Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Elephants Rule (3)

I laughed repeatedly as I read the third chapter of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, titled, "Elephant's Rule." Here are summaries of previous chapters:

1. Introduction
2. Intuitive Dogs and Rational Tails

1. Of course the laugh is on me, because I too am subject to the principles of this chapter. But Haidt showed repeatedly, largely on the basis of experiments conducted, that people immensely follow their immediate intuitions rather than coming to conclusions on the basis of reason. Intuition is like an elephant that turns the rider (reasoning) in a certain direction, and then reasoning strategizes in that direction. Bottom line: "Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second."

Our intuitions are like an elephant, and we have them in a fraction of a second. One study in the chapter compared the results of past elections with the flash intuitions of contemporary individuals looking at the pictures of the candidates. The question asked was, "Who looks more competent?" The results of the election highly correlated to those immediate intuitions of people who had no idea who these candidates were, what party they belonged to, or what their actual competency was.

2. One of the funnier examples in the chapter involved "fart spray." So a psychologist on a street corner asked about controversial issues near a cleaned out trash can. However, for some of those surveyed, he sprayed the can with a light "fart spray." The result was that individuals with the fart spray made harsher judgments than those without it.

In a contrary study, people asked moral questions after washing their hands or near cleaning products are more likely to become more moralistic and self-righteous in their answers.

3. Let me apply. I was at a large church recently and I noticed that the pastor had started holding a Bible at multiple points during the sermon. I smiled. There's a certain kind of complainer who always says, "That sermon didn't have enough Bible in it." Ironically, those who make these complaints are often those who understand the Bible the least.

Now, mind you, the Bible is only as helpful as it is applied, so quoting Scripture in itself is only as effective as its application. That means that a sermon that applies the principles of Scripture well is, from a logical standpoint, just as scriptural as one that quotes the Bible all over the place but is unclear in how to apply it.

But people aren't logical. I thought to myself, this pastor might not have changed the amount of Scripture in his sermon at all. But because he holds the Bible, the intuitions of this congregation are going to feel like they are getting more Bible. He's helping them getting over their faulty intuitions, thought I, by showing them a Bible. "Bible spray" makes people feel better about the sermon.

4. This chapter is a smack down to all those who think we are primarily, "thinking things," as Jamie Smith has also argued. It defies those who think our worldviews or ideologies are primary or that our actions somehow flow from what we believe with our reason. Au contraire. We overwhelmingly direct our ideologies, our theologies, our moralities, on the basis of our basic disgusts and attractions, our gut feelings.

There is actually a prejudice test that times how quickly you respond to pictures of differing social groups. If you have a basic negativity toward a certain social group, it will take you 250 milliseconds longer to respond toward the picture of a certain group because you have to undo your intuitive lean toward negativity. Again, it is the emotional processing centers of the brain that fire up when being asked to make a moral decision.

5. Psychopaths reinforce this line of thinking. They can reason just fine. "The rider is perfectly normal" (73). The problem is with the elephant, the moral intuitions. They don't have them.

Even babies already come with the capacity to evaluate individuals on the basis of their social interactions. They are attracted to helper puppets, not hinderer puppets. They have an innate preference for people who are nice rather than people who are mean. Moral intuitions develop very early.

As far as philosophy, "deontology" (duty based approaches) are not rationally driven at all, but driven by our fundamental moral intuitions. Cold utilitarianism must be learned (greater good reasoning). So deontology is our primary mode of operation, but it has little to do with logic.

6. Perhaps to keep people like me reading, he throws us a bone at the end of the chapter. Who are people like me? We are people who want to think that we are not as un-self-aware as all the other moral animals among the masses whose reasoning is a servant of their blind intuitions.

So I want to think that I am more reflective than the throngs going to hear Donald Trump. I want to think I am a better scholar than the popular scholarly books that pretend to go through a logical interpretive process only to end up telling us the orthodox theology we wanted to hear in the first place. I'm thinking of two scholarly books on Hebrews that I would consider popular because they use scholarship to say what people want to conclude anyway.

So he ends the chapter by saying that elephants are sometimes open to reason. In some cases, the rider can convince the elephant to change directions. Usually, he says, it is in social interaction, where someone else's elephant can convince my rider to steer my elephant in a different direction. "The elephant my not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants... or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants" (80).

He allows the possibility that in some rare cases, people may reason their way to a different moral conclusion that contradicts their initial intuitive judgment. He ends the chapter with an experiment where, after being told not to make a moral decision for 2 minutes, the subjects did change their mind from an "initial disgust" position to a more reasoned one.

This week emphasized, "intuitions first." The next chapter will emphasize, "strategic reasoning second."

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Myth of "Getting Back"

1. It is intrinsic to humanity that we tell stories about who we are and where we came from. We don't realize it, but over time we subtly change the emphasis, the way we tell the stories, and even the details. We do this because, even though we don't even realize it most of the time, the purpose of telling these stories has everything to do with now, with the present.

You and I do not live in the past, and we do not live in the future either. We live in the present. We do not understand meaning two thousand years ago. We understand it now. All meaning is now because I am always now.

I cannot go back to the past. I can only try to see it from now. I encounter it only as it meets me now.

So this is a game we play. It seems important for humanity to find meaning in the present on the basis of the past. Yet the purpose of finding that past and the function of telling that past is all about the present. More often than not, we use the past as a mirror. We go to the past in order to see what we already want to do in the present.

2. In few areas of life is this dynamic more in play than in the area of religion. Few Christians have any real understanding of the Bible. Indeed, the experts often disagree widely over its historical meaning. (To be fair, they often all agree that certain more popular understandings are wrong.)

Yet the Bible is claimed to be at the heart of a million points of great contemporary debate. We speak of a biblical worldview or being biblical Christians, but this language often has very little to do with the real Bible. It more often has to do with contemporary issues where we are wanting to defend positions we already have by slapping some verse on them. Thus we don't have to argue for our opinions by using evidence or reasoning. We can pretend that our gut opinion has already been endorsed by God.

3. So how do we ground our positions and values? For religion especially, some continuity with the past seems essential. God can't just start to exist today for Christianity to be valid. He has to have been around for some time. In the same way, if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, then Christianity as we know it unravels. We would have to fall back to some broader theism or Judaism.

The past does matter. The past matters in areas of the broadest foundation. At least a few people should know as much about history as we can know at this point in time. If for no other reason, their expertise can be used to call into question mirror readings that are potentially harmful, to burst the bubble of over-zealous use of the story.

4. But here is a crucial point. The function of these "reminders of the past" is as a reference tool. They are not authorities on where to go or what decisions to make. They are not final authorities or the obvious leaders. The goal is not to go back--we can't. We inevitably live in the present.

When our "reminders" are serving us best, they help us find the elements of the past that most resonate with where we need to go in the present. They help us reframe the story to move forward. They have always done this. We only have thought that we were going back. We have never truly gone back. We have only always been retelling the same story in a way that resonates with the present.

5. I wish I had the words to capture this dynamic. It is true even if we cannot bring ourselves to see it:
  • God speaks to us (and to the NT authors) through the version of the Bible we have in front of us, not the original manuscripts we don't have.
  • God speaks to us through Matthew as we have it, not Q or its original sources. God speaks to us through the Pentateuch as we have it, not through J or E or D or P.
  • God speaks to us through Jesus as we see him in the biblical text, not from the videotape of him in Galilee that we don't have.
  • God speaks to us through the English Bible we can read, not through the original Greek or Hebrew we can't read.
  • God speaks to us through the understanding of the Bible we have inherited from the Christian traditions we are a part of, not through the understanding we don't have.
  • God speaks to us in terms of how we need to live today, not in terms of the bubble above the apostle Paul's head.
I am not against learning, by any means. There is all sort of lunacy going on out there in the name of God and the Bible. Education is a key antidote, to clear out the million obvious misunderstandings of the way things are.

6. But even if you know Greek, even if you know as much we can know about the original meaning, even if you can make a good case for a reconstruction of J or Q, God will still only be meeting you in the present. God will still only be meeting you in your current understanding. God still only meets you with the Jesus you know, not the Jesus of a videotape.

