” preferring other language such as calling women as “preachers.” But even the notion of women “preaching” might be too much for some. Others would prefer the terminology of the “passing on of information,” just as the Lord Jesus gave Mary Magdalene information to pass onto the male disciples, after the Resurrection. But despite whatever terminology is preferred, the principle remains the same, that both big-T “Teaching” and little-t “teaching” are part of every growing community of believers today.

Granted, this is a controversial idea for many in our #MeToo era, who bristle at even the thought of discrimination against women, when it comes to the office of elder and/or pastor in a local church. On the other side, many other Christians believe such little-t “teaching” can only be appropriate in an occasional or informal setting, and rarely, if ever, from a pulpit, or even an ongoing, adult Sunday school class, where men and women are both present.

Many evangelical Christians are divided over such issues.1  I would be hopelessly foolish to insist on being dogmatic. At the same time, it grieves me to think how we are quickly dividing the Body of Christ, when there is a modest, moderating alternative to the crisis of how churches should be governed, in evangelical circles.

Here I am suggesting a possible third-way through this impasse. It might be helpful to draw this parallel together, as I have done here, of contrasting big-A “Apostles” and little-a “apostles,” along with big-T “teaching” and little-t “teaching,” to give us a more thoughtful understanding of how we can see the gifts of apostleship and teaching at work today, in the contemporary church.2

Notes:

1. Southern California pastor John MacArthur set off a firestorm of criticism in October, 2019, at a conference, where he was asked to give a one or two word response to the name “Beth Moore,” a popular women’s Bible study teacher, in the Southern Baptist convention. He recommended that Beth Moore “go home,” which lit up the world of evangelical Twitter on fire. Pastor MacArthur explains his views here, in a sermon delivered shortly after the flair up.  MacArthur’s biggest exegetical error in this sermon, starting at the 54:23 mark, is by treating the topic of women praying and prophesying, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, as NOT applicable to the context public, corporate worship, whereas Paul’s teaching later in the same letter, that “women are to remain silent,” in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, is clearly applicable to the context of public corporate worship. The problem is that BOTH passages refer to the corporate worship life of the church, whether we like that or not, and we must deal with this tension accordingly. In 1 Corinthians 11:16, Paul declares that the orderly praying and prophesying by women IS within the context of public, corporate worship. To go against this is contrary to church practice. “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”  The “churches” here, is from the Greek ekklesia, which specifically means the “assembly.” Nevertheless, like the perennial topic that persists and persists, and never goes away, there have been those on the other side of this, like on egalitarian theologian Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who are greatly aggravated by MacArthur’s statements. Equally, on the more rigid complementarian side, bloggers like Grayson Gilbert have come to MacArthur’s defense.  A more, measured video response by International House of Prayer leader, Mike Bickle, can be found here. (For a slightly different view, that suggests that a complementarian can affirm women as a “pastor,” and not an “elder,” read Sam Storms here). On the other hand, I appreciate the more thoughtful, irenic dialogue between two different complementarian voices, Kevin DeYoung and John Dickson, regarding the topic of “women preaching.” The practice of those, like Tim Challies, who only allows men to read Scripture publicly in church, seems really over the top to me, and without sufficient grounding in the Bible. But other areas are more dicey, and less certain. My own response to those like Kevin DeYoung, who would not allow for women to lead adult Sunday school classes, on a regular basis, where men and women are present, even operating under the oversight of an all-male eldership, is for those who might be troubled by such practice can simply refrain from attending that particular Sunday school class, and attend a different class, assuming one is available. My main concern is that Christians should not interfere with the consciences with other believers, who hold to “disputable matters” that have brought about unnecessary division within our churches. The last thing we need is for yet another reason for churches to needlessly split, with egalitarian Christians on one side, and complementarian Christians on the other, or even a third-split, with yet moderate complementarians dividing from more extreme complementarians. Enough already!! We need to balance out the concerns of those who fear the increase of worldly feminism into our churches, while acknowledging the giftedness of women, as also taught in Scripture. For those interested in a more in-depth look at the “women in ministry” issue, see my 19-part blog post series, beginning with this post

2. I greatly appreciate the measured, irenic work of London-based pastor Andrew Wilson on the topic of “Apostles” versus “apostles”(see here and here). Wilson is thoughtfully consistent, principled, without being needlessly rigid, and fully rooted in God’s Word.  


