When the women of the New Testament speak

When the women of the New Testament speak, their lives tell a radical, redemptive story. 220px-Tizian_050

Make no mistake, they were:

  • Open to being divorced if they could not bear children. [1]
  • Generally not allowed as official eyewitnesses in court.
  • Jewish women were allowed to worship in the Temple's outer courts only or in a separate section of the Jewish synagogue.
  • Missing—in the ancient Greco-Roman world there were about 100 women for every 140 men. Many were left to die when they were born the wrong sex. [2] 

Though some wealthy women enjoyed a measure of freedom, most were defined by their husband, their father or another male relative. If they were widowed, they were expected to attach to a man for survival's sake.

Until a rabbi named Jesus arrived on the scene, scattering seeds of freedom that would grow up to shatter the chains of patriarchy.

He was nothing if not radical when it came to interacting with women. And he moved among these females with such ease, with no pretension or worry about what others might think. Over and over again, he did the unthinkable, talking to them as his equals.

Because of his actions, their lives speak:

  • Mary Magdalene supported him to the end, then ushered in a new post-Resurrection reality in which women not only speak, they proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Mary of Bethany sat at his feet, just like a good disciple would learn from a rabbi, and Jesus praised her.
  • The Samaritan Woman found his manner shocking, until his offer of living water broke through her defenses, causing her to abandon her water pot in favor of becoming the local evangelist.
  • The Woman with the Issue of Blood approached him as she bled, making him unclean. Instead, he called her "daughter," declared her whole and showed us women are no longer defined by their monthly cycles but by his promise of redemption.
  • Priscilla came after Jesus as a teacher of the word, a church leader, and a winsome companion to her husband Aquila and to Paul the apostle.
  • Lydia came, too, a seeker of Yahweh, and in one day, she and her whole household were baptized. The church at Philippi started in her living room, which for some reason no longer seemed unusual.
  • Then there was Phoebe, serving as a minister in the church of Cenchrae, carrying the book of Romans for Paul,  and quite possibly serving as the first commentator on this important doctrinal book. (Can you imagine?)
  • Finally, there was Junia. Though silenced for years, a look back at Romans 16:7 in the original Greek shows she was a female apostle, joined with her relative Andronicus and distinguished among the other apostles.

Lest there is any doubt at all, the introduction of Jesus Christ—and his life, death and Resurrection—brought a new era of freedom for women. It still does. He carried with him a new kingdom that still shatters the business-as-usual nature of our relationships, making us whole again:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” -Matthew 20:25-28, NIV

The lives of these New Testament women speak with glorious freedom, wholeness and joy. Are you listening? And what do their life stories say to you?

[1] Jeffers, James S. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 241.

[2] Ortberg, John. Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 46.

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Oops . . . your theology is showing, part 2

Maybe accidentally showing your theology is not as bad as allowing your undergarments to be seen through your . . . overgarments. (Guys, stay with me on this one and add a male metaphor in comments below, please. Seriously, I obviously need your help.) Sometimes,  it can actually feel much worse.

Last week in part one, I asked if you've ever tried to hide your theology. In my experience, this is just not sustainable over an extended period time, since we actually live out of what we believe about God and his world. "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." (Proverbs 23:7) 

Coffeehouse-angled-160_thumb_thumbAnd now, some statements to consider as I reflect on the book Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life by my friend Ed Cyzewski. Listen in on how what we think or say reveals something about where our minds are and the place we have given God & neighbor in our hearts:

  • RESPONSE: "I'm so glad I accepted Christ and left all that guilt stuff behind. We're all going to die someday, though, and I'm going to enjoy myself while I can. I'll be with Jesus soon enough."
  • REALITY: Call it what you like. Platonism, Gnosticism, etc., but these kinds of statements say: "The spirit is good. Body and material things are evil." But the God who took on human flesh in the form of Jesus would have to disagree. On the contrary, Scripture says all Creation groans, including you and me, and that it will be eventually restored. This means our bodies, and our choices, matter now.

Or how about this:

  • RESPONSE: "Poor people should get a job, learn some self-respect and stop asking me for handouts. God helps those who help themselves!"
  • REALITY: Nearly 100 Bible passages deal with our obligation to serve the poor and homeless and provide for the hungry. World Vision has posted some key verses here. Whatever your political stance, if you're not actively serving the poor in some way, you are likely a victim of a "theology of convenience." This is a wake-up call Ed experienced, and I continue to experience it, too. Gratefully, getting outside of "Americanized theology" and listening to our Latin American or African brothers and sisters can help us to reevaluate how we have allowed our culture to shape our theology, pulling us closer to God's heart for the poor.

