Fearfully and Wonderfully Made? What About Those Born Handicapped?

A few days ago I received a question from someone in our church:

Psalm 139 says: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

How is this true of those born with birth defects?

This past Sunday we started a class at White Fields called Christianity 101. The goal of the class is to teach people the core doctrines of Christianity over the course of 4 weeks. The first week covers the topic of: Who is God? To answer this question, we look at the various attributes of God and then consider: 1) the implications of that attribute for people in general, and 2) the application for you and your life in particular.

Before looking at the attributes of God, we begin with the question with which the Westminster Catechism begins: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

What you find is that as you consider multiple attributes of God, the implications of these attributes compound together to answer questions like the one above.

For example, God is:

  • Sovereign (does what He wants, see: Psalm 115:3)
  • Omniscient (knows everything)
  • Omnipotent (can do anything)
  • Righteous (good)
  • Love
  • Immutable (having integrity, unchanging)

If all of these are true at the same time and all the time (that’s where the immutability comes in), then it helps us to determine an answer to many questions, including the one above.

The other factor to take into consideration is this: “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). We live in a fallen, broken world, which Jesus came to redeem, but as it stands now, “all of creation waits with eager longing…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For…the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In other words: We live in a broken world, where things are not the way that they “should be.” One day, everything will be made right, because of the redeeming work of Jesus. As it is now, God can do anything, and He does whatever He wants, but He doesn’t always do everything that we think He should do. We must remember though, that He knows more than we do, and that everything He does (or doesn’t do) is based on love, and is for our ultimate good and for his ultimate glory.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most encouraging is Revelation 16:7. In this section, we are reading about the vision that God gave John about the future and how, in the end, God wins and defeats evil for good. In this particular section, John is having a vision of heaven, and many people standing before the throne, after believers have been killed for their faith. And this is the statement that is spoken in heaven: “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.”

In other words: there are a lot of things that happen here on Earth, about which we wonder: How is that fair? How can a good, loving God allow that to happen? But here is what this verse is telling us: that one day, when we get God’s perspective on things, the perspective that you can only have from heaven, you too will say: every judgment you made, O God, was right and true. You may not see it now, but you will. That’s the promise.

Regarding the omniscience of God, and that He has created us for His glory, it is like the time when Jesus’ disciples asked him about a man born blind:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3)

God created us for His glory. That means that we are not the owners of our lives — we are tenants. (I will be talking about that subject this coming Sunday at White Fields as we study the Parable of the Tenants).

A few years ago, when our daughter was born, she suffered a severe oxygen deficiency which caused brain damage. She was in a coma for a week, and we were told she would be seriously handicapped for the rest of her life. During that time, my wife and I grieved, and we sought the Lord, both for our daughter’s healing, but also to give us the grace and strength to be able to handle whatever happened. We came to the conclusion, that no matter what happened, we wanted our daughter to be happy and to love God and know that He loved her. The fact is, that there are many mentally handicapped people who are happy and have a very pure love for God.
This week, I ran across this video about people with Down’s Syndrome being asked why they were so happy and why they love themselves and other people so much. It’s worth watching.

In the end, God healed our daughter. I’ve written about that story here if you’re interested in reading it: I Believe in Miracles. Here’s Why. If He hadn’t, we’d still love and trust Him, and our hearts do go out to those whose loved ones have not been healed…yet. That is the hope that we have in Jesus — that for those who are in Christ, it is only a matter of time before all is made right.

Maranatha. Come quickly Lord Jesus!

What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?

This week I’m hosting Calvary Live, a call-in radio show on GraceFM. One of the questions I received yesterday from a listener is a very common point of confusion:

If the Bible says Jesus is the Son of God, how is it that Christians say that he is God?

I answered this question on the air yesterday, but then got a follow-up question via email. Here are my responses; hopefully they will help others who have similar questions.

Understanding the Term “Son of God”

The term Son of God is used in reference to Jesus many times in the New Testament. In John 20:31, John says: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” If believing that Jesus is the Son of God is so important, it is essential that we understand what that means.