On Baptism: Why I Want to Worship at an Interdenominational Church

Some might think my view on baptism is quirky, but I have it for a good reason. I was baptized as an infant, and in 6th grade, I went through a confirmation process, that was, frankly, rather lame. So, when I finally came to a genuine awareness of having faith in Christ in high school, and I started attending a Baptist church, I really was not sure what to do with baptism.

My Baptist friends kept telling me, “Now that you are a believer in Jesus, you really should get baptized as an adult.” They would cite to me passages like Acts 2:38, arguing that those who came to faith in Jesus at Pentecost were told by Peter to become baptized. Heartfelt faith and water baptism go together. The practice of being baptized as a believing adult is known as credobaptism.

That made a lot of sense, when I first heard it.

But it also confused me, too, the more I thought about it. After all, I still had the certificate that my parents gave me, telling me that I was already baptized as a child.  The Bible clearly stated that “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). If I was already baptized as a infant, a practice known as paedobaptism, then to get “re-baptized” as an adult essentially served to de-legitimize my first baptism. There are not two baptisms for a Christian. Only one. “Re-baptism” would effectively make my infant baptism improper at best, or false, at worst, …. and that really bothered me.

After all, for most of church history, paedobaptism has been the standard practice throughout the centuries, for those raised in Christian churches. It has only been within the past few hundred years that there has been a shift towards credobaptism, among evangelical, Bible-believing people. Does this really mean that for the bulk of church history, that most Christians growing up in Christian families; that is, millions of them, received a “false” baptism? Perhaps my own baptism as an infant was “improper,” just as the disciples of Apollos in Ephesus needed to be properly baptized by Paul (Acts 19:1-7), but I could not bring myself to think of my baptism as a baby as “false.”

I went back and forth on the question for years.

Coming to Grips Personally With the Baptism Controversy, In Evangelical Christianity

When I had an opportunity to go to the Holy Land, and a really good friend, who was a Baptist pastor, was going to go with me, it seemed like this was the breakthrough I needed. So, I asked my Baptist friend if he would baptize me, as a thirty-some year old adult, in the Jordan River. He felt really honored to do that, and I felt privileged that he would participate. It would be an act of obedience, resolving to follow the teachings of the Bible, as best as I knew how. I had a peace in my heart and mind about that decision.

I remember talking with another companion on that Holy Land trip, relaying the above story to him, of my theological struggle with baptism, along with my decision to go ahead and get baptized as an adult. I told him that I was not completely sure about the validity of my infant baptism, but out of an act of obedience, though I did not understand it all, I would go forward with an adult believer’s baptism.

My companion’s response shocked me. He was quite honest to tell me that my reasons for getting baptized in the Jordan River were “rather lame.” In his view, my reasoning was theologically unsound.

Well, I have to admit that I did have some bizarre, inappropriate expectation that it would be some cool, spooky experience to be baptized in the Jordan River. After all, Jesus Himself was baptized there!

If you have been to Israel/Palestine, you will probably know the spot where most baptisms in the Jordan are performed, for American visitors to the area. It was indeed a special moment in my life. Any anxiety about not being properly baptized before was removed, at least at that moment. But it was not all that spooky. Experientially, nothing spectacular happened, as far as I could tell. The water in the Jordan River was just as wet as it is in any American baptismal pool or river.

The popular baptismal site at Yardenit, along the Jordan River, where I was baptized as an adult in 1994 (credit: Maranatha Tours)

When I got back to the States, after the trip, I got some chagrined looks on the faces of my paedobaptist friends, when I told them I got “re-baptized.” For those paedobaptists, baptism is a sign that signals identification with the New Covenant in Christ, just as circumcision has been a sign that signals identification with the Old Covenant. Just as circumcision was for infant males under the Old Covenant, so is baptism for infant male and females, under the New Covenant (Acts 2:39). Infant baptism does not automatically lead to faith, anymore than circumcision necessarily leads to the inward circumcision of a person’s heart, though that is what these outward signs point inwardly towards. I had never understood that before.

Mmmm. Had I done the right thing? I still was not completely sure. My friend’s judgment, that my decision to be baptized was “rather lame,” and theologically unsound, stuck in my head. As a result, I began to have doubts. Nevertheless, it was all water over the bridge now. At that point, the deed was done.

