Monday, October 22, 2012

Literal Biblical Womanhood

A number of people have asked me lately if I will be reviewing Rachel Held Evans new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which follows her attempts “to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.” I am not going to read and review it, though my reason may sound underwhelming. I am behind on a number of projects to which I had previously obligated myself, including another book review. I also took on two ministry opportunities this fall which are taking up a great deal of the little bit of extra time I have when my family doesn't need me. Not to mention, I'm working on finishing my own book! Though somehow that keeps getting shoved to the bottom of the pile.

All that to say, I won't be adding anything new to my pile for the next few months. Nevertheless, despite my best efforts to stay focused on my massive To Do list, I was distracted by this article on NBC news today about Evans' new book. In it, Evans said this, which resonated with me.
“People were throwing around this phrase, biblical womanhood, as if that’s something any of us are really practicing,” she told TODAY’s Natalie Morales on Monday. “That’s the challenge, looking for any person of faith who loves the Bible, trying to figure out what parts of this book apply and should be followed literally, and which parts may be culturally influenced, and how do we decide.”
How do we decide what parts of Scripture are for today? Not all parts of Scripture are to be literally followed today, right? Most of us at least agree on that. But there are divergent perspectives within the larger evangelical movement on how we know what is required for today, especially in terms of application to women. It is tempting for me to rely on my own cultural understanding as the basis for what does and does not apply to me in Scripture. But the Bible transcends cultural context. The Bible makes audacious claims about itself. It claims to be living (Hebrews 4:12). It claims to be trustworthy (Matthew 5:18, 2 Peter 1:20-21). It speaks to events that occurred well before it was first written and to those that will occur long after it was completed.

How any of us decide to receive the Word is a fundamental act of faith. I remember well my early days at college when I first faced head on my belief (or unbelief) in the trustworthiness of the Scripture handed down by the church for two millennia. Could I trust it? How did I know it was true? What about the questions others regularly raised? I studied how we got our texts for a bit, but then I realized at some point that I could not study my way out of the need to take a step of faith on the reliability of Scripture.

So I took that step of faith. I believed that the Bible was what it claimed – the living, trustworthy revelation of God to His people, a revelation that transcends any particular cultural context. Yet, still I had to wonder what to do with peculiar passages that seemed totally irrelevant for me today. I realized early on in my wrestling over Scripture that I did not want to rely on myself to determine what was and what was not relevant for me today. I knew it was foolish for me to choose to accept the parts I liked and reject the parts I didn't. Thankfully, the Bible does not leave us as orphans to navigate that. In fact, the Bible gives great insight to us on how to interact with itself. The most important Bible interpretation principle I know is that THE BIBLE IS THE BEST COMMENTARY ON ITSELF.

Consider Deuteronomy 22:5, which forbids women wearing men's clothes and vice versa. Though it more likely was addressing what today would be considered transvestism, when I was growing up, this verse was used to forbid fundamentalist Christian women from wearing pants. We attended a church for a while that bought into that thinking. At some point, I read the next verse in Deuteronomy 22 on not taking the mother from a bird's nest though you could take the young and the following one on building a parapet on your roof top. Once I got to the verse on not wearing garments with a mixture of wool and linen, I knew something was skewed in how that church was presenting Scripture. Thankfully, in my own study I one day came to understand that Jesus was the only one who ever could obey the Old Testament Law as God intended. He did obey the Law perfectly, and His death on the cross changed permanently the role of the Law for all who followed.

We have no need today to write off Old Testament law. Jesus addressed this head on in Matthew 5.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
There are many wrong ways to think about Old Testament laws. They aren't to be written off, ignored, or abolished. Instead, Jesus FULFILLED them. He brought them to completion, and they are now done. Not only did He fulfill them, Jesus boiled them down for us so that we could continue living in the essence of what they were meant to convey. He summed this up with the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) and Greatest Command (Matthew 22:36-40).
Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. 
Matthew 22  36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Edited on Tuesday to add -- I hesitate to criticize much in Evans' book since I haven't read it, and that would just be irresponsible on my part.  But much was made in their advertising about her sleeping in a tent during her cycle each month in light of instructions in Leviticus 15.  If the point of that was to reveal something about literal Biblical womanhood, then that misses that Scripture itself already tells us no one today is required to follow Leviticus 15.  I am curious how much of what she attempts at Biblical womanhood falls in this category, which is not literal Biblical womanhood at all.

