August 1, 2015

What is Jesus doing? (homosexual issues)

This post continues a series looking at the book The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1234, 5.

Last time in this series we saw how Anderson addresses the calling Christians have to discern Jesus' activity in the church and the world so that they may participate with him in serving the Father, through the Spirit, for the sake of the world. An essential part of the discernment process involves carefully exegeting Scripture in order to understand God's will. Part of that exegesis involves looking for what Anderson refers to as a biblical antecedent related to a particular issue under examination. Last time we saw how Anderson applies this hermeneutical method in addressing the issue of female ordination. This time we'll see how he applies it to the issue of homosexual relations.

From Wikimedia Commons
(creative commons license)
As we begin, it's vital to remind ourselves that anything we conclude concerning this controversial topic must not overshadow what Jesus tells us (in word and in deed) about our calling to share in his holy, unconditional love for all people, no matter their current behavior or sexual orientation. There is no place in the body of Christ for condemnation or bigotry leading to excluding from fellowship anyone who, coming in peace, seeks in and through the church fullness of life in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Indeed, the Spirit's ministry is to lead the church toward this fullness of life in Christ (John 10:10---what Anderson refers to as "eschatological fullness"). In that context, Anderson asks this question: "Is it possible that the way forward includes acceptance of homosexual ordination and same-sex marriage?" He points out that to answer rightly, the church must not only be aware of cultural preferences, it must also seek the mind of the Spirit concerning these issues through careful exegesis of Scripture.

Anderson does acknowledge that the church must be sensitive to cultural preferences. Why? Because, by God's design, the church exists for the sake of the world. And if the church is to serve effectively with Christ in the world, it will at times need to change its practices. But in making such changes, the church must find in Scripture a biblical antecedent that would indicate that the Spirit is granting to the church freedom to make the change.

As noted last time, Anderson finds in Scripture a clear biblical antecedent (and thus freedom to change) with respect to ordaining females. He also finds an antecedent with respect to divorced believers remarrying. But Anderson does not find in Scripture a biblical antecedent that would grant freedom to the church to validate homoerotic behavior by ordaining practicing homosexuals or by marrying same-sex couples. He comments:
It is not [cultural] precedent that permits the church to move with freedom of the Spirit but a biblical antecedent. Where the church has recognized the role of women in ministry, it has a biblical antecedent for affirming this as the praxis of the Spirit. Where the church has blessed the remarriage of divorced persons in recognition of the renewing work of the grace of God, it has a biblical antecedent for his ministry grounded in marriage itself as part of God's created order. Some who argue that even as the first-century church struggled over the issue of including the Gentiles and finally accepted them, so the church today must accept homosexuals. The issue is not the same, however, for in the case of the Gentiles, there is a biblical antecedent in the promise to Abraham, a point Paul clearly made in his argument to the Galatians church (Galatians 3:8).
What can we say about the issue of homosexuality in this regard? Even if one should dismiss all of the biblical texts that appear to forbid homosexuality (in both the Old and New Testaments) as not relevant for our present understanding of same-sex relationships, we are left with absolute silence from the Bible in this regard. Those who argue for the validity of homosexual relations as fully equivalent to heterosexual relations do, in fact, argue from silence with regard to the biblical view of sexuality.... 
The Bible, however, is not silent regarding human sexuality and the image of God. "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27).... If one reads the text as intending that the image of God be understood to include sexual differentiation as male and female... as does Karl Barth, among others, then the biblical antecedent is clearly one of heterosexual orientation and practice as God's preference. The antecedent for homosexual relations does not appear to be found in Scripture. As a consequence, those who argue for the normalization of homosexual relationships and full acceptance by the church must do so on other grounds (pp. 111-112).
Anderson thus ties the nature and purpose of human sexuality to the imago Dei (image of God). In doing so, he is acknowledging that gender differentiation is fundamental to God's design for human being. With this emphasis, Anderson avoids entering into the seemingly endless and contentious arguments concerning certain individual scriptures that may or may not be relevant to the nature of homosexual relations in our day.

If you'd like to learn more about this topic, I recommend you read chapter 16 in Anderson's book (click here, then scroll to p266 to read much of the chapter online). Also I recommend the helpful (and thorough) paper from Dr. Gary Deddo on why God created humans as gendered beings (click here to download). And check out an earlier series on this blog concerning Christian ethics (and note in particular the post entitled Ethics and cultural context).