Sometime later, I began thinking about some of my credobaptist friends, who were baptized as older children, through a form of believer’s baptism. They later on fell away from the faith, only to come back to faith years later as older adults. Some of them wanted to get re-baptized, because now their faith really meant something. They simply had no idea what they were doing being baptized at 9-years-old. Therefore, now they wanted to get baptized… for real.

I know a few credobaptist pastors who would gladly baptize (re-baptize?) someone who was baptized as an infant. Why? Because that infant baptism was either improper or not a genuine baptism, since there was no genuine faith exercised by that infant. But I have to ask such credobaptist pastors a followup question: What would you do if a credobaptist person, baptized at age 9, were to come to you years later, perhaps at about age 20-30, saying that now they really understand what faith is about, and requesting re-baptism? Would you perform the baptism?

To make it even more complicated, what if that person had also been baptized as an infant? Would her baptism be a third baptism, or would her latest baptism cancel the previous two “improper” baptisms?

Is there some statute of limitations involved as to how many times you can get rebaptized? How do you distinguish between an improper or proper baptism, or even a false versus genuine baptism? Where is the cutoff on the age limit, if there is one, and who decides, and on what basis?

When such analysis extends down to this level, it all gets rather silly, if you ask me.

Baptism and the Conscience of the Christian

These are thorny questions that lead me to think that the question of baptism is one that is best reserved to take place between the person requesting baptism (or re-baptism), and the pastor or other person performing the baptism, or between parents, with their newborn, with their pastor. If families are already members of a particular church, that takes a definite stand on the issue, then they should naturally follow with what that church teaches.

But what if, like me, you are not so sure about all of this? Perhaps you lean a particular way, but you do not want to exclude being in fellowship with another believer who thinks differently? Perhaps you do have a strong conviction, but that you are trusting the work of the Holy Spirit that the Spirit might change the hearts and minds of your fellow believers, and that God might be calling you to be in a community of faith, as an instrument of change, where such introspective reflection is deemed permissible. In other words, while we can surely affirm that there is but one baptism, publicly signaling our initiation into Christian faith, the particular manner of one’s baptism, its mode, and its timing should be a matter of conscience.

Water baptism is the outward expression corresponding to the inward reality of a heart washed by the cleansing blood of Christ. Stressing out too much over exactly when someone really first experiences that inward reality and when you should get baptized can be counterproductive to spiritual growth. The timing of baptism with respect to when someone comes to actual faith is a matter of prayer, the study of Scripture, and having a sense of peace in your mind and heart.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of churches that take partisan approaches to baptism, that are not particularly helpful. Though I have never seen this personally, I have heard of some paedobaptist churches that look down judgmentally upon someone who was baptized as an infant, but then re-baptized as an adult. Perhaps such re-baptisms are improper, upon further reflection, but this is ultimately a matter of standing alone before God.

More often, there are credobaptist churches that will refuse membership to a person, if they only received infant baptism. Moreover, such churches might even allow a paedobaptist preacher to speak at their church, but then refuse them to become members. Even more extreme are those credobaptist churches that would refuse to serve communion to a paedobaptist. Some credobaptist churches, in some branches of the Churches of Christ tradition, even teach a kind of “baptismal regeneration” doctrine, insisting that unless you have been water baptized as an adult, you can not even be saved.

Some of this type of thinking just seems insane, if not outright wrong.

This is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, that takes an “agree-to-disagree” posture on the question of baptism. In a biblically-balanced, interdenominational church fellowship, the question of what constitutes genuine baptism is left as a conversation between the one with their question and their pastor, with Bibles open and hearts open with prayer.

Baptism was originally meant in the Bible to publicly signify our identification with Christ, and our profession of faith, a sign of unity of the one, true faith we have in Jesus. It is sad to see how so many churches mistreat baptism as a cause for division, instead of seeing it as a cause for rejoicing for the unity we have in Christ. Some believe that being a part of an interdenominational church, that stresses the principle of “agree to disagree” on non-essential issues of faith, is simply an excuse to avoid “taking a stand” on important issues facing the church.

I view it differently.

It is more about recognizing the complexity of how growing Christians develop in their understanding of Scripture, even changing their views over time, like I have. There is but one baptism, and one faith, not separate paedobaptist and credobaptist faiths, or baptisms, plural. Nevertheless, different Christians can approach issues, like baptism, and come to different conclusions, all under the supervision of Scripture. What matters most is the meaning of baptism, not the mode or timing.

