Monday, December 12, 2011

Open Letter to Women Desiring to be Pastors

In many respects the modern era brought almost limitless advancement for women; today we are granted choices which are staggering even to our grandmothers. There are few career opportunities from which we're excluded due to our gender, we may decide the number of children to have, whether or not to be married, where to live, and how much education we wish to pursue--the options for us really are endless. In most respects the world is ours, and this can lull us into the belief that we have the right to everything we want, or that to be denied something is an attempt at subjugation. How dare society, culture, or family hold us back, never mind the church! In this climate we are taught to resist tradition, or in the very least treat it with suspicion, after all tradition merely serves as a vestige of the past, a past which insisted women comply with its demands and stipulations, a past which we have been taught robbed women of their freedom. From this vantage point it is difficult to see any restriction placed upon women as meaningful, helpful, or even advantageous. Is the continuing subjugation of women what is in the historic Church's mind when she restricts women from occupying the Office of the Holy Ministry? Is this another blockade which women must breach on the path to freedom?

It is my assumption that any woman who is considering the Office of the Holy Ministry has read Scripture and noted the many women who are granted special recognition by its authors. Scripture does not ignore women, rather it very forthrightly lauds them for their service. We see many examples of strong faithful women throughout the Bible, in its pages we meet Rahab, Sarah, Hannah, Deborah a prophetess and Judge of Israel, Mary Magdelene, Martha, and even Mary, the one chosen to bear our Lord. We note that women stayed by our Lord during His crucifixion, and are later there to witness the resurrection, even telling the apostles the news. Then there are the women, named and unnamed, who supported the ministry of the apostles with their service and their finances. This witness does not stop at Scripture as church history boasts a pantheon of female saints who served the church in countless ways. It is clear that Scripture and church tradition, far from subjugating women, affords them honor. It is also clear that none of these women served as pastors. Despite the special place that our Lord grants to women, He never called one to be an apostle, rather He calls men to feed His sheep.

Did our Lord fail to call women to the Office of the Holy Ministry because He was somehow short-sighted? Did He deny that women were capable of carrying out this weighty task? It seems obvious that women are capable of carrying out the tasks of the ministry--it is not as if we are somehow physically unable to write a sermon, preach it, or administer the sacraments. Women are indeed physically capable of all the tasks with which the ministry is vested, yet this is a form of service which eludes the women of Scripture. The ministry is not like other secular jobs which we may pursue--it is not a matter of our capabilities, it is a matter of our Lord's ordering of creation and indeed His Church. Just as we are unable to become fathers by simply participating in traditional fatherly roles, we may not become pastors simply because we take on the role of pastor. Women would not deny that we aren't given to fatherhood, or that our inability to become fathers can be undone by a mere change in policy, yet we expect Christ's Church, His Bride, to be less stalwart than simple biology. Do we really want that which richly forgives our sins and the sins of all believers to be as fickle as our culture? The order of creation which the Church mimics does not seek to pit women against men, rather it honors diversity by highlighting the distinctions between male and female, along with the gifts and vocations each are afforded.

There are many ways in which women may serve the church, the pastoral ministry is hardly the only vehicle of service available. If we assume that women must be pastors in order to have legitimate service to the church, then we tarnish the service of the women who have gone before us, women who though sinners are extolled in Scripture, and hardly treated as second-class citizens because they failed to achieve the pastoral office. Furthermore, to claim that women must be pastors do we not also submit to a mindset which is astonishingly patriarchal? That is, it assumes that the only valid service to be rendered is that which is given to men. This is akin to stating that fatherhood is the only meaningful parental vocation. Why cannot we simply rejoice in the service which we have been given rather than opining that which we have not been given?

Scripture calls wives to submit to their husbands, but it also calls husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. When we seek to traverse the bounds of gender and creation we deny men the vocations they have been given, we reject their love, and in the name of freedom we simply submit to another form of bondage. Instead of submitting to Christ's authority, and the authority of those men given to preach His Word and administer His sacraments, we wander aimlessly in the wilderness, bereft of the Church, and falling victim to every wind of doctrine. By pursuing ordination women risk following in the footsteps of Eve who doubted God's Word, twisted it to her own ends, and trusted the promise of the serpent—yet another promise of freedom resulting in bondage to sin and death. For these reasons the question of women's ordination cannot be simply an academic issue, or even a secondary issue, as it flies directly in the face of our Lord's institution of the Church. Rather than remaining the ship which saves us from a flood of sin, the church becomes yet another worldly establishment which promises everything and delivers exactly nothing.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bloodless Jesus

"Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable." –Flannery O'Connor, letter to "A", December 16th 1955.

These seem like harsh words, particularly when one considers it unlikely that Flannery was speaking hyperbolically. Indeed, if it is just a symbol it is a form of rank idolatry, as it communicates a Christ who is present only as an extension of our own memorializing of Him, rather than according to His flesh and promise. Christ's presence in a symbolic Eucharist is fomented by our own identification with the symbolism, with the abstraction, with the emotional connection to the event of the Cross, therefore the Christ worshiped is a mirror of one's own sentiment. In this schema the Eucharist ceases to be where Christ meets, forgives, and feeds sinners with true life.

