Reading while White (4)

In an earlier period of my life, I slogged through a master’s degree while working for a business in Midtown Atlanta. One day, I found myself idling in the city’s famously inert rush hour traffic, stressed because I still had schoolwork to finish that evening. While sitting in my humble, but (mostly) reliable, ’96 Nissan Sentra, I complained about my lack of progress in the gridlocked traffic. Suddenly, it dawned on me: “Wait a minute. I am the traffic!” I was struck by the sudden awareness that I was not external to the motionless collection of vehicles, which I had viewed as obstacles between my location and my destination. I realized that I was part of the very thing about which I was complaining.

Representatives of the racial majority in the US find ourselves in an analogous situation with respect to biblical studies. We may recognize that the church and academy have a history of problems in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many of us are concerned about those problems and make genuine efforts to combat them. As teachers, for example, we lecture on multiple models for interpreting Scripture. We revise our syllabi to include a diverse range of authors. We learn about and acknowledge the validity of multiple approaches to biblical interpretation. But, as in my days of moving at a snail’s pace in Atlanta traffic, I’ve also been guilty of perceiving the reality of problems without recognizing the role I’ve played in sustaining them.

It can be difficult for us in the majority culture(s) to realize that our modes of biblical interpretation aren’t universal. Rather, what I call “reading while White” is a particular, historically contingent set of approaches to studying our sacred texts (see part 1). Such is not a problem, in and of itself. It is problematic, however, when we presume that other approaches are nice and helpful, yet outside of “the norm.” If we hold such views and act in accordance with them, we can marginalize other perspectives without realizing we’ve done so. How, then, can we respond to our predicament? As I often say in my classes, if I had the answer to that question, I’d be an important person! Nonetheless, some thoughts come to mind.

1. Historical Perspective. We can begin by critically examining our modes and methods of biblical interpretation. In addition to learning how to use methods, we should study their histories—how and why they came into being. What questions or problems do methods address (see part 3)? Who created them? Were they developed in response to other practices or movements? Importantly, what other interpretive approaches did marginalized people—those without power to influence the academy—use in their contexts? How might the field of biblical studies differ today if those practices had received more attention? By answering questions like these, we can gain perspective on the particularity of our own interpretive practices.

2. Self-Awareness. We should engage with multiple perspectives on the Bible with humility. We are fortunate to live in a time when people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints are publishing in biblical studies at increasing rates. We should read widely, but, for transformation to occur, we need to read with intellectual humility, a virtue characterized by self-awareness and the acknowledgment that we have much to learn from others. To use an analogy, nothing reveals my distinctively American presuppositions to myself like the experience of traveling to a country with which I don’t share the language or cultural assumptions—a humbling experience indeed! I learn about myself by encountering difference. Similarly, by traveling into the worlds of other people’s interpretations openly and humbly, we can discover aspects of our interpretive norms that we might not have otherwise perceived.

3. Sharing the Road. We who already have a place in the field of biblical studies have opportunities, and a moral responsibility, to make space for others. We can empower those who have been marginalized by working to remove roadblocks that have prevented their voices from being heard. Yet, counterintuitively, those efforts don’t begin with advocacy. They start with our listening to the claims of minoritized peoples and assessing how we might have unknowingly erected roadblocks.

A friend who read this series told me that he left each post wanting more—more direction and guidance. I feel the same: I also want more! But maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe, it’s best to begin by recognizing that “I am the traffic” and to let that recognition energize my journey of discovering the myriad of ways in which it’s true. I suspect that understanding what it means to “read while White” is a lifelong process, one filled with listening, self-examination, and transformation. I hope by God’s grace to stay on that road, and I hope that others will join me.

Building a New Testament Library: Hebrews—Revelation

I had one opportunity to spend time one-on-one with the late James D. G. (“Jimmy”) Dunn. In that delightful time, we bonded over our love for the letters from Hebrews to Jude, and he shared that, for him, that love was born out of the fact that his year at Oxford studied neither Paul nor the Gospels but the texts in the New Testament referred to as the “Other.” Though still underrepresented in Christian teaching, more recently, resources on these texts do seem to be appearing with greater frequency. In what follows, I will draw attention only to relatively recent volumes, but with no expectation that these resources should supplant all those that came before them. (I also have tried to offer different recommendations than those previously mentioned in this series, while still underscoring a couple that cannot be missed.) Additionally, while the majority of these commentaries are written by those who identify as evangelicals, I have included some resources from those outside evangelicalism that I think are particularly helpful and serve as useful supplements to evangelical work.

Hebrews

Beginning with Hebrews, in addition to the excellent recent work by Gareth Cockerill in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT; Eerdmans, 2012), I highly recommend the recent commentary by Dana M. Harris in the Exegetical Guides to the Greek New Testament series (B&H Academic, 2019). This is a specialized commentary that focuses on the grammar and syntax of Hebrews. As such, for some who have not studied Greek, it might be difficult to use (initially); however, Harris is incredibly clear and offers an indispensable resource for interacting with the complex—though rich—text of Hebrews. Further, even if you consider yourself limited with respect to the Greek, the volume is very affordable, and Harris’s sermon outlines and brief discussions and bibliographies for topics related to Hebrews are absolutely worth the price. As a bonus resource, technically beyond the commentary genre, I also highly recommend Patrick Gray’s and Amy Peeler’s Hebrews: An Introduction and Study Guide in T&T Clark’s Study Guides to the New Testament (Bloomsbury, 2020). If someone wants a brief yet reliable introduction to Hebrews, they simply must turn to Gray and Peeler. (Peeler also has a commentary on Hebrews forthcoming with Eerdmans that you cannot miss!)

