Thoughts on Deuteronomy

Just over two years since my last update…Wow. A lot has happened since, most significantly I’ve starting going to university to work toward my BA in Biblical Literature. I have about a year left until graduation.

Anyway.

This past year I took two semesters of Biblical Hebrew, and part of the spring final was to be able to recite the Shema in Hebrew from memory. Named for the first word of the passage meaning “listen” or “hear,” the Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

I used the NIV translation here, but I want to point out verse eight specifically where it says to bind God’s word “on your foreheads.” The Hebrew text more literally reads, “between your eyes.” I remember my instructor pointing out that while this can be taken to mean that people should wear little scrolls containing the law around their heads, it is likely also referring in a spiritual sense to how we see things.

In other words, to put this into practice, we should be using God’s word as the lenses through which we see the world. My instructor went on to use an example of someone who refused to look at lewd photos in a magazine when his friends prompted him, because his eyes- his whole outlook- had been shaped and influenced by God’s word. He told them that the women in the photos were not products, they were human beings and ought to be respected as such.

Now, near two months after I finished this class, it occurred to me that the same could be said for the earlier part of verse eight. What would it mean to tie God’s word to my arms? By the same token, it means to let the works of my hands, my very actions, be informed and influenced by God’s word.

Contemplating the Shema this morning, it suddenly hit me that I haven’t been terribly conscious of how I’ve been using my hands. But to have the word of God bound on my arms creates a new perspective. I am reminded that my actions have (or ought to have) purpose. My hands, as well as my eyes and my heart, should be informed and influenced by God’s law such that they will resist mistreating God’s world.

The Shema is about loving God so much that his law is utterly and completely ingrained into all areas of life. It’s worth contemplating multiple times a day, considering what parts I might be leaving out. My revelations here haven’t been ground-breaking, I know, but I find that it’s very easy to let some truths go in one ear and out the other. It’s a habit I am working on to be able to ruminate on passages, knowing them not only in my head but in my whole being.

Thanks for reading this (long overdue) update. I’m hoping to keep writing and add more posts over the summer.

Responding to doubt

Perhaps modern Christian communities, in response to atheistic movements, place too great an emphasis on apologetics. I know this statement is probably a little unexpected, especially coming from me. One of my passions in life is debating and logically examining the nature of divinity, morality, and the reliability of the Bible. I thoroughly enjoy reading books devoted to subjects anywhere from philosophical arguments to physical, scientific evidence. For me, the basis of everything in the world and universe has to make sense, which means I am loathe to leave any point un-argued or unexplored. So believe me when I say I understand the importance of apologetics. However, I’m realizing recently there can be dangers when the body of Christ focuses too much on this area of study.

Before I continue, I want to make very clear what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with knowledge itself. I believe the pursuit of knowledge is a very noble and worthwhile endeavor. Nor do I mean to imply that faith in God must lack reasoning. On the contrary, I believe faith is dependent on evidence and solidified by thorough reasoning, and that there is no necessary conflict between the two. But what I want to illustrate is the way that excessive emphasis on refuting arguments against Christianity does a disservice to many and may even hinder one’s search for the truth.

For one, with an obsession over apologetic arguments, it is easy to get carried away with pride. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:1, “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” Again, this isn’t to say that knowing and learning is bad. But when that becomes the primary goal, people tend to create a sense of superiority over others. I’m sure this is, on the one hand, unsurprising and perhaps a little obvious. But it is also subtle, and it can be hard to tell the difference between valuing arguments and obsessing over them. A balanced view of apologetics recognizes that no one person is going to have all the answers. But the extreme view of apologetics assumes that it is possible for a person to have a monopoly on truth, and this inevitably erodes any healthy sense of humility.

As a second point, excessive argumentation can weaken the body of Christ by isolating anyone with questions. Questioning is a natural human behavior, and anyone, no matter how strictly raised in church teachings, will start to re-evaluate what has always been taught. It’s part of growing up, really, and it’s something mature Christians should expect from younger generations. But when these questions are not taken seriously, or harsh responses are given, the doubts will not fade away—instead, they will be enhanced. In this way, wielding arguments as a weapon to strengthen others in faith actually weakens them. Likewise, even if no one outright confronts an individual for doubting, when a congregation insists it has a monopoly on truth and that it has all the right answers, no one will feel it is safe to turn to them with questions and doubts. As a result, they linger and fester, and eventually the individual may give up on the church.