So much is to be gained by this simple truth held by the Church throughout her history, yet a large vocal minority rages against it. There is no exegetical basis to claim that the Eucharist is purely symbolic, unless one is really willing to argue that Jesus' words do not mean what they say, yet the raging remains among many who claim to be bound by the witness and authority of Scripture. The sinful man must rage against Christ's presence in our midst. A figurative Christ, one who is all spirit and no flesh can be contorted to suit our likings; it is easier to bend a memory to conform to one's own particular sentimentalities than it is to risk our own encounter with the flesh and blood of Jesus. Humans are not incapable of erecting monuments to their own sentiments, and certainly are not above worship of our own emotions. A sentimentalized Jesus is preferable: He's simpler, and certainly much tidier. The flesh and blood Jesus is hazardous to sinners, and even much more so dangerous to the virtuous, here one must nod to C.S. Lewis and agree that though Jesus is good, He is not safe. We know we are unlikely to survive a meeting with Jesus--our vices with be brought to light, and perhaps even more frighteningly, our virtues seared away, our pious pretentions would be reduced to rubble, leaving us with nothing of ourselves, nothing which we can claim as ours. A symbolic Eucharist is the vain attempt to save ourselves from such an encounter with Christ. Much like the demons, in our sin we cry out, "depart from us Jesus of Nazareth!" Yet unlike swine cast into the abyss, we are not driven away, but rather comforted, not with some sentimental notion that He loves us just as we are, but rather in a much more concrete absolute—that He feeds us Himself so we may live. He does destroy us, as even our most virtuous qualities are burned away by the flesh and blood the crucified and risen Lord, and it is then that we amount only to what we are in Him. But in this, staring through a glass darkly we begin to understand with the apostle that it is no longer "I who lives, but Christ who lives in me."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

From Vice to Virtue?

"God does not want to redeem us through our own, but through external, righteousness and wisdom; not through one that comes from us and grows in us, but through one that comes to us from the outside; not through one that originates here on earth, but through one that originates in heaven. Therefore, we must be taught a righteousness that comes completely from the outside and is foreign. And therefore our own righteousness that is born in us must first be plucked up. Thus we read in Ps. 45:10 'Forget your people and your father's house, etc.' Abraham, too, was ordered to leave his father's house in this way (Gen 12:1). Thus we read also in the Song of Solomon (4:8) 'Come from Lebanon, my spouse, and you shall be crowned.' Also, the whole exodus of the people of Israel formerly symbolized that exodus which they interpret as one from faults to virtues. But it would be better to understand it as an exodus from virtues to the grace of Christ, because virtues of that kind are often greater or worse faults the less they are accepted as such and the more powerfully they subordinate to themselves every human emotion at the expense of all other good qualities. Thus the right side of the Jordan was more afraid than the left side. But now Christ wants our whole disposition to be so stripped down that we are not only unafraid of being embarrassed for our faults and also do not delight in the glory and vain joys of our virtues but that we do not feel called upon to glory before men even in that external righteousness that comes to us from Christ. Nor should we be cast down by sufferings and evils which are inflicted on us for His sake. A true Christian must have no glory of his own and must to such an extent be stripped of everything he calls his own that in honor and dishonor he can always remain the same in the knowledge that the honor that has been bestowed on him has been given not to him but to Christ, whose righteousness and gifts are shining in him, and that the dishonor inflicted on him is inflicted both on him and on Christ."

Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (Luther's Works 25:136-7)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Religion Versus Relationship?

    "It's not about religion but about relationship" has become a cliché bandied about primarily by Evangelicals wishing to underscore what it is that makes them distinct from the forms of Christianity that have come before them. Evangelicalism is, indeed, relatively new on the religious landscape, and it understands that it must market itself to a population which expects to be seduced by good salesmanship, if it is to survive. That is, Evangelicalism, particularly American Evangelicalism, understands Americans. It understands that in America success is largely measured by popularity, which is measured by numbers. In order to get one's numbers to grow, it helps if there is a slogan which sets you apart from what is, for lack of a better word, the competition. In a sense, "it's not about religion but about relationship" has become the marketing jingle of America's own brand of Christianity. With these few words it lays bare a critique of the forms of Christianity which have preceded her, and it promises a new, revitalized, version of Christianity. In this new version of Christianity God is not concerned with Himself, but God is concerned with you. He wants to get to know you as a person, because, well, you're that important. And if you get to know God, you'll discover the power awaiting your claim. Americans understand power: we want and expect our cars to be powerful, our military to be powerful, our leaders to be powerful, and we certainly expect our religion, opps, I mean our personal relationship with Jesus, to be one of power as well.