“Son of Man” / “Son of God” / God the Son

Three different titles are often used of Jesus. Here’s what each of them refers to:

  1. Son of Man: This title is used 88 times in the New Testament, often by Jesus in reference to himself. It is a Messianic title which comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel: Daniel 7:13-14.
    By calling himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus is saying two things about himself: 1) He is the Messiah, 2) He is fully human. This is important, because there are those who are called monophysiteswho believe that Jesus only had one (mono) nature (physis), i.e. that he was either fully human or fully deity, but not both. This position is held by the Coptic (Egyptian) church, but is generally considered heterodox.
  2. Son of God: Refers to Jesus’ authority and deity. Thus by saying that Jesus is the Son of Man and the Son of God, the Bible is teaching that Jesus was at the same time: fully human, the Messiah, and fully God. More on this below.
  3. God the Son: Refers to Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. For great resources on the Trinity and the deity of Christ, click here.

“Son of God” refers to nature and authority, not to origin

Jesus is not the Son of God in the sense that he is God’s “offspring,” rather this term must be understood in light of how the term “Son of ______” was used in ancient, and specifically Hebrew, thinking/language.

One writer puts it this way:

The word “son” was employed among the Semites to signify not only filiation, but other close connexion or intimate relationship. Thus, “a son of strength” was a hero, a warrior, “son of wickedness” a wicked man, “sons of pride” wild beasts, “son of possession” a possessor, “son of pledging” a hostage, “son of lightning” a swift bird, “son of death” one doomed to death, “son of a bow” an arrow, “son of Belial” a wicked man, “sons of prophets” disciples of prophets etc. The title “son of God” was applied in the Old Testament to persons having any special relationship with God.
But the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Elect of God, was par excellence called the Son of God (Psalm 2:7)

So, to be THE Son of God was a title reserved for the Messiah (or Christ in Greek). This is very clear from several verses which equate the term “Son of God” with the Christ/Messiah.
For example: John 20:31 – …so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…  or Matthew 26:63 – the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

However, when Jesus answers that question, affirming that he is the Son of God – he is accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Why would claiming to be the Son of God be considered blasphemy and worthy of a death sentence? It’s because the Jewish leaders understand exactly what the phrase “Son of God” meant: to be the Son of God meant to be of the same nature as God, in other words: to be God. That claim was considered blasphemy and according to Leviticus 24:15-16, a blasphemer was to be put to death.

We see this very clearly in an interaction between Jesus and a crowd in Jerusalem:

Jesus said… “I and the Father are one.”

Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

Hebrews 1:3 expresses this concept that the term “Son of God” refers to Jesus being of the exact nature as God, i.e. Jesus is God:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Not only did Jesus directly claim to be God – which was the very reason why the Jewish authorities demanded that he be executed, but Jesus made several other claims to the fact of his deity:

  1. Jesus invoked the ancient and sacred name of God (I am) in speaking of himself. For this reason, the Jewish people tried to stone him on more than one occasion, for example: John 8:58-59 – Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
  2. Jesus claimed to do things that only God could do, such as forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8) and resurrect the dead (John 11:25)

So Son of God refers to Jesus nature and authority, not to his origin.

The opening verses of the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus did not come into being when he was born as a baby in Bethlehem, but that he had existed from eternity past, as he is indeed God made manifest in human flesh.

The understanding that the Messiah is in fact God himself, come to the world in human flesh, is found in the Old Testament

Perhaps the best, but certainly not the only example of this is found in Isaiah 9, where speaking of the Messiah, it says:

For to us a child is born, (a human child who will be born)
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end, (eternal).   (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Does Isaiah 53:10 say that Jesus is God’s “offspring”?

The question I got from another listener in response to this answer was asking if Isaiah 53:10 doesn’t actually refer to Jesus as the “offspring” of God.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

The answer is very simple: the “offspring” referred to here is the offspring not of “the Lord,” but of the “suffering servant” (the one whose soul is made an offering for guilt).

What this is referring to is how, through Jesus’ death, many others would come to (spiritual) life.

This is actually referenced to by Jesus in John 12:24, but in order to see this, we have to understand that the word translated into English as “offspring” is literally the word “seed”.

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (offspring).”  (John 12:24)

Isaiah 53:10 therefore, is not referring to Jesus as God’s offspring, but referring to those who will come to new life as a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

I hope this helps make sense of these things! Thanks for reading; if you have any comments or further questions, please write them below.

Good Friday: The Great Exchange

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The good news of Good Friday is that “It is finished!” (John 19:30) Because of that, we can rest from our labors of trying to justify ourselves, and we can revel in hope, because not only were our sins imputed to Jesus, but his righteousness was imputed to us.