Additionally, being able to express and deal with one’s doubt can lead to stronger faith. We’ve all experienced how if trying to learn something, but not actually experiencing or applying it, the lesson doesn’t really stick. In the same way, one’s faith isn’t necessarily strong if that person has never questioned what he or she has been taught. It is through questioning, and finding the answers with experience, that trust can be truly solidified. Yet, even without this goal of achieving a stronger faith through its testing, it should be okay to doubt, and that leads to my next point:

There is nothing actually wrong with doubting, even if those doubts are never answered. There is nothing wrong with wondering if God is true, if what he says is true, and if we can trust him. He is not so weak that he can’t handle our questions, after all. Likewise the body of Christ should be open to listening to the concerns of other people and not automatically opt to shut them down. And because we are human, it is important to maintain any argument or element of apologetics with humility instead of overbearing self-righteousness. God created us with a drive to understand the world, and to instinctively value truth. We may not always understand it, but that’s okay. He invites us to wrestle with him and with the hard questions. And he is honored if, despite our questions and doubt and uncertainty, we choose to continue to doing what is right.

 

Christians and sacrificial worship

Most people understand what sacrifice means. Today, sacrifice can refer to giving something valuable up for a greater goal. In ancient times, almost the world over, sacrifices were rituals that served a religious purpose. Those who regularly read their bibles are familiar with the concept, having studied the Torah (the Law) and the numerous commands from God concerning how the Israelites were to worship him. In the books Exodus through Deuteronomy, one can read about the types of sacrifices were allowed by God, how often and for what purposes…which may be pretty disturbing to us living modern lives. After all, slaughtering an animal to express worship is pretty barbaric, to say the least. But what many don’t realize is that God was using what was already a common cultural practice—re-purposing it—to make it point to him.

To the new nation of Israel at the time the Law was given, sacrifices weren’t new or unheard of. That was just the way people believed deities needed to be worshiped, and consequently, it was all Israel knew. So God met them where they were and used what they were familiar with to make himself known. His specific instructions in the books of the law about how to perform animal sacrifice were regulated so that observers might catch a glimpse of the bigger picture: that God wants to save humanity and all life is valuable to him. For instance, there was special emphasis on using an animal’s blood for purification, because blood represented life [1]. It also signifies how Jesus’s blood is what purifies sins. And while not everyone did, many caught on to the deeper meaning and realized that ritual sacrifices themselves didn’t really please God. He is instead pleased when people sincerely seek to honor him. Psalm 40, in particular verses 6 and 8, points to the reality that God is after a changed heart, one that is focused on him. Isaiah chapters 1 and 2 further point out that God hates when sacrifices are used as a mere show or way to earn God’s favor when actual matters of justice are neglected.

Another way sacrifices pointed to God’s desire to save humanity was that they showed sin had fatal consequences, and the price of redemption was steep. Yet, the Hebrew writer points out that the ancient practice didn’t actually affect one’s sinful record, but pointed to the one who could (Hebrews 10:12-14). Jesus Christ was the ultimate sacrifice because of how and why he died, and because his death affects everyone. John calls him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) because of this role. Not only does his death actually provide atonement, but his sacrifice produces the true worship God wanted all along. Because of Jesus, humanity can have changed hearts that truly love and trust, that are humble instead of hypocritical, and focus on justice and kindness. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were forever rendered obsolete because of Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice.

And yet, the new testament urges Christians to participate in sacrificial worship. But instead of bringing an animal to an alter and slitting its throat, Paul tells us in Romans 12 to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. As such we are to be holy and blameless, just as the animals of the past were supposed to be without defect. This doesn’t mean earning God’s approval with good behavior—Isaiah demonstrates how that legalistic approach utterly misses the mark. Instead, Paul begins Romans 12 by focusing on the inner self, characterized not by the culture of the World but by Christ. Paul explains “this is your true worship” (verse 1). While societies in the past sought to please the divine through ceremony and sacrifice, and God addressed his people in this context, he wanted more than mere rituals. Since humanity’s sinful Fall, he has always wanted to restore us to live free from sin with him.

The days of building an altar, killing an animal on top and setting it on fire are thankfully long past. It was a barbaric practice that began in a barbaric time, but because of God, it was used to bring hope and salvation to humanity. Yet, sacrifice continues (and ought to continue) today, not as an act of violence but of love. Being a living sacrifice can mean that Christians surrender their choices to God. Not holding grudges, or participating in harmful words, being patient and generous are examples of God-honoring sacrifice. Of course, this doesn’t mean Christians behave perfectly. But where the focus is now pointed is on the heart, whether one is motivated by love or by sin, being willing to give up smaller things because one is looking continually to the long-term goal of union with Christ.