James

Turning toward the Catholic Epistles, some excellent commentaries have appeared on James in the last fifteen years or so. Among these exemplars is the 2008 volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series by Craig L. Blomberg and Miriam J. Kammell (Zondervan, 2008). This commentary showcases the incredible potential of this series by Zondervan. It is attentive to the Greek text, but still offers rich discussions of the argumentation and by extension the theology of James. Much the same could be said of Scot McKnight’s commentary in the NICNT (Eerdmans, 2011). Further McKnight, similar to Blomberg and Kammell, is attentive to the social dimensions at work within James. Though often forgotten, James is an invaluable resource for helping modern pastors and scholars navigate difficult questions being raised today about equity and justice. For those who would to learn about the social situation of James, a bonus resource for consideration is The Scandalous Message of James, by Elsa Tamez (Crossroad, 2002).

1 Peter

Though a bit older (2005, with a second edition expected later this year), the outstanding commentary by Karen H. Jobes in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (BECNT; Baker Academic) remains a crucial contribution to Petrine literature. In it, Jobes offers her distinctive expertise on the Septuagint (Greek versions of Jewish Scripture) to illumine the many quotations and allusions of Scripture within the text. She additionally provides a useful overview of the background of the letter, taking seriously work focused on the social identity of the readers (e.g., John H. Elliot’s work) but integrating that with the historical context (especially their exile from Rome under Claudius). More recently (2017), Dennis R. Edwards published 1 Peter in the Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan). This volume, like others in the series, focuses on relevant intertextual connections at the start of each section, as well as how to apply the text. The work on contemporary application in Edwards’s volume is especially rich. Finally, Craig S. Keener published an exceptional commentary on 1 Peter in 2021 (Baker Academic), and as of today, I believe, it is both the longest and the most recent commentary on 1 Peter. As with all of Keener’s work, it is meticulous and comprehensive—a must read. (As a bonus, watch for Ruth Anne Reese’s volume on 1 Peter in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary [Cambridge University Press, 2022].)

2 Peter and Jude

Since many scholars think 2 Peter draws on Jude (or vice versa), these two books are often addressed together in commentaries series. In the last 10 years, Jörg Frey released The Letter of Jude and the Second Letter of Peter: A Theological Commentary (Baylor University Press, 2018). In it, Frey offers fruitful, theologically engaged commentary on the texts themselves but with consistent attention to how these texts can be situated within New Testament studies more broadly, how they might intersect with early Jewish literature, and how to think about their backgrounds. Frey considers these texts to be pseudepigraphic. Reaching back a bit further, two noteworthy evangelical commentaries are those from Gene L. Green and Ruth Anne Reese. Beginning with Reese, her Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (THNTC; Eerdmans, 2007) is an excellent contribution. As with other volumes in the series, this is a theological commentary that deals with the grammatical, historical, and literary features of 2 Peter and Jude in service of theological discussions. Reese, whose early work focused on Jude, has particular expertise in narrative-critical readings, though she by no means neglects those other aspects of the biblical texts. Green’s commentary in the BECNT (Baker Academic, 2008) also attends to each of these aspects of 2 Peter and Jude but the balance is different. His discussion is thoroughly theological, but the emphasis is more on what he considers the historical backgrounds of the text. Green’s volume offers a more robust discussion of textual issues and intersections with Jewish literature than Reese’s, but they complement each other quite well. (Another forthcoming bonus commentary for these texts is the Wisdom Commentary [Liturgical Press, 2022] by Pheme Perkins, Eloise Rosenblatt, and Patricia McDonald, offering feminist readings of 1–2 Peter and Jude.)

1–3 John

The Johannine Letters received far more attention than usual in the last decade. The most recent contribution to these letters is the THNTC volume by Thomas Andrew Bennett (Eerdmans, 2021). Like Reese above, this is an excellent volume in the series. Bennett interprets these letters in light of what they offer the church today. Given the considerable neglect of 2–3 John in particular, this is a much-needed commentary for most modern pastors and practitioners. Another noteworthy contribution to Johannine literature is the commentary by Alicia D. Myers in the Reading the New Testament series (Smith & Helwys, 2019). Myers, interpreting within the Baptist tradition, provides a “literary and theological” commentary. In this work, she uses a moderate approach to navigating the relationship among texts associated with the apostle John, arguing that they should be read together, but not allowing that relationship to overdetermine how any single text is read. Her contribution to the theology of the Johannine letters is particularly rich and consistently integrates the work of Judith Lieu, whose commentary is arguably the critical standard in the field (New Testament Library; Westminster John Knox, 2008). Finally, I recommend Constantine R. Campbell’s commentary in the Story of God series (Zondervan, 2017). Complementing the other two commentaries, Campbell offers more intertextual connections as well as explicit ways to apply the text today.