This is what it means when it says: “For our sake, He (God) made Him (Jesus), who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It’s the most astonishing exchange of all time: for those who receive Him (John 1:12), all of your sinfulness was placed on Him, and in return all of His righteousness was accounted to you.

Jürgen Moltmann puts it this way:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” (from The Crucified God)

Moltmann goes on to say:

God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.

May your Good Friday be filled with reflection upon, appreciation for and response to what Jesus did for you on Calvary, the ultimate expression of God’s love for you!

 

Back to School

Yesterday I received my letter of acceptance from London School of Theology, where I will begin my postgraduate studies starting this September to get a Master of Arts in Integrative Theology.

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I will be studying via distance learning, which means I won’t have to travel at all and will be able to make my own schedule, both of which are important to me since I’m a full-time pastor and have a family at home. I looked into a local school in Colorado, but I prefer the British approach to education. Also, British schools are more affordable than US schools when it comes to studying Christian theology because in the US it is only taught in private universities because of the separation of church and state – whereas in the UK public universities can have theology departments. I would recommend Americans who want to study theology to really consider looking into studying via distance learning in Britain.

I’m excited to go back to school and continue my theological education. It’s been nice taking a year off, but I am ready to get back into it.

I am still in Kyiv; I fly home tomorrow morning. Today I got to visit Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary and speak to the students and staff.

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The faculty and students of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary

Several months ago I met a couple who live in Berthoud, CO who run an organization called Ukraine Orphan Outreach. It was through them that I got connected to people at the seminary, and as it turns out there are several people from Calvary Chapel in Ukraine who work and study there.

I was impressed with their school and its mission: “To strengthen churches and transform society” – as well as the work they are doing to accomplish that. Having an interdenominational evangelical seminary in Ukraine is a great asset to the church here.

The school has many students from outside of Ukraine, and recently they started a second campus of their school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. They also operate several mini-campuses in cities around Ukraine, for people who want to study with them but have difficulty coming to Kyiv.

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A class at UETS

I’m praying that God uses and blesses the work of UETS to raise up and train many ministers of the gospel to work in this country and the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Politics and Identity

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Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have been following the political developments in the U.S. In such a caustic and antagonistic climate, I would much rather be known for my stance on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel than for my personal convictions about political matters. That is the drum that I will beat and the hill I will be willing to die on.

Why is it that the political climate is so caustic and people are so divided? According to many sociologists, philosophers and theologians, the issue is one of identity: namely, that one of the most common ways that people create identity is through “the exclusion of the Other.”

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “We can’t create ‘Us’ without also creating ‘Them.’ Social belonging happens only as some other contrasting group is labeled as the Different or the Other. We bolster our identity by seeing others in a negative light and by excluding them in some way.” (Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 8)

In other words: I can feel I am one of the good people because I know I am not one of the bad people. Therefore the “Other” must be degraded, excluded and/or vilified in order for me to have a sense of self-worth.

Croatian theologian and professor at Yale University, Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that the reason we indulge in these attitudes and practices is that by denouncing and blaming the Other it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.”

One great example of this, Timothy Keller points out, is: “If I find my identity in working for liberal political and social causes, it is inevitable that I will scorn conservatives, and the same goes for conservatives regarding liberals. In fact, if the feelings of loathing toward the opposition are not there, it might be concluded that my political position is not very close to the core of who I am.” (Making Sense of God, p. 145)

In order to do this, Wolf says, we must “over-bind” and “over-separate”: To over-separate means to fail to recognize what we do have in common, and to over-bind means to refuse other people the right to be different from us.

This practice is common in many areas, not just in regard to politics.

Keller goes on to say: “If my identity rests to a great degree in being moral and religious, then I will disdain those people I think of as immoral. If my self-worth is bound up with being a hardworking person, I will look down on those whom I consider lazy. As the postmodernists rightly point out, this condescending attitude toward the Other is part of how identity works, how we feel good and significant.” (Ibid.)

Jesus himself gave an example of this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV

Jesus is describing people who excluded, degraded and vilified others for the purpose of bolstering their own sense of self-worth, value and identity. However, much to their surprise, Jesus tells them that God does not play this game – in fact, he is very much opposed to it, because it is rooted in pride and self-justification rather than humility.

What then is the solution?

The solution is this: we must find our identity not in being better than others, but in who we are in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus has done for us. We need an identity which is centered on the Cross.