July 27, 2015

Hallelujah in hell?

It seems that among Christians and non-Christians there is much confusion about hell. What is it? When is it? Where is it? Why is there a hell at all? And what does the reality of hell say about God and his grace? These challenging questions are addressed in the powerful video embedded below that bears the provocative title, Hallelujah in Hell. It's from the folks at Downside Up. What are your thoughts? Let us know using the "comments" feature below.

Next time we'll return to our series looking at Ray Anderson's book on practical theology.

July 19, 2015

What is Jesus doing? (female ordination)

This post continues a series looking at the book The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123, 4, 6.

Last time in this series we looked at how Anderson addresses ministry as not what we do for Jesus, but what we do with him---our participation in his ongoing ministry to the Father, through the Spirit, for the sake of the world. In order for us to participate meaningfully with him, we must discern what he is actually doing---a challenge that frequently will require that we set aside some of our presuppositions about what our risen, ascended Lord will or will not do.

Christ in the house of Mary and Martha by Henryk Siemiradzki
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What about female ordination?

One of the issues that has challenged the church is to discern the mind and activity of Jesus concerning the role of women in pastoral leadership. Anderson frames the issue this way:
Are Christians who testify to God's calling [of women] to receive ordination and serve as pastors of the church in disobedience to the teaching of Scripture, or are they in obedience to the Spirit of the resurrected Christ at work in the church? This issue is surly one that requires a patient and careful hermeneutical approach that honors the Word of God and makes manifest the will and power of Christ in his church in our present situation (p. 90).
Icon depicting Andronicus, Athanasius,
and (at right) the clearly female Junia.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
When we examine the New Testament, we find that in some cases it excludes women from certain teaching and ministry roles (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12). But then in other cases it speaks to women's full participation and parity with men (e.g. Phil. 4:2-3; Romans 16:1-2 where Phoebe is listed as a deacon; and Romans 16:7 where Junia, a woman, is listed along with Andronicus as an apostle). Given this diversity of testimony, which set of texts should be given priority? Note Anderson's answer:
It is in cases like this that the resurrected Jesus as the living Lord of the church can serve as a hermeneutical criterion. For surely he knows what his will for the church is in the particular situation of the contemporary church. And there are many of us who feel that he has already shown us what his will is by calling and anointing women for pastoral ministry in full parity with men (p. 92).
Thus in determining how to interpret and apply relevant biblical instruction, Anderson advocates that we factor in the present activity of Jesus, through the Spirit. Along with many other denominations, Grace Communion International has done this, concluding that females should be ordained to pastoral ministry given that God clearly has called forth and gifted many women for this office both in our day and down through Christian history.

Caution needed

Of course, we must be very careful in using present experience as a means to interpret and apply Scripture. Anderson comments:
It must be made absolutely clear that what I am suggesting here as an argument for the freedom of the church to recognize and affirm full parity for women in pastoral ministry does not give permission to set aside the normative role of the Bible in favor of some contemporary criterion. This is true for several reasons. First, all Scripture is subject to the purpose of God's word as a construct of truth and infallibility. Second, the  Spirit of the risen Lord is not just another "contemporary" spirit but is the Spirit of the incarnate Word, where authority is vested in the apostolic witness and communicated through the inspired word as holy Scripture. Third, there is an eschatological tension between the now and the not yet within which Scripture stands as the Word of God written. In certain areas, of which the role of women in the pastoral ministry of the church is one, we can find the resurrection of Jesus as the critical and helpful hermeneutical criterion. Apart from that criterion... there will be a tendency to impose on Scripture a hermeneutical criterion that "wrestles" the exegetical task into submission to a priori principles.... The resurrected Jesus is not a criterion of new revelation that replaces Scripture; rather he is the hermeneutical criterion for interpreting Scripture in such a way that his present work of creating a new humanity fulfills the promise of Scripture (pp. 100-101).

First century or the last century?

