On the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ: Revelation, Christology, Anthropology and Eschatology

 

“…when we hear the Easter story or are reminded by a worship song that Jesus rose from the dead, our default way of interpreting the story is through a secular imagination. In that vision, the resurrection is a great spiritual truth, a tremendous inspiration, and maybe forensic evidence of Christ’s divinity. But it’s not the firstfruit of the redemption of the world, it’s not an event transcending but yet not denying the immanent, it is not a supernatural event, and it is especially not a reality with spiritual results reverberating even to today.”           ~ Alan Noble, ‘The Resurrection in a Secular World’[1]

 

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”         ~ The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:13-17[2]                         

 

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes–I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”  ~  Job from the Old Testament in Job 19:25-27

 

Thorwald Lorenzen describes four approaches to the resurrection and key theologians who are said to espouse these views.[3] The four are: the ‘traditional’ (typified by Carl F. H. Henry and Wolfhart Pannenberg); the ‘liberal’ (Rudolf Bultmann, John Knox et al); the ‘evangelical’ (Karl Barth, Walter Künneth et al); and the ‘liberation’ (Jürgen Moltmann, Jon Sobrino). The traditional, evangelical and liberation approaches, while each having widely varying underscores, largely accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus. For the most part, a denial of the bodily resurrection comes from within the liberal approach. This non-bodily view of the resurrection combines elements of dualism, Docetism and demythologising.  In terms of dualism, man is sharply divided between the physical and spiritual where the physical is demeaned and the spiritual is elevated. We see this dualism present today as we speak about people who have died, our speech betrays the liberal and dualistic view that the body is merely something to be escaped and that ‘floating in the ethereal’ is freedom for our souls. In terms of Docetism (from the Greek δοκεῖν – to seem) it is asserted by the liberal theologians that Jesus only appeared to have had a physical body at his resurrection.  Lastly, in terms of demythologising: that a man could rise bodily from the dead  is noted as neither normal nor historically viable, and so the resurrection comes to rest, not on an actual physical rising of Christ but rather a rising of the Saviour in our hearts as experience. Here the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus has little to no impact, again a view mirrored by contemporary culture.  So, what would be lost by denying that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was bodily? It would not be overdramatic to answer: everything! To limit the discussion we will focus on four areas that a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus adversely impacts, namely: the authority and witness of Scripture; the person and work of Jesus for our salvation; our understanding of humanity; and lastly, the final plans of God.

 

  1. Revelation: the authority and historical witness of Scripture

Our starting point must be in asserting that to deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection rejects the witness of Scripture, God’s Word to us by his Holy Spirit concerning his Son. The primary issue is the authority of Scripture as God’s Word to us, and included are elements regarding the historicity of the gospel accounts. [4] Regardless of a dismal by the liberals, Scripture continues to proclaim the bodily resurrection, most notably in three key areas: Jesus’ own words about his resurrection, the implication of the empty tomb, and lastly the bodily appearances of Jesus to witnesses after his resurrection.

So firstly, on multiple occasions Jesus predicted that he would be betrayed and killed, but that after three days he would rise again (cf. Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10: 32-34). That his rising from the dead was no mere symbolism can be seen in John 2 where Jesus answers the Jews’ questioning of his authority with the following in v. 19: ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ Verse 21 adds: ‘But the temple he had spoken of was his body.’ After his rising from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said, ‘then they believed the Scripture and the words Jesus had spoken’ (v. 22). To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to deny the truthfulness of ‘the words Jesus ha[s] spoken’.

Secondly, the empty tomb implies a bodily resurrection.  The traditionalist Carl F. H. Henry is right to assert that ‘without the empty tomb any claim for Jesus’ resurrection was meaningless.’[5] Specifically in terms of a bodily resurrection, the tomb must be empty of a body. Mainstream apologetic works sufficiently show that other options for the unoccupied tomb hold very little weight and that the empty tombs best fits the biblical claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.[6] Traditionalists at this point overextend themselves by seeing fact demanding faith by sheer reason.[7] Nevertheless the empty tomb is of great significance, at least implying the bodily resurrection of Jesus.[8] This is especially the case when coupled with the angelic witness recorded in Scripture: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!’ (Luke 24: 5-6). Opposite to the traditionalists stand the liberals who in attempting to demythologise the resurrection will assert, not that an actual event took place, but rather that an experiential rising of Jesus in our hearts takes place. However if that was the case, then there is no reason for an empty tomb, and one must be given! Against this stands Scripture’s reason for the empty tomb, namely that Jesus was not abandoned to the tomb, nor did his body see decay (Acts 2:31).

Thirdly, Jesus’ multiple appearances testify to his bodily resurrection. When the disciples claim to have seen the risen Lord,  Thomas states that unless he sees the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, and puts his finger where the nail marks were, and his hand into Jesus’ side – he would not believe (John 20: 25). Thomas’ subsequent cry of faith is unlikely to have been brought about by a Docetist apparition of Jesus, but rather by the risen Lord standing bodily in front of him, as per his earlier demands.[9] Paul, when reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that they had received, stresses the resurrection of Jesus from the dead ‘according to the Scriptures’ and that Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve, and after over five hundred of the ‘brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.’ (1 Cor 15: 1-6). Again, the emphasis is on the physical (i.e. bodily) appearances of Jesus before multiple witnesses. On this, surely even the most sceptical cannot believe that 500 people could all have been under the same extreme influence of the sun or narcotics at the same time to create some kind of visionary state – to purport that must surely carry its own concern of writing ‘under the influence’. Rudolf Bultmann says that ‘both the legend of the empty tomb and the appearances insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord (see especially Luke 24. 39-43).’[10] Except for his inclusion of ‘legend’ which betrays his understanding that ‘these are most certainly later embellishments of the primitive tradition’,[11] his conclusion is correct, namely that the empty tomb and the appearances do ‘insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord.’

The words of Jesus, the empty tomb, and appearances of Jesus all fit into the historical nature of the preserved Christian message, not quite to the extent that the traditional approach supposes, but the fact remains that the Christian message arises from actual historical events. To instead deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus rejects the authoritative witness of God’s own Word about the matter.

 

  1. Christology: the person and work of Jesus for our salvation

To deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection adversely alters the very salvific person and work of Jesus that Scripture attests to. This is especially in regards to his lordship over death, as well as his continued mediation and intercession as the ascended Lord.

Firstly, ‘Jesus is Lord’ remains a succinct summary of the gospel and his lordship is intrinsically linked to his resurrection from the dead – in him death is defeated. So Romans 1:4 ends with the gospel summary of ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’, and it is both his Davidic humanity, and his ushering in of the Resurrection age, shown by his resurrection from the dead as the Spirit led Son of God that makes that declaration possible. Acts 17 likewise sets out Jesus’ lordship (here in judgment) as linked to his resurrection (v. 31). [12] To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to maintain that Jesus is not Lord over death and that death has not been defeated.  It cannot be said as per 1 Cor 15:54, that ‘death has been swallowed up in victory’, for as N.T. Wright asserts, a non-bodily resurrection means that ‘death still rules – since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply of death itself.’[13] For Jesus to have not been risen bodily is to allow death to have done its job. Instead, the bodily resurrection, ‘to be clad in the incorruptible garment of deathlessness’, is to declare that Jesus is Lord, even over death, the great enemy of humanity.[14]

Secondly, a denial of the bodily resurrection adversely impacts the continued incarnation of Jesus in the accession, notably in regards to his mediatorial intercession for us. The incarnation is God working to save man, God coming in the flesh to save us from our sins (Matt 1: 21, 23) and to destroy man’s enemies of satan and death (Heb 2: 14-17). Jesus, fully God and fully man is the perfect mediator, who even now is seated at the right hand of God (Heb 1:3, 1 Peter 3:22) interceding (Heb 7:23-25) for those he died to save. Gerrit Scott Dawson asserts that Jesus retaining his humanity ‘is essential for our salvation’:[15]

‘For any view of the ascension as Jesus slipping off his humanity is a sentence of condemnation. We cannot be united to him in the Holy Spirit if he is no longer flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. If the one who sits at the right hand of God is not fully human as well as fully God, then we will never enter within the veil.’[16]

Similarly Paul Molnar encapsulates T. F. Torrance’s assessment when he says:

‘In the incarnation we have the meeting of man and God in man’s place, but in the ascension we have the meeting of man and God in God’s place, but through the Spirit these are not separated from one another.’[17]

Just as a Jesus whose resurrection was not bodily is not Lord over death, neither can the ascended Jesus truly be the ‘man’ of 1 Tim 2:5 who sufficiently mediates and continues to intercede between God and man if he did not rise bodily. Salvation is thus brought into question.