The fact that Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation is both a profound statement of our sin and failure, and at the same time the greatest expression of love and of our value to God. In this sense, my identity and value is not based on me being better than other people – rather it does not allow me to see myself as better than others. I, like them, have sinned and fallen short. My value, according to the gospel, is that God loves me so much that he was willing to pay the greatest cost and hold nothing back; he is that devoted and committed to me.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, rather than in our political or other affiliations, and may the way Christians express their political views not be a hindrance to the message of the gospel.

A Modern Myth

51vrjuzftllI just finished reading N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. He is a great thinker and while I may not agree with him on everything, I do appreciate his writing. Here’s a quote from How God Became King which I found particularly insightful and encouraging regarding the “modern myth” of the failure of Christianity and the attempts to relegate it to the realm of private religion rather than the revolutionary message it truly is.

“The failure of Christianity is a modern myth, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of telling the proper story of church history, which of course has plenty of muddle and wickedness, but also far more than we normally imagine of love and creativity and beauty and justice and healing and education and hope. To imagine a world without the gospel of Jesus is to imagine a pretty bleak place.

Of course the reason the Enlightenment has taught us to trash our own history, to say that Christianity is part of the problem, is that it has had a rival eschatology to promote. It couldn’t allow Christianity to claim that world history turned its great corner when Jesus of Nazareth died and rose again, because it wanted to claim that world history turned its great corner in Europe in the 18th century. “All that went before,” it says, “is superstition and mumbo-jumbo. We have now seen the great light, and our modern science, technology, philosophy and politics have ushered in the new order of the ages.”

That was believed and expounded in America and France, and it has soaked into our popular culture and imagination. So, of course, Christianity is reduced from an eschatology (” this is where history was meant to be going, despite appearances!”) To a religion (“here is a way of being spiritual”), because world history can’t have two great turning points.

If the enlightenment is the great, dramatic, all-important corner of world history, Jesus can’t have been. He is still wanted on board, of course, as a figure through whom people can try to approach the incomprehensible mystery of the”divine” as a teacher of moral truths that might, if applied, actually strengthen the fabric of the brave new post-Enlightenment society. But when Christianity is made “just a religion,” it first muzzles and then silences altogether the message the Gospels were eager to get across.

When that happens, the Gospel message is substantially neutralized as a force in the world beyond the realm of private spirituality and an escapist heaven. That indeed, was the intention. And the churches have, by and large, going along for the ride.”

(N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, HarperOne: 2016, pp.163-164)

Happy Reformation Day!

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499 years ago today, Martin Luther – a German professor of theology, priest and monk, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church (ironically on the eve of All Saints Day – AKA: Halloween) in Wittenburg, Germany. This act is considered the spark which ignited the Protestant Reformation.

If you own a Bible in your own language, that you can read any time you want, you have the Reformers to thank for that. It was not always that way; people fought for these things.

Before Luther, there were others who sought to bring reform to the church. John Wycliffe (1331-1384) published the first English translation of the Bible. Jan Hus (1369-1415) started a movement of the prolific teaching of the Bible to the common people, and was ultimately executed in Prague. Peter Waldo (1140-1218) commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the local vernacular of southern France. Each of these people were persecuted for trying to put the Scriptures into the hands of the common people.

In 1516, John Tetzel was sent to Germany to raise money for the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His means of raising money was the sale of plenary indulgences, which promised the release of a person from purgatory, based on their purchase.

The sale of plenary indulgences had been one of Jan Hus’ major contentions with the medieval Catholic Church, and Luther took issue with it as well: the idea that God’s favor or blessings could somehow be earned, not to mention purchased, was something he whole-heartedly rejected. Furthermore, the concept of purgatory is in conflict with the Biblical teaching of the sufficient atonement of Christ on the cross.

Luther had long struggled with feelings of condemnation and never being able to measure up, but had experienced an epiphany when he read Habakkuk 2:4: Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.

This led Luther to the other places in the Bible where this phrase is repeated: in Romans 1:17, in Galatians 3:11, in Hebrews 10:38 – where the message is clear: It is not by our own works that we are justified before God, but it is God who justifies us as an unearned gift of His grace, and we receive that justification by FAITH. That is how Abraham became righteous (Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness – Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3 & 22), and that is how we receive God’s righteous, which he has provided for us in Christ!

Luther’s re-discovery of this Biblical truth came through his reading of the Scriptures. He became convinced that everyone needed to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and that the practice of the church at that time, of keeping the Scriptures out of the hands of the common people, was something that needed to end. He believed that people had the capacity and the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures for themselves. Luther himself, in the pursuant years, translated the Bible into German, a translation which is widely used to this day.