Part of the problem in making these interpretations is when churches assume that their calling is to return the church to a "once and for all delivered" ideal way of doing things established in the first century church. Given this assumption, the right interpretation will go in the direction of reinforcing or restoring past practice. But this is an erroneous assumption in that it does not align with the New Testament itself, where we see that the Spirit was moving the church as it developed to bring into the present not some sort of normative practice of the past, but the hope and promise of the "last century"---that which lay yet ahead. Anderson comments:
It is clear that the Holy Spirit used the criterion of eschatological preference rather than historical preference... [Therefore] we should expect that the Spirit will more and more prepare the church to be the church that Christ desires to see when he returns not the one that he left in the first century (pp. 106-107).  
The first century church was not always able to achieve the fullness of Christ's ultimate for the church. Paul had to make concessions that limited the full freedom Christ desires for his people, in light of certain cultural norms and constraints. For example, he limited the role of women in some churches, while expanding it to full parity with men in others. Anderson comments:
Paul allowed for the eschatological preference of the Holy Spirit where it could be implemented without causing disorder and confusion in the church. Giving way to expediency where it was necessary for the ministry in special situations apparently was not considered by Paul to establish a principle and precedent for all time. To make what was merely expedient normative would have supplanted the eschatological freedom of the Spirit of Jesus to prepare the church for the last century (pp. 107-108).

Is there a biblical antecedent?

Are we then free to make any interpretation/application of biblical practice we might want, in order to accommodate current cultural norms and preferences? As noted above, Anderson answers an emphatic "No!" The Spirit of the risen Lord (which often is runs counter present cultural norms) constrains us. Moreover, Anderson notes that in making such decisions, we as Christians must always have a clear biblical antecedent that points in the direction of our contemporary application. We see this dynamic at work in the first century church when Paul argued in support of doing away with the requirement that Gentile converts be circumcised. Paul saw a biblical antecedent for this change in policy in the Old Testament account of how God worked with uncircumcised Abraham. Here was a biblical precedent for allowing uncircumcised males to enjoy full privileges reserved for the people of promise.

Today, in evaluating whether or not to ordain women to pastoral ministry, we find in both the Old and New Testaments a clear and compelling biblical antecedent where God frequently used women in leadership roles that (in those cultures) were reserved for men.

Next time we'll look at other issues that challenge the church in our day to discern and then align with the mind and activity of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Like Anderson, our goal is to walk in step with the Spirit, which means acting in ways that 1) align with the present activity of Jesus through the Spirit and 2) are faithful to Spirit-inspired Holy Scripture.
For study papers from GCI on the topic of women in ministry, click here.

July 13, 2015

Is God's wrath contrary to his love?

In this post we'll take a break from reviewing The Practical Shape of Theology to address a related concept: God's wrath and his love. Sadly, some folks pit one against the other as though they were equal and competing aspects of God's character. For them, God's wrath (judgment, justice, punishment) begins where his love ends. But is that so? Are God's wrath and love at odds? Is the Trinity of two minds? (angry Father, loving Jesus). These questions are helpfully addressed in the video embedded below. Entitled The Flaming Toilet of Death, it illustrates two foundational truths addressed by John in his first epistle: "God is love" and "perfect love casts out fear" (1John 4:8, 16, 18 ESV). Enjoy!

For more videos like this, click here to go to Downside Up (God is better than you think).
For a related Surprising God post, click here.

July 2, 2015

Ministry: sharing in what Jesus is doing

This post continues a series looking at the book The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 56.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman by Giacomo Franceschini
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Previously in this series we've noted Anderson's emphasis on the unity of theology and mission. When fully Christian, both are grounded in the person (being) and work (doing) of Jesus, the incarnate, resurrected, ascended Son of God. There is no separation between Jesus' being (from which flows Christian theology) and his doing (from which flows Christian mission). In Jesus, by the Spirit, Christian mission (ministry) is actual participation in what Jesus is doing in the world to fulfill the Father's mission.

It is thus vital that the church keep at the forefront of its thinking the truth that it is Jesus (the living Word) and not someone or something else, that constitutes the interpretive key (hermeneutic) by which the church is able to rightly understand Holy Scripture (the written Word), determine doctrine, and define its mission/ministry. In short, Jesus must be the Center of the center of all the church believes, teaches and does. Jesus, in union with his Father, and at work in the world through the Holy Spirit, must set the agenda for the church. This Christological, Trinitarian approach has two important benefits:
  • It rules out utilitarianism (which tends to create ministry out of needs), and pragmatism (which transforms ministry into mere marketing strategy).
  • It focuses the church on the reality of God's ongoing ministry, which is one of revelation and reconciliation.
Note how Anderson defines ministry as one entity with two integrated movements: revelation and reconciliation. God reveals himself to humanity in the person and work of Jesus, then through that revelation he brings forth a response by which the person is conformed to the Word. The revelation is creative of the human response (leading to reconciliation). Note that God is involved in, integrates and upholds both movements: "Reconciliation, as a movement initiated by God, does not originate outside of the event of revelation... God's word of revelation involves the ministry of reconciliation" (pp.66-67).