 

  1. Anthropology: understanding our humanity

To deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection likewise impacts a number of issues regarding us and our humanity. In particular it misconstrues the nature of humanity, the hope of our resurrection bodies, as well as the implications of the bodily resurrection for life now.

Firstly, in regards to the nature of humanity, the bible shows that from the beginning, humanity before sin was created as physical beings – Adam was of the ‘dust of the ground’ and a ‘living being’ (Gen 2:7). In other words there is a physicality that forms part of what it means to be human. Dualists tend to make a sharp distinction between the flesh and spirit/soul, with a depreciating of the physical. Dr. Claudia Setzer maintains that the ‘earliest Jewish anthropology sees a distinction between body and soul as a soft distinction only.’ [18] The two aspects function as a unit,[19] there is no absolute dualism.[20] Hellenistic dualism has had too much of an impact: there is more to man than just being a physical creature, but the majority of these factors flow out of the uniqueness of our relationship to the God who created us in his image, something that the other creatures cannot lay claim to. Having failed to carry out what we were created for, in order to redeem humanity, Jesus entered into our humanity as a man. He lived, suffered and died in the body, and then rose bodily as a man. To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to misunderstand the nature of man and Jesus’ interest in redeeming physical humanity.

Secondly, part of the Christian hope is for ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom 8:23). Again, this is tied to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. We await his return when he will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Phil 3:21). The key text in regard to our resurrection bodies is 1 Cor 15. ‘But,’ some might say, ‘the text is clear: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (v. 50) and our resurrection bodies will be spiritual rather than natural (v. 44).’  The problem with our bodies is that they are naturally, as a result of sin, perishing. This natural and sinful ‘flesh and blood’ is ill-suited to inherit a kingdom that is everlasting. What is needed is a spiritual body. However, contra a dualist demeaning of the physical, these bodies are physical. Two points help clarify the confusion over the use of the word ‘spiritual’. Firstly, as T. F. Torrance says so succinctly: ‘To be a spiritual man is to be not less than man but more fully and truly man.’[21] Thus it is not less than what we have, it is more – at the very least non-sinful and hence not prone to perishability.  Secondly, spiritual should be related to the supernatural act of the life giving Spirit of God at work – this being the same Spirit who raised Christ Jesus from the dead and who gives life to our mortal bodies (Rom 8:11). Language has its limits, as does the amount of detailed knowledge we have of the future. However when it comes to our resurrection bodies, as with Jesus’ body, there will be an amount of continuity (remaining our bodies!) but also discontinuity (being more than we know). The tension must remain between this sense of continuity and discontinuity that Scripture gives us. They will be physical bodies, albeit glorious!

Lastly, for those saved through faith in the Lord Jesus who was resurrected (Rom 10:9), his bodily resurrection means a hope-fuelled living and complete reorientation of life in the moral body now. A non-bodily resurrection destroys this New Testament emphasis on a new life in the body now (Rom 6:4), lived for God our Saviour in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (Rom 6:12), we are not to offer our bodies to sin but instead to God (v. 13), and we are to especially flee sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18) – because what is done in the body redeemed by God and indwelt by the Holy Spirit matters. Jürgen Moltmann, espousing the liberation approach, stresses that a life lived through faith in the bodily resurrected Jesus will impact to the point of the ‘realization of the eschatological hope of justice, the humanizing of man, the socializing of humanity, peace for all creation.’[22] The dangers of a type of ‘heaven on earth’ mentality via Moltmann are plain, nevertheless the NT is crystal clear that the bodily resurrection of Jesus shows a complete reorientation of man as a whole where we use our bodies, not for sin, but instead for God our Saviour and for the good of others. To deny the bodily resurrection jettisons the redemption of physical man in Jesus, the hope of resurrection bodies, and the directive for godly living now in this new life that we have been given.

 

  1. Eschatology: the final plans of God

Finally, to deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection is to reject the cosmic and ultimate plans of God. The anchor for these plans is Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to deny that is to lose the magnificent scope and physicality of what God is doing. From the onset, God is revealed as the creator. What God creates is physical and good. Salvation itself is a work of creation (or recreation, παλιγγενεσία – cf. Titus 3:5), again by the very Spirit of God, where those alienated from God and thus dead, are made alive. Through faith in the risen Jesus, men and women become new creations reborn to know God (2 Cor 5:17). However this process of transformation does not stop with humanity. It begins in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and flows to us as the church. But we are in Christ, the first-fruits of what is to come because this transformation likewise encompasses the whole of creation. The culmination of God’s salvation plans, based on Jesus’ bodily resurrection, is where those made alive in Christ will be given new bodies to live with God as their God in the transformed creation to serve him as originally intended. This cosmic dimension is rejected if the Jesus’ bodily resurrection is rejected.

Colossians shows the centrality of the resurrected Jesus to God’s cosmic plans where 1: 15-20 portrays the move from creation (vv. 15-17) to a reconciliation of all things (vv. 18-20) – creation to new creation. Jesus stands as Lord over the original creation – it is both by and for Jesus that all things are created (v. 16). There appears to be a very real way in which Jesus is committed to what he has created and what was made for him. Thus the shift in vv. 18-20 portrays reconciliation enacted by and in Jesus. It is his blood shed which brings all things together again: us (v. 22) but also all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven (v. 20).  Jesus through his resurrection, the firstborn from among the dead, is Lord (v. 18) of this grand movement of reconciliation. The church, those being made alive to God through Jesus, is evidence of God’s work of renewal with the end design of transforming this fallen world. This is why in the meantime creation is said to be groaning as it waits for the day when it will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:21-22). It is not safe to speculate regarding the exact specifics of the new creation. However similar to our bodies, there appear to be elements of both continuity and discontinuity. What is clear is that, as with our bodies, creation will be transformed in such a way that it fits, fulfilling God’s purposes. What are those purposes? Right now the bodily resurrected Jesus sits in heaven, ‘where he must remain until the time comes for God to restore all things’ (Acts 3:21). But when he returns, history as we know it will come to an end and those found in Christ will be endowed with glorified bodies to live with their glorious Lord in the glorious new creation. To deny the bodily resurrection denies this reality which God stands behind.

 

Jesus’ bodily resurrection points to the fact that we are living in the last days – days of salvation as well as of judgment. Scripture is clear that the only hope for mankind is to trust in the risen Jesus who rose bodily from the dead after dying in our place. But,

‘[i]f Christ is risen only in spirit – whatever that means then he is, so to speak, only a ghost with no relevance to men and women of flesh and blood, to human beings who belong to this world of space and time. If Jesus exists no longer as man, then we have little hope in this life, not to speak of the hereafter. It is the risen humanity of Christ that is the very centre of the Christian’s hope in life and death’ [23]

It is not too much to say that everything is affected if the bodily resurrection is denied. Scripture, God’s revelation to us, is no longer given its proper place of authority over us as a record and witness to reality. Jesus is not the Lord who can save us or intercede for us – the proposed replacement Christology is anaemic to the core. In terms of anthropology, the very nature of what it means to be human, the hope of resurrection bodies and what life should look like now are lost. Finally, God’s cosmic eschatological plans cable-tied to the bodily resurrected Jesus, where redeemed man in resurrection bodies like their Lord will serve God in the new creation – even these are destroyed. Against a denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection it must be asserted that:

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again His body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherefore He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until He returns to judge all men at the last day.[24]

******************************

[1] Alan Noble, The Resurrection in a Secular World in “The Resurrection” March/April 2016 Vol. 25 No. 2 Page number(s): 36-45. For the full article please visit “Modern Reformation” here.