Notes:

[1] Mackie, Tim. “Sacrifice & Atonement.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Aug. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_OlRWGLdnw.

God is an egalitarian

Complementarians are adamant about the existence of an ordering of the human race in which there are divinely authorized “roles”, because it’s the only thing that can justify the system of male-over-female leadership. Gender roles, they claim, are innate, and complete subscription to them is how we were always intended by God to live. Those who rebel against these roles are rejecting the original plan for life. God had always set up humanity in a way that men naturally would hold authority over women. Or had he? Are complementarians right that hierarchy between humans is natural, Godly, intended? The Bible seems to indicate otherwise. Written in ancient times, over hundreds of years and across different cultures (where it was common to value systems of authority and domination), God’s word continually demonstrates how he levels the hierarchies between humans and empowers the oppressed and conventionally worthless. Patriarchy is no exception to this.

Before this can be explored, a small point must be addressed: the apologetic complementarian will point out that it is unrealistic to claim that all men should be in charge of all women, but that this is only the order in a married relationship. And while the church will also reflect this, having only male clergy, men and women in the world who are not married have no obligations to observe the traditional gender roles. However, not only does this make little difference regarding the validity of gender roles, but it begs the question as to why God would set up a way for the different genders to work together, but only command it to be followed for one area of life (just one of the many examples complementarian theology is inconsistent).

Throughout history, it has always been part of human nature to dominate and oppress other humans. This is one of the distortions of humanity’s original purpose in the garden of Eden, which was to flourish and live in peace. Although Adam and Eve were created to equally rule the earth, sin entered and we have ever since been trying to rule each other. Consider slavery, for example. It is a brutal practice in which humans are forced to serve others, with little or nothing in return. It was a common institution in the ancient world, and even in modern times, it hasn’t been completely eradicated but lingers in various parts of the world. On an even bigger scale, kings and tyrants have risen to power throughout history, and their unchecked power drove them to cause immense suffering on the helpless. Perhaps a bit closer to home, many relationships are abusive because one partner exercises authority to dominate the other person.

Because of sin, people use and exploit each other out of self-interest. Furthermore, (perhaps because of an innate awareness that such abuse is wrong) people have also always tried to justify these power struggles by minimizing the humanity or rights of the oppressed. Aristotle, the celebrated Greek philosopher, stated “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…” [1] Plato likewise states “justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.” [2] Ancient pagans clearly believed in “roles” that separated humans from those who should have authority and those who should not, and that this ordering was proper, right and according to nature.

These same values of some humans simply deserving more than others permeated the cultures in which every book of the Bible was written. We read in Genesis that eldest sons inherited twice as much as any other son, and in the story of Jacob that they had a birthright to a greater blessing than the other children. Polygamy was common because women were seen as property, not people. Even though God created all humans in his image, after sin corrupted the world, might made right.

But despite these social constructs, God continually chose to elevate those whom society ignored by blessing the younger children—Jacob rather than Esau, and Ephraim rather than Manasseh. He saw Hagar after she had been cast out by Abraham and provided for her so that she could survive. He blessed Leah even though she was the reject wife. He chose to lead Israel even though it was “the least of all nations.” (Deuteronomy 7:7) David, though he was the youngest, smallest son, became his anointed king.

In the New Testament, Jesus taught his disciples that “whoever is first shall be last and whoever is last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:16)  His kingdom would be based on servanthood and placing another’s needs above one’s own. This, he taught, was where true greatness was found and he modeled it by sacrificing his life to save everyone who believes. This new kingdom that Jesus brought is, of course, in a way a restoration of Eden. Followers of the kingdom do not dominate each other but serve each other. They live in peace and love, and “consider others as more important than [them]selves” (Philippians 2:3). Paul wrote that Christians should “carry one another’s burdens” and not hold delusions of self-importance (Galatians 6:2, 3). In Colossians 3:14 “put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

Throughout all this, there is not one exception made concerning male and female roles. Nowhere does any Bible author write “you were all made in God’s image, and are equal in Christ, but still some of you deserve power and authority while some don’t.” And nowhere is there a command for any human to be in charge of another. Such principles are not only absent, but it are completely opposite of everything that Jesus’s kingdom establishes. Might does not make right, love does. Men and women being made equally in God’s image doesn’t just mean that they are equal in worth, it means they are equal in rulership as well. Together, as a team, all men and women—all humans—are to govern the earth in love, humility, and peace. Hierarchy and power struggles are and always have been a result of sin. Equality is the created order.

