How She Is

It's hard to love an imperfect woman. 
how she's unpredictable for better and worse,
how she goes left
when every good reason goes right.
how she talks clumsy in front of your friends
and bothers the people waiting for the bus,
her dress wrinkled and nose wrinkled,
how she is never all that she could be (yet).
But oh, the evenings together!
how she opens her arms to you and lets you rest.
how she comforts you with words
you forgot that you forgot but needed.
And the days! how beautiful
she is when the light comes over her
just so and in her face you catch his face,
and she is sweeping along with a holy dance
and gathering the children up under her skirts in play
and collecting their laughter in a second alabaster box.
how she cheers with unrestrained volume
for every wet and resurrected sinner,
and how she feasts!
how her heart lives enlarged with hope, 
how her hands are bringing bread to the hungry,
how she sets the table for the poor
and welcomes the rich to sit with us, 
here at the bottom. We feast, we sing, we sing,
we sing, we quiet down and lean back and
look around and see our bridegroom delighted with us
and we know it is hard to love an imperfect woman,
but we thank you, O God, for loving us.
 

Women in Ministry: not our rights, but His

In the conversations surrounding ordination and specifically the ordination of women to gospel ministry, many things need improvement, chief among them our lack of charity toward one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, members of the same Body. Today, though, I want to address what I see as the primary defect in the argument in favor of women's ordination

Many of the voices advocating for women in ministry, women in church leadership, and/or women's ordination are shouting in the key of feminism, overwhelming questions of Scripture and tradition with objections about RIGHTS and EQUALITY and FREEDOM. This is a fundamentally flawed posture toward ministry. Certainly, concerns about rights and equality and freedom have their places, but, equally as certain, their place is not at the front of an argument about ministry. 

We church-y people seem to have forgotten what "ministry" means. It literally means service. It is the servant's task to minister. The most basic idea about ministry is that it is not a right. One more time, to let it sink in: Ministry is not a right. More than that, gospel ministry is a calling, so that those who have received the call are compelled to fulfill it. As the apostle Paul says, 

Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, because I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I were preaching voluntarily, I would deserve a reward; but if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.
— 1 Corinthians 9:16-17

Paul did not have a right to be an apostle, though he was one. He was an apostle by virtue of his calling. (Note–of course!–that it was this apostolic calling that afforded him certain rights as an apostle. Read both of the Corinthian letters to see this fully developed, but look especially at 1 Cor 9).  Paul did not have a right to preach, he had a commission to preach! This commission meant suffering, it meant financial and material loss, it meant the loss of friends, it meant repeated prayers that he would be bold in this intimidating task (Eph 6:19-20). 

Those who advocate for full and equal participation in gospel ministry for both women and men are missing the point if they think that this is an issue of women's rights in the same way that equal pay and freedom from sexual harassment is an issue of equal rights. This is a misguided idea because, again, ministry is not a right. It is a calling. The language of "rights" rings hollow and worldly when we are talking about picking up the mantle of service. 

We need to be be far, far less worried about women's rights in this discussion, and far, far more concerned with the right of the Holy Spirit to call, compel, and commission whom He will. 

the Spirit moves wherever He pleases (John 3:8)


Those who oppose women in church leadership are very happy to cast the entire question as an outgrowth of secular feminism. There was, you may remember, an in/famous sermon on this topic by an influential Adventist preacher in which he spent several minutes talking about the feminism of mid-century and pinpointed it as the source of this question. Of course, this is a red herring, as the issue of women in church leadership goes waaaaaaayyyyyy earlier than that. The Adventist church was talking about it in the 1880s and it had nothing to do with voting rights or bra burnings. (Discrediting the cause by linking it to 1970s feminism is also a genetic fallacy, but few people seem to care about that either.)

The question is not about who has the right to choose ministry for themselves. The question is about God's right to choose whom He will. 

This post is not a close examination of the biblical texts under dispute, nor a scrutiny of history for clues about the permissibility of women in ministry, women in church leadership, or women's ordination to gospel ministry. Those are very worthy investigations and I have done them myself. From that study and in prayer I have come to the conclusion that spiritual gifts (among them apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, pastoring and teaching [Eph 4:11]) are not given on the basis of gender, but as the Spirit wills (1 Cor 12:11), and that spiritual gifts and calling are given on the basis of our shared participation in Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13); this shared participation, this being "in Christ," means "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus... heirs according to the promise." (Gal 3:28-29)

Therefore, it is my view that the Holy Spirit may call some women into leadership among His people (Miriam, Deborah). He may call some women to instruct men in the gospel (Priscilla). He may call some women to be prophets (Huldah, Anna, Phillip's daughters). He may call some women to be apostles (Junia). And it is His right to do so.