So, as you can see, the culture around us, both inside our churches and outside of it, continues to pull and push our theology.

If we approach our study of God prayerfully and faithfully, with ears open to how those different from us interpret God's word, we will continue to work out our faith in a faithful way, becoming contextual theologians. Or, as Ed says, "those who seek to understand God while being aware of the limits of their own context."

Without giving away all of Ed's great content in the book Coffeehouse Theology, I will share these helpful tips:

  1. Remember to read the Bible being sensitive to the immediate context of the passage and of the reader (that's you!).
  2. Dig deeper into the world of the Bible to understand the original context of the biblical world using appropriate resources.
  3. Expand your understanding through the Holy Spirit's leading and your knowledge of Church Tradition and global church perspectives.

With a careful heart and mind centered on Scripture and context maybe the next time someone says "oops, your theology is showing" that will be a good thing. A very good thing indeed.

EdC200_thumb1Next week: A real, bonafide Q&A with author Ed Cyzewski, as he comments as a theologian from "his imperfect and sometimes sarcastic perspective on following Jesus." Seriously, you don't want to miss this! 

How the church can (and must) do better on abuse & divorce

It's been a few weeks, but I recently dove into the topic of "When Jesus Exaggerates on Divorce."  See parts one & two to see why Jesus' words in Matthew (and Mark) employed overstatement, commenting on marriage and divorce laws already in the Torah. What I am about to write is based on the prayerful understanding that: 1) the Bible doesn’t give a “no-fault” divorce as an option—you can divorce and remarry only if a spouse breaks their vows; and 2) the Old Testament laws on divorce always protect the victim. 

Now that I've made that clear, let's talk about abuse in marriage for church-going folk. I am not an expert, but I am more than a little concerned at the dismissal of spousal abuse that often happens in evangelical churches. It has happened to my friends. It has happened to women I've talked to while serving as a pastor and chaplain. And while women are not the only ones abused in marriage relationships, the National Coalition against Domestic Violence reports that:

  • one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime
  • 85% of domestic violence victims are women

Author Margaret Atwood put it this way, in a quote that has been circulated around the Internet:

"Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them."

While this quote takes our breath away, it gives pause for thought. The men God created to lovingly protect women, using their strength to aid and complement them as their greatest allies, are most often the ones who commit horrible violence against them, both emotionally and physically. It happens everywhere, and unfortunately, it is likely happening within your church right now.

-Why? Because men are physically stronger than women.

-Because when women being abused try to cry for help (and many don't), they are often not allowed to meet with their male pastor privately. 

-Because if they do somehow get to their male pastor, their husband comes with them or is aware of it and abuses them more.

-Because their pastor tells them it would help if they would learn to submit more, to be more willing, to be more giving and available.

Let me be clear: this last one is a lie from the pit of hell, no matter your theological bent. 

I'm not a professional counselor, but I have talked to many of them. When abuse is happening in a situation, you must assume it will escalate. An abuser does not back down. Someone in a pattern of abusing is not repentant. If an abuser has abused, he will most likely abuse again. And next time, the abuse could be much worse.

If you serve our Creator God, the one who makes clear throughout the Old Testament and the New that he takes up the cause of the oppressed and created you to be his representative, you must take up the cause of the woman in your church body who is abused.

(And if statistics are right, God help us, that may be 25% of them.) You must help stop the abuse, which often means encouraging her to remove herself from her home. You must find a way to keep her safe, to speak truth and life to her troubled soul. And if her husband is not willing to seek radical repentance and help before living with her again, I believe you must provide enough light for  a way out of her abusive marriage, a marriage in which the husband long ago discarded his vows.

To do anything less is not Christlike, in my view. It is not redemptive. It could even be described as evil. 

One last thought: from experience, I can tell you that women being abused (or that have been abused), seem to be much more willing to confide in a female pastor. Just one of the many reasons why having a female on your church staff can lead to healing and growth for many of the women (and men) in your church. I carry these stories close to my chest, I mourn the loss of the light in these women's eyes, and I thank God that, in His mercy, he provides safety and hope for them beyond a marriage that was killing them, both metaphorically and sometimes, literally.

