The Tri-une God and Motherhood

I have not yet pointed to the series of posts on The Tri-une God and Motherhood by kbonikowsky at The Happy Surprise, I should. They are very good, offering a careful, gentle presentation of the topic. .One of the things I like is that she approaches the theology simply, yet insists on a Trinitarian understanding. So many people thinking about emotive topics, like gender or like God, let alone when we mix echoes of our relationships with parents into the mix, seem swiftly to lose  their sense of proportion and theological “niceities” get thrown to the winds. I saw this years ago when I briefly explored Catholic theologians treatment of Mary when preparing my thesis. Catholic dogma concerning Mary is careful (to a lifelong Protestant it is odd, but it is careful), yet once these otherwise sensible theologians started to write about Mary the mother they seemed to lose all the restrictions their tradition had put in place to ensure that Mary did not seem to enter the Godhead. kbonikowsky avoids such emotion-driven excess in her talk of the Tri-une God and Motherhood, so far it is good stuff!

 

Sex as “Sacrament” – Making Babies and Making Love

Hutchens-baby

Paul bases his teaching about sex and marriage on Genesis. As usual, he is in some ways less of a dreamer and more down to earth than Jesus. His argument does that if sex makes two “one flesh”, then sex outside marriage would make you one flesh with the “prostitute” (1 Cor 6:15-20).

This talk of infidelity (un-chesed) is the basis of Paul’s teaching about sex and marriage. Sex unites, making love – makes two into one. Already this idea is foreign to the Western world with its “serial polygamy”1  and frequent divorce. Another of Paul’s conclusions is even less comfortable for modern thought:

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” – a shocking thought (which confirms some people’s bad opinion of Paul?), except that, for Paul, the reciprocal is equally true “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)

You see sex is like a sacrament. One consequence of making love is making babies. With God’s blessing, sex makes a new being, in His image, see Gen 4:1; 5:1-3. But (as many infertile couples know) this is not what makes sex sacramental. Making love cements two beings together in partnership. It both celebrates and produces chesed – a covenant relationship.

While the marriage ceremony marks the beginning of this process – of itself it does not create the partnership. Sex and the ongoing co-operation of daily living are the effective agent that builds union. Rather like the relationship between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism affirms our desire to be covenant partners of Jesus. Communion continually seals this as we drink the “covenant cup” declaring our continued desire to be faithful, as he is.

  1. As my African colleagues used to call the all too common Western experience of marriage plus divorce plus re-marriage. []

Beastly with Two Backs

The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857

God created us as sexual beings, and the Bible accepts our sexuality, but sex is not an end in itself. The Bible rejects sex for its own sake – the separation of sexual pleasure-seeking from partnership and marriage. Genesis Two describes the creator’s purpose quite clearly. As partners who complement each other, the two “become one” (Gen 2:24). Both Jesus and Paul base their understanding of sex and marriage on this passage and especially this verse. (Mark 10:2 compare Mt 19:3ff. & 1 Cor 6:16)

Jesus feels so strongly about infidelity that tears apart what God has joined that he calls “just looking”, adultery of the will1 (Matt 5:28). One sin, surely, that few healthy humans escape!

In the story of Ruth, however, the Bible holds up an example of chesed “loving-loyalty” that, though sexy, goes beyond sex. Ruth, the wife of Bethlehem boy, Mahlon, is a foreigner – a gentile. When Mahlon tragically dies, the young widow meets and marries Boaz. The narrator hints at the mutual respect and desire of Ruth and Boaz. Yet even more strongly we see how, in finding love, Ruth displays her faithfulness to the family she had joined when she married Mahlon.

The Bible is also full of stories where sex goes wrong, from the Sodomites seeking to make sex into a symbol of dominance, through unfaithfulness and abuse of power for sexual ends… but this abuse of God’s gift of sexuality is not the whole story, as we are shown another way in Ruth, the Song of Songs, and by implication in the laments and harsh judgements over infidelity.

Ideally (and the Bible is nothing if not real, and so tells of many cases where the ideal is not realised) such partnership “makes love” and produces babies. The possibility of pregnancy is not a sine qua non of good sex in the Bible, but it is a desired and desirable culmination. As the passion and faithfulness of two people is widened to include others.

  1. The “heart” in the Bible is seat of the will not of the emotions – emotions live in the “belly” or “guts” of a person.  []

Is the Bible Anti-sex?

Albert Joseph Moore, The Shunamite relating the Glories of King Solomon to her Maidens, 1894.