So by all means, study. Learn. Improve your understanding as best you can.

But don't do so because you think the answers are back there. Don't think that if you can just "get back" you will have finally arrived. Don't think you will finally be the appropriate leader because you have uncovered ancient knowledge.

God is the God of the living, not the dead.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Who are the Heirs of the Apostles?

1. Every once and a while, I'll see something one of my step-daughters does and say to myself, "She is so like her mom!" Then a little bit later, my other step-daughter might do something and I'll think, "She is so like her mom!" The funny thing is, these two daughters are strikingly different from each other!

And so it seems to be with the "deposit" that God has left to us in the Church through the apostles. You hear two different groups of people in the church pointing to quite different aspects of the church today as the modern equivalent of the apostles. As usual, I think they're both right!

2. So the traditional view is this. The apostles were foundational to the church (Eph. 2:20). Who were these apostles? They were, first of all, the twelve, the disciples. These twelve had been with Jesus from the time of John's baptism up through the time of the resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). Then there was another layer of apostles, people like Paul, Barnabas (1 Cor. 9:5-6), Junias, and Andronicus (Rom. 16:7). The risen Jesus had appeared to them and commissioned them to go as witnesses to the resurrection (1 Cor. 9:1).

As the apostles began to die off, they were understood to have left a "deposit" to the next generation (2 Tim. 1:14). This is the way I understand Ephesians 2:20--the apostles and prophets in question were foundational ones. I believe that prophecy remains a gift in the church. But the prophets of Ephesians 2, I believe, were some of the unspoken heroes behind what we now see in Scripture. God used them to guide the earliest church to passages in the Old Testament about Jesus, for example. We may even hear some words in the Gospels from the risen Jesus through them (although that's a sticky wicket I don't want to go into!)

Bottom line, the apostles left us the New Testament as the deposit of their foundational understandings and practices. Thus Scripture is probably the most important heir of the apostles!

3. But the apostles also appointed elders and deacons in the churches. In other words, the apostles left church structures in place so that, after they were gone, there would be authority in the church. Indeed, this is one of the primary ways they functioned in the early church. When the Corinthian church was going up in flames, the apostle came in as authority to settle questions and bring discipline.

It is thus no surprise that bishops and official institutional church structure has traditionally been understood as heir to the apostles. Again, there is certainly some truth to this idea. When the General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church or the General Board or the District Superintendent or the District Board steps into a thorny situation to try to speak God's authority into it, they are functioning in an apostolic kind of way.

4. But there are a number of voices in the church today who see another function of the apostles, especially the apostle Paul, that sometimes seems gravely missing from the church today. They especially take Ephesians 4:11 as a set of functions for the church for all time and not just for that time. For this group, apostles are outside the box, entrepreneur types who are always on the move and who have a heightened power to their ministry. These apostles have a charisma, an anointing on them that has a power other people immediately see in them.

Paul did not see his ministry as one that stayed still. He did not feel called to minister where ministries were already started (Rom. 15:20). He was always pushing the gospel to places it had never been and bringing in people who had not known it. In Acts 10, God uses Peter to bring the gospel for the first time to Gentiles.

Several corners of the church today are speaking of "apostolic ministry" as something the church today is lacking. Once again, they are seeing a dimension of the apostles and wanting to consolidate the church's recognition of the calling of these types of individuals. They are also heirs of characteristics that we see apostles demonstrating in the New Testament.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Intuitive Dogs and Rational Tails (2)

The second chapter of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind is titled, "The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail." Last week I gave a quick review of the first chapter that the old Monday reading group is going through. Yesterday we met to traverse chapter 2.

1. The bottom line of this chapter is that people's "moral" sensibilities (including their sense of politics and religion) are primarily intuitive. People just know what is right or wrong and then they find reasons after the fact to justify their sensibilities.

So, most of the time, our intuitions (the dog) lead to moral judgments which lead to reasoning (the tail). We then influence other people's intuitions with our reasonings. This is the social dimension of the moral/political/religious process.

In another part of the chapter, he likens our situation to a rider on an elephant. The elephant is our intuition, and the rider is our reasoning about our intuitions. Really, Haidt claims, the elephant is in control, and the rider is merely serving the elephant.

2. He begins with the story of the debate among moral psychologists. Plato thought that reason ruled the person (or at least should). Hume thought that our passions ruled our reason. Jefferson thought it was a both/and, that we sometimes relied on reason and sometimes relied on our emotions.

As it turns out, our emotions are not separate from our cognition. "Emotions" are intrinsic to human decision making and those whose brains are "disconnected" here have trouble making any decisions. "Emotions" are intrinsic to cognition--they are part of our reasoning, not something different as Jefferson pictured.

These are apparently fighting words, although to look at American politics and religion, it seems pretty obvious to me. People know what they believe, then they go find reasons to justify it. As a Bible teacher, I have often found that if I can find another way to get people to the theological or practical conclusion they want to believe, then I can get them to be more objective about the original meaning of biblical passages or about some item of theology.

3. Haidt does not deny that a person can change his or her moral intuitions by way of private reflection or reasoned judgment together. He simply claims that those instances are much rarer (especially the private reflection one) than the knee-jerk intuition. Contrary to stalwart names like Lawrence Kohlberg and John Rawls, Haidt and others have suggested that most people use reason to generate clever justifications for moral intuitions they already have.

It was fun to see Haidt reference Dale Carnegie, who was so influential on my Dad. You influence people, Carnegie suggested, not by confronting them with the truth and reason but by understanding the other person's point of view. Empathy is the best way to help change someone else who is taking a "righteous" point of view, not confrontation. My Dad used to quote, "A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still."

4. So Haidt calls this model a "social intuitionist" model. He has done a good job of reeling us in and as much as admits that he is plying his trade on people like me as readers. No doubt at some point he will cross a line and I will start to disagree. He jokingly suggests at the end of this chapter that if he hasn't managed to appeal to the reader's intuitions, perhaps that reader should stop reading. But of course, he is simply manipulating the rationally oriented reader to want then to read more so as to prove him wrong rationally.

There are hints already that I will not completely buy him. I did not think well of E. O. Wilson twenty years ago, but Haidt has appealed to my intuitions in such a way that I barely caught that I was feeling sorry for someone that I mocked in ethics class in the late 90s. We readers are being played or shall I say that my intuitions are being played. :-)

5. Keith Drury isn't back in town, but let me suggest some ways he might mock the field of biblical studies if he were at lunch with us. A great deal of biblical studies is simply scholars playing out their moral intuitions on the playing field of the biblical texts. N. T. Wright is a great case in point to me. He has these interpretive intuitions that he then applies his considerable reasoning skills to justify post hoc, IMO.

The whole theological interpretation enterprise strikes me as little else but a high falutin' way of reading our already existing theology into the biblical text while going through the motions of historical exegesis. In my opinion, half of the Hebrews scholarship of the last ten years is little more than sentimental manipulation of texts and history to say things we want to think.

There are exceptions, IMO. There are people who truly are willing to come to any interpretive conclusion. They are the scientist types who approach interpretation from a less predetermined direction. They are not popular right now. Postmodernism opened up the door to a theological Mardi Gras that has yet to simmer down.

But Haidt would tell me it has always been this way. I'm simply pointing out the current dominant intuition.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

ET13: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

This is the thirteenth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
_______________________________
Thou shalt not commit adultery.

1. The Bible unanimously rejects adultery, making it a point of Christian ethics on which there is little disagreement. Today, we would define adultery as a person being unfaithful to his or her spouse by having sex with someone who is not his or her spouse.

In Old Testament times, the function of laws against adultery was surely to preserve social stability. In the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East, it was activity against the man that was primarily in view. Bruce Malina has suggested that the default definition of adultery in biblical times was "the action of dishonoring a male of one's community by having sexual relations with his wife." [1] In an honor-shame world, to shame a man by sleeping with his wife easily led to feuds and violence within the clan. It was therefore strictly off limits.

The adultery prohibition of the Old Testament, therefore, was heavily oriented around the man. If Malina is correct, then adultery was a wrong done to a man. By definition it was not committed against a woman. It was the later biblical prohibitions on divorce that served that purpose--the purpose of protecting the wife. In the earliest understandings, therefore, a man by definition never technically committed adultery against his wife. He committed adultery against the husband of any wife with whom he slept.