Revelation

Last but not least is recommendations for Revelation. As one who was guilty of avoiding this difficult text for quite some time, I am incredibly thankful for excellent resources that help me to preach and teach this text well. Among the most recent contributions is David deSilva’s Discovering Revelation (2021), from the Discovering Biblical Texts series published by Eerdmans. These are excellent volumes that are not traditional commentaries, per se, but offer comprehensive discussions of the text alongside discussing major interpretive issues in the history of interpretation. deSilva offers an excellent discussion of Revelation within its first-century backdrop, enhancing his interpretations through insights from reception history. Revelation by Buist Fanning (ZECNT; Zondervan, 2020) is another great contribution. The notes on the Greek text are particularly thorough, but presented in an accessible manner. Many of those more technical comments appear in the footnotes, which means the main text of the commentary provides higher-level conclusions based on that more technical work. It’s a really great approach that allows for expansive commentary on the many relevant dimensions of Revelation, while not discouraging interpreters who are less comfortable with the Greek text itself. Finally, Michael J. Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly (Cascade, 2011) remains an invaluable resource for teaching Revelation and providing readers with tools to think about how Revelation presses us toward more faithful living today.

Recalculating

I don’t always have the best sense of direction. That’s one reason why I was particularly thankful when GPS systems became available for our cars. I no longer had to pull over to look at a map; rather, I could just obediently listen to the voice traveling with me, telling me where to turn. When I strayed from the best path, the voice in the GPS gently reminded me that the device is “recalculating” and told me where I needed to go.

Some years ago, I was in visiting family in another city. We had to run an errand in a part of the city that was unfamiliar to me, so I got out my GPS. Our eight-year-old son was with us and, to have a bit of fun with him, I set the voice on the GPS to “Yeti.” Yep, Yeti. I’m just weird that way. (I have no idea how the programmers know what a Yeti sounded like.) Well, Joshua loved to hear the funny sounds that the Yeti made when it gave you directions in its Yeti language.

To have even more fun with our son, we intentionally disobeyed the GPS’s directions so that the Yeti would have to correct us. The more we drove, the more it yelled at us in its unintelligible, nonsense language. The more he yelled, the more Joshua laughed at the funny voice. I drove blissfully along, not really knowing where I was going, while we all laughed at Joshua laughing at the funny voice. I had the form and function to accomplish what I needed to do. But rather than listen to the voice that would get me where I needed to go, I decided to listen to the voice that was cute and novel.

The Bible tells us that, in life, we have a guide who reminds us of what we should be doing and where we should be going: the Holy Spirit. Throughout Scripture, we see that the Holy Spirit only affirms what is written in God’s Word to us and is to be our source of direction in all things. This means that individuals and communities will flourish under the Spirit’s guidance. But I’m not so sure we are always listening as we should.

I have an evangelism mentor who tells me, “In order to share your faith, show up in someone else’s life and pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing.” Discerning the many competing voices in our lives and the lives of others can seem difficult. We can face pressure to follow the voices around us, though they may be in direct conflict with God’s desires for us. For those who want to share faith with others, trying to be winsome when the world’s novel voices contradict Jesus’s commands can be exhausting.

However, we do not have to navigate this alone. This is a key reason why John Wesley instructed the early Methodists to “attend upon all the Ordinances of God.” These, he said, included, but are not limited to the public worship of God, the study of Scriptures, celebrating Holy Communion, private prayer, and fasting/abstinence. These are ways the Holy Spirit speaks to us so that we can discern the Lord’s voice from all the competing voices in the world. We best recognize the voices of those with whom we spend the most time. Simply put: To recognize God’s voice, spend time with him.

I might still be lost on the errand with my son if it had not been for the fact that I took along a brother-in-law who lived nearby. He knew the way we were to go and guided me over the noise of the Yeti and my son’s laughter. All I had to do was to discern which voice was just for fun and which one would get me where I needed to go. So it is in our spiritual journeys. We could all use some “recalculating” to make sure we are listening and obeying the Holy Spirit’s perfect directions.

The Dangers of Riches

In the previous Consider Wesley, we saw that John Wesley’s answer to why the Methodists, despite the advantages given them by their doctrine and discipline, are in spiritual decline. It was, he said, their failure to practice self-denial. But this does not complete Wesley’s diagnosis of the problem.

In “Causes of the Inefficiency of Christianity” (1789) he asks why “self-denial in general” is “so little practiced at present among the Methodists.” His observations lead him to conclude that the “Methodists become more and more self-indulgent, because they grow rich.” While many are still poor, others have over decades become much “richer than they were when they first entered the society” (§16).

The danger of riches is not a new concern for Wesley. He sees it as central to Jesus’s teaching and to the New Testament church. Over the course of his ministry, he published sermon after sermon on the topic, including “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount VIII” (1748), “Self-denial” (1760), “The Use of Money” (1760), “The Danger of Riches” (1781), and “On Riches” (1790). Perhaps only his death in 1791 prevented him from writing more.

In contemporary American society, to be rich is considered to be in the millionaire or billionaire class. Wesley has a more biblical definition. As he says in “The Danger of Riches,” “Whoever has sufficient food to eat and raiment to put on, with a place where to lay his head, and something over, is rich” (§I.1) By this definition, most Americans today are rich.