[2] All Scripture taken from the NIV (1984)

[3] Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences (New York: Orbis Books, 1995).

[4] Sir Lloyd Geering, a liberal New Zealand theologian, provides a clear example of the dismissal of both as archaic with the first part of one of his books entitled ‘The collapse of an old tradition’ in Lloyd Geering, Resurrection : A Symbol of Hope (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971). See for instance pp. 20–42.

[5] Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (vol. 3; Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1976), 149.

[6] For instance, Josh McDowell, Evidence that demands a verdict : Historical evidences for the Christian faith (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972).

[7] ‘If by rational inquiry it can be proved that Jesus rose from the dead, then no faith is needed to confess that Jesus is risen.’ Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship, 29. Martin Davie notes ‘three unfortunate consequences’ from failing to recognise the necessity of God given faith over simple reason: Faith becomes a work; Faith becomes dependent on historical proof and thus uncertain; Faith is closed off from those lacking intellectual ability (in The Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Theology of Karl Barth (Peter M Head, ed., Proclaiming the resurrection: Papers from the first Oak Hill College Annual School of Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 126.)

[8] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged in One Volume (ed. John Bolt; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 456.

[9] Cf. John 20:20 (showed hands and feet); Luke 24:43 (eats food).

[10] Italics mine. Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in:  Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (trans. Reginald H. Fuller; vol. 1; S.P.C.K., 1962), 39.

[11] Ibid; cf. Peter Frederick Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 234–49.

[12] N. T. Wright dismisses any claims that a bodily resurrection is not implied in ‘resurrection’ and ‘resurrection from the dead’.  Wright in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008) shows that within the worlds of both ancient paganism and Judaism ‘[r]esurrection was used to denote new bodily resurrection’,  ‘[r]esurrection meant bodies.’ (p. 36). The importance in this is to understand that when the NT speaks of the ‘resurrection’ or ‘resurrection from the dead’, what is meant is a bodily resurrection.

[13] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 15. Cf. p. 194.

[14] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 83. Cf. Acts 2:31.

[15] Gerrit Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 73.

[16] Dawson, Jesus Ascended, 6.

[17] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity (Farnham, England: Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub. Ltd., 2009), 252.

[18] Claudia Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in early Judaism and early Christianity : Doctrine, Community, and Self-definition (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004), 151.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in early Judaism and early Christianity, 152.

[21] Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, 141.

[22] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1967), 329.

[23] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), 22.

[24] The Thirty-Nine Articles, 4.

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So, you wouldn’t be OK with her pastoring a church, but you’d read her books?

I enjoy reading Dorothy L. Sayers. If you don’t know who she is, think the female version of C.S. Lewis, overlapping timeframe, more detectives but fewer wardrobes and lions. I haven’t read her novels (which are detective novels, in case you didn’t get the joke) but I am trying to read all of her theological works that I can get my hands on. She is bright, well read, witty, very direct and a wordsmith who doesn’t try too hard. I appreciate two major things in particular about her theology: one, her use of narrative and love of stories, most of all the greatest story of Jesus Christ; two, the way she attempts to be very practical in showing what Jesus Christ means for our lives. The best example of theBlue_plaque_re_Dorothy_L_Sayers_on_23_and_24_Gt._James_Street,_WC1_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1237429 latter is in regards to us and our everyday work. There are slithers of Anglo-Catholic theology (among some other things) in her writings, so I don’t agree with her on all things but I appreciate needing to think about why I may not fully support her line of thinking at various points. I am most times encouraged and challenged by Sayers.

I would be called conservative because of my view of women in the church (I might be called other things too, but let’s keep it pleasant). There are positives to this position.[1] One, as a conservative, men and women are regarded as equal in creation (Gen 1:27) and salvation (Gal 3:28) – what a glorious truth! Two, as a conservative I think we should be particularly active and vocal in protecting the physical and emotional wellbeing of women in all matters of abuse and exploitation. We are strongly against misused male strength, positions and authority, especially within the church! Three, as a conservative, I want to acknowledge the importance and wonderful involvement of women in the great storyline of the bible, in particular in the New Testament. No women means so much of the great story is missing. The same holds true for our times now. Four, as a conservative I think that women should be encouraged to speak the truth in love within the church (Eph 4). Conservatives have been guilty of letting this fall off the radar as we’ve relegated speaking in the church to one guy, sometimes two (service leader and preacher). So it’s really a wider issue than just concerning women. But with at least two guys in up front positions, understandably men are seen as represented, even if the majority of them are also simply sitting placidly in the plastic pews. That isn’t a call for our gatherings to be one big ‘share fest’ with a cacophony of un-weighed voices and versions of the truth. But it is a call to consider how we can implement creative ways to see as many Christians as possible (both men and women) speaking the truth to one another in love and so seeing one another built up as a result.

But then of course there is the so-called ‘negative theology’ of being a conservative, I’m thinking of a passage like 1 Timothy 2 where women are seen as prohibited from giving the weekly sermon or being the pastor of a church. And this is what usually causes all the fuss in response. It’s worth recognising that not all men are open to doing this either, as 1 Timothy 3 lays out. The situation is not as simple as: ‘you’re a man, therefore you can be a leader within the church and give the weekly sermon.’ No, plenty of Christian men are prohibited, but yes it is true, not on the grounds of their sex – which irks many and isn’t exactly PC. So why might women be prohibited from, for instance preaching the weekly sermon on Sunday? Aren’t women able, in terms of giftedness, to do this? Well yes I’m sure they are able. I’m sure my wife could give a better sermon than many pastors I know. But it isn’t a question of sheer giftedness but rather of responsibility.[2] I fear that the egalitarian position can make a mistake here when it starts with the matter of giftedness and turns them into rights: ‘I am gifted in this [by God], therefore who are you to keep me from using my gifts?’[3] But it is not a matter of sheer giftedness, but rather one of responsibility as the formal leadership of the church has been entrusted to certain men. This I believe fits into the larger scope and flow of Scripture, that men are called on to lead –  to lead in love and sacrificial service (remember, we are against the many distorted versions of abusive male leadership!). But still, they are called on to lead, and to do this in close partnership with women.  Different in responsibilities, equal in partnership we might say in regards to men and women in Christian congregations. And one of the ways that difference in responsibilities shows is in certain men pastoring churches and preaching the sermons. I believe that 1 Timothy 2 fits within this scope as these men are given charge of directing (under God) the spiritual well-being of the local gathering.

In the arguments against 1 Timothy 2’s prohibition I am yet to be convinced by:

  • The cultural dismissals (‘Paul only said what he said because there were particular women in that church who were teaching false doctrine and they needed to be silenced. It was just for them.’)
  • The redemptive-movement/trajectory hermeneutics (‘Scripture was heading in a direction in which, like with slavery, soon something like these prohibitions against women would be seen as passé and in fact evil.)
  • The intense and complex word definitions arguments (‘To teach technically means…’)

This isn’t the place to go fully into why I remain unconvinced by these arguments. Needless to say that even a prohibition like 1 Timothy 2 is grounded: not in culture, but creation (2:13-14); not in the issues of specific local church, but in the invitation to see the church as God’s household, the pillar and foundation of the truth (3:15) – surely unchanging from local church to local church?  I am convinced that the so-called ‘negative theology’ of something like 1 Timothy 2 finds its rightful place in the beautiful flow of God’s Scripture where it is presented as something for our good, part of the good order established by our good God. Certain men are given the responsibility to lead the church, they do this in deep partnership with other men AND women. This is good! And so it’s not actually ‘negative theology’ at all, even if it involves a prohibition.