There were, however, few ways for a man to have sex except with his wife. He could not have sex with another man's wife, for that was adultery against that man. He could not have sex with an unmarried, unengaged woman without penalty (e.g., Exod. 22:17; Deut. 22:28-29). [2] Normally if he had sex with such a girl, he would need to take her as an additional wife (Exod. 22:16), remembering that polygamy was a normal practice in the Old Testament world (e.g., Deut. 21:15).

In theory, a man might visit a prostitute without committing adultery (e.g., Judah with Tamar), but it was against the law for Israelite man or woman to be a prostitute (Deut. 23:17). It was also against the law for a man to have sex with another man (Lev. 20:13). In short, although adultery was probably defined as a wrong against a man, there were tight restrictions on ways in which a man might have sex with someone other than his wife.

2. Jesus completely refocuses this equation. Since his ethic is filtered through the love command, we now come to understand adultery as much in terms of harm as in terms of shame. Adultery and divorce are wrong because they harm a husband or wife. In one of Jesus' most ironic statements, he suggests that a man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery against himself (Matt. 5:32). By in effect forcing her to marry another man, he causes her to bring shame on himself! [3]

It is thus completely appropriate that Christians today understand adultery as a wrong that can be committed against husband or wife. The husband wrongs his wife if he has sex outside of the marriage, and the wife wrongs her husband if she has sex outside of the marriage. The degree of wrong is the same, whoever the offending party is. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself and betray him or her in this most sensitive domain of human existence.

3. Indeed, as Jesus refocuses ethics as a matter of the heart, he takes the offence down to the level of intention. In effect, a person can commit adultery without actually committing the act itself. "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). A person can thus commit adultery in one's mind, being unfaithful to his or her spouse.

Perhaps it is important to say that Jesus is not talking about temptation, which in itself is not sin (e.g., Jas. 1:13-15). He is not talking about passing thoughts. The ancient world was not an introspective world, as ours is. He is talking about plotting and fantasizing. Morality in this area involves intent.

Nevertheless, Jesus' ethic extends the question of adultery into the domain of emotional affairs. One can be unfaithful to one's spouse without engaging in sex. One can be unfaithful to one's spouse by allowing an unhealthy emotional attachment with a sexual dimension to develop between yourself and someone else.

4. It is thus important for Christians to have healthy boundaries between themselves and others toward which they might develop a sexual attraction. Some common sense examples might be to avoid being alone with such individuals and avoiding topics of conversation that are prone to create emotional intimacy.

Even more healthy is not to view this issue so much in prohibitive as positive terms. We should love our spouses with the fullness of our sexuality and seek for them to be the focus of our human intimacy. We can and should be close to other individuals with whom there is no sexual dimension, but our spouse should be the focus of our relational dimension, along with the rest of our family.

Marriage is a covenant, a life-long commitment of exclusivity made before God and society. It should not be entered into lightly. It should not be dissolved except under the most unusual circumstances. And it should not be betrayed by shaming ourselves with someone else.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

ET14: Divorce is usually hostile to God's fundamental values.

[1] Bruce J. Malina, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003) 45.

[2] If a man had sex with a woman promised to another, it was treated more or less the same as adultery (Deut. 22:23-27).

[3] So also Malina, Social-Science Commentary, 46.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Seminary PM2: Ministers have different personalities and strengths

Today's post in the "Seminary in a Nutshell" series features Living Your Strengths as a resource. It is a ministerial version of the popular resource, Now Discover Your Strengths.

The series so far:

Chapter 1: The Calling of a Minister

Chapter 2: The Person of a Minister
Introduction

Ministers have different personalities and strengths.
1. One of the greatest insights you can have as a minister is to know that people are all different. You yourself have certain strengths and weaknesses, as well as a particular personality. We cannot and should not expect everyone else to be exactly like us or necessarily to be able to do the things that we can do. By way of compensation, those who have difficulty in our areas of strength probably have areas of strength where we are weak.

Paul expresses this truth in terms of spiritual "gifts" in 1 Corinthians 12: "Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... If the foot would say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?" (12:12, 15-17).

Paul gives us here a wonderful picture of an organism where the different parts have different strengths but they all work together for common goals. So people each have different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses, but they can each serve a function. They can all work together toward common goals. And the same applies to ministers. Different ministers have different personalities, and different ministers have varying strengths and weaknesses.

2. One of the best tools to analyze personality is the "MBTI" or the "Myers-Briggs Type Indicator." There are various websites where you can take an unofficial version of the test for free. These sorts of tests are sometimes called "inventories" because they help you see what resources you have in stock.

The Myers-Briggs test uses four categories to help categorize someone's personality, thus giving you four letters that characterize the way you tick. The two central letters are the most central to your personality. Are you more intuitive or concrete? Do you act more in terms of what is logical or what you think is right?

So one person might be highly intuitive and another highly concrete. An intuitive person tends to be more imaginative and perhaps abstract. This is a person that does well with the big-picture and sees connections between things. The concrete person sees details and distinctions. They might say that they live in the real world. If a person is more "iNtuitive," we give them an "N" for their second letter of the four. If a person is more "Sensing," we give them an "S" for this letter.

The third letter is either a "T" (Thinking) or an "F" (Feeling). The "T" is someone who always tries to do what makes sense to them, what they think is logical. They may have difficulty relating to people who operate more out of their emotions or values. The "F" personality is more concerned with what they think is right than with what the rules say or what may seem logical.

Usually, one of these four characteristics (N or S, T or F) is dominant in the way you tick, the dominant characteristic of your personality. And the letter opposite your dominant characteristic is usually your inferior characteristic. Your greatest strengths unsurprisingly line up with your dominant characteristic, and your greatest weaknesses usually line up with your most inferior characteristic. If your greatest strength is being logical (T), then your greatest weakness is probably taking other people's feelings into account (F).

3. The first and last letters of the analysis have to do with whether you are an introvert or an extrovert (an "I" or an "E") and whether you like to finish what you start (J) or enjoy the journey more than the destination (P). An introvert is someone who recharges their batteries by withdrawing from other people to get alone or at least away from interaction with other people. An extrovert is someone whose energy levels go up when they are with others, even if they are strangers. It is not necessarily a matter of how outgoing you are or how much you talk but about what energizes you.

The "J" or "judging" personality likes to reach conclusions and destinations. The "P" or "perceiving" personality likes to keep exploring and taking more in. J type personalities tend to be task or goal oriented. P type personalities like side-trips and surprises.

Put these four letters together and you have 16 different personality types, ranging from an ESTJ who is out-going, concrete, logical, and task-oriented to the INFP who is an introverted and imaginative feeler who is all about the journey.

4. Understanding that we all have different personalities, with their accompanying strengths and weaknesses, is incredibly important for ministry. You cannot place a value judgment on others based on whether they have your personality or your strengths. For the church to be the whole package, it needs to have all different kinds of people using each of their strengths.

You have heard the saying, "opposites attract." It makes sense that we would be fascinated by someone whose greatest strengths is in an area of our greatest weakness. This dynamic is the stuff of which marriages are made! And it is also the stuff of which they are undone. If the fact that our spouse has strength in our area of greatest weakness draws us, the fact that their greatest weakness may be our area of greatest strength often results in conflict.

5. The "NTJ" personality will probably like the Myers- Briggs approach to personality because of its logical and comprehensive categorization. Other personalities (P personalities especially) hate it because they feel like it boxes them in.

Another approach to the general subject, one that is more concrete and generated more by open-ended research is the "strengths finder" approach. In 2001, based on Gallop research, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton published a book called, Now, Discover Your Strengths. It identified thirty-four different types of personality types. A version of the book aimed at ministers followed two years later: Living Your Strengths: Discover Your God Given Talents and Inspire Your Community.