But Wesley’s net is larger still. He is concerned not only for those who are rich but also for those who desire to be rich. For the root of the danger of riches lies in the desires of the heart. To desire riches, whether as a yet-to-be-fulfilled aspiration or as an actual possession, is to shape one’s life around possessions and wealth, not around God. “You cannot serve two masters,” Jesus warned, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24).

Note that Wesley is not speaking here of the poor, who lack food, clothing, or home. Their desire to have enough for themselves and their families is appropriate. The problem is with those who want more than enough and devote their lives to accumulating it.

In Wesley’s writings, he identifies two deadly spiritual effects of the desire for riches. The first is that it leads us to seek life and happiness apart from God, in created things rather than the Creator. Our hearts and lives are centered on and shaped by something other than God. Second, our concentration on acquisition and possessions puts our focus on ourselves rather than others. It compromises compassion and subverts generosity. In sum, the desire for riches is a massive impediment to obeying the two great commandments to love God and neighbor.

Recent studies have shown that Wesley’s worries were not misplaced. A few years ago, Robert Solomon did a segment for PBS on experiments done on how people act when wealthy. Not only did having wealth seem, in most cases, to increase self-centeredness and lessen concern for others in real life, it also did so in game play. When persons played a Monopoly game openly rigged to favor one of the players, over time that player began to act in imperious and demeaning ways toward the other players. In hundreds of varied experiments, this kind of behavior was seen again and again. One’s background or political preferences made no difference.

Wesley wondered in “Causes of the Inefficiency of Christianity” if Christianity has a tendency “to undermine and destroy itself.” For true Christianity causes “diligence and frugality, which in the natural course of things, must beget riches. And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity” (§17).

Whatever we make of Wesley’s musings, a good argument can be made that churches and denominations lose their vitality and become more accommodating to society as their members move into the middle class. But even more concerning is that for many in America, riches as Wesley defines it is readily accessible without much diligence and frugality. In addition, we live in a media-saturated environment that works overtime to inculcate within us those desires for more that Wesley found so deadly.

Wesley’s solution is the same as he proposed in his 1760 sermon “The Use of Money.” Make all you can, by honest labor (diligence). Save all you can, by not wasting money on that which you do not need (frugality). Then, most crucially, give all you can—give all that you do not need to those who do not have enough. This not only removes from our lives this great danger to our salvation but puts into action the love that is what new life in Christ is all about.

Why I Still Love the Church: Another Letter to My Students

 

Dearest students:

Your final reflections in History of Christianity 1 were rather discouraging to me. I loved hearing about all the things you learned and how inspiring St. Francis, the desert saints, and Julian of Norwich were for your own faith. I loved hearing that the class gave you a whole new depth of understanding of the Living, Triune God. I also appreciated your gratitude for a good semester. I am grateful to you as well. You were excellent every day—highly engaged, curious, prepared, energetic, and enthusiastic—you were a truly delightful class!

It’s your enthusiasm and curiosity all semester that has me surprised by how many of you mentioned themes of wanting to leave the church. One of you said you wanted to leave Christianity but follow God, by which I think you meant leave the organized part of the religion. If I understand you correctly, your reasoning is that you discovered both what the church can be and what the church often is as you studied its history. I do understand that. There were great moments in the church, for sure. Martyrs were severely committed to Christ. So were the desert saints. I see how attractive that commitment to the way of Christ is. We spent time on Christendom and the ways and places the church didn’t live up to the way of Christ, too, and I understand that you may not want to be part of that. I think also that many of you look around at the church in North America and don’t see the kind of commitment you admire in the martyrs but do see the problematic strains of Christendom, even in post-Christendom. Know that I hear you. And I don’t disagree with you.

And yet, leaving the church is not the answer. The church is two thousand years old, which makes her like your elderly great-grandmother who doesn’t move very quickly anymore, who doesn’t always see that great, who sometimes spouts some opinions that you don’t agree with, but who is still your great-grandmother. You can’t stop being her great-grandchild just because you’re embarrassed when you’re with her or because you wish she were different. She loves you, and you’re stuck with her.

Unlike your great-grandmother, though, you can change the church. By joining in its leadership—ordained and lay—you can decide how it’s going to look and act in this generation. I am unashamed to say that I think she is worth keeping and worth sticking with and worth trying to change. For all that it isn’t what it could be and isn’t what Jesus will eventually make it to be, I love the church. Your comments about not loving it, about wanting to leave it, pain me. So let me tell you why I still love the church in hopes that you’ll give her another chance.

I love the church because like the old stained-glass, the church is beautiful in all its colors. The church isn’t just one thing. It is beautiful because it is colorful, intricate, complex, profound, and simultaneously fragile and sturdy. God is working in the church in all kinds of different ways. When I look at what I can see I am overwhelmed by beauty. When I think of all that I know God is doing that I cannot see or even imagine, I am in awe.

I love the church most because that’s where Christ is. The church is the Body of Christ on earth. We’re it. There are no “better” people. I love the church because God loves the church, and God has decided to work through the church. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ. We are the way God comes to us and to the world. Therefore, the church is where I encounter God. God has promised to be there. God is there in the sacraments, performing mysteries with a devotion and regularity that reveals love and commitment. God is there in Scripture read and performed, speaking his Word and binding us into the story of his redemption. God is there in the Word preached, sometimes even getting up off the page and walking about the sanctuary. (I borrow this image from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who says that the sermon is when Christ gets up and walks among the congregation—“The Proclaimed Word,” in The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present, ed. Richard Lischer [Eerdmans, 2002], 34.) God is there in the confession and pardon, convicting, hearing, and speaking good news to us week after week. God is there in the singing, the offering of gifts, and the prayers. And in the benediction, God lays his hand on each one of our heads and blesses us to go back into the world for another week.