I was not always conservative in these particular views. I was… well, nothing. I did not know that there was an issue and so I had no thoughts either way. (Some pastors seem to remain in this most unfortunate position, some not so much because of ignorance but rather indecision – regrettably incorrectly labelled as ‘epistemic humility.’) I was brought up in very small village church run by two women pastors whom I remain thankful for! They taught me the gospel as a young child, they were there when I rejected God in my early teenage years, and they were there when the zeal of the Lord stirred my heart as a late teenager. And then I went to university in the city. And in my second year as I started involvement in a Christian group on campus, the first book of the bible we did in Bible Study was, you guessed it, 1 Timothy. It was a jolt to my experiences, the start of many questions, and a push to frequent and fervent studying of Scripture and books around the subject. To the dismay of those women pastors, who used a cultural argument against 1 Timothy 2, I hold the view I do today.33H

So you read female theologians like Sayers, but wouldn’t feel comfortable with a woman pastoring a church?

Yes.

Why?

It’s a question often raised by both egalitarians and by ‘soft’ complementarians. It’s seen as a push back, a way to show the hypocrisy of being conservative and yet… ‘you read female theologians?’ Yes I do read female theologians and the two main reasons are: firstly regarding teaching authority and the pastor, and secondly regarding the differences between a theological publication and a preached sermon. I consider the first as the really important point, the one most applicable to our question; the second I offer as something for further reflection.

Firstly, the theologian does not have teaching authority over us like the pastor.

I should listen to all fellow Christian brothers and sisters as they speak the truth of God to me. This is part of the positive theology mentioned above that I think needs to occur more in our churches – it needs to form part of our congregational DNA. As this speaking is happening, I am to be discerning in what I hear: is it getting me to set my eyes on Jesus according to what Scripture says? If it is biblical and godly and wise then I listen. And by listening I mean the kind where it’s not just in one ear and out the other, but instead the kind that fast tracks this matter to the heart with the help of the Holy Spirit. Why do I aim to listen like that? It is because, as per a passage like Ephesians 4 and others, God is using this person for my edification as they bring His authoritative truth to bear on my life. I do this in church with people that I listen to, and I do this as I read the work of theologians who are faithfully thinking about and applying the things of God from the Word of God. Theologians then, when they are doing their job properly, are doing their work as a brother or sister in Christ as they encourage us to turn our hearts towards God.

The situation with my pastor is both similar and also slightly different.

It is similar in that he is certainly not less than also being my brother and I am still to be discerning. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11) I am to search the Scriptures – tracing all things back to the ultimate authority of God through Scripture. God is the ultimate authority, not my pastor or the preacher (I am reminded in particular of so many African churches who need to hear this given the propensity to misuse authority. ‘The Pastor said…’ is often used, not as a hand towards godliness but as a weapon to bring about submission to this man instead of Christ). So the situation is similar – this man is still a brother under the authority of Christ and His Scripture.

But the situation is also slightly different. Firstly, generally speaking, we must remember that there is a relational context of pastor to congregation, one that is not necessarily present or needed as between the author to reader. I don’t necessarily know them (or vice versa) and actually I don’t need a relationship with them for reading their books. Secondly, and this is actually the point I want to focus on, an extension of the relational context, namely that there is an added level which I must be aware of as I relate to my pastor. Yes, I am ultimately under the authority of God and His Word but I am also under the authority of this man if he is my pastor. God has seen fit to place him as an under-shepherd who I am to obey for my own good (truly for my good, not as a threat ‘Obey me or else’). As the Holy Spirit says in Hebrews and 1 Peter:

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Heb 13:7-8 NIV)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17 NIV)

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Pet 5:2-4 NIV)

A theologian I read is not operating at the same level as my pastor. She or he may be a sister or brother in Christ, and in so far as they point me to the things of God, I am to respond to that authority linked to God and inherent in His Word and truth. But they do not have the added level of being placed as one with teaching authority over me. So I gladly read female theologians, even expounding 1 Timothy 2 issues and give thanks for this one-sided ‘conversation’ and encouragement from a sister in Christ who I may never have even met or known.[4] 192H

There is perhaps another angle to come at things from. If the first one is primarily about pastors and their authority over us, the second is about the broader and linked category of preaching and how that compares to a theological work. And so:

Secondly, a theological publication is different to a preached sermon.

You may grasp that instinctively (you might not) and think: ‘Of course they’re different!’ But how they are different is slightly more difficult to articulate, even for leading theologians:

“That I am given the opportunity to preach is a great gift. I do not take it lightly. I am sure I spend much more time writing a sermon than most of the essays or books I write. I do so because it is my conviction that sermons are more important, that I am under quite a different obligation when I preach than when I write an article or book.” (Emphasis mine)[5]

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in the introduction to a collection of his sermons. I’d imagine that Hauerwas wouldn’t be particularly gladdened by my using his words as I will (sorry Mr. Hauerwas!). Nevertheless, his words provide us with two differences between a theological publication and a preached sermon.[6] He explains it simply as (A) a sermon being more important and (B) as a preacher being under a different obligation. It is probably best to not separate those two ideas too much, they do go hand in hand – the greater importance with the different obligation. But how might we further articulate these ideas?

John B. Webster in his own wonderfully theocentric collection of sermons, prefaces them (don’t fear, I do read past the introduction/prefaces of these books!) by speaking of three elements to preaching. The first is Holy Scripture, a body of texts where ‘God teaches us, gives us knowledge’ and where preaching is part of the ‘church saying something about the words of the text, on the basis of the words of this text, under this text’s authority, direction and judgment.’[7] The second is the congregation:

“At the Lord’s summons, the people of God gather in his presence. They gather in the expectation that something from God will be said to them – that however anxious, weary or indifferent they may be, the God of the gospel will address them with the gospel, will help them to hear what he says, and will instruct them on how to live life in his company.”[8]

And the third element to preaching according to Webster is the sermon:

“God speaks to the congregation through the human words of one who is appointed by God to “minister” the Word, to be an auxiliary in God’s own speaking. The sermon repeats the scriptural words in other human words, following the Word’s movement and submitting to its rule. In this, the sermon assists in the work of the divine Word, which builds up the church, making its life deep, steady and vital.”[9]

Perhaps immediately you can glean some differences between the theological publication and the preached sermon from those words. Leaning on some of Hauerwas’ distinctions (the sermon is more important, the preacher has a different obligation) and Webster’s categories, we may say something like: What the appointed preacher of God is given in his preaching is an obligation (/responsibility?) to bring the Word of God to bear on a specific gathering of God’s people who have come to hear from God Himself.[10] Or more simply and starting from the other end: God has something to say to his expectantly gathered people through a sermon preached by an appointed person.

A theological work can do some of that, but I do not think it can do all of that, and not quite as well. If that was the case then we should be advocating people going home and individually snuggling up to Calvin’s Institutes, or get a group of people together (with less, to no snuggling) and have them read through Bavinck’s RD. Those are activities that God surely uses for our edification! But they do not quite hit the same mark as someone preaching to a gathering of God’s people does. Obviously there is overlap between a sermon and a theological book: both are theological (see remarks in footnote 6), and more importantly they are theological because they are based on Holy Scripture. In other words both are (or should be!) part of the ‘church saying something about the words of the text, on the basis of the words of this text, under this text’s authority, direction and judgment.’