The premise of these books is that many organizations approach the roles their people play in the wrong way. The two key assumptions they get wrong is thinking that anyone can be competent at any job and that the greatest area for growth is in your area of weakness. [1] On the contrary, Buckingham and Clifton concluded that "Each person's talents are enduring and unique" and "Each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her strength." [2]

The implication is that some people are better suited to function in some roles than others. Similarly, it is generally a waste of time to exert a lot of energy trying to fix your weaknesses. It is a better use of your time to focus on developing your strengths.

6. There are obvious implications for leadership and for the way the church is organized. However, at this point in our series, we are more interested in how these insights can help a minister know him or herself. There are a few easy conclusions to reach.

One is that it is important to know yourself. Hopefully no one will make these sorts of tests into self-fulfilling prophecies. Do not box yourself in. Rather, develop a healthy sense of yourself without refusing to expand your horizons.

Second, you may not have the luxury of delegating areas of your weakness to others. In some contexts, there are hardly any other people to give your areas of weakness. You may have to do visitation even if you are an introvert who hates visiting people. You may have to preach or do administration even if those are not areas of strength.

But you can still have understand why you struggle in those areas and you can help your congregation understand. You can focus on the areas of your strength and, when it is possible, bring in volunteers or staff to balance you out. Or you can leave a solo pastorate and go on staff somewhere where you can focus on your area of strength.

There are great stories of church leaders on the highest levels who questioned themselves because they did not fit the picture of a minister they had in their head. I am thinking right now of two very prominent ministers who questioned going into ministry because they were more business minded than the stereotypical pastor of their day. I am thinking of another who did not have the gift of preaching but was an amazing manager and organizer. He is now in a key leadership role.

These individuals knew their strengths and went into ministry in ways that capitalized on them, and they went on to have an astounding impact. Anyone going into ministry should know their strengths and weaknesses. They should seek out roles in ministry where they can shine and delegate areas of weakness to others.

Effective leaders know who they are. Good leaders leverage their strengths and manage their weaknesses.

Next week: Seminary PM3: Different ministers experience God in different ways.

[1] Now, Discover Your Strengths, 7.

[2] Strengths, 8.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Still Q-ed up...

1. Although it's trendy to reject Q these days, it remains to me the more likely hypothesis. Luke's version of the relevant sayings usually just seems more primitive to me, suggesting that Matthew was not his source for them. (The main competing option right now sees Luke using Matthew and Mark as sources rather than Mark and Q.)

2. I was reminded yesterday of the two sayings regarding "the wisdom of God" in Luke:

Luke 7:35: "Wisdom is vindicated by all her children." (making Jesus a child of wisdom)
Matthew 11:19: "Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (implying that Jesus is wisdom)

Luke 11:49: "The Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles...'"
Matthew 23:34: "I send you prophets and apostles..."

Which is more likely? Did Luke decide to de-Jesusify Matthew's sayings and make them be about God's wisdom? Or did Matthew take Q sayings about wisdom and equate Jesus with it? Consider that Matthew 11 has Jesus saying something that Sirach has wisdom saying, suggesting that Matthew has a repeated tendency to equate Jesus with God's wisdom.

3. I don't think there's really any ambiguity here. It is much more likely that Matthew edited the version in Luke to equate Jesus with wisdom than that Luke moved away from equating Jesus with wisdom. This is not definitive evidence but it is one example in a cumulative case.

In the end, those instances where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark can be explained by oral traditions. And, of course, Luke may very well have known Mark, Q, and Matthew.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Righteous Mind 1

1. Ye ol' Monday reading group is going through The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt this semester. David Vardaman suggested it and finds it worth a second read. Monday we chatted about chapter 1 (David was sick, Dave Ward was on assignment, Keith Drury is in Florida. So it was John Bray, Miranda Cruz, and Steve Horst, who has already used some of its material in his ethics class).

2. We can see where he is going and, for some of us, it's obvious. People generally start with their ethical beliefs and then find reasons to justify them. That is to say, most people don't reason out their sense of right and wrong. They start with certain moral intuitions and then find a way to justify them. Or as one person has said long ago before this book, they go to the Bible and slap verses on their intuitions.

We talked about the question of complete abstinence as an example. This intuition was formed in the 1700s and 1800s in the Wesleyan tradition and in American Christianity. But the reasons given for the intuition have varied and have been of various value? Did Jesus turn water into grape juice? Can one drop make you an alcoholic? If you get drunk once are you a drunkard? Is it a bad witness?

The reasons vary for the moral intuition. The intuition is primary, then we find reasons to justify it.

3. Haidt spends most of the chapter dismantling Lawrence Kohlberg and the "rationalist" school of moral development theory. Ain't so, he shows, and he has field research to prove it.

Kohlberg basically saw morality as something that children could figure out for themselves simply by talking through scenarios. But Haidt has shown from cross-cultural research (building on the work of Richard Shweder) that the moral intuitions of five year olds (and indeed adults) differ from culture to culture.

Westerners see harm as the basis of morality. Other cultures have other categories like disgust and disrespect. Also, he discovered that people with a higher socio-economic status around the world from culture to culture often have more in common in relation to morality than they have in common with their own cultures on their lowest socio-economic levels. (I wonder if we're seeing this in the current presidential cycle across parties.)

4. We have some elements of disgust in our culture (principly when it comes to poop and sexuality). We find it abhorent to think of someone privately eating their cat after it has died a natural death of old age. We can't quite come up with a good reason, but we just know you don't do that.

I'll leave it at that and go to work. There are many implications for understanding certain parts of the Bible, especially the OT purity laws. I was invoking the book this week even when talking about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Alienation from God 2

A series overviewing the Bible. The first installment was 1 The Story of the Bible. The second installment started with Creation.

Alienation from God
Although Jews and Christians believe that God created a world that is good, Christians do not believe that the world is currently as it could or should be. Throughout the centuries, most Christians have looked to Genesis 3 as the explanation for why the world is separated from God, although some might prefer to say that it is more an expression of our current alienation from God.

Genesis 2 starts by giving us another perspective on God's creation of life, one that focuses especially on the creation of humanity. God creates a man first, "Adam," a word that is related to the word for earth. God in fact makes Adam from the ground. God takes the ground and breathes spirit into it, and Adam becomes a living being (Gen. 2:7). [1]

Then God creates the other animals, but he creates them in male-female pairs. Surely Adam begins to realize that there are pairs for all the other animals, but that he does not have a female like the other creatures. So God puts him into a sleep and creates a female from him, "Eve." She is to be at his side as a partner with him in the world. [2]

Chapter 3 then tells the story of humanity's alienation from God. God puts Adam and Eve in a garden, the Garden of Eden, and assigns them the task of taking care of it (Gen. 2:15). There are two very special trees there. One, the tree of life, would enable Adam and Eve to live forever.

The other is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God tells them not to eat from this tree. It represents a choice that Adam and Eve have. Will they serve God as God, as the most important being, as the absolute and final authority over everything? Or will they rebel and foolishly try to be little gods on their own?

In the end, they eat from the tree, seduced by a snake in the garden. [3] As a result, they are banished from the garden. And as they have turned from God, God explains to them the consequences of their rebellion (Gen. 3:14-19). Men will have to work hard to get the land to yield its fruit. Women will have painful childbirth and will find themselves subordinate to their husbands. Snakes will go on their bellies and will find in humans a mortal enemy. Most significantly of all, Adam and Eve cannot eat from the tree of life and thus face death as their fate.

Certainly the people of Israel, for whom Genesis was first written, could identify with this description of the human situation. In the New Testament, a writer named Paul would amply the story into an explanation of our fundamental human condition. After Adam and Eve, a power called "Sin" came over the world. Our weak human flesh does not stand a chance against this power. Even if I would want to do good, "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Rom. 7:19).

Like Adam and Eve, in our default human state, none of us can help but do wrong, to "sin." "All have sinned," Paul says, and we have fallen short of what God had intended us to be (Rom. 3:23). We all now inevitably do wrong like Adam and Eve did (Rom. 5:12).

But Paul's message in the New Testament--and the fundamental message of Christianity--is that we do not have to be stuck in this situation. If Adam and Eve were the ultimate cause of the human problem, Christ is the ultimate solution. We do not have to face death as our final destiny. Nor do we have to remain powerless in the face of evil. We do not have to remain alienated from God. There is hope!