God is there in the people, too. The church is, after all, the people who follow Christ. God comes to us through one another. So in the church, God is there in Rosemary, in Jim, in George, in Paul, in Lisa, in Kristen, in Kent, in Scott, in Mackenzie. God is there in the people who annoy and frustrate me, too, in the people who I think are not following Christ the way they should. But if they are in the church, God is working in them, just as God is working in me. And so the church is also a place where I witness God redeeming the world and making human beings look more like him. That is a genuine miracle.

Come to church with me Sunday. I’ll tell you more about what I see.

With all love,
Your professor

Faithful Church Life: Moving toward the Center

Drilling for oil in deep-sea conditions introduces some challenges, and not only because it’s a long way down from the ocean surface to the ocean floor. There’s also the problem of how to account for ocean waves strong enough to fracture and break the platform supports, allowing the platform to float away from the drilling site. A typical solution to this problem has been tethering the platform to the ocean floor so that it is free to move in whatever direction the waves might take it, while keeping it centered for purposes of drilling.

The metaphorical possibilities for thinking about church presented by deep-sea drilling came to mind as I read Mark D. Baker’s new book, Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community without Judgmentalism (IVP Academic, 2021). The church needs to be tethered to its center as it engages wider cultural currents and too easily allows one or another of those cultural currents to serve as its chief navigator. This is especially true today, given the ease with which religious communities identify themselves with various political or social movements or positions or figures. I’m not sure, though, that this is the first place Baker would have wanted my mind to go as I read his book. Here, he is less concerned with the church’s rigidity vis-à-vis the broader culture within which it carves out faithfulness of thought and life, and more interested with what we might call inter-ecclesial boundary-making and line-drawing.

Introducing his book, Baker provides a helpful anecdote that identifies the problem he wants to address. Although he had “come a long way from [his] high school legalism,” he reports being stunned as a young adult at a Bible study. The teacher “drew a line that angled uphill and said:”

“Many evangelical students see their life as a progression from the legalism of their youth to a more mature Christianity, which stresses issues of lifestyle and justice and explores authentic Christianity. It appears they have moved forward.” I thought, Yes, that’s me. Then he drew a circle and at different points wrote legalism, simple lifestyle, freedom to drink, and issues of justice. He pointed to the circle. “They move along, but they are not going anywhere. They just change one means of judging themselves as superior for another.”

Baker’s account is telling in three ways germane to the way this book unfolds. First, this book is self-involving for its author. He isn’t talking about those people over there, those others with tendencies toward judgmental boundary-making. His repeated references to his own narrative disarmingly ensure that we all find ourselves implicated in this message.

Second, this story subtly introduces the transformation this book invites: a movement away from “bounded sets” and “fuzzy sets”—which define hard boundaries between them and us or that shun all such distinctions—and toward “centered sets.” The model with which Baker works derives from the earlier publications of the missiologist Paul Hiebert. What is fresh about Baker’s approach, and this is the third point, is how the model of “centered set” is worked out in relation to all sorts of ecclesial practices and habits of speech. Since Baker came face to face with his own need for ongoing transformation in a Bible study, it isn’t surprising that he explores what “centered set” means in the range of ways the church expresses its vocation: in worship, in education, in mission, in preaching, in recovery programs, in its understanding of membership, in community fellowship—and on and on the list goes.

What might it look like to lead a centered-set church? Here are down-to-earth considerations and exemplars, as well as penetrating and hopeful engagement with those who might question whether this is even (or always) possible.

Mark’s Gospel relates an exchange between Jesus and his disciple John:

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.” (Mark 9:38–41 Common English Bible)

I’ve always found this episode amusing, tragically so. John doesn’t say, “Because he wasn’t following you,” as though the measure of faithfulness were somehow tied to Jesus. Instead, he observes that this exorcist “wasn’t following us”—as though, somehow, we control what following Jesus should look like. This tendency toward boundary-making is visible elsewhere in the New Testament, too. We might think of the opening of 1 Corinthians: “My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘I belong to Apollos,’ ‘I belong to Cephas,’ ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?” (1 Cor 1:11–13). We can only imagine what ideas or practices each of these bounded-set clusters used to set up as walls isolating themselves from the others.

Baker directs our attention to neither of these texts, preferring instead to interact especially with Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He thus reprises some of the work he did in his earlier book Religious No More: Building Communities of Grace and Freedom (InterVarsity Press, 1999; repr. ed., Wipf & Stock, 2005)—though now with the leaven of even more of his extensive experience in church, parachurch, missional, and educational settings, and with the added analytical tools provided by his interaction with Hiebert’s work. This combination of reading Scripture and drawing out the wisdom gained through years of ministry in a variety of contexts and from interviews with other ministry leaders both clarifies the perennial nature of the challenges of bounded and fuzzy sets and underscores the timeliness of this call for a centered-set ecclesiology.