NOTES

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/slavery/ethics/philosophers_1.shtml

[2] Ibid.

Seek his face

Written by David as a song of praise, Psalm 27 is one of my favorite Psalms. But just over half way through, there is an interesting verse that has always puzzled me. Verse 8 reads

My heart says this about you: “Seek his face.” Lord, I will seek your face. (NIV)

Another translation reads

You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (ESV)

What is this about seeking faces? Why does it sound like a heart can have autonomous conversation? I know psalms are lyrical and poetic, but this verse is not what I would call beautiful poetry. Until this morning, that is, as I read Psalm 27 for what felt like the first time. Everything just seemed clearer than it ever had before.

The Psalm as a whole describes David’s hope for the future, picturing a reality in which one is finally and perfectly united with God in the heavenly realm. Verse 8 is part of that vision.

In our current state, humans live divided. In the words of Paul, the spirit and flesh are at war. We are caught in the conflict between our earthly desires and heavenly goal. One appeals to our emotions–“do this because you want it.” or “it will feel good.” The other looks at the goal of being like Christ and is willing to take up the cross in that interest. Our hearts versus our minds.

David expresses a hope for when we are no longer subject to divided natures, to when we will be whole, unified, and at peace. In this future, both our desires and goals will be united in seeking God.

My heart will say–that is, I will want-– to seek God. I will obey, because in him, I am unified and can worship him with my whole being.

It is disturbing and jarring how imperfect things are on Earth for now. But believers look forward to a time when God will heal all wounds and divisions and make everything perfect and complete again.

 

Suffering

It sounds pretty cheesy, but I chose to call this blog “joy through Christ” for a reason. That reason is because I believe that through Christ, any person can freely obtain incorruptible, everlasting joy and happiness. Considering the state of our lives and our world, that sounds like a pretty tall order, but I hold this belief true. So what answers does this provide for all our suffering on earth? Sometimes very bad things happen to good people, even the best people. Is this consistent with God being a loving, powerful God? To best reach the answer to such a question, one must start with understanding the nature and history of humanity.

It is easy to see that life isn’t anywhere near perfect. It has pain, difficulty, and tragedy. Although the bible tells us earth was initially perfect, the current state of the world is a result of sin entering. Since then, sin has brought death and suffering to all humankind. To be completely clear, death is not an arbitrary punishment of sin that God decided. It is, instead, a direct result of sin, which God wants to protect us from. To use an example, God tells people not to lie. This is not because he doesn’t like it, or he doesn’t want humans to succeed, but because he sees its true effects. Lying destroys relationships, hurts people, and causes spiritual death. In other words, when God commands something, he does so because he wants what’s best for us and when we disobey, we are harming ourselves.

This leads to the clearest reason behind troubles on earth—free will. In order for humans to be fully free, they have the choice to disobey God. And this disobedience, as seen above, is self- and others-destructive. So while God is all loving, wanting what’s best for us, and all powerful, capable of preventing bad things, we are free entities with the ability to make independent choices. God does not force anyone into anything, and suffering is not his punishment for sin but its result. I’m not trying to say that people who encounter hard times deserve it because of some sin they committed. It is far too simple to reduce events in life to a matter of deserving. However, the world is not magically a safe place, and it is more loving for God to allow us to make our own choices than to control us even though it keeps us safe. On the contrary, many people end up suffering no matter how good of a life they lead.

One commonly-used biblical example of such suffering is Job. In his story, the biggest question was if he deserved his fate or not. If he was wicked, then he deserved everything he got. If he was not wicked, then that meant good people suffered regardless of merit. Job’s friends were unable to deal with this possibility so they insisted he was at fault. job himself, knowing his innocence, continually asked God the reason for his suffering. It is only at the end of the book that God responds, but he doesn’t quite give Job an answer. He instead asks a variety of rhetorical questions about the vastness of creation, implying that a human such as Job is simply not in a position to determine what justice is or how it should be implemented. From the trillions of stars in the galaxies to the microscopic organisms in the ocean, the world is too complex for us. Yet, Tim Mackie of The Bible Project points out, Job was right to question God, to wrestle with his struggles, and it was okay for him not to understand [1].