[1] This story thus shows us how ancient Israelites looked at a person. We are all "dust," as ministers sometimes say at funerals: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19 in the King James Version). The breath inside us is "spirit." And with both body and spirit, we are alive, we are a living "soul," where in Hebrew "soul" means a whole living being (including animal beings).

[2] The word "helper" here in Genesis 2:18 does not imply inferiority. God is said to be a helper to us in Psalm 54:4.

[3] Jews and Christians would later come to understand this snake to be Satan, the supreme evil being in the world.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

ET12: God values life in the womb, and we should preserve it.

This is the twelfth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
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God values life in the womb, and we should preserve it.

1. The Bible does not specifically mention abortion, so we are once again forced to infer God's perspective. The word ratsach in the sixth commandment is only used explicitly in the Old Testament in relation to the murder or unintentional killing of another adult. Would an Israelite have assumed that the principle extended to a child? When did the Israelites understand a person to become a "living soul"?

We should first remind ourselves that the understanding of the Israelites themselves is not the end of the ethical story. The Old Testament is not yet as precise in its understanding of God and many things as the New Testament (e.g., the role of Christ, the resurrection, the source of evil and temptation). Indeed, even in the Old Testament we find some movement from less precise to more precise understandings (particularly when it comes to resurrection and the sources of evil). Add upon this dynamic the fact that God gave some rules to hedge in Israel from its neighbors and other laws that had much to do with the norms of the Ancient Near East.

So we cannot assume that the Law of Israel will apply directly or precisely to today without due consideration of the New Testament and the Old Testament context.

2. So let us address the search for evidence on when the Bible might consider a human being to come within the scope of moral obligation. Many Jews today would say it is when a child takes in breath, for God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7). Genesis marks the beginning of Adam's life to his first breath.

Then again, modern science has made it possible for us to save a child in the womb that is only six months into the pregnancy. Babies have survived at even earlier points in time. Modern science has both made it possible to save life and end life in ways that were unheard of in any other time in history. We have "day after pills" on the one hand, while children have been saved at less than 22 weeks on the other.

Modern science has made it possible for us to know the process of conception and birth in far more detail than any other time in history. In earlier generations, the male was thought to contribute all the meaningful material (the seed) and the woman was thought to be the incubator that "cooked" it. We now know that both the man and the woman contribute essential genetic material. The woman does not determine the gender by how well her body incubates, as earlier thought. The man's sperm determines the gender.

Under earlier understandings, birth control was sometimes seen as immoral, because it killed, as it were, the fully human seed. [1] Now we know that the genetic material is not fully combined until the sperm and the egg are combined. Apparently it is not until the fertilized egg has made two mitotic divisions that it has the unique genetic material of an individual human being. [2] This takes place several hours after sperm and egg initially join.

So when does a developing child come within the scope of moral responsibility? Perhaps another Jewish individual might argue that it is when the developing child has developed blood, since Leviticus 17:11 says that, "the life of the flesh is in the blood." From a modern perspective, which focuses on pain, someone might argue that it is when a developing child is first able to feel pain. Some have argued that a child can feel pain at 20 weeks. Others suggest it may not be until 29 or 30 weeks.

3. Ultimately, when a person or community believes that a developing individual comes within the scope of moral responsibility is a matter of theological belief. Should we take references to the soul in the New Testament literally or as a picture from the Greek background of the New Testament? If it is literal, when does a developing human being receive a soul?

Some Christians throughout the ages have been "traducian" since Tertullian first suggested this position around the year AD200. Traducianism holds that soul is passed along in the act of procreation. For Augustine, this idea helped explain the transmission of sin and was an argument in favor of the virgin birth. [3] We have questioned this notion of sin's transmission in earlier posts, both biblically and scientifically.

However, many other Christian thinkers are "creationist" on this topic. They believe that God uniquely creates each human soul for each person. In that sense, each individual soul in each individual human being comes directly from God.

The Bible is not clear on these issues of detail and so it is left to individuals and communities of faith to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. In general, it is best not to specify matters that are not clear, especially when we are not entirely certain that our own "scientific" view of the world will turn out to be timeless.

My own church has wisely not specified the details of the soul or its origins. It has only clarified the sense of moral obligation. My church believes that a child comes within the sphere of moral obligation at conception, wisely without specifying the scientific or theological details.

4. The Bible does not explicitly mention abortion, as we said. However, we can easily conclude that under normal circumstances, the idea of stopping a pregnancy would have been viewed as perverse and was probably quite rare. So many children died in childbirth anyway that the impetus was to have as many children as possible. An agricultural world needs as many workers as it can get.

Women who were barren suffered great shame, as we see in the cases of Sarah (Gen. 16:1-2) and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11). A wife who had many children was considered particularly blessed (e.g., Gen. 29:31-30:13). It is unthinkable that a woman would have tried to end a pregnancy under any normal circumstances. Even when Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus "out of wedlock," so to speak," there is no thought of trying to end the pregnancy on Joseph's part.

Both abortion and infanticide, the killing of infants, are explicitly prohibited in the Didache, a Christian writing from around the year AD100. "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born" (Didache 2.2). It is reasonable to assume that this teaching was in continuity with the earliest church. In fact this book claims to preserve the teaching of the disciples.

One passage of some interest is Exodus 21:22-25. There is considerable debate over what these verses meant, especially in relation to the expression, "she gives birth prematurely" (NIV) or "her children come out" (ESV). Given the state of medicine at the time, the traditional interpretation until recent times was that this statement referred to a miscarriage (e.g., RSV). [4]

Again, since we are dealing with an Old Testament civil law, we should not think that this issue stands or falls on these verses from a moment in Israel's history. Those who believe the passage refers to a miscarriage see the passage in relation to harm to the mother. "If no harm follows" thus refers to the wife, and the offender only pays a fine if she is okay. If further harm does follow to the woman, the offender must give eye for eye and tooth for tooth, even life for life if the woman dies.

However, the abortion debate of recent decades has led many to see in this verse a reference to the child. If harm follows to the child, then eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. If this is the proper interpretation, it would hold a very high standard indeed for life in the womb! Nevertheless, the Christian question of abortion does not rise or fall on the interpretation of this passage.

5. Other passages of interest have to do with God's calling on the lives of individuals even when they are in the womb. In Jeremiah 1:5, God tells Jeremiah that he had plans for him when he was still in his mother's womb. God similarly had plans for John the Baptist even before he was conceived (Luke 1:13), and he was filled with the Holy Spirit even while he was in the womb (Luke 1:15).

One psalmist speaks of how he was carefully made in his mother's womb (Ps. 139:13). God saw the psalmist's unformed body when he was still "in the depths of the earth" (139:15). "In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed" (139:16).

These passages certainly do not draw a line between individuals at the very earliest points of their existence and their later adult lives. They fit with the idea that God is concerned about us in the womb. God values life in the womb, and everything we know about the values of the biblical world suggest that it was and is important to preserve it as best we can. Modern medicine has made it possible to preserve it beyond the wildest dreams of anyone before very recent history, perhaps even before the sixth month.

Of course, God knows us before we are conceived too, and God has plans for some people well before they come into existence. These verses do not address the question of abortion directly. God allows some to die in the womb too. He does not plan for every unborn child to become a prophet or an apostle.

We must therefore acknowledge that to some extent we are connecting the theological dots and writing in between the biblical lines when we say that God wants us to preserve every life from the very moment of conception. This is my position, and this is the position of my church. In my opinion, the more that we are able to see how well formed children are at such an early point in pregnancy, the more difficult it becomes even for non-believers to stomach abortion even in the early stages of pregnancy.

6. There is the question of exceptions. What if the life of a mother is at stake? What if the pregnancy was the result of rape? God not only values the child in the womb. God also values the woman who bears the child.

These are very important questions and ones with which churches and individuals have to wrestle. Perhaps with regard to the life of a mother, we can re-frame the question. If it is probable that a mother will die if she continues her pregnancy, is it morally acceptable to induce labor or to remove the child? This sounds like a different question than the question of obliterating the child in the womb.