We have come a long way from the early debates over baptism in the 16th century, among Protestant evangelicals. In those years, Protestants sought to settle these debates by actually putting to death the lives of those who held different viewpoints on baptism. I am so glad that those days are behind us. Thankfully, in our day and age, we can rely on a robust theology of conscience, to help us navigate what can be a confusing issue for at least some Christians. Thank the Lord!!

Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, is a great book that I am currently reading, to work through difficult questions, like the “proper” understanding of baptism.

Addendum: Applying a Theology of Conscience to Other “Disputable Matters” 

If I had enough good sense, I would have ended this post at the previous paragraph. But in view of a lot of things that I have been thinking about, this past year, I need to tie up some loose ends.

Specifically, the inner questions of how baptism works should fit within the category of “disputable matters,” that the Apostle Paul addresses in Romans 14. As an example, I see a parallel here between the question of “women in ministry” and baptism (I could also add topics like the age of the earth, specific views of the “End Times,” the gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc., but for this discussion, I will just stick with the “women in ministry,” question that seems so utterly divisive among believers today). As I wrote about in my 20-post series on “women in ministry,” there is a sacramental character about church eldership, as well as baptism, whereby we have a physical act, that serves as a visible reminder of an invisible reality.

God has mercy towards us humans, who need physical, visible reminders of spiritual realities. With respect to “women in ministry,” the church needs to exhibit a physical, visible reminder of the invisible differences between men and women, in the corporate life in the church. Likewise, water baptism serves as a physical, visible reminder of what in means to be invisibly washed clean inwardly, by the precious blood of Jesus.

In that 20-post series, I made the case that an all-male eldership, exercising spiritual authority within a local church (as opposed to an eldership mixed with men and women), serves as that outward, sacramental reminder of the differences between male and female. Secular society today is very confused about gender; that is, we continually debate as to whether being male or female is essentially a characteristic defined at birth, or is it merely a social construct? In response, Christians who hold to an historic view of orthodox faith need to bear witness to the invisible reality that being male and female is more than just biology. Admittedly controversial for some, I contend that an all-male eldership, committed to listen to and serve men and women in a local church, empowering women to use of all of their God-given gifts for service in God’s Kingdom, has been a remarkably consistent expression of that spiritual reality, for 2,000 years of church history.

Why we need sacramental reminders, like all-male eldership and water baptism, is a great mystery. But God knows why we need these things. The problem is that we often get hung up, as Christians, on the physical, visible characteristics of the spiritual realities, which can dangerously obscure the precious inward meaning of those spiritual realities.

One more thing about this idea of conscience, with respect to baptism, and its connection to the “women in ministry” issue: We must be careful not to impose something that violates the sensitive conscience, of other Christians, in these matters.

In other words, if someone is being compelled to believe that women should not serve as elders or pastors in a church, when they are not convinced by this, then that would be a violation of conscience to impose such a belief, through something like a church doctrinal statement, to that effect. Likewise, to compel a person to submit to an eldership community, where women exercise spiritual authority, when such a person does not believe that the Scripture allows for such practice, would be a violation of their conscience.

Likewise, with baptism, having a good conscience, for me, is essential. Compelling a person to get re-baptized (??) as an adult, when the person believes that their baptism as an infant was perfectly valid, now that they have a professing faith, seems to me to be a violation of conscience. Furthermore, compelling a Christian to have a particular view of baptism, whether that be paedobaptist or credobaptist, when someone does not hold such a particular view, is also a violation of conscience.

Of course, there are plenty of churches that take definite theological positions on “women in ministry,” and baptism, that further divides the Body of Christ into particular factions. If a Christian can accept such a definite theological position, with a clean conscience, then surely, they should become (or remain) members of such a church (or churches). At the same time, such a Christian should be aware that a defined theological position, in such an area, puts one at risk of being isolated from other believers, to a certain degree, in the Body of Christ.

Yet if a person is not completely persuaded as to what they believe is the most biblically faithful view on such matters as “women in ministry” and/or baptism, then being in a community, where there is the freedom to “agree to disagree,” where one is given the freedom to work out the theological difficulties, in their own heart and mind, is a good and proper thing, that demonstrates the respect of a person’s conscience.