But the differences then also exist: firstly, there is an expectant congregation. There is a gathering of God’s people, this relational context again, one which again, a theological publication may not have. But also a sense of expectation and even urgency to this all – they gather to hear what God has to say. Perhaps we don’t always rightly feel this on a Sunday, but we should – as the Word of God is delivered, this is [more] important!  We as the people of God have gathered expecting ‘the God of the gospel’ to address us! Secondly, note again the different obligation or responsibility of the preacher as he delivers the sermon. These are either his people (think under-shepherd language) or his moment to bring the Word of God to bear. He does this as he speaks the Word of God in other human words to these gathered people.

God uses all things: the words of a theologian as you read his or her book, and the words of the preacher on Sunday. But yes, out of those two, while they both matter and are used by God, I would say using Hauerwas’ words that the sermon is more important, and the preacher is under a different obligation.  How does that relate to reading female theologians but not being comfortable with women preaching at church? Well, I think while the activities are related, they are different and the latter activity has been entrusted to certain godly men within the church of God. Again, it’s not about ability but rather responsibility.

So… no job offer for Dorothy Sayers to pastor your church, but you’ll read her books?

This whole situation is easier in that a) Sayers is dead, b) based on some of what I have read, I don’t actually think she would want to pastor a church, c) perhaps some other things besides her being female could prohibit her from being pastor of a church. But those things aside, it’s still yes. I do not think that her pastoring a church would be in line with the good design of God for godly men to take responsibility to lead the congregation and to be preachers of God’s Word to His gathered people. But yes, I would gladly read her books (as I already do). And if she was alive and part of the church I was in, well, I reckon she’d have an open invitation for tea any day. Plus, imagine being in a book club or bible study with that lady! Perhaps I’d even ask her to help review and critique our sermons at church. And I’d certainly be looking for opportunities for her to be able to encourage and challenge, both men and women, in what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.

Appetite whet for a bit of DLS?

I’d recommend a copy of ‘Creed or Chaos’ as a good starting point. It’s a collection of some of her theological essays. Nothing particularly heavy but still good!

Then i’d recommend ‘The man born to be king‘ where Sayers draws on the gospel accounts to create one single account of Jesus’ life. It was done as a series of audio plays for the BBC. It goes a bit further than i’d be happy with in some places but it is still a very refreshing read.

Then a decent summary of Sayers’ theology can be found in: Creed without Chaos by Laura K. Simmons.

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Image credits

Dorothy Sayer plaque: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABlue_plaque_re_Dorothy_L_Sayers_on_23_and_24_Gt._James_Street%2C_WC1_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1237429.jpg
Others: http://www.gratisography.com/

Endnotes:
[1] To be clear, I hold to the subsequent list of things because I am a Christian, not because I might be called conservative by others.
[2] This does not at all mean that the male gets off the hook for preaching shoddy sermons and generally just being lacklustre. I take it that his responsibility would push him to grow, not only in his own personal knowledge and love of God, and godliness, but also in his skills and ability to faithfully present the Word of God. This would include, but is not limited to, his faithfulness in applying God’s Word to the people he pastors.
[3] It would seem to me that Scripture would encourage us to do the opposite, to think less of our own rights – that’s the other-person centred way of thinking. Of course you could try for the argument: ‘I have to preach because that’ll be for the best of others.’ But that strikes me as a dangerously proud train of thought. Only one person could be called God’s gift to humanity, and we killed him.
[4] So this is not primarily an issue of reading versus hearing.  A written work can carry teaching authority. Think here of Paul writing. Why should they/us obey as we read it? Because he writes as the apostle of Jesus Christ – his role carries teaching authority. (Often this has relational context but it is not needed all of the time, his position still carries the authority whether he knows you personally or not). Think about a watered down example involving your pastor and his authority: you could be away and your pastor sends you an email detailing a matter of concern for which he needs to rebuke or correct you. How do you respond? As he is your pastor, the fact that it was over email and not face to face should not change how you respond – his words, this time written down, still carry authority as he writes to you as your pastor. However, if your pastor publishes a book on theology, the book’s call on you is not exactly the same as if he was preaching to you. Why? I would suggest that he is not operating under his specific role as pastor to you but rather under the larger banner of general theology for Christians.
[5] Hauerwas, S. (2009). A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (20). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
[6] In pitting ‘theology’ versus ‘a sermon’ I have introduced a false description and dichotomy, for the preacher is a most certainly a theologian, and sermons are first and foremost theological works. As Hauerwas notes, “I have, however, increasingly come to the recognition that one of the most satisfying contexts for doing the work of theology is in sermons. That should not be surprising because throughout Christian history, at least until recently, the sermon was one of the primary places in which the work of theology was done. For the work of theology is first and foremost to exposit Scripture.” Hauerwas, S. (2009). A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (12). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.) I would suggest that the sermon and the preacher-pastor are the examples par excellence of theology and of a theologian.
[7] John Bainbridge Webster, The Grace of Truth (ed by. Daniel Jay Bush and Brannon Eugene Ellis; Oil Lamp Books, 2011), 11-12.
[8] Webster, The Grace of Truth, 12.
[9] Webster, The Grace of Truth, 12.
[10] I’m still trying to think through what is happening at a Christian Conference or convention – that strange animal of Christian gatherings. Possibly only for a small minority will the preacher be their pastor who has an existing pastoral relationship with them and also has teaching authority over them.  Perhaps these conventions are better thought about in terms of our second category here, not pastors, but preaching. For most people this man invited to preach will simply be the preacher, as a take it Hauerwas or Webster often were when preaching. What then? Well this man, whoever he is, still needs to conform to Scripture: he must carry the marks of knowing Jesus (1 Tim 3); and he should recognise the tremendous opportunity and responsibility placed before him. Perhaps recognition of his calling as a preacher is needed, although I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that. However, I wonder if it as a whole simply highlights the importance of praying that the conference organisers would be wise in who they choose and that we’d be discerning in who we come to listen to at Conferences. I still need to think about this more though!

#4 Conclusion


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Here is the brief conclusion I offer to the previous 4 posts, as well as some suggestions of areas that deserve further thought ( – language, welcome, race, gender, preaching).

It is true that any church of God, no matter how homogeneous, stands as a testament to God and his actions in this world. Any church, even one made up entirely of a bunch of whiteys who look pretty much the same, have the same background, like similar things etc etc – this still declares the greatness of the God who gathers people under his Son. However, the diverse local church could be classed as a megaphone of these things. The diverse church is the closest this side of Christ’s return to us being who we will one day be in perfection.

Should we seek it?

I do not think that it is wise to push to an imperative at this point. The imperative is to make disciples of all nations, baptising them into the One name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, this can be carried out without being in a particularly diverse church. There is scope for that.

Based on some of the things we have seen, if the conclusion isn’t an imperative then what is it? I think that the language which must be drawn on is, instead, the language of invitation. Our eyes must be lifted to see the wonderful opportunity to display the Triune God and his salvation wrought in Jesus. We have the opportunity to display what God is doing in this world (Post 2).We have the opportunity to be a part of something which is for our good (Post 3a). We have the opportunity to be a powerful witness in this world of the unity achieved in Jesus as people watch us, God’s people, God’s church (previous post 3b). We have the opportunity to delight in the differences and the people which can be united under Jesus. It is an imperfect display and enjoyment now before Christ returns, but it is still powerful and delightful – and praise God for that! It is the language of invitation that in turn invites us to prayerful creativity and intentionality as we work out the practical implications of being the diverse church of God in the here and now.[1]

There is so much more that needs to be said on and around this topic of diversity in the church. In particular, there are a few key areas that need more elaboration. These are areas into which it would be delightful to accost with that prayerful creativity and intentionality. So for example:

  • A practical theology of language. Language appears to be the major practical barrier to the multiethnic church ‘working’. So, how might that be overcome? Actually, how do different languages operate within the scope of Scripture’s narrative – the fact that there are different languages, is that good or bad? A blessing or a curse?
  • A practical theology of welcome. How do we welcome people into the church who are different to us? What kind of mindset do we need? What kind of questions can we ask? How do we overcome our fear and love? And again, what about language differences?
  • A theology of race. I alluded to this in the first introductory post, is ‘race’ even a legitimate term for us to use? In my mind, there is only one race – the human race. Ethnicity is a far better term to be using.
  • A practical theology of gender. Gender is one of the major markers of division and diversity. There would be benefit in spelling that out more and perhaps engaging with writers such as Storkey, Coakley, Milbank and Tanner.[2]
  • A practical theology of preaching. How, for instance, does having a church of diverse people impact how we preach. Can we go ‘And have a look at verse 7’ when we have a dozen people in our church who cannot read? Should we make better use of narrative – stories seem to work for everyone? How do we craft a message and application that can impact the hearts of a completely diverse set of people?