Christianity (as an “organised religion”) has often been against sex. Celibacy has been seen (following especially some hints in Paul’s letters) as better than marriage, which has been seen as a way to make sex all right because, and insofar as, it is aimed at producing children. Does this devaluing of sex reflect the full witness of Scripture, or is it yet another issue where by overstressing a few (often difficult to understand, or at best complex) passages the Bible is misrepresented?

Is the Bible as a whole anti-sex? Hardly. One whole book is full of erotic love poems. The Song of Songs may well represent – though only by analogy – the loving relationship of the soul and God, or Christ and the Church. Generations of celibate priests and religious were not wrong to read it this way, but this analogy is built on the frankly expressed love and desire of king and Shulammite.

To illustrate this it is worth quoting a short portion, 5:2-5, from the KJV:

I sleep, but my heart waketh: 
  the voice of my beloved that knocketh, 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: 
  for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
I have put off my coat; 
  how shall I put it on? 
I have washed my feet; 
  how shall I defile them? 
My beloved put in his hand by the hole, 
  and my bowels were moved for him. 
I rose up to open to my beloved; 
  and my hands dropped myrrh, 
  and my fingers sweet smelling myrrh, 
    upon the handles of the lock.

A library containing such a book hardly rejects the creator’s design of humans as sexual creatures.

Sex is dynamite!

NTS_-_BEEF_-_WATUSI

I hope (yesterday) we established that God likes sex. Now we need to also recognise that sex is dynamite, and marriage is an unstable cocktail of explosive emotions. Yet God designed sex to be fun and to be fulfilling. God designed it to be making love too. That means that as a couple who are united in a faithful marriage relationship relate sexually (as well as in every other way) they “make love”. Love grows in a good marriage. The two become one, and depend on one another more and more.

Sex is dynamite, and – just like dynamite – when it’s misused, the results are a horrible disaster. But when it’s used right it’s powerful stuff.

The trouble is, we’ve got so hung up on warning people not to light the fuse at the wrong time or in the wrong place, that we’ve forgotten to explain how to do it right.

People need to hear of the delight of being able to depend on someone else. In this dog-eat-dog world, we need to say to them there’s immense strength to be drawn from the power of two. That someone who knows me (often better than I know myself) is looking over my shoulder, even putting my interests before her own – just like God! – is a source of immense strength.

People change. Because old friends change at a distance from us, often those friendships weaken. Husbands and wives change too, but if all goes well the answer to the Beatles question: “When I grow older… will you still need me?” is “More than ever. To know you is to love you!

Now of course, you can’t escape the statistics, marriage is on the rocks. Marriages are breaking all the time. Many people are better off out of relationships that – far from mirroring those in the Godhead – become pure hell. Of course we should be putting more work into helping people in this pressure cooker world. Yes it’s great that youngsters are not rushing into marriage, but thinking twice. But it is still true that there are few things better in this world than a good marriage. And it’s time we said so.

For too long we’ve kept quiet about the joys and delights of a faithful relationship that depends utterly and trusts completely. It’s time to speak. To join the godhead and declare “it’s good, it’s very good!

God and the Joys of Sex

Photo by Kjunstorm from Laguna Niguel, CA, US

A conversation on Facebook recently reminded me of my concern that Christians are not speaking enough about the joys of sex and marriage. We get caught so often, warning people about the dangers, that we get painted into the corner that makes people – even our own children – believe that God is anti-sex. So over the next few days I am going to recycle material I wrote a few years back for the NZBaptist. Let’s start thinking about sex at the very beginning.

God likes sex

That notion (that God is anti-sex) couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex and marriage was God’s good idea. It was one of God’s first good ideas, right at the very beginning…

Since I am love,” God said, “I want creatures who can love me.”
We want creatures who can love each other, just like we do.” Said each of the Trinity to each other, “and love us the same way too.” They added.

That was how sex and marriage got built into creation from the start: difference and reproduction and love. Sex is modeled on the godhead (Gen 1:27):

So God created humans in his own image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.

It’s quite clear the very “image of God” is in our being as male and female.

Or as the Bible’s second chapter puts it: God said, “It’s no good for humans to be alone” (Gen 2:18). And, when God had made woman, the Bible concludes: “that’s why a man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife: and they become one flesh.

So whatever else we say, we should start right at the beginning: Sex is God’s good idea!

Demolishing Scripture (while claiming to be “biblical”)

Photo by Bob Hall via Wikipedia

Several recent conversations (online and face to face) in my circles involve applying the Bible to contemporary social issues. The latest is a very long-standing one in Western churches if there are particular roles for men and for women in family and church to which we should conform.