Anderson also notes that this ministry of revelation and reconciliation includes both judgment and grace. Despite misconceptions to the contrary, these two are not at odds---God's judgment always is for (never against) the person in order to lead them to reconciliation with himself, which brings forth healing and holiness (wholeness). In judging a person and their situation, God closes one door and opens another, making possible a new possibility---bringing forth, by grace, the new creation which has occurred already for all humanity through the vicarious humanity of Jesus. It is thus an actual reality (2 Corinthians 5:19) and the ministry of the church is participation in what Jesus is now doing through the Spirit to make this objective actuality a personal (subjective) reality.

How then should the church conduct this ministry of revelation and reconciliation? Anderson comments:
The ministry of disclosing the Word to the world [revelation/proclamation] is upheld by the reality of the incarnate presence of Christ in the world. All exegetical, hermeneutical and homiletical work as the proper theological activity of the church is supported and made possible by this incarnation. The ministry of reconciling the world to this word of revelation is upheld by Jesus' incarnate life of obedience and faithful response to this word. All of the healing, teaching and saving ministry of the church is supported and made possible by the incarnation (p.73).
May we as church leaders examine all our ministry programs asking whether or not they are genuine participation in what Jesus is now doing in the world. And may we examine what we believe and teach (including our doctrines and policies) asking whether or not they are obedient responses to our Lord's present ministry. It's all too easy to think only of what Jesus did historically. But Jesus is alive! He is present and now at work, through the Spirit, in our world. We certainly want to carefully study what Jesus once did (we have Scripture to tell us). But we also must discern what he is currently doing. Some worry that this line of thinking will lead to bad doctrine and practice where current cultural norms and preferences set the agenda. But that need not be the case---indeed it must not be the case---what Jesus currently is doing often is quite counter-cultural, though always it is for the purpose of revelation and reconciliation in the current (here-and-now) set of circumstances.

A key principle here (addressed by Anderson in chapter six) is that Jesus, through the Spirit who forms the church for mission, is working to move people toward a deeper experience of the reconciliation he has accomplished already for all humanity with God. This is a progressive journey of transformation. We see this at work in Scripture where, for example, God moves the church to embrace the "new wine" that is the gospel contained for a time in the "old wineskins" of the Law. But then Jesus leads the church to cast aside the old wineskins (the old covenant) so that they can fully embrace its calling to join with Jesus in God's mission to the whole world (Jews and Gentiles alike). Anderson gives other examples of changes in strategy as the church journeys in ministry with Jesus. Their ministry experience then leads to deeper understanding of theology, which in turn informs ministry, and on it goes (and continues in our time to go). Anderson comments:
Jesus himself continues to instruct Christians as to the will of God in practical matters of the life of faith. Jesus has not simply left us a set of teachings. He has done that. But in addition, he continues to teach. Discerning this teaching it itself a hermeneutical task, not merely an exercise in historical memory (p.84).
This does not mean we ignore what is written in Scripture. Quite the contrary. The Bible is the primary way God reveals himself to us in Jesus, by the Spirit. But the Bible, like all things in heaven and on earth, stands under the Lordship of Christ. To understand Scripture properly (for the purpose it was inspired), it must be interpreted through the "lens" of the person and work of Jesus. In that regard, Anderson offers these important observations:
The resurrected Jesus as the living Lord is a continuing hermeneutical criterion for interpreting the Word of God.... Jesus is not only the living Word who inspires the New Testament and thus insures its trustworthiness but...also [is] present in the contemporary reading and interpretation of the New Testament... [Jesus] upholds his word in Scripture as true and directs its purpose to his own creative ends.... The very words of Scripture, inspired as they are, continue to speak to us out of the very being of the One present with us (p.87).
Of course, some will object to these observations, worried that they elevate personal/subjective experience above Scripture. Anderson comments:
To those who protest that the reality of the living Lord cannot be objectively discerned and known in the context of our own subjective experience, we must in turn protest that this is a denial of the sheer objective reality of the being of the risen Lord who presents himself to us both as an object of knowledge and as experience through the Holy Spirit's encounter with us (p.89).
Next time we'll look at some real-life examples of the approach to ministry that Anderson advocates.