The strength of Centered-Set Church, though, is not in its analysis of the problem or even its sketching of models by which to portray the way forward. As important as these are, the genius of this book lies in its dialogical focus on the lived experience of Christian communities practicing encouragement and intervention, discerning what it means to orient ourselves toward the God we know in Jesus Christ. This is the sort of book ministry leaders will want to read together and discuss with their teams.

Inhabiting Scripture, Searching the Scriptures

O Lord, do not let my heart not be proud,
May my eyes not be haughty and look on others condescendingly

The timbre of his voice had a quiet confidence that made the words resonate in the heart as well as the ear. He spoke the opening words of Psalm 131 as a request—the tiniest of changes from the declarative sentences they normally appear in as Scripture. It was evident that this was more than a psalm he had studied and knew well—it was his prayer. He didn’t just teach his students how to exegete Scripture, he showed us how to pray God’s word. And he inhabited Scripture in such a way that it lived within him, shaping who he was and how he carried himself in the world.

Without a doubt, an inspiration for these essays on the formative nature of Scripture are experiences I had to learn about praying Scripture from this man who shepherded me through the early phases of the ordination process. In my own teaching, I’ve gravitated to lectio divina, Ignatian contemplation, and breath prayer in my class devotionals for all sorts of practical and pedagogical reasons. But, if perfectly transparent, I seek these methods because they may just provide me with what I observed in him and desire in my own prayer life: a meaningful encounter with God.

Rereading his classic, Shaped by the Word (Upper Room, 1985), Robert Mulholland reminded me that, for the Christian, Bible reading and Bible study are properly understood as a means of grace. It is a method God chooses to use and one in which persons can participate. Often though, I consider Bible reading a “spiritual discipline” or a “practice of faith.” On a certain level, the terms are interchangeable, but such use shifts the dynamic. These terms infer that the reader has agency in the matter. Bible study as a spiritual discipline becomes about us when we undertake the practice to get better at it or to gain something—perhaps preach a better sermon, write an exegetical paper, or even just impress family and friends when “The Bible” is a category on Jeopardy!

Mulholland teaches that Bible reading becomes a means of grace when we take away our agenda of knowing more, understanding more and allow the Scriptures to read us and our lives. The means of Bible reading are a method to seek God, but not a guarantee that God will be found. We can know it is a means of grace if we relinquish all claims of our own on the text and allow God to do with it in our lives as God sees fit, even—and including—if God may do absolutely nothing with our encounter of Scripture.

Let me not be concerned with great matters and things that are beyond me.
May my soul be still and quieted just as a nursed child lies content at its mother’s breast.

In his prayer, Mulholland inhabits the psalm because he approached it as the living word of God. He believed Scripture has an iconographic nature. Just as an icon invites us to set aside or release us from our linear, rational, ordered sense of the world and draws us into the mystical beauty of the symbols within them, Scripture invites us to dwell within it. This means entering it prayerfully, with the expectation that the Holy Spirit not only guides us, but that there is an invitation to experience God in new ways and enliven our lives as a result of our encounter.
Bible reading and study, when considered iconographically, is about far more than information to be grasped but a relationship to be experienced.

I find it significant that Wesley referred to Bible reading and study as “searching the Scriptures.” A search is undertaken when we want to find someone we consider important. Searching the Scriptures encompasses more than the rational, intellectual pursuits that come with reading and interpreting the Bible. It includes the affective and behavioral aspects of knowing that are part and parcel with relationship. We search the Scriptures in prayerful obedience with hopes of fulfillment in our relationship with God. We search the Scriptures because we believe God has something to teach us about growing in Christlikeness. Searching the Scriptures is a lifelong endeavor—one undertaken with humility and deference that God’s goodness might be revealed in our lives. And just as God’s grace was revealed in the life of my mentor and friend, with a power that the passing of years has not be diminished, I pray that it is illuminated within me, inspiring others to know firsthand the goodness of relationship with God.

Just as that child is, may I be as fulfilled with what you have offered and provided for me.
Oh, may we all, as children of God, put our hope, now and forevermore, in you.

January 2022 JWF Conference

The 2022 AFTE Christmas Conference was held at The Woodlands Methodist Church in The Woodlands Texas January 13-15, 2022. Both in person and live streaming options were provided for attendees and the conference was well attended.

Fellows remarked on their …

Even Now? A Christian Pacificist Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

You could almost hear the sighs of relief between the lines of handwringing op-eds in the buildup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For all the noise about the new threat and about the undoing of the world order, there was a palpable sense of things returning to familiar grounds: a historic enemy behaving like a summer blockbuster villain, state actors vying for global power (instead of terrorist cells upstaging superpowers), and NATO getting the chance to flex its muscles. Above all: a return to something worth fighting for, a genuine, universally recognizable justification for military strength and the military-industrial complex.

Last May, I argued that John Wesley ought to have been a pacificist and that we, his descendants, have an opportunity “to complete what is lacking” in our forebear’s theological ethics. In The Doctrine of Original Sin, Wesley identifies war as a “horrid reproach to the Christian name.” But what happens when there is a clear case of a powerful aggressor perpetrating war against a country that poses no military threat? Doesn’t such a situation show the need for a country to defend itself using the means it has, as Ukraine has done? And does it not also show that other countries must be prepared to supply a country like Ukraine with military provisions? In other words, doesn’t Christian pacifism fall to pieces precisely in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Events have unfolded so rapidly that it is impossible to predict what stage this conflict will be in by the time you read this, but it is undoubtedly true that early Ukrainian resistance to the Russian force has been inspiring, even if also heartrending. A pacifist response to Russia’s unjustifiable invasion does not need to deny the bravery or heroism of Ukrainians.