This discussion is usually framed as between Egalitarian and Complementarian approaches. As I have said elsewhere I think this framing is false – almost everyone I talk to is egalitarian (affirming they believe women and men are “equal”) and complementarian (they believe women and men complement each other and that for example in a marriage each partner brings qualities and so the whole is more than the parts). The key difference (I think) revolves round whether this complementarity is through defined gender roles to which we ought all conform regardless of our personal skills or gifts.

Sadly much of the discussion in Christian circles has for decades disolved into either each side bashing the other with “verses” that are believed to support/teach their view, or sometimes into a “literalist” – “liberal” ding dong. My beef with the “literalist” approaches, and with the “liberal” ones is that they each end up discarding a lot of the Bible. They differ in which parts of Scripture can be ignored or removed, and in the excuses they provide to justify their anti-biblical stances.

Some “liberals” discard Scripture honestly. Some openly say that this or that passage1 “is old fashioned”. Others dismiss some Bible teaching as “cultural” and so no longer binding in this enlightened age.

“Literalists” (and often ex-literalists, like many Baptists today) often do it covertly – with their lips they pay tribute to the whole Bible, but a slippery slope starts with the laws in the Pentateuch. No one I know avoids clothes made of mixed fibres. The excuse they offer if challenged is either “it was not confirmed in the NT” or “it’s only a ritual law”. Both of these excuses leave the Old Testament without authority! Only following Old Testament teaching that is confirmed in the New makes the Old Testament superfluous and effectively Apocrypha, valuable as spiritual reading but without authority. This ignores Jesus’ clear teaching that:

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:19)
Even if we could allow such tentative first steps down the slope, dismantling Scripture as Marcion did we have not solved the problem. Jesus also said

Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. (Mark 6:8-9)

But when such “literal” Christians pack, even for a mission trip, there are plenty of spare clothes! The response if they are challenged is “Ah, Jesus was talking to his disciples there, not us.”

Quite right, if you set aside Jesus’ words you are not his disciples!

Rather than either the “liberal” or the “literal” dismantling of Scripture we must (because every part of the Bible is socially and culturally contextual (that is incarnate in ancient places and times) look for the understanding of God and the world (theology) that the passage is teaching or applying. That is what we apply. It’s hard work, it risks us getting it wrong… in short we cease to “master” Scripture, but we (have tried to) allow it to master us.

_________________________________________

For more explanation of that last important section see the last three sessions in my Reading the Bible Faithfully:

9: God remains faithful: the principle of the thing

10: Application: Where the rubber hits the road

11. Reading in the light of Christ

  1. Or indeed the whole of the Bible. []

Submission: repost from almost twenty years ago

Joseph Crawhall, 1884 "Pigs at the Trough"

Almost twenty years ago I wrote a series of short pieces for the NZ Baptist on gender roles and relationships. The issue remains a hot one. So I thought I’d repeat the article on “submission” here. I may give it context by repeating others but I’ll need to look and see how the decades have treated them…

Looking Sideways

Women and Children in Colossians

Old rules, new relationships

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

Submission is a problem. Well, it is for me. I do not submit easily. I’m a child of my time. I like to be in control – independent, that’s me. In the face of a culture that abhors submission, or worse enjoys and demands it, while despising those who submit, to discuss the biblical understanding of the roles of men and women in terms of submission is difficult.

Yet it’s there in the Word. Husbands seeking control of their wives have several favourite passages available. 1 Cor 14:33ff. and 1 Tim 2:11 are champion, as they ordain silence on the wife’s part – any discussion of the master’s will is therefore rebellion against God! (Dictators love laws silencing those they rule!)

For those with an open mind, when addressing difficult and contentious issues, it often helps to approach them sideways. That’s what the Master often did when the lawyers came to him with their conundrums and awkward questions.

Looking Sideways

“Where” and “when” the Bible discusses the submission of women to men is interesting. Although the cultures of Bible times were thoroughly patriarchal, the Two-Thirds Bible (Old Testament) seems silent on the need for women to submit. So, too are the Gospels. For the Gospel writers, focusing on Jesus life and teaching leaves no time for details of family organisation. (Can you imagine Jesus telling women to be quite and keep their place!) While in the centuries BC most women and men “knew their place” and so there was little to discuss. Discussion of submission in the Epistles is due to the growth of city life in the Roman empire, which challenged the old patterns of living and made the issue a live one, much as currents of liberation have reopened it in our world.

I spoke of the cultures of the Bible as “patriarchal”. This word deserves a second glance. In our culture patriarchy is a swear-word to the PC. In the ancient world, patriarchy meant that each household had one person whose job was to guide, protect and defend. The cultures of the Bible are family (= whanau, not the European style 2+2.4) and clan based.