The surrounding secular culture, that seems so divided today, needs to see churches that display this type of community, where the principle of “agree to disagree” is lived out, where love for one another is paramount.

Nevertheless, could I worship in a church that takes a “hard line” on a particular stand about baptism? Well, it depends, but I would hope so. That is something that I would have to discuss with the elders of that church, if I am not personally convinced of that church’s view. Otherwise, I would have to register the view that I have, due to my conscience, that I am just not completely sure of the proper mode and/or timing of baptism, and see if the elders of that church would still find me as an acceptable candidate for membership in that church, if God were to lead me, in that direction.

In the end, issues like these come down to maintaining a posture of theological humility, in the Body of Christ. It is also this respect for the conscience of others, who do not necessarily accept my views. And this posture of theological humility, and respect for conscience, are things worth striving for.

That is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, if such an interdenominational church really exists.

.     .     .

For more on baptism, see these other blog posts.


Is the Bible Good for Women?: A Review of Wendy Alsup’s Critical, Timely Book

Is the Bible good for women?

That is a question that troubles many people, Christian and non-Christian alike. As my mother told me at times, in so many words, “I like what Jesus in the Bible has to say about women, but I am not so sure about Paul.” I have stumbled over this question myself, and I am a guy.

Is “Biblical Womanhood” a Bad Deal For Women? : Rachel Held Evans Speaks Out

Unless you have no clue what the Internet is, you probably have heard of Rachel Held Evans. Evans was a relatively young mother, of several young children, who tragically met her death at 37, earlier this year. Growing up in a conservative, evangelical Christian home, Rachel, who would probably prefer that title, instead of “Ms. Evans,” was regarded as a master communicator, in the world of social media, and she was a funny and engaging blog and book writer. She deeply cared about her faith in God, the health of the evangelical church, and how to work through periods of doubt, as a Christian.

But she had an edge to her. She would spar with leading evangelical pastors and leaders on Twitter. Her most controversial book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, simultaneously encouraged and disturbed many of her evangelical Christian readers. Rachel had her fans, but she also had her vocal critics. To her fans, Rachel offered a way of reading the Bible, that enabled them to look past a rather rigid, wooden approach to how the Bible treated women. Rachel presented a positive view of women, that offered to transcend the cultural limitations and misogynistic prejudices she saw, that were in the Bible. But she did this in a manner that also sought to retain many classic themes in Christian theology. Many felt encouraged, even relieved, to read Rachel’s book.

For example, to the delight of her fans, Rachel believed that God can call women to serve in any position of Christian ministry, that a man can serve in. Women should be elders and pastors of churches, just like men are. There is effectively no functional difference between men and women, at any level, at any measure, in the ministry of the local church. Bible passages that effectively restrict the roles of women in church, such as Paul’s policy of not permitting women to teach or exercise authority over a man, in a local church, as in 1 Timothy 2:12, can be safely set aside as merely a culture-bound restriction, that only applied to the church in Ephesus in the first century. Today, the trajectory of the Gospel has simply erased any and all differences between men and women, except for basic biology, …though in some circles, even that can be debated today, as the advances of medical surgery can make just about anything possible!

Rachel Held Evans.

Conflicted Responses to Rachel Held Evans

However, for others who read Rachel, they felt ill at ease. To her most alarmed detractors, Rachel came across as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rachel was not merely recasting a different interpretation of the Bible, more acceptable to modern ears. She was attacking the very integrity and plain-spoken character of God’s Word itself. Such critics completely wrote off Rachel Held Evans as an unhinged, false teacher.

At the same time, more moderate readers of Rachel’s work appreciated her voice, opposing the discrimination of women, but were bothered by what appeared to be a diminished view of Scriptural authority. In her effort to make the Bible more palatable to women, as well as to the men who know, love, and respect them, Rachel was throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Rachel’s egalitarian theology was opening up the floodgates of doubt upon other vital themes in Scripture.

Is there are middle-ground here? Is there a way of recognizing the vital contribution of Rachel Held Evans, without abandoning a more balanced way of reading Scripture?

Wendy Alsup, a Christian who is a divorced mother, who once was a women’s ministry director in a large megachurch in Seattle, Washington, read Rachel Held Evans’ book, and she was caught in the middle between the two extremes. In her reflections on Rachel’s death, Wendy describes the sense of growing up in a rigidly conservative, legalistic evangelical church, where it was commonly thought that girls who question are troublemakers. The message was this: if you do not want to be a troublemaker, keep your questions to yourself.