Rather, a true response begins by questioning the narrative implicit in using Ukraine as a justification for militarization. The implicit narrative is that NATO’s ability to supply Ukraine with weapons prevents “something worse” than what is already happening. There are good geopolitical reasons to doubt this narrative; even the hawkish New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote that “America and NATO aren’t innocent bystanders” to this conflict.

More importantly, there are Christian reasons to reject such “preventing something worse” narratives whole cloth. First, the worst thing imaginable has already happened: the crucifixion of the Son of God. To believe that “something worse” could take place is to neglect the significance of the crucifixion for our identity as forgiven, reconciled members of the body of Christ.

Second, sin and evil of a supposedly lesser degree, as in the violence of self-defense, do not mitigate sin and evil of a supposedly greater degree. Sin and evil compound sin and evil, no matter the degree. As Paul reminds us in Romans 6, there is no justification for sin: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom 6:1–3, 15 NRSV). Sin does not contribute positively even to our attaining the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps, however unlikely, the violence of self-defense is not actually a sin. This possibility, though, points to a third Christian pacificist response: Far from “preventing something worse,” militarization establishes the very conditions that make war (not violence, per se, but specifically the violence of war) possible in the first place. Ukrainians are not just taking up plowshares and beating them into swords to defend themselves; they are receiving missiles and machine guns manufactured for warfare. The “tools” for their self-defense are the same “tools” that make a Russian offensive possible. And the militarization that feeds the creation of such “tools” (while warping human intelligence, time, and creativity for destructive ends) has a vested interest in people imagining and fearing “something worse” instead of working for the sake of something better.

Christian pacificism does not merely invite us to imagine a world where this or that war is prevented through peaceful means. Christian pacificism urges us to upend the conditions that make war possible for the sake of a better alternative. That alternative is the kingdom of God, which is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17 NRSV). There is nothing better than working for the sake of God’s kingdom, which is why the church must bear a radical witness to peace even—especially—in the face of a war like the one we see today.

On Self-Denial

John Wesley had an optimism of grace. He witnessed in thousands of lives what the power of God could do. When he thought of all God had done in the awakening, it was easy for Wesley to envision the entire church, and then the world, renewed in holiness, as he did in his 1783 sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel.”

But Wesley was also a close observer of human beings, especially within Methodism. What he saw as he neared the end of his life was disturbing. This somewhat gloomier outlook pervades his sermons “On God’s Vineyard” (1787) and “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” (1789).

In both sermons, Wesley celebrates that God has provided the Methodists with both doctrine and “spiritual helps,” including discipline. Hence Methodists knew the promises of God for both justification and sanctification. They also had conferencing, spiritual disciplines, classes, and bands to keep them open to God’s work in their lives. So given these advantages, why were Methodists still falling short of lives marked by holy and humble love?

In “On God’s Vineyard” Wesley says that instead of “the most excellent grapes”—“the fruit of the Spirit”—the vineyard has produced wild grapes of erroneous teaching, “imaginary inspiration,” pride, censoriousness and condemnation, “anger, hatred, malice, revenge, and every evil word and work-all direful fruits, not of the Spirit, but of the bottomless pit” (§V.1–2)
In addition to this severe indictment, Wesley adds that it has brought forth, especially in “those that are increased in goods,” “that grand poison of souls, the love of the world” (§V.3). This is clearly not the renewal in holiness for which Wesley had devoted his life.

In “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” Wesley offers a more considered diagnosis of the problem. At its heart was the failure of many Methodists to obey the command of Jesus to take up one’s cross and follow him. The “Methodists in general,” he wrote,” “are deplorably wanting in the practice of Christian self-denial” (§14). In this sermon, self-denial is lifted up as essential to Christian growth as doctrine and discipline.

Earlier, in 1760, Wesley had devoted an entire sermon to “self-denial.” While there are many hindrances to the spiritual life, Wesley finds they “are all resolvable into these general ones,—either we do not deny ourselves, or we do not take up our cross” (§4).

The reason for this is simple. “The Will of God is a path leading straight to God. The will of man, which once ran parallel to it, is now another path, not only different from it, but in our present state, directly contrary to it. It leads from God. If, therefore, we walk in one, we must necessarily quit the other” (§I.4).

Let’s look closely at how Wesley defines self-denial. It is, he said, “the denying or refusing to follow our own will, from a conviction that the will of God is the only rule of action to us” (§I.2). Likewise, talking up our cross is “anything that is contrary to our will, anything displeasing to our nature,” but which we must do if we are to follow Christ (§I.7).

Notice that Wesley sees this as a denial of our will. In good Enlightenment fashion we tend to see our will as free, a neutral capacity enabling us to choose whatever we want. Wesley understands the will as captive to sin, and apart from grace consists of unholy tempers that govern our dispositions, motives, and desires. So yes, we choose what we want, but what we want is always compromised by these unholy tempers. So, to follow Jesus we must deny our sinful will and its accompanying desires in order to take up our cross.