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[1]A starting point: Robert Calvert, ‘Why Become a Rainbow Church?’, Exchange 34/3 (July 2005): 177–84.

[2] So: Elaine Storkey, Created or Constructed?: The Great Gender Debate (New College Lectures (Sydney, N.S.W.); Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000).; or Sarah Coakley, ‘Why Gift? Gift, Gender and Trinitarian Relations in Milbank and Tanner’, Scott. J. Theol. 61/2 (January 1, 2008): 224–35.

#3b The church of God

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The end-time church of God shows an incredible diversity in unity, that is to say, an incredible diversity under Jesus. How diverse should the local church be? Often the local church just doesn’t seem to represent what Jesus has achieved ( #1 Introduction, How diverse should the local church be?). Sometimes, part of this is understandable – you live in a township where, well, there ain’t a white face within 20km, so how do you expect whites to have a real presence in your otherwise completely black church.  Other times it simply seems that we’re either being lazy or, worse than that, we’re not actually thinking properly about who God is (#2 God, Diversity in unity under God, a sort of Biblical theology of diversity within the plans of God).

How diverse should the local church be? Actually, what does diversity in unity look like? – what does diversity within the church of God look like? What does it do? How is it used by God? Diversity in the church of God involves at least two things. The first is that it involves space for particularity and God uses it to give us opportunities to love and learn.

Here is the second element, namely that it involves

ii)                   God on display (and a drawing of people)

One of the major themes in Ephesians is a unity which has been achieved. So, Ephesians chapter 4 verse 2 reminds us that we are to keep the unity of the Spirit with the bond of peace. To keep it, not make it.

This unity which has already been achieved is, surprise surprise, the work of the Triune God. The Triune God stands behind it, and over it. Chapter 1 shows us that the Father chooses, that the Son redeems, and that the Spirit seals. And in chapter 4, Paul likewise situates the church’s unity in the Trinity as he draws our attention to the one Spirit, the One Lord and the One Father of all (vv. 4-6). The very existence of the church displays God and Him at work (cf. post 2).

Chapters 2-3 of Ephesians drive home the complexity of this unity: it involves dirty pagan Gentiles with kosher set-apart Jews. Think about it, we have devout Jews who for ages and ages have been told ‘look, don’t mix with those types!! Don’t!’ And yet now, the kind of unity achieved mirrors marriage language: the two become one (2:15); they are co-heirs and partners (3:6). Really? Not only is the unity that stark, but it is the unity of groups which previously were not allowed to mix. The diverse, even to the point of being enemies are united ‘maritally’ with the peace that Jesus brings (2:15-16). They are harnessed together to be one, co-heirs and partners. Here is the church: diversity in unity through the Son displaying God’s wisdom (3:10) and bringing Him glory (3:21).

We know that it is difficult (a difficulty compounded by our sin) for diverse people to relate and so Paul urges the Ephesians to accept one another in love (4:2). Love is the way of relating. With God revealed to us as Trinity, we should not be surprised that relationships and love are so central. With one another we are given the opportunity to reflect the things that matter.[1]  Have a think about the first multiethnic church of Acts 11 at this point. While we’re reading about the church of Antioch in Acts 11, we’re slipped the line that it is here that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Go have a look at it. It is a very diverse church, even the leadership is diverse. Why might people have stopped there and gone ‘These are followers of Jesus, these are Christians!’? Well, I must admit that I can’t help but remember Jesus’ words of: ‘By your love for one another will they know that you are my disciples’ (John 13:35). Amidst the obvious difficulties of loving within a multiethnic church, we have God’s relational love on display, highlighting these people as followers of the Jesus who showed us love.

The HUP (Homogeneous Unit Principle – see previous posts), as espoused by McGavran and others, is presented as a missiological tool, in other words it’s meant to help us with the fulfillment of the church’s mission. And it has the aim of having a church in every culture.[2] Much about the HUP makes sense: like reaching like is often easier. People are more likely to interact and respond positively to people who are like them in either looks or interests or speech. But!, there are at least two critiques to the HUP way of thinking.

Firstly, the HUP misses church as an end in itself, not only as a means to an end. God’s church initiated by Him is a group of diverse people loving Him and loving one another. It’s not only a means to getting the church of Revelation 7 when Jesus returns but it’s a great opportunity now for us to see the kind of unity that Jesus brings – people who might not normally hang out, actually being united by their common faith in Jesus.

Secondly, the diverse church should be considered missiological! Bentley Hart’s apt description of the world watching the early church states: ‘Men of high attainment—literate, accomplished, propertied, and free—had to crowd in among slaves, laborers, and craftsmen, and count it no disgrace.’ [3] Diversity which is divided within the world but united in the church, well, it gets people asking questions: ‘What the heck could do that? What could possibly stand behind those people, so different from one another, actually hanging out? No, no. more than that: actually, genuinely, loving one another!’ What they see on display is the kind of love of Jesus which is initiating, personal, and sacrificial.

The Revelation multiethnic church could not help but cry ‘Salvation belongs to our God’ (7:10).

God-willing the church reaching and including all kinds of people, will render the watching world almost unable but to utter the words ‘Truly, salvation belongs to your God.’ 

For no one else but the Triune God could stand behind the Christian church of diversity in unity.

Go here for the conclusion to the series.


[1] Here I have no desire to forget the ‘categorical distinction’ for which Husbands lambasts Volf (Mark Husbands, ‘The Trinity is Not Our Social Program’, in Daniel J. Treier and David Lauber, eds., Trinitarian Theology for the Church: Scripture, Community, Worship (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2009), 121, 123. Cf. Miroslav Volf, ‘The Trinity is our Social Program: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement’ in Alan J. Torrance and Michael Banner, eds., The Doctrine of God and Theological Ethics (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 105–124.) Instead I am asserting that God is: i) relational even as Knox reminds us that ‘unity is the basic concept underlying the doctrine of the Trinity’ (Tony Payne, ed., D. Broughton Knox, Selected Works, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God (Matthias Media, 2000), 78.); and ii) love (1 John 4:8). This is the God revealed in Jesus and Scripture.
As image bearers we should not be surprised at the importance of both of these. Husbands’ mostly valid critique of Volf’s perichoretic personhood’ as over-realised eschatology (Treier and Lauber, Trinitarian Theology for the Church, 126.), in turn shows Husbands bordering on an under-realised eschatology in terms of his understanding of Christian fellowship now, even given the presence of sin.

[2] Donald A. McGavran, ‘A Church in Every People: Plain Talk About a Difficult Subject’. Available online at: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/resources/source.htm?id=420

[3] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 170.

#3a Diversity in the church of God

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We have a strange relationship with diversity and unity.

Diversity, on the one hand, can peak interest. It is part of the allure of overseas trips and seeing other cultures. So, the tourist pitches up weighed down by a thousand kgs of telescopic lenses and travel maps and exclaims ‘My, my, isn’t that so very interesting. Look at how they [look, dress, eat, act, dance, sing etc etc] . It’s so very different to us.’ It’s interesting, like how X has a vase or rug from [insert some bizarre place] or how, Suzy down the road has started dating that boy who quite obviously isn’t Caucasian. ‘ Oh my, isn’t that interesting?’