And for all the men of courage and valor who are reading this post, God bless you, and may he use you to lift up and protect your sisters. If you're interested, read one male pastor's story of courage here.

Resources that help and heal: "The Dark Side of Wives Submitting to Husbands," by Lee Grady, Charisma Online When Love Hurts—Understanding and Healing Domestic Abuse (4-part DVD) from RBC Ministries "The heart of God is to protect the vulnerable." -Dr. Steven Tracy Elisabeth Corcoran's blog

Your turn: How does our theology influence the way we help women who are abused? What things could the church do to provide a safe haven to women in these circumstances?

When Jesus exaggerates on divorce, part two

(Read part one for a foundation on what Jesus said on divorce in Matthew and the background on why he used exaggeration or overstatement to make a point.) In my first post, we looked at Jesus' words on divorce to the pharisees in Matthew 19: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

I asserted that Jesus wasn't make a hyper-literal statement on divorce; he was making a point. And I mentioned what has often become the standard evangelical response: "No one should divorce, ever, unless their spouse cheats on them; then they can get divorced and remarried." 

To be honest, I have sensed for years that coupling this admonition from Jesus with Paul's words in 1 Corinthians on the freedom to divorce an unbelieving spouse who deserts you was wholly inadequate. (Not to mention the fact that Jesus and Paul seem to contradict each other!) 

As a chaplain, an interim pastor, and a theology student, I watched with astonishment as the number of my friends who had endured or were enduring abusive "Christian marriages" began to rise. I listened as a seminary professor told a story of deciding to support a woman who was divorcing her husband because he physically abused her multiple times—the abuse finally resulting in her need for emergency surgery. (She is fortunate that she lived to tell her story.)

I don't think the professor was ever convinced the divorce was "right" or "allowed" biblically; he just couldn't condone the treatment of this woman.

And as I begin to study the Bible more deeply—and to read about the 1st century Jewish Greco-Roman context into which Jesus and Paul spoke, I began to see things differently. I have begun to grasp two things: 1) the Bible doesn't give a "no-fault" divorce as an option—you can divorce and remarry only if a spouse breaks their vows; 2) the OT laws on divorce always protect the victim.

The picture painted of a God of justice who fights for the oppressed throughout the Old and New Testaments does not need to be checked at the door when an evangelical considers cause for divorce and remarriage. In fact, I've become convinced that it must not be.

Here are two reasons why:

  1. Jesus was employing exaggeration/overstatement in Matthew 19. In Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament, Robert H. Stein asserts that "a statement which is interpreted by another Evangelist in a nonliteral way may contain exaggeration." What does this have to do with Matthew 19? It appears it is quite likely that Matthew was expressing the meaning of Jesus' exaggerated statement to the pharisees in a way that was least likely to be misunderstood. Why? Because when this statement of Jesus is quoted in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18, there is NO exception. Not even adultery "appeared" to be grounds for divorce. It is as if Jesus is replying to the pharisees (who were seeking divorce for "any cause") that he is not so concerned with exceptions as he is "zealous for the perfect purpose of God." Jesus is not setting down a new legal dictum for the religious Jews to follow, but an overstatement that exposes their hardness of heart. [1]
  2. First century Jews would not have understood Jesus as abolishing the Old Testament laws on divorce, but as commenting on them. During the time of Jesus, a divorce debate raged: did Deuteronomy 24:1-4 say a man could divorce his wife for indecency/sexual unfaithfulness or for "any cause?"Those Pharisees who followed the teaching of the Rabbi Hillel "understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast." Clearly, Hillelites were smoking something! Talk about a creative translation. [Ahem.]  Those following the school of thought of Rabbi Shammai believed that a man could divorce his wife for the cause of unfaithfulness. [2]

    Did you notice that Jesus bypassed their debate entirely and pointed back to the original purpose of marriage, that the two shall become one?

    For a comprehensive look at New Testament scholar David Instone-Brewer's assessment of what the Bible and Jesus are saying on divorce, you can watch this quirky video that shows "The Four Causes for Biblical Divorce." This is an excellent way to catch the "continuity" of what the Bible is telling us about divorce. Additionally, here's a link to Instone-Brewer's entire video series on subjects ranging from the any-cause divorce of the first century to "Did Moses permit divorce or did Moses and God permit it?" You're welcome!