That is not very good advice for women who read the Bible, in the shadow of #MeToo.

Thankfully, Wendy Alsup sees right through that kind of corrupt theology. But it still leaves the fundamental question open: Is the Bible good for women?

Does the Bible Required a Raped Woman to Marry Her Rapist?

What women are not troubled when they read about the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34), or the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13), and then also learn that in Old Testament times, the man who who raped a woman, was then commanded, by the Law of Moses, to marry the woman, whom he had raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)?

Why would God command such a law, in the Bible? At first glance, it would look like the Bible is really not so good for women.

Wendy Alsup’s personal story is instructive, in understanding why such questions are so important. Wendy was herself working as a women’s ministry leader in one of evangelicalism’s largest megachurches, only to have the whole thing implode, not too long after she left the church, when the pastor was asked to step down from his position, with charges that he was abusing his power and influence. Rachel Held Evans was one of the first Christians to publicly call out this pastor’s abusive behavior.

Wendy Alsup was grateful for Rachel’s willingness to step up and raise questions, particularly about abuse. Rachel Held Evans took a lot of heat for her vocal criticism, and for that, Wendy was grateful for Rachel’s voice. The hoped for accountability structure at this influential complementarian church was not working, and accountability was sorely needed.

But Wendy was also concerned that Rachel had indeed crossed a line, in the other direction, with respect to honoring Scriptural authority. Wendy’s response to all of this was to write her own book about “biblical womanhood.”

 

Wendy Alsup.

 

Tackling Tough Issues With Honesty, Biblical Fidelity, and a Strong Sense of Hope: Wendy Alsup’s Vision of “Biblical Womanhood”

In many ways, Is the Bible Good for Women?: Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture, is the book that many Christians, like myself, wish Rachel Held Evans had of written.

Wendy tackles some of the really tough parts about Scripture, honestly grappling with the question in her book’s title. Wendy makes her appeal to some of the best evangelical scholarship available, in order to find answers. For example, with respect to the Mosaic regulation, commanding that the rapist marry the woman he raped, Wendy points out that Ancient Near East culture was not very friendly to women, in such desperate, humiliating positions (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

But then one considers that marrying the raped woman was actually a way of protecting and providing for the raped woman, who would otherwise be shunned by her ancient community, or even killed by her family, due to the shame. The Law of Moses challenged the rapist to re-examine himself, repent of his wrong doing, make restitution to the woman by restoring her dignity and honor, and seek to try to make things right.1

It bears keeping in mind that rape, in those ancient cultures, were typically not involving unknown assailants, as commonly thought of today. Rather, the case of rape often involved persons who were already known to each other, to begin with. True, this ancient Hebrew prescription of the Mosaic Law was not as progressive as modern Westerners have come to expect. But as Wendy Alsup reminds the reader, the Law of Moses was never meant to be an end, in and of itself.

The Law of Moses pointed towards its eventual fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah. The Law itself was incapable to completely right the wrong suffered in cases of rape. Only Christ Himself can do that. Jesus fulfills what the Law intended to do.

The Law of Moses was a step in the right direction, in an otherwise brutal Ancient Near East culture, but it does not tell the whole story of God’s redemptive purposes. Part of the Good News of the Gospel is that we are no longer required to follow laws, such as this one, anymore. We furthermore anticipate that Jesus will wipe every tear away, and undo all of the evil done in this world. This is a big part of our blessed hope as Christians.

What about the prescriptive regulations about cleanliness following a woman’s menstrual period (Leviticus 15)? To be kept isolated after menstruation seems humiliating today. But in a culture where wild animals could easily enter a house, smelling blood, the protective aspect of the Law of Moses begins to become seen in a whole new light.

Keeping a woman in such a condition isolated from wild animals was probably a very sensible thing to do, even though the Bible does not explicitly spell that out for the average reader. Plus, these isolation regulations helped to protect against the spread of disease, in an era when modern medical knowledge was not accessible. As our knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern culture continues to increase, as we learn more about such early periods of human history, through archaeology and historical studies, we can gain some fresh insight into why some of the more bizarre sounding parts of the Bible are perhaps not so bizarre after all.