Diversity can also simply equal fear of the other, of those people or those things that are different to us. They unnerve us, unsettle us. They make us shudder, have nightmares or fear for our kids, the future of our country even. Xenophobia, racism or a simple lack of generosity can be the result (or are these the starting point?). ‘They’re not me/us – and I don’t like it.’

Unity is likewise a mixed concept.

The inherent danger is the possibility of being united for or under iniquity. Vanhoozer remarks that ‘Everything depends on what unites the community: hatred, prejudice and ideology can be as binding…’[1] A group of bank robbers, or skinheads are united and can perhaps accomplish ‘great’ things. But what unites them (and us) matters. The end time picture of Revelation reminds us that there is unity under the Beast, as there is under the Lamb.

Most times, even when the cause is genuine or good, the bond under which we unite is simply ineffective. ‘Unity in diversity’ has become the catch phrase of troubled countries such as South Africa, and India and of organisations such as the EU. But, coming from one of those countries, I can tell you that it doesn’t always work as well as we’d hope.

God’s good news declares that there is true unity in Jesus Christ. No matter who. Are you a sinner? Yes you are! So come and be under Jesus, united with him and with His people. In Jesus, diversity in unity is possible. And the place where we are to see this is in the Christian church, the gathering of those trusting in Jesus.

What does diversity in unity look like? – what does diversity within the church of God look like? What does it do? How is it used by God?

I want to show you that diversity within the church of God involves at least two things.

  • Space for particularity (and used by God)

and

  • God being on display (and a drawing of people)

Here is the first…

i)                   Space for particularity (and used by God)

Personality, interests, and preferences already diversify us. And they are difficult enough to find unity in. Even if people look the same as me, share the same socio-economic or educational background, why would I want to hang out with them when there are people who are, well… just a lot more like me, exactly like me. The more diverse people become, the harder unity seems to achieve; diversity appears as a threat to unity.

Perhaps why the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) has support is that, with people that are largely uniform together, it feels relationally strong – there is the appearance of unity. Uniformity is confused with unity.  Added to this, the implicit impression given can be that, in order to belong, one must become as the rest of the group. So for instance ‘being Christian’ could equate to being culturally white middleclass. Gunton speaks of the homogenising ‘forces of modernity’ where we all drink Coke and eat McDonalds, and then he remarks regarding the danger:

Wherever we look, the many – particular people with all their differences – are depersonalized by being swallowed up into the one, the mass, where individuality is suppressed in the interests of efficiency, economics and homogeneity.[2]

Here, however, is the contrast offered by a common faith in Christ: this unity is so strong that it creates space for particularities to be. The individuals don’t need to be depersonalised, the differences don’t need to be destroyed. Unity is achieved without totalitarian uniformity. Instead of diversity as a threat to unity, the unity in Jesus is a place where the different individuals can be exactly that in safety and confidence. There is not a suppression of differences but instead a beautiful enjoyment that here, in the body of Christ, different individuals can share in Christ’s sufferings and share in one another.

And there is more than simple and beautiful enjoyment: these differences are often used by God for the good of the body (cf. Eph. 4; 1 Cor. 12). There is a pointed end to diversity.

Firstly, they provide opportunities for love. For instance:

  • The rich are afforded the opportunity to love the poor in practical ways (cf. Gal. 6, 1 John 3; 4).
  • The educated lovingly think about ways to run the bible study, taking into account their uneducated brothers and sisters’ lack of reading skills.[3]

Secondly, there are opportunities to learn from one another.

We know this from when we’re at a party or some gathering and we get chatting to someone different to us: different background or experiences of life. And we come away having learnt something, some outlook, some understanding of how people tick or what shapes people, we learn something and perhaps our own life-outlook is challenged. And if we’re talking elements of diversity that we raised in the first post then, for instance, the poor can teach the/us rich. From the poor we are reminded of the upside down nature of the kingdom (James 2:5); some poorer Christians are godly models of joyfully finding our all in Jesus. And so in interacting, the rich are shown that the materialism which they/we grasp so tightly is in reality little more than canine faeces (cf. Phil 3:8) – yuck! (Chuck it away)

Space for particularities does not necessarily entail distinctions never being separated into their own spaces. So, as we know, Titus 2 has women teaching women – there is good to that! But even this entails diversity: it has older teaching younger. And perhaps then we consider the poverty of relegating the oldies to the early AM prayer book service or having family morning congregation separated from the evening ‘youthy’ service. Are we stealing from ourselves?

Diversity and unity are strange concepts for the world, there is a love/hate relationship with them. In God’s church though, we see that because of the strength of being united in Jesus, there is space for particularity. Diversity is not seen as a threat to unity but is actually used by God for us to love and learn.

In the next post we’ll consider the second aspect of diversity within the church of God, namely that diversity in the church involves God on display (and a drawing of people). We’ll interact further with the HUP too.

Previous in this series:

First post: #1 Introduction, How diverse should the local church be?

Second post: #2 God, Diversity in unity under God (A sort of Biblical theology of diversity within the plans of God)


[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 161.

[2] Colin E. Gunton, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (London: T & T Clark, 2003), 15.

[3] cf. Tim Chester, Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-class and Deprived Areas (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), ch. 6.

#2 Diversity in unity under God

 

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‘In the beginning God

created the heavens and the earth’

~ Genesis 1:1 ~

The charge of ‘monochrome and monotonous’ cannot be levelled against the perfect God’s creation. Instead of dull neutrality, God brings forth a vibrant creation bursting with inherent diversity enacted ‘according to their kinds’. There are similarities: some of creation shares being part of the vegetation or, of belonging to the realm of living creatures. And all of these count as created by God. But with the similarities, there are also differences: there are seed-bearing plants, fruit trees, fish, large sea-creatures, birds, livestock, crawling animals and wildlife. Even within those kinds, the differences spiral like the beautiful twisting and turnings of a gymnast completing their routine so that creation details a kaleidoscope [kalos, beautiful + eidos, form/shape] of diversity.

Humanity includes the same pattern of similarities and of differences. There is sameness. Firstly, like all other things they fall into the category of created but secondly, they make up the kind called humanity, a category uniquely created imago Dei. Within these similarities there is also an initial diversity: humanity consists of man and woman. They are united in being both under God and forming human kind, but they are different in being man or woman. After the initial creation of humanity, the subsequent union of this man and woman sees diversity (the two different) being united (in one flesh) as they are married under God. Thus, diversity is brought together in a way that is for good and for the benefit of what surrounds it, in this case the creation which humanity is to care for.

The creation picture places God as the ultimate uniting setting under which the human race is to properly relate to one another and to the world. Unfortunately, the mirror reflecting that exquisite truth is shattered by humanities sin, and instead of remaining under God, there is a bid for false autonomy. It is the kind of man-made freedom that results in death and destruction as even brother forcefully crushes brother. The Babel incident displays the human heart: a search for human-made and human-centred unity. Together, when united by sinful anthropocentric desires, humanity is as safe as children fiddling with a nuclear bomb. So, for their good and also in judgment, God divides them.

It is from the scattered ruins of the human race that God, in grace, calls a man named Abram.  In Abraham we find a pre-Christ figure of the one who will be a blessing to the many. From Abraham we find a nation saved and called to be God’s people out of all the peoples of the earth. Part of Israel’s raison d’être (besides simply being God’s people) was to be a light to the nations, to show them the One true revealed God, who was in fact also their creator and God.[1] But, instead of shining forth displaying God’s glory, Israel herself is lustfully drawn into the darkness and the witness to God is marred. Israel shows that she neither values the striking worth of her God or the unique relationship she has been privileged with. In this she simply reveals our own sin (Rom 1:21-25). Yet, even in the midst of the resulting judgment, the Old Testament still ends containing elements of hope, both for Israel and the nations.

 

‘It is not enough for you to be My servant

Raising up the tribes of Jacob

And restoring the protected ones of Israel.