Despite it being the first question we want to ask when something goes wrong, “why?” does not help us in suffering. I listened to a lecture recently where the speaker pointed out that the better question, in the midst of trouble, is “Whom? To whom can I reach out? Who will help me? Whom can I help in return?” This way, the response to struggles is growth. Does it answer why something bad happened? No. but it ensures that good comes as a result, which is more important.

To conclude, suffering is a complex issue and does not always have clear answers. The world as a whole is incredibly complex, and we are too eager to oversimplify it. Yet God wants us to ask and to question and ultimately, to trust him because he is always looking out for our best. When I began this post saying joy is always possible through Christ, I did not mean Christians are always happy. Happiness depends on circumstances and, as previously mentioned, circumstances are not always ideal. Instead, the peace the comes from relying on God even though life is imperfect is how Christians are joyful.

 

Notes

[1] The Bible Project, Read Scriptures Series: Job, Tim Mackie (2015), Web.

 

Saved by faith…alone

A hotly contested issue for Christians over the centuries has been what exactly one must do to be saved. Entire church branches have split from each other because of disagreements over what roles faith and works play in salvation. One key element in this discussion is that of a believer’s responsibility to be baptized. Since the action of being physically submerged in water is a “work”, is it necessary for salvation? If it is necessary, goes the argument, then Christians are not saved by faith alone. On the other hand, why is it commanded in the New Testament wherever people are converted? It seems impossible to reconcile the two views until one considers that perhaps there is a bigger picture that these questions are missing.

Recently I and other ladies in my family have been going to a Bible study on Romans, and we have just finished covering chapter 3. In this chapter, the subject of works, faith, and salvation is prominent, and it led—unsurprisingly— to a roused discussion about the role of baptism. Unfamiliar with most of it, I was inspired to look into it more myself, so I gathered whatever resources, books, and handouts I could. The church I grew up in, and remain a member of, has always had a very strong stance on baptism being a direct cause of salvation and a necessity for all believers. But no matter how many articles were written and passed around in the congregation over the years, they couldn’t stand up to Romans 3.

It became apparent that the matter is most clearly understood when one examines both perspectives on the issue. The belief that Christians are not saved by faith alone but by obedience to baptism as well is not without textual support. Verses like Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 41 and 1 Peter 3:21 were frequently referenced in my search as evidence that salvation was not attainable before one was baptized. Logically, it was reiterated again and again to me, these passages would not exist if they did not mean to say that. There was usually also support from other passages such as the one in James 2 which asserts that inactive faith cannot save.

However, I  noticed a pattern in every one of these presentations. For one, they never really addressed counterarguments. Opponents were simply assumed to be ignorant or insincere. For another—and more importantly—Jesus was completely irrelevant. His coming to earth, death, and subsequent resurrection were never part of the issue. This begs the question of what role Jesus plays in saving us at all if we can ensure our salvation by being submerged in some water. They furthermore never addressed the idea present in Romans 3 that humans are powerless to improve our standing with God and are indebted to him completely for mercy. In short, the stance that baptism is required for salvation is a cleverly articulated façade that relies on proof-texting and literal interpretations at the cost of present, non-literal ideas. Case in point: it is argued that the Bible never adds the word “alone” when it says we are saved by faith. Yet when Paul says in Romans 3:28 that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” the same idea is there even if the literal word “alone” isn’t.

These non-literal ideas are found in Romans 3 (as mentioned above) among many other passages. These passages all flow together to form a big picture, which cannot be proof-texted: sinful humanity is helpless before God; in his mercy, God sent his Son to save us by taking sin’s punishment on himself; all humans are called to receive mercy by believing in Christ and repenting from sin. On these points no one disagrees. Paul furthermore explains in Romans 3:27 that this reality excludes any action a human being could contribute to being saved. This directly contradicts the notion that the act of baptism is a requirement of salvation because there are no requirements. There is nothing we can do. Humanity can only be saved because of Jesus.

If baptism is not required for salvation, what is its role? Why get baptized? The best analogy I heard is that the act of baptism is like a sign of a covenant. Circumcision, for instance, was used in ancient times for Jews to honor the covenant God made with them. However, they did not earn the promise because they were circumcised. In fact, the reverse order is found in Genesis 17, where one can see that God made his promises to Abraham years before he was circumcised. The act was not a prerequisite, but a response to honor what God had already done.