Upon Christ's death on the cross, He ushered in the New Covenant, fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy in Jer. 31:31-34.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah several times in his detailed discussion of all Christ's death accomplished for us. If you are not familiar with that passage, I encourage you to read through Hebrews 8-10.

It's not rocket science. The Bible spells out for us quite clearly how we are to interact with the Old Testament Law. If we allow the Bible to instruct us on itself, we save ourselves a lot of headache and stress.  Much of our "literal" Biblical womanhood quandary becomes obsolete.  In summary, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil law pointed toward Christ and was fulfilled in Him. The New Testament reaffirms the summary moral code of the Ten Commandments. Jesus even intensifies it in His Sermon on the Mount. The essence is summed up in the Greatest Command and Golden Rule. Much of the epistles then flesh out what this looks like in the New Covenant, and we can trust those instructions.

*I have notes from an excellent class on Scripture that I hope to share next week.*

Monday, October 15, 2012

Communication without Emotion

Communication with men in general and in marriage in particular can be hard for a girly girl. I'm not a girly girl in the traditional sense, though I have my moments evidenced by my doll collection in my guest bedroom. I have simple hair, don't wear much makeup, and find shopping in a mall a torturous experience. But I was raised one of three daughters. Now as the lone female in a house of men, I have come to realize that the way women communicated with which I grew up is not the way men communicate in my home now. I am a girly girl in my communication at times. 

Women can be more subtle with each other. Maybe we shouldn't be, but we can be and get away with it most times. We can drop a hint. We can suggest. We can put out a vibe. But that doesn't work as well with men.

Many times, I have dropped hints and subtly suggested things in my home. And I am ignored! Which makes me angry!! Which causes me to say a lot more with a strident tone. Then I get a reaction, but it's certainly not the one I wanted.

A couple of resources have come my way over the last year or so that have reinforced the value of simply saying exactly what I need or want, when I need or want it, without emotion. The without emotion part is crucial though extremely hard for me. When first practicing the suggestions on how to communicate with the men in my household, I initially got emotional over the fact that I had to state it so clearly without emotion. I want to be known and understood! Why do I have to say that I want X for my next birthday? I want someone who loves me to notice me looking at X with longing and who then tucks it away to surprise me with it at a later date. That seems so romantic. But I'm coming to value the fact that my husband needs me to clearly articulate what I need or want, because when I do clearly articulate it without an attached emotion that makes him feel shamed or guilted, he responds. Because he loves me. And his love for me is tangible when it's accompanied by gratitude that I said exactly what I meant without a negative emotion attached to it.

I'm learning that dropping hints and putting out a vibe don't work with men, at least the men in my house. I'm learning that if I can communicate my main points in two sentences, it is much more effective that communicating additional sub points of context and emotion with multiple paragraphs. Again, that's hard because I want to be known and tend to process things by talking something through. I have to distinguish between wanting to communicate something specific to my husband and wanting to process through something with him. In the first case, I need to say exactly what I mean in as few sentences as possible without attached emotion. In the second, I need to let him know I just want to verbally process something and that I am not looking for him to do something or offer advice about what I need to do. Then I can process with him, with emotion, using multiple paragraphs describing the intricacies of my feelings on the subject. But he's not on the defensive trying to figure out what he's supposed to be doing. He's just supposed to be listening. Then he can hug me at the end and have fulfilled what I needed of him. Oddly enough, he often has very good advice with that hug as well.

When we communicate clearly without emotion, we offer the best protection for ourselves from the kind of explosive anger and bitterness that shuts down communication altogether. The great Biblical characteristic of love to bring to each of these communications is that love is ever ready to believe the best of someone. Start your communication giving the benefit of the doubt in conversation. And then say what you mean. Don't put out a vibe. Don't drop hints. Don't get distracted by tangents. Those can come later. But the big rocks of what you want to communicate will get lost if you add the others in too soon.
Matthew 5:37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’ ...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Esther, Victims, and a Reformed View of Depravity

There has been a lot of discussion of Esther lately in the blogosphere. Before that, there had also been lots of discussion of sexual abuse in religious organizations of various backgrounds. I have thought a lot on the two subjects, Esther and sexual abuse. I stare off in space in thought, talk to myself in my car, stare off in space some more, think through the Scripture I know, look up other Scripture online, and so forth. The title of this blog is Practical Theology. It's my core mission statement – what I believe about God (theology) and what He teaches us through Scripture (doctrine) is practical. No matter how one practically responds to the issues of sexual abuse and victimization, it is inevitably tied to our underlying belief system. In light of that, I've been reflecting on what belief system could cause a believer to label Esther a sinner as opposed to a victim in the particular details of her story.