I will also make you a light to the nations,

To be my salvation to the ends of the earth.’

~ Isaiah 49:6 ~

The pencil marks of hope take on flesh in the arrival of Jesus, the Son of God. He is the second Adam, the descendant of Abraham and crucially, this Saviour of Israel will stand as the light to the nations (Matt 4:12-17). He embodies the good news of Gentile inclusion in God’s reconciliation plans. His ministry will include the weak and marginalised, the obvious outcasts, all kinds of men and women who this One will serve. He stands (and is crucified) as the One who offers the hope of humanity coming back under the good rule of their Creator.

God’s creation shows a delight in diversity. God’s reconciliation plans show a desire to see the different nations and all kinds of people, gathered under his Son. However in all of this, there is one element of diversity which God detests, one which he absolutely abhors. It is a deviancy called heresy, although in our culture it might better be known as open-mindedness. God is utterly uniform when it comes to truth and will not stand for a diversity of opinion regarding the truthfulness of his existence, of his character, and of his plans in this world though his Son. So in John 4, Jesus invites the Samaritan woman to come worship the Father in spirit and truth. Jesus is the one who is the only way and truth and life (John 14:6). And likewise the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (14:17). Truth is important – what an understatement! – truth is the difference between life and death. Truth confronts the reality of our sin with God’s gracious reconciliation offer: initiated by the Father, achieved in the Son and completed by the Spirit. And, as per Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23 (which draws on the relationships within the Trinity) part of how the world will know that Jesus truly was sent by the Father is in seeing different people being united as one in Jesus.

After Jesus’ ascension, the very same Holy Spirit who Jesus prayed for is poured out. With power he accompanies the message of Jesus’ resurrection. It is a truth projected to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8 cf Isaiah 49:6) and Pentecost becomes our first major marker of this. In contrast to blubbering Babel, language is being used not to separate, but to have the gospel proclaimed to ethnically diverse people.[2] Peter explains why this is happening: it is so they realise that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus] will be saved’ (2:21). While in our sinfulness we might set up false parameters, according to God via Peter, there is no distinction that can bar anyone from coming under this salvation. It is in this sense that ‘there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28).

‘After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude

from every nation, tribe, people, and language…’

~ Revelation 7:9 ~

Given salvation history, the end-time picture of diversity united under Jesus should run no risk of coming across as a wet fish to the face. It is a diversity epitomised by having the world’s ethnicity, which so readily separates us here on earth, united under the Lamb. There is diversity in unity.  What should we do with this? ‘Oh it’s over-realised eschatology [i.e. you’re looking for heaven on earth] if you expect that to be displayed here’. Well, be consistent then (!) and please resist pursuing things like mercy and justice and even holiness (cf. Heb 12:14-28) this side of Jesus’ return. It is contrived to label a desire for this coming reality to be displayed (as much as is possible this side of Christ’s return) as ‘over-realised eschatology’. The expectation of perfection to come does not dismiss a present pursuit. Instead it allows the present pursuit to be conducted within the secure context of knowing that it will one day be ours in perfection! I.e. go wild!

‘Ok, well, what does this mean for the local church? How does diversity in unity work within the gathering/s of God’s people? Is this for our good? – could this be for our good? – how? And what about the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) which was (is?) all the rage?’[3]

In the next post we’ll look at how diversity might be able to operate within the local church.


[1] Cf. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: a Biblical Theology of Mission (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Leicester: Apollos, 2001), 252–254.

[2] I’ll need to talk about different languages at some point.

[3] A homogeneous unit is a group of people that have, for example, linguistic or ethnic or educational similarities. For a church congregation then it would look like a church made of up people who either look the same, have the same educational or socio-economic levels, or who all speak the same language.

How diverse should the local church be? #1 Introduction

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‘After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude

from every nation, tribe, people, and language…’

~ Revelation 7:9 ~

 

‘Multiculturalism’ is ‘so hot right now’. That is good in some ways – it poses worthwhile questions for our practise and, even more importantly, the foundational theology out of which those practises flow. But, we certainly don’t want be thinking about these things so that we can be trendy (‘oh we’re so mul-tie-cultu-ral’), but rather because our aim is to be living in line with God and his plans in this world. The end-time picture of the people of God contains incredible diversity in unity achieved by God in Jesus (Rev 7:10). How diverse should the local church be? How diverse should the church you and I go to be? Does it even need to be diverse? Actually, what do we mean by diverse and diversity?

Firstly, let’s be clear in saying that what we might call a homogeneous church (i.e. made up of same or similar kinds of people) is still diverse simply because inherent in diversity is the idea of plurality. One person means no diversity. But even if you put twins into a room, there is still diversity because, as The Life of Brian reminds us: ‘we’re all individuals; we’re all different.’ If you had a church that was completely black or white, well the people might all look somewhat similar but there is still diversity. It might be personality, it might be country of origin – there is diversity present. However, that is not saying enough and is sometimes used as a way out of actually considering what diversity looks like. And so, secondly, it is worth considering major markers of diversity contained in Scripture. While I will need to try and show later on why these are major markers in Scripture, they include markers or categories such as:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Socio-economic and educational factors
  • And ethnicity which includes: nationality, culture, and language. Importantly, I haven’t mentioned race here because I consider it a social construct. Ethnicity is a better term. Even if racism is real, there is only one race, ‘we’re all blood, we’re all blood, blood brothers’ – as Ingrid Michaelson sings.[1]

 

 ‘And behold, there was a local congregation of people who

pretty much looked like me, spoke like me,

and liked the same things as me’

Our churches (with notable exceptions it must be said!!) are in danger of not reflecting the parishes they belong to. Even if you think that the parish system is archaic, there is at least one thing that it does: it keeps us accountable. Yes, there are certain areas where people do not settle for long and this needs to be given careful thought and strategy. Yes, we often travel out of our living areas for work and for sport and for entertainment. But evangelism and community based only off of these hubs means that there are people who are not like us who fall through the cracks. And yes, I’m thinking in particular about ethnicity here. We pass these people off as someone else’s ‘mission field’. But no one gets around to loving them and often we simply end up with churches full of people who are just like us, it’s a bit easier that way. The result can be that those who God has placed around us remain unreached and we run the risk of irrelevance as the Christian message is otherwise ‘undermined by its own segregation.’[2] For most of the people who might read this, let’s be blunt, our danger is of being white middle class churches in areas which are usually more diverse than that. If you live in an area that is particularly not diverse in terms of ethnicity, then it is still worth considering what other markers of diversity (perhaps socio-economic?) you might be lazy on.

Given the end-time picture of God gathering a diverse group of people around Jesus, is there perhaps a problem with our doctrine of the church? Are we thinking correctly about what the gathering of God’s people looks like, or should look like? Or, does it run even deeper than that? When John Webster asserts that ‘the doctrine of the church is only as good as the doctrine of God which underlies it’,[3] does this mean that perhaps our foundational issue is with our understanding of God? Perhaps we’ve simply grown hazy about what our God is like and what he is doing in this world?

With this in mind, the next few posts will follow this plan of action: firstly, we will look at diversity in unity as it relates to God, this is our starting point. This will be more of a biblical theology of diversity in relation to God working out salvation in the world. And then secondly, we will turn to diversity in unity as it relates to God’s church. What does that look like in the congregations many of us are a part of? Why has God given us diversity – does it do anything? After that, I’ll offer a brief conclusion and then perhaps try and engage with some strands that were not directly dealt with.


[1] A useful starting point for thinking about race is work by Thabiti Anyabwile (for instance http://t4g.org/media/2010/04/bearing-the-image-identity-the-work-of-christ-and-the-church-session-ii/). I’m not sure I would quite land where he does with some of the Adam/Christ thinking – we’re still one human race, just some of us have restored humanity in Christ.

[2] Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Congregation (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), xxix.

[3] John B. Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T & T Clark, 2005), 196.