To use a modern example, a wedding ring is worn to symbolize the commitment that two individuals have made toward each other. If one spouse refuses to wear the ring, the other will be understandably upset. Yet, it is not the ring that matters in the relationship, but the faithfulness it represents. It would be far better to have a faithful spouse without a ring than a ring-wearing spouse that engages in affairs. In the same way, signs such as baptism symbolize the relationship and commitment believers have with Christ. It is possible to undergo baptism physically but remain unaccepting of God. There is certainly value in having a physical representation of a spiritual commitment, but it is not itself that spiritual commitment.

To conclude, there are lots of problems when one approaches the Bible looking for rules and ways to earn favor and declaring baptism as a required work one must do to obtain salvation is one of those problems. It completely undermines Jesus and his reason for coming to earth and it establishes that people can earn something from God. This is not to say that baptism should be ignored—on the contrary, it is a valuable symbol and testimony of one’s commitment to God—but it is not that commitment itself, and should never be mistaken as such.

Illogical Christians?

My uncle is fond of urging everyone he gets a chance to speak with, “don’t be afraid of the truth.” He believes that no matter where a pursuit for truth takes you, it leads somewhere better than a state of ignorance, even when it’s uncomfortable, unexpected, or the opposite of what you’ve always believed. Humans tend to not do very well when we prefer comfortable lies over hard truths, especially when it comes to Christianity. When someone refuses to be corrected about something in the Bible, that person can seriously distort God’s word and cause great damage to the family of Christ, even if out of good intentions. Even though it can be hard, not being afraid of the truth is the first step to becoming, staying, and growing as a faithful Christian. In consideration of this, I would add to my uncle’s words and encourage Christians not to be afraid of logic.

There seems to be a trend among some believers where logic has become almost a negative byword. I’ve read a saddening amount of articles about how logic is “the wisdom of the world” in reference to 1 Corinthians 2, which Paul contrasts with “the wisdom of God”. Logic, it is argued, is a human construct that stands in opposition to God’s nature. Dependence upon it leads to sin, deception, and misapplication of the Bible. In various study groups, I’ve heard other believers make an illogical interpretation and then justify that interpretation by asserting that logic is somehow unreliable and worldly anyway. However this idea came about, it does a great disservice to all Bible study and application.

So what is logic, exactly? Many times in conversation, people refer to logic as a sort of substitute for the word truth. For example, calling something “logical” to express that it is true, or “there’s no logic in that” to express disagreement with something. Other times the word is used to imply some sort of intellectual advantage or to convey intelligence. It is in this second sense that most Christians find it disdainful. As a synonym for cleverness, used particularly by individuals who consider themselves “enlightened”, it has taken on some implications of worldliness and self-reliant knowledge. However, neither of these understandings truly convey what logic means. Instead of a vague nickname for cleverness or for truth, logic is a tool for reasoning. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a science that deals with the principles and criteria of validity of inference and demonstration : the science of the formal principles of reasoning” [1].

In other words, logic does not make something true or false or smart or dumb. It is merely the process one takes when reasoning with truth. Something can show logic, but still be untrue. Conversely, a claim can be true without using logic. It is a tool, nothing more or less. That being said, there are many different factors and techniques to this science. To get a clearer idea of this, simply reflect on this and the previous paragraph. To accomplish my goal of informing about logic, I used a definition to state the terms I was using, and then listed examples to help clarify the use of those terms. Even now, I am using this example of my paragraph to help solidify my point about it being a process of reasoning to establish a certain position and reveal truth. Other factors include comparison, testimony, and relationship [2].

In this sense, logic is one of the best tools a Bible student can use. Too often misunderstandings occur because of word ambiguity, fallacies, or false testimony. Languages are imperfect, and often contain confusing wording. Different cultures are the hardest kind of context to understand, but sometimes the most crucial. These are some of the many hindrances to clear biblical application. It’s not always easy to understand, but we are not helpless. God gave us thinking, rational, and analytical minds. Just because a conclusion takes some deduction does not mean that it is incompatible with Christianity. When these minds use the science of reasoning to sincerely discover truth, they are doing just what God would have them do.

Related to this is the common use of Isaiah 55:8-9 to state that God cannot be understood, and that it’s presumptuous of humans to try. The passage states that God’s thoughts and ways are “higher” than ours. But what is the writer truly getting at? The context of the passage, even if one just starts at the beginning of the chapter, is that God is offering mercy to those who don’t deserve it. This, it can be certain, was the cause of some incredulous reactions, but God explains that his standards of compassion are “higher” than ours. Humans are not as forgiving as God, and God is far above our level. While it is true that finite human minds cannot wholly grasp the infinity of God, this passage does not indicate in any way that God does not want to be understood, or that he doesn’t want humans to seek to know him as fully as they can. I assert that God can be clearly understood, that he wants us to seek him, and that logic is one of the tools he gave us to do this.