The promise of salvation is that God will replace those unholy tempers with holy tempers, enabling our hearts and lives to be governed by love and other fruit of the Spirit. This is what sanctification accomplishes. But that work is not completed until we attain Christian perfection, and even then, temptations remain.

Christian perfection, in which love fully governs the heart and life, is the goal of salvation. But given that God’s grace is not irresistible, to grow in knowledge and love of God requires our grace-enabled response. Along with doctrine (the promise of holiness) and discipline, the practice of self-denial was essential for Wesley’s Methodists to respond to their call to follow Jesus. It remains just as essential today.

The Wesleyan Tradition’s Long Road to Reclaiming the Ancient Church’s Practice of Ordaining Women

Although John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, respected and employed women in ministry, neither he nor his early successors in the eighteenth century advocated for the ordination of women. During his lifetime, it was rare for a Christian group to embrace the value of ordaining women, despite biblical and spiritual bases and historic precedents in favor of the practice. We’ve explored these precedents and the struggles over their continuance in the early and medieval periods of the church in previous blogs. (See here and here.) Following Wesley’s footsteps, the ordination of women was not allowed among early American denominations in the Wesleyan tradition, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, that developed in the wake of the new nation’s independence.

Widespread resistance to the recognition of God’s call on women to ministry and even more so to the ordination of women was, however, called into question in the nineteenth century in the US by women in the Wesleyan tradition who acknowledged God’s calling on their lives for ministry, and by men who supported an affirmative ecclesiastical response to this call. In the early 1800s, for example, Jarena Lee of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Fanny Butterfield Newell and Maggie Newton Van Cott of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Lydia Sexton of the United Brethren in Christ came forward with announcements of God’s call on them to preach. Because of evidence of their respective callings and fruits of their ministerial labors, they each became an exception to established, American Methodist denominational rules against women being licensed to preach.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, growing numbers of Wesleyan and Methodist bodies began to acknowledge more formally God’s calling on women for a variety of Christian ministries. Missionary organizations discovered that women were needed in mission fields to perform ministries in association with other women in both international and domestic contexts so began to commission and deploy female missionaries. In 1869 Methodist Episcopal women in Boston organized the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society and sent Miss Isabella Thoburn and Dr. Clara Swain to India as missionaries. Likewise, women called to use their gifts as lay leaders and deaconesses were eventually permitted to do so, with the Methodist Episcopal Church approving the order of deaconess in 1888 and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church seating women as lay delegates in 1892. In 1889 the Methodist Episcopal Church consecrated and licensed Isabell Reeves as a deaconess, the first of many women to be authorized to serve in this biblical, ministerial role within the Wesleyan and Methodist tradition.

American Wesleyan, Methodist, and Pietist denominations finally reached milestones in spiritual and ministerial egalitarianism when Wesleyan Methodist, Methodist Protestant, and United Brethren in Christ denominations began ordaining and granting full clergy rights to women in the late nineteenth century. The Illinois Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church ordained Mary Wills in 1861, Methodist Protestants ordained Maggie Elliot in 1877 and Anna Howard Shaw in 1888, and the United Brethren in Christ ordained Ella Niswonger in 1889. The African Methodist Episcopal Church ordained Julia Foote as a deacon in 1894 and as an elder in 1900. The Wesleyan Methodists and Free Methodists made continuing, firm commitments to the ordination of women in 1891 and 1911, respectively. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church granted women licensing and ordination rights as local preachers, deacons, and elders in 1918 and full clergy rights in 1966. The Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal, South, Churches began ordaining women in 1924 and 1930, respectively. This practice was finally approved by their successor denomination, The Methodist Church, with the ordination of Maud Keister in 1956, one hundred and seventy-two years after the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church. For its part, The United Methodist Church, founded in 1968 with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist denominations, has, for the half-century plus four years since its inception, steadfastly continued the practice of ordaining women and men who are called by God into the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The significant history of these developments is, unfortunately, often recounted and taught to students of the Wesleyan tradition in isolation from the larger history of Christianity. The problem with learning this heritage apart from the larger historical narrative is that it often leads to an erroneous conclusion that the heirs of Wesleyan thought and practice (and some of their contemporaries) came up with the idea that women called to ministry ought to be ordained as are men called to ministry. Furthermore, isolating this history from the larger narrative gives the impression that the ordination of women is only a modern development, possibly even a fad that may not stand the test of time. Disconnected from biblical and ancient church narratives, the biblical concept and practice of ordaining women become easy prey to selective biblical literalists and those with personal and political reasons to oppose the ordination of women.

It is important to remember that the women among us today who are ordained or candidates for ordination are not anomalies or representatives of a passing fad. Nor is the ordination of women something recent or new, although it has been fought for and against throughout the centuries of church history as if it is somehow a novel or dangerous practice. Women called and ordained into Christ’s ministry stand in a line of humble, obedient women two millennia long that includes Jesus’ own mother and friends, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia the apostle, Olympias the Deacon, Leta the Presbytera, Athanasia and Isabell Reeves the deaconesses, Mary Wills, Anna Howard Shaw, Ella Niswonger, Julia Foote, Maud Keister, and innumerable others who have been and yet will be faithful to the call of God to serve in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

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