Next week: practical and theological reflections on how the church can do better on the issue of abuse and divorce.

Your turn: What are your conclusions on divorce based on the Bible's laws and commands? Why do you think the church has such a hard time entering into the reality of abuse and divorce?

[1] Stein, Robert H. Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerBooks, 1996: 171-174.

[2] The IVP New Testament Commentary: Matthew. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

When Jesus exaggerates on divorce, part one

Ahem!?! Welcome to my most controversial piece of writing ever. I hesitated to write on this, because divorce is a topic full of fire and fury in today's evangelical church, but after talking to a friend this last week, I felt sure someone needs to say something.

And, by the way, before I go further, let me say that technically what Jesus says about divorce is an overstatement, that is, a form of exaggeration to make a point. 


From what Jesus says about divorce in Matthew 19 one could draw any number of theological conclusions. But I'm not so concerned with your conclusions in this post. I'm concerned with what Jesus said and "how he meant" as they say in hermeneutics class. Jesus didn't answer the Pharisees on divorce in a vacuum, or in a 21st century American context. He answered their question on divorce and remarriage in a first century Jewish context, commenting on a law already on the books in the Torah. He didn't nullify the Torah, but rather commented on the passage the Pharisees had already been arguing about. This is a distinction that appears to rarely be made when reading the Bible on divorce, but if you want to know what Jesus meant, you have to take the whole of Scripture into account, and you have to accept his words for what they meant when and where he said them.

Let me be blunt: I believe to do anything less is a failure to take the words of Jesus seriously.

God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me! can only be true if God really said what you think he said.

Here is the passage in question: Matthew 19:3-8

  • Pharisees' question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"
  • Jesus replies: Reminder of "one flesh" marriage; "what God has joined together let no man separate"
  • Pharisees shoot back: "Why then did Moses command that a man give a wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"
  • Jesus replies: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."

Favorite evangelical conclusion: No one should divorce, ever, unless their spouse cheats on them; then they can get divorced and remarried. (And yes, there are many variations on this view.)

This is an attempt to take Scripture seriously and I applaud the intention here. Jesus was most certainly slapping the Pharisees upside the head regarding the casual nature with which a group of them viewed divorce. But Jesus wasn't making a hyper-literal statement: he was making a point.

Next week: The two views of the Pharisees on divorce—and how Jesus exposes their desire to know "about when the divine plan for marriage can be ignored." You don't want to miss this! (Recommended reading: Divorce and Remarriage in the Church and Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament.)

Comments: What does your church teach about divorce? When you've heard teaching on divorce, has your pastor or teacher pulled Scripture from both the Torah and the New Testament? Do tell.

When Jesus Exaggerates, part 2

Many Wednesdays, I'll be taking an "underneath-the-hood" look at Scripture, pushing us to go deeper and to read the Bible for what it is, not for what we want it to be. Last week, in part 1, we looked at how we sometimes misinterpret the words of Jesus when he exaggerates. Specifically, we saw that when Jesus makes a statement of physical or logical impossibility in the gospels, all is not literal—neither should it be taken as such. We also discovered that Jesus exaggerates often to make a point to his hearers, hearers in a very different culture and time than ours.

This week, we shine a spotlight on what's happening when something Jesus says contradicts something else he has said. We'll continue to draw examples from the fabulous book pictured here, Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. (No, I am not exaggerating re: its fabulousness. It's probably even worth the $23.47 they make you pay for this paperback on amazon.) 

Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament

Here's a question that stumps many: "Why does Jesus ask us to pray in secret  (Matthew 6:6) while also giving us the very-corporate Lord's Prayer? (v. 9-13)"

Have you ever heard someone say they don't do public prayer because of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:6? I have; but at the time it struck me more as an excuse for not wanting to volunteer to pray than solid biblical exegesis.

Try this on for size: the evangelist who wrote the book of Matthew clearly did not mean for the two concepts to contradict, though they are in the same passage. Most likely, he took the intended meaning behind verse 6 to indicate that "personal prayer is not for show or for the applause of people but rather is a private matter between the believer and God."

Still not convinced? Then what about considering the fact that Jesus and other good Jews met regularly in synagogues with prayers incorporated into public services?