Put in this way, the question becomes similar to the question of choosing between two lives. It becomes a question of whether the baby can survive outside the womb, not a question of killing the child. It becomes a question of saving one life, and nature ending another because the other cannot survive on its own.

Even here, however, churches and individuals will have to wrestle with these questions. If the Bible does not directly address abortion itself, how much less does it directly address such difficult questions as these!

The question of rape is perhaps more difficult. Within several hours, a single fertilized egg begins to divide. In less than 24 hours, it will have a unique genetic composition. Within 3 to 4 days, it will become implanted in the uteran wall. What is the moment of moral responsibility and obligation?

Clearly the Bible does not directly address this question. Once again, we find ourselves having to deal with an issue over which we must work out our salvation together with prayer, fear, and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12). The Holy Spirit will show us the way.

7. What I believe is clear is that God values life in the womb, and that it is God's will for us to preserve it. The Christian bias is toward life and its salvation, its preservation. Many have testified to how glad they were later to have chosen life over death. For those who regret a past decision, our God is a God of forgiveness. And if God is for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?

Next week ET13: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

[1] I first learned this perspective from my colleague, Dr. David Ward.

[2] I first came across this information from a former colleague of mine, Dr. Burton Webb, who had a student make this argument.

[3] In that view, since the woman only "cooks" the child, only the man's seed would convey a sinful nature.

[4] This dynamic is especially seen in the New American Standard Bible. Up until 1995, Exodus 21:22 read "miscarriage." Since 1999, however, it has read "gives birth prematurely."

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Seminary PM1: The Person of a Minister 1

The "Seminary in a Nutshell" series continues. The first "chapter" was

1. The Calling of a Minister

The second "chapter" begins today, "The Person of a Minister." My featured resource this week is a book Wesley Seminary uses in its third spiritual formation course, on goal-setting and accountability. Samuel Rima does a good job of leading a minister to pay attention to every dimension of his or her life.

Introduction
1. A pastor is a person. Ministers may have a unique calling on their lives, but they still have spiritual needs. They still have physical and relational needs. They still have economic and psychological needs. They need people to minister to them at the same time that they are ministering to others. In these next few posts, we want to explore how a minister can take care that, as Paul once said, the minister him or herself should not become "disqualified" at the very time that they are helping others (1 Cor. 9:25).

The focal need for all human beings is spiritual in nature. Our deepest need is our need for God, and our greatest priority must be his kingdom. A minister can facilitate any number of great outcomes externally, and yet be starving spiritually inside (the "starving baker"). Eventually, this trajectory will eat the minister from the inside out.

You may have heard the expression, "I am third." The basic idea comes from the Great Commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (e.g., Mark 12:30-31). These priorities apply to ministers just as they apply to all humanity. God must come first. Others come second. I am third.

2. Yet ministers need to eat and sleep too. They need to watch their weight. With a calling that often makes Sunday a time of work, they need to be more conscious about sabbath than many others.

Ministers need to be healthy emotionally and psychologically. They need accountability and mentoring just like any other human being. They should have personal and professional goals.

Ministers need to have healthy relationships not only with those inside and outside the church, but within their families when they are married. God should not be confused with the work of ministry. God comes first, but the "job" of ministry does not come first. God does not want your children to lose their souls or your marriage to fall apart because you are a type A personality who does not make family a priority.

Ministers need friendships. Single ministers in particular need close friendships that help meet interpersonal needs. In short, being a minister does not change either the priorities or the needs that all believers have. The burden of ministry never rests on the shoulders of one.

Next Week: In the Name of Jesus

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

God in the Old Testament

Thought I would gather my thoughts here on the attributes of God in the OT.

1. YHWH is the God of Israel.
  • "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Exod. 3:6).
  • "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you'" (Exod. 3:13-14)
  • "I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (אֵל שַׁדָּי), but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them" (Exod. 6:2-3).
  • "I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Deut. 5:9-10).
  • YHWH is thus a God of the covenant. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me" (Deut. 5:6-7).
2. Other names for God
  • "God Most High" - El Elyon (Gen. 14:18 - אֵל עֶלְיֹֽון)
  • Psalm 82 in particular is of interest.
3. "Creeds" of Israel
  • "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut. 6:4-5).
  • "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" (Exod. 34:6; Ps. 103:8, 145:8; Jon. 4:2).
4. Anthropomorphisms
  • the physicality of God: "You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live... I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen" (33:20, 22-23).
  • smoke from God's nostrils (Ps. 18:8), anger as nose burning (e.g., Num. 11:10)
  • God's emotions - anger, changing his mind (Gen. 6:6 ; Jon. 4:2)
5. God is holy
  • "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isa. 6:3).
  • "I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44).
6. God's power
  • "Is anything too hard for the LORD?" (Gen. 18:14)
  • "Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle" (Ps. 24:8).
  • "The LORD of armies" (e.g., 1 Sam. 1:3)
7. God's knowledge
  • "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely" (Ps. 139:2-4).
  • "I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done" (Isa. 46:9-10).
8. God's presence
  • "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there" (Ps. 139:7-8).
  • Also, God appears through intermediaries: Jacob wrestles with God face to face (Gen. 32:30). The "angel of the LORD" appears to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:2).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Creation and Eternity 1

I started an overview of the Bible a little over a week ago. Here was the first installment called "The Story of the Bible." The second installment is on Creation and Eternity.
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The very first verse of the Bible in the very first book of the Bible says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1, NIV). Christians and Jews alike have long understood this verse to say that God created the world out of nothing. At one moment, nothing existed, not even space itself. Then God made the space, matter, and energy of the universe. [1]

If God created the world out of nothing, then there is nothing in the universe that he does not only know thoroughly but there is nothing over which he does not have power. After all, he not only cooked it; he created the ingredients. Indeed, he designed the ingredients. Christians do not believe that God is just another being. He is the Being. He existed without the universe, but the universe would not exist without his existence.

Christians believe that God is everywhere present in this universe he created. We often say that his Holy Spirit is here and everywhere. We believe that he loves what he has created. Nothing about it surprises him.

Genesis 1 is perhaps something like an introduction to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. These books were first written for Israel, an ancient group of people with whom the Bible says God decided to have a special relationship. His relationship with them paved the way for the relationship Christians now believe God wants to have with everyone in the world.

As these ancient Israelites read Genesis 1, hundreds of years BC ("before Christ"), they would probably have thought of other creation stories they knew. Some features of Genesis 1 would no doubt have been striking to them. For one thing, there is only one God involved in the story. Apart from Israel, almost every other nation worshiped many gods, and their creation stories often involved a war between the gods. [2]

However, in the creation account in Genesis 1, God alone creates the world. He does not have to fight any other deity to get the job done. He is not reluctant to give good gifts to the people he has created. He effortlessly speaks, and it is done.

A second aspect that stands out in Genesis 1 is that God is a God of order. The Israelites might have seen in Genesis 1 a God who brings order out of chaos. [3] God brings light out of darkness (1:3). He provides safe ground out of destructive and chaotic waters (1:9). He takes emptiness and fills it with life everywhere--in the seas, in the air, and on the land.

After each act of creation, God pronounces that everything is good. At some points of history, various thinkers have suggested that the world or matter is evil, that it is the source of humanity's problems. But Christians believe that the world, no matter how twisted it may currently be, does not have to be that way. God did not make it that way.

In Genesis 1, humanity--men and women--are the climax of creation. God makes humanity as the peek of his creative activity, and then he rests. Christians and Jews alike have long understood his resting, his "sabbath" to be a model for us as humans. We need rest. Jews set aside Saturday as a day of rest, following the idea that God rested on the seventh day. Christians have often rested on Sunday, combining the day they celebrate Jesus rising from the dead (the "resurrection") with the sabbath of the Old Testament.

After God creates men and women, he tells them to multiply, to fill the earth (1:28). He also tells them to subdue the earth. He meant for them to do what they needed to do to survive and thrive, not least through farming and raising crops. Of course, God did not mean to destroy the earth.

Christians often see in this command a duty for humanity to take care of God's property. The world remains God's possession. "The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it" (Psalm 24:1). It would be irresponsible for us to trash God's world after he placed it under our care.