One’s place in the world came from membership of a family. Even legal protection depended on having a family member to speak in council on your behalf. The Old Testament lists four groups who need special care and protection: widows, orphans, foreigners and the “poor”. Notice that two of these (or three if you count the foreigners) are those who are deprived of a “paterfamilias” – a household head to defend their interests.

In patriarchy each person has their role, women run the home, youths run the business or keep the flocks, each obeys the paterfamilias (including adult male family members) who must defend the interests of all. Men are no different from women in this obedience they owe. This is the context of talk, in the epistles, of “submission” as the role of children and women – it is no longer how we live.

Women and Children in Colossians

New Testament advice about family relationships, and the duties and responsibilities of members of a household is closely related to the advice found in Jewish and Greek authors of the same period. In all three contexts wives, children and slaves are encouraged to obey or “submit” to the head of the household (paterfamilias). But it is not these similarities that are interesting – it’s the differences.

On the surface the most striking difference in Christian advice (at least to husbands, wives and children) is the phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord”.

So in Col 3 Paul writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” And “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord”. (Col 3:18,20).

So, family relationships are governed by the same rules for Christians as for Jewish or Pagan households but with an added element. Wife and husband, parent and child are all “in Christ”. As fellow members of the “body of Christ” there is a new and different aspect given to the old rules. (No such phrase qualifies the advice to slaves, for their masters may not share this new relationship “in Christ”.)

Old rules, new relationships

In their families as elsewhere Christians are to abide by the rules and norms of respectable society. Here as elsewhere too, something new is introduced by the Gospel. In Colossians 3 Paul expresses the newness like this:

 

 Conventional Behaviour:
 Gospel Innovation:
8 Wives, be in subjection to your husbands,19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
20 Children, obey your parents in all things,21 Fathers, provoke not your children, that they be not discouraged.

The paterfamilias was “head” of the household. In many families of the ancient world this meant their word was law and their whims were obeyed. Christian “headship” is modeled by Jesus. I wonder what kind of paterfamilias copied the Lord who: “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil 2:7-8).

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

How sad sometimes to hear Christian women seeking “liberation” in ways that fail to reflect the creator’s dreams for humankind. Too often the cry for women’s liberation (even in the Church) reflects the low value of home and family inherent in our cash-is-king Western society. It echoes our society of piglets scrambling for a place at the trough, rather than the newness of life “in Christ”.

Even sadder watching men seek biblical mandate for overbearing bossiness that the pagans of our world have learned to reject! Do such men fear the wisdom and the strength of their wives so much that they forget the example of their Lord?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in Church and family, instead of scrambling for our place at the trough, we all discovered the innovations that the liberty of the gospel brings to our life together. If offers of mutual service in Christ (and in imitation of Christ) replaced, standing on our rights.

NB: This post first appeared online at Electric Angels as part of a longer series on gender and gender roles “Men & Women – Sex & God“.

Otagosh goes soft?

It is pleasant to have some reliable comfortable regular experiences in this troubling world. One of mine in recent years has been the stream of tart yet gentle posts on Otagosh that pillory sloppy thinking on “Biblical” matters.

But today Gavin’s gone soft. He links to a Yahoo! News report titled ‘Finds in Israel add weight to theory God “had wife”.’

Now, it’s true, the find does add to the, already significant, weight of archaeological evidence suggesting that Ancient Judeans commonly worshiped a goddess alongside Yahweh (presumably therefore thought of as a god).

Shock, horror! The Bible tells me so, just read II Kings (or to save time do a search for ‘Asherah’). What please about this discovery is new? Where is the academic novelty that excites? Only for “Biblical” Fundamentalists (of the sort Otagosh usually reliably skewers) and trendy “critics”, neither of which class of idiot seem to actually bother to read the Bible, find this sort of “Biblical” discovery strange or really new.

Sexist language hobbles scholarship

For decades I have battled with students who insist on using “he” to mean “she or he” and “Man” to mean “men and women”, even “a man” to mean “a human person”. I’ve explained to them, as patiently as I can, that research shows that such language slows comprehension, even among people like them who believe they are comfortable with such “generic” use of gendered language.

I’ve also more generally tried to show students, not just the unrepentant sexist ones, that different perspectives offer richer readings of a text than one monotonous one.

Michelle Fletcher of King’s College, London, in a guest post “Reading with fresh eyes: #heforshe, NT scholarship and sexism” on James Crossley’s blog offers a neat powerful example of how such “generic” language, by its unexamined sexism blinds scholars and hobbles their search for truth.

If you haven’t already, go and read her post. Even if her reading of Mark 7:14-23 were wrong, the very fact that this possibility has not been considered demonstrates how sexist language hobbles schlarship.