In conclusion, logic is neither evil nor does God want humans to remain in ignorance. Never in scripture does he restrict knowledge, but calls everyone to know him and to keep seeking, asking, and knocking. As a tool, logic can of course be misused, but it is not inherently deficient or detrimental to Bible study. My hope is that the stigma that surrounds the concept of using the science of reasoning will vanish and Christian students will use the wonderful, intelligent, analytical brains that God gave them to their full potential.

Notes

[1] “Logic.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/logic

[2] Johnson, Shelly. The Argument Builder. Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Classical Academic Press, 2008.

 

The 12 disciples and male authority

One doesn’t have to look far in Christian circles before running into questions of leadership and whether or not women belong there. And sooner or later, someone will bring up the 12 disciples usually to make the point that because they were male, this prohibits women from certain positions of spiritual leadership. At a first glance, like all patriarchal arguments, it seems clear and irrefutable. Surely, since Jesus could have chosen anyone to be part of his circle, he could have chosen a woman and the fact that he didn’t, even once, must mean that there is simply something men can do that women cannot. But, like all patriarchal arguments, this ignores vital details of context and culture.

For instance, concluding a person’s natural spiritual capabilities or limitations based on a characteristic that all 12 disciples shared actually excludes a rather large amount of people. There were many other things these apostles all had in common that set them apart from other people of that day, most notably that they were all Jewish and none of them was a slave. Yet I have never heard anyone assert that, according to the tradition set by the disciples, no Gentile or slave can fulfill the role of disciple as well as a Jew or a free man. But as ridiculous as it sounds, there is no logical difference between that argument and that which complementarians will use in order to prohibit women.

In addition to not being an indication of a person’s spiritual abilities, the disciples also do not provide a structure for any sort of Christian hierarchy. If the disciples were supposed to be such an example, it is notable that the tradition was very quickly abandoned. After replacing Judas with Matthias in Acts chapter 1, no more replacements were chosen even as the disciples were executed by Roman authorities and persecuted by Jewish leadership. Aida Spencer notes that “if their particular ministry was not perpetuated, how can the Twelve serve as a precedent for church leadership today?” [1] With all this under consideration, it appears more likely that the apostles were a unique group that served their purpose once and for all instead of the clear-cut example of leadership or ability modern complementarians insist they are.

So what was this unique purpose? Why did Jesus choose the people that he did for this role? The answer lies in understanding the history of the Jews and their destiny as God’s chosen people. First, it must be pointed out that the number 12 frequently occurs in the Bible to symbolize all of God’s people. Jacob had 12 sons, and subsequently the nation of Israel was divided into 12 tribes. In Revelation 21:12-14, we read that the great City which is the bride of Christ has 12 gates, and each gate is inscribed with a name of one of the tribes. Further, it had 12 foundations and each foundation had the name of a disciple. All these examples are pictures of God’s chosen people, and it should strike us as significant that Jesus chose exactly this number for the role of disciple. This is made more evident in Luke 22:30, when Jesus tells the disciples that in his Kingdom they will “sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.”

It is clear that the disciples played a crucial, symbolic role in representing salvation coming to “all of God’s people”, starting in the nation of Israel, in accordance with the promises that were made. As such, “the Twelve could not have been anything other than Jewish, free males” in order to fulfill this purpose [2]. And this fulfillment was to be the foundation of the church, as Paul points out in Ephesians 2:20. Foundations, however, are not meant to simply sit there but to be built upon. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the disciples, serving their unique, one-time purpose, have paved the way for all other Christians, be they women, Gentile, or slave, to serve God fully and without limitation.

To summarize, the 12 disciples certainly did play an important role in the church and became a wonderful example for Christians to follow. However, this example was not meant to be restrictive, as most complementarians will tend to interpret scripture. The fact that 12 men were chosen for this role does not indicate that God prefers men to hold authority any more than it indicates that he prefers certain ethnic groups, or people of a certain social class. In God’s Kingdom, it’s the heart that matters; physical characteristics over which a person has no control never determine or limit how that person can serve God. Instead of providing a structure for who cannot do what in the church, the disciples set the foundation, grounded in scriptural promises, once for all future Christians to follow Christ.