    The trouble with this language, with this phrase, isn't the words themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong with speaking of a personal relationship with Jesus, to seek to know and understand Him better. What is troubling, are the connotations it bears within the American religious landscape: it speaks of a Christianity devoid of any certainty, or any assurance outside of one's own personal experience of Jesus. By speaking of Christianity as something that is grounded in one's own experience, and rejecting what it classifies as "religion" which invariably are the rituals and sacraments which Christ has provided His Church, we form a vapid Christianity lacking any depth, and certainly without any personal weakness. In this new Christianity there is no room for failure, there is no room for Job, there is no room for God dead on a cross. It is no accident that this Christianity, or what passes for Christianity, rarely portrays this dead God in their sanctuaries. Here one might trot out the Reformed understanding of the numbering of the 10 Commandments, which places as the second commandment a prohibition against images of the divine, and at some junctures this might be a valid historical claim, however, I believe in mainstream American Christianity, something much more sinister is at work—the Cross doesn't have any value in a religion that is largely about you and your personal success stories. We see this principle at play in the use of testimonies within these churches. Everyone is expected to have a testimony, this is the mark of one's salvation—how bad a sinner were you, and how much have you cleaned up your act since then (of course with all the glory to God alone!)? And no, no one ever says "well I was a three week old rotten sinner at enmity with God when my parents carted me the baptismal font where I was born again in the waters of baptism, and given the promise of life and salvation." No, that's just not exciting enough (debates over infant baptism notwithstanding). When this brand of Christianity speaks of an encounter with Jesus, it will almost certainly be in the form of goosebumps, chills, an internal revitalization, or I cringe to say it, a "special word from the Lord." In this brand of Christianity it's blasé to say one has encountered Jesus by eating His body and drinking His blood, for the forgiveness of sins. Not nearly exciting enough. In this brand of Christianity, salvation itself has become blasé. Or at least salvation spoken of in Biblical terms--you're a rotten sinner, Jesus is a great Savior who loves you, died for you, and there's nothing you can do about it. In this form of Christianity our feelings are a means of grace, our source of assurance, and Jesus is our life coach. He's there to encourage us, and to bless us, to help us straighten up and fly right. This brand of Christianity has done exactly what it claims it does not do: it is a very religious program of personal self-fulfillment and self-advancement.

What do we lose when we define our faith by our experience and our quest for power? We lose Jesus. Sure, there may be much talk about Jesus, but he's a Jesus without any verbs, and is almost relegated to an abstract concept. He is a Jesus who died, rose, and ascended, so we may have "power from on high." He's a Jesus who is the means to a better life. He is no longer the sum total of all theology. With this emphasis on power we lose Jesus, and we lose the prayer of the Church, "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." There is little place for a cry for mercy when one is busy with the business of being a successful Christian.










Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bible Message Fail

Look everyone: I have a blog! The funny thing about blogs is that you're supposed to write stuff and then publish it on said blog. Clearly I've been remiss in so doing. I'd apologize or offer some lame excuse to explain my absence, but an apology I think would be a bit over the top, and the excuse would probably be made-up, so I'll refrain from both. However, here I am again, back at it after once again being told by several people that I should "blog." Honestly, I don't think I have much to say that isn't already being said by other people who are much smarter than I, but alas I suppose the appeal to vanity worked, as evidenced by this entry. So hang on, and read carefully--this may be the only thing I have to say for another 4 or 5 months.

A few days ago a blog entry appeared which listed the answers given by nearly 30 noted Evangelical scholars and pastors when asked to relay the message of the Bible in one sentence. I was struck by this entry and the responses; the question he poses is the sort which would force us to sift through our own perceptions of what it is God brings to us in His Word. In a day where the Bible is used for any one of a number of things: life coach, financial planner, magic de-coder ring, prophecy illuminator, and basic instruction book, what do seminary professors, scholars, and mega church pastors see as the Bible's central message?

Perhaps not surprisingly, though somewhat depressingly, several scholars gave responses that made me want to plant a tree rather than rejoice in the salvation God has brought to man. I cannot help but find it distressing that seminary professors and pastors could speak of God's central message without speaking of Jesus, not to mention Jesus' salvation of sinners. Granted, several responses did point to Jesus, however this is not Leno's "Jaywalking" segment, this is not the word on the street--this is the word from the seminaries. Many bloggers, commentators, and radio hosts have pointed to the near-absent evangel in much of today's Evangelicalism, and I think we tend to assume that law-centered, improve your life, be a good person, 40-days-to-a-better-you, type of sermons and Bible studies happen in some sort of vacuum. If a professor at a seminary does not see Christ crucified for sinners as the central message of Scripture, then how can we expect him to see Jesus on every page? How can we expect him to teach seminarians anything different from what he himself confesses? Why should we be surprised when the gospel is treated as a secondary add-on when it is not seen as the central message of the Bible? If the professors don't know what the Bible's about, then how can the students (who will later be pastors) fare any better?

This question reminds me of recent sermon delivered by a noted Christian apologist at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary: he was slated to preach on "What's so great about the gospel?" but introduced his sermon by stating that he couldn't begin to cover that topic in 20 minutes, so chose instead to preach a bizarre sermon which outlined his principles for leadership. This leads us to consider the old adage that if we understand something we should be able to explain it quickly and with simplicity.