Luther came to believe that the Scriptures alone are the source of theology, that justification is by Christ alone through faith alone.

The 5 “solas” (alone statements) of the Reformation are:

  • Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone)
    • The Bible is the only source of Christian doctrine
  • Sola Fide (by faith alone)
    • Justification is received by faith alone
  • Sola Gratia (by grace alone)
    • Justification is by God’s grace alone
  • Sola Christus (through Christ alone)
  • Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)

This October 31st, I hope you’ll remember that there is something much better than “fun size” candy bars: having God’s Word available to you, for you to read and understand yourself.

After all – what is “fun” about “fun size”?  There’s nothing fun about tiny candy bars. They should be called “sad size”…

In April 1521, Luther was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, at which Luther was commanded to recant his teachings. Luther thought he would have a chance to defend his ideas. Charles would only accept an absolute recantation. Luther refused to do so.

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Here is a portion of Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me.”

If the Reformers could speak to us today, they would tell us this: the Reformation never ends. It is a continual movement of returning to the Scriptures and examining our lives and our practices in light of them.

Happy Reformation Day!

Christianity and Singleness

When I lived in Hungary, we used to take our church to a summer conference every year in Vajta, where the group of churches we belonged to ran a Bible college and conference center in an old castle. Every year various pastors from our churches would speak at the conference; I spoke several times.

One of the sessions I remember most vividly, I remember not for good reasons: one year a particular pastor was asked to speak on the topic of singleness for an afternoon session. When he stood up to the platform, he said something to the effect of: “I don’t know why they asked me to teach on singleness. I’m not single and I haven’t been single for a long time. So I decided that I’m not going to speak about singleness, I’m just going to teach a Bible study about something else, since this is the only chance they gave me to speak.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this person was never asked to speak at a conference again.

But that wasn’t the only memorable part of his session. Half-way through his session, the speaker got annoyed at some people who were whispering to each other while he was speaking, and he stopped everything and proceeded to call them out, and kick them out of the session, making them take the walk of shame past over 100 people who were gathered in the hall for the study. I admit, I was kind of jealous that they got to leave…

This session should be contrasted with the one on singleness which had been held at the previous year’s conference, at which a younger pastor had spoken about singleness in a message that was so well presented and so encouraging to me (I was single at that time), that I still remember his opening lines: “You are in a race!” He then went on to teach about the biblical perspective on the goodness of singleness from 1 Corinthians.

It was a hugely different perspective: the first man I mentioned had disdained the thought of teaching about singleness – he clearly saw it as unimportant. The second man taught in a way that was encouraging and edifying to the single person.

The other day I posted some thoughts about the topic of gender roles in marriage and how the biblical view on this is based on theological views about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. I got several comments on it from a single person who expressed feelings that Christianity tends to over-emphasize marriage over singleness. There is some validity to this point – however, statistically most people will be married at some point in their lifetime – and, just because some people are not married does not mean we should not talk about marriage, just like the fact that some people are not airplane pilots doesn’t mean that we should never talk about airplane pilots.

However, these comments did lead me to look into some things about Christian teachings about singleness, and what I found was significant.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our age, argues that Christianity was the very first religion to hold up single adulthood as a viable way of life. This was a clear difference between Christianity and all other traditional religions, including Judaism, all of which made family and the bearing of children an absolute value, without which there was no honor.1

In ancient culture, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized. But along came Christianity – whose founder was an adult single man and whose great theologian (the Apostle Paul) was also single and advocated for the value and goodness of singleness.

Timothy Keller points out that in Christianity, “single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).”

He goes on to say that, “Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in many circumstances is actually better than marriage. As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry and institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry.”2

Keller points to Rodney Stark, a social historian, who states, “Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to marry within two years. In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected. The church stood ready to sustain widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry, and single widows were active in care-giving and good deeds.3

As opposed to societies which idolized family as the only means of giving a person significance, the Christian gospel offers a greater hope and a greater source of significance.

Singleness, according to Christianity, is not Plan B – it is a viable option for those who choose it.

In our modern pop culture, it is not family which is idolized so much as romance. Think about Hollywood and even Disney narratives: they begin telling the story of a person seeking true love, and once two people do come together, the story ends! The message is that what matters in life is finding romance, everything else is only leading up to that, and what happens after that is not worth spending too much time on. This is also reflected in the huge amount of focus which is given to weddings in our culture.