Notes

[1] Spencer, Aida, “Jesus’ Treatment of Women in the Gospels.” in Discovering Biblical Equality, edited by Gordon D. Fee, 136. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

[2] Ibid.

4 tips to improved prayer

As every Christian is aware, prayer is an essential part of communicating with God. It is humbling and exciting to know we can talk with the very Being who created both us and the whole universe. However, despite being free and unlimited, prayer is not always easy. Speaking from experience, I know that prayer can easily be prevented by even mundane things such as distractions, lack of focus, or simply not knowing what to say. It can be rather discouraging, to be honest, when I realize at the end of the day that I hadn’t prayed even once about many things that I could have. Over time, however, I have come to know certain habits— or tips if you will— that can help increase focus when praying.

This doesn’t at all make me an expert, and nor is this list meant to be absolute. I am by no means trying to say that if these tips aren’t followed, then prayer will be less effective. God, of course, is not limited by anything at all and can help us even if we don’t know what to pray about. But there is a component to prayer that also benefits the one doing the speaking.  A side effect, if you will. Praying tends to make one more aware of what goes on and how God works. For this reason, I have made it my goal to understand what “works” better when praying. That being said, I still fail plenty of times and have much room for improvement. Nonetheless, the following are things that I have observed to make a difference my prayer life.

The first and most influential habit that I have observed is to be as specific as possible when praying. When I first began to notice my prayers feeling stale, it was because I wasn’t really saying anything. “God, please be with those people and watch over them,” is a fine prayer. But over time, it felt to me like it was lacking something. It was too easy to say, and didn’t change me at all. I noticed then that if I prayed specifically to a person’s situation, it actually felt like praying. It took more effort, of course, and time. I had to think about what specific issues might be bothering the person and talk about the solutions. But that was the point, you see. Almost immediately I had more empathy for the person, was more aware of what kind of help they might need, and was more prepared to help, too.  This was especially important for people who were hard to pray for. Without personalized prayer, it never changed how I thought about or treated that person. But eventually, I found myself caring more, what I can only describe as seeing people through God’s eyes.

My second tip is to pray about things that might otherwise get overlooked. Remember how I mentioned being more aware of what is happening? There is a kind of positive feedback that occurs with prayer in that the more you do it, the more you can do it. For a while, it only occurred to me to pray about “big”, dramatic things, or things that concerned only me. But I began to realize that this was too confining and looked for more opportunities. If I was at the store one day and the cashier looked a little stressed, I’d pray that her day would get better. Or, if my coworker mentioned not getting enough sleep, I’d pray for her strength. Or even, as I search for directions online and notice traffic is a little heavy, I’d pray for the people who are stuck in that situation. The more I prayed, the more I saw what I could pray for. And no, this didn’t make it feel like a chore. Praying “constantly” like that didn’t drain my energy, but made me feel even more alive. This really shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, how can one feel drained when constantly in God’s presence?

Third, it may prove beneficial to try different structures or methods. It has struck me as rather ironic that for all the freedom we have to pray, it can be hard to simply get around to it. In contrast, many other cultures or religions have specific times of day to pray or rituals and mantras. I believe there is benefit to these practices when it comes to prayer because they encourage focus. For instance, my favorite method is to pray through writing. Similar to a letter, I love to write out my prayers in a special notebook. This helps me to focus on what I am talking about and delve deep into life’s needs. However, the success of this practice depends entirely on each individual. For someone who doesn’t enjoy writing, or finds schedules stifling, none of this would be effective. I would encourage trying new methods to see how they work, but there is no need to stick to something that does not help.

Finally, what I would recommend is to pray about your prayer habits. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I need help when it comes to prayer, so who better to ask for that help? On my own, I’d never be able to combat the distractions that occur. But when an opportunity presents itself to me, I know that that is God fulfilling a request I’ve made to learn to pray better. In other words, when one asks God for help with something, he’ll provide all kinds of opportunities to practice and train that person in what they asked for help with. It’s not easy, and it does take conscious effort to pray this way. But it will be clear how worth it it is.

Perhaps for you, Reader, all this is a little obvious. Maybe these are things you have practiced your whole life, or you have never had much trouble focusing on prayer. But I have only recently begun to realize my shortcomings and to explore ways to combat them. It is my hope that my reflections on this are helpful to anyone still struggling with prayer. Though it is often underutilized, prayer is a useful, inspiring, helpful practice that allows us to communicate with God.