Wendy embraces a form of complementarian theology, that holds to a time-honored view of male-headship in the home, and in believing that the role of elder/pastor is limited to men only. So while Wendy is quite open to embrace scholarship, that might shed further light on difficult Bible passages, she rejects the suggestion that scholarship can itself be used to overthrow readings of Scripture, that are simply not available to non-specialists, who lack the academic training. Scholarship can help to illuminate those parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand. But scholarship can not be used to contradict a non-specialized reading of Scripture.

This might be still too much for some of Wendy’s more egalitarian minded readers.2 Even I would place a caveat on Wendy’s position, in that it is quite clear to me that some non-specialized readings of Scripture can still be wrong, in light of compelling evidence. Good biblical scholarship can help to bring such evidence to light. Nevertheless, Wendy appears to be correct and quite sober in how she handles the evidence, in articulating her positive, refined approach to a complementarian theology.

Less she gets misunderstood, Wendy is also quite uncompromising on critiquing bad elements of complementarian theology, that would seek to use the Bible as a weapon to harm women. Too often, critics of complementarian views of the Bible, lump all complementarians into the same category, particularly viewing all women who hold to such complementarian views as being “self-haters.” But this one-dimensional criticism is far too simplistic. Honoring differences in gender, through church office, need not imply that women are somehow “more easily deceived” than men, as some supposed traditionalists maintain. In particular, in my view, Wendy’s reading of Genesis 3:16 is spot on, avoiding some of the pitfalls found in the more popular interpretations of this critical verse of the Bible.3

Wendy also sees no conflict with Scripture, if a woman were asked to teach a Bible study, or a Sunday school, if asked by the elders of that local church, as it is the elders of that local church who are given spiritual authority for teaching, and not the Bible study leaders themselves, who are called to submit to that eldership authority. This view of women “teaching” is consistent with what any non-ordained, non-elder man can do, in a local church. You can find out more about what Wendy thinks at her blog, Theologyforwomen.org. Or better yet, read her book.

Wendy Alsup encourages the reader that the Bible is indeed good for women, but that it all begins by rethinking what “good” means, and looking at it from God’s perspective, as ultimately revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Just because we think something is “good” does not necessarily mean that God thinks that it is “good.”

If anything, the chapter of the book where Wendy makes a distinction between prescriptive versus descriptive passages of the Bible, is worth the price of the book alone.

Wendy may not answer every question to everyone’s satisfaction, as Is the Bible Good for Women?, is not a completely exhaustive look at every possible objection, regarding the Bible’s view of women. But Wendy Alsup is to be commended for writing a fantastic book that probes difficult questions, without offering weak and simplistic answers.

If I had to pick one very intelligent woman author, who presents an easily accessible read about “women in the church,” while possessing great theological acumen, and who holds a balanced view on this subject, that would appeal to the greatest cross-section of Christian readers, it would be Wendy Alsup.

If you get the audiobook version, like I did, she reads the book herself, which added to the gripping honesty and forthrightness of the book. As a male, Wendy’s book helped me to understand the  hesitations some women may experience when reading the Bible, while at the same time, affirming a positive answer, that yes, the Bible is truly good news for women. Though published in 2017, Wendy’s message is still very fresh and timely, touching on the ever present themes in the work of the late Rachel Held Evans, a critical engagement in our day and age when topics on gender are front and center, in the minds of many Christians and skeptics alike.

I have read or cited a number of books on this topic, in recent months, but many of them are quite technical. Wendy’s book is more of an easy entry into the discussion, and it makes for a great read. If you, or someone you know, wrestles with what the Bible has to say to about women, then you really need to get this book.

Notes:

1. There are actually other arguments that indicate that the command for a rapist to marry the raped woman, is not exactly how it first seems. For example, another example from Mosaic law indicates that the father of the woman must approve of the marriage, before consenting to it. If the father does not consent, the man who raped the woman must still provide material support for the woman he injured (Exodus 22:16-17). Furthermore, another instance of the Mosaic Law clearly prescribes the circumstances, where one can tell if a rape was committed, or not. If a rape was committed, the male perpetrator was to suffer the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). Some scholars even suggest that there is a Bible translation issue here, as the original Hebrew is ambiguous (listen to Tyler Vela’s Freedthink podcast). It is quite possible that Deuteronomy 22:28-29 may not even be addressing a rape situation. The point is that while Wendy Alsup takes a worst-possible scenario here, reading Scripture within the larger context is a more suitable way to understand controversial texts, such as these.   