Recognizing the Holy Spirit-ordination of women into the gospel ministry with full ecclesial authorization (what we currently call "ordination") is important because to reject, de-legitmate, or neglect His movement is an affront to the Spirit's authority and to His right to do with us whatever He wants. If He wants to give a frail 17-year-old a vision for the little flock, we should honor His right to do so, and pay attention! If He wants to use two young upstarts to bring the truth of justification by faith in 1888, we should recognize His full right and authority to do so, and pay attention! If He chooses a woman to preach the gospel, to lead a congregation, to instruct youth in the Scriptures, to disciple, to represent His redemption drama in their lives–well, we better say Yes to His decision. Ellen White didn't have a right to become a prophet. Jones and Waggoner didn't have a right to preach the message of justification by faith. And nobody in the world has a right to shepherd God's people and represent His remnant church.

But we all have a holy obligation to recognize the Spirit's right to anoint His sons and His daughters.

The Exact Truth Should Be the Law of Speech

       Sensationalism. Scandal-mongering. Name calling. "News." ––It seems that yellow journalism is back with a vengeance. 

       Maybe we can blame the 24-hour news cycle that fills the airwaves with, uh, something . . . even when it has nothing to say. 

       Maybe we can blame the rise of video for making us all more interested in a 45-second clip of anything even when it has nothing to do with something. 

       Maybe we can blame an increasingly polarized political situation in which the other guy is wrong because, well, he's WRONG, okay? He just is. Never has a politician been so anti-American and backwards as this guy! Only fools and monsters would vote for him!––thus distorting our sense of proportion and demonstrating our inability to follow well-reasoned arguments to reasonable conclusions. 

       This is bad for our political climate, bad for our policy-making, bad for our neighborliness, bad for our critical thinking, bad bad bad

       It's bad in the world, but it's far worse when it's in the church. Sermons and blogs and "news" stories in which we underhandedly denigrate believers who believe differently than we do, in which we defame by exaggeration or misrepresentation, in which we thinly veil our slander under the guise of journalism or righteous reformation: 

this is the body of Christ eating itself, one bloody bite at a time. 

The Father, Son, and Spirit weep at the sight of these things.

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times,  "You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord." But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  
Let your word be "Yes, Yes," or "No, No"; anything more than this comes from the evil one. [matthew 5:33-37, nrsv]

Jesus told us to "swear not at all." For those of us not really in the habit of making oaths and swearing by things, what's the message for us? >> The exact truth should be the law of speech

       In a world of multiplying divisions and deepening divides, where words are wielded to wound and the "other" is an enemy, this message of Jesus is an eminently relevant one: SPEAK ONLY THE TRUTH. When you speak of your brother, speak only the truth. When you represent the beliefs of your sister, speak only the truth. When you disagree with that preacher publicly, speak only the truth. When you need to criticize an author, speak only the truth. The exact truth should be the law of speech.

"Jesus proceeded to lay down a principle that would make oath taking needless. He teaches that the exact truth should be the law of speech. 'Let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one.' . . . . 
         "If these words of Christ were heeded, they would check the utterance of evil surmising and unkind criticism; for in commenting upon the actions and motives of another, who can be certain of speaking the exact truth? How often pride, passion, personal resentment, color the impression given! A glance, a word, even an intonation of the voice, may be vital with falsehood. Even facts may be so stated as to convey a false impression. And 'whatsoever is more than' truth, 'is of the evil one.'
         "Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan; and whoever in any way departs from the straight line of truth is betraying himself into the power of the wicked one. Yet it is not a light or an easy thing to speak the exact truth. We cannot speak the truth unless we know the truth; and how often preconceived opinions, mental bias, imperfect knowledge, errors of judgment, prevent a right understanding of matters with which we have to do! We cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth.
        "Through the apostle Paul, Christ bids us, 'Let your speech be alway with grace.' 'Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.' (Colossians 4:6, Ephesians 4:29)"

(Ellen White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, 67-68.)


Christian, as you speak, tweet, post, or share, remember: 
the exact truth + alway with grace.

Wishing Him Well But Withholding My Applause

       About a week ago, former pastor Ryan J Bell wrote a piece giving a brief history of his religious experience and announcing his plans to "try on" atheism for the year of 2014. (You can read that post on his just-for-the-project blog HERE and see a catalogue of his contributions to The Huffington Post, where the article was published, HERE.)  He says, "I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances." Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been varied. Some are supporting his experiment in living without God as an undertaking of intellectual virtue, moving beyond the answers of faith to seriously consider the atheistic alternative. Others are doubtful that one can play atheist and not let one's religious convictions, however troubled, get in the way. Many are endorsing Bell's efforts as a laudable act of refreshing honesty, finally admitting the doubts that many religious people keep hidden. 