[textbox] "What are human beings that you are mindful of them... You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas" (Psalm 8:4, 6-8).

You may wonder about this wonderful picture of the world in Genesis 1. There is still much beauty in the world. Yet would God say that everything in the world today is good? In other words, what happened? For that story, we need to look at the next couple chapters of Genesis.

[1] As science has expanded our sense of how big the universe is, the Christian understanding of the scope of God's creation has expanded as well.

[2] I will follow the typical practice of using a lower case g when referring to the idea of many gods and a capital G when referring to the idea of the one God of Christianity and Judaism.

[3] There is debate over whether they would have heard Genesis 1:1-2 to say something like, "When God began to create heaven and the earth--the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep..." (Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society). In this interpretation, God does not create the world out of nothing but he creates order to the world out of primordial chaos.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

ET11: There is a time to die, although we should not play God with human life.

This is the eleventh post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
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There is a time to die, although we should not play God with human life.

1. The Bible has very little directly to say about the question of suicide or the question of "euthanasia," which is speeding up the process of death. It is doubtful that the sixth commandment, "Do not kill," was explicitly meant to address suicide, since the word ratzach is never used in this way in the Old Testament. It always refers to causing the death of someone else.

There are perhaps five instances of someone taking their own life in the Bible--Saul, his armor bearer, Ahithophel, Zimri, and Judas. Saul realizes that he has lost the battle and falls on his sword rather than be captured and killed by the enemy (1 Sam. 31:4). His armor bearer then does the same (1 Sam. 31:5). Ahithophel falls out of favor both with King David and with David's rebellious son Absalom (2 Sam. 17:23). Zimri loses the throne (1 Kings 16:18). And Judas of course causes Jesus' crucifixion (Matt. 27:5).

In most of these cases, there is an implicit sense of justice and God's judgment in the death. That is to say, with the possible exception of Saul's armor bearer, each of these individuals deserved death as a punishment. In that sense, none of these instances are suicide in the sense that we normally discuss it today. They are more like instances of capital punishment at a person's own hand.

Some would also mention Abimelech (Judges 9:54), who instructs his armor bearer to kill him. He is already dying because a woman dropped a stone on his head. But he does not want people to be able to say that a woman killed him. He also deserved death, although he hastened it to avoid shame. Finally Samson causes his own death when he brings the house down on Israel's enemies (Judges 16:30). He thus does not so much commit suicide as die in an act of war.

We must therefore look for broader principles to discern God's will on suicide and euthanasia, since the Bible does not give us any explicit teaching on the subject.

2. We might first, however, ask why the Bible has almost nothing to say on these subjects. There are a couple options. The first would be that it was an accepted practice. The second is that it was relatively uncommon. The second seems the more likely answer. Could it be that there is something about our contemporary world that makes suicide a more frequent occurrence than in most other times and places in history?

It is deeply ironic that while we arguably have the easiest, most comfortable, and most leisurely lives of any age in history, we are perhaps the least happy, the least satisfied, and have the least sense of meaning to our lives. Throughout history, most people worked so hard that they scarcely had a thought of taking their own lives. Or they recognized that the lives of others in their families depended so much on them that they scarcely would think of causing them further burden by removing themselves from the equation.

Certainly modern technology and medical treatment has taken the question of euthanasia well beyond anything it has ever been in history. Our ability to preserve individuals on life support, even when they are brain dead or unable to breathe on their own, has raised this question in a way it never had been raised before. Most people simply would have died in the past, long before the question of hastening death might arise.

3. So we come back to first principles. Love God with your whole heart. Love your neighbor as yourself.

The command to love our neighbors as ourselves seems to assume a norm of having a healthy regard for yourself. You are someone God loves. You are the image of God. Self-loathing does not seem to be appropriate when God loves you.

God wants to redeem you, so you should want yourself to be redeemed. It goes against God's will for you to condemn yourself when God wants to redeem you. Submission to God thus would imply allowing yourself to be saved, allowing yourself to be redeemed.

God is all-knowing. He understands depression better than any doctor. [1] God is the judge of those who take their own life, and he will do what is right. But it is not his will for you to take your own life because you are discouraged or feel defeated. God still loves you. His people still love you. It is not your place to take your own life.

So it is wrong to take your own life because you hate yourself. God loves you and his sense of you is what is accurate, no matter how you feel. God is the judge, not you or me.

4. God has service for you and me to do. God has a mission in the world. It is not my place to remove one of God's workers from the field. In fact, focusing on what I can do for others can help me get my mind off of my own troubles and worries. An external focus can shift my thoughts away from myself and toward a greater good.

5. What of those who are dying? Is it ever appropriate to hasten a person's death when they are already dying?

First a caution is in order--what if you are wrong? As Christians we believe in miracles. As good thinkers we believe in misdiagnosis. We are able to know about tumors and terminal illnesses much earlier than at other times in history. We thus can face the temptation to avoid future suffering when we are not even really yet suffering.

We should not view all pain and suffering as evil. Christ endured suffering he knew was coming. Although he dreaded the cross, he did not avoid it. It is one thing to take extra morphine when you are in the throes of death. It is another to try to by-pass suffering when you have not even started to face it.

We are a witness to others in our suffering. There can be something quite cowardly and selfish about ending one's life at the prospect of suffering, long before we have really even started to suffer. Others perhaps want to remain in control and see bringing about their own death as a way of defying the power of nature.

But we are not in control. Our lives will end. We deceive ourselves if we think we have shown God who's boss by ending our lives before he does. He is still God.

6. The question becomes muddier, though, the closer we get to death. If a person is truly brain dead, are they really alive at all? If a person is unlikely ever to emerge from a coma, is it murder to remove life support? These are instances where a person would have died a natural death even a hundred years ago.

What of the person who is in the last stages of cancer and is in horrible pain, perhaps even barely conscious? Is it acceptable to administer extra morpheme to ease the pain, knowing that it is also hastening death?

Since the Bible is largely silent on such issues, since these are largely issues that have arisen because of modern scientific developments, it is probably best to leave them to individual conscience and the community decisions of denominations and churches. The guiding questions would seem to be 1) "How likely and immanent is death?" and 2) "What is the truly loving thing to do?"

7. There is a time to die. If one person might refuse to suffer by ending their life before they have even started to suffer, there is also a person that refuses death when it seems God's will. Could it ever happen that someone could almost torture a dying loved one by taking them through an endless string of painful treatments and procedures because they selfishly cannot stand the thought of losing their loved one?

Death is not evil. When we can preserve life, it is surely God's will for us to do so. When death is inevitable, do we fight God to refuse it?

So our lives are God's. He loves us, so we should not despair. He has a mission for us to do, so we should not take away his servant. But there is a time to die. If we can preserve life, we should. If we can use modern science to preserve life, we should. We can also witness to Christ in our sufferings. And when our loved ones are suffering in the throes of death, we should not fight God.

Next Sunday: ET12: God values life in the womb, and we should preserve it.

[1] Some individuals struggle with depression for chemical reasons. As a colleague of mine, Judy Crossman once said, if a mental difficulty is helped with medication, then it is likely to be a medical rather than a spiritual issue or an issue of will. Some of those who take their own lives do not do so under normal powers of will but as a slave to their own body's chemistry.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Seminary PC6: A Theology of Calling

This post concludes the first "chapter" of this "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. This first section has been on the "Calling of a Minister." Today I wanted to feature Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim's recent book The Permanent RevolutionI do not agree with all of it, but it certainly stimulates some juices with regard to possible models for ministry in the church today, based in Ephesians 4:11.

Here are the posts in this chapter so far:

Preface

The Pastor and Context
1. The Domains of Ministry
2. The Calling of a Minister
3. Ministerial Calling in Scripture
4. Ministerial Calling in History
5. God can call anyone to ministry.

1. There is a sense in which every Christian is a minister. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul pictures a community where some share wisdom and knowledge (12:8). Some are known for their faith (12:9). Some work miracles, others bring prophetic revelation or speak in tongues (12:10). Paul was not giving an absolute list of gifts here, nor was he setting up a structure for how ministry should work in every local congregation for all time. Indeed, Paul would probably have been quite surprised to learn that two thousand years would pass before Christ returned.