2. See Marq Mowczko’s excellent website, offering an informed egalitarian alternative to Wendy Alsup’s moderate complementarianism. For a Bible study on YouTube, covering the same Biblical issues in detail, from another informed egalitarian perspective, see this video with Dr. Cynthia Westfall, at Bruxy Cavey’s church in Canada..

3. Wendy Alsup was interviewed on the Theology Gals podcast, put out by a group of Reformed Presbyterian women, where she explains the problems with the 2016 change in the English Standard Version, in Genesis 3:16.  Wendy highlights the fact that the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), largely drove the translation change, while embracing a suspect view of the Trinity, namely the Eternal Subordination of the Son, an issue that divides the complementarian movement into basically two camps, that of a moderate complementarianism, championed by those like Wendy, and a more extreme version of complementarianism, championed by the CBMW.  Wendy writes about the New Wave of Complementarianism, in her blog, and in an essay, in a new highly praised book, Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues, a compendium of essays edited by Joshua Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior.  


How Christians Change Words

I am doing a study on how Christians use words, taking a look at reading some of the Inklings, namely Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis. But I ran into this nugget from a blog post by Logos software bible scholar, Mark Ward, author of the extraordinary Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, that I reviewed last summer.

So, what is a “pastor?” Furthermore, what is an “elder?”

I have already written about that elusive term “elder.” So, let us focus on the former here.

Oddly enough, for the word “pastor,” the venerable King James Bible (KJV) only uses that exact word once in the whole Bible, Ephesians 4:11. Otherwise, the term “pastor,” from the Greek word poimen, is translated as “shepherd,” as in being a shepherd of sheep.

Notice that in Ephesians 4:11, the word pastor does not describe an office, but rather a particular spiritual gift. Elsewhere, the concept of pastor/shepherd describes a certain function in the church. Notably, that same concept of shepherding is used to describe the function of the elders (from the Greek, presbyters) of the church in Ephesus, who are charged by Paul (Acts 20), to care for the flock, and protect them from spiritual wolves, that threaten to come in and devour the sheep (Acts 20:28-30).

The word elder, and its related term, overseer, do correspond to a type of office in the church, as in 1 Timothy 3, as one who is “able to teach,” “not a recent convert,” and so on. This meshes well with the function of pastoring the flock.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, or beating it to death, ponder a moment again about that word elder. Oddly though, Christians today typically do not always regard the word elder has having the same sense of pastor. Often, we split the concept of elder from pastor. Many churches will have a group of elders, but those elders are different than the pastor or pastors, which can be really confusing.

Then there is the term overseer. The old King James Version translation of that Greek word, episcopos, “bishop,” does get used by different denominational groups. Furthermore, for those traditions that tend to predate the Reformation, there is the terminology of priest, that is sort of, but not quite, synonymous with the Protestant pastor, but that is another whole intricate discussion.

But for some odd reason, the term pastor appears to win out, above them all, to describe the leader of a church, in many evangelical circles. I typically hear someone called “Pastor Bob,” but never “Shepherd Bob,” and only sometimes “Elder Bob.” Never have I heard someone called “Overseer Bob,” or “Church Leader Bob,” despite the fact that most modern translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 speak of the word overseer or the phrase church leader, to describe an elder. Rarely do you hear “Elder Bob” mentioned as the “Pastor.”

As Mark Ward points out, this is an example of when a metaphor, becomes so stable over time, that it effectively becomes a whole new word. If I could pay money to get every student of the Bible to grasp this, I would surely go broke.

To be a pastor was once used to describe a practice in animal husbandry. Now a pastor has become almost exclusively an ecclesiastical term. You rarely see a shepherd caring for their flock of sheep, in industrial, modern societies. But when observed, I never hear the term pastor used, only shepherd.

A pastor is nowadays almost always a “religious” term.

What was once a metaphor to describe the function of an office, has now become the office itself. Rightly or wrongly, that is what Christians do to words. Language changes.

…..Which just goes to prove that a lot of the discussions we have in our churches today about church governance can be exceedingly difficult, when we do not share a common vocabulary, by not recognizing how metaphors change character over time, to create new meanings.


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