       Some Christians are of the mind that his experiment in atheism is "courageous," "brave." They see this "journey into atheism" as a bold authenticity demonstrated in the face of the inevitable backlash (which has manifested itself, in part, in losing his adjunct teaching positions at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary; read Bell's own summary HERE). In this telling, Ryan Bell is the unpopular man standing for his convictions as an act of heroism, spiritual authenticity, and intellectual honesty. The cheers go up: "Courageous! Way to stand out on your own, Ryan! Way to do the unpopular thing!"

       It's easy to start nodding along to this cheerleading. After all, many of us still consider Ryan Bell a part of our religious community. Present circumstances and choices notwithstanding, he lived as a Seventh-day Adventist believer and pastor for decades and many of us were blessed by his words and example. At least on the emotional level, he's still one of "us." And for people both within and without the Adventist community, there's a righteous urge to stand with the guy catching trouble for being "true to himself" and to protect him from bad things that might look like persecution (usually labeled as "hate" by the fifth post in a comments section). Further, many of us religious people DO have unanswered questions about a lot of things and if we've ever felt that the church was an unsafe place to share our sincere questions, there's something about Ryan's experiment that sounds so . . . exhilarating. 

But, having no ill will toward Ryan Bell or any of his supporters, I submit that

people who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ should not be applauding this experiment in atheism and should instead see it for what it is: an abandonment of Jesus and His gospel. 

So let's talk a little bit about courage.

       Having questions about the reality of God's existence is not inherently courageous nor inherently cowardly. Sometimes atheists wonder if maybe there is a god out there after all. Sometimes theists wonder if "God" is just a figment of the collective human imagination. Also, sometimes I wonder if there are mice in my apartment or if I'm just imagining those sounds. Wondering isn't necessarily brave or courageous; it is a reflex, sometimes nurtured into a habit, of the mind.

       Yet what one does with those questions, those wonderings, those doubts may be cowardly or courageous. And the evaluation one makes on this point––commendably courageous or unforgivably cowardly?––is a moral one, it rests on a certain construal of reality and so of morality. Those with a Christian construal of reality have no grounds to consider this experiment an act of moral virtue.

       Perhaps observers from all sides could agree that an experiment like Ryan Bell's is "dangerous," in that it is endangering the convictions and lifestyle that he has maintained up till now. Depending on your philosophical leanings, this danger could be the worst thing in the world or the best––is he moving closer to or farther away from truth? Is he moving closer toward or farther away from actual reality? Your answer depends on what you think is true and what you think is right. 

         A citizen who gives intelligence to an enemy power is doing something really quite dangerous: he is in danger of being discovered and convicted and executed for treason. High-risk! Most of his fellow citizens will condemn his dangerous behavior as treacherous still, helping the "wrong" people; most with interests in the foreign power will commend his dangerous behavior as courageous, displaying a self-sacrificial willingness to aid the "right" cause. 

        Shall we call Ryan Bell's experiment courageous? I speak here to my fellow Christian believers, the saints who are in Christ Jesus. Shall we commend Ryan Bell for bravery, applaud his gumption, shield him from any Christian critique? Though some have, none of us should.

Why not? 

It is not because I wish to uncritically silence every doubt knocking about in the heads of thoughtful people. 

It is not because I think doubting God's existence is a sin. 

It is not because I'd like to see atheists (or doubters) dehumanized or treated without respect. 

It is because my commitment to the person of Jesus Christ will not allow me to applaud the move of someone who is, in his own words, living "as if" God doesn't exist. It doesn't allow me to think that "God is big enough to handle my questions" means "It's acceptable to turn my back to Him and look to profit from writing about it." 

        I know a little something about Christian faith and Christian doubt. Several years after my spiritual conversion I spent quite a while in the land of This Might All Be A Weird And Time-Consuming Sham. And what my sojourn there taught me was that a Christian can have legitimate doubts and explore their real possibility from a place of faith. To atheists, this may sound like hopeless intellectual hypocrisy, but everybody has questions and everybody has got to explore those questions from some place. In consideration of all He has done on my behalf, I'd like to literally give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.

       ––Which is what I wish Ryan Bell would do. He has his reasons, perhaps not all shared publicly. He has a personal history unique to him and a relationship with God that I can't pretend to give a reliable judgment about. I'm not looking to offer any judgment on issues of his salvation or conscience or motivations. 

        I wish rather to speak to the well-meaning Christian faithful in my Facebook feed, my Twitter timeline, and my RSS feed: side with faith, side with Jesus. If you're a person who has embraced the "Jesus. All." ethic, recognize that what Ryan's doing isn't that. It's anti-Jesus, taking off his personal faith to live in skepticism. Wish Ryan well, greet him warmly if you meet him, pray for him, but don't offer applause for his 365-day renunciation of the gospel and of God. 

         Maybe at the end of 2014 he'll find theism is an intellectually and experientially viable option, maybe he'll even return to Christian faith and to the Church. That's what I'm rooting for, but in the meantime, I'll hold my applause.