I think the doctrinal issue at play is a view of total depravity that is not supported by Scripture. I love tulips. But I think that our term total depravity may slightly misrepresent the issue. Pervasive depravity may be a better term for it, though PULIP just doesn't have the same ring. I was first exposed to the terminology pervasive depravity through Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. I'm doubtful anyone would label them as reformed lightweights. Sometimes teachers claim reformed language without fully understanding the totality of a reformed perspective on an issue. I do that at times, and I found my own recent education on the issue of depravity through a well trained reformed pastor enlightening compared to my less than accurate previous understanding.

Here's the issue with depravity. Scripture clearly presents that all have sinned and fall short of God's glory. This does NOT mean, however, that every person is as bad as they possibly could be. It does not mean that every person always makes the wrong decision. It does not mean that no person is able to help or be good to another. No, our depravity is better expressed as pervasive than total. Pervasive means it affects all aspects of ourselves. It is spread throughout, and we are unable to reverse it. But it does not mean that every response every time in every situation is 100% or totally wrong. I hear this wrong view of depravity discussed as Jesus wears the only white hat, and everyone else has black hats. Or Jesus is the only hero, and everyone else is the bad guy.   There's a sense in which that is pervasively true, but it is not totally true.  *Note that such subtleties matter a great deal when discussing something as sensitive as sexual subjugation.*

This difference is crucial for understanding Esther's situation. If you think that all people make bad decisions all the time, well, first that is really depressing, and second it's just not true. In Esther's case, you then likely interpret the fact that she ends up in the king's harem and eventually as his wife due to her own poor choices, because, well, that's the nature of man (or woman) in your belief system. That paradigm has no category for the honest to goodness VICTIM. If you are totally bad all the time, then of course you made only bad choices along the way that led to your victimization.

But the Bible does have a category called the oppressed. And when Scripture refers to the oppressed, it does not address them as moral agents responsible for their own oppression.
Psalm 10:17-18 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Other Scripture indicates that all of us are responsible for our own sin, but not necessarily for our own oppression. There are true victims in Scripture, put in situations due to circumstances (and other people) outside of their control. Esther, like Ruth, is in this category. Sinners? Yes. But not in the circumstances out of their control that are recounted in the books by their names.

It's very easy for someone with power who is not threatened to surmise what they would do if they had NO power and were threatened. In contrast, anyone who has been threatened sexually and feared for their life or the life of their family will likely give a very different perspective when reading Esther than the one that she contributed sinfully to her own situation. My hope is that sexual assault or abuse victims will not walk away from the recent discussion on various sites about Esther with added shame that you didn't do enough to prevent your abuse. Understand that while you are a sinner (as am I), you also very likely are simply a victim in that circumstance.

There is a reason that Scripture gives us NO indication of what went on that first night between Esther and the king.  There is a reason that Scripture gives no moral judgement against any of Esther's conduct ANYWHERE in Scripture. We can imply that she manipulated the king with her beauty and sexual appeal. But such implication is irresponsible. We can imply whatever we want on most any Scripture that doesn't say something clearly itself. But that doesn't make it right. The Bible only states the barest of facts about Esther's first interaction with the king , and I believe that is part of God's purposes in writing Esther. Apparently to our sovereign God who preserved His word for us through generations, what went on in that room was irrelevant to the point that God planned to communicate -- His sovereign hand in circumstances that seem empty of His presence.

The bottom line of Esther has gotten lost in all of this, which is tragic. Many Scriptures teach us of the God who saves us from our own personal sin, the depravity within us. But Esther is very much about the God who also rescues us from the depravity without us. There have been many victims through the ages like Abel, who despite his own depravity was not responsible for his victimization by his brother, and their blood cries out for justice. The God of Esther sees and hears it, promising to work through circumstances and situations where His name is never mentioned to rescue His children.