This is perhaps the biggest mistake made in these sorts of discussions. There are the unexamined assumptions that 1) passages like these were setting down absolute, timeless structures and 2) that we are supposed to use the same structures today that they used then. We can build on these passages to be sure when thinking about the ideal shape of ministry. Why not? Surely the early church should be there with us in any discussion about why and how ministry should be shaped today.

But before we appropriate these sorts of passages, we should keep in mind that Paul's letters were primarily "occasional," written to address the concerns and needs of specific churches. And we should also keep in mind that the books of the Bible addressed "that time" in the first instance. The more concrete the biblical instruction was to them, the more likely it will be more indirect for us.

2. The interpretation of Ephesians 4:11-12 that has become common sees the function of apostles, prophets, and other forms of ministry as "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry." In this model, one of the main functions of ministry leaders is to train the rest of the church to do most of the ministry on the ground. [1] This interpretation builds on the 1 Corinthians 12 picture of everyone in the church using their gifts in worship, and in fact Ephesians 4:7 probably draws on this basic idea that God has given everyone in the church certain gifts.

In Romans 12:4-8, Paul presents the same model to the Romans, although the list is a little different. Everyone in the church plays his or her role. Some lead. Some serve. Some give. Some do acts of mercy. Some teach. Some prophesy. Some encourage.

3. It is essential to recognize that the forms of ministry change over time because of the contexts in which we minister. It is not wrong to have a paid position called a "youth pastor" or a "children's pastor" just because the Bible does not mention this sort of role. Nor do we need to have a hired prophet on staff. We do not have to call our church boards a "board of elders" and we don't have a position we call "deacons."

We are free to do so, but "description is not prescription." Just because the New Testament church had a certain form in an ancient Mediterranean context does not mean that form will work the best in our contexts any more than a North American form would be the best for a church in China, Africa, or Latin America today. It would be the height of foolishness to think so.

4. What then are the more timeless distinctions? First, there is a distinction between what we might call formal and informal ministry. Churches usually have "positions" that various people occupy and then there are volunteers and those who minister informally. These positions will vary from church to church, from denomination to denomination.

It seems very difficult to have a Christian assembly without any formal position, although there have certainly been such groups. For example, Quakers used to shy away from formal leadership. Church meetings often involved everyone sitting quietly until someone felt led to say something. Then when it seemed appropriate, everyone left. The house church movement also shies away from official leadership.

But these sorts of groups have always been in the minority. On the whole, a lack of clear leadership structure seems more a hindrance to the healthy functioning of a church rather than a help. Without clear leadership, dominant personalities assert themselves into the void. Chaos, rather than the Spirit, tends to rule the day. Even the apostle Paul introduced structure to the Corinthian church when its worship got out of hand because of the over-domination of charisma.

5. There are thus two-poles in play in a ministry environment. The one is official structure or institutional structure. The other is charisma. These are both important ingredients and poles of ministry, even though they can pull against each other.

Throughout history, God has steered his people between these two poles. When institution is stifling the church, he raises a Martin Luther. When the official prophets are just saying what the king wants to hear, he raises up an Elijah (1 Kings 18:17) or a Micaiah (1 Kings 22). Although preachers today often play a prophetic role, the prophetic role in general is one that usually comes outside the normal institutional structures.

For example, when Josiah wants to know what to do with the Book of the Law (probably some form of Deuteronomy), he goes to the high priest. The high priest holds the official position of power. But the high priest goes to a prophetess named Huldah. She stands on her own as someone to whom God had given "charismatic" authority outside the normal institutional structures (2 Kings 22).

There are dangers on both poles. Institution often stifles the Spirit. But charisma can burn down a house. A healthy organism needs both structure and innovation. God steers the church in either direction as needed.

6. So there should always be informal, Spirit-driven ministry in the church. There should always be "lay" ministry going on, where "lay" ministry refers to individuals who are not "ordained" by a church institution. When we get to congregational formation and congregational relationships, we will return to these informal or even formal ministries of believers in the church. Even non-ordained ministry can be either structured or charismatic.

However, at this point in the series we are concerned with formal ministry and especially with those who feel called to life-long ministry. For example, we are talking about a level of ministry where church leaders might feel led to lay hands on a person and "anoint" them for special service. The individual in question feels the call of God on his or her life, and the church recognizes and officially endorses that calling.

So Samuel was prompted to go to David and anoint him as king. The church at Antioch felt led to lay hands on Timothy for life-long service. There are many forms of ministry. One of them is formal, ordained ministry, where a group of believers official recognizes the gifts and graces of a person who senses a call to life-long ministry. [2] Sometimes it is full-time ministry. Sometimes it is not.

7. Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim have recently suggested that the five roles of Ephesians (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher) might serve in some way as a model not only for ministry leadership but for Christians in general. [3] While they have probably seen these roles as more extensive and more absolute than they were originally, they give us a recent place to start in thinking of the different kinds of callings a person might have to formal ministry.

In a previous post, we talked at least about what apostles and prophets looked like in the early church. Today, the oldest model takes the apostles to represent official authority on the highest level. [4] They defend the beliefs and practices of the church as they have been passed down throughout the ages. Their "deposit" of faith is found in most concentrated form in Scripture. Some are called to high leadership of this sort.

It is almost an oxymoron to think of prophetic ministry as something that can be institutionalized. God raises up prophets wherever and whenever he wishes, often outside ordained ministry. But God also raises up prophets among those who are the preachers and teachers of a group. The role is not limited in any way to formal position.

Today, evangelists are those who take the good news to the world outside the church. They can be local or they can be global. They face outside. They focus on mission. It is a ministerial function that was often neglected until the rise of evangelicals like John Wesley and George Whitfield in the 1700s.

Certainly local groups of believers need shepherding and teaching. These roles have historically had a place of primacy in the church. The local pastor or priest visited the sick and discipled believers. Recent centuries have seen some balancing out of this inward focus.

It would probably wrong to pigeonhole ministers into exclusive functions. Surely all those ministers who are called to life-long ministry should be witnesses to the gospel, for example. But we do see individuals with natural gifts that lean in one or another direction. Some ministers are natural born teachers. Some even become teachers of ministers on the college or seminary level. [5]

Some ministers have a gift for shepherding and caring for a local congregation. Some have a gift for discipleship. Others have a gift for mission. Some feel called to go beyond their local community to other cultures or places in the world.

We will return in later parts of this series to possible ways to structure the ministries of the church and its leadership. For the moment, we should not stereotype callings to ministry, as if ministers fit neatly in certain boxes.

8. In the end, there is no one rubric for those God calls to minister for a lifetime. It would be unwise to pigeonhole them. There are those who are more naturally suited to face inward toward the church and there are those who are naturally suited to be more outwardly facing. There are those who are more gifted for leadership and those who are more gifted to minister in the trenches. The specific positions that correspond to these gifts may vary from time to time and place to place.

Then there are those who are not called for life-time ministry. There are those that God calls for a specific season or purpose and the church commissions them for that service. All Christians are called to play a role in the church and, in that sense, all Christians are ministers.

Next Saturday: The Person of the Pastor 1

[1] This interpretation is not nearly as obvious as most assume. The roles that Ephesians 4:11 mentions all sure sound like leading roles. It could just as easily, perhaps even more easily be argued that the sentence should be translated: God gave them these leadership roles "for the development of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building of the body of Christ."

[2] I would not want to say that God never calls someone for just a season of time. God can call people for specific tasks, just as he called Amos to be a prophet on one occasion. My own church used to speak of "commissioning" people for those sorts of more specialized or seasonal tasks.

[3] Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

[4] Hirsch and Catchim strongly disagree with this perspective on the apostles. To them, apostles reflect the most innovative and itinerant type of ministry of all. It's not necessarily wrong to apply the picture of the early apostles this way. They are simply focusing on a different aspect of the earliest apostles' ministry, while we are focusing more on the way in which the early church appropriated their ministries.

It is common, however, especially in charismatic and missional circles, to take the apostles as a model of high missional authority.

[5] I personally believe that most of those who train ordained ministers should be called to ministry as well.