The Christian church provides the space for single people of different genders to worship, serve and study together, to know and be known by each other, without the pressures of our romance-driven culture.

Churches don’t always do a great job at making single people feel that they belong and not pressuring them to get married and treating them as if until they are married, they are incomplete – however, it is in the design. At our church, we have purposefully sought to change the language we use away from always speaking of “you and your family” – so that we don’t communicate the wrong thing to single people who call our church their home.

Interestingly, Timothy Keller, who pastors a church in NYC which is majority single people, points out that single people and married people alike need good teaching about marriage and relationships, so that marriage is held to its biblical place of honor (Hebrews 13:4), without idolizing it as the end-all be-all of human existence.

 

1. [Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174]
2. [Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp.222-223]
3. [Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders Historyp.104]
 

Gender Roles in Marriage and Perichoresis: the Dance of the Trinity

Yesterday at White Fields I taught on Colossians 3:12-25. The first part of that text is the one I usually use when I officiate weddings. The title of my message was “Gospel Reenactment” (audio of that message can be listened to here).

Included in this section is a verse which can be controversial for some people: Wives submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.  The idea of defined gender roles in marriage is not the most popular subject in our day and age, where more and more often, gender is considered a social construct and something which is fluid rather than fixed. Furthermore, it is no secret that some who have held to biblically defined gender roles in marriage have at times used them as an excuse to act tyrannically or even cruelly towards their spouse.

However, what I discovered in studying this passage in Colossians, is that it gives a picture of marriage as a reenactment of the Gospel (who Jesus is and what He did for us), particularly as regards the nature of God: One God, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen, who eternally exists in 3 co-equal persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term Son does not speak of origin but of rank: the Son willingly submitted Himself to the leadership of the Father, even though they are eternally co-equal and one. This is the model of what marriage is: two become one, but in that one, they take on different, complementary roles for the sake of a mission.

This is something which the church fathers, such as Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus, and more recently Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Wolf, have referred to as ‘The Dance of the Trinity’ – or ‘Perichoresis’ in Greek. It refers to the dynamic relationship which exists between the 3 persons of the Trinity:

The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, the Spirit glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father. The Father sends the Son and the Son obeys the Father. The Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit and the Son together bring glory to the Father. The Spirit exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father. The Father exalts the Son and glorifies the Son.

It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.  – Jonathan Marlowe

The relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity — “dynamic, interactive, loving, serving” — form the model for our human dance. – Michael Spencer

In their book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller write about gender roles. This is one of the best books I have read on marriage, and I would recommend it highly. Here are some things that Kathy in particular had to say on the topic of gender roles:

Every cell in our body is stamped XX or XY. This means I cannot understand myself if I try to ignore the way God designed me or if I despise the gifts he may have given me to help me fulfill my calling. If the postmodern to view that gender is wholly a “social construct” were true, then we could follow whatever path seems good to us. If our gender is at the heart of our nature, however, we risk losing a key part of ourselves if we abandon our distinctive male and female roles.

[Philippians 2] is one of the primary places where the “dance of the Trinity” becomes visible. The Son defers to his father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Sons to the highest place. Each wishes to please the other; each wishes to exalt the other. Love and honor are given, accepted, and given again. There is no inequality of ability or dignity.

The Son’s role shows not his weakness but his greatness.

[In God’s Kingdom, leaders] are called to be a servant-leaders. In the dance of the Trinity, the greatest is the one who is most self-effacing, most sacrificial, most devoted to the good of the other. Jesus redefined – or, more truly, defined properly – headship and authority, taking the toxicity of it away or, at least for those who live by his definition rather than by the world’s understanding.

Jesus as a master made himself into a servant who has washed his disciples’ feet, thus demonstrating in the most dramatic way that authority and leadership mean that you become the servant, you die to self in order to love and serve the Other. Jesus redefined authority as servant-authority.

In Jesus we see all the authoritarianism of authority laid to rest, and all the humility of submission glorified. Rather than demeaning Christ, his submission led to his ultimate glorification, where God “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

Both men and women get to “play the Jesus role” in marriage – Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission.

– The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 194-201

Part of the redemption that we have in Jesus is an invitation into the Perichoresis – the ‘dance of the Trinity’ – and in addition to our relationship with God, this serves as a model and a motivation for our relationships in marriage, work and beyond.