*Here's an article from last year on false humility and worm theology that may be helpful on this subject.*

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Mission of God Study Bible -- Free Give Away

I had the rare privilege of contributing notes for a recently published study Bible edited by Ed Stetzer and Philip Nation, The Mission of God Study Bible. I found contributing something that was going into a study Bible a very weighty thing. Some people don't like study Bibles. I do like them, though I mostly read from a Bible with no notes. But study Bibles have their place, and I have found the notes in them very helpful. My all-time favorite study Bible is The Reformation Study Bible edited by R. C. Sproul. I refer back to that one often. The Mission of God Study Bible looks to be a good addition, and if you value study notes from various perspectives, I think this one will add to your library.

I like the opening declaration of the purpose of The Mission of God study notes and how to use them.
“The Mission of God Study Bible exists for the same reason all things exist: to point us to the glory of God. The Scriptures are given by God as a revelation of Himself and to call us to redemption. Throughout the process of His revelatory work, God is honored and we can become the beneficiaries of His grace. 
In the preparation of this study Bible, our hope is that you will clearly learn how God, in His great mercy, is active in creation to bring about the work of redeeming people and eventually restoring creation. The Scriptures exist for this purpose, and we have endeavored to create a study edition of the Bible that traces how God reveals Himself through redemption and restoration.”
The editors of the study Bible also have their own personal books recently released. Ed Stetzer's Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation is an intriguing book about how our understanding of the Kingdom of God transforms and empowers authentic gospel living in our culture. “Kingdom citizens minister grace out of grace,” he says.

Philip Nation, along with Michael Kelley and Eric Geiger, have written Transformational Discipleship: How People Really Grow. It's a cool book because it incorporates solid research of effective church practices with clear Bible principles and much personal experience. The authors distinguish between nontransformational and transformational discipleship. Nontransformational discipleship “may provide education, improve behavior, increase happiness, add value, or make the disciple more skilled at a craft. But these are just changes. It's the reskinning of the same thing on the inside.” Information is not good discipleship. Behavior modification is not good discipleship. Jesus calls us to and equips us for something altogether different, and this book is a good resource for anyone who wants to think deeply through what does and does not accomplish such a thing.

I have two copies of The Mission of God Study Bible to give away. To enter the drawing, just make a comment below and check back on Tuesday to see if you won.

*Winners are Modern Day Disciple, Sandra Peoples, and Sandra S.   Email me at theologyforwomen@gmail.com with your address.*

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Here's how you should vote!

I'm annoyed with the wealth of morally outraged Facebook comments over politics right now. And I imagine it's only going to get worse for the next month. (Note to self – deactivate your Facebook account next political season and save yourself a lot of anxiety.) What most ticks me off as I hear equally outrageous statements from both sides of the political spectrum is people's moral superiority. Entrenched supporters on one side are convinced of their moral superiority because their candidate seems more sensitive to the poor. Others are morally superior because their candidate seems more sensitive to the unborn. Personally, I'm for the unborn, and I'm for the born child that goes hungry, needs medical access, and needs education. There are many dueling moral issues in this political season. The one I most struggle with is honesty – I may like what one candidate says more than the other, but at least the other has been consistent in how he presents himself. There seems some moral superiority in that. However, moral superiority espoused by anyone tends to go awry, even my moral superiority over not claiming moral superiority.

Here's the truth. There are things that liberals get right and conservatives get wrong. And there are things that conservatives get right that liberals get wrong. The problem is when immature people don't realize that everyone who disagrees with them does not necessarily have a moral problem. This immaturity reflects a problem with love. Love is ever ready to believe the best of someone, to give the benefit of the doubt (I Cor. 13). Everyone who votes democratic doesn't hate the unborn. And everyone who votes republican doesn't hate low income children. Yet in the political season, even among Facebook friends, few care about giving the benefit of the doubt.

I'll tell you right now how you should vote. As your conscience leads you after prayer and meditation on Scripture. 

Don't let anyone talk you out of that! It's your right as an American, and it's God's instruction for believers who are IN Christ. You have freedom to follow your own conscience as the Spirit convicts you. And as an American, hold strongly and boldly to your right to vote your conscience without impunity from friends, family, or any organization with which you are associated. That's the most basic freedom granted by our constitution!

Then, once you vote, you can rest! Because God sets up authorities, not us. I'll end with His clear, beautiful instructions in Romans 13 that settle my mind and keep me from anxiety during such seasons.
 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.