When you take the whole of the biblical witness and life of Jesus into account, you see that: A statement which conflicts with what Jesus says elsewhere may contain exaggeration. It is also true that a statement which conflicts with the behavior of Jesus elsewhere may contain exaggeration:

  • In Luke 14:26, Jesus supposedly endorses hatred of one's parents and family. 
  • Then we witness him entrusting care of his mother to the beloved disciple upon his death (John 19:26-27) and we remember that as a young man "he went down with [his parents] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them" (Luke 2:51).

We read his words, watch his actions, and seek to let Jesus say what he intends to say, not what we want to hear. In this case, Jesus appears to be encouraging his disciples to count the cost of following him; sometimes this will mean that they lose their family ties. But this doesn't cancel out their responsibility to care for their families and to love and to submit to them.

My two cents: Jesus was a profound communicator who used a plethora of rhetorical techniques to make his point to his original audience in their everyday context.

2,000 years later, in our earnest efforts to discover his truth, we've often squeezed the beauty, metaphor and exaggeration out of his sayings so that we can "follow him to the point."

In so doing, we've often missed the point entirely! Combine fundamentalism with a lack of knowledge of the culture of Jesus day and you get some pretty wacky interpretations of Scripture. Let Jesus say whatever he meant to say with whatever kind of exaggeration he meant to use in the original hearers' context, and you are treading on life-giving truth.

It's like mining for gold. This is the kind of stuff that still surprises and delights me, day after day, though I've been in the church all my life. And that makes serious study worth the effort.

(Next week: Jesus on divorce. Oh, yes, we're going there. Was Jesus using overstatement when he spoke about divorce in Mark 10:2-12? And if we're missing something he was referring to when we read Scripture, what does it mean for us today? Deep waters next Wednesday.)

Comments: Can you name a saying or teaching of Jesus in which you have wondered if he is exaggerating? 

When Jesus Exaggerates, part 1

Many Wednesdays, I'll be taking an "underneath-the-hood" look at Scripture, pushing us to go deeper and to read the Bible for what it is, not for what we want it to be. "Your heavenly Father will evaluate you based on how you wrestled with His Word and whether you were obedient to what you discovered," wrote our hermeneutics professor. I could almost hear the small online class breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Our debate forums were filled with discussions on what the Bible says about divorce, women in ministry, the essential meaning of the Old Testament word hokmah or wisdom, and how literary devices or forms change the meaning of what we are reading in God's Word. Sometimes we felt like we were making educated guesses and best choices, all while realizing we viewed Scripture through a Western, modern lens.  It's enough to make a Bible student run for cover and pray for mercy!

Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New TestamentWhat a relief to realize that those things we can understand and evaluate provide enough light for us to travel the path, if we are faithful to study, discover, and to humbly admit when we aren't entirely sure. One of the areas in which we have often—quite frankly—missed the boat, may be when we go to interpret the words attributed to our Savior himself. In our giddiness to meet this flesh-and-blood Jesus in the gospels, we have often imposed a structure on his words that would have been foreign to the original Jewish and Greek hearers. Indeed, it would have been foreign to Jesus himself.

So while we want to be careful not to water-down the firm words of Jesus in the gospels, we also want to make sure we understand what he means when he exaggerates. And exaggerate he does, as a way of making a point. Let's talk about the first  two ways he does this from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament:

" A statement which is literally impossible may contain an exaggeration." Since a statement can be physically impossible or logically impossible, let's examine two examples:

1. physically impossible "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:4

Paradox alert: Jesus wants us to make a conscious effort not to know what we are consciously doing! Right. You knew this instinctively, but someone new to the Bible might not. As for the next one...

2. logically impossible "All things are possible to him who believes." Mark 9:23

Not quite so easy, eh? Many a new Bible student has been deceived into thinking they should be able to make something happen through faith when in fact "all things are simply not possible for the believer." For instance—you and I cannot become God. How about "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:48 // Classic hyperbole, a goal to reach for, a thing God is doing in us as he grows us into his own likeness. Take these at face value and you will be disappointed, maybe even despairing. Take them as statements of exaggeration, and you will be challenged to live in the tension of a grace-filled life.

(This post based on observations from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. Check amazon.com or half.com. One of the most helpful and accessible books I've seen on this topic.)

Comments: Can you name a saying or teaching of Jesus in which you have wondered if he is exaggerating? 

Next week: When statements of Jesus appear to conflict with each other, he may be exaggerating. (Why does Jesus tell us to "pray in secret" while also giving us the very-corporate "Lord's prayer?")